Rev. Harold Vetter
1980 Synod Convention Essay
It was scarcely twelve years after Martin Luther’s declaration of war on the abuses which were plaguing consciences throughout the fold of Western Christianity, twelve years since he had posted ninety-five propositions for debate on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Much had happened in Luther’s life during those years. He had been reprimanded, threatened, excommunicated by a papal decree, brought before an imperial diet, and declared to be an outlaw, free to be hunted down and killed at will. He had been protected by his German prince and hidden away in the Wartburg castle, there to begin his greatest literary work; his translation of the Word of God into German.
During these twelve years, the Reformation movement had also gained much momentum. Other reformers were becoming known and were making themselves heard, especially in southern Germany and Switzerland. In Saxony, where Luther himself lived, the emperor’s edict which threatened his life was not carried out. So, with his own followers and co-workers, he was able to preach and teach, to write, and to guide those under his spiritual care into God’s Word, there to see, in all the fullness and beauty of the Gospel, their Savior and the eternal inheritance which He had freely won for them.
We must not think, though, that the Reformation movement was going as well as it was because the leaders in Rome were asleep at the switch. No, they had other great problems to deal with. The same was also true of the emperor, Charles V. In fact, during part of this time the emperor and the pope were at odds with each other. In addition to that, the emperor was fighting with the king of France. Therefore, he had no time at first to devote to the pope’s problems in Germany. And without the emperor’s help the pope was powerless to force his will on the reformers.
This political situation, however, was changing. Charles invaded and looted Rome, and the pope came to terms with him, agreeing to crown him as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles also defeated the king of France and made a treaty with him. There was, though still one big problem for him: the invading Turks, who were threatening all of Western Europe. To meet this threat Charles needed the help and support of all the princes of his empire. So he was all the more anxious to settle his problems at home and thus have a united front to present against the Turkish threat. Therefore, in January of 1530, he turned his attention to the German Reformation. In a letter to Elector John the Steadfast of Saxony, he called for a diet, an assembly of princes and theologians, to be held in the city of Augsburg. The diet was to begin on April 8, 1530. Its purpose was mainly to discuss and settle the differences between Rome and the Lutheran Reformation movement, especially in view of the Turkish threat.
This summons was sent out from Bologna, Italy, where three days later Charles was to be crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the pope, Clement VII. After speaking of the Turkish invasion, its threat to Western Europe, and what actions had to be taken against it, the letter proceeded as follows:
The diet is to consider, furthermore, what might and ought to be done and resolved upon, regarding the division and separation in the holy faith and the Christian religion; and that this may proceed the better and more wholesomely, to allay divisions, cease hostility, surrender past errors to the Savior, and display diligence in hearing, understanding, and considering with love and kindness the opinions and views of everyone, in order to reduce them to one single truth and agreement, to put aside whatever has not been properly explained or done by either party; so that we may adopt and hold one single and true religion and may all live in one communion, Church, and unity, even as we all live and do battle under one Christ.
The elector was urged to arrive on time, with the warning that if he should fail to appear, the diet would proceed as if he were present and assented to all of its resolutions. (The elector reached Augsburg on May 2nd, but the emperor didn’t arrive until June 16th.)
This letter reached Elector John the Steadfast at Torgau on March 11, 1530. On the advice of his chancellor, George (or Gregory) Bruck, and in view of the emperor’s assurance that the views of everyone were to be heard, the elector commissioned Luther, Justus Jonas, John Bugenhagen, and Philip Melanchthon to draw up a document which would deal especially with “those articles on account of which said division, both in faith and in outward ceremonies, continues.” The theologians met and drew up such a document in Wittenberg, and Melanchthon presented it to the elector in Torgau on March 27th. This document thus became known as the “Torgau Articles,” and it was these articles which were originally intended to be presented at Augsburg. These articles were somewhat limited in scope, in that they dealt only with the points of controversy between Luther and Rome. At that time it was not considered necessary to get into issues that had never been in controversy. So, with these articles in hand, the elector, together with Luther, Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, and Veit Dietrich (Luther’s secretary), set out for Augsburg on April 4th. They arrived at the fortress Coburg on April 15th (Good Friday). This was the farthest point south in John’s kingdom, and beyond that point he was unable to protect Luther from the emperor’s ban, which had declared Luther to be an outlaw. (This ban was still in effect throughout the empire, although it could not be carried out in Saxony.) Augsburg was still about 130 miles away, so Martin Luther had to remain at Coburg. After eight days of rest, the elector and the rest of his party continued on to Augsburg. There was regular communication with Luther by means of a courier, and many letters were exchanged, both to keep him informed and also to get his advice.
Scarcely had the elector and his party arrived in Augsburg, though, on May 2nd, when a new problem emerged. John Eck, perhaps the most able of the Roman Catholic theologians and a long-time antagonist of Luther, had written and published a book, called 404 Articles For the Diet of Augsburg. In these articles he bitterly attacked Luther, not only for the points of doctrine which Luther himself held, but also for the real errors of other reformers, as well as for many ancient heresies already condemned by the early Christian Church (errors which Luther had never dreamt of supporting). He lumped Luther together with the Anabaptists, with Zwingli, with the leaders of the Peasant Revolt. He also identified him with such ancient heretics as Arius (who denied the Trinity and the Diety of Jesus). Therefore, it became necessary for the Lutherans to change their plan. The Torgau Articles would not be enough, and a much more comprehensive confession of faith would be needed. Melanchthon, the most prolific writer at Augsburg, was given the monumental task of enlarging the Confession.
Fortunately, he did not have to start from scratch. During the previous summer, an attempt had been made by Count Philip of Hesse, another of Luther’s followers, to unite the Lutheran Reformation movement with that of the Swiss reformers under Zwingli. In preparation for this, Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, and John Brenz had prepared a document called the “Schwabach Articles.” These Articles were composed between July 26 and September 14, 1529. A colloquy was then held between the Lutherans and the Swiss at Count Philip’s castle at Marburg in October (2–4), at which it was determined that the doctrinal differences between Luther and Zwingli could not be resolved. At the close of this colloquy, Luther drew up a set of fifteen articles, which are known as the “Marburg Articles.”
Also, in the years immediately preceding 1529, Luther had written some fairly extensive statements of his beliefs. He had been seriously ill and had even begun to question whether he would live much longer, and he was afraid that after his death others might misquote him or use his name to promote false teachings. So, in the year 1528, he published a private confession of his faith, making it part of a larger statement on the Lord’s Supper.
With such documents to guide him, Melanchthon began the task of drawing up a more complete Lutheran Confession, to be presented at Augsburg. Time was short, and he worked feverishly. The Schwabach Articles became the principal basis for the First Part of the Confession, and the Torgau Articles formed the basis for the Second Part. The First Part is a summary of true, historical Christian doctrine. The Second Part deals with Roman abuses which Luther and his colleagues were opposing.
By May 11, 1530, a preliminary draft of the Confession was sent to Luther for his comments. He was very well pleased with it, offering very few, if any, changes. Melanchthon, however, did continue to revise and polish it, right up to the eve of its formal presentation to the Emperor. He had written an introduction; but another, by Chancellor Brueck, was substituted. Brueck also wrote the conclusion.
The emperor was obviously not eager to have the confession publicly read. On June 24th, the day in which it was to be presented, he purposely scheduled other business ahead of it. Then, late in the afternoon, he suggested that because of the lateness of the hour its reading be dispensed with, and that a copy be simply handed to him. It was Chancellor Brueck who, in an impassioned plea, reminded the emperor of his assurance when he called for the diet that all parties should be heard. Therefore, the reading of the Confession was scheduled for the following afternoon, June 25, 1530, at 3:00 o’clock.
The reading of the Confession, furthermore, was not done in the large courtroom, where the rest of the meetings had been conducted, but in a small room, capable of holding only around 200 people. Many who wanted to hear it had to listen from outside of the room. And then, in a final attempt to keep the message of the Lutheran Confession from becoming too public, the emperor insisted that it be read in Latin. Well, he lost that argument, too, as Elector John the Steadfast told him: “We are Germans and are on German soil, so Your Imperial Majesty will also permit us to speak the German language.” The emperor yielded.
Chancellors George Brueck and Christian Beyer stepped to the middle of the room. Brueck had the Latin copy of the Confession, and Beyer had the German copy. Beyer read the confession so loudly and clearly that those outside of the room could hear and follow him throughout.
While the actual author of this Confession was Philip Melanchthon, a theologian, it was signed by laymen: princes, landgraves, dukes, and claimed as their own confession of their faith in Christ. AND MOST RIGHTLY SO. For they, in the face of threats of imprisonment, exile, confiscation of their lands and loss of their titles, stood fast in their newly-found faith. They, as much as anyone, could appreciate the risks they were taking, and the true cost of being faithful to Christ and His Word. They well knew the pressures that the emperor could put on them, now that he and the pope were on the same side. They had heard about the infamous Inquisitions in France, Spain, and Italy, and knew what had happened in them. They also well knew what a threat the Turkish empire was to all of Europe, and knew how much political unity could mean at this time. Nine years earlier Luther had stood before the emperor, after studying the Scriptures, expounding them as a Doctor of Theology, and preaching them to those under his pastoral care, and steadfastly confessed: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen.” Now could he expect these laymen, who may not have been as thoroughly trained in all of the finer points of theology, to do likewise and risk their kingdoms—yes, even their very lives—for the sake of this “Lutheran” doctrine? ‘WELL, STAND FAST THEY DID!’ As princes, they would certainly have liked to have had political unity against the Turks, and would certainly have liked to have had the blessing of the emperor—BUT NOT AT THE PRICE OF THEIR FAITH, OF THEIR SAVIOR, AND OF HIS WORD! Time and again they had shown at Augsburg the depth of their faith and convictions. They had refused the papal blessings. They had refused to take part in a show of solidarity with the emperor when he had demanded it of them. And when things had looked darkest for the Lutheran cause and Melanchthon had seemed ready for almost any kind of compromise, it was these Christian laymen who had helped to give him the courage and strength he needed to stand fast in God’s Word. And it was their spokesman, Chancellor Brueck, who summed up their unshakable faith—unshakable just because it was rooted in CHRIST—when he, handing this Confession to the emperor, said: “This Confession, by God’s grace, shall prevail against the gates of hell itself!” By God’s grace, it has. And by God’s grace, it will.
