XI. The “Possibility” of Conversion.

Is it proper to speak of a “possibility of conversion,” “an opportunity of conversion,” “the possibility of becoming converted,” or “the possibility of converting oneself”? Also these terms have again become subjects of discussion, pursuant to the Norwegian Articles of Agreement, and an understanding must be reached with reference to them if a unity on a Scriptural and confessional basis is to be attained. Here, too, a twofold statement is to be made: 1. It is in agreement with the facts, and Biblically correct, to speak of a “possibility of conversion,” etc. 2. It is a fact that this correct expression has been employed in former and recent times in an effort to palm off the notion of human cooperation in conversion. We take the proper stand by retaining the expression, but, at the same time, pointing out and rejecting the error which would hide under this Scriptural expression.

In [[Is. 55, 6 >> Is 55.6]]: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found,” בְּהִמָּצְא֑וֹ, the thought is conveyed: Seek the Lord while He can be found, while it is possible to believe in Him, while there is a possibility of faith in Him. Hence we find not only among the dogmaticians of the seventeenth century, but also among the sixteenth century theologians, the statement that with the Gospel is given a “possibility” and “opportunity” of conversion, simply because the expression has Scriptural warrant. Lucas Osiander, commenting on [[Is. 55, 6 >> Is 55.6]], says: Tum Dominus prope est et inveniri potest, cum per evangelii praedicationem nobis salutem offert. Cum autem verbum suum aufert, ut non amplius recte agnoscatur, tunc nec inveniri neque recte invocari potest. Quare grata mente occasionem, qua Dominus ad nos clementer accedit, arripiamus. That is to say: “The Lord is near and can be found when through the preaching of the Gospel He offers salvation to us. But when He takes away His Word, so that it no longer is correctly understood, He can be neither found nor properly worshiped. Let us, then, [[@Page:120]]gratefully seize the opportunity by means of which the Lord in His grace approaches us.” This manner of speaking has found its way into our Confession, where we read: “Such calling through the preaching of the Word we ought not to regard as a delusion, but know that God thereby reveals His will, that He would, by means of the Word, work upon those whom He thus calls, that they might be enlightened, converted, and saved.”) The expressions, “possibility of conversion,” “opportunity” of conversion, “possibility of being converted,” should, then, be retained in this sense, viz., that the saving grace of God comprises all men, that the Holy Spirit operates in all hearers unto conversion, and that the cause of non-conversion is to be sought solely in man’s resistance. This is summed up in the term gratia sufficiens. The Scriptures teach gratia sufficiens, that is to say, it teaches that God operates through the call in such a manner and to such an extent that all hearers of the Word “may be enlightened, converted, and saved,” and that no hearer remains unconverted by reason of some deficiency in the operations of divine grace or by reason of a lack of gracious intent on the part of God. [[Is. 5, 4 >> Is 5.4]] the Lord says with reference to the disobedient people: “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done to it?” [[Matt. 23, 37 >> Mt 23.37]] Christ testifies against Jerusalem: “How often would I have gathered thy children together!” And this He had desired not only perfunctorily, but as earnestly and eagerly “as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings; and ye would not!” [[Acts 7, 51 >> Acts 7.51]] Stephen, in his address before the council, sums up the situation thus: “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost,” τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ ἀντιπίπτετε, ye fall foul of the Holy Spirit. According to these texts, determined resistance is required to prevent the blessed result of the Holy Spirit’s operations. No misuse of the expression, “possibility of conversion,” aptly termed the “objective” possibility, should induce us to abandon this [[@Page:121]]expression or to pronounce it incorrect. The objective possibility for all who live under the sound of the Word to become converted demarcates Lutheran from Calvinistic doctrine. It is but another term for gratia universalis, seria et efficax. Because Calvin rejects the universality of grace, he stoutly denies the existence of a possibility of conversion for all hearers of the Word, and insists with great emphasis that by His calling the Lord offers to part of the hearers merely the possibility and opportunity of bringing upon themselves a greater damnation.)

On the other hand, we must guard against the synergism which may lurk in the formula “possibility of conversion.” Synergism views “possibility” as a limitation. Its teaching is to this effect, that God merely makes possible conversion. Whether conversion will proceed beyond the degree of possibility and become an actuality, whether man will actually be converted, depends upon the fact that man before his conversion does something, — and, indeed, the decisive part, — viz., upon man’s right conduct over against grace, the cessation of willful resistance, his decision for conversion, etc. This is the view of modern German theologians, as, for instance, of Luthardt.) This is the view also of the American Lutherans who have stood opposed to the [[@Page:122]]Synodical Conference. Dr. Schmidt, in a discussion of [[Is. 5, 4 >> Is 5.4]], remarks: “God says: ‘What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ Now, then, if nothing more remains for God to do, who but unconverted man himself must on his part do something to be converted and saved?”) This is the synergistic conception: God offers to man the powers of grace for his conversion. Without such offer conversion were inconceivable. But by virtue of his condition before conversion unconverted man is able to do so much, — may and must do so much, — that he rightly uses the energies imparted by grace, decides in favor of conversion, conducts himself rightly over against grace, ceases to resist willfully, and so on. In a word, synergism turns the objective possibility of conversion into a subjective ability of man before conversion. The synergist with his “possibility of conversion” maintains an antithesis to all texts of Scripture which represent man as dead in sins (νεκρὸς τοῖς παραπτώμασιν) and hostile to the Gospel (μωρία αὐτῷ ἐστιν), and which deny any subjective possibility of faith on his part (οὐ δύναται γνῶναι).) Moreover, the synergist’s “possibility of conversion” contradicts all passages of Scripture which ascribe conversion or faith itself — not only the power to believe — solely to the operations of divine grace and omnipotence, without any cooperation on the part of man. [[Eph. 1, 19. 20 >> Eph 1.19-20]]: “We believe” (πιστεύοντες) — not merely: we are able to believe — “according to the working of His mighty power.” [[Phil. 1, 29 >> Phil 1.29]]: “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ … to believe on Him” (τὸ εἰς αὐτὸν πιστεύειν), not merely, the ability to believe on Him. In thus placing man’s subjective ability before conversion, the synergist maintains a position contradictory not only of the position of the sixteenth century theologians of our Church, but also of that of the seventeenth century dogmaticians. As we have noted above, the latter, too, emphatically maintain, over against Latermann and [[@Page:123]]Musaeus, that God works, without human cooperation, not only the possibility of conversion, but also conversion itself, works not only the ability to will, but causes man to will. The Strassburg Faculty: “Does not God, on His part, grant that we will? that we believe? Does He merely grant that we are able to will, able to convert ourselves, able to believe?”) We must hold fast, on the basis of Scripture: when man is inwardly or subjectively changed to such a degree as to be able to accept grace, he is no longer the old, natural man who regards the Gospel as foolishness, but is a new man, completely transformed within, who has, through the operations of the Holy Spirit, learned to regard the Gospel as the wisdom of God. Viewing man’s subjective condition, our Confession says concerning conversion, not concerning a stage introductory to conversion: “Conversion is a change of man’s mind, heart, and will wrought by the Holy Spirit, so that man is able through such operation of the Holy Spirit to accept proffered grace (potest oblatam gratiam apprehendere).”)

In order, then, to be united on a Scriptural basis, it is necessary to maintain over against Calvinism the objective possibility of conversion for every hearer of the Word, and to reject over against synergism all subjective I can on the part of man before conversion. Only by doing this do we hold fast universalis gratia on the one hand and sola gratia on the other.