Critical Events, Altar Calls, Conversion Experiences, and
Other Ways to Avoid a Lifetime Commitment to
Jesus and His Word
Congress on the Lutheran Confessions
April 21, 2010
By Pastor Rolf David Preus
The topic of justification is the central truth of the Christian religion. Genuine sanctification follows justification. Justification is hidden. We cannot see the forgiveness of sins or the Holy Spirit or faith. We cannot see God reckoning Christ’s righteousness to us. Justification is and must remain an article of faith.
Likewise, sanctification is hidden. The holiness of the Christian’s life doesn’t appear to be very holy. It appears to be very ordinary. And it is this apparent ordinariness of sanctification that folks find so dissatisfying. They want something quantifiable, more recognizable, and a bit more obvious. So they move sanctification into the center alongside of justification. It becomes “Part B” of the gospel. Invariably, this distorts the doctrine of justification. And, of course, when justification is distorted, so is sanctification.
When the doctrine of justification is central then God is in charge. The righteousness by which we are justified is the obedience of Jesus. It is not our doing. It is Christ’s doing. So it is with the faith through which we receive justification and the forgiveness of sins. It is God’s doing. We Lutherans confess in the Augsburg Confession:
For through the Word and the sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel. (AC V, par 2)
The Holy Spirit produces faith where and when it pleases God. It is as Jesus says,
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3, 8)
God is free. In his freedom he binds himself to his promises. He is duty bound to do for us what he has promised to do. God is faithful. He cannot deny himself. He cannot break a promise. But he will not be bound to anything else but his promises. We pray, “Thy will be done,” not only as a petition in the Lord’s Prayer, but also as a confession that God’s will – not our own – is good and gracious. He knows better than we how to keep the promises he makes.
He works faith when and where he pleases. He is in charge. This is galling to us in our pride. We want to control God. We want to be able to turn him on and let him loose!
God won’t be manipulated. He is in charge of his own words. This is why he appoints ministers. They don’t use his words to achieve their own goals. They administer the mysteries of God. God is in charge. He says to preach the gospel. He says to baptize. He says to administer the Lord’s Supper. His ministers follow his instructions. In this way God graciously calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies his Church among us. God is doing what needs to be done.
This is why Holy Baptism is replaced by the sinner’s prayer. Folks don’t want God to be in charge. They want to take charge. They don’t want to receive passively. They want an activity that is under their own control so that when doubts arise concerning their salvation they’ll know what they must do to regain their lost certainty.
About twenty five years ago when I was serving as the pastor of First Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota I decided to go over to the Golden Cue one evening to shoot some pool. The Golden Cue had a bar and grill. When the barmaid came by, I ordered a beer. She raised her eyes and said, “I thought you were some kind of a preacher.” I said I was a Lutheran pastor and that Lutheran pastors could drink beer. While she was sorting that out, I said to her, “You’re born again, aren’t you?” She replied, “Yeah, and again, and again, and again.”
Now the subtext of this conversation is easy to read if you’re familiar with the broad theological outlines. The young lady working at the Golden Cue had had contact with Evangelicals who taught a conversion experience – call it being born again – as the foundation of the Christian faith. Lacking a sign that bestows what it signifies (such as Holy Baptism), they seek out signs that will provide a certain amount of validation for the conversion experience: not smoking and not drinking being among them.
The problem is that conversion experiences only provide religious certainty for a period of time. Sooner or later you need to have another experience. And then another. The signs that signify the authenticity of the experience become legalistic burdens you must bear. Lacking the sign signifies that you are outside of the requisite experience, but having the sign is no guarantee of anything. So you must be born again again. And again.
In the long run it just doesn’t work. The terrible tragedy is that those who have learned to rely on their born again experiences have usually learned in the process to regard Holy Baptism as a sign that does not provide what it signifies. Indeed, they are forbidden to rely on baptism. Baptism is a good work and they may not rely on good works, especially good works that smack of ritual.
That’s a sad irony. Rejecting baptism as a means of grace will always result in replacing it with something else and whatever that something else is, it won’t be God’s work. It will be the sinner’s work. So then the sinner’s work becomes the foundation for his hope.
