How to be a Confessional Lutheran in a Heterodox World
By Pastor Rolf Preus
International Free Winkel at St. John, North Dakota
September 19, 2011
Introduction: Lutherans with Convictions
The term “confessional Lutheran” has become cluttered with so much baggage that it is good for us to begin by straightening it out a bit so that we can speak clearly. As a matter of fact, the use of the word “confessional” to modify the word “Lutheran” is a bit of a redundancy. Lutherans are, by definition, confessional. I recall a conversation I had with the chaplain of St. Luke’s Hospital in Racine, Wisconsin sometime during the nineteen nineties. He was an Episcopal priest. In answer to a question from me about what he believed, taught, and confessed he informed me that Episcopalians don’t identify themselves by their doctrine. They identify themselves by their liturgy. They are able to tolerate a great deal of diversity in their doctrine while they all remain faithful Episcopalians. Their flag is the Book of Common Prayer. Our flag is a collection of creeds and confessions that identify us as Lutherans by what we believe, teach, and confess.
This is where we must begin. What is our confession? What is our doctrine? What is our creed? This is what identifies us as Lutherans.
It doesn’t change. It cannot change. Were we to consider the possibility of any change in our doctrine we could not in good conscience require an unconditional confessional subscription of our pastors and churches. Unconditional means unconditional. It is not provisional, conditional, subject to the possibility of change. It is unchanging. What we confessed in the Sixteenth Century is what we confess in the Twenty First Century.
Years ago, in the early eighties when I was serving Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake, Minnesota, I became friends with the neighborhood Catholic priest, Father Brown. He was somewhat of a theologian, which was quite a treat for a young man like me in a small town before the invention of the internet. When he sought out a description from me of what my doctrine was and I identified myself with the Lutheran Confessions he was somewhat nonplussed. He knew that wasn’t possible. After all, this was the Twentieth Century. As I articulated my teaching of the gospel he listened carefully and suggested that perhaps I was a Barthian. I felt insulted! But then, Karl Barth wasn’t completely ignorant of the gospel!
We are strange ducks, we confessional Lutherans. Every once in a while you run across a confessional Calvinist, but even with the most rigorous of them you won’t find a view of their confessions akin to the Lutheran view of our confessions. They can talk about the church always reforming herself in a way that we cannot. Moral reformation will always be required. Spiritual renewal is always necessary. But our doctrine as set forth in our confessional writings is true and sound. Since it agrees with the clear Scriptures we confess it as our very own. We claim to agree with God.
To be a confessional Lutheran is to be a Lutheran with convictions. Martin Luther’s famous rebuke of the theological agnosticism favored by Erasmus of Rotterdam speaks for us Lutherans of every age. In response to Erasmus’s assertion that he takes no delight in assertions, Luther writes in his Bondage of the Will:
For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian. And by assertion – in order that we may not be misled by words – I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering; nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.
I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings. Elsewhere we have no need either of Erasmus or any other instructor to teach us that in matters which are doubtful or useless and unnecessary, assertions, disputings, and wranglings are not only foolish but impious, and Paul condemns them in more than one place. . . .
Let Skeptics and Academics keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us “assertors” twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves. How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand that [full assurance] (as he terms it) – that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience? In Romans 10[:10] he calls it “confession,” saying, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” And Christ says: “Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father” [Matt. 10:32]. Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us [I Peter 3:15]. What need is there to dwell on this?
Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. (LW, 33, 19-21)
How to be a confessional Lutheran? Learn to assert! Do not speak of divine truth as if it were the perspective of men. Men of God speak for God and if they cannot do so they ought to stop speaking, that is, to leave the office. Who are we preachers but spokesmen for Christ? Does an ambassador of another share his own personal insight or perspective of what his boss might or might not be inclined to say? Does he not say what the other says with confidence that he is indeed speaking for him? So it must be for the confessional Lutheran pastor, the confessional Lutheran layman, and the confessional Lutheran congregation. To confess is not to share our personal religious feelings or sentiments. To confess is to say back to God and to the whole world what God has first said to us.
God talks to us in the Bible. And so we talk. We confess. Here is how the great General Council theologian of the early twentieth century, Theodore Schmauk, put it in his wonderful work on the Confessional Principle. He writes:
Confessions are Scripture digested, assimilated, and beating in the life pulses of the Church.
Pulse-beats of Scripture are they, come up out of the believing Church’s heart into free, public, courageous, joyous and solemn utterance. As thus born out of the heart of a believing Church, they incarnate the faith of man in visible form, even as God incarnated His own Son in the visible form of our own flesh, and His own Word in the visible form of written Scripture. . .
Confessions are the answer of earth to the revelation from heaven.
