I. The Invisible Church
Pastor Chr. Anderson
Translated by Mark DeGarmeaux
1921 Synod Convention Essay
When Jesus, just before His Ascension, predicted the outpouring of the Spirit, the disciples asked: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]. They were still ensnared in the thought that Christ would establish a new kingdom on earth. His kingdom of grace already was on earth. It had existed since the beginning of the time when God promised our first parents that He would send His Son to save them from their deep fall. With faith in this promise they could reach salvation and blessedness.
On the basis of this promise the Lord chose for Himself a people in the age of the Old Covenant whom He guided and protected to reach eternal life. When God’s Son came in the flesh, He simply completed the salvation which sinful people had enjoyed already for thousands of years by faith.
After Christ’s saving work was finished, the same kingdom of grace continued to exist, only in a more glorious form than before. And it shall continue to exist until the end of days, for Christ has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail over His church [menighed, congregation]. Yes, even when the present earth is no more, the same kingdom will continue to exist in the new heaven and the new earth which the Lord will create. All the souls whom the Lord has brought into His kingdom of grace here shall live and reign hereafter with their Savior in eternity. This kingdom of God is what is called the church; it is the topic we shall discuss with each other during these days.
The church is essentially the gathering of the true believers, who by God’s grace are regenerated and are justified before God by faith in Christ. Since it is impossible for us to determine with certainty who are the church’s true members, we call the true church the invisible church.
The word church [kirke] probably comes the Greek word “kyriakos,” which means “of the Lord” or “belonging to the Lord.” It was first used as a designation for God’s house where Christians came together for Divine Service. Then it was used to designate the spiritual house or the gathering of all true believers.
But the word that is used in the New Testament to designate the church is “ekklesia,” that is “called together,” “assembly.” This word in our Norwegian Bible in most cases is translated “congregation” [menighed], while the English translation always uses the word “church.”
With the word “congregation” Scripture most often designates the whole assembly of believers; yet in individual passages it means individual local congregations, such as “the congregation of God which is in Corinth,” 2 Cor. 1:1; “the congregations in Galatia,” Gal. 1:2; “the congregation of the Laodiceans,” Col. 4:16; “the congregation of the Thessalonians,” 1 Thes. 1:1 and 2 Thes. 1:1. Here also belong several passages which show that the word designates the assemblies of believers in certain places or local congregations.
Certainly in everyday speech we usually use the designation church [kirke] for the whole outward assembly of those who confess the Christian faith. We use it about the various national churches [landskirker] and about external church bodies [kirkesamfund], such as the Catholic church, the Lutheran church, the Reformed church, and the like. But God’s Word never uses the word congregation [menighed] to designate the external assembly of confessors or any outward organization of congregations. We do well to note this in our time.
When Scripture speaks about the church [kirke] or the congregation [menigheden], it always means the assembly of the true believers. In accordance with this, our Confession (Augsburg Confession Article 7) says: “The church [kirke] is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered.” In Article 8 it says: “Although the church [kirke] essentially is the assembly of the saints and true believers.” In the Large Catechism (3rd Article [§52]) Luther says: “I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation [menighed] of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding.” And in the Apology, Article 4, it says:
“But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts; which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ. And this Church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews sanctifies and governs by His Spirit, as Paul testifies, Eph. 1:22 ff., when he says: ‘And gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church [menighed], which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.’ Wherefore, those in whom Christ does not act are not the members of Christ.” [Concordia Triglotta]
In Eph. 5:25ff the Apostle describes it this way: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” This description of the church [menighed] fits only the true believers. The unbelievers, on the other hand, although they are found in the outward assembly of the believers, are children of the devil and therefore cannot have any part in Christ and in the good things of His kingdom. In Eph. 4:11-16 it says:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
Here the church’s members are described as holy. They make up a body, whose head is Christ, with whom the whole body is most closely united and from whom it gets its nourishment and power for growth and edification. Such a description can fit only those who are in living fellowship [livssamfund] with Christ. 1 Tim. 3:15 calls the church [kirke], “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Titus 2:14: Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” Thus the goal of Christ’s atonement was that He should cleanse for Himself a people for His possession, found a church [menighed] whose members should would zealous for good works. This same thing is evident also from 1 Peter 2:9, where it says: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” From these and many others passages it is clearly evident that with the word church [kirke] Scripture only means the congregation of the true believers who are united with Christ by faith.
