What Are The Lutheran Confessions?
The Spirit in Which
They Were Written
We use the word
"confession" in a variety of ways today. A young man confesses
his love for his fiancee. A criminal confesses to a felony. Christians
confess their sins to a fellow believer or at the appropriate time in the
church service. The Lutheran Confessions are something quite different
from all that. They are written, formal statements with which a group of
Christians, or an individual, declare to the world their faith, their
deepest and undaunted convictions.
Confessions represent the result of more than 50 years of earnest endeavor
by Martin Luther and his followers to give Biblical and clear expression
to their religious convictions. The important word in that definition is
the word "convictions." This word reveals the spirit in which
the Lutheran Confessions were written, not a spirit of hesitation or
doubt, but of deepest confidence that Lutherans, when they were writing
and subscribing the Concessions and creeds, because their content was all
drawn from the Word of God, Scripture, were affirming the truth, the
Listen to what the
Lutheran confessors say in the very last paragraph of the Book of Concord
, XII, 40), a statement that describes their assurance and their doctrinal
Therefore, it is our
intent to give witness before God and all Christendom, among those who are
alive today and those who will come after us, that the explanation here
set forth regarding all the controversial articles of faith which we have
addressed and explained—and no other explanation—is our teaching,
faith, and confession. In it we shall appear before the judgment throne of
Jesus Christ, by God's grace, with fearless hearts and thus give account
of our faith, and we will neither secretly nor publicly speak or write
anything contrary to it. Instead, on the strength of God's grace we intend
to abide by this confession.
Here we observe that
those who wrote and signed the Lutheran Confessions were not merely
settling controversies, or expressing opinions, or devising new and clever
doctrinal formulations. They were confessing their faith and expressing
their determination never to depart from that confession. They take their
stand as in the presence of God and stake their very salvation on the
doctrine they confess. So confident are they of their position, so certain
of their doctrine, that they dare bind not only themselves but also their
posterity to it. And in another place they show their willingness to
submit themselves not only to the content but to the very phrases of their
confession: "We have determined not to depart even a finger's breadth
either from the subjects themselves, or from the phrases which are found
in [the Confessions]" (Preface of the Book of Concord, quoted from Concordia
Triglotta [St. Louis: Concordia, 1921], p. 23).
I am sure that such a
profession seems like an impossible anachronism today, a mark of
inflexible pride which can no longer be respected or emulated by
enlightened people. But certainly with such expressions of certainty the
Confessions have captured the spirit of Christ and the New Testament. Our
Lord taught with authority and promised His disciples that they would
"know the truth." And how often does the inspired apostle Paul
dogmatically affirm, "I know," "I speak the truth ... .. I
The Lutheran confessors
are convinced that Christians, basing their doctrine on Scripture and the
promises of God, can be certain of their salvation and can formulate and
confess true statements about God and all the articles of the Christian
faith. It is this spirit in which all our Confessions were written and in
which they so eloquently give witness to the Gospel of Christ.
The Importance of
According to the
Lutheran Confessions, true doctrine, i. e., correct teaching about God and
His activity toward us, is not some remote possibility but a marvelous
fact, the result of God's grace; and this doctrine is demonstrated in the
Confessions themselves. Those who wrote our Confessions were convinced of
, Rule and Norm, 13); but more than that, they were persuaded that true
doctrine, theology (which means language about God), is of inestimable
importance to the church and to individual Christians. Why?
1. It is first and
foremost by pure doctrine that we honor God and hallow His name, as we
pray in the First Petition of the Small Catechism. "For," Luther
says, "there is nothing he would rather hear than to have his glory
and praise exalted above everything and his Word taught in its purity and
cherished and treasured" (LC, 111, 48).
2. It is by agreement
in the pure doctrine that permanent concord and harmony can be achieved in
the church. "In order to preserve the pure doctrine and to maintain a
thorough, lasting, and God-pleasing concord within the church, it is
essential not only to present the true and wholesome doctrine correctly,
but also to accuse the adversaries who teach otherwise (I Tim. 3:9; Titus
1:9; 2 Tim. 2:24; 3:16)" (FC SD, Rule and Norm, 14).