(Schmauk, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church as Embodying the Evangelical Confession of the Christian Church, 1911, Philadelphia, pages 9-10)
The confession that we can know what God has to say to us sets us immediately at odds with the world in which we live. Dogmatic certainty is widely regarded as an evil to be avoided. What is conjured up in the consensus of liberal opinion when the topic of doctrinal certitude is considered? Bible thumping fundamentalists who hate homosexuals. Fanatical Muslims who blow up innocent civilians. Yes, and perhaps a certain strange breed of Lutherans identifiable by the letters LCMS and LCC.
That we will be excoriated for our dogmatic assurance is a given. We may not avoid it and we must not try. This is not to advocate an obnoxious or “in your face” disrespect toward others. If we are to speak the truth in love to one another, surely we must do so also to the world. Our Lord Jesus, who made a good confession before Pontius Pilate, spoke authoritatively and courteously. But we may not, as confessional Lutherans, avoid being judged. We will be judged. We will be judged unfairly. We will be judged falsely. We will, in the words of Kipling, see the words we’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools. The disciple is not above his master. Jesus was maligned and slandered by the religious establishment of his day. The true Church is always going to be counter-cultural. To run away from that is to run away from the cross of God’s own sending. God won’t have it.
Justification: The Heart of our Confession
But in defining our own dogmatic confidence we do so only as evangelical Lutherans. Our unconditional confessional subscription – not that our doctrine is true in so far as it agrees with the Bible, but that it is true because it agrees with the Bible –means much more than the fact that we are right. It is intimately joined to a more wonderful and self-defining truth: that we are righteous. We do not boast of our orthodoxy as does the sectarian legalist or the Mohammadan fanatic. Our doctrinal inflexibility is not our means of justifying ourselves. It is because we are already justified by God precisely by means of the gospel that we confess that we hold fast to our confession.
Justification by faith alone is at the heart of our confession. We cannot understand what it means to be a confessional Lutheran at any point if we don’t understand what this topic is and why it must be the central article of Christian teaching. In contending with heterodoxy, we are always contending with a challenge to this precious teaching.
That God justifies sinners by his grace alone through faith alone by freely reckoning to them the righteousness of Christ’s holy obedience and forgiving them all their sins for Christ’s sake is not merely one topic of Christian doctrine among many. It is the heart and soul of everything we believe, teach, and confess. Heterodoxy always has the same source and the same goal. All error comes about by a departure from the clear meaning of the Holy Scriptures. All error is an assault on the central article of justification by faith alone. We are never arguing doctrine merely for the sake of scoring points and showing ourselves to be right and the other to be wrong. The theological task is always the pastoral task. It is always for the sake of the clear proclamation of the gospel. It is for the sake of the justification of the sinner through faith alone.
Justification was not just the central topic of the debate during the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. It is the central topic of Christianity. It is at the center of our doctrine and life. When this topic is right all is right. Listen to Luther on the subject.
This is the highest article of our faith, and if one should abandon it as the Jews do or pervert it like the Papists, the Church cannot stand nor can God maintain His glory which consists in this, that He might be merciful and that He desires to pardon sins for His Son’s sake and to save. (Erl. Ed. Lat. 10,137)
If this doctrine of justification is lost, the whole Christian doctrine is lost. (op. 21,20)
This doctrine can never be urged and taught enough. If this doctrine is overthrown or disappears, then all knowledge of the truth is lost at the same time. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish, religion, true worship, the glory of God and the right knowledge of all conditions of life and of all things. (op. cit. 21,20)
Therefore I say (as I have often said) that there is no power and remedy against the sects except this one article of Christian righteousness. If you lose this it is impossible to avoid other errors or the sects. We see this today in the fanatics, the Anabaptists, the Sacramentarians, who having set aside this doctrine never stop doing away with other doctrines, erring, and seducing others. And there is no doubt that they will raise up more sects and invent new works. But what are all these things, even though they seem fine and very holy, compared with the death and blood of the Son of God Who gave Himself for me? (WA 40 1, 296)
Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles:
Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor may anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4,12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53,5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory. (I,5) (Cf. S. D. III,6)
The doctrine of justification is not the norm of our teaching. The Bible is. But this central article of the Christian faith is always the reason we say what we say. Why be a confessional Lutheran? Why not go with the flow? Why be the skunk at the garden party? When the crowd goes one way, why must we go the other way? Or, in the words of more than one frustrated parishioner who wonders why we do what we do and don’t do what we don’t do: “Why do we always have to be different from everyone else?”
Here is where heterodoxy insinuates itself and lays claim to our affections. It does so in a manner that appears to be quite orthodox. Justification by faith alone is the central article, right? It is the gospel, right? We are not claiming, are we, that our Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, or other Protestant neighbors deny the gospel, are we? Do they not confess that Jesus died for them? Do they not affirm the gospel? And aren’t we saying that everything we say we say for the sake of the gospel? So then, why this insistence on confessional adherence that separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ who confess the gospel? We’ll all be in heaven together some day, so why must we be so standoffish here on earth?
