The Rev. Jonathan Madson
2015 Synod Convention Essay
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31, 32
What does your church believe? What makes you different from other churches? Aren’t all churches the same? Pastors are often asked such questions by visitors to their congregations or by prospects whom they are visiting. Christians in general may hear such questions from relatives, neighbors, co-workers, classmates and others. There may be uncomfortable moments when fielding such questions because we may not be sure exactly how to respond. At times the questions asked are very broad in nature. For example, “What is the difference between the Lutherans and the Catholics?” Where does one begin to answer such a wide-open question?
The purpose of this essay is to present an overview of Christian doctrine under the title, “Engaging One Another with Jesus’ Teachings.” The title sets the direction and establishes the authority for such an overview in the phrase, “with Jesus’ teachings.” The section from Scripture which serves as our theme, John 8:31,32, occurred on one of many occasions when Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees. Jesus responded to His challengers with the teaching that His authority was valid because He was the Son of God. The Word spoken by Jesus convinced many of the listeners. However, the faith of some remained weak and vulnerable, which led Jesus to make this proclamation: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”1 Dr. Martin Luther’s commentary on these verses includes a description of the two types of disciples:
The one group believes in Me; they praise and hear the Gospel and say, “This is the real truth,” I regard them as great and fine Christians. It is all a matter of continuing. Then there are others who hear it; but when the battle grows hot, they declare: “Upon my soul, should I forsake this or that for the sake of the Gospel?” … Therefore I say that if you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples. If My doctrine pleases you, you are well schooled and know everything. And if you persevere in the doctrine through cross and suffering, then you are My disciples.2
Engaging one another with Jesus’ teachings requires that we regularly review what Scripture teaches. Through the regular hearing and learning of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit increases our hold on the truth. Continuing in God’s Word keeps us away from the ignorant confession of those who are asked,
“What do you believe?”
“I believe what my parents believe.”
“And what do your parents believe?”
“They believe what the church believes.”
“And what does the church believe?”
“I don’t know.”
In 1992 the Doctrine Committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod produced a pamphlet entitled We Believe, Teach, and Confess [WBTC]. The pamphlet is a statement of belief in summary form that could quickly inform the reader of the doctrinal position of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, in other words, it would provide an easy reference for “what the church believes.” This pamphlet will serve as an outline that will guide us in our review of Christian doctrine, and will provide us with a resource of what we believe and teach when we engage one another with Jesus’ teachings.
A concise overview of the chief teachings in Scripture will refresh our understanding of the teachings of confessional Lutheranism. The overview will impress upon us the unity of the saving message revealed in Scripture. Finally, the overview will assist us in speaking with others as questions and challenges arise from those who belong to church bodies not of our fellowship, from the un-churched in our society and even from those who are in fellowship with us. The study of Christian doctrine centers on Christ Jesus alone and what He has done to save the world from sin, death and hell. St. Paul declares this truth in the following verses:
- “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”3
- “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”4
Refreshing Our Understanding of Confessional Lutheran Doctrine
In any study of what a church teaches, the source of doctrine must be established. The Epitome of the Formula of Concord states clearly the authority and source of doctrine for what we believe, teach and confess:
We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.5
Paragraph 1: God and His Word (WBTC)
We confess that the only true God is the Triune God, revealed in Scripture as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is only one Divine Essence, yet there are three eternal Persons in that one Essence. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a profound mystery which we cannot fully understand, but we accept it in humble faith because it is clearly taught in Scripture. For this reason “we worship one God in three persons and three Persons in one God,” as we confess in the Athanasian Creed. Although there are many in the world who claim to follow and worship a “supreme being,” only those who believe in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—can be saved. See Deut. 6:4, John 10:30, Matt. 28:19, Acts 20:28, Rom. 8:9, 2 Cor. 13:14, 1 Pet. 1:2, Col. 2:8–9, John 5:23.
We confess that God reveals Himself to mankind, not only through creation and the human conscience, but also and especially through the Holy Scriptures, His written Word. The true way of salvation is revealed only through God’s Word, and any claims for revelation of the way of salvation through other means must be rejected. The main purpose of Holy Scripture is to reveal to us that Jesus Christ is our only Savior. See Rom. 15:4 and 16:25–26, 2 Tim. 3:15, Luke 24:25–27, John 20:31, Rom. 10:14–17, Jer. 23:25–29, John 14:6, Acts 4:12.
We confess that the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, in their original form as written by the prophets, apostles, and evangelists, were given by inspiration of God. The Holy Scriptures are without error in everything they teach, including matters of geography, science, and history, and they are the only infallible rule and norm of Christian doctrine and practice. The Scriptures not only contain the Word of God (as if to say, some of their teachings are the authoritative Word of God and others are not), but they are the very Word of God in their entirety. We reject the so-called “historical-critical” or “higher- critical” method of Biblical interpretation as an unwarranted and arbitrary manner of dealing with Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are true and reliable in all that they report, including their accounts of Old Testament and New Testament miracles. We therefore regard the denial of these miracles as blasphemous and as setting up man’s reason as a judge over God’s Word. Since the term “inspired” is often used in a loose sense, we frequently use the expressions “verbally inspired” and “inerrant” in describing the authority and reliability of these sacred documents which God caused His servants to write. See John 10:35, 1 Cor. 2:13, 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:20–21, 2 Pet. 3:15–17, 1 Thes. 1:5, 2:13.
With Scripture as the only sure and certain authority of what is believed, taught and confessed, there is to be no hesitation holding to it and proclaiming it. Heterodox church bodies and people outside the church may equate such confidence as arrogance and pride. One of the complaints against a source with sole authority is that it stifles the creative side of man and doesn’t allow an individual to reach his or her potential. A complete subscription to the Bible is also seen as very judgmental against those who cling to other sources for their doctrine or who wish to retain only the portions of Scripture which appeal to them. St. John issues a warning against all such additions and deletions to God’s Word: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”6
God makes Himself known through creation and in the conscience of man. However, man is unable on his own to come to the knowledge of who the true God is and what God has done for him. God reveals Himself to the world in the Bible, revealing everything we need to know for salvation. Only in the Bible do we learn about the almighty, eternal and triune Savior God. The Word of God details His plan to save the world from sin, death and hell through the work of Christ Jesus. Prof. Lyle Lange writes in God So Loved The World,
Martin Luther and the other writers of the Lutheran Confessions were guided by three great principles in their teaching of Christian doctrine … Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Scripture alone: The Bible is the only source for the doctrines on which faith must rest. It is the only standard by which a Christian’s teaching and life must be judged.7
God’s Word alone establishes the articles of the one true Christian faith. The Lutheran Confessions clearly state the authority of Scripture alone in establishing what we believe, teach and confess: “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.”8
The fact that all of Scripture is inspired by God the Holy Spirit, and is therefore true, leads us to the second paragraph of WBTC.
Paragraph 2: Knowing and Professing the Truth (WBTC)
We confess that it is possible both to know the truth of God’s Word and to profess it, and that God requires us to do both. Taking one’s stand on the Word in matters of doctrine, after diligent study of Scriptures, is an act not of human pride but of humble submission to God’s authority. See John 8:31–32, John 17:17, 2 Tim. 1:13, James 1:21b.
The world is full of skeptics. Since the temptation of Eve in the Garden, the devil has been peddling his evil medicine of doubt when it comes to what God says in the Bible. “Did God really say …” is at the root of man’s skepticism that absolute truth really does exist. Pontius Pilate’s statement to Jesus (John 18:38) confirms what many have professed and still profess today, there are no absolute truths. However, Scripture is true because God is always truthful. The Christian faith is based on the facts revealed by God to mankind in His holy Word and not on fiction. The words written by St. John in his gospel (8:31,32) confess that we have the truth in God’s Word and the truth sets us free from sin, death and hell, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”9 Knowing the truth of salvation through faith in Christ grants us the courage to believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths to the world. We correctly boast in the Lord and not in our own understanding or efforts as we believe, teach and confess the truth of Holy Scripture.
