Sermons and Papers

What Makes a Christian?

A Look at the Great Commission

by Pastor John Moe

"What makes a Christian?" Not a difficult question for any Lutheran who did his homework in Catechism class. "The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith, even as He calls, gathers and enlightens the whole Christian church on earth." (Luther, Small Catechism, Third Article of the Apostle's Creed)


Two points concerning the theology of what makes a Christian are recognized by the genius of Dr. Luther in this brief passage: Number one is the Divine Monergism of Conversion, the second is that the making of a Christian is not complete "The hour he first believes". Both of these threads will run thought this paper and control both the shape and the content of what I have to say here. Both are, of course, not inventions of Luther, but thoroughly Biblical doctrines which Dr. Luther has, as is his way, clearly and concisely stated.

At the risk of boring you we will begin with a quick review of the Biblical grounds for Divine Monergism, i.e. the fact that "what makes a Christian", is God Himself, all by Himself, with no help from the one who is turned from enemy of God to follower of Christ. Then the bulk of our discussion will deal with the means of Grace. Those tools which God the Holy Spirit uses in His work of making Christians.

I present the following, not as a list of "proof texts" which prove that the making of a Christian is the work of God and God alone, but simply as a Catechetical review of what I believe the entire Scriptures present with unwavering consistency. a consistency which we will see in greater depth when we talk about the Means of Grace.

And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, RSV).

"You were dead" he says. The non-Christian can do no more to "decide to follow Jesus" than Lazarus, four days dead and stinking, could decide to come out of the grave without the Word of Christ.

"... the carnal mind [is] enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. (Romans 8:7, NKJV).

... no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3, NKJV).

That ancient confession of the Church "Jesus is Lord" i.e. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who spoke His Name to Moses at the burning bush, is impossible without the Holy spirit.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; [it is] the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NKJV).

Not only is Salvation by faith alone, apart from works, but that faith it self is a part of the package which is all a gift of God and is in no way any part of the work of the individual

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6, NKJV).

"The God who commanded light to shine out of darkness" - The creation was a great and powerful work of God and the making of a Christian is no less a miracle by that same God. He made light to shine out of darkness by His command, and he has "shone in our hearts to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ".

This brief look at just a few passage of the Scripture is intended only as a reminder of the Biblical truth that Dr. Luther express so clearly "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith." The fact that the making of a Christian is entirely the work of God the Holy spirit is consistent with the entire Scriptures and underlies our discussion of the Means of Grace, the tools which he uses to carry out that work.


There is a debate underway in America today and it has nothing whatever to do with presidential politics. I speak of the debate between the historic liturgical understanding of the church and it's mission, and the view of the church promoted by the proponents of the Church Growth movement. This paper will contend that the principles of the Church Growth Movement are in direct opposition to the Biblical truth that God alone makes a Christian. If my descriptions of the positions of the Church Growth movement are oversimplified please accept my apologies. I am not attempting to set up a straw man so that I may easily defeat him. I must be brief in my description of what I believe to be an erroneous position, so that I might more fully lay out what I believe to be the proper, Biblical, and (isn't this a surprise) Lutheran position.

At the annual pastors conference of the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, We were treated to a full day of Lyle Schaller, not a Lutheran of course, but a nationally known expert on matters of Church Growth. I must confess I did not last the day, but what I did stay for defined quite well the different approach to the mission of the church which I intend to address. Dr. Schaller distinguished the two approaches as the "European way of doing church" and the "Made in America way of doing Church." the "European way of doing Church" he said could be characterized with the phrase "shut up and listen." The Made in America is, in his terms, more of a "what do you think" approach. Although I disagree with the characterization of historic, liturgical Christian worship as European, and the idea of "doing Church" makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, I think Dr. Schaller has gotten right to the essence of the difference between the two approaches. It may be loading Dr. Shaller's phrase "doing church" with more freight than he would want to put into it but I think the real difference in the two approaches boils down to the question is the church something which we do or is it the creation of the Holy Spirit

Interestingly this debate between the "European" and the "American" way of "doing church" is not new. This was, in fact, the exact point of conflict between Schmucker's "America Lutheran" Approach, and the Confessional Lutheranism of Walther and the Missouri Synod. Mr. Schaller would tell us that we waste our time and energy looking at the past. At his presentation to our pastor's conference he pointed to a banner on the wall which celebrated 150 years of God's blessing on the Synod said, "That will do you no good at all. Most of those people are dead." I wanted to stand up and shout, "most people are you know." But of course his point was, to attract today's people you need to get your head out of the past and provide today's people with what they want. That, of course is the position which Schmucker took in the last century. "If you are going to attract Americans you need to set aside the music, liturgy, and sacramental notions brought over from Europe and present them with a church which appeals to their ideas of what church should be." Sound like Schaller's "what do you think?" approach does it not?