It may be a conversion experience in which we are conscious of a turning away from sin and a turning toward God. It may be an altar call whereby we make a public confession of the faith by walking up to a stage in front of a large crowd. It may be a sinner’s prayer prayed privately in which we invite the Lord Jesus into our hearts to be our personal Savior. These are all forms of the same thing: faith as human decision.
We Lutherans have several reasons why we reject the teaching that faith is a human decision. First of all, it is unbiblical. The Bible teaches that faith is the gift of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2, 8) The Bible teaches that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3, 5-7)
Secondly, defining faith as decision requires faith to reflect upon itself. Faith is validated by faith. Faith becomes essentially self-centered.
True faith is purely receptive. We are justified through faith, not on account of faith. Faith receives what is given it to receive. It focuses, not on itself, but on what it receives. One cannot receive what is not given to one to receive. Objectively identifiable means of grace are necessary if faith is to be purely receptive. We confess with Luther:
And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure . . . Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. (SA, III, VIII par 3, 10)
Without such means of grace faith itself becomes a means of grace. It must thus serve two functions simultaneously: it must provide what it receives and it must receive what it provides. Thus faith must trust in faith. Faith must be the object of faith. When means of grace that are valid outside of the experience of faith are not the foundation for faith, the experience of faith will be the foundation of faith.
When faith trusts in faith Christ is no longer its sole object. Faith in faith cannot be sanctified by affirming that God works faith graciously apart from any contribution of the human will. In practical terms, grace is meaningless unless we can locate it. If faith is a human decision it is a human decision whether you made the decision all by yourself or if you cooperated with God in making the decision or if you made the decision only after God’s sovereign and irresistible grace enabled you to do so. Whether you are a thorough going Pelagian, a run of the mill synergist, or a five point Calvinist has little practical importance. The decision is the critical issue for you. Made unaided by grace, with the help of grace, or by grace alone, a decision is a decision. The human choice becomes the foundation for religious certainty.
This is why you had better be concerned about making that choice. Indeed, making the decision must be your chief concern in life. The central article of the Christian religion cannot be God reckoning to you the righteousness of Christ’s active and passive obedience that you receive through faith alone. Instead, it is your conversion. It’s not that you are not justified through faith alone. You may well be. But while faith as pure receptivity is authenticated by what it receives, faith as decision is not. This is why faith as decision requires such things as altar calls, conversion experiences, sinner’s prayers, and other events that authenticate the decision.
Faith as receptivity is hidden under the proclamation. Such faith requires nothing more than the external means of grace. It rests in the wounds of Christ. The confidence of faith as pure receptivity comes from the all sufficiency of the vicarious obedience of Christ. For this is what the means of grace communicate to faith. The confidence of faith as decision rests in the validity of the decision to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.
Faith as receptivity doesn’t do. It receives everything God gives. God gives through his Word. Justification is at the center, but it cannot be disconnected from anything God says and faith as receptivity lives on every word that God speaks. It eats and drinks. It doesn’t chew off the meat and spit out the bones and grizzle. God’s Word has no bones or grizzle. Whatever God says, faith takes in.
In St. John chapter six Jesus uses the figure of eating and drinking his flesh and blood both to emphasize the purely receptive function of faith as well as to identify the substance of what faith receives. The eating and drinking of which Jesus speaks in this chapter is not the oral eating and drinking of the sacramental elements. It is faith. Faith eats and drinks Christ’s flesh and blood. Put into Lutheran terms, Jesus is talking here about faith as the purely receptive organ in the justification of the sinner.
In receiving Christ, faith receives Christ’s flesh and blood. Faith receives Christ, not as a spiritual guru who gives you new principles by which to guide your life into more successful paths. Faith receives Christ, not as one with whom one makes a deal: decide for him and he’ll let you into his heaven someday. Faith receives the Christ who assumed our flesh and blood. Faith receives the Christ who in his holy flesh and blood offered to God holy obedience all the way to the death of the cross. What we in our sinful flesh and blood would not and could not do, Christ in his holy flesh and blood wanted to do and most surely did. He gave his flesh and blood to God for the life of the world. Thus, faith eats and drinks Christ’s flesh and blood, taking in eternal life, receiving all the benefits of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction.
