Luther and Decision Theology

 I wrote this paper while attending Luther Seminary in 1998.  My intention was to deal with the whole debate about "decision theology" and its place in Lutheran teaching and practice.  It is long and a bit dated, but I offer it here for those who are interested in how a Jesus-follower who admires and adheres to Martin Luther's teachings can talk about conversion and evangelism with integrity.

Luther and Decision Theology:

(A reflection on conversion and the active will in Luther
including implications for the Lutheran church today)

Jeff Krogstad

May 1998

Outline -- Luther and Decision Theology

Our Context and Issues of Conversion:
First Form / Second Form debate

Urgency regarding conversion:
Rebirth of pluralism in our time
Who is our audience?

Conversion and the Lutheran tradition
Theological views
Lutherans and conversion

Examination of Luther’s sermons on the Gospel of John
Ubiquity of the assumption of the active will
Question of acceptance / surrender - allegiance / choice
Cautionary word:  Keeping first things first

Phenomenological reflection on conversion
Cultural lusts for choice
Church’s recognition of need for choice in programming
Perception is reality

Implications for proclaiming the gospel
Toward a “translation” of Lutheran practice
Suitability of Lutheran theology for evangelism and conversion
Urgency of the task


            This paper has become more of an argument for a particular position than an academic exploration of Luther’s first order discourse, as I’d originally intended.  To be sure, I have dealt in some depth with Luther’s sermons and compared them with a couple of his theological works, notably Bondage of the Will.  But the evidence in Luther’s sermons was overwhelming.  The language of the hearer’s active will -- accepting and receiving Christ, imperatives to believe, even language of choice -- was everywhere in the sermons.  This fact prompted me to return to Bondage of the Will and rethink Luther’s argument and what exactly he means by “free choice.” 

Our Context and Issues of Conversion
            I recently heard a pastor say, “We have a prayer team at our congregation that prays with people after worship.  They’ll pray about people’s needs and concerns, things they’re joyful about or things that weigh on them.  It shouldn’t be that hard to offer people the chance to pray about their relationship with God, too.  Seems like we might have a few people that are concerned about that, or maybe even some people who want to become Christians.”
            “Why don’t you invite people to come and pray about that as well?” I asked.  “You could just include that along with the invitation to pray about their joys and concerns like you do at all the services.”
            The pastor looked away and shook his head.  “We don’t know how to talk that language.  Our prayer team doesn’t know what to do with it, and I’m not even that comfortable with it.  If somebody came up and wanted to give their life to Jesus, I’m not sure we’d know what to do!”

            Though this situation sounds tragic, it is not uncommon.  In fact, this congregation is probably more open and active in terms of a “relationship with God” than the average Lutheran congregation -- simply by virtue of the fact that they have a prayer team that offers to pray with people after worship!  Yet even in such an evangelical expression of Lutheranism, leaders and prayer team alike are uncomfortable with the language of conversion.
            The classic debate in American Lutheranism around “election” frames our present context for discussing issues related to conversion.  A little over a hundred years ago, Lutherans engaged in a vigorous debate about the doctrine of election, including matters relating to conversion.  Out of this debate, two “forms” emerged.  The first form is a classic statement of the Missouri Synod heritage and is also held by many within the ELCA.  It can perhaps be summed up in this statement: 

“The cause of election is God’s grace and the merit of Christ, ‘not anything good foreseen by God in the elect, not even faith foreseen by God in them.’  The election of grace, therefore, is a cause of the salvation of the elect.”[1] 

In first form Lutheranism, God simply decides ahead of time who will be saved.  We proclaim the gospel because it is true, and to strengthen the faith of the elect, but not to move people toward conversion.  Election here is an election “unto faith.”  The primary accusation of second form against first form is Calvinism -- that adherents of first form Lutheranism are subscribing to a sort of “double predestination.”
            Second form Lutheranism, on the other hand, asserts that “election took place in view of Christ’s merit apprehended by faith, or, more briefly stated but with the same sense, in view of faith.[2] Second form Lutheranism gives some prominence to conversion.  First form Lutherans accuse second form Lutherans of synergism -- of the heresy that we cooperate with God in our salvation.
            At the outset of this paper I want to make my biases clear.  I adhere to a second form Lutheranism, as far as I ever think about the doctrine of election, which is not often.  I am, however, concerned with a proclamation that leads to human response and I am pretty comfortable talking in terms of conversion. 
            In this paper, I would like to accomplish five tasks.  First, I hope to express my own urgency regarding the conversion question for contemporary Lutheranism.  Second, I want to examine what is usually labeled “decision theology” in light of Lutheran theology and experience.  For a Lutheran theological perspective, I will briefly examine Martin Luther’s  Bondage of the Will and the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism -- two texts that are often cited as a Lutheran objection to decision theology.  I’ll also briefly discuss Lutheran practice (or non-practice) relating to conversion. 
            Third, I will examine Luther’s first order discourse -- primarily his sermons on the gospel of John -- to determine if Luther’s proclamation differs significantly from his theological reflection.
            The fourth task I hope to accomplish is to examine our culture phenomenologically.  What is the experience of people who are converted?  What terms, what language is meaningful to them prior to and surrounding conversion?  What cultural language and values do we have that relate to conversion?  How has the church dealt with such phenomenological concerns?
            Fifth and finally, I want to draw some practical implications from this discussion for the Lutheran church’s proclamation and practice, thereby connecting with my initial comments about the urgency surrounding the issues of conversion, proclamation, and choice.

