LET us examine a few relevant passages of Scripture to see how consistent and harmonious, how vitally organized, how divinely unified, the whole process of conversion is represented to be. First, take John 7:17: “If any one (tis) willeth (thele, active, subjunctive) to do (poiein) His will (thelema, same root as that of thele), he shall know concerning the teaching, whether it is from God, or whether I speak from myself.” This is a crucial passage. It would seem that our Lord was not so much afraid to mention the human will as some theologians are. Why? Because He was practical, took man as he is, and knew that it would detract nothing from God’s honor and grace for Him to respect the will which He Himself had put into man’s being and endued with its wonderful power of alternate choice. However, let us proceed to the analysis of this great passage. The following is Dr. A. Spaeth’s exposition (Lutheran Commentary, in loco, page 101) : “And the evidence of the divine character and authority of His teaching is to be found by all those who honestly will to do the Father’s will, wherever that will may be found, whether in the law, or in the prophets, or in the conscience of man. The moral character of Christianity is the testimony of its divine power and authority. It is the Old Testament principle: ‘The fear of the Lord— the beginning of wisdom,’ which is here by the Lord Himself applied to the New Testament revelation of the Gospel. The heart, the conscience, the will of man are involved in his search after truth. Wherever there is an honest will, an up- right, sincere resolution, not the actual doing or perfection in doing the will of God (which is impossible), men will be drawn to Christ ; they will appreciate the gift of God in the Gospel, having made an honest effort to do the will of God as they know it.”
This is quite admirable and true. Let us make the explication of the passage a little more germain to the present discussion, for of course Dr. Spaeth did not have the Missouri view of conversion in mind. “If any one willeth to do His will.” Christ was here speaking to unconverted people, as the whole context shows. Yet He said, “If any one willeth.” Would He have used such language if the people whom He was addressing had no volitional power whatever ? We do not believe it is treat- ing Christ with due honor to make Him guilty of acting and speaking absurdly, just because we hold some particularistic theory of conversion and election. But how about the “willing” of those unregenerate people? As Paul says, in the natural state they were “dead in trespasses and sins.” Is not this a glaring inconsistency? Not at all, but a beautiful organism. Why had Christ come into the world, and why was He speaking to those people just then? For the very purpose of waking them from their death-sleep. “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.” His blessed words were not dead words. So He was trying to stir them into life by His preaching of the gospel to them. Did nothing stir within them? Did no enablement come to them while He “spake as never man spake?” What a derogation of Christ’s message that view would be ! No, He was stirring their wills into action by the spiritual power that accompanied His gracious words. Herein lies the gracious power of the Call.
Now, note carefully: He does not say or mean to say that sinners can do God’s will, but merely that they shall will or be willing. And what was God’s will just at that critical juncture in the life of those Jews? According to the whole tenor of Biblical teaching, it simply was this: that they should be willing to let God save them through Christ. If they had been willing to do just that much — to let God even overcome the opposition of their sinful hearts and wills. He would have saved them, yes, saved them even from themselves ; and then they would have known that Jesus was the Messiah of God, the Saviour of the world. Then He would have converted them; and then, afterward, as they continued to be willing to do God’s will, they would have known more and more of His divine and gracious doctrine. “The path of the just shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” There is not a gospel preacher on earth who, if he were speaking to unsaved men, would not say precisely the same thing to them. He would never begin by telling them of the divine decrees in eternity. He would never preach to them about their utter inability and consequent irresponsibility. How do our Missouri brethren preach to unconverted sinners? As if they were logs and stones, or as if they were men, capable of receiving, through God’s enabling grace, an ethical salvation? God never works on man, a personality, in a mechanical way; always in a vital and ethical way. The fact is, man even in his sinful state, still has ears and eyes and self-consciousness, through which God, by the gospel, is able to reach that dead spiritual corpse within him and bring it back to life. Therefore Christ said : ”Take heed how ye hear and what ye hear.” The act of imparting the new life, enabling faith, is regeneration or conversion ; the process of reaching man to make him conscious of his corruption and inability and to make him willing to be saved, is Vocation and Illumination. It is all of grace, but it is also ethical and spiritual, not material or mechanical.
It is a pleasure to examine another crucial passage of the Word— Phil. 2:12, 13: “So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling ; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Twentieth Century New Testament, verse 13: “Remember it is God who, in His kindness, is at work within you, enabling you both to will and to work.” How beautiful and ethical it all is ! True, these words were written to converted men, but we quote them to show that the same general principles apply to the work of sanctification that obtain in conversion, proving again that Biblical teaching is a consistent unity.
