A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: Free Will

II. Free Will.

The Principal Question in This Controversy.

1] Since the will of man is found in four unlike states, namely: 1. before the Fall; 2. since the Fall; 3. after regeneration; 4. after the resurrection of the body, the chief question is only concerning the will and ability of man in the second state, namely, what powers in spiritual things he has of himself after the fall of our first parents and before regeneration, and whether he is able by his own powers, prior to and before his regeneration by God’s Spirit, to dispose and prepare himself for God’s grace, and to accept [and apprehend], or not, the grace offered through the Holy Ghost in the Word and holy [divinely instituted] Sacraments.

It should be understood that the will being discussed here is the will with respect to decisions related to the divine. There is no debate about the freedom of the temporal will to choose temporal things. Instead the question at hand is what is the role of the will with respect to God.

Traditionally theologians have divided the discussion of the will into four different states:

  1. Prior to the Fall
  2. After the Fall but before conversion.
  3. After conversion but before death.
  4. After death and the resurrection

In this article we are not dealing with states one, three, or four.  Rather we are dealing with number 2, what is the state of man before conversion but after the Fall. Most specifically we are dealing with what is the role of man’s will in conversion. After all in state one, the will is good and free. In state three the regenerate good will is bound toward God, but the evil will remains until death. In state four the human will is bound purely toward God and is good. So with respect to the second state, what are the powers and state of the will. Can it choose God in anyway?

This article specifically is written to refute the Philipists who said that there were three effective means to conversion (1) the Holy Spirit, (2) God’s Word, and (3) a person’s nonresisting will. This article was also prescient as it refutes the common heresy today of Arminianism, otherwise known as decision theology. Thus this article will go on, predicated on the previous discussion of Original Sin, to discuss what is the state of man’s will after the Fall and does it participate at all in conversion.

Affirmative Theses.
The Pure Doctrine concerning This Article, according to God’s Word.

2] 1. Concerning this subject, our doctrine, faith, and confession is, that in spiritual things the understanding and reason of man are [altogether] blind, and by their own powers understand nothing, as it is written 1 Cor. 2:14: The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them when he is examined concerning spiritual things.

First of all mankind is blind and can understand nothing of God, as the Scriptures testify (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). This is a result of the corruption of Original Sin. We are dead spiritually and do not discern or participate in divine things.

The Solid Declaration says it like this:

7] Namely, that in spiritual and divine things the intellect, heart, and will of the unregenerate man are utterly unable, by their own natural powers, to understand, believe, accept, think, will, begin, effect, do, work, or concur in working anything, but they are entirely dead to what is good, and corrupt, so that in man’s nature since the Fall, before regeneration, there is not the least spark of spiritual power remaining, nor present, by which, of himself, he can prepare himself for God’s grace, or accept the offered grace, nor be capable of it for and of himself, or apply or accommodate himself thereto, or by his own powers be able of himself, as of himself, to aid, do, work, or concur in working anything towards his conversion, either wholly, or half, or in any, even the least or most inconsiderable part; but that he is the servant [and slave] of sin, John 8:34, and a captive of the devil, by whom he is moved, Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26. Hence the natural free will according to its perverted disposition and nature is strong and active only with respect to what is displeasing and contrary to God.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article II 7

So far the Solid Declaration. The Epitome continues:

3] 2. Likewise we believe, teach, and confess that the unregenerate will of man is not only turned away from God, but also has become an enemy of God, so that it only has an inclination and desire for that which is evil and contrary to God, as it is written Gen. 8:21: The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Also Rom. 8:7: The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither, indeed, can be. Yea, as little as a dead body can quicken itself to bodily, earthly life, so little can man, who by sin is spiritually dead, raise himself to spiritual life, as it is written Eph. 2:5: Even when we were dead in sins, He hath quickened us together with Christ; 2 Cor. 3:5: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything good as of ourselves, but that we are sufficient is of God.

