Pastor Rolf Preus
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
October 20, 2007
A confessional church is a confessing church. To be a confessional church is to regard the confessional writings of the church as authoritative over the church’s doctrine because these writings are drawn from the Holy Scriptures. To be a confessing church is to confess God’s truth in response to the various religious challenges that rise up against it. A confessional church is bound to the church of the past. A confessing church addresses the issues of today. A confessing church that neglects the confessions will be captivated by whatever enthusiasm is currently most compelling. A confessional church that does not engage the religious culture of her day becomes irrelevant and concedes that the historic confessions of the church have little to say to us today.
The familiar words from the Epitome of the Formula of Concord – “We believe, teach, and confess” – are helpful in explaining what a confessional and confessing church is.
We believe. The church is the assembly of the saints, that is, the congregation of believers who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. The church is not a clerical class. It is not a government. It is a people. It is the people who are justified through faith alone and are thereby incorporated into the body of Christ. Being justified through faith alone is what makes them the church. This is the only church that has ever existed. Since faith is invisible to man, it is customary for us confessional Lutherans to refer to the church as invisible.
When we call the Church invisible we do not intend to say that she is unrecognizable. The Church is recognized by her marks: the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Some call the Church invisible but deny that the means of grace are her infallible marks. This makes the Church not only invisible but beyond human recognition. A church that is not identifiable is no longer a church but an idea of a church, an unreal abstraction that has no place in serious theology. We do not use the term “invisible Church” to refer to this unidentifiable church that floats out there within the generic faith of a one size fits all Protestantism encompassing all people of faith, including assorted Unitarians, Mormons, Scientologists, or anyone else that has some sort of faith tradition. We do not call the Church invisible in order to sanctify the privacy of faith. There is nothing private about faith. Its very nature compels its publicity at every opportunity. We call the Church invisible to safeguard the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which requires us to define the Church as the Communion of Saints, that is, the fellowship of those who are justified through faith alone. The church that lives by faith alone is the church that teaches and confesses.
We teach. Our preachers teach what we believe. They are our servants. They don’t speak on their own. They speak as the church has instructed them to speak. They may not say a word until they bind themselves to obedience to the church, that is, until they offer a public and unconditional subscription to the church’s confessions. If they are unwilling to do so we don’t want to hear them. We can’t afford to listen to them. They have nothing to offer us. Since our teaching and our faith are the same we will not and cannot permit our teachers to teach anything that militates against our faith. They are accountable for what they teach and they are under orders from the church with respect to what they teach.
This does not mean that they are under the authority of a divinely ordained church polity, whether that of a supreme voters’ assembly or that of an episcopacy. The only divinely ordained church government is the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments of Christ. The divinely fixed form of the preaching office is the fullness of that office as Christ himself instituted it. As Professor Marquart used to remind us, the full gospel is not the gospel along with assorted miracles, but the gospel and the divinely instituted sacraments.
The ecclesiastical authority to which the preachers willingly submit is never this or that humanly devised form of church polity. It is the authority of the Church’s Confessions. The Church sets her Confessions over her ministers, requiring that they willingly place themselves under this doctrinal authority. This requirement is a precondition for serving in the ministry of the word. The written Confessions that have been judged by the Holy Scriptures and have been found to be faithful to the pure and clear fountain of Israel have more than a passing ecclesiastical authority over our teachers. They have permanent divine authority, for flesh and blood has not revealed what they teach, but rather the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We bind our teachers to the written Confessions for the sake of our faith. Faith requires us to shut out every voice but the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The authority of the Lutheran Confessions derives from their agreement with the Holy Scriptures. The Confessions have no immediate authority. They were not dropped down from heaven. Nor is their authority the authority of mere tradition or churchly consensus. Nor is their authority the authority of a majority to which everyone agrees to submit for the sake of good order. The authority of the Confessions is biblical. Therefore, it is divine. Theodore Schmauk writes:
Confessions are, therefore, the sum of Scripture, its very pulse-beat or accent, in time, as the true Church, in her Witness, divinely commanded, best knows how to utter it. Confessions are the Scripture itself worked up by the believing Church’s conviction amid the tests of human life and experience, and under the same guidance of the Holy Spirit that inheres in the office of the preacher in bearing witness to Christ in the pulpit, – into Common Principles of Faith, on which the Churches can rest, and in which the Church of the future can find anchorage.