The Urgency of the Task
            In the last twenty years we’ve heard a great deal about the decline of mainline Christianity.  Loren Mead’s Once and Future Church trilogy is perhaps the most visible of a number of works that are asking how the church is to function in a western culture that has grown away from Christianity.  What the precise demographic changes are is a matter for debate, but clearly the perception is growing in the church that we are moving out of a position of assumed authority in western culture and into a crowded marketplace of ideas.  My own ideas on this topic are largely shaped by nearly seven years I spent as a youth director and lay pastor in an ELCA church near Seattle.  The secular culture of the Pacific Northwest, and the church’s marginalization within it, has had a strong influence on my own thinking regarding the role of the church within society and the nature of our proclamation. 
            To sum up the societal change that is taking place, we are witnessing the rebirth of pluralism.  Again, I am making no claims as to the objective reality of such a rebirth; I am only claiming that this rebirth of pluralism is a perceptual reality for me and for many Christians.  However, I am convinced of the truth of the statement, “Perception is reality.”  That is, we operate not on the basis of objective truth, but on the basis of our phenomenological perception of what is true.  If we are convinced that the church is facing minority status in the religious marketplace, our language, our mission, and our attitudes will be very different than if we perceive the United States to be an overwhelmingly Christian nation, governed by the Christian values of our forefathers, etc., etc., etc.   We make decisions, seek vision, and plan missional strategies based on our perceptions of what is true. 
            Our perception that our context has shifted into pluralism is largely driven by our experience of other religious expressions.  Increasingly, the average Christian encounters -- whether personally or through the media -- persons and organizations whose basic religious beliefs are not centered in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  We meet people who are Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, shamans, and many others.  These major world religions are on the increase in our country and in our awareness.
            Perhaps more disturbing is the increasing sense that many who have identified themselves as Christian do not understand Christianity in the same terms we do -- certainly not in any terms set out by the traditional creeds of the church.  Many people in our culture -- and many people in our congregations -- have bought into one of two watered-down versions of Christianity.  First is a sort of pragmatic agnosticism or deism that views faith as a nice sentiment, a positive moral instruction for those needing guidance -- this is practiced on the streets and in the pews by an uncomfortably high percentage of churchgoers.   Second is a watered down faith in faith itself that accepts any belief as valid and experience as the tyrant over all doctrine.  I think you could probably lump many of our marginal members, and some of the pillars of our churches, into these two categories.   A very high percentage of our members have received just enough of Christianity to be effectively inoculated against catching a more dangerous strain of it.  I like to think that faith in Jesus Christ is like smallpox -- a disease that is extremely communicable, infects households and whole villages, goes outside the bounds of social nicety, and requires death.  Unfortunately, the church has carried out Edward Jenner’s task:  Instead of infecting people with a deadly, life-giving faith, we have given people small doses of cowpox (a disease similar to smallpox but not as deadly) and thus have prevented them from ever catching the real thing.
            I see the church struggling both internally, with complacency and agnosticism, and externally, with pluralism and apathy.  The church’s perception has changed, so that we are beginning to see Christianity as a minority position in a pluralistic marketplace.