Faith is eating and drinking. It receives only what is given to it to receive. It contributes nothing to the food. It just takes it in. So we confess in the Formula of Concord:
For faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel. This merit has to be applied to us and to be made our own through faith if we are to be justified thereby. Therefore the righteousness which by grace is reckoned to faith or to the believers is the obedience, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ when he satisfied the law for us and paid for our sin. (FC, SD, III, par 13-14)
Faith eats and drinks. Specifically, it eats and drinks the flesh and blood of the Son of man. Faith tastes – focuses upon, dwells upon – the gospel of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death. In receiving forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, faith also receives everything that God says.
Faith as receptivity always focuses on Christ, his flesh and blood, the life he freely gives. But faith would not think of discriminating between those things God says that matter and those things God says that don’t matter quite so much. Whatever God says faith receives. The gospel cannot be reduced to a core truth. It cannot be disconnected from any topic of divine doctrine. Everything God says pertains to the gospel of justification. Faith as receptivity is always receiving the divine imputation of righteousness. Whenever God speaks he gives. Whenever he gives he justifies. Justifying faith lives on everything God says.
But God must be talking. This is how he gives to faith. This is how we Lutherans understand the public preaching office. God elicits faith by giving to faith. The giving brings about the faith that receives what is given. The giving is the proclamation of the gospel. Theologians distinguish between the gospel in the narrow sense and the gospel in the broad sense. The gospel in the narrow sense is the gospel in contradistinction to the law. Since the law kills and the gospel gives life this is a good theological distinction.
But this distinction is a theological construct that explains how the gospel works. The gospel never really exists in the narrow sense. It exists alongside of and mixed in together with everything God says to us in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, the preacher must preach the whole counsel of God. This is how he preaches the gospel through which God justifies us.
The duty of that office is not to proclaim a truncated gospel and then to supplement this reduced gospel with various additives designed to make it more attractive to potential decision makers out there. It is to proclaim the whole counsel of God.
Of course, at the heart of the preaching is Jesus. When God speaks he speaks of himself. He reveals himself in Jesus. Jesus reveals himself in his suffering. So the preacher preaches Christ crucified for sinners. In Christ God speaks as he wants to be heard. There is God being God, doing what God does. God is good, gracious, patient, kind, faithful, and always ready, willing, and able to forgive us sinners the sins that burden our conscience.
The preacher can preach a hundred sermons and the hearer can listen to hundreds more. All of us can read our Bibles, devotionals, sing hymns at church and at home or while driving in the car, talk theology with our husbands and wives, children, and grandchildren and throughout it all the Holy Spirit actively works faith where and when he pleases in those who hear the gospel.
While Article V of the Augsburg Confession refers to the public preaching office, it by no means follows that it is only by means of the preaching of the preacher that the Holy Spirit works and sustains faith. The gospel has inherent power to regenerate and the Holy Spirit never separates himself from the gospel. Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles:
We will now return to the Gospel, which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich in His grace. First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matthew 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc. (SA, III, IV)
The mutual conversation and consolation of brothers is a reference to the gospel that the people of God speak to one another in their daily lives. It is not limited to the gospel that pastors preach. The gospel, in whatever form it takes, is always the power of God unto salvation because of what it reveals, namely, the righteousness of God that God reckons through his word to faith and to faith alone.
The giving of the gospel is always how faith is elicited, strengthened, and maintained. The means of grace are publicly administered every Sunday morning. This is the main reason we go to church. But God’s word permeates every facet of our lives. It can no more be confined to the Divine Service than can our faith. For faith is constantly receiving. It’s not a decision or a series of decisions to be made. It is living on the word of God.
This life of faith doesn’t know where it’s going. God won’t say. He only says how we’ll get there. Those who teach faith as a decision will inform you that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Well, that’s nice! But immediately it becomes our responsibility to figure out what that plan is and then submit to it. Obviously, that’s impossible. But it is easy to come up with a plan, attribute it to God, do what your plan requires, and call it walking within the will of God.
