Tag Archives: Conversion

Dr. Terry Hiebert: Conversion Stories of Martin Luther and Menno Simons

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

by Dr. Terry Hiebert

October 31, 1517, was Reformation Day, an event that produced the second great division in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the West. By some counts, the Protestant movement has since produced 45,000 more divisions we call denominations.

Centuries earlier, the apostle Paul urged the early Christians in Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6).

We might conclude from Paul’s statement that divisions should cease, denominations should dissolve, and the Christian Church should reunite as one big family. Notice, the word happy was omitted intentionally. For example, Lutherans and Mennonites have dialogued since 2002 about our differences and have expressed forgiveness and pledged cooperation with one another.

Each admit that the other belongs to the extended Christian family even if we do not attend all the same family gatherings. The differences have to do with beliefs, practices, ethics, organization, and traditions now 500 years in the making. Differences between even two Christian groups are complex.

Simplify the Issues

Now let’s simplify the issues. Lutherans and Mennonites can trace some of our main differences to the conversion stories of our founders, Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Like the influence of parents on their children, the experiences of Luther and Menno have imprinted their descendants for generations. The Reformers wrote of their conversions years after the fact. Luther described his conversion in 1545, recounting his experience of God’s grace in July 1519. Menno in 1554 wrote an account of experienced of God’s conviction and his conversion in 1536.

The conversion stories of Luther and Menno reveal the distinctives between the two Reformers as well as the two traditions that developed over the past 500 years. Consider the features of their stories of coming to faith in Christ. While there are similarities, the differences are also striking. I will highlight some of the more important distinctions.

 

Martin Luther Menno Simons
University lecturer above reproach Parish priest playing cards and drinking
Miserable sinner repented regularly People pleasing sinner but unrepentant
Doctrinal problem with God’s righteousness Moral problem is with his sinful heart
Raging conscience hating the God of wrath Troubled soul disturbed by his own hypocrisy
Crisis that miserable sinners are born in sin, condemned by the Law, and hear a Gospel of wrath Crisis of belief in the traditional views of the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism, and the violence of Christians
Scripture study in Romans 1 about the righteousness of God Scripture study about the Lord’s Supper and believers baptism
Discovers that God justifies by faith and feels like he is born again. Prays for grace and a clean heart and receives Christ’s forgiveness
Focuses on God’s objective work for us Focuses on God’s Spirit at work in us
Finds support for justification by faith in the tradition of Augustine Finds support for his new beliefs about the sacraments in Scripture but not in tradition
Experiences transformed love for God. Experiences a call to service and suffering in obedience to Christ

 

What can we learn from the two conversion stories? Let’s reflect on the stories of transformation, before, during and after conversion. Again we discover as many differences as similarities. Perhaps we should not be so surprised at their differences considering the conversion stories we hear in church every year at baptism.

Different Places, Mindsets

Before their conversions, Luther and Menno came from very different places, backgrounds, and mindsets. Luther was a university lecturer who encountered a biblical, theological, and philosophical problem that tormented his spiritual life as well. It seems that for Luther, the biggest problem was with a God of wrath and not so much with Luther the sinner.

Menno was a parish priest serving without ever having read the Scriptures. Menno started reading the Scriptures, but admitted that he wasted this knowledge through youthful lusts, sensual living, and looking for the favour of people. Luther started out to please a wrathful God while Menno started out to please worldly people.

At their conversions, Luther and Menno experienced a deep crisis of faith. Luther admitted he was a sinner, but was angry at a God who was not satisfied with his attempts at repentance. Luther was converted by an insight from studying the Bible that God justifies the sinner by the gift of faith. Luther had a theological conversion and repented in his beliefs about God.

Menno grew in awareness that his preaching of Scripture clashed with his sinful lifestyle. Menno was converted by the conviction that God would judge him for misleading his parishioners through hypocrisy. Menno had a moral conversion or a repentance of heart toward God and people.

