Thursday, November 1, 2007

Who takes the first step in salvation?

The question has been raised in several venues recently whether when a person comes to church, if they are taking the first step in coming to God. Similarly, it has been asked that if God is taking the first step, then is He not working outside of the Means of Grace? Since Lutherans teach that God has only promised to work salvation through the Means of Grace, and by grace alone, the interplay of answers to these two questions becomes complex.

1. Does God work apart from the Word and Sacrament? Certainly He does, but only according to His Law! According to His grace, He has only promised to work through Word and Sacrament, but according to His Law, he is at work in all things. This is why they're called the "Means of Grace." God has only given specific promises regarding how he will work according to grace, not according to Law. Look at the Old Testament. God is given the credit for numerous events in the history of Israel and the world without doing so through Word and Sacrament, but He is not doing any of it according to His grace. It is much like natural and special revelation. Can we see that there is a god through nature and that he is powerful? Yes, but we cannot know anything about His identity or His grace apart from the Scriptures. Similarly, God is certainly present everywhere and in control over all things, but only present to work according to His Grace through the Word and Sacraments.

2. In addition to being driven by Law to a church through tragic events or through realizing his sinfulness, a person would not know to go to the church unless he had heard some word of Gospel, no matter how simple, or else why would He look to the church? Certainly this is not saving faith, for that cannot be unless the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross is articulated, but certainly whatever promise or hope the man heard from his neighbor, even if only a vague summary, such as that the Church has the answers to his problems or the fulfillment of his needs, is drawing Him to the Church to hear the preaching of Christ. If he will be saved, He must then hear of the forgiveness of sins through the Word of the Gospel and receive that Word made visible in Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

In all things, God gets credit for salvation. He works according to His Law to drive men away from security in their sin and toward Himself, and He works according to His Grace through the Word and Sacraments to forgive sins and give eternal life and salvation.


  1. Excellent, excellent post! You clearly explain Lutheran teachings on how God works in the world. My comments will probably sound grouchy, but here goes:

    I'm a cranky Lutheran-by-marriage, having been raised as a Baptist. (No one chooses what church they're born into.) I've seen both sides close up. Baptists deem as necessary the decision to accept Christ. Lutherans deem as necessary the weekly decision to attend Divine Service to receive the Means of Grace.

    I've always wondered what a true and proper Lutheran conversion of an adult would look like. It boils down to the person would have to make a decision to be baptized or not after hearing the Gospel message. Sounds so similar to a Baptist conversion.

    Neither side believes they can save themselves in any way.....and I know that for a fact.

    Your profile speaks of "the false teachings of Popular American Religion" that "lead so many souls to despair". Is that every other denomination besides German confessional Lutheranism?

    Funny thing....when I was about to join the Lutheran church many years ago, some older members in my Baptist church warned me that Lutherans are not truly saved because they "trust in rituals". Ridiculous, of course, as are many opinions confessional Lutherans hold about other denominations.

    May your ministry go well. Strict confessionalism has not gone over real well in the area I live in.

    And hey, I'm from Iowa, too! Go Hawkeyes! Or maybe you are a 'Clone fan. Or maybe you are new to Iowa and a fan of neither.

  2. Jeanelle,

    Your opening comment regarding the decision which Baptists or Lutherans focus on is very interesting. I have never thought of it that way before. I like it. Did you notice the difference between the two decisions? The decision which is the focus of the Baptist is a decision made by an unbeliever to choose good. The decision upon which Lutherans focus is made by a believer to continue in Grace. Lutherans understand that apart from faith in Christ, no person can choose good. Unbelievers only have the capacity to choose evil and thus cannot decide to accept Christ.

    A true and proper Lutheran conversion...An unbeliever hears the Gospel and believes it. Since the Holy Spirit has given him faith through the Gospel, he recognizes that as a Christian it is proper to follow his Lord's instructions to be baptized.

    I would agree that if you directly asked a Baptist, "Do you save yourself?" they would certainly answer "no!" On the other hand, since they are believe that their decision to follow Jesus is what makes them a Christian, they deny that they "are saved by grace alone, through faith" It is very inconsistent. Have you noticed how many Baptists walk down that aisle a dozen times in their life to say the "sinner's prayer?" This happens because the Baptist doctrine forces them to look to their conversion experience rather than Jesus' cross when they face doubts. Thus, they recommit over and over again, being uncertain whether the last time was sincere enough. This isn't just speculation. I've been there and done that and I've seen many friends do the same.