3. Doctrine is
important to Lutherans because they believe that Christian doctrine is not
a human fabrication but originates in God. It is God's revealed teaching
about Himself and all He has done for us in Christ. Therefore Luther says
confidently and joyfully: "The doctrine is not ours but God's"
(WA, 17 11, 233). And he will risk everything for the doctrine, for to
compromise would do harm to God and to all the world. Luther's spirit is
echoed throughout our Confessions as they affirm that their doctrine is
"drawn from and conformed to the Word of God" (
, Rule and Norm, 5, 10).
4. Pure Christian
doctrine is important for our Lutheran Confessions because it brings
eternal salvation. It "alone is our guide to salvation" (Preface
to the Book of Concord, Concordia Triglotta, p. 11). For this reason our
Confessions call it "heavenly doctrine" and they never fail to
show and apply this saving aim of evangelical doctrine.
This emphasis on the
importance of Christian doctrine is often not understood or appreciated in
our day of relativism and indifference.
How often do modem
church leaders declaim that the church will never achieve purity of
doctrine; nor is it necessary! Therefore we should concentrate our efforts
toward ministry to people in their needs. The longest article in our
Confessions deals with good works and ministry to people in their needs (Ap,
IV, 122-400) and insistently admonishes the church to follow such an
enterprise. But this does not make doctrine less important! Today when
people are leaving the church in droves and abandoning the faith, we must
keep our priorities straight.
The great difference
between doctrine and life is obvious, even as the difference between
heaven and earth. Life may be unclean, sinful, and inconsistent; but
doctrine must be pure, holy, sound, unchanging ... not a tittle or letter
may be omitted, however much life may fail to meet the requirements of
doctrine. This is so because doctrine is God's Word, and God's truth
alone, whereas life is partly our own doing.... God will have patience
with man's moral failings and imperfections and forgive them. But He
cannot, will not, and shall not tolerate a man's altering or abolishing
doctrine itself. For doctrine involves His exalted, divine Majesty itself
(WA, 30 111, 343 f.)
Strong words! But this
is the spirit of confessional Lutheranism.
remind us today that what matters for the Christian is his faith relation
to Christ: Faith is directed toward Christ and not a body of doctrine. Of
course! And how often do our Confessions stress just this point! But the
Christ in whom we believe and live and hope is not a phantom or myth, but
the very Son of God who became a man, who really lived and suffered and
died as our Substitute, and who rose again for our justification. In
short, He is the Christ of whom we can speak meaningfully and cognitively;
and the minute we begin to speak about Him and confess Him, we are
Again we are told that
we are saved by Christ, not by pure doctrine. True! But does this make
pure doctrine unimportant? We are not saved by good works or social
concern either. But does that make social concern and works of love of no
account? No, pure doctrine has its function. It enables us to glorify God
with our lips, to teach and proclaim a pure and saving Gospel and not a
false gospel, to bring poor sinners to know their true condition and to
know God as He is, a wonderful and gracious Savior, and not to flounder
seeking and chasing phantoms.
Let us take our
Confessions seriously when they see pure doctrine as a wonderful gift and
instrument for glorifying God and building His church. This was Paul's
conviction: "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue
in them; for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear
thee" (1 Tim. 4:16).
Subscription, an Evangelical Act
Lutherans have always
held that creeds and confessions are necessary for the well-being of the
church. Just as Christ's church and all Christians are called upon to
confess their faith (Matt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John 4:2), so
the church, if it is to continue to proclaim the pure Gospel in season and
out of season, must for many reasons construct formal and permanent
symbols and confessions and require pastors and teachers to subscribe
these confessions. It is impossible for the church to be a nonconfessional
church, just as impossible as to be a nonconfessing church. And so today
and ever since the Reformation Lutheran churches over the world have
required their pastors to subscribe the Lutheran Confessions.