Different Emotions and Callings

After their conversions, Luther and Menno followed experienced different emotions and callings. Luther felt “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” He returned to his study and was comforted to discover that his mentor Augustine had written similar ideas about justification by faith years earlier.

Nine months after Menno’s conversion, he felt God’s Fatherly Spirit empower him to renounce his worldly reputation. Menno yielded to “the heavy cross of Christ” and accepted the call to lead a small group of the Anabaptist faithful.

The two conversion stories are quite different. Luther’s conversion transformed his life from tormented anguish of soul in anger towards God to a place of love for God and the proclamation of God’s grace. Menno’s conversion transformed his life from sensuality, ease, and popularity with people to a place fearing for his life and the proclamation of obedience to God.

Both Luther and Menno in their conversion stories indicate that they were ministers of God before their conversion. Luther posted his 95 Theses two years before his conversion. Menno served as parish priest 12 years before his conversion. Both confessed troubled souls. Both identified a moment of enlightenment when a new understanding of God’s Word transformed their minds. Both yielded themselves to the grace of God after their conversions. Both continued to serve God resulting in a renewal of worship, beliefs, and morals for generations of followers.

Beyond Lament, a Blessing

While I hear many Christians lament the disunity in the Church today, the Reformation has become more of a blessing even considering the great difficulties experienced in the early years after 1517. Why? Because the message of unity is not the only word in the Scriptures. Paul continued his appeal to the early churches by celebrating the importance of diversity in the body of Christ as well.

In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “but to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (4:7). We hear echoes in praise of diversity as Paul calls the Corinthian church to unity in the Spirit’s manifestations of grace. To a divided church the apostle still maintained, “now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The phrase common good is better translated as “to be an advantage to someone.”

One legacy of the Reformation is found in the conversion stories of the Reformers and their followers. Like faith stories today, no two Reformers were identical. The conversion stories of Luther and Menno are quite different. The Reformation advantage is that over 75 million Christians identify more fully with the body of Christ because Luther and Menno taught us to see God’s grace in different ways.

Still, 500 years later we are Christian first, and only then Lutherans or Mennonites, because there is one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. In the case of Luther and Menno, how about three out of four?

terry-hiebert-2016
Dr. Terry Hiebert

Dr. Terry Hiebert serves at Steinbach Bible College as Academic Dean and enjoys when students get excited about theology. He is married to Luann, a college English instructor. They have three adult children and four energetic grandchildren. Terry and Luann enjoy their dog, a tiny house project, and long distance travel. They attend Gospel Fellowship Church (EMMC) in Steinbach, Man.

Resources:

Martin Luther’s Conversion Account see link

Menno Simons Conversion Account see link

Dr. Harvey Plett Children and the Church (Part Two): Safe in the Kingdom of God

by Dr. Harvey Plett

We need to accept children as children and that they are safe in the Kingdom of God, and not demand that they make little adult choices when it comes to spiritual decisions.

In no area of life do we accept a child’s decision as binding. There is no good rationale to change that in the spiritual realm. By accepting that they are in the Kingdom gave me as a parent a real sense of peace.

Developing a Child’s Spiritual Life

We need to continue our programs for nurturing our children in the faith. We need to teach our children that Jesus loves them, that they are in the Kingdom, and that they need to affirm their love for Jesus. We need to continue to teach the children about right and wrong as well as stressing the need for confessing their sins to Jesus and asking His forgiveness.

The parent-child love relationship is a good model to illustrate the love that exists between Jesus and the child. This means we need to be careful we don’t teach the frightening realities of being spiritually lost until they are old enough to understand. Any child can be scared into making a decision without knowing what is involved by scaring it with hell. Care and discretion needs to be used.

Similarly we need to use discretion in terms of which Bible stories we use to teach the Bible to children. We need to be aware of what our children are taught in Sunday School, at camps, VBS, and other clubs.

Accept a Child’s Decision as a Child’s Decision

We need to expect that children below the age of accountability will make decisions for Jesus because they live in an adult world and see and hear how adults are asked to make decisions.

