The Centrality of the Central Article
By Pastor Rolf David Preus
We Lutherans confess that the
central topic of Christian doctrine is the justification of the sinner by
grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Christ.
Here is how we confess this truth in the Augsburg Confession:
churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own
strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christís sake
through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that
their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made
satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom.
The doctrine of justification by
faith alone is clearly taught throughout the Holy Scriptures but perhaps
nowhere with the thoroughness and clarity of St. Paul as recorded in
Romans 3:19-28 where we read:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law
of faith. Therefore we
conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Justification by faith alone is
the central article. What
does this mean? It means that
this is at the center of the personal faith of every individual Christian.
It is the central truth of all divine doctrine.
It is the central hermeneutical principle in the sacred task of
interpreting the Holy Scriptures. It is the central reason for all Christian preaching.
It is at the center of the catechetical instruction of the young
and the indoctrination of the churchís pastors.
It is the center of the churchís liturgy, hymnody, creeds, and
Those of us who are heirs of the
theology set forth by and preserved in the synods of the former Synodical
Conference are heirs to much that is good and much that is bad.
We have a mixed history. On
the one hand, we come from a tradition that produced Waltherís Proper
Distinction between Law and Gospel, an outstanding practical
presentation of the central article of the faith which, well over a
hundred years after it was written, remains the finest book on homiletics
and pastoral practice available anywhere.
The stance taken by the Missouri Synod and the confessional
contingent of the Norwegian Synod for the doctrine of grace alone during
the election controversy of the 19th Century signaled the high
point of confessional integrity within the Synodical Conference in the
defense of the pure gospel.
How far we have fallen!
The same tradition for which we rightly thank our gracious God has
spawned endless inter and intra-synodical bickering leading to one
division after another. The
conflicts always seem to center on the doctrine of church, ministry, and
fellowship. Our fathersí
generation likes to opine that, on church and ministry anyway, the
differences between Missouri and Wisconsin were mostly cosmetic whereas
the real conflict was on the doctrine of fellowship.
One might be tempted to suggest the very opposite and claim that
the real point of conflict was on church and ministry and fellowship
simply followed in its wake. I
would like to make a more radical suggestion.
What has caused endless splits and quarrels among the heirs of the
old Synodical Conference has been the failure to frame the debates on
church, ministry, fellowship, or any other topic of controversy squarely
within the proclamation of the central article.
When I was at the seminary I was
taught that every doctrinal error originated by breaking with the plain
sense of the Holy Scriptures and that every doctrinal error concluded in a
distortion or denial of the central article of justification by faith
alone. I have learned from
experience how true this is. The
fact that Luther rediscovered the central article by means of a study of
the biblical text is instructive for us.
He was forced to the text of the Bible.
He had no choice but to find the answer he required in the sacred
Scriptures. No other source
could provide divine assurance. He
needed a righteousness that he did not have.
He searched in vain to find it.
He could not find it in himself.
He could not find it in the duties assigned to him by the church.
He could not rely on any extra-biblical authority at all.
Lutherís personal quest for
righteousness drove him into the biblical text.
This required him to oppose any authority that would to any degree
challenge scriptural authority. Luther
was willing to defy pope, emperor, and every political and ecclesiastical
entity that would stand in the way of his quest for the righteousness that
avails before God. Luther
found that righteousness in the words of the Bible specifically Romans
1:17, ďIn it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is
revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: ĎThe just shall live by
faith.íĒ Far be it from
me to suggest that Lutherís experience must serve as some kind of
theological norm for his spiritual heirs.
But there is the simple fact that in Lutheran theology the Bible
and justification have become intertwined in such a way that they can
never be disjoined again. I
believe that it was by divine providence that Luther discovered the gospel
by which he was personally justified as he grappled with those Scriptures
where the doctrine of justification by faith alone is most thoroughly set
forth. He was not born from
above by reading St. John Chrysostom, Augustine, or even St. Athanasius. He was not led into a knowledge of the forgiveness of sins
for Christís sake by the proper performance of liturgical tasks.
For Luther all matters liturgical, historical, or practical (though
in those days they didnít need to be told that theology was by its very
nature practical) were to be subordinated to the divine doctrine that is
clearly presented in the plain sense of the biblical text.
