In lecture 19 (finally, we come to the end of Thesis IX!), Walther criticizes conversionism.
One of the most important of the many doctrinal differences that were discussed during the first half of the eighteenth century between the so-called Pietists and the Orthodoxists was this: the Pietists — disciples, though not altogether faithful disciples, you know, of Spener, August Herman Francke, and John Jacob Rambach — held that any one unable to state the exact day and hour when he was converted and entered into grace was certainly not a true Christian and could be regarded as such neither by himself nor by others. The Orthodoxists denied this.
What may be the reason why the Pietists, who were really well intentioned people, hit upon the doctrine that no one could be a Christian unless he had ascertained the exact day and hour of his Conversion? The reason is that they imagined a person must suddenly experience a heavenly joy and hear an inner voice telling him that he had been received into grace and had become a child of God. Having conceived this notion of the mode and manner of conversion, they were forced to declare that a person must be able to name the day and hour when he was converted, became a new creature, received forgiveness of sins, and was robed in the righteousness of Christ.
However, we have already come to understand in part what a great, dangerous, and fatal error this is. Tonight we shall take up the last part of Thesis IX, which tells us in particular that the word of God is not rightly divided “when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed … to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.”
This system has been adopted also by the Methodists. But before taking up the discussion of their view, we shall have to warn against a misunderstanding of the doctrine that a person must not base his salvation and his state of grace on his feeling. For this doctrine is abused by many.
There are people who regard themselves as good Christians although they are spiritually dead. They have never felt a real anguish on account of their sins; they have never been filled with terror on account of them, have never been appalled by the thought of the hell which they have deserved, have never been on their knees before God, bewailing with bitter tears their awful, damnable condition under sin. Much less have they wept sweet tears of joy and glorified God for His mercy. They read and hear the Word of God without being specially impressed by it. They go to church and receive absolution without feeling refreshed; they attend Holy Communion without any inward sensation and remain as cold as ice. Occasionally, when they become inwardly agitated because of their Indifference in matters concerning their salvation and because of their lack of appreciation of God’s Word, they try to quiet their heart with the reflection that the Lutheran Church teaches that the lack of spiritual feeling is of no moment. They reason that this lack cannot harm them and that they can be good Christians notwithstanding, because they consider themselves believers.
However, they labor under a grievous self-delusion. People in that condition have nothing but the dead faith of the intellect, a specious faith, or, to express it still more drastically, a lip faith. They may say with their mouths, “I believe,” but their heart is not conscious of it.
Note, then, that our statement that no one must base his salvation and his state of grace on his feeling does not mean that he can be a good Christian without having experienced any feeling in regard to religious matters. That is not what we teach.
Now, properly speaking, grace is never in man’s, but in God’s heart. First a person must believe; after that he may feel. Feeling proceeds from faith, not faith from feeling. If a person’s faith proceeds from feeling, it is not genuine faith; for faith requires a divine promise which it lays hold of. Accordingly, we can be sure that the faith of those who can say: “I regard nothing in all the world except the precious Gospel; on that I build,” is of the right sort. The devil may terrify and harass such people until they have no pleasant feeling of grace, but they will sing nevertheless:
Though “No!” my heart should ever cry,
Still on Thy Word I shall rely,
I shall trust, though void of feeling,
Till before Thee I’ll be kneeling.
Here you hear a verdict condemning all fanatical sects. No matter what other false doctrines they may teach, they all have this grievous error in common, that they do not rely solely on Christ and His Word, but chiefly on something that takes place in themselves. As a rule, they imagine that all is well with them because they have turned from their former ways. As if that were a guarantee of reaching heaven! No; we are not to look back to our conversion for assurance, but we must go to our Savior again and again, every day, as though we never had been converted. My former conversion will be of no benefit to me if I become secure. I must return to the mercy-seat every day, otherwise I shall make my former conversion my Savior, by relying on it. That would be awful; for in the last analysis it would mean that I make myself my savior.