The peculiarity of the Christian religion as has been shown so often, and acknowledged even by opponents, lies in the person of Christ. All other religions are independent, to a certain degree, of their founders, because those founders were nothing more than their first confessors. But Jesus was not the first Christian; he was and is the Christ. He is not the subject, but the object, of religion. Christianity is not the religion of Jesus, still less of Jesus-worship, but Christ religion. Christianity is now as dependent on him, from moment to moment, as when he trod this earth. For he is not a person who lived and worked only in the past, but he lives and works still, is still Prophet, Priest, and King, and himself upholds the Church, which he established, from age to age, and assures her victory. Christianity, according to its own confession, does not exist through the strength and fidelity of its confessors, but through the life and will of its Mediator. The stages of the application of salvation are much, and in the same sense, his interest as the interpretation of salvation. His will and his work is to make men truly religious, to bring them into fellowship with God, and that is also the will and work of God himself. For the will of God to save the world was not only an annunciation of God’s inclination in the past, but is an action, a deed, a work of God, which goes on from day to day. God is love; but that live is no quiescent attribute, but an eternal, omnipresent energy which realizes itself in the hearts of men. God is Father; but that Fatherhood is no mere title of honour, but an almighty, energetic power which regenerates men as his children and heirs. Christianity is no mere revelation of God in the past, a work in the midst of this and every time. The Father of Jesus works always hitherto, and he himself works also. All other religions try to obtain salvation by the works of men, but Christianity makes a strong protest against this; it is not autosoteric but heterosoteric; it does not preach self-redemption, but glories in redemption by Christ alone. Man does not save himself, and does not save God, but God alone saves man, the whole man, man for eternity. It is a religion, not of works, but of faith; not of merits, but of grace. Christianity proves itself in the plan of salvation to be the absolutely spiritual and pure religion. Man can add nothing to it, — salvation is God’s work alone; of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.
But this almighty and always active will of God is not realized without man, as antinomians of all kinds imagine, but in man, and through man. It is realized, according to the witness of the whole of Scripture, in regeneration and faith, in conversion and forgiveness of sin, in sanctification and perseverance. In other words, if we ask of the prophets, of Christ and his apostles, how a man comes to a knowledge of the truth, and to a new life in God’s fellowship, then they give the answer unanimously, — not by knowledge or action, nor yet by science or art, nor yet again by good works or civilization, but by faith and conversion. Scripture has a richness of names for this plan of salvation; it never gives a dry, dogmatic description, nor an abstract scheme of conceptions, but shows it to us in life, and give us thereby a psychology of religion such as no scientific investigation, and no questionnaire method can bring to light. For all the steps in the way of salvation are God’s work, the effect and fulfilment of his will; but because they take place in man, are realized in his consciousness and will, they may be considered and described also from an anthropological point of view. The distinct individuality and experience of the prophets and apostles themselves appear in the different names by which the process of salvation is indicated. But from whatever point of view this plan of salvation is considered, this is always the result, — that man, in order to become a child of God, does not need to be a cultured being or a citizen of standing, a man of science or of art, a civilized or a developed man. These are all good, but not one indicates the way to divine fellowship. In order to become a sharer in this a person must be regenerated, changed, renewed, or, to use the most common term, a person must be converted. Conversion is the sole and the absolutely peculiar way to heaven.
In speaking in this way the Christian religion gains at once the consciences of all men. For there can be no doubt that, if there is really a redemption, this must consist before all things in a redemption from sin. All men have a notion of good and evil, a conscience which accuses or excuses them, a consciousness of guilt and impurity, a fear of punishment, and a desire for redemption. But they often err as deeply about the character of sin as about the way of redemption. On the one side, sin is minified to an accidental and arbitrary act, from which man can eventually deliver himself by knowledge or act; on the other side, sin is considered as such an ineradicable evil that it is identified with being and nature itself. . . . The Christian religion alone maintains, in opposition to all these tendencies, the purely ethical character of sin. If sin bears an ethical character, then redemption is possible, and conversion is in principle the conquest of sin, the death of the old and the resurrection of the new man.
But in that case conversion is a necessary and moral duty for every man. If the Christian religion maintains the absolute necessity of conversion, it joins to itself again the witness of all consciences, the doctrine and life of the whole of humanity. Every man has the deep and ineradicable conviction that he is not what he ought to be; there is a schism between his duty and his inclination which he cannot deny and cannot do away with. Man is broken; his unity, his harmony has gone. And the strangest thing in this strange phenomenon is that he is not two men who struggle with one another, but he is in both cases the same man. It is our conceptions, ideas, inclinations and desires which are striving together and seeking to obtain the mastery; it is the same subject which excuses and accuses itself, which gives way willingly to sinful desire, and is afterwards torn by repentance and grief, which alternatively springs up in joy and languishes in sorrow. From the whole history of man resounds a heart-breaking complaint over the disruption of life; it finds its finest expression in the songs of the poets, but each man knows it by experience; all religion is animated by it, every effort toward reform proceeds from it, all ethics assume the imperative tone after the descriptive one, and every philosophy strives to set the heart at ease as well as to satisfy the intelligence.
Scripture and experience are both in opposition to the levelling of all essential distinctions; for both testify that conversion is not one of those many transformations of consciousness which often take place in human life, but that it bears a specific character. Conversion can be said to be genuine only when a man is changed in his entire being in such a way that he experiences a hearty repentance and an inner horror of sin, succeeded by a lively joy in God and a sincere desire for the fulfilment of his will. True conversion consists only in the dying of the sinful man, and in the resurrection of the new holy man. All holy persons are twice-born persons, for by nature man does not possess that holiness and desire for the fulfilment of his commandments.