In Lutherís quest we find
brought into bold relief the truth that was always there, always believed,
always assumed, but never explained with quite the clarity achieved by
Luther. The source of all
divine truth and the substance of all divine truth are joined.
The little children learn it this way: ďJesus loves me this I
know, for the Bible tells me so.Ē
The gospel reductionists cannot
tolerate such a notion. Gospel
reductionists teach that since the gospel is the central article of
Christian teaching it must serve as the standard by which we judge all
other doctrine. The gospel
becomes the norm rather than the Holy Scriptures.
Whatever the Scriptures say that does not, in the mind of the
interpreter, pertain directly to the gospel itself is not essential.
But the gospel is not the norm for itself.
The Bible, not the gospel, is the standard by which all teachings
and teachers in the church are to be judged.
The gospel reductionist argues that this makes faith a rational
deduction from an authoritative Bible as the Christian accepts as a first
principle that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and then resolves to
accept for his faith whatever this inerrant book says.
Since this inerrant book teaches that he is justified by faith
alone, the Christian then accepts this gospel on the prior authority of
the Holy Scriptures as the infallible word of God.
But this is a caricature of what we teach.
We do not, by a rational deduction from an inerrant book, conclude
that Jesus is our Savior from sin. To
the contrary, we confess:
that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my
Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the gospel,
enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith
even as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian
Church on earth and keep it with Christ Jesus in the one true faith.
The gospelís power does not lie
in any rational deduction we must make.
It inheres in the gospel itself.
But the power of the gospel to bring us to faith and sustain us in
the true faith should not be confused with the normative authority of the
Holy Scriptures. If the gospel, rather than the Bible, is to be the norm or
standard by which we are to judge all the teachings and teachers of the
church how are we to know that the gospel is?
How can we determine what teaching of Godís word directly
pertains to the gospel? Who
makes such a determination? Lutherís
discovery of the gospel in the Scriptures did not come about by his
imposition of a norm that was different from the actual words of the
Bible. Indeed, it was
precisely by staying with the very words of the Bible and insisting on
their full authority that Luther discovered the gospel by which he was
born from above.
The danger of gospel reductionism
cannot be overstated. A
generation ago gospel reductionists at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and
Valparaiso University appealed to the principle of gospel reductionism to
deny or call into question the historicity of Adam and Eve. Historical
details were not essential to the gospel, they argued. As
one of the members of the faculty majority at Missouriís crown jewel
seminary in St. Louis put it, ďMy faith doesnít depend on the accuracy
of ancient historians.Ē So
what if the Bible contains errors of history, geography, and science?
We believe in the gospel! And
so the gospel is opposed to the Bible as if we need to choose between
The ordination of women to the
pastoral office has been defended by a gospel reductionist argument.
How does putting a woman in the pulpit militate against the gospel?
If we cannot come up with a persuasive answer we are told that we
are legalistic to deny the pulpit to women.
But why should we be required to show how the ordination of women
militates against the central article?
God is the one who forbids it.
We need only appeal to the normative authority of the Holy
Scriptures which teach that ordaining women to preach is a shameful thing
to do. What is shameful
according to the express words of Holy Scriptures surely militates against
the central article! It
isnít up to us to show how this is so.
We oppose womenís ordination, homosexuality, rape, abortion,
evolution, murder, theft, and a whole host of evils on the authority of
the Scriptures alone.
When we confess that justification
is the central article we are not giving to this doctrine a normative
authority that belongs to the Scriptures themselves.
We are, however, confessing that the justification of the sinner by
grace for Christís sake through faith alone is the purpose the Bible was
written and the center of all that the Bible teaches.
Those who read the Bible and do not find justification at the
center of it are not rightly reading it.
We know this not by imposing an extra-biblical norm upon the
biblical text. We know this
by the plain sense of the biblical text itself.
We cannot concede sola
Scriptura to the sectarians! It
is a fundamental principle of the Evangelical Lutheran Church to which we
should hold fast even as we confess that the Scriptures are an empty husk
of no spiritual benefit at all if the righteousness of Christ by which
poor lost sinners are justified is taken away.
There is no tension at all between justification by faith alone and
Indeed they are joined by an inseparable bond.
When we deny that justification or
any other expression of the gospel is the norm of Christian doctrine we
are not taking away from the gospel.
We are establishing it. We
are insisting that God defines the gospel for us in words of His own
choosing. We are bound to His
words for they are spirit and they are life.