In addition children do make decisions as they grow. Children will also confess the wrongs they do and ask Jesus for forgiveness as they have been taught. When this happens we rejoice in the child’s response, affirm and encourage the child but deal with the child on the child level and not a miniature adult level.

We also need to accept the decision as the decision of a child and not that of an adult. We can expect that our children will make many decisions as they grow in their understanding. We need to affirm them each time. Should it not be possible for a child from a Christian home to never know a time that it was lost because it made decisions for the right as the opportunity came along?

Balance Our Conversion Stories

In our churches we need to ask those who have dramatic conversions to share their testimony, but each time we have one of the dramatic conversions we should invite someone who does not have a dramatic conversion experience to share his or her testimony. This will help the child understand that there is no one model of conversion that must be experienced in order for a conversion to be genuine.

The child will share her or his decisions they made as a child and possibly date their conversion from that time. That is good but it will probably be rather non-dramatic. In my class at Steinbach Bible College I asked the question, “Who can give me the date of when they became a Christian?” Surprisingly many times one third to one half of the class didn’t have a date. This was due to their upbringing. I said, “Fine. What is important is that you know you are a Christian today.”

Believer’s Baptism

We need to be clear that baptism is believer’s baptism and not infant or child baptism (Matt. 28:18-20). And so we baptize an individual when he or she is mature enough to own the faith. Baptism is not a sacrament that conveys the grace of God. It is a ceremony that illustrates what the grace of God has done and incorporates the individual into the visible local body of Christ. Therefore infant baptism is not baptism for the church that believes in believer’s baptism.

We do not thereby condemn those who baptize infants, but neither do we accept that baptism. We are dealing with truth here and not feelings about how good that person is. We need to graciously take a stand on the truth.

Using More Accurate Language

We need to clean up our language when it comes to the idea of child dedication. We cannot dedicate another individual. A person is responsible for himself or herself. We can influence them, but we cannot dedicate them to something. In reporting such services, churches should identify them as Parent Dedications.

By calling them Child Dedication services we are communicating something we, first of all, don’t believe in, and sort of assume that people will understand that we are not conveying sacramental grace with the ceremony.

Though many consider something has happened to the child in the Dedication ceremony, in actuality it hasn’t. The dedication is of the parents committing themselves to raise their child in a Christian environment.

I believe the dedication of parents is an important idea and practice, but it does not mean that parents who don’t do this in a public service are any less Christian or less concerned or dedicated to raise their children for the Lord. To assume that children who have gone through the ceremony have something more than those who haven’t is reading more into the ceremony than what it is.

Implications for Communion

This view of the child, church, and baptism, also has implications for participation in the communion service. Like baptism, communion is for those who have made an accountable decision to follow Christ and have been baptized on that faith commitment (Acts 2:38; Matt. 28:18-20). A child does not understand the meaning of the communion service. A child cannot do the self-examination nor discern the body as Paul teaches (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Therefore it is not ready to participate in the ordinance.

I suggest that we let the child be a child and not require of it what we require of a person who is accountable. The communion service is not a sacramental service that conveys grace. It is a commemoration of what Christ has done for those who understand what that is.

Time to Re-Examine!

On this issue of the child and the Kingdom of God, I believe we as a Conference have experienced what Arnold L. Cook would call “historical drift.” Our drift seems to be towards sacramentalism on the one hand; and, on the other, demanding of a child something it is incapable of doing. It is time to re-examine some of our practices to see whether they are in line with Scripture and what our early Anabaptist forebears lived out.

A child is in the Kingdom of God; and as we teach the child, it responds to the truth at its level of understanding and thereby remains in the Kingdom unless, when accountable, it makes contrary decisions.

Dr. Harvey Plett
Dr. Harvey Plett

Dr. Harvey Plett (Prairie Rose) is a long-time EMC minister, educator, and conference worker. He has served as president of SBC and as EMC moderator. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016.