THE HEART OF THE AUGSBURG CONFESSION:
The Doctrine of Justification by Grace
In order to understand the central message and the splendid beauty of the Augsburg Confession, let us review briefly the Roman Catholic doctrine which it opposed. What, after all, was the real problem of that day in Western Christendom? Was it indulgences? Or celibacy of the priests? Or withholding the Cup from the people in the Sacrament of the Altar? These indeed were problems. But they were not the heart of the real problem. They were, rather, symptoms that pointed to a much deeper illness which was plaguing the Church. That illness was A WARPED VIEW OF THE CENTRAL DOCTRINE OF CHRISTIANITY: The Doctrine of Justification solely by God’s grace, in Christ, through faith.
A key word in Roman Catholic theology from the middle ages down to the very present, has to be the word “Merit.” Rome has always taught—and still does—that in order for you to obtain eternal life with God in heaven, YOU must be worthy of it. You must have the kind of heart that is able to keep God’s Commandments and earn the reward of an endless life with Him.
Now, Rome recognizes that men, by nature, do not have that kind of a heart. Adam, they say, originally had the God-given ability, created in him, to keep God’s Law and earn the reward of heaven. But in the fall he lost that ability. And since then, all mankind, being his offspring, have been born without it. This is the Roman Catholic understanding of “Original Sin.” To a Roman Catholic, Original Sin means that each child comes into this world without the supernatural gift which God once gave to our first parents: the ability to please Him with a holy life and thus merit eternal salvation.
All of this is not to say that, in Rome’s eyes, man has completely lost his free will, even in spiritual matters. While his will may have been somewhat stained by sin, man (says Rome) is still a creature of choice, who can to some extent choose either to cooperate with God or to resist Him when the chance is provided to him.
This “original sin,” though, in Rome’s view, is more of a lack of goodness in men than an actual evil, or wickedness, on man’s part. The actual wickedness, they say, happens when in their hearts, their words, and their actions men disobey God. That is what Rome calls “Actual Sin.”
What, then, was Christ’s Work of Redemption, according to Rome? It was simply this, to atone for man’s “Original sin,” and thus to win for him once more the supernatural gift which God at first had given to Adam: the ability to obey God’s Law and earn eternal salvation; or, simply, a new heart which CAN be fit for heaven.
This supernatural gift which God originally gave to Adam and which, for Jesus’ sake, He now freely offers to us, is what Roman Catholics call “GRACE.” Rome, too has a doctrine of “salvation by grace.” But the meaning of the word is altogether different from our use of the word, and also from the way it is used in the New Testament (as we shall see). “Grace,” to a Roman Catholic, means THE GOD-GIVEN ABILITY TO KEEP GOD’S LAW AND EARN ETERNAL LIFE. This “grace”—this ability to earn eternal life—is said to be “poured into” our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The word from the Latin which means “poured into” is “infused,” and so Roman Catholics call this ability “infused grace,” or “infused righteousness.”
One more word which we need to understand, as it is understood by Roman Catholics, is the word “Justify.” To a Roman Catholic, “Justify” means “to make someone just,” by giving him a new and holy nature. Thus, when God pours His “grace” (as they call it) into us, giving us the kind of heart that can earn heaven, He is “justifying” us, or making us the kind of people that can be worthy of heaven.
Christian life, then, becomes a matter of avoiding sin and doing good works, thereby making up for our “actual sins” of the past and earning God’s reward of eternal life in heaven. If we make up for all of our past sins by an exceptionally holy life, we could go directly to heaven when we die. If not, we still have to spend some time in a place of further “purging,” or “Purgatory,” till all of the temporal punishments for our sins have been paid. (Rome says that Christ took care of the eternal punishments, but we must atone for the temporal punishments. “Indulgences” are said to alleviate these temporal punishments, both on earth and in Purgatory.)
So much for the heart and core of Roman Catholic doctrine. It can fairly be said that all of our disagreements with Rome can be traced eventually to this central teaching.
In this setting Martin Luther was raised. He was taught that, with God’s help, he had to earn eternal life for himself. The Roman Church was to show him the way. Through dedicating his life to God in service to the Church, through submitting to the doctrines of the Church by a study of the Scriptures and the fathers under the guidance of his superiors, through submitting to the authority of the “Church” (that is, the papal hierarchy) as the official representative of Christ here on earth, he was to find God’s favor and win his eternal reward.
Few men in history ever tried harder than did Martin Luther to achieve these goals. He worked and slaved. He prayed and studied. He chastised himself and deprived himself. But, somehow, he never could find the Peace he was looking for. Nor, at first, did his study of the Scriptures bring him Peace. For one thing, he had been taught to read the Scriptures from the perspective of Rome’s central teachings; and so words in the Bible like “grace” and “justify” offered him little hope. Then, too, in the Scripture he could read for himself God’s Law, and see for himself just how totally demanding of absolute perfection this Law really was. In the light of that Law, how could he, after taking an honest look at his own life, ever expect anything from God but His wrath? He knew that he was a sinner. And a “heart fit for heaven” just wasn’t in him. His superior in the monastery sent him to Rome on an errand, but this pilgrimage didn’t help his troubled conscience either. So, year after year, he struggled under his terrible burden, wishing he could love God while learning all the more to see God as his Enemy, as a strict Judge Who demanded more than Luther could ever give.
But the message of Scripture did make itself known to him. He began to see different emphases in the Bible from what he had been taught. He could read, for instance, Bible verses which spoke of God’s righteousness, NOT as something which forever demanded of us, but as something which DELIVERS us from our bondage. “Deliver me in Thy righteousness” says the Psalmist. That God’s “righteousness,” His Justice, could deliver us rather than judge and condemn us was a new concept for Friar Martin.
What a beautiful day it must have been in Luther’s life when, by God’s TRUE grace, the central message of SCRIPTURE shined into his heart in all of its radiance and beauty! “It was as if heaven’s gate were opened to me,” he later said.
Now, we must not imagine that all of Luther’s false conceptions, learned over many years, immediately left him. (Even when he wrote his 95 Theses, for example, he still believed in the existence of Purgatory.) But his faith—and with it his whole life, in all of its aspects—WAS immediately given an entirely new perspective. From this new perspective he could see his whole life in a new dimension. He could see himself as God’s accepted friend—yes, even as His dear child. In that perspective he could find the Peace he had so diligently, yet vainly sought for, lo, these many years. And in that new perspective he would both grow in his understanding of the Scriptures, and have a true touchstone to guide him as he began to examine every aspect of his faith and doctrine. Then, as he considered what he had been taught, he could truly judge these doctrines, one by one, and could see whether they were truly Scriptural or not.
What, then, was Luther’s great discovery? It was, simply, this: What God’s Law demands of us and what we could never fulfill, JESUS fulfilled for us, once and for all, by His holy life and His innocent suffering and death. HE identified with mankind in His birth, and became One of us. HE willingly submitted Himself to the demands of His Law. He kept it perfectly by His Obedience. Then HE fulfilled, for us, also its demands that ALL our sins (“original,” “actual,” and what-have-you) be punished and atoned for. Thus HE rendered us perfectly acceptable to His righteous Father, not by any goodness or righteousness in us; but by HIS obedience and satisfaction.
Thus, in the Gospel, God teaches us that forgiveness, life, and salvation are not goals for US to win, but that they have already been won for us by Christ, He accepts us as children, freely, for Jesus’ sake. This Gospel gives our hearts something entirely new to cling to. Rather than trust in our own merits, our own ability to earn heaven, we are now drawn by the Gospel to trust in CHRIST, in HIS merit, and in the sheer mercy of God, who clothes us in Jesus’ perfect Righteousness and declares us, in Him to be perfectly holy and acceptable in His sight. Having thus accepted us, He now treats us as His accepted children by loving, blessing, and protecting us here, and by glorifying us in eternity.
This acceptance with God is our constant possession through faith, as in simple trust we cling to Christ and His merits. Such faith, of course, is not our own accomplishment. Nor is it yet another requirement which God lays upon us as a means of saving ourselves. No, rather, it is the instrument by which HE saves us, as by the winning power of the Gospel HE teaches us and persuades us that our true Righteousness before Him is not in us at all, but is something HE has achieved OUTSIDE of us, IN JESUS CHRIST.
This Gospel of our finished Redemption in Christ will teach us the true meaning of God’s “grace,” and also the true meaning of the word “justify,” as it is used in the Scriptures. The word “grace” in the Scriptures simply does not mean an ability which God “pours” into our hearts to obey His Laws and thus to merit eternal life. What it does mean is God’s TOTALLY UNDESERVED LOVE for us, by which He has freely forgiven us, WITHOUT ANY MERIT on our part, freely accepted us for Jesus’ sake, and given us the Hope and Promise of eternal life WITHOUT our works. That this is indeed the meaning of the word “grace” in the Bible is very easy to prove from the Scriptures themselves. St. Paul writes, in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace are ye saved, through faith: and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works (lest any man should boast).
Furthermore, he writes in Romans 11 (v. 5–6):
Even so, then, at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace; otherwise, work is no more work.
How much more clearly could St. Paul have said that “grace” and “merit” are opposite concepts. He clearly teaches that as soon as you inject our works or merit into the Gospel, you have destroyed the very meaning of the word “grace.”
Nor does the word “justify,” in the Scriptures, ever mean to make someone just by giving him some supposed ability to do good works. If it did, most of the Bible passages that use the word “justify” would make no sense. We are told, for example, in Luke 7:29, that the publicans—the supposed arch-sinners of that day—“justified God.” Does this mean that God is by nature unjust, but that these sinners “infused” some new character into Him, so that now He is finally able to do justice? No, it simply means that they acknowledged, confessed, and proclaimed Him to be just. Even in James 2 (a favorite chapter of the Bible for Roman Catholics), the word “justify” cannot mean to “make just.” James tells us that Abraham “was justified by works, when he offered up Isaac.” Does this mean that before that time he had no ability to do any good works, but somehow he did one anyway, and thereby acquired the ability to do good works (including the one he had just done, somehow, without this ability)? That would be like telling a blind man to get his sight back by reading a newspaper. No, James simply means that this act of Abraham PROCLAIMED and TESTIFIED TO a right relationship which he already enjoyed with God—which righteousness, by the way, we are told just two verses later, was imputed to Abraham (not “infused” in him), and that BY FAITH (v. 23).
