Walther’s Law-Gospel Theses

C. F. W. Walther spoke to seminary students on Friday evenings at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis beginning in September 1884. For the next year and a half, he provided practical instruction in the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. Now, 132 years later, his words till resonate with a the heart of spiritual care uppermost for pastors.

I have read the book at least six times in the last 35 years. Well worth your time reading and re-reading. Check out CPH.org or Amazon for a hard copy. Or for an online resource, check out:

Walther’s Law and Gospel Distinctions

Here are the 25 theses he presented (took more than 25 sessions to cover all this!).

25 Theses on the Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel

Thesis I. The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis II. Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis III. Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.

Thesis IV. The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is an remains a sealed book.

Thesis V. The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized — and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists, and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.

Thesis VI. In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

Thesis VII. In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

Thesis VIII. In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.

Thesis IX. In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when thy are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.

Thesis X. In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

Thesis XI. In the seventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

Thesis XII. In the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.

Thesis XIII. In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

Thesis XIV. In the tenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when faith is required as a condition of justification and salvation, as if a person were righteous in the sight of God and saved, not only by faith, but also on account of his faith, for the sake of his faith, and in view of his faith.

Thesis XV. In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.

Thesis XVI. In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practises.

Thesis XVII. In the thirteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times.

Thesis XVIII. In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.

Thesis XIX. In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if there were not of a damnable, but of a venial nature.

Thesis XX. In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.

Thesis XXI. In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.

Thesis XXII. In the eighteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.

Thesis XXIII. In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.

Thesis XXIV. In the twentieth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the unforgiven sin against the Holy Ghost is described in a manner as if it could not be forgiven because of its magnitude.

Thesis XXV. In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.

Law-Gospel

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Law or Gospel—How hard can that be?

Law:

Tells us what to do and what not to do. In this use of the Law, it always threatens, accuses, condemns a person.

Gospel:

Tells us what God has done for us in Jesus, who took all the punishment of the Law that we deserve (Christ’s passive obedience for us). Jesus also lived the perfect life (Christ’s active obedience for us). The Gospel proclaims both aspects and forgives, renews, restores—Gospel never condemns.

Application—it’s difficult

It’s relatively easy to distinguish Law and Gospel when reading the Biblical text. Regarding salvation if a person is the subject of the verb then it is Law. If God/Jesus is the subject of the verb it is Gospel.

But in real life, when does this person across from me need to hear Law and when to hear Gospel? Now this becomes difficult, very difficult. In an earlier post I mentioned that we are quick make a judgment and think we have the solution and apply what we have imagined is the right “medicine.” In reality many times we don’t know the person well enough to know whether he/she needs Law or Gospel.

What about you? Can you identify a situation in which you had trouble determining whether Law or Gospel was needed? (Please, no names, just incidents).

 

Translating confuses connections

Translating any text from one language to another faces many challenges. Simplisticly some want one word in language A to match perfectly with language B. Some might be tempted to say this is the most “literal” translation. Interlinear translations follow this technique. However, it doesn’t take more than a couple examples to demonstrate why this approach fails.

Another approach claims a “general gist” of the original work, commonly known as “paraphrases.” These translations remove any semblance of translation (word context). Perhaps the two most common are The Living Bible from the 1970s and The Message of more recent vintage. Neither would be good for serious study.

In between those extremes we have two general groups of Bible translation approaches:

1. Formal Equivalence (sometimes called Word-for-word, but that is a misnomer)

The following translations represent this approach: NAS, NKJV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, HCSB, NET

2. Functional Equivalence (or meaning based)

The following translations represent this approach: GW, NLT

Some translations are difficult to categorize. Probably NIV is the best example. Sometimes the translation follows the Formal Equivalence and sometimes Functional Equivalence. Unfortunately the translators provide no basis to understand which approach is being used in a specific context and why the change. In that sense, NIV fits somewhere between the two groups.

Translation choices and connections made by the reader

This post is specifically about how a translation choice may be acceptable, but cause confusion about the connections between the thoughts of the text. I have chosen 1 Peter 3:21 as an example of where the connection can fail based on translation choices.

Greek: ὃ καὶ ⸁ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι᾿ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

I have given several translation choices and grouped the translations based on that word choice.

“antitpye”

NKJV: There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

“corresponding to”

NAS: Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

HCSB: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

ESV: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

NJB: It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now—not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

GW: Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you. Baptism doesn’t save by removing dirt from the body. Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life.

“prefigured”

NRSV And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

NET: And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you–not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

NAB: This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

NLT: And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“symbolizes”

NIV: and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God

REB: This water symbolized baptism, through which you are now brought to safety. Baptism is not the washing away of bodily impurities but the appeal made to God from a good conscience; and it brings salvation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

WEB: This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you – not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

As we look at each of the translations, it is apparent that word choice is not skewed based on the translation philosophy. Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence translations fall into the same choice (i.e. NAS and GW, or NIV and NET).