In 1883, at the deduction of the new Seminary building in St. Louis, Dr. Walther looked back over the years since the beginning of the Synod, and had these reflections about the phenomenal growth which had made the building of this seminary building necessary

"When our synod, the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, thirty-six years ago met for the first time in the God-blessed city of Chicago, it was a small, despised little band of only twelve poor congregations. The church which in this country still called itself evangelical-Lutheran lay in utter ruin. The teaching of our church was unknown territory for it. The small number of preachers who still knew something about it and wanted to stick to it were considered people with limited mental capacities, and the hope was that they would soon die out. The Lutheran Confessions were hardly known even by name anymore, and they were considered documents of earlier unenlightened times, now long obsolete. Instead of Luther's doctrine in the church that called itself Lutheran, the teaching of Zwingli and obvious rationalism was in vogue, coupled with fanatic methods of conversion. ... To want to transplant the Old Lutheran church, which submitted to every letter of the Word of God, to this land of untamed love for liberty seemed in real fact to be a completely hopeless, worse than foolish undertaking. But far from letting itself be made to falter, our synod did not ask: What must we do to become large and numerous? But it only asked: What must we do to be found faithful before the Lord of the church ? Our synod knew that success was not in its hands. Success is therefore left to God." (C.F.W. Walther, CJ, 15:3, p.226-7)

"There is nothing new under the sun" is there? According to Dr. Walther this church body began when "the teaching of Zwingli and obvious rationalism was in vogue, coupled with fanatic methods of conversion. " But Walther says they "did not ask: What must we do to become large and numerous? But it only asked: What must we do to be found faithful before the Lord of the church?" And his reason for that is, I think, the fundamental difference between confessional Lutheran understanding of what makes a Christian and the "made" in America, church growth, understanding. "Our synod knew that success was not in its hands. Success is therefore left to God."

I believe that fanatical theology of conversion, if not the fanatical methods of conversion, lie at the heart of the "Made in America" understanding of the mission of the Church. That theology of conversion distorts the concept of the church's mission as it distorts the historic understanding of Matthew 28:19-20, the "Great Commission," the sedes doctrina of the Church growth movement.

Arminian theology of conversion, the belief that man cooperates in the business of making Christians, pervades the American religious atmosphere. It is the very air which we American Christians breath and it is the fuel that drives the engine of the Church Growth Movement. As Lutherans we give mental assent to the truth that conversion, the making of Christian, is the work of God and God alone, and yet when we are not talking about the doctrine of conversion but dealing with the Scripture called the "Great Commission". We seem to accept uncritically, a translation and interpretation which takes the making of Christians from the realm of divine Monergism and makes it the work and responsibility of men. It is my contention that Matthew 29:19-28, as it is commonly understood and referred to as "The Great Commission." is mistranslated, overworked, and abused.

The common English translations almost without exception read much like the NKJV - "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, [even] to the end of the age." Notice that when we begin the quotation with verse 19, and that is usual the way you hear it quoted, we begin in mid thought. To what does the therefore refer? "And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth." says Jesus in the preceding verse. As the Suffering Servant, the Crucified and risen Son of God, the full authority, authorization and the power of heaven is his and it is with that authority and power he commissions the 11 apostles. In John's Gospel He tells them "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

A careful exegesis of this passage will, I believe, show that its meaning has been distorted and perverted by a false emphases on the human rather than the divine in matters of making Christians. But it seems to me that even without a careful exegesis we Lutheran Christians should easily recognize that there is something hugely wrong with the way this passage is used. Here we have one of the greatest gifts to the church in all of Scripture, here and only here in the 66 books of holy writ, we have the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Yet this passage is continually dragged out to encourage, cajole, exhort, and otherwise, lay a guilt trip on believers about the business of "Making disciples," without even lip service being paid to the Sacrament. Should that not be a warning that there is something seriously wrong with the way this Scripture is being handled.