The word “justify” means consider, show, or declare someone to be just. It was originally a courtroom word, which meant to bring in a verdict of “Not guilty.” And that is exactly what it means in the Scriptures and in the Gospel: that God has, for Jesus’ sake, declared us “Not guilty” in His sight, having laid our sins on Christ and having clothed us with Jesus’ perfect obedience.
This doctrine the Augsburg Confession states simply and beautifully when it confesses: (Art. IV)
Also they (i.e., our Churches) teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, Who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3–4.
All of this is not to say that God does not give us a new heart which willingly serves Him, nor that good works are unimportant in the lives of Christians. No, Christians indeed do good works, just because it is God’s will that they do them. What it does say, though, is that these good works must flow from a heart which has learned from the Gospel that it is already forgiven on the basis of Christ’s merit and redemption. And, furthermore, since these works will always, in this life, be tainted with sin, they will never, merit eternal life (or any other blessing from God), and we must never trust in them for any part of our salvation. This, too, is simply and beautifully stated in the Augsburg Confession, in Article VI:
Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will; but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: “When ye shall have done all these things, say: ‘We are unprofitable servants.’” Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.”
This doctrine of Justification by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith alone, together with the Gospel which it represents and confesses, is the heart of the Augsburg Confession. It is the Article of faith to which all Christendom must remain faithful and to which in faith it must cling, if it is to be truly Christ’s Church. Whatever other teachings and practices of Rome the Augsburg Confession treats, it examines them in the light of this precious Gospel. Whatever is in harmony with this Gospel can stand. Whatever opposed it must be rejected. It is that spirit which permeates the Augsburg Confession from beginning to end, whether it is discussing the faith of the early Church fathers or opposing the abuses of Rome. The Gospel is its glory and treasure, as it is the glory and treasure of the Reformation.
May God graciously keep us steadfast in this Gospel, that in its light we may always walk, and in its spirit we may continue to live in true faith, hope, peace, joy, and love.
WALKING IN THE LIGHT OF THE AUGSBURG CONFESSION
There are two kinds of physical lights: those like the sun and stars, which produce their own light, and those like the planets, which reflect the light of others. A light bulb would be an example of the former kind, and a mirror would be an example of the latter.
The Holy Scriptures, as they bring us the Light of God’s eternal Truth in Christ Jesus, are the only spiritual Light we have which produces its own Light. That is because they are, in themselves, God’s Word. All other “lights” with which the Christian Church is blessed: its various “creeds” and “confessions,” are but reflections of the Light which Scripture alone can shed upon our darkened world. We rejoice in these lights. We use them, we grow in them, and we boldly confess their Truth to our generation. But we recognize at the same time that they are only reflections of the true light which God has revealed to us in His Son through His Word, the Scriptures.
Such a beautiful reflection of the Truth of Scripture is the Augsburg Confession. It teaches not only the form of Scriptural doctrine (and, indeed, reflects this doctrine purely and accurately), but breathes the very spirit and beauty of the Gospel.
As we walk in its light, we need to appreciate both of these aspects: its faithfulness to pure Christian doctrine, and its evangelical spirit. Both of these qualities must always go hand in hand, and both are very relevant for today.
Throughout the history of Christendom there have been two great dangers facing the Church: the danger of false doctrine (or unorthodoxy) and the danger of legalism. Both are constant threats to the life of the Church, and both are very, very destructive.
Of the two, false doctrine is usually the easier to recognize, and in some ways it may be the easier to deal with. That is because false doctrine is, by its very nature, outwardly opposed to the plain Truth of God’s Word. It may have originally been rooted in a legalistic spirit (and, indeed, usually is). But by the time it reaches the stage of being false doctrine, it is clearly contrary to God’s Word. Let us, therefore, first consider:
The Danger of False Doctrine
To begin with, let us not suppose that the false doctrines which the Augsburg Confession rejects are all dead and buried, EVEN AMONG THOSE WHO CALL THEMSELVES CHRISTIANS, AND AMONG MANY WHO BEAR THE NAME “LUTHERAN.” The truth is that Satan simply didn’t “roll over and play dead” in 1530, and he shows no real inclination to do so today. He still opposes the Truth of the Gospel, and opposes it with the very same lies that he has used throughout the history of Christendom. This is not to say that the Augsburg Confession has touched specifically on every heresy that has ever plagued the Church before its time or since. But it is to say that, generally speaking, all of the heresies it did reject are still, in one way or another, being taught today, and being taught by many who would call themselves Christians.
Even as fundamental heresy as Arianism is not a dead issue today. There are many sects and cults which flatly deny the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus. Unitarianism, for example, derives its very name from being anti-Trinitarian. The so-called “Jehovah’s Witness” cult also scoffs at the Doctrine of the Trinity, calling it one of Satan’s great lies. But, beyond that, many teachers in mainline Protestantism have denied the Triune Nature of God and the Deity of Jesus.
As we, together with the Augsburg Confession, stand fast against Satan’s errors, though, let us do so in the spirit of this Confession: the spirit of the Gospel. Let us both judge false teachings by the Truth of the Gospel, and answer every error with the Truth of the Gospel, in all of its purity, freshness, and beauty.
All false doctrine involves, in one way or another, a denial of the GOSPEL, both in word and in spirit. Satan, the father of lies and the ultimate author of all heresies, knows nothing of the spirit of the Gospel, and he has no interest in spreading it in its outward form, either. This doesn’t mean that every true teaching of Scripture depends on the Gospel for its truth. Indeed, in some cases it’s the other way around: the Gospel depends on them. Without the Trinity, for example, there could be no Gospel as we know it; and everyone who has ever denied the Trinity and persisted in his error has also ended up denying the whole Gospel.
So, while all of this doesn’t say that every doctrine of Scripture depends on the Gospel, it is nevertheless true that God has revealed Himself to us in the context of the Gospel, and that our whole faith in Him is derived from the Gospel. “What things soever were written aforetime,” says St. Paul “were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” Thus ALL true Christian doctrine, in one way or another, is either in itself a FORM, or ASPECT, of the Gospel, or is meant to direct our faith to the Gospel. The Gospel might be likened to a precious gem, like a diamond. You can look at it from various sides, examine it in any of its facets, and see many beauties in it. But it’s always the same gem.
So the Doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is revealed in the Scriptures not as some cold, hard fact about God, but in the PERSON of this God Himself, Who so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son to be our Redeemer, and Who sends His Spirit into our hearts to draw us to our Savior in faith and teach us to call Jesus’ Father OUR Father with joy.
So the Doctrine of sin teaches us of our own lost and unworthy condition, so that we will learn to despair of our own efforts toward our salvation and learn instead to trust alone in Jesus Christ, who alone can save us.
So the Doctrine of Salvation by Grace, through faith, builds our whole eternal future on CHRIST, the Rock which neither Satan nor all his hosts can overthrow.
So the Doctrine of Election, or Predestination, directs our faith to our God of grace, Who loved us (in Christ and for HIS sake), individually, from eternity, and chose us already then by name to be His own.
So the Doctrine of the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture teaches us that the Gospel is really and historically true. It s not JUST a nice, pious bedtime story we tell our children to give them a nice, warm feeling inside. GOD HAS TAKEN A HAND IN OUR HISTORY. And what he says happened in history actually did happen.
So our Baptism tells us that God has graciously, for Jesus’ sake, without our merit, accepted us into His family, clothed us with Christ, forgiven our sins, and made us His adopted children and heirs.
So the Doctrine of Holy Communion tells us that our faithful Savior wants so much to nourish and strengthen our faith in His redeeming work, that He gives us the very body and blood by which He once and for all wop our forgiveness on the cross, and puts that body and blood into your mouth and my mouth, to assure each of us that God’s forgiveness is ours to receive in simple, joyful faith.
So the Doctrine of Good Works teaches us indeed to serve our Savior in love and in joy, while trusting alone in HIS merits for our assurance of acceptance with God and our Hope of eternal Life.
So the Doctrine of the Church teaches us that by God’s grace, through the faith He has given us, we are members of His flock, guided by our faithful shepherd, Whose pleasure it is to give us His kingdom, and Whose promise is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. In Christ, we who believe are one family, called to love, support, nourish, and strengthen one another in the Gospel.
So the Doctrine of Repentance teaches us that God has forgiven our sins in Christ without preconditions, so that we can boldly lay our sins at Jesus’ cross and be assured of His forgiveness.
We could go on. But these should suffice to show how each “doctrine” of Scripture is but another way of presenting the fullness and beauty of the Gospel.
In like manner, as was said before, all false doctrine involves a denial of the Gospel. We hear much these days, especially in Protestantism, about how we should put aside “unnecessary wrangling” over so-called “minor” doctrines, so that we can put forth a united front against the forces of injustice, atheism, and Communism. It’s interesting, though, that every attempt to do this has failed miserably, in at least two ways. First of all, the very essence of the Gospel and of the Christian faith has been undermined and finally denied. And secondly, even the outward unity which was so fervently sought is not achieved—AND THAT BECAUSE OF DIFFERENCES WHICH REALLY DON’T AMOUNT TO A HILL OF BEANS! A good example of this is the situation among various Reformed denominations. Why is it that even the liberal Methodists have never been able to unite with the liberal Presbyterians, or the liberal Congregationalists, or the liberal Baptists? It’s simply because, after they succeeded in disowning the true heritage of the Christian Church, after throwing away the Gospel, they still couldn’t seem to let go of some of their purely human traditions, like their distinctive forms of Church government and structure—all of which are really more politically or socially oriented than Gospel oriented in the first place. (But I digress.)
The fact is that all false doctrine involves, in one way or another, a direct denial of the Gospel. And so THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS UNIMPORTANT FALSE DOCTRINE. Any false doctrine is an enemy of the Gospel, and therefore an enemy of our faith.
The question sometimes arises among some of our people, whether we should actively lend our support to endeavors like the Billy Graham crusades. Should we encourage our members to take part in them? Should we give the public the impression that we are in basic agreement with Dr. Graham, or that any differences between us are really minor and insignificant? How can we, if we are to be true to the GOSPEL? When Dr. Graham points men to Christ alone for comfort and salvation, we rejoice. But then, when he expects them to contribute toward their own salvation by “making a decision for Christ,” he is undermining—yes, contradicting—ALL of the Gospel that he has ever preached. He is AT THAT POINT no better than the false teachers of Rome.
