Sunday, November 23, 2008

Roundtable 39: The Law: Smalcald Articles III.II

In this article Luther sets forth the "chief use" of the Law. Whose use? The Holy Spirit's use. It is all the same "Law" but the Law functions in various ways. First, the Law restrains sin "by threats and the dread of punishment and by the promise offer of grace and blessing." It's rather simple: do not run the red light, if you do you may well kill somebody by hitting then, and if you do, you may well receive the punishment of a ticket. If you do not, you obey the law and by it you receive the blessing of not receiving a ticket and may well receive a greater blessing: you do not kill yourself, or others. That's the way the Law should work, and in this life, in the civil realm, that is how it works at times, but God intended for there to be perfection. Luther explains that this perfect system that was a reflection of the perfect Law of God "failed because of the evil that sin has worked in humanity." Now things are topsy-turvey, the Law, which is but a reflection of God's holiness and perfection, is viewed as something "evil" by fallen man, preventing him from doing what he wants to do, telling him that it is wrong to avoid indulging his every sinful whim.

But the "chief office or force of the Law is to reveal original sin with all its fruit." Here again is a very important point that distinguishes Biblical truth, from the false teaching of Rome: original sin is truly sin, not merely a defect. And as a result of original sin, we see its evil fruits in our life and those around us. The Law shows us just "how low can you go," so to speak. The perfection of God's holy will, which is what the Law is, now reveals how deeply we have fallen away from the perfection in which all of mankind was created.

What are the results? Luther is a keen student of human psyche and he rightly identifies the fact that we can feel, all at the same time: "terrified, humbled, depressed." As a result we can despair and while we know we need help, the Law will not help, but only continue to accuse and point out our sins to us.

Reading this article, the words to Luther's first hymn, "Dear Christians" comes to mind, as he describes his own personal experience with the Law and the conviction he felt over against his sin:

Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly over me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper, still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.

The question to ponder today is this: is sin a reality in the view of most? Do most people feel guilty? Or does our culture and society surround us with the false-comfort that "as long as we are not hurting anyone" it is ok for us to to what we want? How does this article from the Smalcald Articles speak to this challenge of life in our modern world? How best can we communicate these truths to people today?

The reason the Law must be so clearly and sharply proclaimed is so that sinful man realizes just how desperately he needs the salvation that is given by God through Christ. And how sweet that good news is on the ears of the humbled, terrified sinner: the blood of Jesus, God's Son, cleanses from all sins!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Roundtable 38: Sin (SA III.I)

In the third part of the Smalcald Articles, Luther walks through a series of basic points of doctrine, asserting the Lutheran "non-negotiables" on these points. As you read the third part of the Smalcald Articles, it is important to keep in mind that the SA was prepared as "talking points" that the Lutherans would be bringing with them to the Council that they were told would very soon be called by the Pope, as long promised by Roman and Imperial leaders. They were further assured that if a council was held, the Lutherans would be permitted to present their views for a free and open discussion. Luther was skeptical, as well as his Elector at this point in time, John Frederick, but as John Frederick finally agreed to participating in a council, he ordered Luther to prepare the SA.

The promised council did not take place, and it was not until the Council of Trent began on December 13, 1545, long after the Smalcald Articles were composed, that Rome finally answered Lutheranism. Of course, it was not a free council as hoped for, but one entirely under the control of the Roman Church. Nevertheless, these points of doctrine, included as they are in the Book of Concord, remain critical for understanding the differences between Lutheranism and Romanism, and for understanding the truths of God's Word on these key points.

And so here Luther begins with a clear definition and explanation of what sin is. Underlying so much of the disagreements with Rome is the understanding of sin. For Romanism, original sin is a deep flaw in human nature, not actually sin. But Scripture teaches that original sin is, as Luther puts it here, the "chief sin," the "Erbsünde" or "hauptsünde," the original or chief sin. All the actual sins that we see in our lives and the world around us are fruits of this "chief/original" sin. Luther offers a list of them here: "unbelief, false faith, idolatry, being without the fear of God, pride, despair, utter blindness, and in short, not knowing or regarding God." Notice how Luther is speaking here first of man's attitude over against God as a result of original sin. From unbelief spring forth all that most people would first identify sinful behaviors.

Sin is in fact so deep a corruption, that human reason can not comprehend it, but we must, rather, believe what God's Word reveals to us about it. Luther cites several Biblical texts:

Psalm 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."

Romans 6:12-13: "12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness."

Exodus 33:3: "Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."

Genesis 3:7-19: The account of the fall into sin.

Luther then condemns a series of teachings of the Roman scholastic theologians, as "error and blindness." These errors lie behind much of the faulty teaching in Rome concerning what man is still capable of even after the fall. It is why Rome teaches that initial grace is necessary to spark activity in the latent abilities still remaining within man; namely, his reason and will, so that man is then able to choose to do good and to spurn evil. Of particular note is the scholastic error that: "If a person does as much as is in him, God certainly grants him His grace" (par. 8). This attitude by the Roman Scholastics explains the notion in Roman Catholicism that non-Christian pagans, as long as they strive to do their best, can be saved.