The authority of the Lutheran Confessions over what we teach is therefore the authority of the Holy Scriptures, that is, the authority of God himself. This authority is not imposed upon unwilling servants. It is willingly embraced. The teacher always submits to the authority of the Confessions of his own free will. The doctrine at the center of the Confessions is the gospel that releases our will from the bondage of Satan into the liberty of the children of God. The teacher does not submit to the Confessions as to an alien authority. While the written Confessions exist extrinsically from the individual teacher, they are not extrinsic to him. They are a part of him even as they are a part of the Church. Schmauk 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.
We confess. All Christians confess. Not all teach. Only teachers teach. We call them preachers, pastors, ministers, and various other things. God sends them to teach. Not all are teachers, and, as St. James reminds us, not all should elect to be. In fact, no one elects himself. Only God can send the teacher. But every Christian confesses. Every Christian confesses what he has been taught and what he believes. Faith alone makes us Christians but confession alone marks us as Christians. Jesus promises that he will confess before his Father in heaven all those who confess him before men. What the individual Christians confess they confess in concert with the whole church. We confess. As the word itself suggests, confession is always a corporate activity. We speak together. We speak the same thing. We confess what we teach. Our teachers do not share their own insight and we don’t confess whatever we may feel inside. The individual Christian may or may not quote the Bible or the Catechism when he makes his faithful confession. Whether he does or does not, he confesses the heavenly doctrine. He confesses what he was taught from God’s word. He confesses what he was taught to confess in the Catechism. This is why the best preparation for a Christian to confess his faith is first to learn the Catechism. A confessing church is made up of people who know what it is they are called upon to confess.
While the substance of what the individual Christian confesses is always the same as the Church’s corporate confession, the Christian often stands alone when he is confessing it. He is not just a member of the church. He is also an individual. We cannot speak of being a confessing church if we have no confessing individuals. Just as the teachers of the church are to preach the word in and out of season, so the individual members of the church are to confess the truth whenever it is called for.
Teaching and confessing entail the communication of the same truth. There is no conflict between what we teach and what we confess. But the purpose of teaching and the purpose of confession are not exactly the same. The purpose of teaching is that we may obtain the faith. The purpose of confession is that we may express the faith. When the Bible talks about the source of faith it points us to the word that is preached by the preachers. The word does not obtain its power to elicit faith from the man who preaches it. The word is not efficacious only when a called and ordained preacher preaches it. However, God has established in and for his Church on earth an office of teaching and God is the one who sends men to fill it.
The purpose of teaching God’s word is never just academic. It is not merely to impart information. There is no such thing as an Adult Information Class. The divine doctrine is never mere information. It is always divine power. We do not teach the opinions of men. Those entrusted with the teaching office, that is, the preaching office are required to speak with authority as men of God. They are required to know the Holy Scriptures. They must be able to refute errorists, rightly divide law and gospel, and faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God as it is declared by the apostles and prophets. Why? The confessional Lutheran answer is given 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.
The teaching of the church is always for the purpose of the justification of the sinner. This is the heart of all that God has to say to us.
The confession of the church is always the fruit of being justified by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake. It is the mirror image of faith. It comes from faith. It expresses faith. It identifies faith. St. Paul puts it this way:
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:8-10)
The word is preached. The preached word is received by faith. This faith is confessed. Faith receives. Then faith is confessed. Faith receives Christ’s righteousness whereby the sinner becomes a saint. The saint confesses the faith. The word that is in the mouth, that is, confessed and the word that is in the heart, that is believed, is the word that is preached. It enters the heart by preaching. As the apostle continues a few verses later:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “LORD, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:14-17)
We believe, teach, and confess. A confessing Christian confesses the faith that has been preached to him. He goes to church because church is where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered. Being a confessor does not make him a preacher. All Christians are confessors. Holy Baptism is not only the gracious washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. It is also the public confession of those who are baptized. If we are right to confirm our baptism publicly, baptism must be something to be confirmed. The confessing Christian publicly claims his baptism and thereby claims his identity in those waters where he died and rose, where his sins were forgiven, where he was filled with the Holy Spirit, where he was joined to Christ, and where he renounced the devil and all his works.