If God in sanctification works in us both to will and to do, one would think that the Missouri brethren would deny all human ability and concurrence then as well as in regeneration; but, no, they teach the concurrence of the divine and human wills in sanctification, and therefore teach Synergism at this point. Why are they not afraid of nullifying sola gratia here? If man after conversion can use his will, is there not danger that the idea of human merit might creep into his mind? But this matchless passage does not compromise God’s grace, be- cause the power to will comes from God’s quickening Spirit, and that is the very highest incentive for willing and doing and working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Note this point carefully: God enables the willing, but He does not do the willing for man. He (man) must use the ability given him by divine grace. This is the peculiar function and prerogative of that high enduement of man — a free will, a will in liberty. Surely when God deals with man, he has regard for His own handiwork. Inasmuch He made him a moral personality, He will not treat him as if he were a piece of clay or an irrational animal, to which He would never say, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Observe, now, that the same general principle that prevails in effecting conversion is employed here in sanctification : “If any one willeth to do His will, he shall know,” etc. ; “Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life ;” “How often would I have gathered you . . . and ye would not;” “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak;” “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them ;” “He that heareth my words and doeth them;” “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Just as the will is enabled by converting and sanctifying grace to perform its function in those moments, so it is enabled by preparatory grace to perform its relevant function in that moment. Its function in the latter case is that of passivity or surrender toward God’s grace ; in the former, that of activity, concurrence and co-operation.
At this point the inquiry may be raised : How can the will have any spiritual ability to function before the sinner is converted ? It would be more pertinent to ask : How can God convert a man against his will? If he did that, it would not be a spiritual and ethical transaction, but merely a coerced and machine-like one. It would make conversion a materialistic instead of a spiritual transaction. If man were saved without his consent, he would not be saved at all, for sin would still be retained by him in his will. Remember, too, this vital fact — that when the spiritual will is enabled, or effected, or created, as you please, by prevenient grace, the sinner is still not saved from his sin and corruption ; that body of death still lies within him like a blight and hideous deformity ; his will cannot remove it ; but he can beseech God to deliver him, and whenever he comes to the point when he is willing to let God save him, and God alone, God will do His part ; He will deliver him from Satan’s thrall; He will purify him from defilement; He will draw him from the mire and the clay, and place his feet upon a rock ; He will breathe the new life into him.
Perhaps some one will object that there can be no spiritual movement in the soul before conversion. Then why speak at all of the Holy Spirit’s preparatory acts? Is not the Spirit’s work always spiritual? or does He sometimes act like a material force? Moreover, does not the Spirit in the “acts preparatory” produce conviction of sin? Is not conviction a spiritual motus or condition of the soul? A proper estimate of God’s holy prevenient grace will save our theology from much confusion ; will keep it from becoming lifeless and procrustean.
A most interesting question is that of the inner nature of freedom and faith. Of course, there is much about their nature and functioning that we do not understand ; but it is not all mystery. The Missouri brethren so often represent faith as if it were an entity, instead of a power, quality or activity of the soul. Dr. Pieper will not have it that the Holy Spirit makes us able to believe; he contends that He does not confer the ability, but the actual belief itself. With all our respect for his acuteness and sincerity, this seems to us a marvelous psychological conception. Then the Holy Spirit must do our believing for us ! Why not call it the Holy Spirit’s faith, then, instead of ours? When Christ said to the impatient Jews, “Believe the gospel,” He made a mistake; He should have said, “The Holy Spirit will believe for you !” So with every Biblical command to believe. John 3:16 is not expressed correctly; it should be — but we refrain. In the same mechanical way Dr. Pieper treats the will. Freedom is not an enabled power or energy ; it is a something bestowed ; not a principle of life, but a something affixed. But does the Holy Spirit do our willing for us? Then He should have inspired John otherwise; not to say, “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely,” but, “If the Spirit does your willing for you.” The same way with repentance ; according to their view, it is not something enabled, but something bestowed. Then God must repent for man ; man cannot do his own repenting. According to that logic, God does not give man the ability to walk, but bestows the actual walking upon him. So God would have to do our walking for us.
Take a passage cited by Dr. Pieper in defense of his view, Phil. 1 :29 : “Because unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer in His behalf.” (We quote the whole verse; our friend did not.) Here is his gloss: “To eis auton pisteuein, not merely the ability to believe on Him.” This is almost the letter that killeth. But if “it is given unto us to believe,” surely we must do the believing, must exercise the power that has been given us. He does not say, “It was given to the Holy Spirit to believe for us,” but it was “given unto us to believe.” More than that, the part that our friend left out is important: “It is given unto you . . . also to suffer in His behalf.” According to his exegesis of “belief,” the Philippians should not suffer at all, but the Spirit ought to do their suffering for them. But see how beautifully consistent Paul is: just as the Philippians had been enabled by divine grace to believe on Christ, so now they were enabled to suffer in His behalf. There are no logical gaps nor organic breaks in the divine modus operandi.
Having dwelt at some length on two classical passages, we can tarry to examine just one more — that which depicts the three thousand conversions on the day of Pentecost. Peter preached a powerful sermon to the multitude. He spoke both the law and the gospel to them, and connected the Messiah of the New Testament with the history and prophecy of the Old. His words were not ineffective, for his hearers were smitten in their hearts, and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do ?” See how powerfully they were convicted ; yet it was still only preparatory grace, not converting grace. Was that conviction an inner spiritual motus, or was it only the indentation made on a rubber ball? Peter did not haggle about the word “do” which they had used, and say, “You cannot do anything until you are converted.” It was no time to interject the doctrine of election, either. He simply did the practical thing, as he was led by the Spirit ; he replied : “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sins ; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you and your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto Him.” By more exhortation (see the next verses) he brought many of them to the yielding point, and the record goes on : “Then they that received his word were baptized ; and there were added on that day about three thousand souls.”
