Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Conversion by the Holy Spirit

John 11:43-44
Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

There is much misunderstanding about just what exactly the Holy Spirit does when He converts a sinner. It is popular these days to believe that the Holy Spirit simply changes a person’s mind to make him favorably disposed toward God. Some don’t even give God credit for this miraculous work, instead some say that a man must change his own heart and make some sort of a decision that would cause God to come into his wicked heart. Neither of these are taught by Holy Scripture.

Scripture describes conversion to faith in Christ as something like a birth or a resurrection. Remember that because of our inherited sin we are by nature “dead in (our) transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6) Since we are spiritually dead by nature then the new life that is begun in us through the power of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Holy Baptism is like a resurrection. God creates life where before there is only death.

The raising of Lazarus both gives a great example how this works, and it shows that Jesus has the divine power to accomplish this miracle. Lazarus was four days dead when Jesus came to visit his home in Bethany. Lazarus had no power to walk out of the grave on his own to meet Jesus halfway. Lazarus had no will to make a decision that would cause Jesus to act favorably on his behalf. Even Lazarus’ sisters did not presume to encourage Jesus to raise their brother (see John 11:23-26) even when Jesus told them what He was going to do. Lazarus was as dead as dead can be and his body was beginning to decay (John 11:39). Lazarus had no active role in his resurrection, no will, decision, cooperation, nor any help whatsoever.

Jesus didn’t need any help from Lazarus or anyone else. Jesus displayed the same power that He used in the beginning of time when He created all things visible and invisible. He simply spoke the words, “Lazarus, come out” and Lazarus came out of the tomb alive and well.

The same thing happens when a baby (or anyone) is baptized in the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “We were, by nature, objects of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) but when God’s Word is spoken and the water is applied, then a new child of God is born as Jesus says in John 3. It is a true miracle what God does in Holy Baptism. It is equal to what happened to Lazarus in Bethany four days after he died. It doesn’t seem to us to be a great miracle, especially when the person baptized is still an infant, and many would deny the miracle, but it is a great miracle nonetheless. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit,” is how Jesus describes the miracle of Holy Baptism.

Our sinful nature does not like to give Christ credit for even the miraculous things that He does in our lives, especially when that miracle includes killing our sinful nature. That is why people make up stories about the supposed power of a personal “decision” to follow Jesus. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism says that Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires…” Luther writes this based on the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” and the words of St. Paul in Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”

There is great comfort in the miracle of new birth by the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism. It takes away any question or doubt regarding the sincerity and effectiveness of one’s own decision or self-driven conversion. It gives us the assurance that what Christ says is done, and it is very good, as are all things that God creates by His holy Word. It is also as wonderful as a dead man walking out of his grave alive after Jesus calls him by name. Jesus does that to all of us who believe and are baptized.

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