The Christian needs no more call from God to confess his faith whenever and wherever God gives him opportunity than the call he received when God baptized him.
The interrelationship between believing, teaching, and confessing is a beautiful thing. It is divinely ordained. The individual Christian stands alone with nothing but the gospel that God has implanted in his heart and the promises of his baptism. He speaks. He confesses what he believes. Standing alone, he confesses that in which he personally trusts. And as he does so he stands in the presence of the Holy Christian Church on earth and in heaven. The entire Church confesses with him. He stands alone but he is not alone. He is filled with the Holy Spirit, in communion with the Church in heaven and on earth, and surrounded by angels.
To be a confessing Church requires us to confess. It requires us to make claims. It requires us to assert and to stand upon our assertions as if they are the truth revealed by God himself. Schmauk writes, “Confessions are the answer of earth to the revelation from Heaven.” Thus, there can be nothing tentative about what we assert as our faith. Indeed, apart from the confident and dogmatic insistence upon possessing divine truth, there is nothing for us to confess.
But this is really quite rude in a pluralistic culture. If not rude, at least a bit strange. And unsettling. Consider just who it is out there making dogmatic claims to divine truth! Such people fly jet liners into tall buildings. They go out two by two annoying entire communities with their tired old heresies. They go on television to con gullible Christians out of their hard earned money so that they can stay on television to con gullible Christians out of their hard earned money. Speak with conviction about what you know God has told you and then look around and see what company you keep!
And that’s only part of the problem. Should you succeed in retaining at least of bit of credibility by distinguishing yourself from the various fanatics and lunatics who claim a direct hotline to God you are still confronted by the deeply engrained truism that religious knowledge lies within ourselves and, as such, cannot be discovered in a text. The text itself has no meaning, you see, except that which is projected upon it by people in power. So the best that you can hope for, it seems, is to be one voice among many, sharing one religious view among many, with nothing and no one to say that one view is true to the exclusion of contradictory views.
They call it postmodernism. Our generation’s opposition to objective truth is seen as a reaction against the triumph of reason that characterized the modern age. The cock-sure certainty with which various scientific, economic, social, and political theories were advanced a century ago has stumbled into uncertainty and doubt. The same has happened to religion. The only thing we can be sure of is that we cannot be sure of anything at all, at least nothing that we can put into words that will be true tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. So the assurance of faith retreats to somewhere within the individual where it is safely protected from any challenge, whether from reason or from revelation. But this is not faith. It is an agnosticism that wants desperately to lay hold of faith but is too timid to assert with confidence anything at all.
I suppose we can call this postmodernism but it’s really nothing more than old fashioned religious skepticism. It is the religion advanced by the one who asked Eve, “Yea, hath God said?” and the one who mocked our Lord’s good confession with the sneer: “What is truth?” It’s the religion of Erasmus who chided Luther for being too assertive in setting forth his biblical position on the innate spiritual helplessness of man. A studied doctrinal agnosticism pretends to be thoughtful humility but is in fact the cowardice of unbelief that can’t admit even to itself what it is. There’s a bit of truth to what the late Madeline Murray said about agnostics being atheists without any guts. Nowadays the agnostics call themselves “people of faith” while refusing to assert as dogmatic truth anything that can be falsified or verified by a standard outside of themselves. They do not question the existence of God, only any finally binding statement of what God happens to think or to say about anything in particular.
There is really only one proper response to this deliberate refusal to acknowledge binding dogma. That is to assert with boldness, clarity, and conviction. Listen to the words of Martin Luther:
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 . . . 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. Why, the Holy Spirit is given them from heaven, that he may glorify Christ [in them] and confess him even unto death—unless it is not asserting when one dies for one’s confession and assertion. Moreover, the Spirit goes to such lengths in asserting, that he takes the initiative and accuses the world of sin [John 16:8], as if he would provoke a fight; and Paul commands Timothy to “exhort” and be urgent out of season” [II Tim. 4:2].