Conversion and the Lutheran Tradition
            When the topic of conversion comes up in Lutheran circles, most traditional Lutherans get a little uncomfortable.  We put up our anti-decision shields and mentally page through Luther’s Bondage of the Will or the beloved Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed from Luther’s Small Catechism.  We may shudder at the memory of some aunt or uncle who was a zealous pietist, albeit “Lutheran” at least in name, who tried to talk too much to us about Jesus.  We are privately thankful that our congregations don’t expect much from us in the way of “personal evangelism” and no one ever asks us about our own conversion.  Our tradition is an effective insulator against decision theology and the kind of emotional popular religion that is so embarrassing.
            I am a little afraid, though, that we have read too much into those two traditional Lutheran texts cited above.  My sense of Luther’s argument in The Bondage of the Will is that he is adamantly standing against a theology that says our good works cooperate with God in our own salvation.  No doubt all who subscribe to Martin Luther’s theology would agree on this point:  We are saved by grace, not by works.  As Luther says at one point, “Inasmuch as you maintain free choice, you cancel out Christ and ruin the entire Scripture.”[3]  Free choice here means the ability to choose what is good, what is meritorious toward salvation.  Does it, however, include choosing to surrender our own works and our attempts to save ourselves, to choose Christ?  I cannot find a place in this document where Luther deals with this question specifically.  He repeatedly nullifies the argument of Erasmus that we merit favor by our good works, or that we cooperate with our own salvation.  But Luther does not say, “You must not presume to choose Christ.  You must not choose to lay aside all your idolatrous ideas of earning merit and simply rely on Christ, for that choice is not yours.”  Luther never says such a thing, at least in all my reading of him.  Granted, the construction is usually turned around, and Luther does say repeatedly that Christ has chosen us.  But he does not specifically nullify our choosing to rely on the merits of Christ. 
            Classical Lutheran theology would say that we cannot choose to rely on Christ by ourselves -- that our natures, being fallen, rebel against our dependence on God.  Does this rebellious nature, this inability to choose reliance on Christ, then nullify decision theology?  The Lutheran argument at this point turns to the Holy Spirit.  “You cannot choose Christ,” we say, “unless the Holy Spirit is moving you to do so -- so the choice is not really yours, it is God’s.”  As evidence, we cite the explanation to the Third Article: 

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ ...”[4]

This passage out of the Catechism is one of the most beloved for Lutherans, perhaps because it provides such strong assurance that God loves us enough to work “behind the scenes” for our salvation and it recognizes that we cannot rely on ourselves -- but God is faithful, loving, and determined.  This explanation is one of the few portions of the Small Catechism I remembered after my own Confirmation, and it has been in my memory ever since.
            These two tools from Luther’s writings, along with various other passages, are cited as ammunition against the Billy Grahamites, the tent revivalites, the altar call-ites, to assert that we don’t choose to believe in Jesus.  Out of these theological convictions and out of our northern European roots, we have built a faith that does not speak the gospel in daily life, that does not generally invite neighbors to church, that does not spend much time talking about a personal relationship with God.  We have not demanded any kind of accountability in the life of discipleship, and we have avoided the language of sanctification.  Those who have done these things are generally labeled pietists and dismissed as legalistic Lutherans, “Haugeaners,” or fanatics.  Often such groups have left the Lutheran church to start the Covenant church, the Lutheran Brethren, or a number of other denominations based on Luther’s theology but also emphasizing personal faith. 
            Mainline Lutheran churches have embroiled themselves in the first form / second form debate around election, or have simply regarded conversion as a non-issue.  In the fifties, when our population was booming, our suburban churches were shiny, new, and full, and our numbers were growing (though not as fast as the population as a whole), conversion did not seem so important.  Personal evangelism was something “they” were concerned about.  We clung to the Augsburg Confession, to our Lutheran tradition, and to potlucks.  (I’m sorry if I sound a bit cynical here, but I am disgruntled that my church has such a hard time talking about Jesus Christ in personal and relational, as distinguished from Christological, terms.)
            I believe that we have ignored a large segment of Martin Luther’s writings in formulating our faith.  We have rightly lifted up the Augsburg Confession and other such theological writings, but we have based our first order discourse -- sermons, personal evangelism or its lack, teaching, etc. -- on these second order discourses.  What about the large body of Luther’s first order discourse -- specifically, sermons?  These are rarely read, especially in seminary.  But in researching the issues that launched me into this paper, I have spent a lot of time reading Luther’s sermons, and I believe that they provide a much needed perspective on traditional Lutheran positions with regard to decision theology, conversion, and the role of the will in our faith -- our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Examination of First Order Discourse in Luther’s Sermons
            I would like to make a couple assertions and then cite examples from Luther’s sermons on the gospel of John.  My first assertion is that Luther’s sermons are consistent with his theological writings, though they are of a different sort.  Second, I find ample evidence to assert that Luther believes the human will is active in accepting, relying on, even choosing faith in Christ -- though there are dangers in asserting this point too strongly and without qualification.
            The assertion that Luther’s sermons are consistent with his theological writings is more comprehensive than I can prove in this short paper.  However, I will say that his basic themes -- justification by faith alone especially -- are strongly present in his sermons.  Let me cite just one example of parallel texts from Bondage of the Will and a sermon to illustrate.  In Bondage of the Will Luther deals at some length with John the Baptist, specifically from John’s gospel.  Luther says:

“[John the Evangelist] introduces the Baptist speaking thus of Christ:  ‘And of his fullness we have all received, grace for grace’  [John 1:16].  He says that grace has been received by us from the fullness of Christ; but for what merit or effort? ‘For grace’ he says, meaning Christ’s grace; just as Paul also says in Romans 5[:15]: ‘The grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.’  Where now is the endeavor of free choice by which grace is obtained?  John says here, not only that grace is not received by any effort of ours, but that it is received through another’s grace or another’s merit, namely, that of the one man Jesus Christ ... I wish the defenders of free choice would take warning at this point, and realize that when they assert free choice they are denying Christ.  For if it is by my own effort that I obtain the grace of God, what need have I of the grace of Christ in order to receive it?”[5]