For it is only by faith that we can enter into living fellowship [livssamfund] with Christ who is the head, and thus become living members in the body of His church. Ephesians 3:17 teaches this: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Furthermore, Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
But to come to faith and thus become true members in Christ’s body or the church [kirke] no human being can achieve by himself. Therefore we confess: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but it is the Holy Spirit’s work.” Only by being “born again” can we enter God’s kingdom, John 3:3. John 1:12-13 shows that we are born unbelieving or that we come to faith by rebirth: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Here those who believe in Christ’s name are called children of God and they are born to this by God.
This new birth happens through Baptism, for Jesus says to Nicodemus (John 3:5): “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And in Titus 3:5 Baptism is called “the washing of regeneration.” But this new birth happens also through God’s Word. 1 Peter 1:23, among others, shows this: You have been “born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” And Romans 10:17: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Through faith which by grace God creates in us through the Word and Baptism, we are justified before God and thus suited to be true members of the church [kirke]. This description which Scripture gives of the true believers only fits those who are justified by faith and thus have become holy and blameless. Therefore the Apostle Paul, when he makes himself a spokesman for the true members of the church [kirke], also says, Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” As testimony that it is only by faith that we are justified, we need simply to cite here this one passage, Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
Since it is by faith alone that man is united with Christ and thus a living member of the body of His church, and since faith is not an outward act, but the heart’s confidence in God’s grace, then the essential mark [kjendetegn] of the true members of the church is hidden to human eyes. From this comes the designation of the true church as the invisible church.
Certainly there are many outward signs by which one can know the true children of God here in the world. They will confess their faith before men, for Christ has expressly commanded that, John 15:27: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” And He said, Matt. 10:32-33: “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” They will also use God’s Word, for Jesus said, John 8:31-32: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And Luke 11:28: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” They will also use the sacraments instituted by the Lord Himself, for Jesus Himself instituted the arrangement that through Baptism people will be made His disciples. And about eating and drinking His body and blood in the Supper He said: “Do this in remembrance of Me” [Luke 22:19]. And finally Jesus gave this command, Matt. 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” And in John 13:35 He says: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Those who do not want to direct themselves according to these instructions and prescriptions of the Lord cannot possibly be true members of His church. Those who will not confess and bear witness about their faith in Christ in word and deed, who will not use the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments, and who will not be diligent to live a holy life in love for God and our neighbor, they cannot be regarded as Jesus’ true disciples.
And yet in the world there is so much confession of the mouth that is not rooted in the heart, so much nominal and sham Christianity that lacks spirit and power, and so much “enthusiastic” worship that is not borne of a true living faith in Christ, that it is impossible for us to decide with certainty who really are true members of the church [kirke]. Jesus Himself says, Matt. 7:22-23: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” The mark of the church [kirke] is not such that it jumps out in people’s eyes, therefore Jesus gives this admonition: “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” [Luke 17:20-21]. The church [kirke] is of a spiritual nature. Therefore it cannot be perceived with the senses. Peter calls it a spiritual house; because it is spiritual, it does not have any outward form by which it can be known like physical things. In 2 Tim. 2:19 the Apostle says: “The solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His’.” And Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own” John 10:14. These words certainly mean that it is only the Lord who knows His own.
At certain times, especially during great apostasy and persecutions, the situation can be such that it seems as if there were no longer any true believers. Thus the prophet Elijah lamented and wished to die, because he thought that no one except him had remained faithful to the true God But the Lord says to him: “Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” 1 Kings 19:18. So there were still seven thousand left who had remained faithful, although the prophet in his doubt thought that he was alone.
The church in its essential understanding constitutes only one assembly, since the individual members by faith are most closely united with Christ as the head and thus together make up one body.