What does this mean?
With her confessions the church is speaking to the world, but also to God,
who has spoken to her in His Word--speaking to Him in total commitment,
speaking to Him by an unequivocal, unconditional response in the spirit
of, "We believe, teach, and confess" (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 1).
This response is Scriptural, taken from Scripture itself. How often do we
read in our Confessions that the teaching presented is "grounded in
God's Word"! And so the Confessions are no more than a kind of
"comprehensive summary, rule, and norm," grounded in the Word of
God, "according to which all doctrines should be judged and the
errors which intruded should be explained and decided in a Christian
way" (FC Ep, Heading). This would be an unbelievably arrogant
position to take, were it not for the fact that all the doctrine of our
Confessions is diligently and faithfully drawn from Scripture.
And so when the
Lutheran pastor subscribes the Lutheran Confessions (and the confirmand or
layman confesses his belief in the Catechism [LC, Preface, 19]), this is a
primary way in which he willingly and joyfully and without reservation or
qualification confesses his faith and proclaims to the world what his
belief and doctrine and confession really are. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the
father of the Missouri Synod, long ago explained the meaning of
confessional subscription, and his words are as cogent today as when they
were first written:
subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to
serve the church makes under oath (1) that he accepts the doctrinal
content of our Symbolical Books, because he recognizes the fact that it is
in full agreement with Scripture and does not militate against Scripture
in any point, whether that point be of major or minor importance; (2) that
he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to
preach this doctrine.... Whether the subject be dealt with expressly or
only incidentally, an unconditional subscription refers to the whole
content of the Symbols and does not allow the subscriber to make any
mental reservation in any point. Nor will he exclude such doctrines as are
discussed incidentally in support of other doctrines, because the fact
that they are so stamps them as irrevocable articles of faith and demands
their joyful acceptance by everyone who subscribes the Symbols.
This is precisely how
the Confessions themselves understand subscription (FC Ep, Rule and Norm,
3, 5, 6; SD, Rule and Norm, 1, 2, 5).
Needless to say,
confessional subscription in the nature of the case is binding and
unconditional. A subscription with qualifications or reservations is a
contradiction in terms and dishonest.
Today many Lutherans
claim that such an unconditional subscription is legalistic. Sometimes
they assert that such a position is pompous and not even honest.
We might respond: What
can possibly be wrong about confessing our faith freely and taking our
confession seriously? For it is the freest and most joyful act in the
world for those of us who have searched these great confessional writings
and found them to be Scriptural and evangelical to subscribe them. Of
course, to force or bribe or wheedle a person into subscribing them would
be an awful sin and a denial of what our Confessions are, namely symbols,
standards around which Christians rally willingly and joyfully in all
their Christian freedom.
Confessions Are the
Voice of the Church
When I was a boy my
father told me a curious story about an occurrence in the 19th century.
During the controversy among Lutherans concerning predestination, the old
Norwegian Synod sided with the Missouri Synod. One member of the Norwegian
Synod demurred vehemently and in his consternation said, "I am the
Norwegian Synod." That, of course, was an absurdity, just as it would
be absurd for me to claim, "I am the church." The church, as we
shall see, 16 according to our Confessions is the total of all believers
So it is, in a similar
sense, with the Confessions. They do not belong to Luther or Melanchthon
or those who, sometimes after great struggles, wrote them. They belong to
those for whom they were written, the church. Princes subscribed the
Augsburg Confession on behalf of their churches. Luther's catechisms were
finally subscribed because the lay people had already accepted them.
Thousands of clergy subscribed the entire Book of Concord, and the only
reason the laity did not do so was the length of the book. All this
suggests two things.
First, that every
Lutheran ought to be concerned with what is rightfully his and ought to
agree with the doctrine of the Confessions. But it suggests also that, if
the Confessions really belong to the entire church, then everyone in the
church ought to be united in the evangelical doctrine of the Confessions.