Note how Luther identifies confession with assertion. There can be nothing tentative about what we confess. Why not? Because it is revealed to us by God in the Holy Scriptures. The spirit of confessional zeal so pronounced in the writings of Martin Luther cannot exist apart from a clear and authoritative word from God. The Bible must be clear. Its doctrine must be accessible not only to clerics or scholars with a special gnosis, but to any intelligent person who reads the biblical text and receives it as the word of God. The Bible must be without error. Lutherans, who begin to squirm when confronted with assertions about biblical inerrancy as if such claims place one in the Reformed or Fundamentalist camp, will sooner or later find themselves unable to confess much of anything. If the Bible is not inerrant, how can we sift what is true from what is erroneous? If the Bible is not clear, how can we know what it teaches? The perspicuity and the inerrancy of the Bible are essential if the Church is to be a confessing Church.
We confess the perspicuity of the Bible against all those who supplement the teaching of the Bible with the individual experience of the believer or the collective experience of the Church. Modern Pentecostalism is simply an individualistic version of classical Romanism. In either case, neither the written word nor the oral word will suffice for faith but must be supplemented by the norm of experience, whether the personal experience of the individual who is baptized in the Holy Spirit or the corporate experience an allegedly catholic tradition.
We confess the inerrancy of the Bible against all those who suggest that the Bible could err on any topic it addresses. The fact that Fundamentalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses also affirm biblical inerrancy is no good reason for Lutherans to deny it or to set it aside as beneath our concern. Historical criticism is still with us and is not about to leave anytime soon. While JEDP may well be going out of style, the affirmation of the literal truthfulness of the Bible is not coming into style. We are at odds with the scholarly consensus of America’s religious culture and we will continue to be if we insist on affirming biblical inerrancy. We will be mocked by the intelligentsia and dismissed by snotty know-it-alls who derive great pleasure in making fun of the convictions of Christians. This is no reason to run away from a clear confession on this matter.
Lutherans who are ashamed of biblical inerrancy try to change the subject when it comes up. They start talking about the power of the word. What Lutheran would disagree with the word’s inherent power? Or they will argue that any discussion of the word as a noun places us above God’s word and in judgment over it. That won’t do. Instead they suggest that we speak of the word as a verb – as divine activity, as an event that defines our lives. In this way we are placed under rather than over the word. Pious sounding talk, but it’s more like Karl Barth than Martin Luther. Lutherans are not ashamed of the words of the Bible. We identify the Book as having been written by God. It is entirely free from error because its Author cannot err. We place ourselves under divine authority when we take our stand upon the Bible.
A confessing Church is made up of confessing Christians. Confessing Christians do not confess alone. The very first thing a confessing Christian does is to go to a church that teaches God’s truth. It matters where one attends. Going to a church that teaches false doctrine is not only to put one’s own soul in jeopardy but also to make a poor confession of faith. When we attend a church where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution we thereby confess the doctrine of that church as our own. Our mere presence in such a church on a regular basis is making a confession of faith.
When God chose to visit us he came bodily. He did not merely send a message or engage in some kind of symbolic act. The incarnation of the Son of God is not a mere metaphor to illustrate God’s condescension to us mortals. It is quite literal. The fullness of the Deity lives in the body of Jesus. To find God you must find the human nature of Christ. You must find his body. The location of the body of Christ is the location of God. Rightly locating God will determine whether you have the true God. And the location of our body as we receive into it God’s body and blood will determine whether we have the true confession. It is not enough – nor is it even necessary – to join a synod that has an orthodox confessional paragraph. It is not enough to belong to a congregation with a formal teaching that is sound. Our bodily presence and God’s bodily presence go together. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) As God’s body and blood are placed into our bodies we not only receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, we also confess that the proclamation of the pulpit joined to that altar is the voice of God.
The main reason for going to church is to receive what Christ wants to give to us. Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” We go to church to find spiritual rest and peace in the gospel. We go to hear the words that absolve us of our sins. We go to eat and to drink the body and the blood of Jesus by which we were redeemed and are justified. But we also go to church for the purpose of confessing the truth. We join with the Church of all times and places when we give voice to the faith by speaking the Church’s creeds. The confession of faith we make on Sunday morning is foundational to every other confession we make.