From the Scripture passages cited above it is clear that there is only one true church [kirke]. There are not many churches in various places at the same time or many churches that follow one after another at different times. But there is only one church that always has been and always will continue to exist until the end of the world, for Jesus has expressly promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail over His church,” [menighed, congregation] Matt. 16:18. Yes, it is the same church that continues its existence when the believers are harvested into the Father’s storehouse up above, when they are brought into the Father’s house with the many mansions [John 14:2]. Concerning this, Dr. Walther in a sermon on the Second Sunday after Trinity says: “There is a city in heaven and on earth; now whoever wants to live in heaven within its surrounding walls must already on earth be in its outer edge [forstad]. There is only one temple of God, here and hereafter; therefore whoever hereafter wants to enter into the Most Holy Place must already here enter into the courtyard of grace. There is only one kingdom in this world and the next; whoever wants to take part someday in the gleaming procession into the dwelling place of this kingdom in the heavenly Jerusalem cannot remain a guest and stranger in Christ’s kingdom, but must already in this world become a fellow citizen of the saints and a member of the household of God [husfelle].”
The church makes up one assembly, because all members are most closely united with Christ as the head. Eph. 1:22-23 says: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Between Christ and all the members of the church there is a close union like that which is between the head and the whole body. He fills them all with His Spirit and thereby feeds and nourishes, He directs and governs them. From Him they get all the nourishment that must be there to sustain spiritual life. In order to symbolize this even more clearly Christ uses another picture, John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” Just as the branches get the juice and power to grow and bear fruit from the stem and cannot live separated from it, so the members of the church in all spiritual things are completely dependent on Christ. Christ is also compared in many places with a shepherd who feeds, watches, and keeps his sheep.
Just as the movements that control and direct the body proceed from the head, so Christ leads and directs His church with all its members. Just as all the members of the body move the way the head thinks and wants, so also the members of Christ’s church let themselves be directed [bestemme] by Christ’s will and wishes. Christ certainly directs all His creatures by His omnipotence, the evil as well as the good; but it is still in a different way than the members of His church are governed. Because of their close union with Christ they are moved by His Spirit willingly and gladly to come to agreement with His will. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” Rom. 8:14. The will of Christ is always the deciding factor for them, according to which they direct themselves most joyfully.
But if all the members of the church are most closely united with Christ, then from this it follows that they are likewise most closely united with one another. It is the individual members’ union with Christ that establishes the bond of union between them. Eph. 4:15-16 says: “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together.” And Rom. 12:5: “so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” Finally, 1 Cor. 12:12: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” This also proceeds from the fact that the church [menighed] is called God’s house: “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house” 1 Peter 2:5. And 1 Tim. 3:15: “the house of God, which is the church [menighed] of the living God.” It is also called the temple of God, 1 Cor. 3:16: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
This union rests [beror], first, in the common circumstance of the members being subjects in God’s kingdom of grace and their enjoyment of the same spiritual good things. This is so beautifully expressed by the Apostle, Eph. 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
Secondly, this union rests in the mutual activity of service [tjenervirksomhed] which the individual members show toward one another. Since the believers all have the same interests, the same joys and sorrows, there will constantly arise a mutual exchange of activity between them. 1 Cor. 12:26: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” And in Gal. 6:2 the Apostle gives this admonition: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” According to the example of the saints, Acts 1:14; 4:23-31; 12:5, they will pray with one another and for one another. The Apostle admonishes this in Eph. 6:18: “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” The strong ones will bear patiently with the weak, and gently help correct those who go astray. And the one who has, gladly shares of what he has received with those who are needy. This applies in spiritual and well as physical aspects. It is this exchange of activity that is prescribed in the passage cited previously, Eph. 4:16: “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
From all Scripture’s testimonies it obviously concludes that the union which there is between Christ and the members as well as between the individual members mutually is of a spiritual nature. It is not an outward bond of fellowship or external organization that is spoken of here. It is an inner spiritual union with Christ by which God’s grace is granted to the individual members and by which they enjoy with each other the good things of the heavenly kingdom. Where such an inner unity of the Spirit really exists, it will, of course, appear also outwardly in various ways. Often outward organizations can be of great benefit so that “everything may be done decently and in order” [1 Cor. 14:40]. There is no fixed command about this in the New Testament; it is entrusted to the believers in freedom according to the guidance of God’s Word to adapt themselves as they find it most beneficial according to the circumstances. With regard to outward church bodies no fixed command is given. The only outward organization in the church that Scriptures prescribe [påbyder: command, order, require] is the local congregation. That is the only outward organization that God has authorized to exercise the rights that are given to the whole church [kirke]. See Matt. 18:17-20, 1 Cor. 3:21-23.