That was the case when the Book of Concord was compiled in 1580, and it
ought to be the case today.
a Blessing to the Church
The Church of the
Reformation after the death of Luther in one respect resembled the
in the first century: It was a church highly endowed with the gifts of the
Spirit, but at the same time tragically confused and divided. To the
Corinthian congregation Paul wrote: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by
the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and
that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined
together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10).
Paul had no quarrel with the diversity of spiritual gifts he found in that
congregation; he rejoiced in all that, provided it did not polarize the
church. But there is only one Christ, he says, who is undivided; one
Gospel; and all Christians are to be of the same mind and judgment, united
in their faith and doctrine.
The Church of the
Reformation took Paul's admonition seriously when after Luther's death
doctrinal controversies arose and threatened to destroy its unity in the
Gospel. The Lutheran churches recognized that the unity of the Spirit
which Paul stressed could only be manifested when there was unanimity
"in doctrine and in all its articles and ... the right use of the
holy sacraments" (
, X, 31). Their program for unity and concord in a troubled church went as
follows: "The primary requirement for basic and permanent concord
within the church is a summary formula and pattern, unanimously approved,
in which the summarized doctrine commonly confessed by the churches of the
pure Christian religion is drawn together out of the Word of God" (FC
SD, Rule and Norm, 1).
What a remarkable
statement! Here is not the cynical despairing of the possibility of
doctrinal unity, so common to our relativistic age! Not the sneering
rejection of doctrinal unanimity as something inimical to man's freedom
and autonomy. No, here is a statement of confidence in the unifying power
of the Word and Spirit of God. These old Lutherans were convinced that
doctrinal controversies were an offense and doctrinal aberrations
pernicious to believers and unbelievers alike. "The opinions of the
erring party cannot be tolerated in the church of God," they said,
"much less be excused and defended" (
, Intro., 9). But at the same time they maintained with Paul-like optimism
that unity in doctrine and all its articles was not a remote possibility,
not an impossible goal at the end of a rainbow, but a wonderful blessing
that could be achieved by the church which would bow to the Word of God
and allow the Spirit to rule in all its life.
And so the Lutheran
confessors dare to produce a confession which all are asked to sign and
which represents the unanimous declaration of all. They pledge themselves
to the Book of Concord and confess: "We have from our hearts and with
our mouths declared in mutual agreement that we shall neither prepare nor
accept a different or a new confession of our faith. Rather, we pledge
ourselves again to those public and well-known symbols or common
confessions which have at all times and in all places been accepted in all
the churches of the Augsburg Confession" (
, Rule and Norm, 2). And they dare to maintain: "All doctrines should
conform to the standards [the Lutheran Confessions] set forth above.
Whatever is contrary to them should be rejected and condemned as opposed
to the unanimous declaration of our faith" (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 6).
Do such statements reveal pride, cocksureness, narrowness? Not at all! But
Pauline, Spirit-led confidence and optimism.
If only we could
recapture this spirit today! Openness is an in-word today. And a
"wholesome latitude" in doctrine is considered by many Lutherans
to be a positive blessing to the church. Not many years ago a Lutheran
synod actually stated (but later modified, thank goodness): "We are
firmly convinced that it is neither necessary nor possible to agree in all
non-fundamental doctrines." But where do the Scriptures or our
Confessions say such a thing? Where are we ever told that we Christians
need not agree on what Scripture affirms? Yes, let us be open to people's
desires and needs, to their diversity of gifts and opinions. But not to
error. Let us rather give heed to Paul's words and speak the same thing
and be perfectly joined together in the same mind and judgment. Let us
face up to doctrinal differences wherever they arise and impinge upon our
unity. And let us seek and treasure the doctrinal unanimity of which our
Confessions speak. Then we may call ourselves Lutherans.
into The Theology of
by Robert D. Preus
Concordia Publishing House, 1977), pgs.7-10)
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