The Bible is the truth which means that it does not merely “contain the truth.” If the Bible only “contained” the truth, it would leave the door open to believe the Bible contains other things that are not the truth—fairy tales, fables, children’s stories and the like. Jesus, in His great High Priestly prayer, confirms the absolute truthfulness of Scripture: “Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth.”10
Holy Scripture is true from beginning to end, from Genesis through Revelation. God’s Word is truth for every generation because it never changes. Through the Bible, God reveals the truth of how the universe began and how sin entered into the world, the subjects of the next paragraph in WBTC.
Paragraph 3: The Creation and the Fall (WBTC)
We confess that God created all things in six days by the power of His Word, exactly as is set forth in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and elsewhere in Scripture. We therefore reject the theories of “evolution,” including “theistic evolution,” not only because they lack a sound basis in scientific evidence but especially because they contradict the divinely-inspired account of creation as given by Moses in the Old Testament and confirmed by Christ in the New. To attempt to describe each day of creation as a very long period of time ( a “day-age,” etc. ) is to tamper with the clear Word of God, for the first chapter of Genesis records at the end of the account of each day’s creation activity that “evening and morning were the (first, second, etc.) day.” See Gen. 1 passim, Ex. 20:11, Heb. 11:3, Matt. 19:4.
When Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day they were made in God’s image—that is, they were morally righteous and were in every respect in perfect harmony with God. Through their fall into sin Adam and Eve, with all their natural descendants, lost this righteousness and became by nature sinful and corrupt. Because of the Fall all people conceived in the natural way are, by nature, enemies of God, subject to God’s wrath and to physical and spiritual death. Because of this inherited corruption, called “original sin,” no person is able, even partially, to earn favor with God or avoid eternal condemnation by means of his or her own efforts. See Gen. 1:27, 3:6 and 6:5, Ps. 51:5, Rom. 8:7, 1:18, 5:12 and 6:23, Eph. 2:3, Gal. 2:16b.
Believing in the six-day account of creation does not fit into the mainstream of society today. Holding to the truth written in the first two chapters of Genesis and other passages confirming a six-day creation places Christians in the minority. Although the theory of evolution has taken hold, Christians will continue to believe, teach and confess as the Bible teaches. God is the only source through whom we can know how the world began because He was the only one present in the beginning.
Since there are many teachers and scientists who believe and promote the theory of evolution, Christians may find themselves in a dilemma—which is true—the Bible or science? Both are true since “true” science is created by God. Those who do not believe in God and seek an alternate answer to the question of the origin of the universe have created “man-made science.” When the reason of man becomes the authority for determining truth, all bets are off because man is by nature sinful and unclean and he cannot manufacture truth.
In the opening chapters of Genesis, God reveals that He created all things out of nothing. We accept God’s recorded science of the origin of the universe by faith as the writer to the Hebrews states, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”11 It is true that evolutionists also believe “by faith.” However, their faith is in the reason of man, a faith that is built on sinking sand with no solid foundation.
The fall of man into sin is the reason why many search outside of Scripture for answers as to how the world began. Everyone is born in sin, doomed to hell by nature; there is nothing good in man. Getting to heaven can never be achieved, not even partially, by man. The natural opinion of man chafes at this truth, after all, we want to be masters of our own fate; we want to think that there are others who are worse than we. But when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s clear command, the perfect, pristine creation of God was lost.
Because sin entered the world and all were condemned, God promised to send the Savior who would crush the head of the devil. The person of the only Savior from sin and His work is the subject of the next paragraph in WBTC.
Paragraph 4: Christ’s Person and our Justification (WBTC)
We confess that, in order to rescue fallen mankind, God the Father sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. Throughout the Old Testament era God promised to send a Savior who would crush Satan’s power over the human race, and this promise was fulfilled through the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one Person, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, and He is the world’s only Savior from sin, death, and the devil. Because Jesus was true God, He was able by His divine power to save us all; because He was true man, He was able to be our substitute under God’s Law. Christ was tempted in all things as we are but was in every respect without sin. See John 1:1 and 14, Col. 2:9, Matt. 1:23,1 Tim. 2:5–6.
By His perfect life and His innocent sufferings and death Jesus has redeemed the entire world. God thereby reconciled the world to Himself, and by the resurrection of His Son declared it to be righteous in Christ. This declaration of universal righteousness is often termed “objective justification.” One has this justification as a personal possession and is personally declared by God to be righteous in Christ when he or she is brought to faith in Him as Savior. This is often called “subjective justification.” If the objective fact of Christ’s atonement is not personally received by faith, then it has no saving benefit for the individual. We reject as unscriptural any teaching that people can be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ. See 1 John 2:2, 2 Cor. 5:19, John 1:29, 2 Pet. 2:1, John 3:16–18, 2 Cor. 5:19, Rom. 4:25, 1:17 and 5:1–2.
Shortly after mankind plunged God’s perfect creation into sin with one act of disobedience, the Lord God gave the first Gospel promise to man (protevangelium) in His declaration to Satan: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”12 The offspring of Eve refers to Jesus Christ who was born to redeem the world from sin, death and hell. The Holy Spirit through St. Paul provides the other bookend to this Genesis promise in the statement, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”13
The promised Christ is the antidote to the poison of sin which man ingested by his own free will. The disobedience of one infected the entire creation with sin; however, the holiness of One brought salvation for the whole world. Dr. Luther wrote,
Satan understood this threat well; therefore he has continued to rage against human nature with such great hatred. Adam and Eve were encouraged by this promise. Wholeheartedly they grasped the hope of their restoration; and, full of faith, they saw that God cared about their salvation, since He clearly declares that the male Seed of the woman would prostrate this enemy.14
The doctrine of Justification is the chief doctrine of the Christian church, the doctrine by which the church either stands or falls. The Formula of Concord states,
In the words of the Apology, this article of justification by faith is “the chief article of the entire Christian doctrine,” “without which no poor conscience can have any abiding comfort or rightly understand the riches of the grace of Christ.” In the same vein Dr. Luther declared: “Where this single article remains pure, Christendom will remain pure, in beautiful harmony, and without any schisms. But where it does not remain pure, it is impossible to repel any error or heretical spirit.15
The work of Jesus Christ accomplished salvation for the world. The benefits of His work must be brought to us since we are powerless to make it our own. (Rom. 8:7) God’s love for sinners provides the very channels that raise our spiritual corpses to spiritual life and that keep us in the Christian faith.
The next paragraph in WBTC provides a summary of the Holy Spirit’s heavenly tools whereby “…[He] has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…” (3rd Article Explanation).
Paragraph 5: The Means of Grace (WBTC)
We confess that God has instituted certain Means of Grace through which He announces and bestows the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of life and salvation, and through which the Holy Spirit works faith in the individual sinner to receive these blessings. These Means of Grace are His Word of the Gospel, which offers us free salvation through faith in Christ; Holy Baptism, which is described in Scripture as a “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit;” and the Lord’s Supper, in which the true body and blood of Christ are distributed to the communicants. It is the Word of God connected with the earthly elements which makes Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper effective means through which forgiveness, life and salvation are truly offered to those who receive these sacraments. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in written, spoken and sacramental form, is able to do all this because it is the power of God Himself.
Holy Baptism has the power to work the new life of faith in the hearts of sinners. This regenerative washing “with water through the Word” is intended for all people, since all—including infants and children—are members of a sinful human race and are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Jesus has also commanded that “all nations” be baptized. Confession of sins and Absolution are a return to, and a renewal of, one’s Baptism. Holy Absolution, a Means of Grace, is the declaration of forgiveness to penitent sinners in the stead of Christ and by His command. It is not merely a wish that sin be forgiven, but it is a powerful impartation of forgiveness. According to Christ’s Word and institution, His body and blood are truly present, distributed and received in the Lord’s Supper, under the forms of bread and wine. This Supper is intended for Christians who know and adhere to the teachings of God’s Word, who are able to examine themselves on the basis of that Word, and who repent of their sins and look to Christ alone for forgiveness. The body and blood of Christ are offered and received in this Sacrament for the remission of sins and for the strengthening of faith. The forgiveness of sins which is offered by God through the Means of Grace can be rejected by an unbelieving heart, but it is received for salvation by all who believe in Christ. See Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47, John 15:3, Matt. 28:19, John 3:5, Eph. 5:26, Titus 3:5, Acts 2:38–39, 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29, Matt. 26:28, Rom. 1:16, John 20:21–23, Mark 16:16, Rom. 3:28 and 4:5.