And so in the name of the gospel we are counseled to loosen up a bit on our confessional Lutheran commitment. Heterodoxy thus lays claim to the orthodox mantel and does so in the name of the gospel. Confessionalism is pitted against the gospel itself.
The gospel is vitiated in the name of the gospel. There are three ways in which this is done, each of which stands as a challenge to us confessional Lutherans. I will identify these challenges with their appropriate “isms” as: antinomianism, universalism, and legalism. Antinomianism attacks the gospel by rejecting the law which is its necessary context. Universalism attacks the gospel by making its proclamation superfluous. Legalism attacks the gospel by replacing it with the law. Antinomianism, universalism, and legalism are very popular movements even among nominal Lutherans. Indeed, they are the invasion of heterodoxy into confessional Lutheranism stripping the gospel of its context, its necessity, and its substance.
Antinomianism and the Gospel’s Context
In the Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article II, on the Law, Luther identifies two uses of the law corresponding to the first two of the three uses of the law identified in Article VI of the Formula of Concord. Much has been made of Luther’s alleged rejection of the Third Use of the Law, and it is not my purpose today to argue that the Formula is in perfect agreement with the Smalcald Articles (although it is). We should at least be aware of the fact that among us Lutherans are those who will argue against the third use of the law. Here is the debate in a nutshell and somewhat oversimplified. There is no need for a third use of the law because the first and second uses encompass the law’s full use. The first use is the civil law as a sword or gun that frightens potential law breakers into an outward adherence to it. The second use is the theological use of the law as a mirror that reveals to the sinner his sin and convicts him of it. The third use of the law is the law as a guide that tells Christians what to do to be doing what is God-pleasing. Opponents of the third use of the law argue that this use puts the Christian back under the law when it is by the power of the gospel that we Christians live, as St. Paul says, “The just shall live by faith.” The fruit of the Spirit is just that: fruit. The law has works and wages, but no living fruit. And since the law always condemns us, we may not speak of a use of the law to supplement the gospel or we will be replacing justification with moral renovation and thus overthrowing the gospel. The first and second uses of the law are sufficient.
In response to this argument we need to consider first of all that we are not in charge of the law. God is. We don’t decide which use of the law will be in effect. God does. The law can serve as all three uses at the same time. Theological distinctions aren’t necessarily always helpful, especially if they can be used to nullify what God says. The issue is not whether the law completes the gospel or empowers the gospel or supplements the gospel or provides anything at all allegedly lacking in the gospel. It does none of these things. But the law does stand as a statement of what God wants us Christians to do. It is normative for our behavior. Now you can plug that into any use you want. Just keep in mind that the theological distinctions we are making are just that. They are helpful only insofar as they are properly applied.
The simple fact of the matter is that there is no theological use of the law – there is no mirror reflecting back to us our sin for which God has every right to condemn us to hell forever – unless there is a normative description of what God says we are to think, say, and do. And if it is normative for us it is not subject to change.
The denial of the third use of the law is ultimately an argument for antinomianism. Yes, we Christians are led by the Spirit and live under grace. We do not live under the law. But if the law does not retain its authority to tell us Christians what to do it cannot have the authority to condemn us for our sins. Rejecting the third use of the law militates against the law’s second use and if the law does not condemn us the context for the gospel is lost. The gospel cannot be proclaimed except to sinners whose sins condemn them. There is no absolution except for sin. The man who went home justified is the one who beat his breast and called himself the sinner. He did not say, “God be merciful to me – I was a sinner.” He said, “The sinner.” I am a sinner. St. Paul said, “Oh wretched man that I am.” He said, “Of whom I am chief.” The law must be a guide for how a Christian is to live a God-pleasing life or whatever it says to the Christian will become theoretical theological gobbledygook.
Luther called our sinful condition a radical ferment. It lies at the root of our very existence and it infects everything we do. We Lutherans are well aware of how the various legalistic sects turn God’s law into innumerable rules, ignoring the radical ferment and trivializing God’s law into a list of dos and don’ts. On the other hand, talk about our sinful condition must have a concrete and experiential referent. There is no knowledge of sin without the knowledge of sins. Talk of a sinful condition is meaningless without a clear explanation of what is right and what is wrong. We are made aware of the sin within by recognizing the sins without.
Sin and sins cannot be separated. Antinomianism is the root error of the ELCA in its regularization of homosexuality as acceptable in a committed monogamous relationship. What is called orientation is what the Bible calls “vile passions.” St. Paul writes:
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. (Romans 1:26-27)
Passions and lust lead to committing what is shameful. The desire is sin. The act is sin. The desire and the act go together. A theological consideration of the act must take into account the sin of the desire. A theological consideration of the desire must take into account the sin of the act. A generic condemnation of our sinful nature that cannot be joined to external acts that are objectively sinful is no law at all. It is a meaningless and irrelevant theological construct, as are sermons in which we pronounce a pro forma condemnation of our sinfulness without showing from God’s law how this act and that act, this thought and that thought, this word and that word are sins against God.