Our faith does not have a quality by which it can decide for itself
what is normative and what is not. Faith
is purely receptive. The
words of the Bible are from the Holy Spirit and since the Holy Spirit
makes us holy by the gospel we can be confident that holding firmly to the
Scriptures alone as the only source and norm of all doctrine we will be
holding on to the pure gospel.
Whenever the gospel is set off to
the periphery of the theological conversation we are dealing with a form
of legalism. The central
article will always be brought to bear on every theological topic, not as
a norm to determine what the truth is, but as a hermeneutical check on all
carnally imposed legalisms. We
do not agree with the Reformed who insist that the word must have the
Spirit descend upon it in order for it to be efficacious.
It is inherently efficacious.
But this does not mean that the inherent legalism of our flesh, a
permanent feature of our fallen sinful human nature that will not be
eradicated until we are taken up into glory, will not impose itself upon
the divine doctrine at every opportunity to twist and distort Godís
saving truth. If it militates
against the gospel of justification by faith alone it is unscriptural.
Thatís that. If you
interpret the Bible in such a way that the gospel is compromised you can
be sure that you have misinterpreted the Bible.
I can think of no topic of our
Christian faith on which the doctrine of justification has a more direct
and compelling influence than on the topic of church, ministry, and
fellowship. I call these
three one topic because they go together.
The ministry belongs to the church and the ministry serves the
church. Neither can be
separated from the other. And
church fellowship is not really a separate locus from the doctrine of the
church but is rather simply a description of what the church, by Godís
grace, enjoys. There cannot
be a proper understanding of church, ministry, and fellowship apart from
the doctrine of justification. I
would like to suggest that the interminable debates among the synods of
the former Synodical Conference on church, ministry, and fellowship have
been caused and exacerbated by a theological hermeneutic that has set the
central article off to the sidelines.
Look at how the Augsburg
Confessions joins the articles on church, ministry, and fellowship to the
central article. After grounding the justification of the sinner in Christís
vicarious atonement it proceeds from the article on justification directly
to the ministry of the word. It
says that the purpose of this ministry is that we may obtain justifying
faith. Then, after
reiterating justification by faith alone in its discussion of good works,
it proceeds to the topic of church and church fellowship by binding the
true unity of the church to the pure teaching of the gospel and the right
administration of the sacraments. See
what is here joined together. The
means by which God elicits justifying faith are identified as those marks
by which we recognize the true unity of the church.
Justification and church fellowship are joined.
Being justified by faith we have peace with God.
Being justified by faith we have peace with one another. The vertical fellowship is the foundation for the horizontal
fellowship. Justification is
at the center.
But is this how the doctrine of
fellowship is perceived among us today?
It has become a legalistic caricature of what we confess in the
Augsburg Confession. No
longer is fellowship with one another tied to the fellowship we enjoy with
God as He graciously forgives us all our sins for Jesusí sake.
Now fellowship is grounded in agreement with whatever doctrinal
statement is crafted together by means of the political process of a
particular synod. The Augsburg Confession conceives of true church fellowship
as divinely established by means of the purely preached gospel and rightly
administered sacraments of Christ. Nowadays
church fellowship is achieved by the correct application of
The cause of this decay in our
confessional Lutheran understanding of church fellowship is easy to
determine. It is not on
account of a rejection of the normative authority of the Bible in
principle. It is among those
with the highest regard for the Bible as the inerrant word of God that
this has taken place. Rather,
this has happened because the doctrine of fellowship has been developed in
isolation from the doctrine of justification.
When justification is no longer at the center in our treatment of
the doctrine and practice of church fellowship, the vertical relationship
between God and the justified sinner is ignored while the horizontal
relationship takes over. Fellowship
with God is set aside into a corner somewhere and fellowship with one
another replaces it as the chief concern. In this way the church becomes a club of likeminded people
Ė somewhat like a political party or some other kind of civic
organization Ė instead of the body of Christ and the temple of the
living God. By disconnecting
the fellowship the church enjoys from the central article it is materially
changed into something else. The
gospel is replaced by the law. Synodical
authority replaces gospel authority.
About thirty years ago there
occurred a little known intramural debate between the then head of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Missouri Synod, Dr.
