Reason or the Holy Spirit?

by Dr. Jerald C. Joersz

Many Christian people I know say they have made a decision in their life to follow Christ. Why do Lutherans hesitate to say that people can decide to accept or receive Christ?

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You are correct in suggesting that Lutherans are uncomfortable with this type of language to describe a person’s conversion to Christianity. The problem lies not so much in the words themselves but in the spiritual baggage loaded into them.

The apostle John writes, “But to all who receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). John does use the term receive, but there are several things to note.

First, becoming a Christian is not the result of our own initiative or achievement; it is completely God’s doing. Second, the term receive is synonymous with faith in Christ.

The New Testament everywhere declares that our salvation and the faith by which we receive it are God’s gifts. Name one thing, St. Paul asks, that you did not receive as a gift from God: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

The answer, of course, is nothing! “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Yet, some still think that human beings themselves play a part in meeting God halfway.

People commonly believe that though we are sinners at birth, we still have the ability spiritually to cooperate in some way with God in making conversion happen in our lives. That is, unbelievers have an inherent power to “receive Christ” or “ask Him into our heart.” This clearly contradicts what Paul teaches about our natural condition in Eph. 2:1: “And you were [that is, in your unbelieving condition] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked [that is, as fallen creatures prior to saving faith].” And again he says, “The natural person [unspiritual] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God . . . he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Thus, an unconverted person does not have the inner ability to desire Christ, seek Him, or open the door to Him. Only the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace (the Gospel and Sacraments), can kindle a spark of faith in a sinner’s heart and awaken a desire for God’s grace in Christ (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:17).

To receive Christ is nothing else than to believe or trust in Him, as John says in the passage first noted above. Faith cannot be defined in its essence as a commitment to obey and serve the Lord. Rather, God creates faith as the instrument by which we receive His saving and renewing grace. Indeed, the Christian life of obedience is a result of this faith uniting us to Jesus. We are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10).

Luther’s words in the Small Catechism summarize this belief: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

About the author: Until his retirement, Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was an associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.

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November 2010

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