Breaking Bad Habits Does Not Make You a Christian
“T hesis XVI—In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practices.”
I once met a woman who had been baptized seven times. She asked me to baptize her an eighth time, because in her estimation the first seven “hadn’t took.”
Over the years, she had attended various churches which confused the word repentance with outward piety, as if the Law were the standard by which one knew whether one was truly converted. She struggled with a variety of worldly addictions. After each personal relapse, she was re-baptized with the guilt-trip blessing: “This time should work.”
The Law is a tempting yardstick of conversion, because the Law produces results you can see. A visit from the pastor can get a delinquent member to show up . . . for a Sunday or two. A bleak financial report can turn the church budget around . . . until the next quarter.
We sinners like to dredge up old hurts to gain the upper hand in an argument or go through mere motions of obedience to maintain an outward peace. But Walther clarifies that none of these are ways to produce God-pleasing fruit: “What He requires is a new mind, a new heart, a new spirit; not quitting vice and doing good works.” (p. 300)
When Nicodemus attempted to engage Jesus with superficial flattery, Jesus effectively rebuked him: “If you are still in your old mind, you cannot enter heaven . . . you will have to be born again.” (p. 300)
True repentance is a spiritual rebirth worked deep within as the Spirit enters the heart through Word and Sacrament: “For what else is repentance but an earnest attack upon the old man and entering upon a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism, which not only signifies such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it.” (Large Catechism)
Jesus refused to wait around for any behavior modification on your part: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) As Peter explains Baptism’s saving power, only the cleansing flood of Jesus’ blood can set the heart at peace: “Not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 3:21)
Thus, through faith in Christ’s merit alone, you receive a right standing with your God which no human effort could achieve, an innocence and blessedness yours by grace alone: “Even when he treats himself to a hearty meal, eats or sleeps, he is doing a good work.” (p. 305)
So, instead of performing an eighth Baptism for a woman who felt she had let her God down once again, I suggested that she change her mind about the matter entirely. I pointed her repentant soul back to her first—and only—Baptism as the divine declaration that her God would never let her down.
For any change of mind you need, count on the Word of God to get to “the root of the tree.” The Law reveals to you your inability to earn God’s favor, and the Gospel calls you to believe in a Savior Who claimed you as His own before you could do anything to come to Him.
Keep in that Word, taught in truth and purity, and have your mind set straight, with eyes of faith ever focused on the kingdom of God.
WALTHER’S LAW AND GOSPEL
One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.