Associate Editor’s note: this is the first of what will hopefully be many posts by Joseph Klotz. He’s the author of the forthcoming “Lutheran Book of Hours”, a talented musician, and a solid Lutheran layman (St. Paul, Brookfield, IL). He’s also bought me a lot of beer and I don’t want him to regret agreeing to write for us, so extend him a warm welcome and be nice!
When I was a little kid, I found the pocket-sized New Testament that my father received from a Gideon when he was drafted. I used to carry this King James New Testament around with me and read it constantly, even though I found the language to be awkward and had difficulty understanding a lot of it. That was the first Bible that was really “mine.” I had other Bibles, but they sat on the shelf. This pocket New Testament went with me everywhere. It fascinated me that I was reading that particular New Testament because a Gideon gave it to my father in 1965.
My next encounter with the Gideons was when I was in college at Murray State University. They did a “blitz” on campus. One day in the fall of 1995 the Gideons took up their posts on campus and began handing out their green PWT’s (personal worker testaments). There were several students, friends of mine among them, who made a game out of collecting as many of the pocket-sized books as possible. By the end of the day, there were dozens of the testaments strewn about the lobby of the Fine Arts Building (which is where I spent most of my time). While walking across campus I spotted many more in trash cans. This didn’t sit well with me so I began rescuing the New Testaments. I also began to look at the men who gave up their free time to pass out New Testaments and endure ridicule from college students with more respect. It was at that time that I thought I would like to be a Gideon one day.
It just seemed, however, that I could never connect with them. Either I couldn’t find an active chapter, or I didn’t meet the membership requirements. The one time I did manage to get in touch with someone, our meeting ended up getting cancelled and never rescheduled. Then one day my cousin introduced me to a friend of his who attended The Moody Church. He just happened to be a Gideon. Long story short – he was my “in.” I was finally a Gideon and would get to go out and put God’s Word into people’s hands.
After attending the meetings for a while, though, I knew that I couldn’t stay. Despite their claims of being a non-sectarian para-church organization, the nature of the organization lends itself to certain idiosyncrasies of American Evangelicalism which are, at best, suspect. Among the issues I ran into were Pelagianism, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and the idea that people are converted by your testimony rather than by God working through means as he has promised (the means of grace – Word and Sacrament).
At camp meetings, there were a lot of heart-wrenching stories of how this-or-that person’s life was changed for the better after they received their PWT. It was also sobering to hear the accounts of Gideons in other, more hostile parts of the world, enduring great hardship in order to get Bibles and New Testaments into the hands of Christians who desperately needed them.
What we never really seemed to talk about was Jesus. Well, Jesus was mentioned a lot. We just never seemed to talk about His death and resurrection as our atoning sacrifice, repentance, or the forgiveness of sin. We certainly never talked about our need for those things. I heard people discuss how they had been terrible sinners before their conversion, but that was the end of the talk of sin. After all, we were already Christians. Now that we were saved, it was our job to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, right? To many in the organization, I’m afraid, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” translated to, “Live your best life now.” Knowing what is in my heart, however, I also recognized my need to repent and receive forgiveness for my sin constantly. It didn’t take long for the tension level to rise.
Jesus was there, to be sure, but he wasn’t the focus – D.L. Moody was. The important thing was the presentation – how being a Christian will make your life better, how to package this message in the most effective way to reach the unchurched. That may sound strange, but it was my experience.
After one particular fundraising luncheon last year, I knew that I couldn’t remain. The function involved a number of rather peculiar “pastors” who seemed to me like second-rate, charismatic, prosperity-preaching, TBN rejects. I decided (no pun intended) that I just couldn’t stick around any longer. This is the letter I wrote to my Camp Leader (the names have been removed):
February 28, 2015
Greetings to you in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! I hope this card finds you well, I am writing in response to your previous message regarding my membership renewal in the Gideons. After much thought I have decided that I will not be renewing my membership. This is not a decision I have made lightly, and I continue to admire my brothers in Christ who continue doing the work of the Gideons. There is, however, a difference in theology between the organization and myself which causes me too much cognitive dissonance for me to ignore any longer.
As you are well aware, our pocket sized New Testaments contain a decision page on the back cover, with a space for a person’s signature and date for the purpose of recording when that person made their decision to accept Christ. This indicates to me that, while the Gideons International intends to be an organization which is pan-denominational, it maintains a definite theological stance regarding conversion, free will, and grace. This stance is in direct opposition to that which I have learned from Holy Scripture.
Scripture teaches that man cannot, by his own reason or strength, come to our Lord Jesus Christ, or believe in him. Conversion, faith, and even the “drawing” of man to Christ are all God’s acts, which man is powerless to initiate or complete. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-2).
The unregenerate man is spiritually dead. He is as powerless to make himself spiritually alive as a corpse is to raise itself from the dead. Indeed, the restorative action comes from outside of man – from God – who makes the unregenerate alive in Christ. This undeserved mercy is the grace to which St. Paul refers:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgression – it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Paul continues, emphasizing that we are saved by the unearned, undeserved favor of God toward us (Grace) through faith in Jesus.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by work, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).
St. Paul says that we are God’s handiwork. He granted us the repentance and faith, through His Word by the power of His Spirit, which made us alive when we were dead in our transgressions. Even the good works which we are called to do as regenerate Christians, St. Paul says that God has prepared for us. We play no part in our conversion, aside from simply being the person God converts. Consequently, far from making a decision for Christ, Christ made a decision for us:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
God provides the gifts Jesus won for us on the cross through the means of his Word and Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If it were left up to our own decision and act of our will, there would be no hope for conversion. The mind of the unregenerate man is incapable of making such a decision:
The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, or can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6-8).
Indeed, St. Paul was right when he wrote, “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” Therefore, before anyone decided to sign the back of their PWT and to accept Jesus, he had already been converted by the Spirit’s power through the means of the preached Word. It isn’t until after a man’s conversion that he has free will, and is able to act according to God’s will.
The problem with the idea of decision theology such as that which is promoted by the Gideons International is that it puts the decision in man’s hands rather than God’s. It gives people the false idea that their own work of making that decision is what saved them, rather than Christ’s holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.
We are certainly called to proclaim the Gospel. Men, however, are not converted from unbelief – they are not raised to newness of life in Christ Jesus – by some clever apologetic we might make, or by some heart-wrenching emotional experience which they will constantly seek to replicate in order to confirm their justification before God. God’s gift of salvation doesn’t depend on our work, but on God’s grace from beginning to end. The work was accomplished for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, while mankind was still His enemy; it is given to us by the grace of God through faith in Christ. That gift of faith is given to us also by God through his means of Word and Sacrament.
I shall maintain a warm place in my heart for the Gideons in general, and my fellows from my former camp in particular, especially you. I love you all as brothers in Christ. I continue to admire you for bringing God’s word – his means of grace – to the lost. I cannot, however, continue to be a member of the Gideons International, while it promotes the pelagian heresy that is decision theology.
Brother: If you would like to discuss this further, and in person, I would be open to meeting you at your convenience. I wish you and all the brothers, and their families, God’s richest blessings in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
For all their theological faults, the one redeeming characteristic of the organization is the thing for which they are best known – handing out Bibles and New Testaments. In the end the Gideons, at least the ones I met, all believed that the Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God. And, while I can’t associate myself with them because of their doctrinal error, I pray that God will continue to use the scriptures they disseminate to regenerate people who are dead in their trespasses and sins.