However it is even worse than us being blind.  We are actively hostile to God. Our flesh is at war with Him.

We are dead in the spirit. Just like how a dead body cannot raise itself, we also cannot enliven our dead spirits. Our death though is not just a passive state, it is also an active resisting of God. So to put it in more modern parlance it is as if we are undead, dead beings who only mimic being alive but yet are abominations against all that is good and holy.

4] 3. God the Holy Ghost, however, does not effect conversion without means, but uses for this purpose the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written Rom. 1:16: The Gospel is the power of God 5] unto salvation to every one that believeth. Also Rom. 10:17: Faith cometh by hearing of the Word of God. And it is God’s will that His Word should be heard, and that man’s ears should not be closed. Ps. 95:8. With this Word the Holy Ghost is present, and opens hearts, so that they, as Lydia in Acts 16:14, are attentive to it, and are thus converted alone through the grace and power of the Holy Ghost, whose 6] work alone the conversion of man is. For without His grace, and if He do not grant the increase, our willing and running, our planting, sowing, and watering, all are nothing, as Christ says John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing. With these brief words He denies to the free will its powers, and ascribes everything to God’s grace, in order that no one may boast before God. 1 Cor. 1:29; 2 Cor. 12:5; Jer. 9:23.

Conversion is brought about by the Holy Spirit through means.  The means are the preaching, hearing, and application of God’s Word. The Word of God opens and revives people’s hearts as with Lydia and the Ethiopia Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40, 16:11-15).

It is God the Holy Spirit alone who converts.  Nothing that humans do grants faith, apart from what the Holy Spirit has given and uses. The gifts the Spirit has given us are the words of Holy Scripture. With these words the Holy Spirit denies all powers and abilities to man to convert but rather gives all glory to God.

The Solid Declaration puts it this way:

54] Through this means, namely, the preaching and hearing of His Word, God works, and breaks our hearts, and draws man, so that through the preaching of the Law he comes to know his sins and God’s wrath, and experiences in his heart true terrors, contrition, and sorrow, and through the preaching and consideration of the holy Gospel concerning the gracious forgiveness of sins in Christ a spark of faith is kindled in him, which accepts the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and comforts itself with the promise of the Gospel, and thus the Holy Ghost (who works all this) is sent into the heart, Gal. 4:6.

55] Now, although both, the planting and watering of the preacher, and the running and willing of the hearer, would be in vain, and no conversion would follow it if the power and efficacy of the Holy Ghost were not added thereto, who enlightens and converts the hearts through the Word preached and heard, so that men believe this Word and assent thereto, still, neither preacher nor hearer is to doubt this grace and efficacy of the Holy Ghost, but should be certain that when the Word of God is preached purely and truly, according to the command and will of God, and men listen attentively and earnestly and meditate upon it, God is certainly present with His grace, and grants, as has been said, what otherwise man can neither accept nor give from his own powers. 56] For concerning the presence, operation, and gifts of the Holy Ghost we should not and cannot always judge ex sensu [from feeling], as to how and when they are experienced in the heart; but because they are often covered and occur in great weakness, we should be certain from, and according to, the promise, that the Word of God preached and heard is [truly] an office and work of the Holy Ghost, by which He is certainly efficacious and works in our hearts, 2 Cor. 2:14ff; 3:5ff.

57] But if a man will not hear preaching nor read God’s Word, but despises the Word and congregation of God, and thus dies and perishes in his sins, he neither can comfort himself with God’s eternal election nor obtain His mercy; for Christ, in whom we are chosen, offers to all men His grace in the Word and holy Sacraments, and wishes earnestly that it be heard, and has promised that where two or three are gathered together in His name and are occupied with His holy Word, He will be in their midst.

58] But when such a person despises the instrument of the Holy Ghost, and will not hear, no injustice is done to him if the Holy Ghost does not enlighten him, but allows him to remain in the darkness of his unbelief and to perish; for regarding this matter it is written: How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings; and ye would not! Matt. 23:37.