The sentence does not begin, as most of our translations have it, with the imperative "Go therefore." "poreuthente" is an aorist participle something like "having gone," The main verb in this sentence is "mathayteusate". It is the verbal form of the Greek noun "mathaytay;" disciple. This is the imperative and is the most troublesome word in the sentence to translate. The trouble is, of course, that we have no readily available English verb form of the noun "disciple." How do you express the idea "to disciple." English is not the only language to have this problem by the way. Jerome translating the Scriptures into Latin in the end of the 4th beginning of the 5th century, chose "docete" teach, to express the idea as Luther a thousand years later translating into the German chose "lehret." A disciple is, of course a student, a learner, in a way that goes beyond the mere intellect to include learning the habits and lifestyle of the teacher. And so, it seems, the convention was to render the idea of "discipling" someone with teach. Even the 1611 King James version renders it "teach" It appears to me that it is not until the Advent of Arminian notions of human cooperation in conversion, coupled with American revivalism, that the convention changes from "teach all nations" to "Make disciples" of all nations.

"mathayteuw" is rare in Greek, occurring only four times in the Gr. NT as compared with 269 times for the noun "mathaytay" and never in the LXX. It seems to me that the rare and arcaic verb "disciple" might well serve as an excellent translation at Matthew 28.

The final judge of the meaning of any word is, of course context. The imperative, "mathayteusate," is followed by two participles. "Baptizing in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," and "teaching them to hold fast all things which I have instructed you." We don't have time here to go word by word, tense, voice mood, case and number through this verse, but this truly is the Great Commission. It is not a narrow focus on conversion of non-Christians. Conversion is implied here of course for if men born spiritually blind dead and enemies of God are to be disciples, God must give them "His Holy Spirit so that by his grace they may believe His Word and lead a godly life here in time and hereafter in eternity." But here Christ speaks to the eleven the business of the life of the church. Here is all of the Third Article of the Creed. Teaching them to "keep," "hold dear," "guard," all things which Jesus charged them with. That includes doctrine, life, Sacraments and all.

The other day we buried Ruby Waldo. Ruby was 91. Baptized into the faith in 1905, She rarely missed a divine service and received the sacrament almost every time it was offered until she went into the nursing home. Even when strokes had debilitated her mind so that she no longer recognized me, when I spoke the creed or prayed the Our Father with her the light in her eyes showed that she held dear, still kept those things which The Lord charged His Church. That's the church in action. That's Luther's "In which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers in Christ." The Church growth attitude, it would seem, would count Ruby once, when she joined St. John's in 1941, and then the emphasis would be on other numbers to add. But Ruby's 91 years in the Christian Church were not some second rate low down "maintenance ministry." Ruby's whole life in the church is exactly what Matthew 28:18-20 is about. That's the Great Commission.

Those who favor the church growth, made in America view of the mission of the church decry the fact that we Lutherans have, in their view, never had the real heart for missions. They seem to feel that they need to make excuses for Luther and the reformers for their lack of understanding of the "Great Commission." "Theirs was a different time where all the western world was considered in some sense Christian," they say. or "Luther and the reformers had a different battle to fight." I don't believe we need make excuses for Luther and the reformers at all. Luther understood well the will of God for the salvation of the lost. He says "God desires to have his name praised and his kingdom developed and extended. Therefore, we must praise his name, confess our faith and win others to do the same [die andern herzu locken], so that God's kingdom may be extended and his name praised." (Luther, Postils, Sunday After Ascension Day, 1. 3:245) But Luther also understood that the making of a Christian is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments. "So our building and promotion of the church is not the result of our works but of the Word of God which we preach. He [The LORD] rails against the Enthusiasts, who despise the Word. Here you see that everything is produced by the Word. (Luther, on Isaiah 55:10, 17:257-8)

Luther knows that the Making of a Christian is the work of the Holy Spirit and so he never turns Matthew 28 into a simplistic command to "Make disciples" He and the reformers writing in the Lutheran confessions refer to Matthew 28:19-20 when they are talking about Baptism. When they talk about the conversion of non Christians they refer to Luke 24:47 "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations," and Mark 15:16 And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature."