Ralph Bohlmann, and Prof. Kurt Marquart of Concordia Theological Seminary
in Ft. Wayne. The argument
was on whether the unity mentioned in AC VII was the same thing as the
unity mentioned in FC SD X. Letís
compare the pertinent portions of these two confessions.
In AC VII we read:
true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of
the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies,
instituted by men, should be alike everywhere.
It is as Paul says, ďOne faith, one baptism, one God and Father
of all,Ē etc. (Eph. 4:5,
In FC SD X we read:
with the above, churches will not condemn each other because of a
difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more
of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its
articles and are also agreed concerning the right use of the holy
sacraments, according to the well-known axiom, ďDisagreement
in fasting should not destroy agreement in faith.Ē
Bohlmann argued that the agreement
concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the
sacraments of the Augsburg Confession was not the same thing as the
agreement in doctrine and in all its articles of the Formula of Concord.
Marquart disagreed and insisted that they were the same.
We donít have the time to delve into the details of that debate,
but we are having the same argument today, perhaps without recognizing it.
Are we to identify the entire corpus of Christian doctrine with the
pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the
sacraments? Or are we to
claim that the basis for the unity of the Holy Christian Church on earth
is one thing, while the doctrinal standards of this or that particular
church is something else? But
if we lay claim to standards of synodical fellowship that are different
than the standards that apply to the unity of the one, holy, Catholic, and
apostolic Church, are we not defining ourselves as a sect?
I submit to you that Bohlmannís argument represents the de facto
position of the synods that hail from the old Synodical Conference.
I would also suggest to you that they are wrong.
There is no article of the faith
that can be dissociated from the pure preaching of the gospel.
To speak of an alleged gospel in the narrow sense that applies to
the so called invisible church and a broader doctrinal consensus that
applies to a visible synod is to teach Godís people that our doctrine of
fellowship is a legal doctrine. But
every Christian knows that this runs counter to the very nature of the
gospel! Into this confusion
come the gospel reductionists to woo our people away from such a
legalistic conception of church fellowship.
Who will you believe? Those
who present church fellowship as something that comes as a result of a
common submission to agreed upon principles or those who present church
fellowship as something created by the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers,
enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keep it
with Christ Jesus in the one true faith?
What does genuine church fellowship have to do with the endless
production of more and more doctrinal statements further refining
theological systems that are imposed upon the biblical text?
It is not possible to maintain a sound doctrine of church
fellowship unless we persist in binding this doctrine and practice to the
actual preaching of the pure gospel by real ministers in real churches to
real sinners who are ushered into fellowship with God and with one another
by means of the pure gospel and rightly administered sacraments that they
receive in faith.
And this brings us to how and why
justification must be at the heart of our discussions of the holy ministry
of the word.
When a soul that is burdened by
failure and sin and guilt goes to church on a Sunday morning and does not
hear the gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins for Christís
sake does it really matter if that church belongs to a synod that formally
subscribes orthodox doctrinal statements?
When a confident and impenitent sinner attends the Divine Service
and hears no message of divine law that judges him to be guilty and
accountable for his sins, will it even matter if a few slogans about
divine grace are tossed out to him? Indeed,
if the care for the soul by means of evangelical preaching that rightly
divides the word of truth is not taking place why in the world would
anyone want to get into a discussion about church and ministry except
perhaps as a means of displaying his superior powers of argumentation or
because he wants to be a part of this clique that has traditionally
opposed that clique?
Debates about the ministry are
often understood primarily as power struggles between various factions in
the church. What kind of
status does a pastor have? What
kind of status does a parochial schoolteacher have?
Well, if itís not equitable, how do we make it so?
But it shouldnít be, because the pastor has more education! Yes, but the teacher serves too, and pastors are supposed to
be humble. Yeah, but the
teacher is under the pastor. Yes,
but itís not as if the pastor can just run the church!
And as we listen to this kind of foolishness what is it that is
entirely missing from the conversation?
The gospel itself is lost in the debate.
The purpose for the divine institution of the preaching office is
the justification of the sinner through faith for Christís sake.
What does the Bible say?
things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in
Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to
them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were
pleading through us: we implore you on Christís behalf, be reconciled to
God. For He made Him who knew
no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in
What do our Confessions say?
that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and
administering the sacraments was instituted.
For through the Word and the sacraments, as through instruments,
the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and
when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel.