To take the gospel out of its necessary context is to trivialize it. Luther said that hunger is the best cook. There can be no hunger and thirst for righteousness for the self-satisfied. The law works its way into the conscience by showing the conscience the radical ferment of sin by pointing out specific sins that flow out of it. Confessional Lutheran preachers need to preach the law specifically and concretely, identifying sins as behavior contrary to the Ten Commandments.
In A Summary of the Christian Faith, first published in 1568 after Luther’s death but before the writing of the Formula of Concord, David Chytraeus lists dozens of virtues or good works required by the Ten Commandments. There is nothing available in the pop-Protestant successful living section of your local religious bookstore on how to live a Christian life that was not written more clearly and biblically in the writings of our orthodox Lutheran fathers. There is nothing of value that Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Chuck Swindoll, or Joyce Meyer have to say to us that we don’t already know. But before we dismiss their popularity as merely the result of their ability to scratch the itching ears, we need to ask ourselves if we Lutherans have neglected to articulate clearly what kind of a life God wants us to live. People want to know what they are supposed to do. Confessional Lutheran preachers need to preach the law with its full specificity. The heretical self-esteem gospel cannot be rebutted except by a clear explanation of what it means to love God above all things and to love your neighbor as yourself. The context of the gospel is clear, concrete, specific law preaching. This is the mirror that shows us our sins. This prepares us to receive the true righteousness that avails before God.
Universalism and the Gospel’s Necessity
I am sure that many of you pastors have found yourselves in the rather awkward position of having to tell someone an unpleasant truth about a particular church body. You don’t want to do it, but you must. It was about twenty five years ago and a parishioner who had moved to another city wanted to join a Lutheran congregation in that town. It belonged to the American Lutheran Church. The ELCA had not yet formed. She assured me that she had talked to the pastor and his doctrine was sound. I searched my mind for ways to communicate my concerns to her without appearing to stand in judgment of a pastor and congregation about which I knew nothing at all except for their synodical affiliation. So I sent her a copy of “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” and asked her to share it with the pastor of that congregation to see what he thought of it. “A Statement” was produced in 1973 by the office of LCMS President Jack Preus in an effort to set forth the historic biblical teaching of the Missouri Synod on certain matters in controversy at the time.
A week later she replied. The pastor accepted everything in “A Statement.” Everything it said about the Bible he believed. He didn’t question the historicity of Adam and Eve. He believed in the inerrancy of the Bible. There was only one statement that he questioned. That came near the beginning where “A Statement” asserted: “We believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven and that all who die without faith in Him are eternally damned.” That was too exclusive for him. What about those who have never heard? What about . . .? How could God . . .? You’ve heard these questions. And the parishioner who wanted to join that church agreed with the pastor. The exclusive claims of Christ are just too exclusive.
We’re talking about being confessional Lutherans. What do confessional Lutherans confess about Jesus? We confess that he is the incarnate God. “Of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.” There is no God but the God who has revealed himself in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. There is no God but he who reveals the Father’s glory. There is no God but he who testifies of Christ and enlightens us by the gospel to confess him as Lord. The very nature of the Christian gospel is that it is exclusively true and utterly at odds with every other means devised for mortal men to come into communion with the immortal God.
There is no way universalism can be made to conform itself to the gospel. It can only vitiate it. This is because of the radical difference between the gospel and the religion of the flesh. The exclusive claims of Christ are grounded in who he is and in what we are. It always goes back to the simple quest of Martin Luther: How can a sinner find a gracious God? Universalism must reject both sin and grace.
From the universalism of classical liberalism that taught the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man to the universalism of Karl Rahner with his “anonymous Christian” to today’s murky syncretistic stew combining Christianity with christless and legalistic religions of every shape and size all forms of universalism share a common theme. They ignore the bitter reality of sin. Eternal damnation is inconceivable, not because there is no justice, but because sin isn’t really so bad. If sin isn’t really so bad, then the sinner must have something within him by which he can find his way back to God. Universalism is grounded in a denial of our total depravity.
This summer I had resolved to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace during my vacation, but I got distracted by Luther’s Bondage of the Will. I hadn’t read it in years and I recall being struck as I was the last time by two things. First, his argument for the bondage of the will was very unsettling to me. He would not give an inch. He would not concede any power whatsoever to freewill. Second, his argument was completely scriptural. Outrageous? Yes! Of course! But biblical. The doctrine that the entire human race is spiritually blind, dead, and powerless to think or say or do anything at all to apply oneself to God or to his grace is a sobering, indeed insulting, opinion of the unregenerate man. It is an insult to every religion in the world save one. It is an assault on piety, holiness, and virtue of many kinds, times, and places. It is an offence. It is foolishness. It’s an outrage. But it is true.