            Luther’s argument is clear in the quote above.  He is asserting that a system of free choice in which one gains God’s favor for one’s self by means of good works excludes the need for Christ and is therefore nullified.  He quotes John’s gospel at the point where John the Baptist is introduced and clearly claims that we have no freedom to please God by good works, by our own choice.
            In Luther’s sermon on this very passage, he goes on to talk about the office and proclamation of John the Baptist himself.  He has been speaking throughout this sermon about Christ as the only revelation of God, active throughout the history of Israel, and how all who have tried to gain God’s favor through their works are humbled before this Christ.  Now he goes on to paraphrase John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus as the one “in your midst”:

“[John the Baptist] was sent by God -- that is, he did not come on his own, unauthorized -- to go before the Lord.  He was to rap at the doors, arouse the Jews, and testify of the Lord who had been promised them, saying: ‘Open your doors and gates.  Your Savior, for whom you have waited so long, has arrived!  Awake!  Behold, the new Light is present, the Light which was with God from the beginning, which is the eternal God, and which has now become man!  See to it that you do not let Him go unnoticed!  This is Christ the Lord, for whom you have waited so long and for whom you have yearned and sighed.  He is standing before your door.  Yes, he is among you (John 1:26).  Go out to meet him!  Receive your Lord, and accept him!  To forestall any excuse on your part that you would gladly have received Him if only you had been informed, ample announcement and testimony has been given you.’  ... By virtue of this testimony and proclamation [John] deserves to be called a delightful preacher, rich in grace, one who does not preach the Law -- through which comes knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20) and which makes sin abound (Rom. 5:20), which strikes terror into the heart and provokes it to wrath -- but the Gospel of God’s mercy for the sake of Christ, who bore our sins and rendered satisfaction for them.”[6]

Notice the language of the active will in this passage.  Certainly we hear Luther’s themes here -- Law and Gospel, accountability for sin, the external Word -- yet the language of the active will is ubiquitous.  Imperatives are everywhere.  Note especially the language of “receive” and “accept,” both of which would be highly controversial in a Lutheran sermon today (especially one preached at Luther Seminary!).  Such language is found throughout Luther’s sermons on John 1-4.  I must admit, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of such language that I have not explored Luther’s sermons further.  This one volume, and Luther’s painstaking exegesis of these four chapters of John, contain enough of this language to firmly make the point that language of the active will, of our need to accept / receive Christ, is strongly present in Luther’s first order discourse.  To demonstrate, let me cite a few more examples from these sermons.
            Preaching about John 3 and Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Luther says,

“... the sound of the wind [the Spirit] is also heard in these words: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’  Furthermore, you also have the wind in the baptismal water; the Holy Spirit is blowing there.  You cannot understand how a man can be renewed by water and the Holy Spirit, nor how one who has died can live anew.  But believe it, accept it, and content yourself with hearing the sound of the water and feeling the water and the sound of the Holy Spirit.  It matters not that you cannot understand how you are renewed.  Just say: ‘I will believe it ... I will simply hear the Word, accept the water of Baptism, and believe.’”[7]

Again, pay attention to the imperatives here.  Whatever we may say theologically about the Spirit at work in us to bring us to belief, Luther describes here an act of will -- an act by which we choose to simply believe in the face of our lack of understanding.  Lest we think that the issue is simple and all the first form Lutherans are simply mistaken, let me quote from Luther’s sermon a few pages later:

“[The pope and the monks] have introduced some very foolish and erroneous doctrine with their orders and brotherhoods, as though forgiveness of sin and the new birth were matters of their zeal, their pleasure, their own arbitrary choice.”[8]

Here it is tempting to say that Luther has cut off any language of choice, any hint of a will that is active in relationship with God.  However, if we follow Luther beyond that simple denial of choice, the sermon goes on and it is plain that an active will does not offend Luther, but a righteousness that comes out of me, originates with me, does offend:

“They all teach a way to salvation which I can comprehend.  I know whence it comes and how it operates.  It is easy for me to say: ‘I will don a cowl’; for I can understand how the cowl originated, namely, from human choice and decision.  Furthermore, I can understand how the cowl came from the tailor, how the cloth was woven by the weaver, and how the wool was taken from the sheep.  This is easy to understand.  Thus I can comprehend all their important doctrines, which deal with nothing but physical matters such as food, drink, clothing, and the like.
            But I cannot comprehend that I must believe in Christ, that I must be baptized in order to be saved, that I must die in such faith in Christ ... No one can determine the time or the place or the person, how and when one is to be converted to God.  The Holy Spirit and his gifts are not granted according to human will.”[9]