Different views of faith point to different views of life. Faith that receives doesn’t determine what it will receive. God is the one doing the giving. Faith that decides determines what it decides. Whatever it decides becomes the standard for faith and life. Since making the decision is the sine qua non for faith, faith must be contained by the decision. But when faith is receptivity, faith is contained within that which it receives. Faith as decision necessarily truncates the gospel. Faith as receptivity cannot do so. Faith as decision reduces the gospel into something containable. Faith as receptivity receives whatever God says even when it has no idea how it relates to the gospel. It does not need to know.
Faith as decision settles the matter of salvation for the one who makes the decision. It also obligates him to lead others to make the same decision. I have made Jesus Christ my own personal Lord and Savior and I invite you to do so as well. When faith is decision, leading others to make the decision is the logical fruit of faith. This born again Christian begets that born again Christian and so on and so on and so on.
When faith is receptivity the heart of faith will be the heart of the Christian proclamation: the vicarious atonement of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. This also produces fruit. Even as the reception of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake is what faith is all about, forgiving those who trespass against us is what life is all about. The Lord’s Prayer has seven petitions, but only one of the petitions has a promise connected to it. We Christians promise to forgive those who sin against us.
We give what we have received. Our duty is not to get someone to make a decision for Jesus. We can’t do that, anyway. Our duty is to do for others what God in Christ has done for us. Love begets love. God’s love for us in Christ is the object of faith. Our love to God and neighbor is the fruit of faith. The Christian faith and life are receiving and giving love.
Faith as receptivity doesn’t confine the gospel it receives in order to make it more manageable. We receive whatever God gives. The same is true of confessing the faith. When we confess the creeds, we are not confining the Christian confession to what the creeds say. We are confessing a summary of our Trinitarian faith both as our own personal faith and as the faith of the Holy Christian Church. Likewise, when we confess the Catechism we are confessing that our personal Christian faith and the teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as we have learned to know it from Luther’s Small Catechism are one and the same. We do not limit what we confess to what is articulated in the Small Catechism.
Is faith a decision? Or is faith receptivity? Faith as a decision entails altar calls, sinner’s prayers, conversion experiences, and critical events. Faith as receptivity is formed by the means of grace, focuses on the forgiveness of sins divinely bestowed for the sake of Christ’s vicarious obedience and death, and confesses whatever God’s word gives faith to confess.
The difference between faith as a decision and faith as receptivity is who is in charge. Man or God? Faith as a decision puts the believer in charge, not only of his own decisions, but to a certain degree over the decisions of others.
Before the Rev. John Fehrmann asked me to speak on the topic, “Critical Events, Altar Calls, Conversion Experiences, and Other Ways to Avoid a Lifetime Commitment to Jesus and His Word,” I knew what altar calls and conversion experiences were. I did not know what a critical event was. I decided to investigate. It turned out to be something associated with a vision. This vision was experienced by a Missouri Synod Lutheran or perhaps a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans or maybe even an entire board of Missouri Synod Lutherans. According to this vision, a critical event is: “When one Lutheran Christian gives witness about Jesus of the hope that is within him or her to another person so that person can encounter Christ.”
The one giving the witness is responsible for what his testimony will accomplish. It is not enough to give witness to Jesus. It is not enough to give witness about the hope that is within. The person hearing the witness must be able to encounter Christ. See to it. See to it that an encounter takes place.
Faith as receptivity is when God is in charge of faith. Faith as decision is when man is in charge. Faith as receptivity yields a confession of the faith that is unbridled by artificial boundaries. Faith as decision keeps the confession contained within manageable parameters. Faith as receptivity has no depth, height, or any other measurable features that we can assess to determine faith’s relative strength. It lives purely on what it receives and is identified by it. Faith as decision must establish an experience that authenticates the decision. The psychology of faith will become faith’s essence. The assurance of faith will require the establishment of reliable psychological measurements, thus replacing the divine form of faith with a human imitation.
Faith as decision truncates the gospel. Those who truncate the gospel always do so for the sake of the gospel. During the Battle for the Bible of a generation ago, the gospel reductionists could not tolerate holding the evangelical faith hostage to the reliability of ancient historians. They established a false conflict between evangelical authority and biblical inerrancy that persists to this day.
While the conservatives won the Battle for the Bible, they adopted the gospel reductionism of their theological opponents. In today’s form it replaces the doctrine of justification by faith alone with the practice of evangelism.