That is to say, it is not on account of our own merits but on
account of Christ that God justifies those who believe that they are
received into favor for Christís sake. Gal.
3:14, ďThat we might
receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.Ē
The reason the ministry debates
get bogged down in endless quarrels that cannot be overcome is because
justification is excluded from the debate.
If we are going to spend our time debating who has what kind of
churchly status, who would want to participate in such a debate?
If it doesnít pertain to the justification of the sinner it has
nothing to do with the divinely instituted ministry of the word.
If we are to ground the ministry
of the word in the words that the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to the original
ministers we are also going to be grounding this office in the
justification of sinners by grace through faith.
When Jesus condemns lordship among His ministers He joins His
ministry to the redemption of many. The
bond between Christís redemption and the preaching office cannot be
broken. What does Jesus say
to the first ministers? He
tells them to preach the gospel, to forgive and retain sins, to baptize,
to administer the Lordís Supper, in short, to feed His sheep.
This is not complicated. It
is quite simple. All of this
activity is administering the means of grace through which God calls
sinners to faith and reckons to them the righteousness of Christ.
Pastor, elder, bishop, teacher,
ambassador, minister, angel, and on and on the titles go and endless
debates about titles obscure the simple fact that the office is what the
office does and what the office does is to preach the gospel and
administer the sacraments of Christ and this on account of the fact that
through these, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit produces justifying
faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.
One of the most foolish and
useless debates in the debate that never ends is the sophistical
distinction between the ministry in the abstract and the ministry in the
concrete, as if these are two ministries, one abstract and the other
concrete. Tired old argument
about the meaning of German words make the debate unbearably boring and
convince the laity that itís all just a lot of clerical quarreling,
undoubtedly driven by ego, ambition, pride, and other unsavory motives.
If we frame the debate about the
ministry within the center of justification by faith alone where it
belongs, it will be easy to resolve debates and clear up confusion.
The purpose of the ministry of the word and sacraments as we
confess this in the Augsburg Confession is not to give expression to our
faith. This may be done in
any Christian occupation. The
purpose of the ministry of the word is so that justifying faith may be
engendered. We must not
define the office of the ministry according to the faith of those who have
it, whether the church or the ministers.
We must rather define it according to its purpose in administering
the means of grace by which faith is engendered.
We donít have the ministry on account of our faith.
We have faith on account of Christís ministry among us.
True enough, a man first becomes a Christian before becoming a
minister. But it is equally
true that a man becomes a Christian through the ministry of the word.
So we do not look for the faith of Christians in order to find
Christís ministry. We look
for the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments
precisely because they are means by which the Holy Spirit elicits faith,
To sever the gospel from the
sacraments as if there is no divinely instituted office specifically
formed and fashioned by the Lord Jesus to preach the gospel and to
administer the sacraments of Christ is to attack the justification of the
sinner by grace for Christís sake through faith.
Jesus did not institute a preaching disembodied from the
administration of His holy sacraments.
Christís clear mandate as recorded by St. Matthew is that the
means by which Christians become and remain Christians is the teaching of
Christís word and Holy Baptism. Those who are justified by Christís blood are given
Christís body and blood to eat and to drink.
The Sacrament of the Altar is not instituted as some kind of icon
of an incarnational and sacramental presence of Christ.
No! It is given and
shed for you for the remission of sins!
The very idea that it is a legalistic imposition to insist that
Christ instituted a real office, a species of office, if you will, all of
whose incumbents are given by God to preach the gospel and administer the
sacraments by which justifying faith is born and sustained is to confuse
gospel gift with law command. We
may honor the Wauwatosa theologians for their legitimate concern about
legalism, but it appears that in the case of defining the ministry they
threw out the baby with the bathwater.
Much more could be said but we are
just about out of time. The
Divine Service, good Lutheran hymnody, pastoral care for the erring, the
sick, and the grieving, issues of life and death in the social arena,
family matters, marriage, childrearing, and a whole host of religious and
therefore churchly concerns are all intimately related to the central
article of justification by faith alone.
This is why we must resolve to engage in every theological endeavor with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, our God and brother, who has become our righteousness that avails before God and renders us acceptable before Him. For this is at the very center of our faith and our lives and this is what will bring us to heaven some day when all theological controversy will be forever resolved by the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world who sits on the throne to rule forever and ever.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus