Before we leave the subject of conversion, it is important that we consider and understand this question also. For on this point also grievous and dangerous views and practices prevail. Human nature tends to extremes. Here too, there is a tendency to go too far, either in the one direction or the other. There are those, on the one hand, who virtually and practically make this change of heart and of nature a human work. They practically deny the agency of the Holy Spirit, or His means of Grace. On the other hand, there are those whose ideas and teachings would rid man of all responsibility in the matter, and make of him a mere machine, that is irresistibly moved and controlled from above.
Is either of the above views the correct and scriptural one? If not, what is the Bible doctrine on this subject? What has the human will -- i.e., the choosing and determining faculty of the mind -- to do with conversion? What, if any part of the work, is to be ascribed to it? Is it a factor in the process? If so, in what respect, and to what extent? Where does its activity begin or end? In how far is the human will responsible for the accomplishment or non-accomplishment of this change? These questions we shall endeavor briefly and plainly to answer.
We must necessarily return to man as he is before his conversion, while still in his natural, sinful, unrenewed state. In this state of sin, the will shares, in common with all the other parts of his being, the ruin and corruption resulting from the fall. The natural man has the "understanding darkened;" "is alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in him, because of the blindness of his heart." He "receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God ... neither can he know them." He is "in darkness," "dead in trespasses and sins."
Thus is the whole man in darkness, blindness, ignorance, slavery to Satan, and at enmity with God. He is in a state of spiritual death. The will is equally affected by this total depravity. If the natural man cannot even see, discern, or know the things of the Spirit, how much less can he will to do them!
Before his conversion, man is utterly impotent "to will or to do" anything towards his renewal. The strong words of Luther, as quoted in the Form of Concord, are strictly scriptural: "In spiritual and divine things which pertain to the salvation of the soul, man is like a pillar of salt, like Lot's wife, yea, like a log and a stone, like a lifeless statue, which uses neither eyes nor mouth, neither senses nor heart." (Matt. iii.9.) But that same God who could, out of the very stones, raise up spiritual children to Abraham, can also change the stony heart of man, and put life into those who were dead in trespasses and sins.
The first movement, however, must always be from God to the sinner, and not from the sinner to God. God does, indeed, in His great mercy, come first to us. This He does through His own means of Grace.
In holy baptism He meets us even on the threshold of existence, takes us into His loving arms, places His hands in blessing upon our heads, breathes into us a new life, and adopts us into His own family. If the sinner afterwards fall from this baptismal Grace, goes back into the ways of sin, and breaks his side of the covenant, God is still faithful and comes to him again by His Holy Spirit through His Word; strives with him and endeavors to turn or convert him again from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.
We should notice here a distinction between those, who have at some time been under divine influence, as by virtue of the sacramental Word in baptism, or the written or preached Word, and those who have never been touched by a breath from above. When the Spirit of God comes to the former, He finds something still to appeal to. There is more or less receptivity to receive the Grace of God, as there is more or less life still in the germ formerly implanted. When He comes to the latter class there is nothing to work on. The foundations must be laid. A receptivity must be brought about, a new life must be inbreathed. In other words, in the conversion of the latter the Holy Spirit must do what He has already done in the former. The one is the conversion of a once regenerate but now lapsed one. The other is the regeneration and conversion of one heretofore always dead in sin.
But in every case, God comes first to the sinner; whether it be in the sacramental, or the written and preached Word. It is always through that Word, as we have already shown, that the Spirit of God operates on the sinful heart, enkindling penitence and begetting faith in Christ.
Now, what part does the will perform in this great work? Is it entirely passive, merely wrought upon, as the stone by the sculptor? At first, the will is doubtless entirely passive. The first movements, the first desires, the first serious thoughts, are beyond question produced by the Spirit, through the Word. These are the advance signals and heralds of Grace. They are the preparatory steps, and hence these first approaches of divine influence are called by theologians Prevenient Grace, that is the divine influence of Grace which precedes or goes before all other movements in the return of the soul to God.
