This fine article was written by Pastor Brian Wolfmueller of Hope Lutheran Church in Aurora, Colorado.
“Have you made a decision for Christ?” One often hears this question from radio and television preachers, or even from our friends and family. “Have you invited Jesus into your heart? Have you received Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Have you dedicated your life to Christ?” Many churches have a “Time of Decision” at the end of their services, with altar calls and emotional appeals for the person to respond. All of these questions rotate around this same premise: the unbeliever has the ability and responsibility to chose Jesus. But is this what the Bible teaches? Can the unbeliever make a decision for Christ?
What Can We Do?
St Paul speaks of our conversion as a move from death to life. “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” [Ephesians 2:1, see also 2:5 and Colossians 2:13] Dead in trespasses and sins. Not sick, not crippled, dead. We are, says St Paul, dead in our sins, completely unable to chose or decide anything regarding Jesus. Again, St. Paul, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” [1 Corinthians 2:14] The things of the Spirit of God, this certainly includes the truth of Jesus and His cross and death for us, all these things are unknown and unknowable to the natural man, the mind of flesh. The Gospel is “foolishness” [1 Corinthians 1:23,25] to those who do not believe. How, then, could we invite the unbeliever to make a decision for that which is foolish? It cannot.
Again, St Paul says, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” [Galatians 5:17] Far from accepting the good news of Jesus, our sinful flesh fights against it. As Stephen, the first martyr after Jesus' Ascension, preaches to the Jews in Jerusalem, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” [Acts 7:51] Such accusation stands over all the unbelieving world, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” [Ephesians 4:18]
Far from having a free will to choose or make a decision for Jesus, the Scriptures speak of the natural condition of man as an enemy of God. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.” [Romans 8:7] The fleshly mind “does not” and “can not” submit to God's law. Such sure testimonies should answer the question “Can we make a decision for Christ?” The Scriptures plainly tell us “no”. St Paul quotes from the Psalms, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10-12] And the Lord Jesus testifies, “The light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” [John 1:5]
Conversion: God's Work
The Bible says that we cannot chose or turn to God, that we are completely helpless when it comes to heavenly things. How, then, are we to believe? Conversion, turning from death to life and from the devil to God is a work of God Himself; a work of God alone. We call this the teaching of monergism, God alone is the cause of our salvation; He creates faith [see Ephesians 2:8-10] and gives repentance as a gift. Such is the testimony of the Scriptures.
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." [Acts 11:18]
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. [Acts 16:14]
Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” [Matthew 11:27] And again, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” [Matthew 13:11]
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. [1 John 5:20]
Just as the Lord spoke and the universe was created out of nothing, so our knowledge and trust in the Lord is created out of nothing in us. “For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Corinthians 4:6] God's Word alone creates faith in us. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. [Romans 1:16] So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. [Romans 10:17]
It is the Holy Spirit, working through the Word of God, who gives us faith and trust in Jesus and His cross, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [Philippians 2:13] So what we learn in the Catechism is a marvelous summary of this Biblical teaching:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
Our faith is a work of God the Holy Spirit through His Word.
Jesus' Work is Our Comfort
It is plain from the Scriptures that the unbeliever cannot make a decision for Jesus or invite them in to their heart, but that the Holy Spirit, through the Word, converts the heart and gives us faith. But does this matter?
Jesus teaches us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5] This is a verse of marvelous comfort, for here we have Jesus' promise that, abiding in Him, we will bear much fruit. But Jesus is also warning us to not think too highly of ourselves. “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Jesus means what He says, there is no doing anything good or holy apart from Him.
If we think that the unbeliever has the will to chose Jesus or make a decision for Christ, then we undo Jesus' words, as if He wanted to say, “Apart from Me you can do nothing except invite Me into your heart.” But Jesus wants us to have the comfort that He Himself, through the Holy Spirit, has given us repentance and faith.
Far from making a decision for Jesus, the Lord's people rejoice that He has made a decision for us, to die for us, to forgive all our sins, to baptize us into His family, and to call us through His Gospel. Our faith is Jesus' work, and this is our great comfort.
May our Lord's words to His disciples also grant us peace: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” [John 15:16] Amen.