By His active obedience, perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments, and His passive obedience, suffering and dying, Christ won salvation for the world. This victory won by Christ Jesus, confirmed in His resurrection, needs to be distributed to sinners. “There may be a famine in a country. People may be starving because of a lack of food. In another country, people may have an abundance of food. All that food will not do the starving people any good unless the food is delivered to them.”16 All the work that Jesus did will be of no benefit to us unless it is distributed. The heavenly delivery system, God’s Word and sacraments, is the means through which the Holy Spirit distributes forgiveness, life and salvation to sinners. The Lord works through means or ways to dispense the solution to sin. Dr. Luther describes the heavenly delivery system,
Christ has achieved it [salvation] on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed it or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world.17
In order to find His grace, God does not tell us to go to the cross; instead, He brings it to us. The Gospel is the “giving instrument” that creates the “receiving instrument,”18 which is faith. Baptism is the power of God that distributes salvation to you, clothes you in His holy life and gives you new birth. The Lord’s Supper is the real body and blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine, given and shed for the remission of sins. This divine delivery system, the Means of Grace, is powered by the Holy Spirit as God’s Word changes hearts from unbelief to faith and strengthens the faith.
The next paragraph in WBTC addresses the change that takes place in the heart and the effect of that change in the lives of God’s people.
Paragraph 6: Conversion, Good Works, and Prayer (WBTC)
We confess that a person’s conversion to faith in Christ is accomplished entirely by the Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel. Because of the effects of original sin, the unregenerate soul does not and cannot cooperate in its conversion from spiritual death and unbelief to spiritual life and faith in Christ. See Eph. 2:4–9, Rom. 10:14–17, 1 Cor. 2:14 and 12:3.
We confess that good works are necessary fruits of faith in the life of a Christian and that they proceed from a renewed heart that is thankful to God for His mercy and love. Although there is no human cooperation in the matter of one’s conversion and justification, there is a cooperation on the part of the regenerate Christian in his or her life of sanctification. Good works do not earn or contribute to one’s salvation, but they naturally flow from the living faith which is present in the hearts of those who have already been saved by God’s grace alone. See John 15:5, Rom. 6:1–2, Eph. 2:10, Rom. 12:1, Heb. 11:6, 2 Cor. 5:14–15.
We confess that a life of prayer will naturally follow from faith in Christ as Savior and that a believer should bring his or her heartfelt thanks and concerns to God in prayer. It is the teaching of Scripture, however, that God communicates with His people in matters of faith and salvation only through His Word and Sacraments, the Means of Grace. The Christian can be sure that God answers prayer according to His good and gracious will because of the saving merits of Christ. See Phil. 4:6, 1 Thes. 5:17, Matt. 7:7, Rom. 10:17, 1 John 5:14–15, James 5:16b.
Dr. Luther summarized the conversion to faith concisely in the opening statement of his Third Article Explanation, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith …” Reason and works have no bearing in our conversion. Dead in sin leaves no opening for mankind to help or cooperate in coming to faith. Born in sin doesn’t mean that man is a little sick because of sin or even seriously wounded by sin. Born in sin leaves man powerless to tweak his behavior and in some way become more acceptable to God. This is a foreign concept to our sinful nature which is corrupted with the opinion that we have some good in us.
If left to ourselves to secure a place in heaven, no amount of time or effort would allow us to love God and believe in Him.
But before man is illuminated, converted, reborn, renewed, and drawn by the Holy Spirit, he can do nothing in spiritual things of himself and by his own powers. In his own conversion or regeneration he can as little begin, effect, or cooperate in anything as a stone, a block, or a lump of clay could.19
What great comfort we have in the fact that our conversion from sinner to saint is entirely the work of the one true Triune God. He does all things well. If the change in our hearts depended even minutely on actions and decisions we make, doubt would be our god. “How could I ever do enough to make up for my sins? How will I know if I have done enough to please God?” These doubts and more are erased by the power of the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit miraculously calls the sinner to faith in Jesus.
The evidence of this conversion or change in man’s heart is seen in good works. One can tell that an apple tree is healthy by the fruit displayed in its branches. So it is that faith in the heart of a child of God is displayed in his life. Faith produces good works to give honor and glory to God alone for life and salvation. Good works are expressions of thanks to God for His mercy and grace provided in Christ Jesus. One of the criticisms of the Lutheran Church from those in other denominations has often been that Lutherans downplay the teaching of good works. Such criticism should never be warranted as we believe, teach and confess that Scripture speaks at length about holy living amongst God’s people. Scripture, however, puts good works into their proper perspective which means good works flow from faith and never the other way around. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews [11:6], good works in God’s eyes can only be done by Christians because good works are done only from a heart motivated by God’s love in Christ.
The Holy Spirit’s conversion of the heart grants the privilege of prayer for all God’s believers. Prayer does not play a role for anyone to come to faith which means that “praying God into one’s heart” is impossible. For when Christian faith is absent, true prayer is absent. However, through faith in Christ, prayer is a powerful tool. In the chapter on prayer in the ELS Catechism (2001, p. 155), the question is asked: “What is prayer?” The answer: “Prayer is an act of worship in which we speak to God from the heart, asking something of Him, or thanking Him for His mercies.” All these things can be done only from a heart converted by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.
God invites His believers to come to Him in prayer each day as they face the enemies of the faith—the devil, the world and the sinful flesh. God establishes the communication system speaking to His children through His Word and providing opportunities for His children to speak to Him in prayer. Prayer is powerful as declared by James, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”20 Prayer is powerful because of who commands it and who answers it—the Lord God of heaven and earth who has all authority and power. The doxology at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer confirms why prayer is powerful, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”
God the Holy Spirit called, enlightened and sanctified the believers who display good works in life and engage in a life of prayer. Believers in the one true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are chosen by God which is the subject of the next paragraph in WBTC.
Paragraph 7: God’s Election of Grace (WBTC)
We confess that those in this life who, through the Gospel, have been called, enlightened, sanctified, and preserved in the true faith, have from eternity been elected according to God’s unmerited love to this adoption as His children, and have been chosen in Christ “before the creation of the world” to be heirs of everlasting life. Therefore Christians can and should be sure of their salvation, since God’s promise is steadfast and His gracious election to salvation stands firm. We reject the teaching that there is an eternal election to damnation (double predestination) and that the offer of salvation which God makes through the Gospel is not earnestly intended for all people. In faith we accept the teaching of Scripture that those who are saved are saved by the grace of God alone, and that those who are lost are lost because of their own unbelief and hardness of heart. See Rom. 8:26– 39, Eph. 1:3–6, 2 Thes. 2:13–14, 1 Tim. 1:15, 2 Tim. 1:12, Ezek. 33:11, Hos. 13:9.
“Why are some saved and not others?” is the perplexing question that has caused more false teaching in the Christian Church than anything else through the years. The doctrine of election (Predestination), like other doctrines in Scripture (the Trinity, the Real Presence, Justification, etc.), defies human logic and reason. Therefore, when anyone uses human reason to test the validity of God’s Word, false teachings emerge. In the introduction to the book Predestination—Chosen In Christ, President John Moldstad, Jr. writes,
Unfortunately, while trying to explain predestination, some have stumbled. Problems usually arise in this and similar areas of theology when people attempt to use human reason as a litmus test for the truths of God’s Word. Our sinful minds often try to force a union between God’s teachings and our own reason when it cannot be done.21
In the matter of election, man’s reason once again must submit to God’s authority and bow in awe of God’s grace and mercy for despicable sinners. God states clearly in the Bible that He wants everyone to know all that He has done to save the world from sin. It is neither a mystery nor a secret what God wants for everyone—all of our relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, enemies—to know the truth that Christ lived, died and rose to take away the sin of the whole world (1 Timothy 2:4). Unfortunately there are and will be many who don’t believe what Christ did for them. Those who don’t believe in Christ are not condemned because God chose them for hell. The logic that fails is this—God is a loving God who loves all people and wants everyone to be in heaven, and yet not everyone will be saved. Did God, therefore, choose some for heaven and others for hell? Or, did God see good things in some people that made them more acceptable to Him?
