Your Free Will or God’s Election?
Dr. Marney Fritts
There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world as to the understanding of salvation; how is it that we are saved? Is it by faith alone, by God’s grace alone, in Christ alone or do I have to at least accept the gift of grace? Does God really not leave me any freedom to choose? Must I rely solely on His free election of sinners? Then how can anyone, how can I be certain that I am saved?
Here is a short story to illustrate the confusion. The setting is late 19th century Sweden, and a conversation between a young Swedish pastoral intern named Fridfelt and his supervising pastor, the rector. The theological struggle of the young intern is as old as and as far-flung as the Garden of Eden and is still with us even today.
Fridfelt seated himself on the sofa. He felt that he must not put off confessing where he stood. This strange old man with his brandy and his soldiers should at least learn what kind of assistant he had gotten.
“I just want you to know from the beginning, sir that I am a believer,” he said. His voice was a bit harsh. He saw a gleam in the old man’s eyes which he could not quite interpret. Was approval indicated, or did he have something up his sleeve? The rector put the lamp back on the table, puffed at his pipe, and looked at the young man a moment before he spoke.
“So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that. What do you believe in?” Fridfelt stared dumbfounded at his superior. Was he jesting with him?
“But sir, I am simply saying that I am a believer.”
“Yes, I hear that, my boy. But what is it that you believe in?” Fridfelt was almost speechless.
“But don’t you know, sir, what it means to be a believer?”
“That is a word which can stand for things that differ greatly, my boy. I ask only what it is that you believe in?”
“In Jesus, of course,” answered Fridfelt, raising his voice. “I mean—I mean that I have given him my heart.”
The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave.
“Do you consider that something to give him?” By this time, Fridfelt was almost in tears.
“But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
“You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose
Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit oneself to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on him as Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is."
This is a colorful story of God’s election and how it is worked among us. First, note that the problem of young Fridfelt’s belief was that he believed in his own power to believe. This is called fideism, and it is to be turned in on the self and it’s supposed power and is categorically not Christ Jesus. The self becomes the main actor of one’s
salvation, and in fact, salvation depends upon the self’s “doing,” otherwise there is no salvation. Can you imagine: Christ Jesus and his cross being made so impotent and the sinner so full of power to do the one thing Jesus came to do: save the sinner?
Second, the rector recognizes the problem and becomes a real preacher to the young Fridfelt and through his preaching reversed who it is that was doing the saving. In the picture of the heart as a rusty can on a junk heap, he reveals what scripture in so many places and ways shows what the human heart is, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) Or an even more severe revelation, “You have died...” (Col. 3:3). The problem with this young intern and with all sinners alike is that we believe that deep down we are good
people or that we are a “clean slate” and just need a little guidance and timed opportunity to achieve our full potential. And when it comes to our salvation, that we actually have the power within us to accept God’s grace, who is Jesus Christ. In short, sinners don’t believe God’s word when it comes—that heart is devious and that we are dead—and believe, instead, in own better words. You are dead, dead in sin. How can a dead person do anything? It is a double malady, in Luther’s words, that we suffer, “Scripture sets before us a man (sic) who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead, but who, through the operation of Satan his lord, adds to his other miseries that of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and ability, whole and alive.”
You see, it is not your will or supposed free choice to accept Jesus Christ or for you to give your heart to Him, nor is it within your ability to believe in Him. Belief in Christ is exactly what He creates in you—out of nothing—when you get a preacher such as the rector. Faith comes through what is heard and what is heard is the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). And this is not a human word that can only present options to the will of either/or, but this is the Word of God that does what it says: forgives sins of those who do not believe they are sinners, raises the dead who believe they are alive, and opens the eyes and ears of those who are blind and deaf and nevertheless believed themselves to see and hear with clarity. In relationship to God and salvation, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the sins of the whole world, yours and mine, reveals that we only ever have wanted to get rid of him. Thus, we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13-15) and stand accused of the murder of the only one who came to save us. But, fortunately, for you and I, that we stand accused, however, in not the last word for, “God has imprisoned all in unbelief so that he might have mercy on all.” (Romans 11:32) Which leads to the third point: how it is that God has mercy on you.
Third, if one is left to sit and speculate and wonder about whether this person or that one receives God’s eternal mercy and is elected, or whether I am elected this only brings the worst form of terror. This is the fear of election that we have when we don’t get a preacher who proclaims a clear and certain Word, both Law and Gospel, from God in time in this old world. That means God elects His own here and now. The predestination of the saints that is talked about in Romans 8:29 and Eph. 1:5, for example, is brought out of the mystery of the “before the foundation of the world,”(Eph. 1:4) when God sends a preacher directly into the
midst of sinners, directly to you, and says, “You are the man, woman, child. You are mine, and I will never let you go. My grace, who is my Son, is sufficient for you both here now and for the hereafter.” By such a proclamation,God assures you that he is dealing with you in sheer, immutable, irrevocable mercy by presently proclaiming to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins, and this through your “local forgiveness person,” your pastor. It is true that all Christians are called to use this same office of the keys to set the bound captives free, those with whom we live and work, for all baptized Christians have been bestowed such a key. Because however, we are sometimes stingy with God’s forgiveness, or quite simply unaware that is the ultimate reason he gathers Christians together in family and in work, that God has called to this location. Living Word Lutheran Church a pastor, who is duty bound to bestow the forgiveness of sins in both preaching and the sacraments that Christ commands.
So back to the opening questions: how is it that we are saved? Answer: God sends a preacher with the proclamation of the Word of Christ, since God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Is it by faith alone, by God’s grace alone, in Christ alone or don’t I have to at least accept the gift of grace? Answer: By alone, God means ALONE. Since you are dead and don’t know or believe it, how can you accept Him? So, God sends you Jesus Christ who is Resurrection from the dead to raise you in faith, now, in the body later. Does God really not leave me any freedom to choose?
Answer: The cross reveals to us our “choice,” which really shows that we have never been free, but bound, specifically in our sin of unbelief. Jesus Christ has come and continues to come to us through preached Word and the sacraments, week in and week out, in time, not outside of time where are left to speculate, to plunder the strongman’s house of sinners.
Must I rely solely on His free election of sinners? Then how can anyone, how can I be certain that I am saved? Answer: Yes, amen, and, how can I be certain any other way? Election was ONCE the worst terror in all the universe because the deepest secret of the heart is that, surely, I must do something, I must cooperate with God, or because God’s preacher, who is far from glorious and charismatic, and whose word is just, “you are forgiven for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven for Christ’s sake,” and never gets beyond Christ and his cross. NOW,election is the greatest comfort to the conscience because of the promise to which Faith alone clings and arises to confess, “Now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from him.”