To give another example that would be relevant in our present day: There are those who believe that the Scriptures are God’s Word only in their religious content, and are to be believed “religiously” and not factually. These people look upon the Bible in much the same way that they view other religious books of old: the Babylonian epics, Greek and Roman mythology, or the sacred writings of other religions of the world. Such books often contain fictitious stories that have some moral, or lesson, to be learned from them. People are expected to learn the lessons which these stories bring them, but are not to take the stories themselves as actual historical fact. Nobody today, for instance believes that spiders were created because a woman named Arachne was so good at embroidery that she challenged a Greek goddess to a contest, lost the contest, and was changed into a web-spinning spider as her punishment. That is just a myth: a fictional story with a moral. In the same way, these people see in the Bible a number of such fictional stories: stories which are not to be believed factually, but rather carry a lesson, or moral, to be learned. Orthodox Christians, such people say, have wrongly believed these “myths” themselves, and are wrong in insisting that they be taken as historical fact. So these people want to “demythologize” the message of Christianity by separating fact from “myth.” Anything in Bible history that involves a miracle, or that seems to them to be unlikely by our modern, “enlightened” standards, is declared to be “mythical,” and not factual. Thus, the story of Eve’s temptation by a serpent in Eden’s garden and the resulting fall of man into sin is declared a “myth.” The story of the parting of the Red Sea is, at very best, vastly exaggerated. The story of Jonah the Prophet, who was swallowed by a great fish and lived within that fish until he was spewed up again three days later, is “just a story,” not historical fact.
Now, when men—and sometimes “Lutheran” men—play down the historical accuracy of the Bible, it may appear at first to be a minor issue. But they are really striking at the very heart of the Gospel. That is because the Gospel is a historical story. It tells us what God actually did in history. Most pagan religions don’t really care much about history. History to them is virtually irrelevant. Their purpose is to give you an inner peace, a feeling of peace in your heart, a tranquility in your soul. They aim at your inner experience. And that’s really their WHOLE AIM, their WHOLE CONTENT. It’s ALL THEY HAVE TO OFFER. Their gods have reality only in the minds and hearts of their followers.
The Christian religion, on the other hand, like no other religion, is a truly historical religion. The God of the Bible doesn’t exist JUST in my heart, my imagination, or my inner “experience.” He was there—truly there—before you, I, or any other creature ever had a heart. He is the Living God, who created all things, visible and invisible. He is the Author of this world and of its historical reality. And when this world historically rebelled against Him, He Himself took a hand in our history. In the Person of Jesus, He actually became a historical descendant of Abraham and lived, died, and rose again in our real space-time history. If all of that is not really true, then the WHOLE GOSPEL is really a piece of fiction. The story of our redemption in Christ is really nothing but fiction: a nice story that makes us feel good inside, but doesn’t really solve our problem. Then our whole Hope for eternity is based on a story that didn’t really happen at all, and we are only fooling ourselves. But if the Scriptures do tell us historical Truth about God; about His real existence and what He actually did for us, then why shouldn’t we believe all of the other historical facts which the same Author — the GOD of all history — tells us about. Thus, any attempt to “de-mythologize” the Bible will lead ultimately to a denial of the real, historical existence of the GOD of the Bible.
Let’s pursue this a little further, by taking one particular example of such treatment of the Bible and seeing where it leads.
For many years now, some Bible scholars have questioned the authorship of the Book of Isaiah. They believe that the book was written by two or three (or perhaps even more) authors. They give several reasons for their opinion. They argue that the style of writing, and even the vocabulary, seem to be different from Chapter 40 on. They also point out that the name of Isaiah isn’t mentioned after Chapter 39, while it is mentioned sixteen times in the first part.
None of these arguments are really valid, The reason Isaiah is mentioned by name so many times in the first part is that these chapters tell of specific events in his life. His personal history is not mentioned after Chapter 39. (Ezekiel isn’t mentioned by name in the last half of the Book of Ezekiel, either.) The differences in style and in vocabulary can also be easily explained by the different situation to which the author was addressing himself. And there are also some striking similarities of style and vocabulary.
What appears to be the main argument, though, for two or more authors is this: Isaiah mentions, by name, the historical person who, more than 100 years after Isaiah died, was to set the children of Israel free from their Babylonian captivity. That man was Cyrus, the king of Persia. How could Isaiah predict this man’s very name? By a lucky guess? Ridiculous! By the inspiration of God? That, too, seemed unthinkable to these scholars. Now, most of them were not so bold as to say that God couldn’t have given Isaiah Cyrus’ name. They just didn’t believe that He would have. Some pointed out that in no other place in the Bible did God make that kind of a specific prophecy. (That too, by the way, is incorrect. In 1 Kings 13:2, a prophet foretold the coming of King Josiah some 300 years before Josiah was born, and called him by name.) So, what’s the other alternative? Someone, they thought, must have had to write that prophecy after Cyrus had set the Jews free, or perhaps soon before, when it became evident that he would do it. Then how did it get into the Book of Isaiah? Well, a “prophecy” after the fact is really no big deal. So, to make it look like an authentic prophecy, it must have been inserted into an old, recognized prophetic book (much like Joseph Smith actually did insert a prophecy of his own coming into the Mormon version of Genesis). But wouldn’t that be a fraud? “Well, yes,” the scholars say, but it was a “pious fraud:” His intentions were good. Well, “pious” or not, a fraud is a fraud. And our God is not a god of fraud—pious or otherwise. He is The God of Truth.
So where does all of this speculation end, and what are we left with? We are left with the conclusion that a “pious fraud” was perpetrated in God’s Name, included in God’s Holy Book, and given His blessing. That “pious fraud” is none else than the last two-fifths of Isaiah, one of the most beautiful Books of the Old Testament, and contains some of the most vivid prophecies of the coming Savior (including the portrayal of His suffering and exaltation in Chapter 53). Then that fraudulent prophet is often quoted by Jesus and the Apostles as Isaiah. That, of course, brings into question Jesus’ omniscience, together with the inerrancy of the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostles supposedly either didn’t know the real author, or went along with the fraud. All this, because some people didn’t want to believe that God “would” reveal to His holy Prophets the name of a man some 100 years before he was to be born! (“Oh, what a tangled web men weave…!”)
The fact is that when sinful men insist on “de-mythologizing” God’s Holy Word, they will end up “de-mythologizing” the Gospel right out of their hearts.
There is no Article in the Augsburg Confession which is specifically devoted to the Doctrine of the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture, simply because, up to that time, the Doctrine of Inspiration had never been seriously questioned. But we can, in the spirit of our confessing fathers, examine the teachings of modern liberalism and reject whatever undermines or opposes the Truth of God’s Word.
One of the false teachings that is specifically rejected in the Augsburg Confession, and which is still being widely taught to this day, is the false teaching of the Millenialists. Millenialism is the teaching that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established on earth, as an earthly kingdom, for 1,000 years. During that time, they say, there will be peace and harmony throughout the earth, and wickedness will be everywhere suppressed.
There is much disagreement among Millenialists about the details of Jesus’ earthly reign. Some say that Jesus will first appear and then set up His earthly kingdom. Others say that He will not personally, visibly appear during that time, but that the Gospel will be so outwardly successful that it will permeate the whole world, and so men will live in peace and brotherhood. Then, after a brief apostacy and a fierce battle between the children of God and the forces of evil, Jesus will appear.
The key thought in ALL forms of Millenialism, though, is that Jesus will establish some form of worldly, or political kingdom. That is the hope and dream of every Millenialist. Therefore, all forms of Millenialism can be answered, once and for all, with one simple saying of Jesus: His words to Pontius Pilate: “MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD.”
In rejecting Millenialism in all of its forms, the Augsburg Confession goes right to the heart and core of the controversy. It condemns those “who are now spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed.” (Art. XVII) In calling Millenialism “Jewish opinions,” the Confession also points to the real threat of this false teaching to the Christian faith and to the Gospel. Why, after all, did the Jews reject Jesus Christ? Why, for that matter, do they reject Him today? It is BECAUSE HE WAS NOT THE KIND OF MESSIAH THAT THEY WERE LOOKING FOR. They didn’t want deliverance from sin. They wanted deliverance from the Romans. And even now, they don’t want a Messiah that will redeem them from their slavery to Satan. If they did, they would find the Fulfillment of their Hopes in JESUS. Those Jews in the New Testament that were really looking for Redemption in Israel: people like Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon, and Anna, all rejoiced at the birth of Jesus. No, what the Jews want, to this day, is a vindicator of their cause, someone who will show the world that they have been God’s chosen people all along, and someone who will reestablish the earthly Kingdom of Israel. Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan: these are the KIND of Messiah that the Jews are looking for, and have been looking for, as a whole. People as wonderful as they are don’t need a Savior (so they think), and the real sinners (the publicans and harlots) don’t really deserve a Savior. What the Jews, by and large, do think they need is practical help, help in terms of this world: things like prosperity, like political freedom and security. That is why Jesus’ Ministry—a Ministry of forgiveness, of saving those lost in sin, of establishing His rule in men’s hearts and leading them to live in God’s will by righteousness, and not by military conquest and police forces—seemed so irrelevant to the needs of the Jews.
In contrast to this false hope of the Jews, Jesus told some of them: “If ye continue in My WORD, then are ye My disciples indeed. And ye shall know the Truth, and the TRUTH shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32) When those Jews protested that they were “never in bondage to any man,” Jesus told them about their real bondage: their bondage to sin. Thus, also, He told Pilate that His Kingdom wasn’t a worldly Kingdom. It was no threat to the authority of the Roman Emperor. He wasn’t interested in having His servants fight for His cause (as He demonstrated when Peter did try to defend Him with a sword). Rather, His position as King was to be established in the hearts of men, as through the GOSPEL He would bring them into a new and blessed relationship with His heavenly Father. Thus, any expectation of a political Messiah was by its very nature out of tune with the whole Ministry of Jesus, and with the whole Gospel.