Salvation is beyond us.  It is not something we can comprehend, and therefore not something we can accomplish.  Luther wants to reject our impulse to comprehend and analyze everything, even salvation.  Luther seems intent on maintaining the freedom of God and our inability to understand and control our salvation:

“For a Christian lives and has his existence from his first to his last breath solely in the Holy Spirit, not in reason or in good works but only in the will of God and the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit, not reason, who teaches me to be baptized and to believe.  Consequently, my life must consist in the Holy Spirit, who blows where He wills.
            In this area, therefore, it is not appropriate to say: ‘I will do and undertake this or that.’  The works I do, like putting on a cowl or girding myself with a rope, do indeed fall in the range of my initiative, volition, and reason.  In that area I may do whatever I choose and as much as I choose, for all works stemming from human power are of such a nature that their beginning and their end are known.”[10]

So in some sense, we must deny the idea that we can “choose” to believe in Christ, if by our “choice” we mean that we have some kind of control over the process.  To stay with Luther, we must assert that it is the work of the Spirit to bring a person to salvation.  But how, then, are we to understand all Luther’s active language regarding the will?  How do we deal with the imperatives that are throughout his sermons?  They do not seem to be mere rhetorical devices.  They are directed at his hearers, intended with all earnestness and passion to have some effect on the listener. 
            There must be some ground in between, some room for the contradiction to work.  On one hand, we cannot choose to believe if that means we control our salvation.  Salvation is by definition beyond us.  On the other hand, we are called in Scripture and in Luther to believe, to accept, to receive the Gospel.  Is there some sense in which we can choose belief without trying to control our salvation?  If so, how does that relate to the kind of “free choice” Luther rejects out of hand in Bondage of the Will? 
            Two military terms are perhaps helpful here.  They are, at least, helpful to me in making a fine distinction between perilous extremes.  The first is “surrender.”  Much of what Luther describes sounds like the surrender of reason, surrender of control, surrender of one’s reliance on self.  The problem with the papacy was that it had reduced salvation to a comprehensible system that I could understand.  I had no need to surrender to the Spirit, for my will could remain in control of my destiny by fulfilling the system.  But if I take the Gospel seriously, I cannot comprehend, cannot control, cannot save myself no matter what I try.  So when the Spirit confronts me with my helplessness and my inability, I surrender to Christ and trust in his mercy.  Surrender is an act of will.  It involves decision, and even choice.  But it is a decision not to rely on myself any longer.
            The second word I find helpful here is “allegiance.”  This is perhaps a bit more active than surrender, but it fits with other passages in Luther.  When Luther talks of the Law driving me to Christ, for example, I like to think of that in terms of giving my allegiance to Christ.  It is not that Christ needs my powers; we are not talking about an alliance.  Rather, allegiance is the relationship of a subordinate who is in fear and peril to a lord who alone has power to deliver him.  I give my allegiance to Christ because he alone has power to save.  My works do not have that power.  My pastor does not have that power.  My church does not have that power.  My reason does not have that power.  Jesus Christ alone can deliver me from all that threatens to destroy me, and so I actively, desperately, willingly and willfully give my allegiance to him. 
            Later, on reflection, I will no doubt say that this was the Holy Spirit’s work in me, both to drive me to Christ and to give me the power to surrender, to render allegiance.  It is the contemporary Christian song’s confession as the singer asks God to “raise my hand so you can lift me up.”[11]   Luther asserts much the same thing:

Whoever is converted to faith cannot say anything else than that the Holy Spirit comes when He wills and where He wills and to what person He wills, all in His own good season.”[12]

            There is a final cautionary word in all this.  Luther does not spend a great deal of time on a theology of choice or even a theology of surrender.  He does spend a great deal of time talking about Jesus Christ and our inability to save ourselves.  It is tempting to preach a manipulative sermon that centers on the need for each person to “make a decision for Christ.”  However, such a sermon must be a rarity, and if it is preached it must be couched in the language of God’s power to save, not of our saving ourselves by making a decision. 
            For example:  You will recall the passage cited above from Bondage of the Will in which Luther quotes John 1:16.  At one point in his sermons, Luther refers specifically to that passage to extol the centrality, the ultimate superiority of Christ. 

“He is to be the Fountainhead and Spring from which flow sheer grace, truth, and righteousness.  From Him we are to acquire, and through Him we are to enjoy, the benefits of grace and righteousness.  From Him we receive ... ‘grace upon grace’ and truth upon truth.  Of Him the evangelist says that we have seen Him with our eyes, heard Him with our ears, touched Him with our hands, and recognized by his words and works that He is the Word of life and the indescribable Source of all grace and truth (I John 1:1).”