God declares in His word that He wants nobody to perish in hell (2 Peter 3:9). His Word likewise declares that there isn’t anyone who is good on his own (Romans 3:23). Man’s logic conflicts with the clear teachings of Scripture. The answer to the question, “Why are some saved and not others?” summarizes this comforting doctrine of election. “Why are some saved?” It is only by the grace of God. “Why are some not saved?” It is their own fault. Since God alone is responsible for saving us from hell and damnation, and He does everything perfectly, we take comfort in the teaching of election.
The certainty and comfort of election does not, however, serve as a license to do whatever we want because we are already saved. Dr. Robert Kolb writes in his book, The Christian Faith,
The doctrine of election dare not be discussed with someone who is claiming that the grace it offers permits the elect to sin … When someone asks, “Am I among the elect?” Christians respond, “Why do you want to know?” Those who wish to use the doctrine of election as an excuse or license for sin will not understand what it means to be God’s chosen child. Such people need to hear God’s Law as it crushes their sinful pretension.22
The elect of God constitute His Church, the Holy Christian Church. The next paragraph in WBTC describes the Church and the ministry of the Church as directed by the Lord of the Church.
Paragraph 8: The Church and the Ministry (WBTC)
We confess that there is one holy Christian Church which consists of all those who from the heart truly believe in Christ as Savior and Lord. This Church, in its essence, is invisible to our eyes, since no one can judge the sincerity of another’s heart, but it is known to God. We believe that the Church is to be found wherever the Word of God and the Sacraments are in use. The Church of Jesus Christ is not to be equated with any particular denomination or church body, or with the sum total of all Christian denominations and church bodies. It is the will of God that Christians should gather together regularly for mutual edification through Word and Sacrament, and that they should work together to promote the extension of God’s pure Means of Grace throughout the world. See Luke 17:20, 2 Tim. 2:19, Eph. 4:4–6, Heb. 10:25, Mark 16:15.
We confess that the Lord has instituted the office of the Public Ministry so that His Means of Grace may be publicly administered for the well-being of His Church. Those in this office by virtue of God’s call through the church perform their duties on behalf of the church and in the name and in the stead of Christ. We believe that no one should publicly preach or administer the Sacraments without a proper call. When God’s Word says that women are not to teach or “exercise authority” over men in the church, this means that the pastoral office cannot be conferred upon women, and that it is God’s will that only properly qualified men be called to this office. According to this same principle women should not exercise authority over men in the congregational decision-making process, such as by holding voting membership in an assembly which makes the final decisions for a church. (Because Christian men and women are all members of the Body of Christ and share in the privileges and duties of the “priesthood of all believers,” the views of women should be taken into account when such decisions are made.) See John 21:15–18, Acts 20:28, Rom. 10:14–15, Eph. 4:11, 1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:5, 1 Cor. 14:34, 1 Tim. 2:12, 1 Pet. 2:9, Gal. 3:28.
The Apostles’ Creed concisely defines God’s Church, the Holy Christian Church, as “the communion of saints.” All who believe in Christ Jesus as the Savior, confessing Him by word and deed, are members of God’s Church. They are the saints, made holy through the work of the Holy Spirit. The mind of man is naturally attracted to the self-made concept by which man might obtain God’s good graces by his own hard work and abilities. Such a self-made concept has no power in the spiritual realm. God calls and makes His saints through His gift of faith in Jesus. Thus, the Church is “one,” united in the one true God. The Church is “holy” because it consists of holy people who have been washed clean in the blood of Christ and, in thanks, serve God with holy lives. It is “Christian” because the Church belongs to Christ and is built on Him as the only foundation. Jesus says: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”23 Peter wasn’t the rock upon whom the church is built. The Rock is the one whom Peter confesses as the Messiah, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 24
The Holy Christian Church is “universal” because God invites everyone to enter it, and His believers are found in all parts of the world where the Gospel is proclaimed. The Church is also “militant” in its constant war against the spiritual enemies—the devil, the world and the sinful flesh—which seek to destroy God’s people. The Holy Christian Church is “invisible” because faith resides in the hearts of believers. Even though the Church is invisible, we can see where it is present since the visible church is a gathering of people around God’s Word taught faithfully and His Sacraments administered properly. These Means of Grace are the “marks of the church” because these means indicate to us where the church can be found.
To carry out the work of the church, God has instituted the Office of the Public Ministry. The great commission issued by Jesus states the purpose of the church that is carried out publicly through her called servants, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”25 “Christians publicly administer the Office of the Keys by calling qualified men to forgive and to retain sins on their behalf” (ELS Catechism 2001, p. 195). While both qualified men and women can serve in the teaching ministry, the pastoral ministry is to be carried out only by properly qualified men. In the church, God has prescribed roles for men and women wherein women are not “to teach or to have authority over a man…”26 This principle also applies to voting privileges in the congregation. In the 1990 ELS statement on the roles of men and women in the church, the last two statements address the need for men to fulfill their responsibilities and for women to encourage them to do so.27 When it comes to matters of salvation, there are no ethnic, social or gender distinctions (Galatians 3:28).
Remaining faithful to the proclamation of God’s Word is essential for people to know and believe the truth of sin and grace. True knowledge of sin and grace prepares hearts for the day of death or the day that Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. The next paragraph of WBTC reviews the teaching of the end times.
Paragraph 9: The Last Things (WBTC)
We confess that at the time of physical death a believer’s soul goes to heaven and an unbeliever’s soul goes to hell. On the Last Day, Christ will return visibly to the world and will raise the bodies of all the dead, both believers and unbelievers, at which time their bodies and souls will be reunited. The believers will enter into eternal life in “the new heavens and the new earth,” but the unbelievers will be cast forever into “the fiery lake of burning sulphur.” We reject the teaching that the soul has no continuing, conscious existence after the time of physical death (a soul sleep) and the teaching that the souls of unbelievers will be annihilated on the Day of Judgment. We also reject as unbiblical all forms of millennialism, that is, the teaching that Christ will reign visibly over an earthly kingdom for a thousand years before the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. See Matt. 25:31–46, John 5:28–29, Mark 16:16, Eccl. 12:7, Luke 23:43, Mark 13:32–37, Luke 18:8, John 18:36.
Like other teachings of Scripture, the doctrine of the last things has been perverted over the centuries. The paragraph above denies such false concepts as soul sleep, millennialism and annihilation of the souls of unbelievers. Scripture clearly teaches that the soul will either go to hell or heaven at death. There is no middle location upon death that allows the sins of souls to be purged through the actions of others in order that the deceased can enter into heaven. The false teaching of universalism, everyone is going to heaven, has captured the minds of many since it is very appealing to think that no one will go to hell. God does not delight in souls spending eternity in hell, “And as God does not will sin and has no pleasure in sin, so he also does not will the death of a sinner and has no pleasure in his damnation.”28 In his first epistle to Timothy, St. Paul expresses God’s desire for all souls: “God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”29
The fact remains that not all will go to heaven. Jesus’ return will mark the division of unbelievers from believers. Judgment Day will not be an investigation to determine who is a believer and who is not for Jesus already knows those who do not believe (John 6:64), just as He already knows those who do believe. Dr. Edward Koehler writes in his book, A Summary of Christian Doctrine,
The question of eternal life and eternal death is not decided in the Final Judgment; that is decided by a sinner’s conversion to Christ and by his continuance in the faith unto the end (Luke 23:43; Rev. 14:13; John 3:16). He who dies in the faith will stand on the right of the Judge and will be saved; he who dies in unbelief will stand on the left side and will be lost.30
Since eternity is at stake for souls, it is vital that we remain faithful to the teachings of God’s Word. The Holy Spirit directs us through the letter to the Hebrews, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”31
To remain engaged with Jesus’ teachings, the Lord provides opportunities for worship and study with those who hold to the truth of Holy Scripture. The next paragraph reviews the importance of mutual confession and adherence to the Word and sacraments.