So what is the text in Greek saying? The Greek has ἀντίτυπον, transliterated as “antitype” in NKJV. Thus, something in the Old Testament serves as a “type” and points ahead to a greater fulfillment in the New Testament, the “antitype.” There are several examples:

David the Lord/King (type) —> Jesus as Lord/King (antitype) (Matthew 22:42)

temple in Jerusalem (type) —> Jesus is temple of God (antitype) (John 2:19-21)

Atonement sacrifices (type) —> Jesus is perfect sacrifice (antitype) (Romans 3:24-25; 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 9:23-26)

So, in the context of 1 Peter 3:21, we find that Peter is giving us the type as the saving of people through the water at the time of Noah.

For Christ also died for sins bonce for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. (1 Peter 3:18-20 NAS)

Thus our diagram would look like this:

Saving of eight people through water (type) —> Baptism now saves (antitype)

So, “Baptism now saves…” and is the antitype, which is a greater thing than the saving of the eight people in the flood. Note this from BDAG: “A Platonic perspective is not implied in the passage.”

So where is the confusion?

The confusion is exemplified by the NIV translation choice (“and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.”). But because of the popularity of the NIV it  reflects a misunderstanding even for those who use other translations.

The text is often read this way:

Saving in the flood (type) —> baptism, which is a symbol of saving (antitype)

The conclusion is that baptism does not save because it is only a symbol of saving, not the real act of saving. Having taught this passage for the past 30+ years, I found everyone coming from a “baptism is a symbol of my action” background understands the text this way. Of course, there is another problem with this reading of the text, and that is the presupposition of the reader, prior to reading this text. The presupposition is that baptism is “my act showing my faith.” Unfortunately, this presupposition leads to different understanding this specific text, but also Acts 2:38-39; Romans 6:1-11; Ephesians 4:4-6;.

So, in this case a translation choice can easily be misunderstood to support a wrong view of baptism, hence, translating confuses connections.

Baptism really does save.

 

 

Trinity Sunday— Athanasian Creed

Trinity Sunday and Athanasian Creed

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar. For most Christians who follow such a calendar, it means that we speak together the Athanasian Creed. For some that might conjure images of drudgery, reciting words, upon words, upon words. Some would like to sit down, and snooze while the rest drone on.

But it need not be that way. In our congregation, we use the responsive reading form that CPH put out a few years ago. It breaks the creed into sections that become antiphonal (you can look up that word), and the responsive sections break into male and female responses. Excellent resource, CPH Athanasian Creed

Not again!?!

Over the past six decades I have heard sermons preached on Trinity Sunday that try to “explain” the Trinity, without much success. The apple (core, meat, skin), the three-leaf clover, and especially H2O (water, steam, ice), and the list goes on. Long ago I gave up on this approach. Each one might offer a glimpse into one small aspect of the Trinity. But most people walk away with a modalist view of the Trinity (one God taking three forms) rather than the Biblical view of the Trinity.

So a sermon on the Trinity? Obviously any of the texts chosen for the day can be used. If we preach one of those texts, let’s be honest and preach the text, not trying to force it into a doctrinal presentation of the Trinity. Likewise if we preach on the Trinity, let’s be honest and do so as a doctrinal confessing point, rather than trying to maneuver a Biblical text to fit what we want to preach. I think as we keep these two approaches in mind, we can avoid the “not again” problems of Trinity Sunday. Rather we can faithfully peach the Trinity without trying to explain the unexplainable.

Breath of Fresh Air

What makes the Athanasian Creed refreshing? It is not meant as a common sense explanation or science explanation of the Trinity. Rather the creed is conprehensive, but is confessed, not explained. Sometimes the speaking of the creed is far better than trying to explain something that is unexplainable. In the Church today I think we need more confessing of the faith in the creeds than explanations or dissections and arguing over the creeds. Note: there is a place to hold such doctrinal discussion. But worship is not the place for such discussions.

I think in the grander scheme of history of the Christian Church symbols of the Trinity have served the Church well rather than explanations. Thus, the designs used on the paraments, stoles, etc. function as visual reminders of the truth of the Trinity and what is confessed, not explanations.

Let’s believe, teach, and confess this wonderful creed, not only on Trinity Sunday but whenever necessary and helpful.

You can find the three ecumenical creeds here: Ecumenical Creeds

Lutheran-Protestant Differences

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.

The caveats

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)

2 reason

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”).

Fundamental Doctrines:

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.).

Non-fundamental Doctrines:

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.