At the heart of the Made in America way of doing church is the Arminian notion that "I can by my own reason and strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord and come to him." If that were true, the task of the church would be the simple sales promotion that they make it out to be.

But if the Made in America way of doing church is right, then all we have to do is make worship attractive to the non Christian so that he will want to become a believer. There are some things we'd better do then. Sermons better be timely, 90s in their content, and avoid too much stress on doctrine. Any salesman knows that you can't "delight" the clientele if your talk might be offensive to them. When Reformation Sunday rolls around I am usually advised by one of my members, not to talk against the Catholics. "There was once a woman," he always tells me, "who was in the pastor's class, and would have joined our church but on Reformation the Pastor said something negative about the pope and she never came back." Listen to Dr. C.F. W. Walther on the Subject of doctrine in the sermons.

"The true growth of a congregation is not possible without sermons rich in thorough doctrine. He who falls short here is not faithful in his office, even if, by zealous admonition, earnest rebuking, and evangelical-sounding comfort, he gives the appearance of being consumed with faithful concern for the souls entrusted to him.

The first use of God's Word is 'for doctrine' (2 Timothy 3:16|). The first, necessary, indispensable characteristic of a bishop as a preacher is that he be 'apt to teach' (1 Timothy 3:2 2 Timothy 2:24|). The first office in the church is that of teaching (Romans 12:7-8|). The most important requirement of a sermon, after that it contain only God's pure Word, is that it be rich in doctrine. The highest model in this respect is St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which the practical application follows only after the doctrinal foundation has been laid in the first eleven chapters. (C.F.W. Walther, American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, New haven MO, 1995, p.p. 64-65)

And on the question of addressing negative remarks about other beliefs -

"We see it in the example of all prophets and apostles and of our Lord Jesus Himself. As often as we see them and the Lord Himself occupied with the doctrines, so often we see them add defense, not only against coarse errors (1 Corinthians 15:12 & ff.) but also against more subtle ones (Galatians 5:9); not only in a friendly way (Galatians 4:10-12) but also in a serious, vehement way (Galatians 1:8-9, Phil. 3:2); not only with reference to the false teachings but also with reference to the false teachers, with or without naming them and their sects (1 John 4:1, Gal 5:10, Mat 16:6, Rev 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:17, Nominal elenchus! [reproof by name])

That is required of every preacher: "Holding fast the faithful Word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. ... (Titus 1:9-11; those who insist on works instead of faith, Law instead of Gospel) He who presents pure doctrine but does not refute the contrary false doctrine, does not warn against wolves in sheep's clothing, against false prophets [Matthew. 7:15], is not faithful steward of God's mysteries [1 Corinthians 4:1], no faithful shepherd of the sheep entrusted to him, no faithful watchman on the walls of Zion. According to God's Word, he is an unfaithful servant, a silent watchdog, a traitor. (C.F. W. Walther, American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, New Haven, Missouri, Lutheran News, Inc. P. 65)

How can brilliant men like Walther and Luther sound so ignorant of the simplest methods of persuasion? It is not that they are ignorant. It is that they are Lutheran, that is Biblical, in their understanding of that conversion is not selling or persuasion, but a great miracle, worked by the Holy Spirit. Listen to Dr. Luther.

Reason thinks: Aye, one can, nevertheless, easily preach the Gospel in a beautifully simple and plain way, without a revolution in the world, and then it will be heartily welcomed. This is the utterance of Satan; for if I believe and say that faith in Christ alone does and accomplishes all, I overthrow the monkey play of the whole world; and that they cannot allow. Therefore, Christ's teachings and man's teachings cannot stand together; one must fall. (Luther, Postils, S. a. Ascension Day, 11. 3:249)

If man can man can "decide to follow Jesus" then the Made in America way of doing church is right and we'd better get rid of the ancient liturgy and hymns of the church because they sure do not appeal to non-Christians. If the truth be known they may not be all that attractive (in the sense of entertainment) to us who are in the church. I don't know of anyone who's favorite listening music is congregational hymn singing. But if the "natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit" as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Then it seems to me that it is a theological impossibility to create a truly Christian, Spiritual "worship experience," to use the terminology of the Made in America way of doing church, which will be attractive to one who is not already a believer. Following the theology expressed by Luther and Walther, you may convict and condemn him with doctrine, in liturgy, sermon, and hymns, the holy Spirit may bring to life faith in Christ through the Word of Law and Gospel you present. But you cannot make the things of the Spirit acceptable to the natural man and still have the things of the Spirit.