And this Christology he follows with language that sounds a great deal like the prelude to an altar call:

“And now whoever desires to partake of these, whether he be Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, or anyone, else, let him come hither and receive them from Him and from no other.  If he fails in this, he is eternally lost.”[13]

In such a context -- a right emphasis on the power of Christ to save -- language of choice is useful.  Though the word “choice” is not common in Luther because he rightly keeps his emphasis on the power of God to save, not on our need to choose, he does occasionally use the word:

“... the evangelist praises John the Baptist and declares that his office cannot be dispensed with, for he bears witness to Christ and points to him who is the Life and Light illumining all men ...
            In brief, you have the choice:  either heed John’s testimony, or remain eternally without faith.”[14]

If this last sentence had been in Luther’s theological writings -- in the Catechism, say, or perhaps in the Bondage of the Will itself -- think what different arguments there might have been within Lutheranism!  Instead, it has been largely ignored because it is in a sermon.  But I believe we who would preach must pay attention to Martin Luther in his own first order discourses.  How does an effective preacher -- one who wants to preach a Word that will change hearts -- how do we proclaim the gospel?

Phenomenological Reflection on Conversion
            And so we come to the question of phenomenology.  Undoubtedly we must affirm theologically that the Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel.  Though we might use language of accepting, or surrender, or allegiance, or even occasionally of choosing -- we must still maintain that the power to save is God’s and not our own.   My own theological position, and a widely held Lutheran assertion, is that the reality behind conversion is that God has been working behind the scenes to call people to faith, and that work occasionally comes to the surface in what we describe as a conversion experience. 
            My question, however, comes in the phenomenological experience of this conversion.  Does the person who “converts” -- the one who comes forward at the altar call, who prays along with the radio preacher in the car, who “gives her heart to Jesus” in whatever way -- does this person perceive that she has a choice?  Most of the time I think she does.  Years later, if she has come to know the power of God and the subtlety of the Holy Spirit’s work, she may see that God worked for years and years to bring her into a relationship of faith with himself.  But the immediate experience of recent converts I’ve talked to indicates that they “choose” -- phenomenologically speaking -- to rely on Jesus Christ.  Their perception is frequently one of having decided  to follow Jesus.
            I should say here than I do not subscribe to a “once for all time” theory of conversion.  I relish the story of my campus pastor at North Dakota State University years ago who had a meeting with a group of serious-faced Baptist students.  Pastor Ralph was a roly-poly man in his sixties with a keen sense of humor.  One of the students asked, “Ralph, we just have one question:  Have you been born again?”  Ralph stared deep into the eyes of each member of the group, a knowing smile playing at the edges of his mouth.  Finally he spoke.  “Oh, yes,” he replied.  “And again, and again, and again.”  Most of us come to faith not once, but dozens of times, in different ways, under different circumstances.  If we talk about the phenomenology of conversion, we must include the “little” conversions that make up a huge portion of Lutheran faith experience.
            My fear is that by our insistence in Lutheranism on speaking theologically rather than phenomenologically -- thereby denying language of “choice” -- we deny the one converted the opportunity to express their experience.  If we deny them such expression, they cannot fully participate in the tasks of the active will -- the very tasks Luther commands in his sermons.  What we may be doing, in effect, is preparing those who join our churches to become lukewarm in their faith by denying them the language of choice regarding their own conversions -- and thereby preventing them from offering their entire will to the service of Jesus Christ.  If one who is passionate about her newfound faith in Jesus is told, “You didn’t really do it.  God prompted you; God brought you to a recognition of God’s work in you.  You never really chose Jesus  -- Jesus chose you” -- If she is told this, how will she respond?  Perhaps she has the inner strength to make such a paradigm shift even if her subjective reality, her perception, has told her that she chose to follow Jesus.  But perhaps she will say, “Oh.  I didn’t really do anything in that dramatic encounter with Christ that changed my life.  If I want to live out that relationship, I had better continue to do nothing so that Christ may continue to work.”  We may well be breeding passivity into our congregations. 
            Please understand that I am not intending to poke fun here.  As a teenager I talked with many of my friends who had gone to other churches, other Bible camps, other youth retreats.  They had dramatic encounters with Christ that gave them a deep sense of faith.  When they heard their experience interpreted through Lutheran lenses that filtered out any talk of an active will, of personal choice, it was like someone poured cold water on the fire of their passionate faith.
            One controversial fact in this whole discussion of “choice” language is the fact that our culture lusts after choice.  Advertising has played this tune until we cannot imagine how Luther could assert that we have a bound will.  Such an assertion goes against our very core, to think that we cannot choose!  We choose from over a hundred kinds of shampoo, almost two hundred varieties of breakfast cereal, dozens of channels on the television, countless web sites on the Internet, hundreds of restaurants in dozens of different cuisines ... our day by day choices are endless.  Retail sales play on this lust for choice.  Advertising grooms this lust, feeds it and helps it grow stronger.  Shopping malls have made choice an architectural art form. 
