YOUR PERSONAL DECISION?
The marvel of the Gospel is not that Christ chooses those who choose to accept Him, but that He chooses us before we choose to accept Him.
Rev. Matthew W. Rueger, Author
Jan. 1, 2020
The issue of one’s personal decision in faith is a pivotal issue for every Christian. The majority of American Protestantism has accepted the premise that apprehension of Christ depends on one’s individual choice. One hears things like, “You have to accept Jesus to be saved", “you have to decide to follow Jesus”, “you have to let Jesus into your heart”, or “ask Jesus to come into your life and then you can become a Christian." These expressions make the individual believer the actor. He or she is the one doing something – whether it be accepting or deciding.
Those who say these things are also likely to say that they do not believe a person’s own works can save them. They claim Jesus is the only Savior. The problem of course is that they contradict themselves. One can’t say “Jesus alone saves” and then also say “All you have to do to be saved is accept Jesus as your Savior”. Either Jesus is the sole actor and cause of our salvation or the individual is the actor and cause of salvation. It can’t be both. By claiming we have to accept, decide, or invite Jesus into our lives makes us the actor and cause of salvation.
There is an inconvenient passage in Scripture for those who think that it is our choice in favor of Christ that makes us Christian:
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” John 15:16
Another instructive passage is from Romans:
“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” Romans 5:6-11
The marvel of the Gospel is not that Christ chooses those who choose to accept Him, but that He chooses us before we choose to accept Him. He died for the ungodly before they were godly. He reconciled us to God when we were His enemies, not after we decided we wanted to be His friends. The Gospel is the message that Christ wholly and completely bridges the gap between sinful humanity and God on His own. As soon as one claims that he or she has apprehended Christ because of his or her choice or decision, the Gospel itself is overthrown.
This is where the sacramental theology of Lutheranism provides answers. We believe that God comes to us and gives Himself to us apart from our actions. One of the ways God’s Word says He gives Himself to people is in baptism:
"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Galatians 3:27
This is not to say that the performance of mere rituals saves people. Baptism is not merely a ritual that we enact and thereby are given heaven. Baptism is a means or a vehicle through which God has attached His Word of promise and in which Jesus says He gives faith and life (see article Infant Baptism). The way we have traditionally put it in the Lutheran Church is: “Baptism is not mere water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word” (Luther’s Small Catechism). What this means is that God put the power of His Word into baptism so that as He speaks and promises so it happens. The Word says baptism forgives (Acts 22:16), so we believe that God does wash sins away in baptism. The Word says baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21), so we believe God saves through baptism – not by the bare ritual, but by Christ Himself who apprehends us in its waters.
Another way Christ gives Himself to people apart from their decisions is through His Word. He declares life into them. It was through the power of God’s Word that creation was called into being from nothing. While baptism is God’s normal way of bringing Christ to people, it is not His only way. It is possible to be saved apart from baptism if one does not have access to it. The Word speaks Christ into individuals. It creates faith and thereby saves people.
One can liken it to someone sticking a piece of tape to your shoulder. It was not your decision to have the tape stuck there. They decided to stick it on you apart from your will. Once the tape is there, however, then one has a choice. Leave it there or take it off. The choice of the individual did not initiate or apprehend the tape of its own volition, but once it was stuck there, choice was possible. This is similar to the working of Christ. He puts grace within people. He forgives them. He gives them salvation all by His own decision and action. Then, and only then, can an individual decide to leave Christ’s gifts or reject them.
The question of the role of our decision in salvation may seem like a minor question for many, but it is a very big deal. The very nature of the Gospel as being a work of Christ alone or a work of man is at stake. If it is a work of man in any way, then it is a form of law. Laws are all about what we do. And laws or human works cannot save.
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." Ephesians 2:8-9
We stand on the Gospel as Christ’s work within us. Our salvation is the result of His decision to forgive us, not our decision to accept Him.