Paragraph 10: Church Fellowship (WBTC)
We confess that Scripture requires that church fellowship be recognized and practiced where there is a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church, the Word and Sacraments. Jesus Christ is the Head of His Church, and He governs and teaches it by His Word, but deviation from the teaching of God’s Word is not to be tolerated in the church. We therefore reject unionism, that is, church fellowship with adherents of false doctrine, and ecumenical endeavors which compromise the pure doctrine of God’s Word. We also reject participation or membership in religious organizations which have features that are in conflict with the Christian faith, such as the Masonic Lodge and similar organizations. At the same time we also condemn separatism, i.e., the refusal to acknowledge and practice fellowship when there is agreement in doctrine. See John 8:31–32, 1 Cor. 1:10, Eph. 2:19–20, Matt. 7:15–20, Rom. 16:17, Gal. 1:6–9, 2 John 9–11, Matt. 23:8, 1 Pet. 4:11, 2 Cor. 6:14–18.
Next to the teaching of Election, the teaching of Church Fellowship is probably one of the hardest for pastors to teach. This is so not because it isn’t taught in the Bible—it most certainly is—and not because it goes so against our reason like election. The difficulty lies in the fact that the teaching of church fellowship can involve emotions. We live in a world with a false ecumenical spirit that believes all steeples really point to the same God. But, sadly, not all do point to the same God. There are very few church bodies in the world today which continue to hold to the biblical teaching of church fellowship and practice what they teach. However, the teachings of Jesus are never determined by public opinion nor agreed upon by a majority vote. Holding to the truth of God’s Word is necessary in order to engage others with the teachings of Jesus.
Practicing church fellowship is joining in activities with others whereby we confess our common Christian faith. It is the unity of Christians based upon all that the Bible teaches, i.e., based upon full unity in the marks of the church, the Word and the sacraments. Prof. Lange writes,
We believe that we have fellowship with all who believe in Christ as their Savior. Yet only God can look into people’s hearts to see if they believe. Thus we must base our practice of fellowship with others in the visible church on the confession of the faith they make. When people agree on all the teachings of Scripture, they should practice church fellowship together. When they do not agree in doctrine, they should not practice fellowship together.32
Activities in which Christians publicly gather to confess their common Christian faith include pulpit fellowship. This means pastors who share our confession of faith can preach in our pulpits but will not preach in services conducted by churches that permit false teaching. Altar fellowship is partaking of the Lord’s Supper with those who share what we believe, teach and confess because partaking of the Lord’s Supper declares a confession of our unity in faith. We commune with those who teach and believe as we do according to the authority of Jesus’ teachings revealed in Holy Scripture. Fellowship in worship is believers in Christ confessing unity with others when they encourage each other in worship and join together in prayer. Since such joint public praying expresses the unity of our confession in the marks of the church, this also is guided by the principle that full agreement in doctrine is necessary before engaging in participation. What a blessed gift God provides us in gathering together with fellow believers each week in church to receive God’s grace and join in giving thanks for His wonderful mercies that are new every day.
Holding to all of God’s Word as our authority for what we believe and teach is also the rule set forth in the next paragraph which summarizes the church and state distinction as ordered by the Lord.
Paragraph 11: Church and State (WBTC)
We confess that God has assigned certain responsibilities to the Church and certain responsibilities to the State, which do not conflict with each other. The Church and the State are each to operate within their own sphere of responsibility, using only those means which God has entrusted to each to carry out their God-given tasks. To the Church God has given the responsibility of calling sinners to repentance, preaching forgiveness through the cross of Christ, and encouraging believers in their Christian life. To the State God has given the responsibility of punishing evildoers and protecting the innocent, and of promoting civil order among the people. The Church is not to exercise civil authority, and the State is not to become a messenger of the Gospel nor to interfere with the Church’s Gospel ministry. See Rom. 13:1–7, Acts 5:29, 1 Tim. 2:2, Mark 16:15, Matt. 22:21.
The words of Jesus summarizing the distinction between the kingdom of the right (the church) and the kingdom of the left (the state) were spoken in response to yet another trap set for Jesus when the Pharisees attempted to catch Jesus in His words. The Pharisees asked for Jesus’ “opinion” when it came to paying taxes to Caesar; was it right to pay them or not? Knowing their evil intentions, Jesus’ response teaches us that paying taxes is not an optional matter, nor is honoring God, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”33 Christians have the responsibility to obey the established government by serving as law-abiding citizens and praying for its leadership, recognizing that God gives government its authority for the benefit of society. Should the government command us to do sinful things, Peter proclaims: “We must obey God rather than men!”34
Prof. Daniel Deutschlander writes in Civil Government—God’s Other Kingdom,
Christ is King in the church and in the hearts of her members by the gospel. Christ is King over the nations and over governments to whom he has entrusted the sword. His rule over both is assured by his resurrection and ascension … As members of an eternal kingdom and citizens of an earthly kingdom, we have responsibilities to both.35
In the area of morality as members of society, God outlines good and proper behavior regarding life and human sexuality as summarized in the next paragraph of WBTC.
Paragraph 12: Human Life and Human Sexuality (WBTC)
We confess that Scripture upholds the sanctity of human life. We recognize that God has given the State the right to administer capital punishment and wage just wars, but we believe that any taking of human life beyond that which is authorized by God is to be abhorred. We believe that all human life has intrinsic value, regardless of its perceived “quality,” and that God calls on us to preserve His gift of life. Because abortion results in the death of an unborn human being, we believe that it is never justified except in those rare and tragic circumstances when the continuation of the pregnancy would clearly threaten the life of the mother. Abortion for any other reason is a great sin in the eyes of God. Because God is the giver and taker of life, we condemn any deliberate efforts to shorten one’s own life or the life of another, for example: suicide, euthanasia (mercy killing), and the withholding or withdrawing of appropriate care from the critically ill person. See Rom. 13:4 and 9, Ps. 139:13–16, Ps. 51:5, Luke 1:41, Jer. 1:5, Ps. 31:15, Phil. 1:21–26, Lev. 19:16.
We confess that Scripture condemns homosexuality and extra-marital relations (fornication and adultery) as sin. Nevertheless, when an individual caught up in such sins truly repents, forgiveness of the Gospel is to be fully applied. We confess that the divine institution of marriage is to be heterosexual, in which, according to God’s design, a man and a woman may enjoy a life-long companionship in mutual love. We teach on the basis of Holy Scripture that marriage is the only proper context for the expression of sexual intimacy and for the procreation of children. See Rom. 1:26–27, 1 Cor. 6:9, 18 and 7:2–9, John 4:17–18, 1 John 1:9, Gen. 1:27–28 and 2:18–24, Matt. 19:4–6.
Governing authorities have become involved in several of the issues outlined in this paragraph. In the matter of human life, abortion and other efforts to shorten life, laws in our country have been instituted that allow such sinful actions. However, as in all matters of life and faith, God’s people have an authority, namely, God’s never-changing Word. Life is created and cared for by God. Abortion is simply not a political platform that can be altered according to the winds of current cultural beliefs. God’s Word directs what we believe, teach and confess regarding the sanctity of life.
The same is true for matters of human sexuality. The push for acceptability in the matter of homosexuality has been ramped up over the past years, pushing its way into laws that now, in a majority of states in our country, allow for homosexuals to legally get married. In addition, the entire matter of premarital sex being acceptable and desirable grows in our society by leaps and bounds. God’s Word remains firm on these lifestyle issues which means they are not up for public debate and change. The Lord commands us to live according to His holy will for the benefit of souls and society. His ways are designed for our good.
The never changing truth of God’s Word is the authority for everything that God’s Church believes, teaches and confesses. Our Lutheran forefathers recognized the importance of stating this truth in the early years of the reformation of the church in the 16th century. The result was the writing of the Lutheran Confessions compiled in the Book of Concord of 1580. The final paragraph of WBTC presents what confessional Lutheranism holds to as the only rule and norm of doctrine and practice.
