We Believe, Teach, and Confess – Part 12 | Two people hear the same sermon – one believes, the other does not. Why? What explains the difference?
With that question, you have arrived at the most vexing theological conundrum of all. The topic of Free Will, which is itself closely connected with the topic of Election.
One way to answer the above question is to say that God chose to give the one person faith while choosing not to give the other person faith. This view is called double predestination, because God is said to predestine both believers to heaven and unbelievers to hell. This is what John Calvin taught, and it remains the official position of the Reformed Church. During the Reformation, Luther also fought bitterly with Erasmus over this. Luther quickly realised that this is a key topic, and not just a trivial matter – Luther later stated that his book The Bondage of the Will is one of his most important writings, and that even if all his other writings were to be burnt, except The Bondage of the Will and the Small Catechism, he’d be okay with that.
But how could God want people to go to hell?! That seems utterly preposterous. And so it is. Clearly, the difference must lie with the persons – the one person must have accepted Jesus as his saviour, while the other person rejected Him. This is commonly called decision theology, as the defining thing is the person’s decision. This is taught by Arminius, and is followed today by many churches, with their characteristic altar calls (“come forward and accept Jesus into your heart”). And yet that ultimately makes salvation dependant on an act performed by you – and then you are no longer saved by grace alone, but by your decision.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-10
So how do Lutherans answer this question? Why does one person believe and not another? Lutherans answer this question by saying: we just don’t know! It is a mystery we cannot understand. For the Bible clearly teaches that God wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), while at the same time laying the blame at the feet of the person if they reject the Gospel (Isaiah 5:24; Jeremiah 8:9; John 1:11; John 12:48).
And so the paradox stands: We are not free to accept Jesus, and yet we are free to reject Jesus! This makes as much logical sense as the Trinity (1+1+1=1), or the real presence in Holy Communion, or that in Jesus God became man, or that we are both Saint and Sinner at the same time. This is why St Paul talks of the mysteries of the faith (1 Timothy 3:9). They are mysteries in the truest sense of the word: unsolvable. That is why this old question has gone unanswered from the beginning: why Abel and not Cain? (see Genesis 4:3-5). It’s very tempting to look for a resolution to this paradox, but the simple truth is that God has not revealed the answer to this question to us. As unsatisfying as it is, the answer is I don’t know.
He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5
Up until now, this topic of free will has dealt with our relationship to God in spiritual matters. But we do have a free will in regard to worldly things – after all, you are not a robot! You are free to choose what you had for breakfast, which clothes you put on this morning, and which make of car you drive. God has given to all people the freedom of making their own choices – but this choice is in regard to ‘things below,’ and not spiritual matters.
What makes everything even more confusing, is that scripture talks about being able to ‘co-operate’ with the Holy Spirit, or being ‘obedient’ to God (Ephesians 4:22-24, Philemon 1:21) – but this is always after a person has been converted – having formerly been blind and in darkness, and now living in the marvellous light (Ephesians 5:8-10; see also Ephesians 2:1-22). Now, after regeneration, you can actively live as a Christian. This is what Christian discipline is all about. You can choose to go to church on Sunday morning, or choose to go shopping instead. You can choose to read the bible and daily devotions, or choose not to. And so even Moses can call on the Israelites (who already believe) to choose between keeping on following God, or to choose to turn their backs on Him (Deuteronomy 30:15-20. See also the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article II Free Will or Human Powers, especially paragraphs 61-66.)
Cur alii, alii non? (Latin for “Why the one, not the other?”) This is the crux theologorum, the unsolvable mystery that God wants all men to be saved, and yet some are not – and that it’s their fault, not God’s. And yet if any are saved it’s all God’s doing!
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.
We are meant to be comforted by this! My salvation is not up to me, up to my works, or up to my decision – but I am saved because God chose me, God adopted me, God made me His child in Baptism. It is by grace alone that I’m saved – thanks be to God! (Romans 7:25, Ephesians 5:20) We can rest assured, precisely because salvation is in God’s hands, not ours.
“How do I know for sure that I am saved?” Because Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again for my justification (Romans 4:25).
FORMULA OF CONCORD, EPITOME, ARTICLE II: FREE WILL
The unregenerate will of mankind has an inclination and desire for that which is evil and contrary to God, as it is written in Genesis 8:21, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” For it is written in Ephesians 2:5, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ.” And 2 Corinthians 3:5 says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”
God the Holy Spirit, however, does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written in Romans 1:16, the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Also, Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is God’s will that His Word should be heard. With this Word, the Holy Spirit is present and opens hearts so that people pay attention to it and are converted only through the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, who alone does the work of converting a person. For without His grace, and if He does not grant the increase, our willing and running, our planting, sowing, and watering—are all nothing. As Christ says, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” The Spirit ascribes everything to God’s grace, in order that no one may boast before God. (Paragraphs 3-6)
Pastor Toby Ahlers, Randburg, JHB