            Churches, too, have adopted “choice” as one criterion by which we market ourselves to our culture.  Church growth literature advocates the necessity of offering people choices of worship times, worship styles, educational topics, educational times, service activities ... if you don’t offer choices, you won’t attract people.  Choice is drilled into us from our earliest days.  It has crept into parenting theories as a way to raise responsible, mature children.  “Tommy, do you want hot dogs or macaroni and cheese for lunch?”  Teach them to make choices so they can learn to take responsibility for themselves! 
            I am not criticizing our culture at this point; I am simply pointing out that for middle-class Americans, choice is a given.  We assume that we have options.  Feeling “trapped” in something is a horrible thing for us.  The church’s task is not to reform our cultural lusts for choice.  The church’s task is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ by whatever means we can do so.  Paul “became all things to all people” so that he might save some (I Corinthians 9:22).  This is our task as well.
            What does this mean?  I am not suggesting that Lutherans should sell out our theology of justification by faith in favor of a “justification by choice.”  This is simply bondage to one specific work.  However, my question is something like this:  Given that we are trying to preach the gospel to a culture that expects -- even demands -- choices, how will we proclaim the gospel?  To return to a point I made very early in this paper, we operate not on the basis of objective reality, but on the basis of our perception of reality.  “Perception is reality” is a tidy way of summing up our limitation.  If those to whom we want to proclaim Jesus Christ perceive  that they have a choice whether to accept / receive / choose / believe in Jesus or not, that perception is the reality -- however temporary or inaccurate -- out of which they will operate.  Phenomenologically speaking, they do have a choice.  Theologically, we ought to be praying like mad that the Spirit will be calling our hearers to the gospel.  But our proclamation, if we are faithful translators of the gospel, must offer them the opportunity to make some response.  Otherwise we have chosen to proclaim our Lutheran cultural expression of the gospel rather than a gospel translated for its hearers.
Implications for Proclaiming the Gospel
            Our proclamation is not only about our words.  It is about our actions as well.  What we do speaks as loudly to the world as what we say, and if the two are in disagreement, most observers will believe what we do over our words.  So translating the gospel message for our culture includes not only filtering our words through the phenomenological screen of our hearers, but also filtering our practice in the same way. 
            One example of what such a translation in actions might mean:  Almost a decade ago, the Promise Keepers movement began to stir the hearts of men across the country, calling them toward accountability, faithfulness, and spiritual leadership.  When this movement began to draw large numbers of men from the Lutheran church, “Lutheran Men in Mission” was formed as an alternative movement.  (I’m not certain if LMM was formed in response to Promise Keepers or not.  However, it rose to some prominence in the last four years.)  I recently read a quote from Robert Jenson who said that Promise Keepers was built on poor theology, because it is God who is the Promise Keeper, not we ourselves.  The article in which Jenson was quoted went on to say that Lutheran Men in Mission had been declared the official men’s ministry of the ELCA -- a blatant grab for territory that looks to me like it is built on fear of the Promise Keepers movement.  Now, Jenson is undoubtedly correct in his theology.  God is the ultimate promise keeper, and we are certainly sinful and unable to guarantee our promises.  However, what the Promise Keepers group has recognized is that men have an active will, and that God calls us to direct that will toward what builds up -- e.g., strong families, strong marriages, faithful spiritual disciplines -- rather than what destroys -- that is, self centeredness and unfaithfulness.  By denying the phenomenological language of an active will for the sake of a correct theological expression, the ELCA has effectively alienated itself from the Promise Keepers movement.  Those Lutheran men who choose to attend Promise Keepers events (and there are many) do so without the support of their denomination. 
            What if we recognized the phenomenological principle here?  That is to say, what if we recognized that men perceive that they have a choice in where to focus their energy?  What if we recognized as valid a man’s perception that he can choose to be faithful to his wife and children, that he can discipline himself to spend time in prayer and Bible study?   It might be that he would come to understand later that God had been working in him to direct his will in such a direction, that without the work of the Holy Spirit he could never have made such commitments.  I think even the Promise Keepers organization would affirm this.  However, if we deny him that language of his own active will -- the language of choice -- he either chooses against his denomination by siding with the Promise Keepers or he is robbed of the ability to spend his own effort for such worthwhile, godly ends. 
            Notice another shift here -- we are not talking any longer about salvation.  The man will not be saved by his works.  No one is making such a claim.  But what we fail to mention, and what even Jenson himself has asserted in another context, is that others may be saved by the man’s work.  In speaking of the necessity of our own work in performing the sacraments, Jenson writes:

“The works we must do that the sacramental blessings may be achieved are not on our own behalf but on behalf of those to whom the mission sends us, also when that is (as in the case of the Supper) mutually one another.”[15]