Luther did not consider the Order of Public worship a matter of indifference.

The service now in common use everywhere goes back to genuine Christian beginnings, as does the office of preaching. ...

Three serious abuses have crept into the service. First, God's Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse. (Luther AE 53:11)

Nor did Walther consider the matter of music in the public worship a matter of indifference. In that speech at the dedication of the Seminary building in St. Louis in 1883, he said the following as he rejoiced over the triumph of confessional Lutheranism.

The old pure songs, full of the power of faith and the excitement of love, as they were sung by our fathers, resounded again with their charming old tunes. In short, the true Lutheran Church, for which dirges had already been sung all over the world, revived here of all places, came up out of the grace, and in more that a thousand places in our great union of states planted the victory banner of the pure Gospel." (ibid, 228)

That doesn't mean that you cannot be "successful" using the sales techniques of the Church Growth Movement. Some individuals and congregations have shown phenomenal growth doing just that. But if people are joining your church because they are attracted by the service, and if that service is Law and Gospel word and Sacrament, if it is in fact of the Spirit, then the people you are attracting are already Christian, for the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit. "Sheep stealing" is an old term used for that. The sad part of that is that the people attracted often go from a solid Word and Sacrament ministry to a sort of generic watered down service intended to appeal to the general community. They are weak Christians who are drawn away from the very source of strength they need to a thin soup that flatters their ego and appeals to their individuality, the very tactics of Satan in the Garden.

The other possibility is that you truly do attract those who are not Christian. Of course, since the Natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit, if what you are presenting is attractive and acceptable to the natural man, it is not of the Spirit. You can gather them in, collect your money, run your successful business, make a name for yourself, and never in fact be Christ's church, in which the Holy Spirit "daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers in Christ," at all. I think that this too goes on, and thankfully it is even beginning to be recognized by some who have favored the Made in America Style of doing church. David Luecke tried to sell the LC-MS on the notion that we could adopt an evangelical style of worship and still maintain the substance of Lutheran doctrine (a notion which is either ecclesiastical schizophrenia or, more likely an indication of a total lack of a grasp of the substance of Lutheran doctrine) has written a new book on worship which was reviewed for Logia by Terry Dittmer. Rev Dittmer had this to say.

"This book and people who fall into this school of thought are not really dealing with worship at all. ...

I question whether what Luecke writes about really is worship. Worship implies an established relationship between God and his people . If the Focus of the event, or the concern, is for the unchurched, I have to ask whether it is really possible for them to worship. " (Logia, Holy Trinity, 1996, V,3, p. 65)

The notion that men can by their own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him has led to the idea that the Bible can be translated so that it will appeal to the non Christian, and that worship forms can be developed which will attract the non Christian so that he will join the church and decide to believe in Jesus. Both ideas are nonsense. The Bible is the Church's book, grasped and understood only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Divine service is the Church's respiration, her very life breath where the Holy Spirit by word and sacraments disciples his people life long. faith in Christ is not a decision made by one who does not believe but a gift of God the Holy Spirit given through the word and Sacrament ministry of the Church. AC V says.

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirits, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.

Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that the Holy Spirit comes to us through our own preparations, thoughts, and works without the external word of the Gospel.

This of course leads us to the office of the Holy ministry, which is a whole different topic. In closing I would just like to stress again that it is the Holy Spirit, not the Church who makes disciples. ours is not a sales promotion to convince customers that they want our attractively packaged product. There is no way for me to attractively package the message that you are a damned sinner whose only hope is the bloody execution of the son of God, who has done it all for you.

In the last century when in the face of all human logic the LC-MS grew by leaps and bounds C.F.W. Walther said. "Our synod did not ask: What must we do to become large and numerous? But it only asked: What must we do to be found faithful before the Lord of the church ? Our synod knew that success was not in its hands. Success is therefore left to God." (C.F.W. Walther, CJ, 15:3, p.226-7)

Back to Sermons and Papers

Confessional Lutheran Main Page | Calendar of Upcoming Events
Sign our Guestbook | Related Links