Conversion and Repentance

lucas-cranach-the-elder-the-good-shepherdI 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[1].

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.

Works Cited

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.


End Notes

[1] 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.”


Conversion and Repentance — 6 Comments

  1. Framing the question simply in terms of “who does the verbs” makes me wonder:
    Which verbs, exactly?

    In my conversion, God enabled me to turn from sin and follow Jesus.
    — God called and enabled. Those are His “verbs”. (Romans 8:30, 1 Cor. 12:3)
    — I turned and followed, trusting in Jesus alone. Those are my “verbs”. (John 1:12)
    — To God be the glory and spread the good news! Those are the church’s “verbs”. (1 Peter 2:9)

  2. I recently heard ad nauseam, during a week of VBS, the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” As I listened to the words over and over I tried to think, “Is the meaning of this song really alright?”

    Contrast the words of that song to these words of Jesus:

    “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” John 17

  3. 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.

    Here is my attempt to rewrite using the blunt intrument of words:

    The sheep acquiesces to the rescue performed by the Shepherd. The sheep is not unaware of and acknowledges an action done to it, but knows it had nothing whatever to do with completing the Shepherd’s rescue; only now there is an awareness of the change in scenery which is sensed, unlike a figure cut into stone, or a seal pressed into wax, and is not denied.

  4. Dear Mr. Klotz: thank you for a wonderful, clear exposition of the Gospel of our Salvation.
    The reason why many people cannot accept that God does and has done everything necessary for our salvation is that they do not understand that, Scripturally speaking, our salvation is a mirror image of our Fall. What did we do to become sinners? Absolutely nothing! We were born that way without our will being involved at all. And so it is fitting, nay it is the only way possible, that our salvation is accomplished in the same way. So writes Luther in the explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, and so does St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:21, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
    We might also note that Scripture tells us of a number of covenants God made with various people. Some, like the Mosaic Covenant, were two-sided. In other words, “if you do this, then I will do this.” But the covenant God made with Abraham, and the New Covenant in the blood of our Savior are one-sided. In other words, God is the only one Who takes on an obligation. In the case of Abraham, God caused Abraham to go to sleep during the ceremony of the adoption of their covenant (Genesis 15:12-21) so that God alone passed through the smoke of the offering. In the case of the New Covenant, God caused His prophet Jeremiah to write Jeremiah 31:31–34:
    31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
    with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
    32 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
    when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
    because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
    declares the Lord.
    33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
    “I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
    I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
    34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
    because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
    declares the Lord.
    “For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  5. Over the years, I’ve found this particular article very helpful in explaining monergism:

    The highlight:

    [If a person is saved, it is entirely the work of God.
    If a person is not saved, it is entirely the fault of the person.

    But someone will protest: “That doesn’t make sense!” To which we respond, “That’s right, it doesn’t make sense—at least not to us. But then, it doesn’t have to make sense to us to be true”]

    Any attempts to explain beyond these scripturally-supported statements are errors and involve something “in/of man” in conversion.

    Put another way, Lutherans believe we are truly saved by Grace Alone.

  6. @Carl H #1

    Hi Carl,
    Here I must delineate a bit. I would say God’s calling and enabling are, in totale, your conversion and justification. Your “turning, following, and trusting” are as a RESULT of your conversion, not part of it.

    Put another way, before your conversion, you were a corpse. God resurrected you. Now you can respond. But you did nothing to resurrect yourself. Important distinction.

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