Today’s form of gospel reductionism is far more subtle than the version promoted by the Bible-doubters of yesteryear. Its proponents usually affirm biblical inerrancy and the historicity of what the biblical writers set forth as history. They may not advocate jettisoning any portion of divine truth. They may affirm all of it. They may even be disciples of the “keep the message straight, get the message out” school of thought. They may care about pure doctrine.
But they disconnect faith from divine instruction. Faith comes from a reduced gospel to which we give witness in our daily lives. The divine instruction that follows faith belongs to discipleship, sanctification, and spiritual growth. This happens when evangelism replaces justification as the central article.
But God justifies us by means of his divine doctrine. As the prophet says,
All your children shall be taught by the LORD,
And great shall be the peace of your children.
In righteousness you shall be established;
You shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
And from terror, for it shall not come near you. (Isaiah 54, 13-14)
God justifies us by reckoning to us the righteousness of Jesus. He does this through the Word. This is not a kerygmatic Word in contradistinction to a didactic Word. God’s Word knows of no such distinction. It is the full counsel of God! As St. Paul writes,
For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20, 27-28)
Whether preaching or teaching it is God giving to us the heavenly treasures that we receive through faith. Proclamation is doctrine. There is no preaching that is not teaching. There is no core gospel kerygma disconnected from the full didache. There is God teaching his children and by the heavenly teaching drawing them to himself, forgiving them all their sins, imputing to them the righteousness of his dear Son, and giving them eternal life.
When doctrine rules, God is in charge. When method rules, man is in charge. When justification is the central article, doctrine rules and God is in charge. When evangelism becomes the central article, method rules, and man is in charge. Justification by faith alone is hidden. Justification is hidden. Faith is hidden. The goal of the gospel is hidden. We live in darkness enlightened only by God’s Word.
Doing evangelism is tangible and measurable. We can place ourselves over the activities pertaining to it to see it and examine it and to ascertain whether or not what is supposed to happen is happening. Then we can reconsider what we have been doing by considering what works and what doesn’t. We are in charge.
Thus faith lords it over the Word. In all forms of gospel reductionism, faith lords it over the Word. Even Lutherans who confess the efficacy of the means of grace and oppose what they would call “decision theology” are eager to embrace the gospel reductionism inherent in it. They want to set up the moment, the event. It must have certain ingredients – sufficient gospel content – to bring about an authentic encounter. We witness. We share. Properly containing the gospel within its effective core so that it can be shared, passed on, witnessed to, or gotten out is an exercise of gospel reductionism. The gospel is made manageable.
The law is truncated as well. The love God requires of us is good, holy, righteous, and undoable. It is undoable and yet we are obliged to do it. We are never in control of the law. Instead, he hounds us, accuses us, condemns us, and shows us how right he is and how wrong we are, leaving us helpless.
When evangelism replaces justification as the central article the divine law of love is replaced by a new and more manageable law of witnessing. We can show you how to do that. Here is the method. Follow it. We are in charge. Faith is in charge over God’s Word. Here is what faith encounters and here is what it sets before the other to encounter. When witnessing replaces justification as the central truth of the faith, faith is in charge over the Word.
But faith cannot be in charge and remain faith. When faith lords it over the Word it loses its very essence.
We are not witnesses. You weren’t there when they crucified my Lord. Those who saw it were witness of it. Those who did not see it proclaim the testimony of those who did. We don’t share the gospel. By its very nature, the gospel is doctrine. Doctrine isn’t shared. It is taught. And it is by means of the divine teaching that faith is born, sustained, and strengthened.
Instead of setting up critical events, Lutherans talk theology. The high school student argues with his biology teacher about the origin of the human race. The worker at the local plant points to God creating Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve as reason why homosexual marriage is absurd and ought not to be considered. Parents won’t let their children work at jobs or participate in any sport that would require them to miss church because Christians go to church. The college student insists that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven when visiting with classmates about the latest religious enthusiasm on campus. The homemaker at the monthly book club meeting expresses her Christian convictions on a variety of topics that are raised in the books under discussion. There are no critical events. There is no managed encounter. There is the spontaneous confessing of the divine truth whenever and wherever opportunity permits.
