Against Revivalistic Decisionalism

Seeing how adverse revivalism is to faith in Christ alone, I oppose it at every turn that I can. Though I write against Arminian views of salvation, my real target is the revivalism that’s engulfed American Protestantism for two centuries.

Against the synergistic view of salvation – and I cite not the Reformed but one of the Lutherans – C. F. W. Walther says about justification by faith alone (Arthur Drevlow, Ed., C. F. W. Walther: The American Luther (Mankato, MN: Walther Press, 1987), 269; quoted in ‘C. F. W. Walther, Justification and the Joint Declaration’):

What God’s Word really means when it says that man is justified and saved by faith alone is nothing else than this: Man is not saved by his own acts, but solely by the doing and dying of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the whole world. Over against this teaching modern theologians assert that in the salvation of man two kinds of activity must be noted: in the first place, there is something that God must do. His part is the most difficult, for He must accomplish the task of redeeming men. But in the second place something is required that man must do. For it will not do to admit persons to heaven, after they have been redeemed, without further parley (talk). Man must do something really great – he has to believe. This teaching overthrows the Gospel completely.

As Daniel Preus reads Walther, ‘Grace is unconditional and faith simply receives that which is freely offered’. And John Gerhard, similarly, voices my own objections to a man’s faith as the grounds of justification: ‘It is one thing to be justified on account of faith and another to be justified by faith. In the former view, faith is the meritorious, in the latter, the instrumental cause.’ God forbid that salvation come by means of a decision on our part! For if grace was conditional (i.e. dependent), none would ever be saved.

Fortunately, even for churches that choose not to be Calvinist, there’s better tradition than the revivalist norm suggests. J. I. Packer writes:

As we hinted earlier, Wesley’s stress when presenting conversion as the entrance to authentic Christian life (unlike that of some today who would see themselves as Wesley’s successors) was on man’s utter and helpless dependence on God to give faith and bring about new birth. This was because Wesley thought of faith, not as decision (to use the modern catchword), but as a compound of trust and assurance, the subjective consequence of the Spirit’s inner witness. What the Spirit witnessed to in giving faith was the promise of pardon and adoption as applying to oneself.

If only we all held such a view of conversion and let go of our self-destructive decisionalism! The Church would be healthier, more stately and regal, with the crown of the gospel sitting assuredly upon her without endless self-examination as to whether the former ‘conversions’ were bona fide decisions mature enough to be judged genuine.

Obsessive self-examination is the mechanism of a man incurvatus in se (curved inward upon himself), a man who sees only himself and cannot love the God whose Cross stands outside of him. But this self-obsession is the home of everyone whose assurance is conditioned upon a known, discrete decision that in the revivalistic scheme is equated with conversion to faith. What faith asks is that we turn away from all that introspection.

Conversion, from faith to faith preserved entire, is the outward-looking assurance that ‘the Son has become a Man; Christ has died and been raised’ means ‘God has saved you.’ And faith, in Calvin’s words, is ‘a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit’. Nothing else is needed for us to be justified.

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