Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 8, 2009

Something Old, Something New

My last post discussed the various English editions of the Book of Concord (i.e. the Lutheran Confessions) that are available today.  The post was “inspired” (in a non-theological sense!) by the fact that Concordia Publishing House (CPH) recently published a pocket edition of the Book of Concord, which I recently purchased.  For whatever reason, this little pocket edition got me to start reading the confessions in a more orderly way.  Previously I would open up and find a section that talked about a subject that was on my mind — perhaps a subject that I had been thinking about from my preaching preparation or a conversation I had with someone else.  As a result, I’ve jumped around in the Book of Concord, but I can’t say that I’ve systematically gone through it cover-to-cover for some time.  That’s not a great admission for a Lutheran pastor to make, but it is an honest one.  So if it takes an inexpensive pocket book to get me to read through the Lutheran Confessions systematically, well, who’s to argue?!

Earlier this week, my reading brought me to Article IV in the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession.  This is the article that deals with justification — how the sinner is declared innocent before God through faith alone in Jesus Christ.  Anyone who has even a modest acquaintance with church history knows that the doctrine of justification was at the heart of the Reformation battles.  Luther rightly said that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.  Justification is the heart and center of Scripture and of Christian teaching.  It’s no surprise, then, that when the Reformers had to defend this doctrine following the Roman Catholic Confutation to the Augsburg Confession, the article on justification was among the longest articles in the Apology.

As I read through the first portion of the article earlier this week, I was struck by the relevance that the Confessions have for the church today.  After eight years of ministry, this relevance strikes me much more than it did when I first began my ministry and had little “real life” experience.  Far from being a stuffy old dogmatics textbook, the Lutheran Confessions dealt with real problems in the medieval church that are still real problems in the church today.  Yesterday’s doctrinal aberrations are today’s doctrinal aberrations.  This old collection of documents has something to say to the new, modern church of the twenty-first century.

Allow me to quote a few excerpts from Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and then offer some commentary connecting these quotes from the past to the church of today.  These quotations are from the Kolb-Wengert translation.

Here the scholastics in line with the philosophers teach only the righteousness of reason, namely, civil works. In addition, they fabricate the idea that reason, without the Holy Spirit, can love God above all things. Now as long as the human mind is undisturbed and does not feel God’s wrath or judgment, it can imagine that it wants to love God and that it wants to do good for God’s sake. In this way the scholastics teach that people merit the forgiveness of sins by “doing what is within them,” that is, whenever reason, while grieving over sin, elicits an act of love for God or does good for God’s sake (Ap, IV, 9).

“As the human mind is undisturbed and does not feel God’s wrath or judgment, it can imagine that it wants to love God.”  That sounds a lot like modern preaching, doesn’t it?  The law is preached as advice, but not to convict us of our sin and drive us to the cross for our forgiveness and salvation.  And doesn’t “doing what is within them” sound a lot like “God helps those who help themselves”?  I wonder how many Christians think that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible!

Let the discerning reader consider only this: if this is Christian righteousness, what is the difference between philosophy and the teaching of Christ? (Ap, IV, 12).

This quote comes shortly after the previous quote.  The larger context of the previous quote talks about the tendency to preach righteousness through works that outwardly obey the second table of the law, i.e. the commandments that deal with the way we love our neighbor.  If that is the extent of our preaching — good works done for others — then will we not have turned Jesus from our Savior and Redeemer into our therapist and advice-giver?  What will be the difference be between Jesus and Dr. Phil, Oprah, or the advice columnist in the morning paper?  This is the very same observation made nearly 500 years ago by our Lutheran forefathers: “If this is Christian righteousness, what is the difference between philosophy and the teaching of Christ?”

Hence we criticize our opponents for teaching only a righteousness of the law and not the righteousness of the gospel, which proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ (Ap, IV, 47).

Notice the emphasis that the Reformers put on the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  Faith in Christ receives his righteousness lived for us in place of our sinful shortcomings at righteousness and holiness.  I wonder how often Christian preaching (even Lutheran preaching) mentions Christ’s forgiveness but then zeros in on our righteousness.  Jesus may rightly be proclaimed as our redeeming and atoning sacrifice.  But this is not always accompanied with a clear emphasis on Jesus also as our righteousness.  His holiness is as crucial for our salvation as his sacrifice.  If Isaiah says that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags, it’s not going to do the Christian a whole lot of good to hear a sermon filled with an outline of what our righteousness is supposed to look like.  This is not to suggest that Lutherans ought not preach sanctification when the text calls for it!  Rather, this is to observe that people will find just as much comfort for their souls and fuel for their sanctification if we recognize that “Jesus, your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress” (CW 376).

This is how God wants to become known and worshiped, namely, that we receive blessings from him, and indeed, that we receive them on account of his mercy and not on account of our merits (Ap, IV, 60).

Notice the definition of worship.  It’s not that we gather to sing God’s praises.  It’s not that we do nice things for others to honor him.  This is not to deny such acts as worship in a broad sense, but note what the Reformers rightly recognize as true worship of God: “That we receive blessings from him, and indeed, that we receive them on account of his mercy and not on account of our merits.”  When we gather for worship as a Christian congregation, can there be any greater act of worship than to passively receive the blessings that the Holy Spirit gives us in the gospel?  What else could testify to our Spirit-given recognition of the value of Christ’s atoning work than for us to receive God’s mercy in Word and Sacrament?  Of course this will rightly evoke our praises, but could our praises be rightly inspired apart from Christ’s grace and forgiveness?  Methinks not.

Here ends my modest musings on a Friday afternoon.  So much more could be said, of course, but I’ll leave it at that.

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Responses

  1. Pastor, many thanks for your comments here and in a previous post. I’m fascinated by how many people have told me the same thing you are reporting. There is something about the “pocket edition” that gives a whole new dimension to the Lutheran Confessions. Many have commented how they have never read through the Lutheran Confessions so easily. I think it must be because of the non-threatening size and heft of the book.

    I particularly appreciated your theological reflections that have derived from your reading of the Confessions. I’m going to share these thoughts on my blog site.

    God bless!

    Paul T. McCain
    General Editor
    Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions

    Publisher and Executive Director of the Editorial Deparment, Concordia Publishing House


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