This, the believers’ spiritual union in Christ, was the goal of Christ’s coming to the world and of His activity in His humiliation. That is why He prays in His high-priestly prayer, John 17:11, 22, 23: “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: … I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” And John 10:16: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
This doctrine of Scripture concerning the church’s spiritual unity in Christ is very comforting. About it Luther says, among other things, in his explanation of John 17:11:
“There is a powerful comfort in it for all who believe in Christ and hold to His Word, namely that we all are members of a single body, are as one flesh and one blood, and have the advantage that everything that has to do with one member has to do with the whole body. … So now the Christian has the sure comfort that he knows that when the devil attacks him, then he is not attacking one finger, but the whole body, that is, all Christians in the world, yes, God and Christ Himself. Just as in the body, when the little toe is stepped on, the whole body is stirred, the eye looks cross [surt], the nose wrinkles up, the hands reach out, and every single member asks and worries what has happened to it; for it belongs to such unity that no piece or part lives and feels only for itself and not also for the others, that is, it has the feeling of the whole body and the whole life. Now where the lowliest member in Christianity suffers, immediately the whole body feels it and is moved, and so they run together, lament, and cry out. So our head, Christ, hears and feels it also. And if He keeps it inside for a while, then He will not joke when He begins to look cross [surt] and wrinkle His nose; for in this way He speaks through the prophet Zechariah 2:8 [Zechariah 2:12 in the Norwegian Bible]: ‘he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.’
“See, this is a precious promise, of great comfort and encouragement to Christians against their persecutors, that they know that our suffering is near to Him, that He calls it ‘touching the apple of His eye,’ and that He will tolerate it just as little as anyone can tolerate someone touching the apple of his eye [literally: touching his eyeball]. Thus when the devil attacks a Christian, then he is attacking in such a way that he must bite his own tongue and burn his own fingers. We have a good example of this in the story of St. Paul, when he persecuted the Christians and had helped to stone Stephen. He thought that he had torn off a toe; but what does Christ in heaven say about this? He does not say: ‘Why are you pinching my toe or persecuting my poor flock?’ But He says this: ‘Saul! Saul! Why are your persecuting Me? … It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (Acts 9:4-5), just as if he had attacked His own Person. Why? Indeed, because one cannot touch any member of the body without the head feeling it, yes, it has to feel it first; for all power comes and goes from the head, then the body is able to feel and experience it.
“This is, I say, the highest comfort in all suffering that Christians enter, when they are afflicted by the devil or are attacked by the world, that they do not suffer alone, but that all of Christianity on earth, yes, all the angels in heaven, along with Christ and the Father Himself, accept their sufferings and bear it with them, so that nothing can happen to them unless it happens to all. Whoever knows and believes this can endure and overcome all kinds of misfortune. On the other hand, there is nothing that makes suffering and affliction so difficult and unbearable as when the heart feels that it suffers alone, sees no fellow sufferer or anyone who is sharing in the same danger, as though he alone were forsaken and neglected — which is how all Christian sufferings look to our physical eyes. Therefore faith must endure against its own feeling and the cry of the world, which, when it attacks a Christian, thinks that it has overcome him so that no one can rescue or help, just as it boasted and rejoiced over Christ Himself when He hung on the cross.”
The church is further described as holy, universal, apostolic.
The church [kirke] is called holy because its head, Christ, is holy. Concerning Him it says, Heb. 7:16 [sic, 7:26]: “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, blameless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens.” And in 2 Cor. 5:21: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Secondly, the church is called holy because all its members by faith have a share in Christ’s righteousness, which is accounted to them by grace. For this reason the church [menighed] is called holy, 1 Cor. 1:2: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus.” 1 Cor. 6:11: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” In Eph. 5:25-27 we read:
“Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.”
Finally, the church [kirke] is called holy because its members busy themselves in living a holy life, even if it is done in great weakness. Those who know that they are righteous before God by faith in Christ will also with the greatest care try to live according to Christ’s will and command. Out of thankfulness they feel the urge to offer themselves to Him who “purchased [them] with His own blood” Acts 20:28. This was also precisely the goal of Christ’s atonement as we confess in the Second Article: He did this “in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everything righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” Paul says, 1 Cor. 6:20: “you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” And Luke 1:74-75: “That we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.” This same thing also finds such beautiful expression in the passages cited previously, Titus 2:14 and 1 Peter 2:9ff.