59] And in this respect it may well be said that man is not a stone or block. For a stone or block does not resist the person who moves it, nor does it understand and is sensible of what is being done with it, as man with his will so long resists God the Lord until he is [has been] converted. And it is nevertheless true that man before his conversion is still a rational creature, having an understanding and will, however, not an understanding with respect to divine things, or a will to will something good and salutary. Yet he can do nothing whatever towards his conversion (as has also been said [frequently] above), and is in this respect much worse than a stone and block; for he resists the Word and will of God, until God awakens him from the death of sin, enlightens and renews him.

60] And although God does not force man to become godly (for those who always resist the Holy Ghost and persistently oppose the known truth, as Stephen says of the hardened Jews, Acts 7:51, are not converted), yet God the Lord draws the man whom He wishes [decreed] to convert, and draws him in such a way that his darkened understanding is turned into an enlightened one and his perverse will into an obedient one. And this [just this] is what the Scriptures call creating a new heart, Ps. 51:10.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article II 54-60

So far the Solid Declaration. The Epitome continues:

Negative Theses.
Contrary False Doctrine.

7] Accordingly, we reject and condemn all the following errors as contrary to the standard of God’s Word:

8] 1. The delirium [insane dogma] of philosophers who are called Stoics, as also of the Manicheans, who taught that everything that happens must so happen, and cannot happen otherwise, and that everything that man does, even in outward things, he does by compulsion, and that he is coerced to evil works and deeds, as inchastity, robbery, murder, theft, and the like.

First we reject the Stoics, Manichaeans, and anyone who espouses concepts of fate, destiny, or determinism.  While God does guide all things, we are still able to make choices.  It is our own fault that we sin, not God’s or some impersonal force such as fate, destiny, or the bare forces of physics.  All the evil we do is of our own will.  Now our will is certainly corrupt and broken due to sin, but it is still our will.

9] 2. We reject also the error of the gross Pelagians, who taught that man by his own powers, without the grace of the Holy Ghost, can turn himself to God, believe the Gospel, be obedient from the heart to God’s Law, and thus merit the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

10] 3. We reject also the error of the Semi-Pelagians, who teach that man by his own powers can make a beginning of his conversion, but without the grace of the Holy Ghost cannot complete it.

11] 4. Also, when it is taught that, although man by his free will before regeneration is too weak to make a beginning, and by his own powers to turn himself to God, and from the heart to be obedient to God, yet, if the Holy Ghost by the preaching of the Word has made a beginning, and therein offered His grace, then the will of man from its own natural powers can add something, though little and feebly, to this end, can help and cooperate, qualify and prepare itself for grace, and embrace and accept it, and believe the Gospel.

We fully reject any and all versions of Plegianism or synergism.  A person is not able to begin or contribute anything to salvation.  This fully condemns the Arminians, Methodism, and many other sects of Christianity.

12] 5. Also, that man, after he has been born again, can perfectly observe and completely fulfil God’s Law, and that this fulfilling is our righteousness before God, by which we merit eternal life.

Here we condemn the idea that one can become sinless after conversion as the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Nazerenes, and Methodists confess.  While our good works do grow in the regenerate man (else he would not be regenerate), we still sin.  We also reject that doing these things will help or aid in obtaining eternal life.

13] 6. Also, we reject and condemn the error of the Enthusiasts, who imagine that God without means, without the hearing of God’s Word, also without the use of the holy Sacraments, draws men to Himself, and enlightens, justifies, and saves them. (Enthusiasts we call those who expect the heavenly illumination of the Spirit [celestial revelations] without the preaching of God’s Word.)

We also condemn the enthusiasts who think that God comes without means but immediately.  God uses means to come to us and bring us to faith. We need not hunt for any other revelation than what the Lord has given us in Scripture. For a full condemnation by Luther see Smalcald Articles Part III Article VIII.