This is important for all of us to know, but it is especially vital to the self-understanding of small confessional Lutheran congregations, in particular those congregations with no synodical affiliation. We stand with the Church Catholic. We believe, teach, and confess what the true Church has always and everywhere taught. We are Mt. Zion. We don’t need big numbers. We don’t need prestige and recognition. We need the saving truth. We need the apostolic word. We need the washing of regeneration. We need Christ’s body and blood. Being a small congregation – even a congregation with no synodical affiliation and so apparently standing all alone – may be a blessing if it focuses us on what makes us the Church. Sectarianism is of course the bane of tiny little Lutheran synods that purify themselves into a carnal orthodoxy that ensures their perpetual separation from everyone else. But sectarianism is not a danger only to small congregations and small groups of congregations. One does not fall into it on account of being small, but on account of distaining our confessional Lutheran theological heritage.
That heritage includes the faith strengthening Lutheran chorales that bring the doxological and the didactic together with a fervent confessional spirit. If pastors want to teach their parishioners how to confess the faith faithfully they should choose hymns for congregational singing with solid doctrinal substance. Sentimental fluff may capture the affections, but does nothing for the feeding of the soul. When from our youth we learn good Christ centered and Trinitarian hymns that clearly focus on the atonement, justification, and the substance of the gospel, we are also learning that the pure doctrine is not just for professional theologians to split hairs over but is in fact the substance of our faith. Faith, worship, and confession are inseparably joined together. When pastors teach their parishioners shallow Methodist hymns they shouldn’t be surprised to discover that their parishioners will adopt shallow Methodist theology. Lutherans who are kept ignorant of the great hymns of Luther, Gerhardt, Kingo, and others great hymnists of the Lutheran tradition are being robbed of their heritage as Lutherans. It is every pastor’s duty to do his best to elevate the appreciation of good hymns among those entrusted to his spiritual care. The great Lutheran chorales wed the fullness of the gospel truth to beautiful melody and when they are committed to memory they ground our faith in the firm foundation of Christ’s pure gospel. This is the faith that we learn to confess. I’ve never heard a sermon that can rival in beauty Paul Gerhardt’s “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” and I’ve never met a child who couldn’t learn to sing and enjoy singing Kingo’s “On My Heart Imprint Thine Image.” There is no reason why Lutherans in our day cannot learn to love the great chorales that sustained previous generations of Lutherans in the sound doctrine and the confession of the same.
Confessing Christians confess. They speak together the same thing. This is one reason why we memorize the six chief parts of Christian doctrine. If an individual Christian was deprived of the opportunity to memorize the Catechism as a child there is no good reason to neglect doing it as an adult. The purpose of the Catechism was never to test the knowledge of a child so that he might be given a religious rite of initiation into adulthood. The purpose of the Catechism is that a Christian – young or old – may have within his mind and heart those wholesome words that constitute a summary of the divine doctrine. The Catechism is the preached word held in the heart ready to be confessed.
When I began catechizing children about thirty years ago I was often informed by their parents (usually with a pious solemnity that suggested they knew I would agree with them) that it wasn’t as important that the children memorized the Catechism word for word as it was that they understood what they memorized. They were wrong. It is not unimportant that the children understand what they are memorizing. We should do our best to explain it to them. But it is far more important that they memorize the right words and be able to recite them at will. After all, they will be growing in their understanding throughout their lives. They cannot grow in what they haven’t learned. Unless we set the foundation there will be nothing upon which to build. How can we be confessing Christians in a pluralistic culture? Go to church. Memorize the six chief parts. Learn good hymns.
Give witness to what you believe. The apostles were witnesses in the literal sense of the word. They saw and heard, felt and touched. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? No, you were not. But the apostles were. The testimony of the Church and every individual member of the Church is the apostolic testimony. In other words, we testify to what they saw and heard, not to what we saw and heard. Witnessing is not giving testimony to how God has changed your life. Witnessing is giving testimony with the whole church to what Jesus said and did in the presence of many witnesses.
When we bear witness to what our Lord teaches we are dependant upon the apostolic word. We don’t choose when and where we will witness to the truth we have received. Each situation will, to a degree, determine which portion of the truth we will confess. We may be called upon to address the historicity of Adam and Eve or the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Or it may be an issue of divine law. What does God say about homosexuality, divorce, war, abortion, and other matters? Not every theological conversation that entails a Christian witness will necessarily involve a discussion of how a sinner is justified and saved. Certainly, we should try to bring the conversation to a discussion of the one thing needful, but we don’t always have that opportunity. Confession is not the same as preaching. We have no obligation to push for a response to a D. James Kennedy diagnostic question.
