This basics elements of this post originally appeared in April 2012. It was part of a series on “Searching for a Church.” I have modified it to fit the context of Sasse’s quotes and the distinction between Lutheran and Protestant in the two previous posts.
This part of the search takes a while. It is one thing to hear a good sermon on Sunday or a good short series of sermons. It is another to determine whether the church covers all key doctrines or whether these are more hobby-horse sermons. What makes this more complicated is that you have to be there and dig into both the sermons and the official teachings of the congregation or denomination.
So, in one sense you are becoming a focus of the church’s ministry (or you should be!) unless the church doesn’t want to deal with you as part of the ministry and only as “members” (whatever that might mean). This is a catch 22 situation. As you and your family become (unintentionally) integrated, it can be difficult to leave if you discover the teaching of “the faith” doesn’t measure up.
This part of the search also involves your own growing in the “the faith.” That is, you study the Scriptures in a more consistent manner. You don’t just pick a few favorite passages, but wrestle with some of the more challenging texts (1 Cor. 11:23-29; 1 Peter 3:21; Romans 3-8, John 14-17, etc.). At this point a critical text to keep in mind is Acts 17:11
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (NIV)
Thus, no matter what the credentials of the pastor, the size of the congregation, or popularity of the ministry, every pastor ought to welcome questions about Scripture. And you can ask, not to trick someone or “win an argument,” but rather in humility to see whether what you hear and see in the church is consistent with Scripture. I can’t stress this enough: humility is critical in this whole process, in your own study of Scripture and in your testing of the church’s teachings.
Two Questions to Start:
There are always two questions to ask a group or an individual to find out whether it is even worth pursuing.
1. What is most important? [Material Principle]
It’s amazing how easily this question is glossed over in many churches today. The Bible is very clear on this point, but the answer to this question can be summarized as:
justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
justification by grace (alone) through faith (alone) in Jesus Christ (alone)
See the following Bible passages:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 NIV)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)
The list of passages goes on and on: Philippians 3:9; John 14:6; Acts 2:36; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 2:16, etc.
Unless that is stated up front by the group and is consistently the center of everything else in teaching and ministry, then the group does not reflect the most important thing, and hence is not Lutheran in confession.
Regarding this question, when we examine other confessions within the Christian church, we discover that most churches would not necessarily disagree with the response to the first question [Material Principle]. Rather the disagreement is whether that statement is the top priority, and they may disagree with the means by which that is accomplished.
Within Protestant churches, some follow Calvin, as summarized a century later in the Westminster Confession (1647)
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Other Protestant responses could include those by Zwingli (divine causality), or Methodism (holiness or the perfected person), or Pentecostals (maturity in speaking in tongues). And the list goes on.
2. What is the source for #1? [Formal Principle]
For Christians, the answer ought to be “the Bible.”
Scripture (alone)—the Bible
But don’t be too quick to jump on this answer. Why? Because over time it will surface that the real answer might be “The Bible and reason.” In other words, the real stance might be: “I accept the Bible as long as it makes sense to me.” Or ask yourself whether faith is so narrowly defined that it does not apply to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Bible does.
Have they (we) restricted it to mental capability? The answer to such a question may indicate that the Bible is no longer the source, but rather my own reason. So, if a group claims the Bible is the only source for doctrine and faith, very good. But look closer at how this is practiced in preaching and teaching.
Using Reason: Ministerial Use
Even further, we have to look at how reason is used with regard to the second question about Scripture alone. For Lutherans, we use reason in a ministerial way, that is in service to the Scriptures. Thus, we use reason in all its fullness, using all the tools that are available, including new archaeological discoveries, lexicons (dictionaries), manuscript finds, etc. The stopping point for Lutherans is at the point at which Scripture declares something that our reason struggles to believe. Ministerial reason tries to understand all that is involved, but if no solution can be found, then we say that Scripture has the last word, not reason.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this limit is the Lord’s Supper. How can Jesus’ body and blood be present in the the Sacrament of the Altar. Our reason would want us to get out a microscope to confirm that it is true. Yet, as Luther told Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, “But the text says, ‘This is my body’ ” (paraphrased). So reason is a tool, but always stops short when there is a contradiction between what the text says and what reason deduces.
Using Reason: Magisterial Use
In that same Marburg discussion, Uhlrich Zwingli (1483-1531) used reason but in a magisterial (judging) way. That is, when he could not comprehend using ministerial (serving) reason, he moved to magisterial reason to sit in judgment over Scripture. Thus, Zwingli’s response to Luther’s declaration was in essence, “But that doesn’t make any sense that his body and blood were actually present.” To get around this contradiction, Zwingli claimed that the communicant (the one receiving) would ascend to heaven to get benefits. The bread and wine were only signs of something (the “real benefit”) that was happening elsewhere not in the elements in the Lord’s Supper. So not only did Zwingli sit in judgment with magisterial reason, he even used it to devise a non-Biblical solution.