The Church of Rome, as a whole, never taught Mellenialism as a formal doctrine, and Rome even approved this Seventeenth Article of the Augsburg Confession. But we can certainly see the spirit of Mellenialism at work in the papacy, as it has through the centuries sought political power and tried to force its own ideas about Christianity and God’s Kingdom on men through political rule, crusades, inquisitions, massacres, interdicts, bans, and even the execution of heretics. All of these methods proclaim loudly and clearly that ROME’S KINGDOM — that is, the pope’s kingdom — IS OF THIS WORLD. (Nor has the Vatican fully renounced its political aims and methods today, witness its “ambassadors” and its meddling in world politics.)
In witnessing against Millenialism today, we would do well to learn from our Augsburg Confession. Instead of first becoming entangled in arguments about how to interpret Books like Revelation and Daniel, and other supposed Scriptural references to a golden age here on earth, or to an earthly kingdom of Christ, let us first unmask the true spirit of all Millenialism, as a spirit which is in direct and irreconcilable conflict with the GOSPEL, because it is in direct conflict with the whole Mission of Jesus, with the whole reason why He came into the world (as the history of the Jews and their rejection of Jesus to this day should teach us). Once that basic conflict is seen, then we can easily show what these passages of Scripture really do say. Then it won’t make any difference, either, what subtle shade of Millenialism we are addressing, for they are all of that spirit. Let’s oppose that false spirit with the beautiful Words of Jesus: “My Kingdom is not of this world… To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the Truth. Everyone that is of the Truth heareth My voice.” (John 18:36–37) That Truth—the Truth of the Gospel—will set us free and make us members of His true Kingdom.
Yet another false spirit that is plaguing the Church of our time is the so-called “Charismatic” Movement. The Charismatic Movement represents the doctrine and spirit of the Pentecostal denominations, as this doctrine infiltrates the other denominations of the Christian Church. It has also made itself felt within American Lutheranism.
Let us first consider briefly how the modern Charismatic Movement arose. I believe it can be shown that the Charismatic Movement had two ultimate roots. One was a deficiency in the post-Reformation denominations. The other is the age-old temptation which constantly faces Christians of all ages: to turn again from the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel, with its central emphasis on Justification by grace, through faith, and return to some form of natural religion which would put ourselves (our experiences and our piety) into the center of our faith, instead of JESUS CHRIST.
In the post-Reformation era there was a tendency toword dead orthodoxy. Christian doctrine was meticulously defined, carefully arranged, and distinguished with hair-splitting accuracy from false doctrines. Such care, of course, in dealing with God’s precious Word is not bad in itself, when the aim is to preserve the Truth of the Gospel. But in this context the Gospel tended for some to become an intellectual exercise in the principles of logic, rather than the wooing message of God’s love. Often Christian preaching was isolated from everyday life. Religion was a “Sunday exercise,” far removed from Monday’s practical living. In Germany, such empty religion was opposed by the Pietists. They wanted to emphasize that Christianity is more than an intellectual exercise of the mind. But in doing so, they let themselves be led by a false spirit, and threw out the baby with the bath. What they discarded was the centrality of Justification by faith in Christ, and in its place they put their own “piety,” their own devotional experiences into the center of their religion. Their “Gospel” thus became a sentimental Gospel. Their hymns were more interested in THEIR mystical union with Jesus, THEIR inner devotion to Him, and THEIR feelings of inner peace, than with JESUS’ REDEEMING WORK for us. Thus, with all their talk about Jesus, His great Work of Redemption was crowded from the center of their faith, and their faith became a kind of sentimental love affair with Jesus, a kind of “mutual admiration society.”
Much the same thing happened within the Church of England in the 18th century. Robert Brinsmead, in “Present Truth” Magazine (Sept.–Oct, 1972, P. 23), described conditions within the 18th Century Anglican Church in this way:
The truth of justification by faith had largely been lost from the Church. These were the days of the fox-hunting parsons, who loved their dogs more than the flock. Moreover, there was a growing working class, unchurched and untouched by an indifferent Church.
It was against this sad state of affairs that John Wesley, cofounder of the Methodist Movement, spoke out. John Wesley believed in Justification by faith. He was brought to this conviction by reading Luther’s works. But at the same time, his preaching laid great stress on a Christian’s sanctification. In that regard he had been greatly influenced by the Moravian Pietists and by some of the Medieval Catholic mystics. And it was in this area that John Wesley went astray in his doctrine. In his preaching of sanctification, the Doctrine of Justification was crowded out of its central place.
Wesley spoke of three dispensations, or “kingdoms,” of God’s grace: the Kingdom of the Father, the Kingdom of the Son, and the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit. These “kingdoms” represented three different levels of opportunity which different men were given, to know God. For each level, there would also be a different responsibility on man’s part. To the “Kingdom of the Father” belong those who have never heard of Christ and His Gospel. According to Wesley, all God expects of them is to live according to whatever knowledge they do have—if only their conscience. To the “Kingdom of the Son” belong those who have heard the Gospel. Their responsibility is to accept Christ. (Notice that faith was to be their responsibility and contribution, not GOD’S gift to them.) But there is yet a third step—a “second blessing” beyond being justified by faith in Christ. That “second blessing” is to be so purified by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit that even in this earthly life a believer could be completely purged from all inbred sin and feel nothing but perfect love. Wesley called this experience “A still higher salvation … immensely greater than that wrought when he was justified.”
In this spirit the Methodist Movement, later the Methodist Church, was born. The movement was brought to America and flourished through “revival” meetings. These revivals aimed largely at the emotions, and that aim colored the whole meetings. Hymns were sentimental, both in word and in music. Their main purpose, it seemed, was to evoke tears. Preaching was also highly charged with emotion. And the so-called “conversions,” in order to be considered genuine, had to show some outward, emotional display. All of this was hailed as the work of the Holy Spirit.
This type of religion also began to grow outside of the Methodist Church, and many independent “Holiness” Churches began to appear. They all had this in common, that Sanctification crowded out Justification by grace, through faith, from its central position in the Christian’s faith; and that Christians can, in this life, become perfect and thus show that they indeed have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.
The final stage in this movement came with the rise of “Pentecostalism.” Pentecostalism added this one point to the Holiness Movement: that if the Holy Spirit indeed takes possession of my life, then ALL OF THE MANIFESTATIONS OF HIS PRESENCE WHICH APPEARED ON THE FIRST NEW TESTAMENT DAY OF PENTECOST should also appear today. All of the powers which the early disciples had should be ours too, if we are truly led by and filled with the Holy Spirit. We should be able to speak in “unknown tongues.” We should be able to perform miracles, like, perhaps, healing the sick (“Faith-healing”). Indeed, if we become ill ourselves, we should exert our Christian faith, as some sort of a power, to heal ourselves.
There are many Pentecostal denominations. Up until fairly recently, though, this doctrine was pretty well restricted to these Church bodies.
In recent years, however, this movement has spread beyond the confines of the “Pentecostal” Churches, and has infiltrated nearly every major Christian denomination. As such, it is called the “Charismatic Movement.”
The Charismatic Movement can best be described as subjective (self-centered) religion, taken to its natural conclusion. Charismatics do not usually deny that we are justified by faith in Christ (although many of them think of “faith” as OUR contribution to God, instead of HIS gift to us). But then they do crowd out of its rightful, central place in their religion the very Rock on which their faith should be built: the objective, OUTSIDE-OF-ME Redemption which GOD has accomplished-not in me, but IN CHRIST. Instead of that, they speak as though our TRUE righteousness before God is within us, as we become “filled with” or “baptized by” the Holy Spirit.
Now, I suppose you can call this “new insight” of the Charismatics anything you want. But in the end what it really boils down to is THE OLD ROMAN CATHOLIC DOCTRINE OF INFUSED RIGHTEOUSNESS. Our righteousness before God becomes some special gift which God bestows within our hearts, instead of THE PERFECT RIGHTEOUSNESS AND OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST, WHICH HE IMPUTES TO US BY FAITH. Having begun in the Gospel, the Charismatics follow Rome right back into the Law, by seeking a righteousness apart from the perfect Righteousness of Christ which we have imputed to us by God through faith-seeking instead another righteousness within themselves which is evidenced by their renewed life, their “charismatic gifts” (speaking in tongues, faith-healing, etc.), and their religious experiences.
Why is this Charismatic Movement infesting Churches today? For one thing, many Churches today seem to have all but lost the spirit of the Gospel. Some are lost in modern liberalism, some in “dead orthodoxy”—their members have learned all the right doctrinal formulas by rote, but their religion seems to have little or no practical relationship to their everyday lives, or their faith is more of an intellectual faith than a trusting heart which clings to the Gospel and to the Savior Which that Gospel brings us.
Secondly, the “Charismatic Gospel” can sound so Christian. Charismatics seem to speak so beautifully about the Holy Spirit, and we believe in Him too. We love Him too. They speak about His great power in their lives, and we know that He is powerful. He is the all-powerful God. They love to quote Scripture, and we love the Scriptures too. They will often begin to infiltrate a congregation by encouraging small Bible study groups with plenty of personal interaction (which is why they like small groups), and who’s against Bible study? Who’s against personal Christian witness? Furthermore, they seem so dedicated themselves in their personal Christianity, their personal morals, their willingness to demonstrate their faith by their deeds. When their fellow-members see that kind of dedication and contrast it with their own often shallow “Christian life,” is it any wonder that they are often attracted to what these people say?
The most important thing to remember, though, is that the Charismatic Movement can easily infest any Church which is not firmly grounded in the Gospel. It will not gain entrance into our midst if we cling firmly in genuine faith to our TRUE Righteousness: that Righteousness which is NOT IN US, but in CHRIST, and is IMPUTED to us as in faith we trust in CHRIST ALONE. That is the True Righteousness to which the Augsburg Confession points us. Let us walk in its light.
I have been saying all along that the GOSPEL is the true touchstone by which we can test every doctrine, and that this is both the clear teaching and the great beauty of the Augsburg Confession. In Article VII we read: “And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the Doctrine Of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” And while the Confession was being prepared by Melanchthon at Augsburg, Luther wrote to him: “I am prepared to yield everything to them if we are but given the liberty to teach the Gospel.” Time and time again throughout the Confession the errors and abuses of Rome are rejected specifically because they are “false and contrary to the GOSPEL.”
We cannot, however, leave this subject without talking about a modern perversion of this truth, known as “Gospel Reductionism.”