Paragraph 13: The Lutheran Confessions (WBTC)
As orthodox, confessional Lutherans, we embrace as our primary confessions of faith the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church contained in the Book of Concord of 1580, namely, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds; the Augsburg Confession and its Apology; the Smalcald Articles (including the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope); Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Formula of Concord (Epitome and Solid Declaration). We accept these Confessions, not in so far as but because they agree with Scripture, and we believe that they are a correct exposition of the teaching of God’s Word. Adherence to these confessions, drawn from Scripture, is in keeping with St. Peter’s exhortation: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). See also Heb. 13:7–9a.
The Bible verse quoted above (1 Peter 3:15) directs us to be prepared so that we can answer people who ask questions about what we believe. What we believe is anchored in the hope of heaven earned by Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The Lutheran Confessions serve as a filing cabinet that categorizes the teachings of Jesus for us to have and use when others ask us about specific teachings in the Bible.
Confessions are necessary to let people know what it is that we believe. It is not enough to say, “I believe what the Bible teaches.” The question is, what do you believe the Bible teaches? When people tell us what they believe the Bible teaches, then we can compare what people say to what the Bible teaches. Confessions are also useful for sharing the gospel with others. When people want to know what it is that we teach, we can point them to the confessions of our church. These confessions will give people an overview of what it is that we believe.36
The summary of Christian doctrine shows how everything in God’s Word is tied together as a unit. The next section addresses the importance of the unity of Scripture in our efforts to engage one another with Jesus’ teachings.
The Unity of the Saving Message Revealed in Scripture
The Lutheran Confessions are not additions to the Bible which, in some way, supplement what God reveals in the Bible. The Confessions do not contain more complete truths as if the Bible is inadequate on its own in teaching the way of salvation. The Bible is not a collection of many books which have no connection to each other. For example, we know of authors in the secular realm who have written many short stories that are, possibly for convenience sake, combined into one volume. Such a volume would be a series of short stories that have nothing to do with each other, each story having an independent plot, characters, etc. The saving message of Scripture, however, is united in everything that is taught—New and Old Testaments. As we reviewed the basic teachings of the Bible in the first section of this essay, it is clear how these teachings dovetail with each other. If each teaching of Scripture is its own file, all of these files are included in the folder labeled “Christ Jesus.”
The Jews were convinced that Jesus was running roughshod over the laws of God. This led them to intensify their plans to kill him. Jesus responds to their hatred and murderous intentions by giving testimony about Himself. At one point in His response to the Jews who hated Him, Jesus confesses, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me …”37 Whether studying God’s Word or confessing it to others while engaged in conversation, Jesus is the Word of God as defined by St. John, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”38 Everything written in the Bible is unified around Christ Jesus and Him crucified. Pastor John Schaller wrote,
Though so many different men in so many ages became authors of biblical books, the contents of the Bible are nevertheless so homogeneous throughout that every attentive reader finds its teachings to be altogether uniform from first to last. This feature, among others, makes the Bible a unique book and points to its supernatural origin.39
The central purpose of Holy Scripture reveals that God saves man by grace for the sake of Christ through faith. Yet, Holy Scripture reveals many matters, some which, if individually considered, don’t seem to serve the central purpose of the Bible. But Dr. Koehler writes,
Whatever the apostles and prophets wrote and taught was for our learning (Rom.15:4), and constitutes the foundation of the Church, in which the doctrine of Christ and of His redemption is the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The Bible is a unit in which all parts, statements, doctrines, commandments, and promises, either directly or indirectly, serve the purpose of teaching men how to be saved through faith in the Saviour, and how to live as the children of God in this world to the glory of their Lord. It is for this purpose that the Word of God should be used (John 5:39); using it for other purposes means taking the name of God in vain (Exodus 20:7).40
The unity of Scripture lies in the fact that the Holy Spirit is the divine author of everything written in the Bible because all of Scripture is “God-breathed.”(2 Timothy 3:16) When we are engaged with Jesus’ teaching or engaging others with it, the absolute truth is being heard, learned and told. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” How comforting it is to have the authority of God revealed to us, the authority that always remains the same despite the many changes that take place in every generation. In most disciplines, whether in medicine or technology or business, different philosophies, practices and advances in machines and devices have changed the way that people do business. Things taught in the past, in some cases, have been done away with. Unfortunately, in the view of many, this should also apply to the Bible. Some contend that things are different today which makes the Bible “old-fashioned.” However, it has been said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
The same is that all people are sinners, lost and condemned by nature. The same is that Christ Jesus came to save all people from sin, death and hell. The timeless Word of God is unified in all of its teachings, pointing to Christ and Him alone as the Redeemer of everyone we know and all those whom we do not know. Engaging others with Jesus’ teachings will always be honest and trustworthy because the Word of God is always honest and trustworthy. Jesus did not tweak His message when His detractors put pressure on Him nor did His teaching ever change from one group of people to another. Consider the following two authors inspired by the Holy Spirit, Isaiah, who lived 700 years before the Lord Jesus, is quoted by Peter, who was a contemporary of Jesus. Both of these men confess the trustworthiness and eternal nature of God’s Word:
- “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”41
- “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”42
More than two thousand years later, nothing has changed for God’s Church, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” Our lives are engaged in the teachings of Jesus which has not and will not change. The more we grow in our knowledge of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit equips us to handle challenges to the faith into which the Holy Spirit has called us. The final portion of this essay addresses a sample of questions which we many encounter concerning the Christian faith. Dr. Luther’s hymn verse provides encouragement as we engage one another with Jesus’ teachings when questions and challenges arise,
Lord, Keep us steadfast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son
And set at naught all He hath done. [ELH 589:1]
Engaging One Another with Jesus’ Teachings When Challenges Arise
Challenges to the Christian doctrine have been many and varied since the temptation of our first parents in paradise. Satan continues to challenge God’s believers in the same way he challenged our first parents in paradise, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say …’?”43 “Did God really say …?” God really says much for us to know and, when opportunities arise, to answer those who challenge what God’s Word teaches or answer those who ask out of ignorance.
The paragraphs of WBTC provide us with an outline of some challenges that might arise. It is not possible to have a blanket statement which can be used to answer every challenge to Christian teaching. Each situation will be unique. It is important for us to be certain, as much as possible, what the question or challenge really is. The following examples are quite general; however, the purpose of them is to elicit some response and discussion. God’s Word does apply to our lives today. It is completely relevant in doctrine and life. Engaged in learning more from His Word and confessing His Word to others proclaims the truth. At the end of the essay there are brief responses provided for the questions and challenges that follow in addition to Bible passages which are cited in WBTC.
Paragraph 1: God and His Word
- Are there not other gods in other cultures? What if people are sincere in their belief in these other gods, can’t they also get to heaven? How important is it to believe and confess that there is only one God in essence, who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?
- If the Bible was written by people, and people can make mistakes, how can anyone believe that the Bible has no errors? What about the contradictions in the Bible, how do you explain them?
- The miracles didn’t really happen. There are other “reasonable” explanations for them.
Paragraph 2: Knowing and Professing the Truth
- There are no absolute truths. Truth is always evolving; it is an individual preference.
- Since many churches use the Bible, how is it possible for anyone to know which church is right and is teaching the truth?
Paragraph 3: The Creation and the Fall
- Why can’t someone believe in both creation and evolution? Isn’t it possible to compromise on these teachings?
- I don’t think that everyone is basically bad. Most people have some good in them if we really get to know them.
- Doesn’t God give us a free will to make a choice to believe in him or not?
Paragraph 4: Christ’s Person and our Justification
- Jesus was a good man, good teacher, helper to those down and out. I see him as a good role model for me.
- Because the Bible teaches that not everyone is going to heaven, it seems that Jesus couldn’t have died on the cross for everyone.
- What do I need to do in order to have faith in Jesus as my Savior?
- Many today, including some Lutherans, question the teaching of “Objective” justification. Why is this doctrine so essential to uphold?
Paragraph 5: The Means of Grace
- I already believe in Jesus. I don’t need baptism to help me.
- If Jesus is in heaven, sitting at God’s right hand, how is it possible for his real body and blood to be present in the Lord’s Supper?
- Why doesn’t your church allow anyone to come and take communion?
Paragraph 6: Conversion, Good Works, and Prayer
- When did you decide to become a believer in Jesus?