Universalism is a lie that would, if true, render the proclamation of the gospel a superfluous exercise. Oh, I suppose one could adopt the fatalistic obedience of the Calvinist who knows the gospel has no inherent power (for how can it have power to convert those predestined to damnation?) but he preaches it anyway because God says he must. But in practice, if we don’t believe in the necessity of the gospel we aren’t going to preach the gospel.
This is why the once saved always saved preachers preach precious little gospel. The gospel is necessary only to provide the necessary information for someone to make his decision for Jesus, get the matter of salvation settled once and for all, and then proceed to live a life under the law. The gospel is not needed for life. Decide for Jesus and it’s done. No more gospel for you!
For the universalists, there is never any necessity for the gospel because unbelief damns no one. Here is the irony inherent in every form of christian universalism. In the name of God’s love and grace and mercy they deny what would, in their opinion, militate against it, namely, eternal damnation. How could a loving God send anyone to hell? But by denying that God damns people to hell forever they ensure that the gospel of God’s grace in Christ will no longer be proclaimed. Without the necessary context of a law that damns us there is no need for a gospel that justifies us. Therefore, in the name of love the gospel that reveals God’s love is silenced.
Universalism quickly descends into moralism as Christ becomes irrelevant to Christianity. That Christ is the image of the invisible God, the revelation of his glory, begotten from the Father from eternity and born of the Virgin Mary is dry and dead dogma of no relevance. What difference does it make who Jesus is? And what difference does it make what Jesus did? If his person and work are vital to our salvation then preach about who he is and what he has done for us. But if faith in Christ isn’t necessary for salvation then knowledge of Christ isn’t necessary either. Universalism in the name of love quickly robs people of love. St. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) But there can be no need for propitiation if there is no wrath to be propitiated. Thus, by the denial of God’s abiding wrath, knowledge of his eternal love in Christ is lost. Universalism is anti-christian.
And it is very, very popular. Every time civil leaders in America speak about death they promote anti-christian universalism. Recently, former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani spoke at the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, mentioning a reunion in heaven for the firemen who died. I’m reminded of how President Reagan pronounced the victims of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger safe in the arms of God. But God’s word says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Without a Mediator, without Christ, there is no loving embrace. For the love of God is revealed only in his Son. There and nowhere else can we find forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and the eternal joys of heaven.
A consideration of war illustrates the widespread universalism laced throughout the civil religion in America. Monuments erected by patriotic organizations frequently assert that those who died in service to their country have received an eternal reward in heaven. Faith in the God who dies for us has been replaced by faith in those who die in war. Death is no longer the wages of sin. It is merit. Thus, war is not God’s judgment of sin upon sin. It is an expression of the moral greatness of the nation.
How far we have come from the perspective of our forefathers! Listen to these remarks of Pr. Herman Amberg Preus, the President of the Norwegian Synod, during the War Between the States at the annual synod meeting in June of 1864:
Again the Lord brings us together as brothers in this time of severe trials with which our country and people are being visited. Certainly we must thank God that thus far he has spared us from seeing our own soil ravaged, our fields destroyed by the wild hordes of war, and streams of blood coloring our lands. We must thank him that peaceful conditions can prevail among us, but above all that the Lord’s congregations can be edified in peace through the Word of the Lord in the manner ordained by him. However, there is certainly no one among us who is so selfish, so without feeling, so unrepentant, that the general misery does not go to his heart so that he himself suffers with his suffering people.
Now if we move on from considering the many kinds of outward wailing and distress and look for its deeper reason, and if we acknowledge that it was nothing other than the people’s deep moral corruption, their indifference and contempt for the Lord and his Word, their pride and arrogance over toward God and people; if we must finally fear that the people’s incessant hardness and impenitence by increasing the flood of sin would multiply the torments and in the future bring even greater misery over our land, then it were really our only comfort that we could say with the pious king Jehoshaphat: “We do not know what we should do, but our eyes are upon you, Lord!” (2 Chronicles 20:12.)
And if it were our congregations over which we cast our glance, we must confess with concern, yes, deep sorrow, that also here it is the same cancerous sore which is spreading, and threatening to consume our congregations’ best vigor, that also here the chief evil is the spirit of arrogance which says , “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” (Ps. 2:3) which wants to allow the light of reason to counsel in matters of faith and to find fault with the revealed Word, which, despising divine and human authority, wants the perverted will to rule. If we walked into battle against this enemy, many times it seems in vain, yes, it seems as if the enemy’s might is increasing during the battle, and then looking at our own strength we must often cry: “We do not know what we should do.” You see, though, that it was our comfort that we could add in faith: “but our eyes are upon you, Lord!”