Throughout its history, Lutheranism has been plagued with those who would abandon its distinctive teachings. Already in Luther’s lifetime, and again immediately after his death, efforts were made to bring Reformed doctrines into the Lutheran Church. Later efforts were made to force a union of Lutherans and Reformed. Also in American Lutheranism, many efforts have been made to water down the confessional stand of the Lutheran Church, either to bring it more into line with other denominations, or to make it more palatable to men of our time.
Some of these men have been honest enough to recognize right from the start that they were no longer holding to the Lutheran Confessions, and they openly opposed them (especially the Formula of Concord, which some Lutherans have refused to endorse). Others, though, wanted to continue to claim faithfulness to the Book of Concord. So they hedged on their Confessional subscription. There have been two common ways of doing this.
The first way was what was called a “Quatenus” subscription. “Quatenus” is a Latin word meaning “Insofar as.” These people subscribed to the Lutheran Confessions “Insofar as they agree with Scripture.” (Sounds good, doesn’t it?—especially if you say it fast.) Let’s call it what it really is, though: a lot of baloney. It sounds like you’re honoring the Scriptures more than the Confessions. Actually, though, it comes out to be something quite different, and ends up honoring neither one (witness the fact that most men who have claimed the “quatenus” subscription have long since abandoned the Doctrine of Verbal Inspiration and the Inerrancy of Scripture). Such a subscription actually tells us nothing about whether, in their opinion, our Confessions are indeed true to Scripture. I could subscribe to the Koran “Insofar as it agrees with Scripture,” or to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto, “Insofar as they agree with Scripture” (which is never).
What the “quatenus” subscription really means is: “I subscribe to these Confessions insomuch as they agree with MY UNDERSTANDING of Scripture. But then, of course, it’s anybody’s guess how much each individual is going to accept in the Confessions. The “Christian Scientists,” the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”—even the “Moonies” — all claim to be teaching what the Bible teaches. The fact is that the pope could subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions “insofar as” he thinks they agree with Scripture.
Our subscription to our Confessions is entirely different. We subscribe to them, unreservedly, because they are in full agreement with Scripture. Notice that this subscription still puts the Scriptures first. But at the same time it declares unequivocally that our Confessions are indeed in their doctrine faithful to the teachings of Scripture.
The second way to hedge your Confessional subscription is somewhat newer, and is more subtle. That is the way of “Gospel Reductionism.” It goes something like this: “No one’s understanding of God’s Word is, after all, perfect. No man-made confession is perfect, either. And the Augsburg Confession does say that it is enough for Christian unity to agree about the Doctrine of the Gospel.” Therefore, these people say, any doctrine that is not directly related to the Gospel is really unimportant, and we should not be required to hold to it. Then the “Gospel Reductionist” decides for himself just how much of the Church’s doctrine is an essential part of his “Gospel,” and reduces his conception of the Gospel to some minimum standard which he has contrived (hence, the name: Gospel Reductionism). So, if a doctrine like the Verbal Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture isn’t in his estimation an essential part of the Gospel, then we shouldn’t be required to accept it. And if the teaching that Jesus’ true Body and Blood are really present in Holy Communion and are really distributed to all who receive the Sacrament isn’t an essential part of the Gospel in his opinion (after all, he might say, many Christians don’t believe that), then maybe that isn’t really so important either.
How far the Gospel Reductionist narrows down his conception of the Gospel will depend largely on the individual himself, and on how “conservative” he wants to be. I’ve heard it narrowed right down to a single formula, like John 3:16, or 1 John 4:2 (“Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God”).
This is another one of those arguments that depends largely on how fast it’s whizzed by you. The faster it’s said, the better it sounds. We all love the Gospel. It ALONE is our daily spiritual food. God preserve us from ever denying that!
It shouldn’t take a mental giant, though, to see Gospel Reductionism for what it really is: Not a defense of the Gospel, but an escape from it. We’ve already seen that ALL Christian doctrine is an expression of the Gospel, and is in perfect harmony with both the form and spirit of the Gospel. This is especially true of some of the very doctrines which the “Gospel Reductionist” wants to escape from (like the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy, for example, which teaches us that the message of the Gospel is indeed historical fact, not just a nice bedtime stork-story). No. “Gospel Reductionism,” while it pays lip-service to the Gospel, is actually in itself (to borrow a phrase from our Augsburg Confession) “false and contrary to the Gospel.” The true Gospel gives us a firm, child-like faith in everything our Father says in His Word. It does not make us “like gods” ourselves, “to know good from evil,” or to decide for ourselves how much of God’s Word is “important.”
But as we oppose “Gospel Reductionism,” there is indeed a very real and great danger which we on our part must avoid. That is the danger that this time WE will “throw out the baby with the bath.” Gospel Reductionism IS WRONG! We must oppose it. But let’s not oppose it by denying the rightful place that the Gospel does have in our theology. I have heard some oppose “Gospel Reductionism” by arguing that the word “Gospel” in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession is to be taken in its broad sense, meaning the entire Word of God (much like the word “Law” is often used in the Old Testament). While I’m sure that this argument can be understood properly, and might even concede the possibility that the word “Gospel” could be understood there in that sense, I would suggest at the same time that such an explanation is unnecessary, and could be confusing and dangerous. It is unnecessary, because we can understand the word in its proper sense, and by using it in that sense can disprove Gospel Reductionism. And it could be confusing and dangerous, because it might well lead people to question the meaning of the Gospel when it must be understood in its proper, narrow sense. We should always understand any word in its proper, primary meaning unless the context demands that we seek another definition. Let’s defeat Gospel Reductionism on its own ground—of misunderstanding both the true form and spirit of the Gospel—rather than ravage the hallowed ground of God’s True Word of Grace.
The best way to guard against Gospel Reductionism in our midst is to be so well grounded in the message and spirit of the Gospel, in all its grace and Truth, that any attempt to escape from the full beauty of its true teachings would be absolutely unthinkable. Then we’ll truly be walking in the light of the Augsburg Confession.
The Danger of Legalism:
In order to understand legalism and the threat which it poses to our Christian Life, let’s review briefly the Law and the Gospel, and their relationship to our lives.
The LAW, in its narrow sense, as opposed to the Gospel, may be described as GOD’S CONDEMNING WORD. The Gospel, in its narrow sense, may be described as GOD’S SAVING WORD. These descriptions direct our thinking to the very heart of the Law and the Gospel, as attitudes of God toward man, which He has revealed to us in His Word. At the same time, they point us to the purposes and aims of both the Law and the Gospel. Whenever God reveals Himself to us as the God of wrath, Who punishes sin and condemns the sinner, He is speaking to us in the Law. Whenever He reveals Himself as the God of grace, Who redeemed us and Who now reaches out to us, draws us to Himself in faith, and gives us forgiveness, Life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake, He is speaking to us in the Gospel. Now let’s see how all of this comes about.
Another way we could define God’s Law is that it is His unchangeable will, especially as it regards His creatures, particularly man. He created us in His image, to reflect His will in our lives and attitudes. And He wanted us to be that way. He is loving, so He wanted us to be loving. He wanted us to love Him most of all, and He also wanted us to love and respect each other, together with the rest of His creation. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, had such a nature, and their will was originally in harmony with the will of God. Therefore, God’s Law did not threaten them in any way. There was no need for God to force His will on them by threats and punishments. He might warn them (as indeed He did about eating the forbidden fruit), but that was in the spirit of a loving Father, warning His children about a grave danger, much like a father today might tell his little child: “Don’t play in the street, or you’ll get run over.” But as long as there was no sin to oppose the will of God, there was no reason for threats or condemnation.
But then came sin. Since that time, the natural will of men has been opposed to the will of God. Man wanted to be his own god to decide for himself what would be good for him and what would be bad. He wanted to fashion his own world, without God’s help and without His interference. (Think of Satan’s words in Genesis 3:5 — “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good from evil.”) So, with this attitude, man’s will was opposed to God’s will, and it has been ever since. And, humanly speaking, the only way God can deal with this sinful and stubborn will of men is with demands, threats, and finally condemnation.
Thus, now when God’s will expresses itself—and is contrary to the sin-corrupted will of men—this will of God takes on the attitude of demands, threats, and condemnation. Yes, GOD HIMSELF takes this attitude over against man in his hardness and sinfulness. We must not think as though the Law were some mistaken notion that man has about God, as if to say that man now wrongly thinks God is a demanding, threatening, and condemning God. No, in His Law God actually is demanding of us, threatening us, and condemning us. God must condemn sin (and finally also the sinner) in order to be true to Himself. If He permitted injustice and iniquity in His world to go unchecked and unjudged, He Himself would no longer be just, and He would no longer really be the Ruler of His own creation. (Satan would.)
So, make no mistake about it: The Law is God’s Word, God’s attitude over against sin, God’s judgment and condemnation of the sinner. In Matthew 25, for example, it is JESUS Who says to those on His left: “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” It isn’t that they insist on going there, but that He sends them there.
Thus, the Law, in accordance with God’s perfect holiness, demands that sin be punished. And, as it confronts the sinner, that is exactly what it does. IT HAS NEITHER THE INTENTION NOR THE EFFECT OF MAKING PEOPLE BETTER in God’s sight. (A human parallel might be seen in capital punishment, which has neither the intent nor the effect of making the criminal a better person.) It’s true that the Law tells us what we should be like: dedicated to God’s holy will, from the very core of our being. But it gives us no help to be that way.
In His Law God makes demands of us, and what He demands is absolute perfection. Nothing short of perfection will render us acceptable in His sight. The Law shows us what a perfect man would be like: If we were perfect we would love and trust God above all else, and we would love our neighbors as ourselves. Anything short of this, and we are shown to be sinners. Then the message of the Law rings out to us: “THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH”—not only temporal death, but also spiritual death (a life estranged from God) and, finally, eternal separation from Him in hell.
Now, such a message obviously isn’t going to make us love God, nor it is going to build up a life which freely and joyfully lives in harmony with Him. Instead, the Law will, if anything, strengthen our natural, sinful attitudes about God: the attitudes of suspicion, of despair, and of hatred and selfishness. It will work in us SUSPICION of God, rather than faith in Him, because when He condemns to eternal suffering anyone who is not absolutely perfect, then we who are sinners don’t learn from that to trust in Him. We learn to distrust Him. Then, too, the law works DESPAIR in us, rather than Hope. That is because it takes away any hope we may have had for a good future. Some men still think that by their own powers they can make this world a good and blessed place to live in. This dream the Law shatters, when it shows men where their revolt against God is really leading them. And, finally, the Law will not make men love God, either. If anything, it makes them HATE Him all the more for His attitude of condemnation; and any attempts to obey the Law’s outward demands will be done out of selfish motives instead of genuine love. In these ways, the Law actually tends to make men more sinful, more determined in their enmity against God.