Observe that Peter does not show much regard for our beautifully schematized theological systems. Perhaps he was not a very good theologian ! He even commands unregenerate men to repent, bids them be baptized, and then adds, “Ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Here it might even seem that regeneration came after repentance and baptism. Peter, be careful ! We are on the lookout for Synergism !
But is there disorder here? Was God the author of confusion on that epoch-making day? Verily not. He observed His regular order, though He did not label the various steps as we do in our theologies. Let us analyze: First, Peter himself was filled with the Holy Ghost ; next, he preached the law to the sinful multitude, and vividly pointed out their terrible sin in crucifying the Lord of glory; the Holy Spirit was there, and performed His function through the words of Peter — He wrought conviction ; this was the call and the illumination of the Holy Spirit through the law. But Peter mingled a great deal of the gospel in his sermon. Read it over and see how often he spoke of Christ as the Lord and Saviour and Messiah. Thus when he reached the end of his sermon — or this part of it — his hearers, though powerfuly convicted, were not wholly in despair, or they would not have cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” There is at least a gleam of hope there — something of the call and illumination of the gospel, with their accompanying grace. Peter now knew that they were ready for the next step. Prevenient grace had made them conscious of that dead weight of sin within them, and had also made them willing to be saved from its fell blight and poison. Therefore he said, “Repent.” Now repentance does not mean mere sorrow for sin; it really means, as Luther found out at a most critical time, “a change of mind”— metanoia — the very word Peter used here in the verb form. Therefore it means a change of mind respecting sin and salvation or Christ ; and so it consists of contrition and faith (Augsburg Confession, Art. XI). So the inner meaning of Peter’s command was, “Turn from sin and turn to Christ.” Faith is also implied in being “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins.” So Peter’s exhortation was virtually the same as that with which Christ began His ministry : “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
And now comes the crux: How, according to Missouri’s view and our own, could those three thousand people repent and believe before they were regenerated or converted? For Dr. Pieper we can see no escape, for he will have it that before conversion man can do, will, wish absolutely nothing. He is like a block or a stone or, perchance, a rubber ball. But, according to our view, the explanation is quite simple : as prevenient grace had aroused those sinners, convicted them, and made them willing to surrender to God and to let Him save them, Peter knew, being guided by God’s Spirit, that, if he told them to repent and believe, and they were willing to do so, not by their own natural strength, but by the strength imparted to them by grace, then the Holy Spirit would continue His gracious work, would breathe the new life into them, and that would give them repentance and faith, or, in other words, would enable them to repent and believe. Then, if they went still further, and submitted to the sacrament of baptism, He would bestow a special gift or enduement upon them, just as many another man has received a special blessing in baptism. Thus the living, organic order of salvation was followed ; they were regenerated, justified and saved in a spiritual and ethical way. Salvation was not forced upon them, and yet the whole process was solely by the grace of God. Not a joint or crevice, however fine, where human merit or pride or boasting could creep in.
The question may be asked why God so often commands men to do what they by nature are unable to do. For example, why does He command them to repent and believe, when they can do neither in their own strength? The secret is an open one. God never commands without conferring the ability to obey, “if there first be a willing mind.” The very command is spiritual, and carries with it the enabling power. Take two examples from the life of Christ. In the presence of a vast multitude of hungry people, and with only a few loaves and fishes available, Jesus said to His disciples, “Give ye them to eat.” How could they carry out such a command? But in faith they obeyed Him at every step, and we know the result — they actually fed the whole multitude, and had much more food left than they began with.
Again, a palsied, bed-ridden man, entirely unable to walk, was brought to Jesus (Matt. 9:1-8). After some conversation. He said to the sick of the palsy: “Arise, and take up thy bed, and go to thy house.” The command without the conferred ability would have been absurd ; but the man had a willing mind, and so Christ gave him strength to walk and even to carry his couch. “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
One thing that we have sorely missed in the Concordia dogmatic — nothing has been said about the regeneration of infants in baptism ; nothing about baptismal grace in adult baptism. The whole treatment seems to go on the assumption that regeneration or conversion pertains only to adults. Do not our Missouri brethren believe in regenerating grace in and through baptism? The Lutheran Church makes so much of the vital relation between baptism and regeneration, just as the New Testament does, that we wonder a whole book can be written by a Lutheran theologian on the subject of re- generation without any mention of baptism. Surely most of our children of the Church receive in baptism the seeds of regeneration ; then when they are taught about Christ and His love, these seminal principles unfold and active faith is produced, laying hold on the merits of Christ. In her practice Missouri is faithful in the matters of baptism and catechization, but, somehow, in her dogmatic discussions of election and conversion she seems to overlook these important and vital steps in the Order of Salvation. If children are potentially regenerated in baptism, how would that fit into Missouri’s doctrine of election? Luther taught us always to look back to our baptism for assurance of salvation ; he never once, so far as we know, admonished us to look for assurance to God’s eternal decrees.