It is a small leap from Jenson’s statement to the assertion that although my works do not count for anything in my own salvation, my works may count for much in the salvation of others.  So at some level, even Lutherans must maintain the language of an active will, unless we are willing to assert that it is improper to speak at all of our work in evangelism, service, teaching, preaching, etc.  Some Lutherans might make such an assertion, but I believe that to buy that idea invites complacency and robs us of a missional urgency that might go a long way to revitalize our declining denomination.  Theologically we may still recognize that God is doing the work and we are simply willing tools -- but phenomenologically, I have a choice whether I will speak the gospel to my children, my wife, my congregation.
            What I am advocating here -- an assertion of our phenomenological choice in working for the salvation of others -- is not hard for most Lutherans to accept.  I want to add, however, that part of the work we must do if we want to faithfully proclaim the gospel, is the work of finding appropriate language for expressing the gospel for our surrounding culture which is, incidentally, not Lutheran and not even largely Christian.  It is largely humanist and as such, individuals perceive themselves as agents -- free to make choices.  As I have demonstrated above, there is ample room in Luther’s own first order proclamation for the use of the language of an active will.  We have a strong precedent from Luther’s own preaching that can serve as a model for our own proclamation.  Those to whom we preach perceive themselves as having a choice.  Therefore, we should talk to them as though they did have a choice.  However, following Luther’s model, we should not focus unduly on this choice and make it the main part of our message.  Rather, we should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them and give them an opportunity to respond, to use their perceived choice.
            Used in this way, following the example of Martin Luther, our traditional Lutheran theology becomes a powerhouse for evangelism and outreach in a secular culture.  Our culture is desperately thirsty for a message that offers some hope in the midst of brokenness, some possibility of reconciliation for those who are alienated, some healing for those who have been deeply wounded.  The core of Lutheran theology -- the doctrine of justification by faith -- offers our hearers a God who has moved to heal, to reconcile, to save “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8).  There is a power here, an experiential possibility of an encounter with a God who is passionately in love with the hearer.  If we can proclaim the love of God in terms our hearers can understand, those who are moved by the gospel will want to respond.  To them, such response may look like a choice for or against belief in Christ.  We need not compromise our most dearly held theological statements -- even the explanation to the Third Article -- if we accept that phenomenology and theology do not always appear the same.
            Finally, I am becoming more and more convinced that there is a desperate urgency behind our task.  At some level, I ache for the ELCA as I watch it trying to save itself by ecumenical accords that offer little concrete progress toward the mission of the church.  I see powerful impulses in our church toward insulation and isolation -- a knee-jerk reaction against dialogue and engagement with the world and with other traditions.  I also see powerful forces pushing for a historical and ecumenical elitism -- binding us to other denominations that are enough like us that we deign to cooperate with them -- that claims to root us firmly in our heritage but robs us of our here-and -now relevance.  I ache when I see these developments because I know our Lutheran theology to be gracious and subtle, powerful and compelling.  Yet rather than spend ourselves on behalf of the world, we think first of our own kingdom and our own self-made righteousness.  We are called to give ourselves away, to spend ourselves on behalf of a world that doesn’t know Jesus Christ.  Here is the deeper urgency:  the message of the gospel is so very important and so much needed in our world.  Generations of people are growing up in America that are simply looking for someone to relieve their pain.  They want to know how to make their lives work, but first they want to know how to stop hurting.  The gospel with which we are entrusted speaks directly to their need, if only we can figure out how to proclaim it with conviction in terms our hearers will understand.  We are called not to save our church, but to spend ourselves on behalf of those who do not yet know the gospel.  Martin Luther understood the compelling nature of what we speak, and he understood that people want to respond when they hear this message.  There is room in the Lutheran tradition for some phenomenological language of choice, even of decision, without compromising our theological roots.


Jenson, Robert.  “The Means of Grace:  Part Two -- The Sacraments.”  Christian
            Dogmatics vol. 2.  ©1984 Fortress Press.

Lull, Timothy.  Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.  ©1989 Fortress Press.

Luther, Martin.  Luther’s Works, volume 22, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John
            Chapters 1-4.”  Jaroslav Pelikan, ed.  ©1957 Concordia Publishing House.

Nelson, E. Clifford, ed.  Lutherans In North America.  ©1980 Fortress Press.

Tappert, Theodore G., ed.  The Book of Concord.  ©1959 Fortress Press.

[1] Nelson, The Lutherans in North America, page 320.
[2] ibid.
[3] Luther’s Bondage of the Will from Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, page 213.
[4] Luther’s Small Catechism, from Tappert’s edition of the Book of Concord,  page 345.
[5] Luther’s Bondage of the Will from Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, page 211.
[6] Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Luther’s Works vol. 22, page 43-44. (Italics added.)
[7] Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Luther’s Works vol. 22, page 295.
[8] ibid., page 301.
[9] ibid., pages 301-302.
[10] ibid., pages 302-303.
[11] Amy Grant, “Arms of Love”
[12] ibid., page 302.
[13] ibid., page 124.
[14] ibid., page 55.
[15] “The Means of Grace” from Christian Dogmatics vol. 2, page 298.