Meanwhile, though, the Law is doing some very important work. For one thing, it does keep a certain amount of order in God’s creation. But secondly—and even more important—it shows man his sin; and shows him how futile it is to try to save himself. It crushes his pride by making him see himself as God sees him, and leads him to despair of his own efforts toward his salvation. THIS IS THE LAW’S PROPER FUNCTION. And until it accomplishes this goal in men, the Gospel will mean little or nothing to them in their sinful condition.
But God is not only a God of holiness. He is also the God of GRACE. In Ezekiel (33:11) He says: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” He knew that sinful men could never save themselves. So He, in His mercy, in Jesus Christ, set out to save us by His doing. In doing this, He had to be true not only to His love, but also to His Justice (holiness). That is what He accomplished through His Son, Jesus.
Jesus, God’s eternal Son, God with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity, came down to earth and became a Man. In doing this, He identified with our human race and became One of us. Then, as a Member of the human race, He willingly subjected Himself to the Law. First, He kept it perfectly and never committed any sin. Then, He let this Law judge Him as a Representative of the human race. You might say that He went to the head of the line before His Father’s judgment throne, and let His Heavenly Father begin with Him in pouring out His wrath on mankind. Then, God didn’t have to go on to the next man in line, because Jesus was able to bear all of sins curse. In this way, on the cross, He suffered, in the name and in the place of all men, God’s punishment for their sins. And He was able to bear ALL of the punishment which the Law demanded. So, when He was finished, God had spent all of His wrath and punishment on HIM. On the cross He had been separated from His Father, as He testified when He cried out: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Thus, He took upon Himself the punishment of hell for us. In doing this, He fulfilled also the CURSE of the Law for us. Now that that curse is fulfilled in Him, God has no more curse for us, and doesn’t have to condemn us any more. Then, Jesus offered us His own perfect Obedience of the Law, His own perfect Righteousness, as OUR righteous robe before God. As thus we are clothed in HIS Righteousness, God declares us perfect and holy, and accepts us in Christ as His children and heirs.
So first Jesus identified Himself with us, and even bore our sins and paid for them. Then He identified us with Himself and clothed us with His own perfect righteousness. THAT IS THE RIGHTEOUSNESS IN WHICH WE CAN STAND BEFORE GOD, AND BY WHICH WE CAN LIVE WITH HIM IN HEAVEN.
Thus, in Christ, God’s love and His holiness could meet, and both could be satisfied. THE STORY OF THIS REDEEMING WORK OF CHRIST, FINISHED ON THE CROSS AND PROCLAIMED IN HIS RESURRECTION, IS THE GOSPEL. Notice that the Gospel is a story, not a set of demands or threats. It tells us what GOD HAS DONE for us, not what we have to do. In fact, it makes no demands on us whatsoever, but simply tells us that for Jesus’ sake God has forgiven us and does love us.
By this Gospel story, as it is brought into our lives through preaching and in the Sacraments, God wins our hearts and draws us to Himself in faith, teaching us to cling to Jesus’ merits. Thus He brings us into a new relationship with Himself: We no longer live under His curse, but under His grace; and the life which proceeds from this new relationship is altogether different from our old life under the Law. It has an altogether new meaning, purpose, joy, and glory. Instead of the suspicion, despair, and hatred toward God which the Law produced, the GOSPEL gives us FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE—genuine love of God. Thus, the Gospel is called the “Means of Grace” (in contrast to the Law, which might be called a “Means of wrath”), because the Gospel is the Means by which God draws us to Himself and makes us heirs of His grace and salvation.
All true Christian life grows from the GOSPEL ALONE. It alone is the Power by which God wins our hearts, both to trust in His grace alone, in Christ, and to love Him and freely serve Him. It nourishes, strengthens, and builds up the “New man” in us, the New Life which God begins in us when by His grace we are led to put our trust in Christ.
It is true that Christians still use the Law in their lives. That is because they still, on this side of the grave, have clinging to them their old sinful nature (called the “flesh.” the “sinful flesh,” the “Old Adam,” etc.) That nature is completely sinful, and is no different from the nature of an unbeliever. It has no love for God and is in constant battle with the New Life that we have in Christ. It needs to be denied, put off in daily penitence, crucified. In short, it needs to be REPROVED. And REPROOF is the particular function of the LAW. Furthermore, this Old Adam has a way of tainting every aspect of our life with sin: not only our deeds, but also our knowledge and our attitudes. That is why we don’t always know God’s will as we ought. And so, as Christians, we will return to the Law to learn more clearly what God’s will is.
In all of this, though, OUR NEW LIFE IN CHRIST is not to be burdened with the threats, coercion, and punishments of the Law. No, in that sense St. Paul tells us that we are no longer under the Law, but under grace. Our New Life in Christ is not to be lived under the coercion of the Law, nor under its curse; for “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a Curse for us.” (Gal. 3:13) Indeed, our whole New Life in Christ flows from just this fact, that we are no longer under the Law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14)
What, then, is “legalism”? It is a tendency in each of us to live our lives as though we were still under Law, and not under grace. There is a tendency, also in Christians, to be motivated in their lives by the demands, threats, and coercion of the Law, instead of letting their actions flow freely from a heart which has been drawn to its Savior in faith and won over to willingly offer itself to God through the winsome power of the Gospel. Under the spell of legalism, a Christian feels moved to obey God partly by the demands of God’s Law, as though God’s will is bearing down upon him, demanding obedience, threatening him, and condemning him. He feels it as a will foreign to his own will, that is coercing him. And so his actions are not flowing freely from a heart which has learned to love and trust God as his dear Father, but from the old Law — attitudes of suspicion, fear, and selfishness.
I am not talking here about using the Law to do battle with our sinful flesh. That is, indeed, our daily, constant exercise, as our New Man opposes the sin that still clings to us. Our flesh must be reproved and driven by demands, threats, and punishments, be. cause it will always be rebellious. It is still under the Law.
Legalism happens, though, when this Law-attitude begins to pervade our Christian Life AS A WHOLE, including our New Obedience. God’s Law speaks indeed to our Old Adam and reproves him. But it does not reprove — or even demand obedience of — our New Man.
Such legalism will never produce any genuine piety. True piety flows only from a heart attuned to God’s gracious love, and comes only from the Gospel. What legalism can do, though, is produce an outward appearance of piety, and that’s one of its most insidious dangers. It seems to be working, but actually it tends to externalize our Christian life. Whatever seeming good it does produce is purely outward and superficial.
Legalism, then, is not so much a formal doctrine as it is a false spirit that invades our Christian life and seeks to pervade our attitudes. It undermines the joy, freshness, and beauty of our lives, tends to make them artificial and superficial, and brings us back into bondage.
In the life of the individual Christian, legalism can assume almost innumerable forms. Indeed, when we succumb to it, it taints all of our actions and every aspect of our life with a false spirit. Things like our church attendance, our giving habits, our prayers, our daily tasks, the witnessing we do of our Savior—all of these things, instead of being the joys that they should be, are felt as burdensome duties which are demanded of us. So we tend to perform them outwardly and superficially, from false motives, rather than cheerfully.
Such legalism can also taint our understanding of the Scriptures with a false spirit. In the area of Stewardship, for example, we read a verse like: “God loveth a cheerful giver.” So we tell ourselves, “I’d better give — and give cheerfully — or God won’t love me,” instead of taking the verse in its real meaning and spirit. What Paul means by these words is that God truly wants US to be happy in our giving. He wants our giving to be the kind of JOY for us that it is for Him. Such joy is nurtured in us by the GOSPEL: God’s unconditional declaration of Peace, which brings us into a new relationship with Him. We now know that He loves us. We know that He wants to make us rich by sharing His treasures and His joys with us. When thus we trust Him in faith as our dear Father, we; will receive these gifts with joy. Then our giving, too, will be with cheerfulness. That’s the kind of cheerful giving that God loves to see.
Legalism can also manifest itself in the life of the Church, as Christians deal with each other. In this setting, it is apt to take a somewhat more specific and standard form.
There is, for example, a danger of legalism in preaching. This happens when a pastor tries to achieve his goals in the lives of his hearers by the Law’s methods rather than by the Gospel. I am not talking here just of preaching too much Law. (The legalist seldom preaches any real Law.) I’m rather talking about sermons which are pervaded by a spirit of Law. Here again, we could cite many examples. Let’s look at one or two.
A congregation may find itself in very tight financial straits. It needs more money, and needs it NOW. The pastor should strengthen the Christian lives of his members by leading them to the Water of Life and letting them drink deeply from the living springs of God’s forgiving grace in Christ; but that might take time to produce the fruits of a generous heart, and the need is urgent. So he tries using some of the Law’s methods: He shames them, he demands of them, he even “challenges” them (appealing to their pride, their sense of “fairness,” or whatever else is handy). And the real danger comes when it seems to work—when the money comes in! Hearts may not have been changed, but that, after all, didn’t seem to be the immediate problem. BUT IT WAS THE REAL PROBLEM. And that REAL problem hasn’t been solved at all. In fact, it’s grown even worse. Why worse? First of all, because the spiritual life of the members, their Life in Christ, instead of being fed with the pure, nourishing food of the Gospel, has been fed with the kind of “junk food” that could never really nourish it, and so it has grown weaker. Then, too, since this method seemed to produce results, these results are apt to be mistaken for true spiritual growth. There was an appearance of Christian growth, which can only lead to a sense of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. With that attitude men are less likely to hunger and thirst for the Gospel. And, finally, since the whole thing seems so successful, it’s likely to be their steady diet from now on. Meanwhile, their works have become external and artificial, and this artificiality has taken the place of true spiritual growth in Christ.