14] 7. Also, that in conversion and regeneration God entirely exterminates the substance and essence of the old Adam, and especially the rational soul, and in conversion and regeneration creates a new essence of the soul out of nothing.

We also reject the idea that in conversion the entire old man is obliterated and a new soul and essence are created from nothing.  God converts and regenerates our dead will back to life.  Thus we remain and stay us.

15] 8. Also, when the following expressions are employed without explanation, namely, that the will of man before, in, and after conversion resists the Holy Ghost, and that the Holy Ghost is given to those who resist Him intentionally and persistently; for, as Augustine says, in conversion God makes willing persons out of the unwilling and dwells in the willing.

16] As to the expressions of ancient and modern teachers of the Church, when it is said: Deus trahit, sed volentem trahit, i. e., God draws, but He draws the willing; likewise, Hominis voluntas in conversione non est otiosa, sed agit aliquid, i. e., In conversion the will of man is not idle, but also effects something, we maintain that, inasmuch as these expressions have been introduced for confirming [the false opinion concerning] the powers of the natural free will in man’s conversion, against the doctrine of God’s grace, they do not conform to the form of sound doctrine, and therefore, when we speak of conversion to God, justly ought to be avoided.

17] But, on the other hand, it is correctly said that in conversion God, through the drawing of the Holy Ghost, makes out of stubborn and unwilling men willing ones, and that after such conversion in the daily exercise of repentance the regenerate will of man is not idle, but also cooperates in all the works of the Holy Ghost, which He performs through us.

18] 9. Also what Dr. Luther has written, namely, that man’s will in his conversion is pure passive, that is, that it does nothing whatever, is to be understood respectu divinae gratiae in accendendis novis motibus, that is, when God’s Spirit, through the Word heard or the use of the holy Sacraments, lays hold upon man’s will, and works [in man] the new birth and conversion. For when [after] the Holy Ghost has wrought and accomplished this, and man’s will has been changed and renewed by His divine power and working alone, then the new will of man is an instrument and organ of God the Holy Ghost, so that he not only accepts grace, but also cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the works which follow.

19] Therefore, before the conversion of man there are only two efficient causes, namely, the Holy Ghost and the Word of God, as the instrument of the Holy Ghost, by which He works conversion. This Word man is [indeed] to hear; however, it is not by his own powers, but only through the grace and working of the Holy Ghost that he can yield faith to it and accept it.

God does not coerce us to believe, but converts us.  The will is in fact the object of conversion.  He changes our will from a dead will hostile to Himself to a living will conformed to Him.  It is not our decision that converts but rather our ability to say yes comes after conversion.  Hence the quote from Augustine.

The other quotes come from Chrysostom and Basil according to the Solid Declaration.  They should be rejected as being contrary to true doctrine.  They could in theory be explained properly, but it is best to outright reject them.

All this is not to say that conversion does not making willing people.  It’s just that our willing does not save.  Rather our willing is a result of our new will, and we should have a regenerated will that does things, as the Solid Declaration says:

63] But when man has been converted, and is thus enlightened, and his will is renewed, it is then that man wills what is good (so far as he is regenerate or a new man), and delights in the Law of God after the inward man, Rom. 7:22, and henceforth does good to such an extent and as long as he is impelled by God’s Spirit, as Paul says, Rom. 8:14: For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 64] And this impulse of the Holy Ghost is not a coactio, or coercion, but the converted man does good spontaneously, as David says, Ps. 110:4: Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power. And nevertheless that also [the strife of the flesh and spirit] remains in the regenerate of which St. Paul wrote, Rom. 7:22f : For I delight in the Law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Also, v. 25: So, then, with my mind I myself serve the Law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. Also, Gal. 5:17: For the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

65] From this, then, it follows that as soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness. But this [that we cooperate] does not occur from our carnal natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun in us in conversion, 66] as St. Paul expressly and earnestly exhorts that as workers together with Him we receive not the grace of God in vain, 2 Cor. 6:1. But this is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God. But if this were understood thus [if any one would take the expression of St. Paul in this sense], that the converted man cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the manner as when two horses together draw a wagon, this could in no way be conceded without prejudice to the divine truth. (2 Cor. 6:1: Sunergou’te” parakalou’men: We who are servants or coworkers with God beseech you who are God’s husbandry and God’s building, 1 Cor. 3:9, to imitate our example, that the grace of God may not be among you in vain, 1 Cor. 15:10, but that ye may be the temple of God, living and dwelling in you, 2 Cor. 6:16.)

