VI. Regeneration Working Faith

HAVING seen that Vocation and Illumination, being the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He produces awakening, enlightenment, knowledge of sin and the way of salvation, and also effects a certain enablement of the will, thus making the sinner a responsible agent respecting his personal salvation, we shall next treat of regeneration and faith and their relations to each other. For we have not yet arrived at these movements in our analysis of the Order of Grace. No; the called and awakened sinner cannot yet believe. He simply has a knowledge of sin and of the way of salvation through Christ. He says: “I cannot believe; the more I try the more I fail.” More than once he adds Paul’s plaintive cry : “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Yes; he realizes that his ethical corruption and spiritual disability are still lying like a corpse in his soul. So far as self-help is concerned, he feels more keenly than ever that he is “dead in sin.” What can he do? The electionist says, “Nothing, absolutely nothing !” Then what was the use of the Vocation and Illumination? But he can do something, for God by His prevenient grace has given him the ability: he can pray ; very lamely and haltingly, it is true ; still, with all his doubt and despair, he can pray. That is what Paul did on his way to Damascus: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” and after he reached Damascus: “Behold, he prayeth.” That is what the sin-stricken Publican did : “God be merciful to me a sinner.” That is what Peter did, when sinking in the waves: “Lord, save me or I perish.” So the pentitent thief : “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Our Lord said : “Men ought always to pray and not to faint.”

In Dr. Pieper’s book of 151 pages, discussing conversion and election with great labor and learning, there is not a word said about the sinner praying for mercy and pardon. Perhaps the election advocates think that the unconverted sinner cannot pray. If so, that is merely an academic theory ; it contradicts the experience of millions of Christians, who prayed before they were converted and for conversion, even though they could only say with one of old : “Lord, I believe ; help thou mine unbelief.” Indeed, we have wondered much why the Concordia dogmaticians give no place to prayer in the acts preparatory to conversion. The Bible so often represents the unregenerate as praying for pardon and salvation. (See the instances cited above.) Might this slighting of prayer be due to the fact that the dogmaticians have had little experience in winning adult sinners to Christ? The writer of this book was a pastor for many years, and has had much experience in direct- ing adult sinners of all kinds and classes in the way of salvation. He has never known an adult conversion to occur without prayer. More than one despondent inquirer has said, “I can’t believe!” We have replied: “I know you cannot in your own strength; but you can pray for faith ; and God will remove your doubt and give you the power to believe.” In every case, so far as we can remember, faith was bestowed in God’s good time. If Jacob wrestled all night with the angel for a blessing, should not the awakened sinner also pray for salvation? Indeed, this is one of God’s great purposes in the preparatory acts— namely, to bring the sinner to his knees in humble confession and supplication. (It should be remembered that we are here speaking only of the conversion or regeneration of adults, not of regeneration in child baptism.)

Now, if the sinner will pray to God for help, God will, through added prevenient grace, enable him freely to cease his resistance, freely to surrender himself to God alone ; yes, even to cease trying to save himself, and simply let God, and God alone, save him.

Having led him thus far, so that he utterly despairs of self-help, and gives himself up entirely to God, God flies to his rescue, breathes into his soul the new spiritual life, which is regeneration, in and by which the ability of faith is conferred upon him; then, by this divinely enabled faith, he lays hold upon Christ as His Saviour and Redeemer ; and this exercise of faith, a power given purely by grace, brings justification and all the salutary blessings which accrue therefrom. Regeneration or conversion also effects the mystical union (unio mystica) between the sinner and Christ, and thus sets him on the way of progressive sanctification. The whole process is vital, ethical and spiritual ; at no point merely mechanical ; at no moment is the sinner coerced. In reviewing his experience, he knows that all the way he was drawn, not by force, but by the cords of love. The whole transaction was the work of God’s grace. What freedom he had and used was not active and co-operating, but only consenting freedom ; and even the ability to consent was bestowed by prevenient grace.

But how about those who are not saved ? With our Missouri brethren, we say that they are lost solely be- cause they stubbornly resisted the Holy Ghost and rejected the overtures of mercy. But we go this much further than Missouri ; we add, they had their chance, line upon line, but they did not improve it. Through God’s call and gracious invitation and oft-repeated proffer of salvation, they knew well enough that God would gladly give them faith, conversion and salvation if they would let Him; but they would not allow Him to save them. They were able to reject God by their own sinful choice; but God also told them through the gospel that He would make them free from the bondage of sin, if they would surrender to Him. Can any one living in a gospel land deny this? Just hear Christ’s words : “The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost;” “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed ;” “He hath sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Why, that is precisely why Christ came: “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” So all may be enabled if they will. If some choose the bondage of sin, when deliverance is so freely and urgently offered, with ability to accept the offer, we know not what God could do for them and with them but leave them to their own devices. If others, recognizing through the gospel call their lost condition and utter inability, are willing to let Christ emancipate them, they will be saved. God desires to enable all to accept deliverance, but He can save only those who, after He has aroused them by His call and pointed them to the Saviour, are willing to let Him rescue and enable them. To our mind, this is the gracious order of the Spirit’s application of redemption (which has already been wrought out by Christ’s active and passive obedience) : Prevenient grace gives all a chance, and therefore locates the responsibility; regenerating grace bestows the new life and enables saving faith; faith accepts justification, by which all Christ’s merits are imputed to the believer, which is the sole ground of his salvation ; progressive sanctification develops and unfolds the inherent righteousness enabled by regeneration or conversion. It is all of grace — sola gratia. The work of sanctification, even, where Missouri and all the rest of us say that the believer’s emancipated will co-operates with God’s will, is all of grace, just as the work of prevenient enduement is all of grace. There is not one particle of human merit in the whole process from Vocation to Glory. Even the saints in heaven do not praise themselves or boast of any merit, but give all the glory to “Him that sitteth upon the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13).