St. Paul preached about Christian giving in an entirely different spirit. “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he writes (2 Cor. 8:9), “That, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” With these words he points us to JESUS, our God of grace, Who redeemed us by His blood not to exploit us, not to take anything of value from us, but to make us truly, eternally, and fabulously rich! He died to make us co-heirs with Him—GOD’S heirs. With Him, we inherit all that God owns: the beauties of earth and the riches of heaven. Yes, and He even shares with us THIS JOY, the rich joy of giving. He Himself once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And He wants us to have that blessedness. It, too, is our inheritance, bought with His blood. As thus we live in the spirit of the Gospel, our Christian giving, too, will be a beautiful, joyful, and glorious part of our Life in Christ. Then, in this aspect of our life, too, we will be “no more under the Law, but under GRACE.”
Even sermons on the subject of faith can be legalistic. “You have to believe!” shouts the pastor, thus turning the beautiful Gospel of Justification by faith into a law which demands faith as our contribution to our salvation. Indeed, any time that the Gospel is preached in the spirit of a demand, it is no longer Gospel but legalism, In this connection Dr. C.F.W. Walther said (in his evening lectures on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel):
A preacher must be able to preach a sermon on faith without ever using the term “faith.” It is not important that he din the word “faith” into the ears of his audience, but it is necessary for him to frame his address so as to arouse in every poor sinner the desire to lay the burden of his sins at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ and say to Him: “Thou art mine, and I am Thine.”
Thus he points out that a true sermon on faith is one which quickens or strengthens faith in the hearer by simply laying the Gospel promises before him.
Another area in the life of the Church wherein legalism is apt to show itself is the area of Church discipline. This happens, for instance, when the whole purpose of discipline becomes the exclusion of the sinner, rather than his repentance and salvation. It also happens when the words of our Savior in Matthew 18 about dealing with a sinner are taken only in their external form, as though Jesus were merely giving us here the external form that Church discipline must take. Again, I am not opposing the proper use of the Law of God in Church discipline. What I am opposing is a Law-attitude in us, which is more concerned with the external procedures involved than with the eternal soul of the sinner.
The person who is being disciplined may also be caught up in legalism. He might show this by being, also on his part, more concerned with the outward procedure than with whether he is rightly being called to repentance, because he is indeed living in impenitence. Often a person under discipline will appeal his case on the premise that the “three steps” of Matthew 18 were not meticulously followed by the congregation. Herein he does himself no favor.
Here again, though, it is the Church—those “who are spiritual”—that could be in a much better position to be of real help. The person under discipline (especially if he really is impenitent) could be expected to have a legalistic attitude, and would be in no position even to recognize that he is caught in legalism. The congregation, by a genuine love born of the GOSPEL, can reach out to such a person and redirect his heart to his real problem: namely, where his impenitence is really leading him, and to their real desire for his soul’s salvation. But they will not be apt to do this as long as they themselves are caught in a law-spirit. The will do it when by God’s grace their hearts are captivated and ruled by the Gospel, so that they themselves are living “under grace.”
Yet another sign of legalism in Churches is the use of “gimmicks” to accomplish the mission of the Church. By “gimmicks” I mean external, worldly means to produce the outward appearance of a Church’s success. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead,” said the Savior to the Church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1). And there are many Churches today that appear to have a very “successful” operation by all human standards: a very busy membership, a smoothly running organization, an enviable name in the community, and lots of social activities, bazaars, and such like. Perhaps some of these activities started out in the spirit of true Christian fellowship. But then the Church began to depend on these things, instead of on the simple preaching of the Gospel, for its success. Such Churches usually do pay some lip-service to the Gospel. They may try to justify their “gimmicks” by saying they are using them “to attract people to the Gospel.” But somehow, these external devices have a way of taking over their Church life, and the Gospel is crowded out of the center of things. The “Church” then becomes an external organization, or institution, whose main purpose is to be “successful.” Its members may even look down on other neighboring Churches which seem “dead” by comparison: Churches that are not growing as fast numerically and that are not showing as much “interest and activity.”
Such a Church is a child of legalism. Its spirit is legalistic, because it has forsaken the Gospel as the only Means of building Christ’s Kingdom and turned to other methods, which are artificial. These methods, by their very nature, can produce only outward results, and their apparent success will feed and strengthen the members in their self-righteous attitude and their judgmental attitude toward other groups which seem to be less “successful.” Such things appeal only to the flesh. All of these things are signs of a legalistic spirit.
Needless to say, it is not wrong for a pious Christian to make a quilt or bake a cake, sell it, and dedicate that money to the Lord and to His service. Nor is it wrong for Christians to try to attract others to their Church so that they can hear God’s Word. But when a Church begins to depend on outward attractions in such a way that the Gospel itself is relegated to the background, that is a sure sign of legalism.
Also on the synodical level and denominational level, legalism can appear. It can appear both in the teachings of a denomination (or synod), and in its organizational structure and dealings.
Doctrinally, in the history of the Lutheran Church, this trend showed itself in two chief areas: in the form of “dead orthodoxy” and in the form of “Pietism.”
“Dead orthodoxy” is the form of pure doctrine on an intellectual level, without the conviction and persuasion behind it which is wrought by the Gospel. In dead orthodoxy, pure doctrine itself becomes a “law,” demanding unquestioned obedience and assent. As such, it can produce only outward results: a purely intellectual “faith.”
Pietism, in reaction to dead orthodoxy, acted as though a “pious life” were the ALL-important thing for a Christian, rather than the Truth of the GOSPEL, in all of its doctrinal aspects. Thus, the “piety” of Pietism was not Gospel-centered, and became the observance of whatever “laws” the pietist imagined would be pleasing to God. As such, their “piety” became hollow, superficial, mechanical, self-righteous, and judgmental.
In a synod’s or denomination’s organizational structure, there seems to be a temptation to feel as though their way of organizing is the only way that is right according to Scripture. The Scriptures actually say very little about how a Church at large must be organized. Rather, the Gospel is able to work through whatever organizations Christians take, in accordance with their immediate needs. Church organizations that worked well in 16th Century Germany and Scandinavia were unsuitable here. So different forms of Church structure were adopted here. The true test of any Church organization is whether in it the GOSPEL is given free course to be preached to the joy and edifying of God’s holy people, and to the joy of the heathen as it reaches out to them with God’s forgiveness in Christ.
Thus, in the spirit of the Scriptures, we don’t have to (as a matter of law) have all of the different offices of the Christian ministry today that are mentioned in the New Testament: Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, Deacons, Elders, Bishops, etc. Rather, our Lord gives to His Church such servants and ministries as it needs in any given situation.
In such organizations Christians may certainly in their Christian liberty agree to certain rules and procedures. Synods, for example, may adopt certain by-laws, or may agree to use Robert’s Rules of Order in their meetings. They may set up guidelines for calling pastors and teachers, or for applying for financial assistance. But when these rules themselves are used in opposition to the spirit of the Gospel, or even in a way that would stifle the spirit of the Gospel, then legalism is present.
In our dealings with one another, let us walk in the light of the Augsburg Confession, as it faithfully reflects the Light of the Gospel. Then we can truly work together in God’s Kingdom, and grow together under His grace.
Let us, finally look briefly at our dealings with Lutherans and Christians outside of our formal fellowship.
Certainly, if we are to remain true to the Scriptures and the Gospel, we cannot practice formal fellowship with those who are in denominations and synods that reject the Truth which is so dear to us. Nor can we co-operate with them in such a way as to diminish our testimony to the Truth, or even in any way which could create the impression that not all of the aspects of the Gospel (that is, of pure, Scriptural doctrine) were really important.
At the same time, though, we ought to rejoice on occasions when we do find a true unity of spirit and confession with someone in another Church. We need to build on that unity, and not tear it down. I myself, seven years ago, was helped immeasurably in my decision to leave the Missouri Synod by the pastors of this synod. I met most of the pastors of that time some six months before I finally left Missouri. You recognized the unity of faith and confession between us. You encouraged me in my struggles in Missouri. You accepted me when I tearfully left the synod I had been a part of for seventeen years, and a congregation which for six years I had grown to deeply love. I shall always be thankful to God for the spiritual fellowship we had in the Gospel at that time, and have had ever since. True, we didn’t exchange pulpits or hold joint services of worship while I was still in Missouri. (I didn’t expect that.) But you did strengthen me in the GOSPEL. And it was for the Gospel’s sake that I took my decisive step.
There IS, perhaps, a temptation for those of us who have come out of other synods to become judgmental about everyone who is still in those synods. Many, before they leave a synod for conscience reasons, brand those that do leave sooner as separatists or as deserters. Then, the day after they leave, those who stayed in are all “liberals.” Well, it just is not that way. There are many pastors, for example, who are still within the Missouri Synod and who are still committed to Scripture and to our Lutheran Confessions. Each pastor who is true to God’s Word must be faithful to that Word—yes, to his Savior — when it becomes evident that his allegiance to Christ and His Word is being challenged by his membership in a synod, or evident that he could be a better witness to the Truth from the outside. But he should also respect the consciences of those who in the same faithfulness have left before him, as well as those who in the same faith are still making their voice heard from within. So let us, without practicing a formal, public fellowship, nevertheless strengthen and encourage such fellow-Christians, both in the spirit of, and by means of, the Gospel.
Legalism, though it may be more subtle than outright false doctrine, is every bit as dangerous and destructive. It denies and subverts the very spirit of the Gospel, which is the true spirit that underlies all true Christian Life. Thus, it attacks our Christian Life from within and chokes off its Source. And, finally, it will eventually lead to false doctrine, too. It may first produce a “dead orthodoxy,” a mere outward show of orthodoxy. But eventually, if legalism goes unchecked, even that outward orthodoxy will be lost. Church history repeats this recurring story with all the monotony of a broken record.
What is the cure for legalism, and what is our defense against it? The answer, of course, is the GOSPEL, as it continues to enter our lives, drawing our hearts to Christ daily in true repentance, and filling them with its beauty and freshness, with its gifts of freedom and joy in Christ. As we, with Luther, by God’s grace discover anew each day its beauty, it will put every aspect of our lives into a new and right perspective, a new and proper context: that of living no more under “law,” but under GRACE.
As thus the Gospel shines in our hearts, we will truly walk in its Light and will claim as our own the clear reflection of this Light in the pages of the Augsburg Confession. We will rejoice in that Light and continue to live in its radiance. That is what I call “Walking in the Light of the Augsburg Confession.” May this Confession of our fathers continue to direct our faith to our Savior, Jesus, Who is the Final Revelation of God in all of His beauty and grace. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.