This preparatory Grace comes to the sinner unsought, and is so far unavoidable. It is purely and entirely the work of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner. The human will has nothing whatever to do with the first beginnings of conversion. Of this our Confessions testify: "God must first come to us." "Man's will hath no power to work the righteousness of God, or a spiritual righteousness, without the spirit of God." Of this the Prophet speaks when he says, Zech. iv.6, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." Also, 1 Cor. xii.3, "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost."
After prevenient Grace, however, begins to make itself felt, then the will begins to take part. It must now assume an attitude, and meet the question: Shall I yield to these holy influences or not? One or the other of two courses must be pursued. There must be a yielding to the heavenly strivings, or a resistance. To resist at this point requires a positive act of the will. This act man can put forth by his own strength. On the other hand, with the help of that Grace, already at work in his heart, he can refuse to put forth that act, of his will, and thus remain non-resistant.
If man, thus influenced from above, now deliberately uses his will power, and resists the gracious influences of prevenient Grace, he quenches the Holy Spirit of God, whereby he is sealed to the day of redemption. He has hardened his heart. His last state is worse than the first. He remains unconverted, and on himself alone is the responsibility.
If, on the other hand, he even with the assistance of prevenient Grace, permits it to do its work, the process goes on. His will is being renewed. It experiences the pulsations of a new life. It realizes the possession of new powers. There is an infusion from God's will into his will, and now prevenient Grace is changed into operating Grace. The Word has free course. It runs and is glorified. He "works out his own salvation with fear and trembling," while it is all the time "God that worketh in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure."
Such a person is a new creature in Christ Jesus. Operative Grace goes out into cooeperating Grace. He becomes a worker with God, and as he grows in Grace and in knowledge, his will becomes more and more free as it comes more and more into harmony with God's will.
Again we ask, What has the human will to do with this great change? We answer, Two things.
First, man can and will to go to church where the means of Grace are, or he can will to remain away. If he deliberately wills to absent himself from where their influence is exerted, he remains unconverted, and on himself is the responsibility. If, on the other hand, he wills to go where God speaks to man in His ordinary way, he does so much towards permitting God to convert him.
Secondly, when the means of Grace do carry renewing power, and he is made to realize their efficacy -- though it be at first only in an uneasiness, dissatisfaction with self, and an undefined longing after something better -- he can, as we have seen, permit the work to go on. Thus he may be said, negatively, to help towards his conversion. On the other hand, he can shake off the good impressions, tear away from the holy influences, resist the Spirit, and remain unconverted. Clearly, on himself is all the responsibility if he perish. God desired to convert him. He "rejected the counsel of God against himself." Luke vii.30.
And thus our Lutheran doctrine of Grace through the means of Grace, clears away all difficulties and avoids all contradictions. It gives God all the glory, and throws on man all the responsibility.
Sailing thus under the colors of scriptural doctrine, we steer clear of the Scylla of Calvinism on the one hand, and also escape the Charybdis of Arminianism on the other.
We give to Sovereign Grace all the glory of our salvation just as much as the Calvinists do. And yet we make salvation as free as the boldest Arminian does. Whatever is excellent in both systems we retain. Whatever is false in both we reject. We refuse to make of man a machine, who is irresistibly brought into the kingdom of God, and forced indeed to accept of Sovereign Grace. On the other hand, we utterly repudiate the idea that man is himself able to "get religion," to "get through," to "grasp the blessing," or to "save himself." To such self-exaltation we give no place -- no, not for a moment!
With Luther we confess, "I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. But that the Holy Spirit hath called me by His Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith; in like manner as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith. In which Christian Church He daily forgives me abundantly all my sins and the sins of all believers, and will raise up me and all the dead at the last day, and will grant everlasting life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true."
"Grace first contrived the way
"Grace taught my roving feet
"Grace all the work shall crown