Interestingly, the Roman Catholicism formalized this same position. The source of official teaching includes four sources:
1 all the canonical books of the Bible (including the Deuterocanonical books)
3 the tradition of the Church (formalized reason over a period of time)
4 the interpretation of these by the Magisterium (official teaching authority of the Church through the pope and bishops).
Accordingly, for Roman Catholicism, these four sources constitute the complete and best resource for fully attaining to God’s revelation to mankind. Thus, within Roman Catholicism, sacred scripture and sacred tradition as preserved and interpreted by the Magisterium are both necessary for attaining to the fullest understanding of all of God’s revelation.
Distinguish between what is important and not important?
So how do we decide what is or is not important? What is the role of baptism relative to what is most important? What about the role of women? (NB: even phrasing this question this way reveals much about the church) What about end times? It can be very confusing.
As I wrestled through this process I came to realize that there were distinctions between doctrines, some very important, and others less so. At the time I didn’t have resources to formally sort this out, but as it turned out, I followed much the path that Franz Pieper had articulated in his Christian Dogmatics. And I discovered that this process was used by Christians for many centuries, that is, to distinguish Fundamental Doctrines vs. Non-fundamental Doctrines vs. Adiaphora (“things indifferent”).
These concern the foundation of the Christian faith. Saving faith (as “the faith”) includes the following:
Knowledge of sin and consequences of sin (Luke 24:47; Isaiah 66:2; 57:15; Psalm 34:18; 51:17; Luke 4:18, etc.)
Knowledge of the Person of Jesus Christ, i.e. true God and true Man (Matt. 22:42; 16:13-17; 1 John 1:1-4; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 12:3, Matthew 28:18-20, etc.)
Knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ, not as an example, but rather the Mediator who gave Himself as a ransom for all to take away the sin of the world (1 Timothy 2:5-6; John 1:29; 1 John 3:8; etc.)
Faith is in the Word of Christ, the external Word, not an internal “feeling” (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13, etc.)
Belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead and of eternal life for all believers in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 54, etc.)
If the above are not believed and taught, then the person/group is not Christian. It is that simple.
There are two secondary fundamental doctrines, that support the above, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The difference is that while these are built on the above foundation someone can believe or teach wrongly on either topic and yet be Christian. This is critical in two ways. We may disagree on these two topics but we cannot then claim that those who disagree are not Christian. On the other hand, we cannot just accept something to avoid digging further, claiming “it doesn’t matter because I’m Christian.” Doctrine does matter. If Scripture teaches something on these two topics we cannot dismiss it as unimportant (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 1:13-14, etc.).
Pieper writes about this classification very well:
Non-fundamental doctrines…are those Scripture truths which are not the foundation or object of faith in so far as it obtains forgiveness of sins and makes [people] children of God, but with the faith of those who have already obtained the forgiveness of sins should and does concern itself. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pp. 91-2)
The knowledge of non-fundamental doctrines serve faith, and include topics such as: the Antichrist, doctrine of angels, end times theology, etc. However, the denial of or errors regarding non-fundamental doctrines can endanger saving faith, i.e. approaching the end times in such a way that faith in Christ is weakened rather than strengthened.
Adiaphora (“Things indifferent”)
These are things which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. In Christian freedom we can make choices on either side of the topic, but always with concern for the weaker believer (i.e. Romans 14:13-18). Examples include: to be vegetarian or not, to drink alcoholic beverages, what day to worship, etc. These can raise all kinds of additional concerns, which means caution, love, and humility inform and guide our freedom in these matters.
One other topic: Law and Gospel
Understanding Law and Gospel and the proper distinction between them is essential in terms of reading Scripture rightly. Over the past 30 years I have found that once people come to grips with this, many other pieces fall into place (not in the sense of “making sense” but rather consistent with Scripture itself. This deserves a separate post, but just a note on it (and a Law-Gospel Handout):
Law: Tells us what we are to do or not do, and threatens punishment when we fail. It can only condemn, accuse, threaten (in doctrinal terms). “I” am the subject of the Law.
Gospel: Tells us what Jesus Christ has done for our salvation, 100% his doing, nothing I can do or even believe to change that. “Jesus” is the subject of saving work, and He is always the object of saving faith. Gospel never condemns, never accuses, but always comforts, forgives, renews, restores, and builds faith in Jesus Christ.
Much more could be written but this is at least a good starting point. It gives a road map to make sure that we do not make a “shipwreck of our faith” (2 Timothy 2:16-18). As we work our way through the above process, we also look at how this is working itself out in the congregation. Correct doctrine is to be consistent with a Spirit-led, God pleasing ministry among the people and in outreach. So that is the next focus.