H. A. Preus saw war as a divine chastening, divine judgment of human pride, and a call upon the nation to repent of her sins. Today we see war as evidence of our own national goodness and as evidence, not of our sin and divine judgment against us, but of the sin of our enemies. The very fact that we have become victims proves our goodness. In such a context there cannot possibly be the need for atonement and a Mediator who will plead for us by setting his own holy obedience between us sinners and the wrath of an offended God. Such an archaic notion requires an understanding of sin that is simply no longer to be tolerated. The love of self is the highest good. Surely, the God who punishes sinners and damns everyone who is not washed in the blood of the Lamb is intolerably cruel and disrespectful of our suffering.
Universalism makes Christ unnecessary to Christianity. In the name of love it denies the essence of love. When we teach the necessity of faith we do not teach the necessity of faith as a virtue. There is plenty of virtue to go around, with people living and dying for all sorts of noble causes. We teach the necessity of faith as the necessity of that which faith receives: Christ and his righteousness. Faith is necessary even as the obedience of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice are necessary. Universalism is not primarily an attack on the believing Christian, though it is certainly that. But it is primarily an attack on God who has laid the sin of the whole world on his beloved Son and invited the whole world to find in him their Savior from sin and death and everlasting punishment.
Legalism and the Gospel’s Substance
One of my younger brothers was repeatedly told by our mother that he needed to be careful walking to school and to watch out for strangers. The boy took his mother seriously. One day, after she gave him her regular maternal warning, he replied: “That’s right, Mom. You never know who might be a stranger.” He knew to watch out for strangers. He just didn’t know what a stranger was!
And so it is with us Lutherans and legalism. One thing we know. Legalism is bad. But what is it? Confusion reigns.
Legalism replaces the gospel with the law. The law is not legalism. When the law is used to do what the law is designed to do it is not legalism. It is not legalism to tell people they should go to church because God says so. It is not legalism to tell the teenage boy to listen to his mother and do as she says. It is not legalism to tell people who have sexual intercourse outside of marriage that they are guilty of fornication. It is not legalism to tell the unhappy wife who wants to divorce her ne’re-do-well husband because she wanted a better life that she is to be faithful to him until death because God joined the two of them together. In short, it is not legalism to preach, teach, and apply God’s law.
Furthermore, it is not legalism to deal with manifestly impenitent sinners as if they were manifestly impenitent sinners. It is not legalism to establish rules that may assist in the smooth operation of various organizations connected with the Church. It is certainly not legalism to adopt and maintain forms of worship that adhere to the historic practice of the Church established many years ago.
It is legalism to use the law to do what only the gospel can do. It is legalism to substitute the law for the gospel. It is legalism to reduce the divine law into doable human rules as if the doing of the rules constitutes the obeying of the law.
The most common form of legalism among Lutherans today begins with a confusion of justification with sanctification and then identifies sanctification with observable and measurable works. We Lutherans tend to avoid the more crass forms of legalism on account of our confessional stance against it. But more subtle forms of legalism will always find a home among us as long as we are sinners living in a sinful world. The very essence of sin is the tendency toward self-justification. This is also the essence of legalism.
Justification and renewal are closely tied together. But they are not the same. Justification is received by faith and faith lies within us, but justification itself is not an inner change or renovation or transformation. Justification is God telling us that we are righteous. It is not merely verbal because God’s word is never merely anything but always almighty. It does what it says. God says we are righteous and we are righteous. But justification is verbal, that is, forensic, that is it is God speaking to us about where we stand with him. We are righteous, not having our own righteousness, but the righteousness of faith, that is, of Christ. Being righteous and being forgiven amount to the same thing. This truth is received by faith and faith flowers into new life – indeed, it is the new life – but the new life is not justification.
Why not? Because justification is complete. It is perfect. It is sufficient. Since it is Christ’s righteousness there can be nothing lacking in it. The new life, on the other hand, is lived in dying bodies that are infected by sin. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. So we must put off these dying bodies and be changed.
The “already” but “not yet” feature of the Christian’s life is an “already” that is ours through faith alone and a “not yet” that we experience in our daily struggle against the devil, the world, and our flesh. The “already” is secured and guaranteed by the gospel. The law cannot negate it anymore than the law can find fault in Jesus Christ whose obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness. The law is silenced by Christ’s death and resurrection, not because we believe it or because through that faith we are being conformed daily to Christ’s image, but because by Christ’s obedience unto death as our representative he has fulfilled all demands of the law both for obedience and for retribution. The reason justification is the topic on which all Christian doctrine is held together is because here is it that God’s glory is revealed and here it is that lost and condemned sinners find comfort and salvation.
The “not yet” feature of the Christian’s life can indeed be challenged by the law. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the cross under which we must live. And nobody likes it, even when the so called theology of the cross has become fashionable. The law attacks us where we are being renewed. The law challenges the truth of our dying to sin and rising to live a righteous life. The law hears of our alleged recreation, our renovation, our inner renewal, call it what you will – we Lutherans have traditionally referred to it as sanctification – and the law says, “Oh yeah? We’ll see about that!” And then he strikes! He cuts through whatever outward appearance of piety exists and from dismembering the protection our flesh sought from such a façade he proceeds to cut right to our hearts and expose every evil thought, motive, and desire, belying our claim to be Christians and displaying us to our own consciences as lying hypocrites. What does a Christian do in the face of such a vicious and effective onslaught?