The church is called universal* because, just as the same church always has been and always will continue to exist, it comprises all believers of all peoples and nations in all places without regard to circumstances and conditions, under which they might live. Jesus says, John 10:16: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Paul says, Gal. 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When John saw the assembly of the saved in heaven, he describes it this way, Rev. 7:9: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
The church is called apostolic because it is built upon the foundation of the Apostles whose cornerstone is Christ, Eph. 2:20. The Apostles received the assignment of going out into all the world and making disciples of all nations. God revealed to them the truths that were to be proclaimed in the New Testament church, by which it should be fed, nourished, and governed. Their doctrine alone is the doctrine of the true church. Everything that is not in agreement with it and goes against it is false and must be avoided. Therefore the Apostle says with such definiteness, Gal. 1:8: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
Christ has entrusted to His church [menighed] the power of the keys, which finds its implementation through the Means of Grace.
The power of the keys is a designation for a power that is entrusted, handed over. Whoever has received the key to a house has thereby received authority and command [raadighed] over the contents of the house. Occasionally one is accustomed to show a person a tribute by giving him a key which one calls the key to the city in order to signify that everything the city has to offer is at his disposal. Christ has given His church [menighed] such authority to administer the good things which by His atonement He has prepared for poor sinners. The key to these good things belongs to Christ. Concerning this He says to John in Revelation 1:[17-]18: “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.” Therefore Christ can also entrust this key to His trusted stewards. In Matt. 16:15-19 it says:
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
This power certainly was not given to Peter personally, as the pope’s church teaches, in order to pass from him by inheritance to those who in a special way call themselves His successors. But in the power of the glorious confession Peter had made on behalf of all the disciples, he was regarded as being a worthy representative for the whole congregation [menighed]. In John 20:22-23 we see that Jesus delegates this authority to all the disciples who were assembled: “And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’.” And in Matthew 18:17-20 Jesus delegates the same authority to the whole congregation:
“And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The power of the keys is thus given to the whole congregation [menighed] and not to some especially prominent persons or to any official position [embedsstand]. In First Corinthians, where Paul so strictly calls the congregation to account because they hold to different people, he says, among other things, chapter 3:21-23: “Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” The exercise of this power is placed in the hands of the believers who are assembled in a place, whether there be many or few. Even where only two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, He is there with them and gives them the right and authority to administer the good things of the kingdom.
The implementation of the power of the keys happens through the administration of the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments. The loosing and binding key in a more narrow understanding are simply applying of the Means of Grace to the individual in the situation whether the person involved is obviously repentant or unbelieving. So both the duty and responsibility for properly administering the Means of Grace rests on the congregation. The office of the Word is not established to take a position of dominion [herskerstilling] over the congregation, but to be of service to the congregation and under its constant supervision. In Matt. 23:8-11 Jesus says: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” And to the servants of the Word the Apostle says, 1 Peter 5:2-3: “Shepherd [Watch over] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, … not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
The church [kirke] is found here in the world within the assembly of all those who confess the Christian faith and use the Means of Grace. Among these there are many hypocrites or such as falsely bear the name Christian. This assembly we usually call the visible church [kirke].
God’s Word speaks about the church under the picture of a field where there are weeds among the wheat, Matt. 13:24-30, a fishing net in which there are gathered both good and rotten fish, Matt. 13:47-48; a wedding feast that also includes such as do not have the wedding garment, matt. 22:11-13; a gathering of wise and foolish virgins, Matt. 25:1-12; a house in which there are vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor, 2 Tim. 2:19-20; and a vineyard that produces both good and bad grapes, Isaiah 5:4. This shows well enough how the church’s outward appearance is constituted. This is how the church has always been in the world, and thus it will always continue to be until the end of days. Yet, in the apostolic congregations which in so many regards had such a glorious form, there were many who were Jesus’ disciples only in name; that this was the case is seen especially from the Apostle’s lament in the Epistles to the Corinthians and in Galatians. Yes, even among the Apostles whom Jesus Himself had chosen there was a Judas who received no share in the good things of the kingdom.