- Faith alone isn’t enough to get me to heaven. It is important that I also do some good works.
- It doesn’t seem that God answers any of my prayers. Several times I’ve asked him for various things, but they never happened. I am confused.
Paragraph 7: God’s Election of Grace
- Since God chose those who are going to heaven, but not everybody is going to heaven, he must have chosen some to go to hell. That seems logical.
- I can’t believe that God would send anyone to hell. Doesn’t the Bible say that God is love?
- How can I know for sure that I am one of the elect and that I’m going to be in heaven when I die?
Paragraph 8: The Church and the Ministry
- Since your church is pretty strict, do you believe that only people from your church and your synod are going to heaven?
- Your church is really behind the times because you don’t let women vote in your church and you don’t let women be pastors.
Paragraph 9: The Last Things
- I don’t think there is really a hell. It seems to me that when a person dies who doesn’t believe in Jesus, he/she will simply not exist anymore.
- Do you think that all those people who have been friendly and good in this life will go to heaven when they die?
- When Jesus comes back, he is going to set up a kingdom on earth for 1000 years before Judgment Day happens.
Paragraph 10: Church Fellowship
- Why don’t I ask my pastor (at the “xyz” church, not of our fellowship) to invite your pastor and your congregation to have a worship service with us this Thanksgiving. Wouldn’t this be a good way to show we all believe in the same God?
- I don’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites who attend.
- Is it okay to judge what other churches teach? Doesn’t Jesus command that we shouldn’t judge others?
Paragraph 11: Church and State
- We should have prayer in our public schools to improve our society. We are heading in the wrong direction.
- As a business owner, what should I do if the government makes laws that my business is to follow, but those laws conflict with the teachings of the Bible?
Paragraph 12: Human Life and Human Sexuality
- Abortion should be a personal decision. We can do whatever we think is right with our own bodies.
- Homosexuality is a personal choice. God made some people to be attracted to someone of the same sex.
- As long as two unmarried people are committed to each other, isn’t it okay for them to express their commitment through sexual relations?
Paragraph 13: The Lutheran Confessions
- If your only source for what you believe and teach is the Bible, why do you also follow the writings of the Confessions? Aren’t you adding things to the Bible?
- The Confessions are not necessary because we have everything we need to know in the Bible.
When Jesus engaged others with His teachings, he knew their motives for approaching Him. Even to those who came with evil intentions, Jesus spoke His Word out of love for their souls. Following His seven stern warnings to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in which He criticized their hypocrisy and obstinate behavior, Jesus laments, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”44 Jesus’ dagger denouncing their wicked behavior is motivated by His sincere desire for people to turn from their evil and wicked ways and receive the gift of sins forgiven.
As we engage others with Jesus’ teachings, challenges and probing questions can heighten our sensitivity and cause us to be defensive. Peter directs Christians to be ready to answer questions when they arise, and then adds this instruction, “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”45 Jesus describes His believers as salt and light in the world, preserving the truth of His Word and letting the light of faith shine in their lives, “… that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”46
The sinful world in which we live provides many opportunities to confess what we believe and teach on a daily basis. Answering questions and challenges to the Christian faith should not be looked upon as occasions to “win the debate.” Instead, these are opportunities to engage others with Jesus’ teachings. Holding to these teachings in our lives requires regular hearing, reading and digesting of God’s Word. It requires regularly eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. It requires a daily remembrance of our Baptism through which, “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”47
Engaging one another with Jesus’ teachings begins with our own understanding and knowledge of God’s Word. St. Paul reinforces the power of the Word for faith and confession,
The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”48
Everything in the Bible is united around Christ Jesus, who He is and what He has done to save the world from death and hell. This truth provides us courage and certainty when opportunities arise for us to answer questions and challenges to what we believe, teach and confess. For when we answer the questions and challenges with God’s Word, we will engage others with Jesus’ teachings. N.F.S Grundtvig reminds us that this is our heritage to have and confess as he sums up in the hymn,
God’s Word is our Great Heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations. [ELH 583]
(Brief answers to challenges and questions on pages
Paragraph 1: God and His Word
- There are many other gods in different lands and cultures. Just being sincere about anything is not how one gets to heaven. Salvation is found in no other god than the Triune God of the Bible. (Deut 6:4; John 14:6; Acts 4:12)
- God used various men to write the Bible. Since God is the Author who inspired the very words the writers used, it is the truth because God is true and right all the time. Contradictions are only apparent contradictions to the limited sinful human mind. God’s Word never contradicts itself. (John 10:35; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20–21)
- Since God’s word is always true and miracles are recorded in Scripture, miracles did happen. We take the Bible literally unless it tells us not to do so. (John 20:31; 1 Thess 2:13)
Paragraph 2: Knowing and Professing the Truth
- God’s Word is the absolute truth. It is not a matter of personal choice but God’s authority. (John 8:31,32; John 17:17)
- Using the Bible properly means letting the Bible interpret the Bible. Many churches allow for private interpretation which leads to many different opinions about what the Bible teaches. Learning that the Bible is the rule and norm for everything that is taught is important in knowing that the Bible is the only authority for what we believe and teach. (John 8:31,32; 2 Tim 1:13)
Paragraph 3: The Creation and the Fall
- Evolution is a theory based upon chance which directly contradicts the scriptural teaching of creation, that is, that God created everything by His almighty Word. Any compromise with evolution and creation would deny God’s Word. (Ex 20:11; Heb 11:3)
- The Bible clearly teaches that all people are by nature sinful and can do nothing to change that fact. God demands perfection from everyone. (Rom 51:5; Rom 5:12; Eph 2:3)
- God created Adam and Eve with a free will. It was perfect because they had no sin. But once sin entered, free will in spiritual matters disappeared. Dead people can’t make decisions. (Gen 1:27; Rom 8:7; Gal 2:16b)
Paragraph 4: Christ’s Person and our Justification
- Jesus was a good man, good teacher and helped those who were suffering. He is the perfect role-model for us. But He is, above all, our Savior-God. He was good in our place and suffered in our place. His perfect life was the payment for the sins of all the world. (1 John 2:2; Rom 4:25)
- It is true that not everyone is going to heaven. However, Jesus died on the cross and paid for the sins of everyone as Scripture clearly teaches. (1 John 2:2; John 1:29)
- We do nothing to get to heaven. Jesus did everything to satisfy God’s punishment for our sins through His life, death and resurrection (Rom 4:25; Rom 5:1–2)
- Faith needs to take hold of something that is real and actual of itself. If forgiveness of sins is not an objective reality, than one can easily be led to question the power of absolution, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What is offered in these is not a potential forgiveness but a genuine forgiveness.