Well, he runs and hides, that’s what he does! He runs to Christ and hides in his wounds. “Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace.” We have nothing but the blood and righteousness of Jesus period. Sure, we are being renovated. Yes, we are being restored. True enough, we are being conformed daily to the image of Christ here in suffering and hereafter in glory. But all of this is what our Confessions call “inchoate” – incomplete – not yet perfect and never perfect in this life. This is why it is spiritual suicide to confuse justification with sanctification.
Once it is done the law replaces the gospel as the law examines our lives in search of indicators that suggest a living and vibrant faith. Seeking after an inner giftedness, finding evidence of spiritual growth in financial success, measuring signs of spiritual maturity, with the charts, graphs, and other paraphernalia of Christianized socio-business methods, are all features of legalism. The law will measure the gospel and see if it is working. And then the law will judge the gospel if it doesn’t appear to be working. Then the law will replace the gospel because the law works while the gospel doesn’t.
This is the Church Growth Movement in a nutshell. The law stands in judgment over the gospel and takes its place. Jesus teaches us to live by faith, not by sight. Legalism challenges the gospel precisely at this point. It demands that we see what cannot be seen. The hidden righteousness, the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of Christ’s obedience and passion, is hidden within the gospel and sacraments. Its truth cannot be seen in us. Its truth must be recognized in the gospel itself. So the gospel trumps the law. This is the only way to combat legalism. The gospel must trump the law.
But we are fools. We attempt to trump the law with a better law. We point out how the Church Growth Movement with its relevant contemporary services has set aside the tradition handed down by Holy Mother Church. We see how disrespectful these rubes are and it annoys us, even angers us. So we lay down the law on the law and demonstrate how and why the historic liturgy of the Church should be normative for us. We appeal to our tradition against the rising tide of new measures invading our beloved Lutheran Church. Contemporary Worship enthusiasts demand Bible passages to prove that the liturgy that grew out of the early Church and assumed its present form within three hundred years of the first Christian Pentecost should be retained in the Church and not tossed out with yesterday’s newspaper. We reply with indignation that they ought to show a little respect.
But our greatest defense of the historic liturgy and hymnody of the Church is the historic liturgy and hymnody of the Church. Whatever argument we make to retain the traditional service should be made by an appeal – a theological appeal – to what it says. The word of God in the liturgy is not a slip shod collection of disconnected Bible passages. It isn’t the collaboration of a committee of liturgical experts who know nothing about the life and culture of folks in North Dakota and Manitoba. It is the proclamation and confession of the pure gospel as it naturally developed in the life of the Church. Naturally? Well, no. It was the Holy Spirit himself who guided the Church to retain for her children the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and of course the Lord’s Prayer and the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that he spoke on the night he was betrayed.
Confessional Lutheran churches retain the liturgy not because the law requires it but because the gospel calls for its pure proclamation and no one can improve on what God has preserved for us in the ancient forms we have inherited from our fathers.
Legalism is not to be confused with divine mandates. Divine mandates can be pure gospel, as it is with our Lord’s command that repentance and remission of sins be proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The dominical institution of the pastoral office is gospel. That we pastors should get up in the morning and go to work is law. That we should study the Bible and prepare good sermons and Bible classes is law. Every pastor who has woken up from the dream – call it a nightmare – in which he was standing up in the pulpit in front of the congregation with no idea what he would say to them knows that the work of a pastor is work. Don’t assume that because you are orthodox, confessional, and sincere you have the right to stand in front of your people and talk. You have no right to stand up there and talk unless you know what you are going to say before you say it. You are under orders to speak for God. If you are a servant of the word you are under obedience.
God orders us preachers to preach the gospel purely and administer the sacraments rightly according to Christ’s institution. Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession is law. It says: “Our churches teach that nobody should preach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless he is regularly called.” Consider the self-appointed busy body preacher who has no call from the Church to preach. AC XIV says to him: Don’t preach. God didn’t call you to do so through his Church. So be quiet. Listen. Don’t talk. That’s law. Don’t administer the sacraments. It’s not given to you to do. Go to church and receive the sacraments from the one God called to administer them. This is divine law and it is by no means legalism to uphold it.
But the gospel that is preached and the sacraments that are administered do not obtain their efficacy from the fact that the preaching is done by a preacher with a regular call. The law does not make the gospel effective. The gospel is inherently effective. To defend the office to which the preaching of the gospel is entrusted is to defend the gospel. We don’t defend the gospel by making its efficacy contingent on being preached by a preacher.
