Confessions were not written in a vacuum or out of any party spirit. The
Lutheran Reformation was not a "revolt," as Roman Catholic
historians used to call it, much less a heresy. What motivated the
Reformation and the Confessions, which were its most significant fruits
and its permanent legacy to us who wish to be called Lutherans today? What
was the central backdrop for our Confessions, the context for these
different documents which were finally incorporated in the Book of
Concord? A reading of our Confessions will reveal that they all sprang
from an urgent need to give articulation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and
to teach and give witness to this Gospel. And what is this Gospel which
incited the most blessed and significant spiritual awakening since the
days of the apostles?
In our Confessions (
, V, 20) we read:
The Gospel, however, is
that doctrine which teaches what a man should believe in order to obtain
the forgiveness of sins from God, since man has failed to keep the law of
God and has transgressed it, his corrupted nature, thoughts, words, and
deeds war against the law, and he is therefore subject to the wrath of
God, to death, to temporal miseries, and to the punishment of hell-fire.
The content of the Gospel is this, that the Son of God, Christ our Lord,
himself assumed and bore the curse of the law and expiated and paid for
all our sins, that through him alone we reenter the good graces of God,
obtain forgiveness of sins through faith, are freed from death and all the
punishments of sin, and are saved eternally.
This statement may well
be considered one of the most important and formative statements in our
Lutheran Confessions. Why? Because it is the most complete and beautiful
definition of the Gospel to be found in them. And that is what our
Confessions are all about-the Gospel! Our great Lutheran Confessions were
written for the sake of the Gospel. The Augsburg Confession, Luther's
catechisms, the Formula of Concord were not written just to blast or
correct abuses in the Roman Church, or to defend Lutheran theology against
the attacks of papists, or to perpetuate party spirit. These Confessions
were all prompted by a faith in the Gospel, a love for it, and a
determination to teach and confess it according to the Scriptures.
In this respect our
Confessions resemble the New Testament itself. Paul and the other apostles
preach, admonish, and say everything for the sake of the Gospel (1 Cor.
2:2; 9:16; John 20:31; 1 Peter 5:12; 1 John 5:13). That was their
commission from Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15).
It is remarkable how
consistently our Confessions emphasize this central theme of the Gospel,
how all their discussions support and lead to this theme of salvation by
free grace through faith in Christ. Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession
clusters all the articles of faith around the redemptive work of Christ
and justification through faith in Him. When the writers of our Formula of
Concord at a later date try to settle certain controversies over original
sin, the spiritual powers of man's will before conversion, the third use
of the Law (as a pattern to regulate our lives), or even church usages,
they make it crystal clear that their concern for the right doctrine on
these matters is to enhance the Gospel and its comfort to poor sinners.
When Melanchthon speaks out so strongly and at such length against the
legalism and work-righteousness of the Roman Church of his day, it is only
because "the Gospel (that is, the promise that sins are forgiven
freely for Christ's sake) must be retained in the church" (Ap, IV,
120). And when he insists so vehemently that a sinner is justified by
faith in Christ, it is because to deny or undermine this great fact
"completely destroys the Gospel" (ibid.).
Martin Luther in the
Smalcald Articles structures all of Christian doctrine around the simple
doctrine of the Gospel, the doctrine of Christ and faith in Him. Here is
what he says (SA, II, i):
The first and chief
article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, "was put to
death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification"
(Rom. 4:25). He alone is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of
the world" (John 1:29).... Inasmuch as this must be believed and
cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear
and certain that such faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says in Romans
3, "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of
law" (Rom. 3:28), and again, "that he [God] himself is righteous
and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).
Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised, even if heaven and
earth and things temporal should be destroyed.... On this article rests
all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world.
Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it....
This is the spirit of
Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. This is why our Confessions, like
Scripture itself, are always contemporary and useful. If we share this
Gospel spirit, we will see how helpful and exciting our Confessions are
and we will read them with eagerness and profit.
into The Theology of
by Robert D. Preus
Concordia Publishing House, 1977), pgs.7-10.
To order a copy of this book call 800-325-3040