Those who cannot distinguish between teaching and confessing will lay upon every Christian the responsibility of making a cogent presentation of God’s plan of salvation. The inability or lack of opportunity to do so in no way prevents a Christian from making a faithful confession. The refusal to join a lodge or to permit your children to join the Boy Scouts or Awana or to participate in any other kind of religious exercise that would compromise the faithful Christian confession is itself a faithful Christian confession.
It may be a confessional act for a Christian to get involved as a citizen in efforts of other citizens to address certain political and social issues. Christians who join with their fellow citizens in opposing abortion on demand, homosexual unions, and other assaults on God the Father almighty, will do so for eminently theological reasons. When they do, they will also be given many opportunities to participate in worship with those united with them on the moral issues but with whom they are not joined together in one mind and judgment on the mysteries of faith. At such times silence is a true confession.
Children in the local public school are urged to join in a handholding prayer gathered around the flagpole. They refuse. They point out unity in patriotism is not the same as unity in the confession of the one true faith. A Lutheran pastor invited to be the main speaker at a pro-life rally declines when he learns that the rally will be a prayer service in which several heterodox clergypersons will participate. We do not faithfully confess one truth by calling into question another truth. Truth is indivisible, and the confession of the Christian is a part of a seamless garment. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what to confess and when. We never confess what is not true. We never pretend that the difference between truth and error is insignificant. We need not always confess the whole truth – for the simple reason that we have neither the time nor the opportunity – but we may not deny any portion of God’s truth.
Does this place us into a position of separatism? Does this render any public witness in the public square impossible? No, it does not. It does require that we learn to discern the difference between cooperation in externals and fellowship in sacred things. We can and we should cooperate with our fellow citizens of a variety of confessions in standing up for what is right. We must do so without joining together in worship in a setting that would compromise our faithful Christian confession.
When I was at the seminary I was taught by Dr. Henry Eggold that I should never agree to pray at a public event unless I was the only one doing the praying. I foolishly ignored that sage advice not long after being ordained when I was invited to have the Invocation at a pro-life rally featuring the Congressman Henry Hyde, from Illinois. A Roman Catholic priest had been asked to give the Benediction. I crafted a fine prayer that affirmed not only the sanctity of every human life, but also the inerrancy of the Bible, justification by faith alone, and baptismal regeneration. It was quite a prayer. I imagine it was the most orthodox prayer some of those people had ever heard.
When it came time for the famous pro-life congressman from Illinois to speak, he began his remarks by observing that there was on the stage a Lutheran minister and a Roman Catholic priest, both of whom were pro-life. He went on to say that there were also Baptists and Mormons who were pro-life and wasn’t it wonderful that we Christians could set aside our petty doctrinal differences and unite in common cause against the scourge of abortion? I had been had. It was my own fault. I should have listened to my teacher.
It is more important that our confession be true than that it be understood. We cannot control how others think or how they will receive what we say. We can only strive to speak as clearly as we can. We need to learn where and when to bend and where and when we cannot bend. We cannot deny the truth. We cannot confess what is not true. We can always confess what is true in a spirit of humility and reverence.
To be a confessing Church in a pluralistic culture requires a humble stubbornness. Since people tend to look for truth within they also tend to regard our exclusive Christian claims as personal assaults against those who adhere to a different religion. Have you ever noticed how those who attack us for agreeing with our Lord Jesus that he is the only way to the Father will as often as not bring the Jews into the discussion? Are you saying that Jews must become Christians or be damned to hell? In this way we become not only intolerant religious bigots but anti-Semitic as well. Here is where a humble stubbornness is vital. We will not be intimidated and we will not respond to abuse by dishing it out ourselves. We simply confess what is true and leave the rest up to God.
There is no question that we live in a religious culture that despises what we hold to be precious. But those who are caught up in its spirit are not our enemies. We would all be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine had we not been delivered from the folly within ourselves by the Spirit of truth. We confess the gospel that has freed us from our own sin. We live by faith in it. To give testimony to it is no burden. It’s a joy. That’s because the gospel remains the power of God to save everyone who believes it.
The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, Theodore E. Schmauk, Board of Publication of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, Philadelphia, 1911, (Concordia Heritage Series) pages 11-12
Schmauk, page 9.
Schmauk, pages 9-10.Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 33: Luther’s works, vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 33, Page 19-24). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.