I was recently asked this most reasonable and logical question regarding our “decision” to become a Christian, in the comments section of a previous essay (In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments): Don’t we decide to accept the gift of salvation, or at least decide not to reject it? I’m compelled to respond because, for years, it was also my question. Well, sure, the thought goes, we don’t do the work of salvation – the dying on the cross, or works to atone for specific sins. It would surely follow, however, that if Jesus wants to give us a gift (forgiveness), we would have to decide either to accept or reject it.
The bottom line is this: Is there any part of my salvation that is left to me to do? I generally sum up this question by asking another – Who does the verbs? If there is something left for me to do to complete God’s saving work (synergism), then I must be sure to complete my or I won’t be saved. If God does everything and leaves nothing to me (monergism), then God is the one responsible for my salvation from beginning to end. If that is the case, then I can have a solid assurance that it is finished and my salvation is secure (as secure as God’s promise, anyway). If, however, even the smallest part of my salvation is contingent upon something I must do, then in reality it is entirely dependent upon me and what I must do. Decision Theology, which portrays man’s decision to accept Christ as the work man does to complete God’s work of salvation, relegates Jesus to the role of a partner.
The Bible teaches that the work of salvation is monergistic, that is, it is God’s work from beginning to end. He converts us. He gives us repentance and faith. He keeps us in that faith. This is a hard pill to swallow for all people, but especially for the independent-minded American. Scripture, however, cannot be denied. What Luther wrote on a scrap of paper while lying on his death bed is surely true: Wir sind alle Bettler. Hoc est verum.
How does God complete this work? He doesn’t simply zap us with lightning bolts. He comes to us through means. Jesus is delivered to us through the external world, whether by reading, preaching, or the Sacraments, which are the word coupled with a physical element (bread, wine, water). The Holy Spirit then works faith in a person when and where He wills it. Repentance? This is also a gift given by God, and not something we do of our own will. This was the understanding St. Peter and those to whom he reported the conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 11 had:
“If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:17-18).
God converted those Gentiles through the word preached to them by Peter. God demonstrates this by granting them the gift of speaking in tongues, the same gift given to the Apostles. When Peter recounts all this to “those of the circumcision,” their conclusion is that God granted those Gentiles repentance. Or, said another way, God “repented” them.
Similarly, St. Paul also thought that repentance was a gift given to men, rather than a work to be performed:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Paul instructs Timothy in the way he, the Lord’s servant, must act when teaching and dealing with others, especially his opponents. He is to be patient and kind, correcting error with gentleness. To what end? That he may reason his opponents into the faith using carefully crafted and rhetorically complex arguments? That they would, through an act of their will, intellectually agree with and voluntarily accept his teaching? No. Timothy is to deliver the word, as Paul describes elsewhere, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2) and God, the actor in terms of salvation, may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. The Book of Concord (FCSD II 89), quoting Luther sums all this up nicely:
Luther says about conversion that a person is purely passive. This means a person does nothing at all toward conversion, but only undergoes what God works in him. Luther does not mean that conversion takes place without the preaching or hearing of God’s Word. Nor does he mean that in conversion no new emotion whatever is awakened in us by the Holy Spirit and no spiritual operation begun. But he means that a person by himself, or from his natural powers cannot do anything or help toward his conversion. Conversion is not only in part, but totally an act, gift, present, and work of the Holy Spirit alone. He accomplishes and does it by his power and might, through the Word, in a person’s intellect, will, and heart, “while the person does or works nothing, but only undergoes it.” It is not like a figure cut into stone, or a seal pressed into wax, which knows nothing about it, which neither sees him nor wills it. Rather it happens the way that has just been described and explained (McCain, et al. 2005).
Consider the example of the shepherd which Jesus uses in his Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. The shepherd and his interaction with his sheep can offer us insight into man’s role in his own conversion and repentance.
So He spoke this parable to them [Pharisees] saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons [upright persons] who need no repentance” (Luke 15:3-7).
Jesus, in the parable, describes repentance as being found by the Good Shepherd and carried back to the sheep-fold by him. The sheep can take no action on his own, he is lost. He can only “be found” and rescued by the shepherd. Dr. Ken Bailey, author of “Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15,” explained in an Issues ETC interview that Jesus here means to impure the “Shepherds of Israel” for losing their sheep (Bailey 2015). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had to come and do what they would not. He finds the sheep and carries it back on his shoulders. He “repents” it. This idea is not novel but, suggests Dr. Bailey; it is shown to us also in Psalm 23:
The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:1-3).
This most famous and beloved of the Psalms describes the interaction of the Good Shepherd and his sheep. Again, God is doing the verbs – He makes me lie down; He leads me; He restores. The key word in this passage, however, is “restores.” I always got the image of a person weakened by hunger or thirst, who was restored to vigor again after being fed or given drink, when I read this in the past. Dr. Bailey, however, points out that the word translated “restore” is the Hebrew word Shuwb (pronounced “Shoob”) which means “to turn back,” or repent (Bailey 2015). He (God) repents, or turns back, my soul.
I disagree with Dr. Bailey’s choice of working when, at one point in the interview responding to a similar question to the topic of this essay, he says, “You make a decision to accept to be found” (Bailey 2015). We Lutherans don’t like the word “accept” because it smells of decision theology. The problem is that we are limited to nouns and verbs when attempting to express these ideas using language. On this side of eternity, we will not ever express it adequately.
Decision theology, as stated before, views man’s decision to accept Christ, to give him your heart, to make him lord of your life etc., as the completion of God’s salvation work. God’s work of salvation, to the contrary, is already finished. Or, in terms of the parable, the sheep is helpless to return to the fold of his own accord and the Shepherd retrieves him. The sheep “accepts” the rescue performed by the Shepherd. This act of acceptance, which is really not an act, but rather the sheep’s passive acceptance of an action done to it, does not complete the Shepherd’s rescue. Every part of conversion and repentance is effected upon us by God of his grace, through means of the external word, done by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Bailey, Dr. Ken, interview by Rev. Todd Wilken. Jesus, the Good Shepherd (May 7, 2015).
McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
 When Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546, a scrap of paper was found in his pocket with his final seven words, a mix of Latin and German. Wir sind alle Bettler. Hoc est verum —“We are all beggars. This is true.”