We are wondering now whether any of our brethren will try to find some “cryptic synergism” here, because we assign some degree of enabling power to grace prior to conversion. If so, we shall have to deny the allegation. What we understand by Synergism is this, that man by his natural powers is able to concur with God’s grace. This idea we repudiate with all our might. So far as regards spiritual energies, true righteousness toward God, and ability to believe on a spiritual Redeemer, the unsaved sinner is “dead in trespasses and sins.” How can a dead man do anything? How can a man who is spiritually dead do anything spiritual? Even if the Bible did not teach it plainly, it would still be psychically impossible for an unspiritual mind to perform spiritual functions. Moreover, a soul that is in the bondage of sin and corruption cannot act as if it were free. The fact is, if man could, by his natural ability, do anything truly and spiritually good without Christ, he might do everything that is spiritually good without Him, for then he might simply develop the spiritual powers within him. No, so far as doing anything spiritual and truly righteous before God is concerned, man, in his state of natural depravity, is utterly unable. And, mark you, no man is ever commanded to believe on Christ until he is called through the gospel, just as Paul says: “How shall they believe on Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? … So faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” Christ’s teaching is just the same (John 15:22): “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Also Paul again (Rom. 4:15) : “For the law worketh wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.” It is all very simple and plain and reasonable, if we just accept the clear Bible statements. In a state of nature, therefore, man has no spiritual ability ; but so soon as the gospel Call and Illumination reach him, he has been touched by a spiritual power, and is not quite the same as before.

After God has prepared redemption through Christ, after He awakens and illumines sinners, and after He graciously offers them the salvation thus provided, then, and then only, is their own choice decisive ; but it is decisive then, for at that point their free moral agency respecting the gracious overture comes into play. If this is not true, we repeat again that the grace bestowed in conversion must be “irresistible grace,” and that is Calvinism, not Lutheranism. Moreover, there is not one passage of Scripture that teaches that grace is irresistibly bestowed. Indeed, if it were, it would not be grace, whatever else it might be called.

There is still another point in the process of Vocation, Illumination and Conversion that requires elucidation : How is it that the sinner can, on the one hand, resist God’s Spirit, while, on the other, he cannot do anything to save himself? How can he be free if he cannot act both ways, if he has not the power of alternate choice ? Let us use an illustration. Suppose a man who is utterly unable to swim should fall into a deep lake. He is “dead,” so far as swimming is concerned. At once a man in a canoe, near at hand, hurries to his rescue. Now, while the man would be utterly unable to save himself, he still might resist his would-be rescuer, might fight him away, might prefer to drown. The unhappy man might do another thing ; he might struggle, and fling his arms, and try to save himself, and thus interfere with his deliverer, and make it impossible for him to save him. But his benefactor might speak to him, plead with him to let himself be saved, instruct him not to struggle or try at all to save himself, but simply to leave himself quiescent in his hands ; thus by and by the desperate man might be so soothed as to cease all efforts of his own, and surrender himself entirely into the hands of his rescuer. If he did, he would be saved; if he did not, he would be lost. This is a parable, but its meaning lies on the surface ; it needs no interpretation. (Another apt comparison might be that of a man in fetters in the dungeon of a prison. When his deliverer comes to announce pardon and release, the prisoner could not unlock his prison door, or remove his chains, or even do a thing to effect his own liberation; but he might resist, fight, refuse to be forgiven and freed. His deliverer might overcome his obstinacy by persuasion, so that by and by he would be willing to let his benefactor set him free. So with the sinner.)

