Luther and Conversion

Richard Gilbert
Thursday, January 2nd 1992
Jan/Feb 1992

“To be converted to God means to believe in Christ, to believe that He is our mediator and that we have eternal life through Him.” (W 52, 617). So said Luther in a sermon in 1534.

The first misconception that Luther warns us about is the notion, so common in much of what passes for preaching today with its altar calls and pleas for people to make a decision for Christ, that conversion is something that we must do; it is our work. Commenting on John 3:3, Luther reminds us that, “Man’s own merit or holiness can contribute nothing toward getting out of the old birth of flesh and blood or achieving the new birth. Man is not born again of his own choice and idea” (Works 21, 535). Luther excludes all notions of “God has done His part, now you must do yours,” or, “God cast His vote for you, Satan cast his against you and you have to cast the deciding vote.” No, for Luther conversion is solely the work of God. All human efforts are excluded.

“But don’t I have to do something first before God will work in me, even if it’s only to ask Him in?” Luther anticipated this question when he said in another sermon:

But do you ask: How must one begin to become pious, or what must one do to move God to begin to work in us? Answer: Indeed! Do you not hear that in you there is no doing and no beginning toward becoming pious, just as increase and completion are not in your power? God alone begins, furthers, and completes the change. Whatever you begin is sin and remains sin, no matter how pretty it may appear to be. You can do nothing but sin, no matter what you do. Therefore the teaching of all schools and monasteries is a deception, because they teach people to begin to pray, do good works, found, give, sing, become spiritual, and thereby to seek the grace of God…

This is what is meant by “Thy King cometh.” You do not seek Him; He seeks you. For you do not find Him; He finds you. For the preachers come from Him, not from you. Their sermon comes from Him, not from you. Your faith comes from Him, not from you. And everything that works faith within you comes from Him and not from you. You should, therefore, see clearly enough that if He does not come, you are left outside; and where there is no Gospel, there is no God but only sin and perdition, regardless of what the “free will” does, suffers and performs, or how it lives. Therefore whatever you do, do not ask where (how) a man must begin to become pious. There is no beginning except where the King comes and is preached. (Works 10 I, 2, 29f)

To such a sermon you might respond, “But I have a will. And if I can do nothing toward my conversion, then are you saying that I’m converted against my will?” No. “Then my willingness to be converted is the reason I’m converted.” This is another misconception, and Luther answers, “Decidedly not! The will does nothing. It is rather the substance in which the Holy Spirit works also in those who resist, as in Paul. But working on the will of him who resists He move the will to consent” (W-T 5, No. 5189). This is conversion according to Luther. This change from resisting to consenting is not something that happens so that I can decide to convert; it is conversion itself. If I am willing it is because I have already been converted.

The last misconception that Luther helps us to correct concerns how, or by what means the Holy Spirit works this conversion in us. As in Luther’s day, there are many today who want us to believe that the Holy Spirit comes to us and works conversion in us directly. However, as Luther points out, “The Holy Spirit draws us through the ministry of the Word when He pleases. Therefore the spoken Word is always to be held in high esteem, for those who despise the spoken Word are presently made heretics.” (W-T 5, No. 5191)

This is why Luther, and those who follow in the tradition of the Reformation, have emphasized the need for sound preaching. For Luther this means that you must first clearly present the law in its full rigor, with all the demands it places on us and then you clearly present the gospel in all its sweetness showing us how God has done all for our salvation. This is because, as Luther put it:

It is necessary, if you would be converted, that you become terrified, that is, that you have an alarmed and trembling conscience. Then, after this condition has been created, you must grasp the consolation that comes not from any work of your own, but from the work of God. He sent His Son Jesus Christ into this world in order to proclaim to terrified sinners the mercy of God. This is the way conversion is brought about; other ways are wrong ways. (Works 40 II, 440)

We can see now why the topic of conversion was so important and so central to Luther’s theology. To understand conversion in any other way than the biblical one set forth here is to have a wrong way of conversion. And to have a wrong way of conversion is, in fact, to have no way of conversion at all. We would do well to remember this as we evangelize the lost in the hope of conversion, and as we teach them how to view their conversion afterwards.

Thursday, January 2nd 1992

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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