We teach that Jesus instituted the pastoral office. For this we are criticized on the left and on the right. The Wisconsin Synod criticizes us because we insist that Jesus instituted a specific office with specific duties and that this office is not formed by the Church. Jesus personally formed it once and for all when he assigned to it its duties by telling the Church’s first pastors to preach the gospel, to teach God’s people everything he commanded be taught, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the sacraments. Entrusting the gospel to these men – both the apostles and pastors throughout the Church’s history, including the men gathered together here today – is not to confine it or limit its power or scope. It is not to put the gospel into a legalistic form as if we pastors have something within us that ordinary men don’t have. It is rather to establish in and for the Church an office, a position, a job, if you will, whose sole responsibility is to feed the Church of God that he has purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
We mustn’t be intimidated by cries of legalism when we confess the doctrine we have received concerning the pastoral office being the only divinely instituted office in the Church and the highest office to which a man can aspire. The Bible teaches us this. (1 Timothy 3:1) The very nature of the gospel requires its proclamation, and there cannot possibly he a higher or nobler purpose in life than to bring the gospel of the forgiveness of sins to sinners who need it. We do not affirm what we affirm about the pastoral office in order to elevate pastors or give them dignity. We do so because the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments are means of salvation by which God justifies sinners. It is for the sake of this most precious declaration of God that we pastors do what we do. We should never get into the pulpit without first taking this to heart.
We are not their mommies or daddies. We are not there to make them succeed in life. We aren’t there to impart wisdom on making folks healthy, wealthy, or wise. Indeed, what we preach is foolishness to those who are perishing. We are there because God justifies us through faith and through faith alone and we must obtain the faith through which we are justified. As we confess in the Augsburg Confession, Article V:
In order 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 Christ’s sake. Gal. 3:14, “That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works.
We have no right to preach unless we preach the gospel that teaches that we are justified by God and received into his favor for Christ’s sake who has made full satisfaction for our sins. We have no right to moralize, philosophize, theorize, or share. God puts us in the pulpit because he wants to justify sinners. The greatest threat of legalism is that we pastors will forget what we are called to do! It doesn’t matter so much whether our parishioners know what the pastoral office is and requires. It matters very much if we know and act accordingly.
Conclusion: Individualism versus Enthusiasm
Theology moves this way and that and we generally react to movements long after they have become established. Reaction can become error. Remember what Luther said about the drunken peasant weaving from this to that side of the bridge.
We need to distinguish between individualism and enthusiasm, affirming the former while rejecting the latter. Let us consider the theology from this classic Tom T. Hall Country Western Song to illustrate this distinction. Here are words from “Me and Jesus.”
Me and Jesus we got our own thing going,
Me and Jesus we got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus we got our own thing going,
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.
We should not object to the “me and Jesus” element of his song. Is it not true that Jesus and I do have our own thing going? My personal relationship with Jesus is between him and me. It is our own thing. My faith is mine. You can’t believe for me. The just shall live by his faith, not by his brother’s faith. And what we have is going. It’s a going concern. It keeps on going. The grace of God that covers me, the righteousness of Jesus in which I am clothed is what defines my life. It is personal. It’s between me and Jesus.
But we didn’t work it out. Jesus did. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Note how his synergism is joined to his enthusiasm: “We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.” Jesus doesn’t. That’s true. But I do! If it were left to me and Jesus I’d confuse the whole thing and render it something entirely false and counterfeit and I’d do so sincerely believing that my notions were Jesus’ notions as I attributed to Jesus whatever my feelings led me to think or do. That’s because me and Jesus can’t work it out. It will be me and not Jesus. And it will be me and not Jesus who decides what it’s all about.
This is what we Lutherans condemn as enthusiasm. It is seeking the Spirit apart from the external word and sacrament. It is one thing to have a personal relationship with Jesus and to emphasize the personal faith we have in Jesus. It is quite another to argue that I determine what my personal faith is, that my feelings are what validate the gospel, that my experiences determine the truth for me. No, my faith must always be personal. It is the faith of an individual Christian. But my personal faith and the corporate confession of the Church must be bound together.
And when we reject enthusiasm we must be careful not to challenge individualism. There is something very precious about the individual Christian’s personal faith. So often we stand alone. Those we serve stand alone. St. Peter tells us individually to be ready to give a defense for the faith to anyone who asks. When called upon to confess we may not simply run behind the Church and claim her as our mother. We confess what we personally believe. And that is what the Church believes. It is what the Church teaches. It is what the Church confesses. How do we know this? We know this because God has guided his Church to believe, teach, and confess the pure and saving truth, the gospel revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This book is a light shining in a dark place. It is the lamp that lightens our path. It is the clear voice of God to which the faithful respond with their faithful confession. This is where we began. And this is where we end. God speaks. By speaking he justifies us. We confess. And by God’s grace the truth that comes from our lips brings light to a confused and heterodox world.