67] Therefore there is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized men. For since, according to the doctrine of St. Paul, Gal. 3:27, all who have been baptized have put on Christ, and thus are truly regenerate, they have now arbitrium liberatum (a liberated will), that is, as Christ says, they have been made free again, John 8:36; whence they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to assent to it and accept it, although in great weakness.

68] For since we receive in this life only the first-fruits of the Spirit, and the new birth is not complete, but only begun in us, the combat and struggle of the flesh against the spirit remains even in the elect and truly regenerate men; for there is a great difference perceptible among Christians not only in this, that one is weak and another strong in the spirit, but each Christian, moreover, experiences in himself that at one time he is joyful in spirit, and at another fearful and alarmed; at one time ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak.

69] But when the baptized have acted against their conscience, allowed sin to rule in them, and thus have grieved and lost the Holy Ghost in them, they need not be rebaptized, but must be converted again, as has been sufficiently said before.

70] For this is certainly true that in genuine conversion a change, new emotion [renewal], and movement in the intellect, will, and heart must take place, namely, that the heart perceive sin, dread God’s wrath, turn from sin, perceive and accept the promise of grace in Christ, have good spiritual thoughts, a Christian purpose and diligence, and strive against the flesh. For where none of these occurs or is present, there is also no true conversion. 71] But since the question is de causa efficiente (concerning the efficient cause), that is, who works this in us, and whence man has this, and how he attains it, this doctrine informs us that, since the natural powers of man cannot do anything or help towards it, 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5, God, out of His infinite goodness and mercy, comes first to us [precedes us], and causes His holy Gospel to be preached, whereby the Holy Ghost desires to work and accomplish in us this conversion and renewal, and through preaching and meditation upon His Word kindles in us faith and other godly virtues, so that they are gifts and operations of the Holy Ghost alone. 72] This doctrine, therefore, directs us to the means whereby the Holy Ghost desires to begin and work this [which we have mentioned], also instructs us how those gifts are preserved, strengthened, and increased, and admonishes us that we should not let this grace of God be bestowed on us in vain, but diligently exercise it [those gifts], and ponder how grievous a sin it is to hinder and resist such operations of the Holy Ghost.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article II 63-72

In the end there are only two efficient causes of conversion.  The Holy Spirit and God’s Word which is the means that the Holy Spirit has given (after all the Holy Spirit wrote the Word for us).  None of our powers contribute to our own conversion, not even our non-resisting will. Instead our will is the object to be converted, not the means of conversion.

1 Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
And make our hearts Your place of rest;
Come with Your grace and heav’nly aid,
And fill the hearts which You have made.

2 To You, the Counselor, we cry,
To You, the gift of God Most High;
The fount of life, the fire of love,
The soul’s anointing from above.

3 In You, with graces sevenfold,
We God’s almighty hand behold
While You with tongues of fire proclaim
To all the world His holy name.

4 Your light to ev’ry thought impart,
And shed Your love in ev’ry heart;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

5 Drive far away our wily foe,
And Your abiding peace bestow;
With You as our protecting guide,
No evil can with us abide.

6 Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And You, from both, as Three in One
That we Your name may ever bless
And in our lives the truth confess.

7 Praise we the Father and Son,
And Holy Spirit, with them One,
And may the Son on us bestow
The gifts that from the Spirit flow!

(LSB 498)

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