The unconverted who find themselves in the outward assembly of the church do not belong to the church despite what people think. In spite of their Christian name, they are children of the world and belong to the kingdom of the devil. But we have no command here in the world to separate the nominal Christians from the true believers since we lack the terms [betingelser, conditions] in order to be able to do it correctly (Matt. 13:29). Certainly we should exercise church discipline, that is, remove obvious unbelievers (Matt. 18:17 and 1 Cor. 5:3-5). This simply applies to those who openly refuse to be taught by God’s Word. All others we should in love, as far as possible, consider as believers. The nominal Christians’ participation with the true believers in the outward good things of the church does not disturb the church’s true essence and character. Yes, even if the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments administered by an unbeliever, that does not take away the power of the Means of Grace. Concerning this our Confession says, Augsburg Confession Article 8:
“Although the Church properly is the assembly of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men” [Concordia Triglotta, adapted].
The final separation between the evil and the good God has prepared for Himself when He comes for the final judgment (Matt. 13:20 and 25:32-33).
The church’s condition [kaar] here in the world is that it struggles, because only through an incessant battle against its enemies can it be sustained and perfected in eternal glory.
The church does not achieve its perfect form here in this world. Its members are called strangers and pilgrims, and their pilgrim song has gotten its most clearly ideal foreshadowing portrayal in the children of Israel’s wandering through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan. “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come,” Heb. 13:14. During this wandering through the world’s wilderness they are surrounded by enemies who in so many different ways try to lead them astray and get close to them [komme dem tillivs]. It is important to fight against these enemies and “resist [them] to bloodshed,” Heb. 12:4, if we shall be kept faithful to the end.
The archenemy is the devil, “that old serpent” (Rev. 12:9), who by his cunning attack caused our first parents to fall. With him and his invisible army of wicked spirits there must be constant battle. Of this battle the Apostle says, Eph. 6:11-12: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” How this enemy brings his attacks we have most clearly illustrated in our first parents’ temptation and in the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Although this evil enemy has been completely overcome for us and in our place by Jesus’ battle and victory, still he is allowed to continue his attacks for our training here in the time of trial, so that we should imitate our Savior also in His battle and thus by His power be made partakers in His victory. Therefore the Apostle says, 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” But we have received this promise: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
And in this battle the archenemy has a powerful ally in the world, that is, the unbelieving children of the world. By their evil example, by threats and enticements, they constantly try to lead the children of God astray and cause them to fall. One must seriously fight against these attacks. Not against them personally, for here too Jesus’ command applies: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). But there must be constant battle against their seductions and plots if we are to be kept in the faith. But in this battle God has given us this glorious promise, 1 John 5:4: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
But the archenemy has an even more dangerous ally in our own evil flesh. The old Adam in our flesh continues to resist God’s work in the believers as long as they are here in the world. The Apostle says, Gal. 5:17: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” And in Romans 7:14 he laments:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. … O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
According to the Apostles’ example an incessant battle must be conducted against the old Adam if we are to remain faithful unto the end. 1 Cor. 9:27: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
These enemies will make an effort to get the members of the church to become addicted to sins and transgressions against God’s commandments. If they are not successful in getting us to become addicted to the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and a sumptuous life, they will try to persuade us to doubt whether we are partakers of God’s grace. They will especially make a point of distorting the truths of God’s Word which show the way to salvation and blessedness. Even the very people who work within the church are used for this, as well as the obvious children of unbelief.
Since the attacks of these enemies are directed against the members of the church, our life here remains an incessant battle. How foolish it is to complain about battle and struggle! It cannot be otherwise here in the church militant. Those who dream about peace and calm in the world have nothing in the Word of God on which to build these presumptions. And when it causes someone in the church militant to say: “Peace! Peace!”, then the situation has become just as it was at one time in Israel. See Jeremiah 14:13-15; Ezek. 13:9-16. In reality one has only concluded a shameful peace with the enemies of the church. Jesus says, Matt. 10:34-36: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’.” Therefore it says to his successors: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” 2 Tim. 2:3 and: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare” 1 Tim. 1:18.
The church is called triumphant when its members, after the time of trial has ended here, victoriously have their finished their battles and have entered the heavenly kingdom where in beatific vision they shall live and reign with their Lord and Savior to all eternity.
*Translator’s note: Whereas the English version of the Nicene Creed used by many Lutherans says “holy Christian and Apostolic church,” the Norwegian version uses the word “almindelig,” meaning “universal” or “general” to translate the original phrase “holy catholic and apostolic church.”