Confessing the faith does not always entail talking specifically about Jesus or his vicarious obedience and death and the justification of the sinner through faith alone. But it’s not as if the Christian confession ceases to be the Christian confession when it is not articulating the gospel. The gospel in the narrow sense is wrapped up in the whole counsel of God when it is preached and when it is confessed. And confession, unlike preaching, is spontaneous, unrehearsed, and almost always reactionary, that is, it reacts to the circumstance. It isn’t in control. Just as faith doesn’t lord it over the Word, picking and choosing what matters and what doesn’t, just so the Christian confession confesses whatever it is given to confess whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Talking about Jesus and his suffering and death for sinners is as natural to us Christians as breathing. Give us the opening and we’ll confess. It may well be that God will graciously bring about critical events in which we will participate. It will be where and when he pleases. He will be in charge. We most likely won’t know that it has happened, but every once in a while we learn something wonderful about what God did when it appeared to us that he was doing nothing at all.
God gives and his Christians receive. The lifelong commitment of the Christian to Christ and to his Word is formed by what the Christian receives from Christ through faith. Luther’s wonderful illustration of what happens when we participate in the Lord’s Supper is apt:
To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men. (LW 37 101)
Faith as pure receptivity doesn’t look for faith’s dimensions in faith. As far as the strength of faith is concerned, it is entirely in what faith receives, for in receiving Christ faith receives as well the Spirit of Christ who is the Lord and giver of all spiritual life. As far as the fruit of faith is concerned, it is not to be seen in the manufacturing of critical events but rather in the life of love to which God calls us.
The goodness of this life cannot be quantified. It isn’t measured by reasonable standards. Reason cannot apprehend it. Only faith can because this life of love is hidden in Christ. There are no rules but the law of love. Our love is lacking on account of the sin within that corrupts every good deed to make it a sin. We cannot escape this bitter truth. It condemns us. Every holy decision we make is laden with sin. Indeed, even our most righteous acts are like the waste expelled by the body. They cannot help us.
This is why we cling to Christ and to his word. Receiving is, by definition, passive. Faith as receptivity is passive. But it is precisely in its passivity that faith becomes a power from which we can do all things. When we are the weakest, the most sinful, the most unworthy, fit not to give but only to receive the forgiveness of sins graciously bestowed by God in the Gospel and sacraments of Christ, we do receive it and in this purely passive reception of faith true love is born.
It is a lifetime commitment to Jesus and his Word. The faith that is purely receptive guards and keeps what it receives. God gave it to me and I’ll not let it go. I didn’t make it mine. If I did, I might not have the right to claim it as my own. God himself gave it to me and should I doubt it I’ll go to where he gave it to me and claim what is mine.
Our commitment to Christ and his Word is animated by our need for mercy and our confidence that the voice of Jesus provides it. Since faith lives alone by mercy and mercy is given only in the Word of God faith returns again and again to its source in God’s Word and sacraments.
The lifetime commitment to Jesus and his Word entails innumerable decisions. They blur into each other by sheer repetition. Decisions to do what is good are marred by doing what is bad. No human decision – even if aided by grace – can provide the true foundation for a confident Christian life. Only God’s decision can. He has decided, in Christ, in his obedient living, in his sacrificial dying, and in his triumphant resurrection from the dead to forgive us all our sins, and to give to us this forgiveness, here and now where we live, in the gospel we hear and in the sacraments we receive. This is the true Lutheran decision theology. God’s decision stands.
God’s gracious decision for us in Christ remains the unshakable foundation for every good thought we will think, every kind word we will speak, and every loving deed we will do. Our lives are wrapped up in that divine decision. A lifelong commitment to Jesus and his Word is built upon God’s choice, not ours. God does not lie or deceive. He remains faithful because he cannot deny himself. So we bind ourselves to his promises. We bind him to his promises. The Canaanite woman whose daughter was suffering from demon possession and sought mercy from Jesus entrapped Jesus in his own words when she was willing to be a little dog if it would bring her the crumbs of God’s grace. This is what God wants us to do. God wants us to entrap him in his own words. He lets himself be caught so that our faith and our lives might rely, not on the power of men, but on the Spirit of God.