We shall humbly do our best to illumine another matter. Every Bible student, whether a theologian or not, must realize that spiritual death is not in all respects like physical death. In the spiritual realm the word “death” means the most corrupt and undone condition possible in that sphere. When a material body is dead, it is unconscious, but when a soul is dead to spiritual realities, it is not dead like that; it is not unconscious. Theologians usually distinguish three kinds of death — temporal, spiritual and eternal. The sinner is in some respects very conscious and very much alive, though dead in other ways. Those who go down to eternal death — called in Scripture the “second death” — are neither unconscious nor quiescent, but recognize their doom, and suffer its pangs. The apostle Paul indicates this truth in the passage so often quoted by all of us who believe in total depravity (Eph. 2:1-3). We give the passage according to what we think the clearest translation: “And you were dead (nekrous) in (or as to) your trespasses and sins, in which ye once walked (Greek, periepatesate, walked or trod about) according to the ways of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience ; among whom we also once lived in the lusts of our flesh,” etc. You will observe that those “dead” people “walked about” and “lived,” even while they were dead. So Paul says in 1 Tim. 5:6: “But she that giveth herself to pleasure is dead while she liveth.”

Then what is the meaning of “dead in sin ?” This : the spiritual powers of the soul have become atrophied, paralyzed, or deadened by sin, while the other psychical powers retain their abililty to function, though of course all of them are sadly affected. When man sinned in the garden of Eden, he lost his original righteousness, his spiritual quality, his faith and love in and for God, and became alienated from Him ; but we know from the Bible itself that he did not lose his personality, his mental powers, his self-consciousness, his freedom in earthly affairs, his psychical emotion, nor even his con- science entirely. Moreover, he still retained his sight, hearing, and other senses. All these were permitted to remain through the intervening mercy of God, for He might justly have permitted man to be wholly destroyed. Strangely enough, Adam, though spiritually dead, was still, by virtue of his remaining psychical powers, even conscious that he had sinned, for he was ashamed, hid from God, and was afraid to meet Him. When God called him, he could hear the divine voice, could under- stand the words, and could make reply. However, he showed the depth of the infamy into which he had fallen — that is, his spiritual death-stroke — by refusing to repent and plead for pardon, but, on the contrary, even tried to justify himself by putting the blame upon the woman ; while she, being in the same spiritual condition, tried to fix the blame upon the serpent. They were both dead and alive, those two, and their posterity has ever since inherited the same abnormal and paradoxical nature.

What, then, is this living death of the unconverted sinner? It is that deadened divine image that is within him ; it is those corrupted and paralyzed spiritual powers. It is as if he were bearing a corpse about with him in his soul. It casts its terrible blight upon all his psychical faculties, the intellect, the susceptibility, the will. Even in his natural state he must often be conscious of the schism within, and of the dead weight he carries about; but he becomes poignantly conscious of his blight and burden when the call of God sounds in his ears, and the blazing light of the law reveals the hideous obliquity of his being. It is at this point that Paul exclaims in his despair: “Oh, wretched man that 1 am ! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” No sooner does the sinner utter this cry for help than God sheds upon him the sweet, mellow radiance of the gospel, which reveals Christ to him as the only source of help; and so he again cries with Paul: “I thank God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But while the sinner has a natural will, so that he is capable of a kind of “civil righteousness” (Augsburg Confession, Art. 18; Apology, page 78), yet in the higher, the spiritual matters it avails nothing; it is utterly helpless. As the Augsburg Confession puts it (Art. 18) : “It has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; but this righteousness is wrought in the heart when the Holy Ghost is received through the Word.” The Formula of Concord (page 557, Jacob’s edition) insists on the same truth: “The reason and free will have the power, to a certain extent, to live an outwardly decent life; but to be born anew, and to obtain inwardly another heart, sense and disposition, this only the Holy Ghost effects. He opens the understanding and heart to understand the Scriptures, and to give heed to the Word, as it is written (Luke 24:25) : ‘Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.’ ”

Therefore, we maintain that, when the will has attained any power or disposition toward spiritual things by means of the Vocation and Illumination, such disposition or power is in nowise resident in the natural will, but pertains wholly and solely to the spiritual ability that has been imparted by the Holy Spirit. The natural will is corrupted by inherited depravity and actual sin, and therefore can neither choose nor initiate anything good, but is set against it. All these things must be true, for if man were not a willful sinner, he would not be a real sinner at all ; and, on the other hand, if he could save himself, there would be no need of Christ and His gospel. And yet again, if God would convert him after the Call and Illumination without his consent, then God would force salvation upon him, and therefore it would not be an ethical and spiritual salvation, but a coerced and mechanical one, which would be no salvation at all, in the true sense of the term. Therefore, from the very nature of an ethical salvation, there must be an action of prevenient grace prior to conversion, which enables man in some way to exercise his will to the extent that he is willing to be converted. This agrees with the Scriptures, as we have shown again and again, and it also agrees with our Christian experience; for every converted man knows that, on the one hand, he did not and could not convert himself, and, on the other, that God did not convert him against his will and with- out his consent. “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Why not see in the Bible a beautiful consistency? It is not a book of real or seeming contradictions. Mysteries there are, and we gladly admit it; but no incongruities, no absurdities, nothing that shocks the spiritually enlightened and sanctified reason.