“Incomplete” Lutherans

The book, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, reflects Sasse’s battle against the Protestant attempt to present a unified statement of faith against the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930’s. From the Protestant view, all movements coming out of the Reformation would be best combined, even if there was no acknowledgement of the theological/doctrinal differences. Karl Barth was the major proponent of such a declaration (eventually the Barmen Declaration). 51ljQIsee0L._SL500_SL160_

One area of interest was (and is) how the Reformation is viewed historically and theologically. For many, the Reformation includes many strands of equal importance: Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinism, etc. And yet is that how we as Lutherans understand the Reformation?

The Accusation against Lutherans

Sasse presents the general Protestant view of the Reformation, which is a skewed view as if the “Lutheran Reformation” was incomplete, didn’t go far enough. That still is a problem today, perceiving the Reformation through the lens of the general Protestant perspective. Sasse lays out the accusation against Lutherans this way.

This is the accusation that we Lutherans overestimate our reformation by thinking of it as the Reformation of the church, and by thinking of our church as the church of the Reformation. In truth, however, the Lutheran Reformation is only the beginning, and only a part, of the Reformation as such. There were other Reformers in addition to Luther, and besides the Wittenberg Reformation there were, of course, others—such as the Zürich and the Geneva Reformation. The Reformation is made up of all these reformations put together. Luther’s new insight of faith is not the “Reformation faith” until it is supplemented by the insights of faith which the other Reformers contributed. Inasmuch as the Lutheran Church has overlooked or forgotten this, and has isolated itself from the other churches of the Reformation, it has slipped into a false relationship both to the Roman Church and to those other Reformation churches. It has not remained sufficiently apart from the Roman Church, and it has not realized that, for better or worse, its fate is intimately bound up with that of the other churches of the Reformation. Thus the Lutheran Church has taken its stand in an uncertain middle position between the other two. It has not found its way entirely out of Catholicism. It still needs to be drawn from the limitations of its narrow horizon to an experience of the whole Reformation—the whole Reformation in the double sense of a complete and radical reform which has its roots in obdeience to God’s commands and consequently triumphs over Catholicism, and of an inclusive reform which does not limit itself to Luther’s teaching alone.

This is the accusation which is lodged against our church by all the other Protestant churches—the charge which has been made incessantly for the last four hundred years, especially by our sister church, the Reformed. (Sasse, Here We Stand, pp. 85-86)

Yes, I still hear and read of such charges against Lutherans. Yet as Sasse begins to deal with this accusation, he rightly addresses the problem from the perspective of “The Reformation and the Confessional Problem” (pp. 86-96). And from there he addresses “the Lutheran and Reformed churches” (pp. 97-109).

Sadly even some Lutherans do not want to address the issue of what it means to confess the faith. In today’s world, such a stance is critical. To take a confessional stance does not mean that we follow Martin Luther himself (as often assumed). Rather, we confess the faith as Luther did and as the Christian church has from the very beginning. “Justification by grace through faith in Christ” (or expanded: “justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone”), is not one of many doctrines, but rather the chief article of faith, the center of all else. The other “alone” statement is “Scripture alone.” (I will post more on these topics in a future post).

Note, too, that taking a confessional stand does not mean arrogance, pride, haughtiness, verbal attacks, personal insults. None of those are from the fruit of the Spirit and do not reflect what our confessional documents desire. Rather, it means that we take seriously what it means to “believe, teach, and confess” the faith. And we take seriously the confessional documents (the Book of Concord) which repeatedly claim, “The Church has always taught.” There is for us as Christians who confess the faith as Lutherans the continuity with the Christian church through the ages, not an independent movement disentangled from anything prior to 1517.

Lutherans within Christianity

Many times people do not understand what it means to be Lutheran, especially in light of the Reformation, the gulf between Lutheranism and Catholicism and between Lutheranism and Protestantism. Sometimes we look like Roman Catholics, but sound like Protestants. Liturgically Lutherans and Roman Catholics are similar in format and style. One can easily move liturgically between them. The gulf in many ways is greater between Lutherans and Protestants.sasse01

The following quote from Hermann Sasse shows how he regards the situation in 1938. I think the last two sentences are excellent.

This explains why the differences and contradictions within Protestantism means so little in the eyes of the Reformed Churches. From their point of view, all the churches which arose out of the Reformation were essentially one in their opposition to this false church of the Middle Ages. The more recent concept of “Catholicism” as an antonym of “Protestantism” is a typical product of Reformed thought. The Lutheran Church has not the slightest theological interest in this antithesis between Catholicism and Protestantism. It does not know to which side it belongs. If only there were a clear-cut contradiction between true and false doctrine in the antithesis! But this does not happen to be the case. For there are heresies in Protestantism which are just as dangerous as those of Catholicism. Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in that it lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical [Lutheran] church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical [Lutheran] church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the church of the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it rejected the Reformation. (Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, Augsburg Publishing House, 1938 orig., p. 102)