    This is why the "false teachings of Popular American religion" lead souls to despair. They place the focus on something other than the cross. Sometimes the focus is put on the "Christian Life" or other theologies which paint Christianity as a set of rules to live by or a set of principles for better living, instead of the true essence of the teachings of Christ--the Forgiveness of Sins.

    Other times, these Popular American Religious teachings include the idea that all religious paths ultimately lead to the same deity. Thus in this religious system, "it's not what you believe, but how sincerely you believe it." This thought is common not only among the populace in general, but unfortunately from the mouths of some preachers as well.

    Still another manifestation of this Popular American Religion is when it is presented that we contribute something to salvation, no matter how little. It could be the idea that "I do my best and God does the rest," which portrays Jesus as just making up for our flaws rather than saving sinners who are completely lost and condemned. Sometimes this is seen when Christianity is portrayed as a system where God gives a little grace, then man behaives in response, resulting in salvation. Elsewhere, this is seen when salvation is represented as a check to be cashed, and man has the check, but must do something to receive its benefits, such as the "decision" encouraged in most Baptist and Pentecostal denominations.

    All of these manifestations of American Popular Religion point people away from Jesus for the assurance of their salvation and toward some human activity instead. This happens with Charles Finney, John Wesley, and even Billy Grahm.

    This is why it is so important to teach purely the doctrine of the scriptures concerning the Means of Grace. This teaching points people to Jesus, who acts through the Word, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper to forgive sins and strengthen faith. Your Baptists cohorts accused Lutherans of "trusting in rituals" because they understand the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as acts they do to show their obedience to God. Scripture and Lutheran doctrine understand the Word and Sacraments as avenues by which God makes Himself truely present among us to deliver the forgiveness of sins which He won at the cross. Anything which directs us into ourself or toward our own actions will always drive us to despair because we and our works will always be imperfect and unworthy of God's acceptance. On the other hand, if we are to look outside of ourselves to the Cross of Christ, to God's Word as it is read and preached, and to God's grace for us in the Sacraments, we can have true certainty because His activity for us in these places is sure and certain, for He has promised to come to us there.

    I believe firmly that other Christians who trust in Jesus' sacrifice for their sins and the One Triune God are saved, but I have great sorrow that some of the other doctrines of their denominations may fail to comfort or assure them in the storms of life because these doctrines differ from those of the Holy Scriptures.

    I hope that you will continue to think theologically. Your comment is quite refreshing.

    Incidentally, I am a Dane, although many in my church are German. Being a recent transplant to Iowa, I am neither a Hawk nor 'Clone fan. My team is the Michigan Wolverines. However, my 3-month-old dauther is a Hawkeye fan since their surgeons repaired the intestinal defect with which she was born.

  3. Wow, thank you for your detailed reply to my comments!

    Your second paragraph still sounds just like a Baptist conversion. But, somehow you don't think an unbeliever hearing the Gospel in a Baptist Church is moved by the Holy Spirit to make a decision in the direction of salvation, as you indicate an unbeliever hearing the Gospel in a Lutheran church will do. Figure that one out.

    Actually, in the small Baptist church I grew up in, and that has been many years ago.....I don't remember seeing anyone go forward more than once. And honestly, I never even thought about the sincerity of my decision.....our pastor told us its like accepting a free gift that is being held out to you. Probably my life has been sheltered, I've not encountered those who despair that their decision wasn't sincere enough or whatever.

    Its just good to realize you can't be sincere. Sincerity is a gift from God, as I believe contrition has to be. I have to ask for contrition all the just does not come naturally.

    Baptists believe "Jesus Saves". They may not add the words "Grace alone, through faith", but they know where salvation originates from. They know faith comes from God. They accept the gift that is offered freely by God through His Son.

    Lutheranism points people to the human activities of attending church and receiving the Sacraments.....that is my observation over the years. And I know of many members who only attend church when there is to be Communion. I guess Lutherans might also become victims of despair if they didn't have access to a pastor.

    Lutheranism is able to slip Baptism in before the person has a choice in the matter.....its a good plan. It avoids the decision aspect. Actually, believe it or not, I've been trying to convince my Baptist brother to decide to have his young children baptized......instead of leaving that decision up to them. Its making him think, anyway. He would never consider joining the Lutherans, and I don't believe that is necessary anyway.

    Disunity saddens me, especially over the Communion issue. You would probably kick me out of your church.....I will commune at other Christian churches if the invitation to all believers is offered.

    May all go well for your little daughter. Thanks be to God for the wonders of modern medicine. My dear departed mother-in-law lost her only daughter at two days old due to an intestinal birth defect that couldn't be repaired back then.