Paragraph 5: The Means of Grace
- God commands everyone to be baptized. The benefits of Baptism are priceless. (Matt 28:19; John 3:5)
- Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand until He returns on Judgment Day. But His body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper because His Word tells us they are. Four times it is written in the New Testament that the bread is Jesus’ body and the wine is Jesus’ blood. (1 Cor 10:16–17; 1 Cor 11:23–29)
- Communicants need to be prepared and knowledgeable as to what they are receiving in the Lord’s Supper. Proper instruction is necessary to take communion in a worthy manner. We don’t want anyone to take communion to his/her harm. Holy Communion is also a confession of being united in what the Bible teaches. (1 Cor 10:16–17; 1 Cor 11:27–29)
Paragraph 6: Conversion, Good Works, and Prayer
- We didn’t decide to come to faith. God the Holy Spirit made us alive by bringing us to faith in Christ. Faith is not a decision on our part, but it is a gift from God given according to His mercy and grace. (Eph 2:4–9; Rom 10:14–17)
- Faith in Christ alone does save us. Good works are done from faith in thanks to God for His love in Jesus. Good works don’t earn us anything with God. Jesus completed everything for our salvation. (Eph 2:8–10; John 15:5)
- God answers all the prayer of His believers. He answers in the way that He knows is best. That means “no” is the answer some times or “wait.” He commands believers to pray everywhere and at all times. (Phil 4:6; Matt 7:7)
Paragraph 7: God’s Election of Grace
- God doesn’t choose anyone to go hell. He wants everyone to be saved. God chose those who are His own from before creation. Those who are lost in unbelief are lost because of their own fault. (Eph 1:3–6; Ezek 33:11)
- Those who suffer in hell will be there because of their own unbelief. Both heaven and hell are real. God is love; He is also just and fair. (Hos 13:9)
- Nothing can separate God’s believers from His love. You can and should be certain of heaven because of God’s promise that Christ died for all, including you. (Rom 8:35–39; 1 Tim 1:12, 15)
Paragraph 8: The Church and the Ministry
- No. We know that all those who from the heart truly trust in Jesus as their Savior from sin will be taken to heaven. Wherever God’s Word is taught rightly and where people are baptized and receive communion, there will be true believers. In churches where some teachings of the Bible are changed or deleted, people can be misled and fall from the faith or never know the truth. That’s why Jesus tells us to teach everything He has commanded and hold on to His teachings. (2 Tim 2:19; Eph 4:4–6)
- God established certain roles in His church. He commands the men to take the lead and make decisions for the good of everyone (children, women and men) in the church. He calls qualified men through congregations to serve as pastors who publicly preach and teach God’s Word. In a private way, every Christian has opportunities to confess their faith by what they do and say. (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Pet 2:9; Gal 3:28)
Paragraph 9: The Last Things
- The Bible teaches that both heaven and hell exist. Anyone who dies believing in Christ as the Savior will go to heaven. Anyone who dies not believing in Christ as the Savior will go to hell. There is no other place. (Matt 25:31–46; Mark 16:16)
- Niceness doesn’t count when it comes to a place in heaven. Faith in Christ the Savior is the only way to heaven and faith in Christ is a gift from God to us. If polite and kind people don’t believe in Christ as the Savior, they have no Christian faith and won’t go to heaven should they die in unbelief. (Matt 25:31–46; Mark 16:16)
- Jesus’ kingdom isn’t an earthly kingdom. When He returns to judge the living and dead, the separation of believers and unbelievers will take place. (Matt 25:31–46; John 18:36)
Paragraph 10: Church Fellowship
- The Bible requires that worshipping together is to be based on a mutual confession of everything the Bible teaches. God doesn’t allow us to add or subtract from what His Word teaches. He commands us to avoid those who teach falsely. (1 Cor 1:10; Rom 16:17)
- God commands us not to judge hearts like the Pharisees tried to do. But he does tell us to judge what people teach and do on the basis of what the Bible tells us to teach and do. This is important for us to remain holding to the truth of God’s Word and to direct others to the truth of God’s Word. Though there may be hypocrites in the visible church, we go to church to receive God’s mercy and grace for our sins. (Matt 7:15–20; 2 John 9–11)
Paragraph 11: Church and State
- Prayer is a wonderful privilege that God gives believers in order that we call upon Him. Prayer is also an act of worship. Prayer in the public school setting would constitute worship with others who are not of our fellowship. Christian students in public settings do have the privilege to pray privately. They should be encouraged by their parents and churches to exercise the privilege of private prayer in public settings. (Matt 22:21)
- God teaches us that we are to obey Him rather than men. Should we ever have to face the dilemma of compromising on what God’s Word teaches because the government tries to force us into behavior that is contrary to God’s Word and will, we will have to suffer the consequences of resisting sin. (Acts 5:29)
Paragraph 12: Human Life and Human Sexuality
- Abortion results in the death of a human being because life, created by God, begins at conception. Abortion is a sin against the 5th Commandment. The body is God’s creation and gift. The body is not ours to do whatever we want. We are to protect life at any time, including life in the mother’s womb. (Psa 139:13–16; Jer 1:5)
- Homosexuality is a choice, it is true. However, according to the teaching of God’s Word, it is a sinful choice. God doesn’t create anyone with homosexual tendencies. Homosexuality is unnatural and sinful. As with all other sins, God calls us to repent and seek His strength to live holy lives. (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9,18)
- God doesn’t permit sexual relations between unmarried people, even though they are committed to each other. God has blessed society with marriage as the only place in which to express one’s sexual affection and commitment to his/her spouse and for having children. Society has grown very accepting of sexual relations outside of marriage, but God’s teachings never change. It is not permitted by God. (1 Cor 6:9,18; John 4:17–18)
Paragraph 13: The Lutheran Confessions
- The Bible is the only authority for what we believe and teach. The Lutheran Confessions don’t add anything to what we believe. We hold to the Confessions because they agree with Scripture and provide us with a summary of the teachings of the Bible. (Heb 13:7–9)
- We have everything we need to know for salvation in the Bible. The Confessions provide us with a wonderful summary of what we believe, teach and confess, and they are organized to help us be better prepared to answer questions and challenges concerning specific teachings in the Bible. (1 Pet 3:15)
1 John 8:31–32 (NIV 84)
2 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), XXIII: 392–3.
3 Acts 20:27 (NIV 84)
4 1 Cor. 2:2 (NIV 84)
5 Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord, FC Epitome (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), Part I:1, p. 464.
6 Revelation 22:18–19 (NIV 84)
7 Lyle W. Lange, God So Loved The World: A Study of Christian Doctrine (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 2005), 3.
8 Tappert, Smalcald Articles, Part II:15, 295.
9 John 8:31–32 (NIV 84)
10 John 17:17 (NIV 84)
11 Heb. 11:3 (NIV 84)
12 Gen. 3:15 (NIV 84)
13 Gal. 4:4–5 (NIV 84)
14 Luther, Luther’s Works, I, 293.
15 Tappert, Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, III:6, 540.
16 Lange, God So Loved The World, 451.
17 Luther, Luther’s Works, XL, 213–214.
18 Lange, God So Loved The World, 452.
19 Tappert, Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Part II:24, 525–526.
20 Jam. 5:16b (NIV 84)
21 John A. Moldstad, Jr., Predestination—Chosen in Christ (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1997), 7–8.
22 Robert Kolb, The Christian Faith (St. Louis: Concordia, 1993), 175.
23 Matt. 16:18 (NIV 84)
24 Matt. 16:16 (NIV 84)
25 Matt. 28:19–20 (NIV 84)
26 1 Tim. 2:12 (NIV 84)
27 “15. Finally, Christian men ought to take their responsibilities seriously, and Christian women also have the responsibility of encouraging men to fulfill their obligations and duties of leadership. 16. When men and women labor together in the Gospel, taking heed to the Word and working within the scriptural limits, then truly God is glorified and the church is edified.” (ELS Statement on the Roles of Men and Women in the Church, 1990)
28 Tappert, Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Part XI:81, 629.
29 1 Tim. 2:3–4 (NIV 84)
30 Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine (St. Louis: Concordia, 1952), 308.
31 Heb. 10:23–25 (NIV 84)
32 Lange, God So Loved The World, 553.
33 Matt. 22:21 (NIV 84)
34 Acts 5:29 (NIV 84)
35 Daniel Deutschlander, Civil Government—God’s Other Kingdom (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1998), 68.
36 Lange, God So Loved The World, 92.
37 John 5:39 (NIV 84)
38 John 1:14 (NIV 84)
39 John Schaller, The Book of Books – A Brief Introduction to the Bible (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1990), 3.
40 Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, 16.
41 Isa. 40:8 (NIV 84)
42 1 Pet. 1:24–25 (NIV 84)
43 Gen. 3:1 (NIV 84)
44 Matt. 23:37 (NIV 84)
45 1 Pet. 3:15–16 (NIV 84)
46 Matt. 5:16 (NIV 84)
47 Titus 3:5–6 (NIV 84)
48 Rom. 10:8–13 (NIV 84)
Deutschlander, Daniel. Civil Government—God’s Other Kingdom. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1998.
Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Catechism & Explanation. Mankato, MN: Litho Productions, 2001.
Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1952.
Kolb, Robert. The Christian Faith. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993.
Lange, Lyle. God So Loved The World—A Study of Christian Doctrine. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2005.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, American Edition. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.
Moldstad, John A. Jr. Predestination—Chosen in Christ. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997.
Schaller, John. The Book of Books—A Brief Introduction to the Bible. Milwaukee: Northtwestern Publishing House, 1990.
Tappert, Theodore G. The Book of Concord—The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.