Rome's errors regarding sin are the foundation for all errors in Rome regarding the salvation of man and so Luther labels all such errors as "heathen teachings that we can not endure." He echos what the Augsburg Confession and its Apology had also made clear, to whatever extent man's sinful condition is properly understood to be total, entire and complete, but merely a matter of innate powers in need of grace to initiate a response that is within the inherent powers of man, "then Christ has died in vain."

Rome, to this day, still continues to regard original sin as a defect common to humanity, but not actual and personal sin. See, for instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and note especially the portions I have italicized for emphasis.

"405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Roundtable 37: Articles for Reasonable Discussion with Reasonable People

The third part of the Smalcald Articles begins, in light the circumstances, with a rather droll assertion: "We may be able to discuss the following articles with learned and reasonable people, or among ourselves. The pope and his government do not care much about these. With them conscience is nothing, but money, honors, and power are everything." The picture here, by the way, is the Council of Trent in session. Luther regarded these people as neither learned nor reasonable. Fair, or unfair, the Council of Trent was not interested in listening to any Lutherans either, in spite of many promises that it would.

What are these articles that Luther says are possibly able to be discussed with "learned and reasonable people"?

Article I: Sin
Article II: The Law
Article III: Repentance
Article IV: The Gospel
Article V: Baptism
Article VI: The Sacrament of the Altar
Article VII: The Keys
Article VIII: Confession
Article IX: Excommunication
Article X: Ordination and the Call
Article XI: The Marriage of Priests
Artice XII: The Church
Article XIII: How One is Justified before God and Does Good Works
Article IV: Monastic Vows
Article XV: Human Traditions

What we have here, therefore, in the third part of the Smalcald Articles, is a confession-within-a-confession of, quite similar to what would be developed between 1537-1577 throughout all the Lutheran territories, a corpus doctrinae [Latin: body of doctrine], which was the statement of faith for the particular German territory, found as one of the first documents in the territory's "Church Order" or the organizing and governing documents for a particular territory, commissioned by the ruler, and composed by the leading theologians in the territory; or, with the earliest Orders, written for a territory by theologians from Wittenberg. So, this portion of the Smalcald Article roughly mirrors what is found in the Augsburg Confession, but Luther customizes it for the Smalcald Articles to be a precise assertion of the Lutheran "non-negotiables" as the Lutherans were anticipating attending a general council of the Church, which they had been promised repeatedly by both Emperor and even Popes, a council that finally did start meeting only eight years after the Smalcald Articles was written.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Roundtable 36: The Papacy (Smalcald Articles II.iv)

The most vigorous rejection of the office of the papacy in the Book of Concord is found in this portion of the Smalcald Articles. Luther asserts that the Papacy is the Antichrist. This is a statement that shocks most modern Christian ears, striking many as an outrageous excess of rhetoric. Confessional Lutherans must be sensitive to the degree to which this assertion in our Book of Concord is deeply offensive to other Christians when they learn of this teaching. Care must be taken not to imitate the high-volume polemics of the Reformation era in a context where, regardless of what we think of it, high value is placed on civility, politeness and courtesy—qualities obviously not understand in the same way in Luther’s day where there was a much greater degree of “rough and tumble” in the way Christians addressed issues and those with whom they disagreed. This is not to suggest, even for a moment, that we are to back away from this teaching in the Lutheran Confessions, no, not at all. But it is to say that we must be careful to be very clear on what we mean, and what we do not mean, when we continue to assert that the Papacy in Rome is the Antichrist.

"The Reformation's greatest weapon against Rome, was not Rome's errors, but Rome's truths" said John Nevin, a prominent American Lutheran theologian in the 19th century. It is precisely because of this reality that confessional Lutherans continue to assert the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions that the Papacy is the Antichrist. And it is precisely for the sake of the truths of Rome that we vigorously reject and condemn the errors of Rome. Further, Nevin's statement is a caveat to heed carefully that we never throw the baby out with the bathwater even as we point out the grave errors inherent in the Papacy.

This roundtable post will be longer than others posted so far, because, in my opinion, this is such a sensitive issue, yet such a very vital one. I’ve noticed even among confessional Lutherans a tendency to want to dismiss the assertion Luther makes here as historically conditioned. While it is most certainly true that the assertions in this article are historically conditioned and some do not even pertain anymore, at the heart of Luther’s argument is an issue that is still very much alive and well and of essential, vital importance: the issue is the Gospel of Christ and how that Gospel is confessed, and to what degree the Gospel is properly understood and believed. That is the heart of Luther’s argument here and it is why, to this say, we must continue to confess the antichristian nature of the office of the Papacy.

Let us be very clear what we are not saying with this assertion. We are by no means suggesting that within the Roman Catholic Church there are no Christians, or that everything taught and heard in Roman Catholic congregations is anti-Christian. No, quite the opposite is the case. It is precisely because we recognize the Gospel is preached, taught and heard in the Church of Rome, and that the Sacraments are validly administered, that we are all the more concerned to point out as clearly as we can what, precisely, in the Roman Church runs so deeply contrary to the Gospel. That is the animating passion in this article in the Smalcald Articles: the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ, alone. But that there are dear Christians in the Roman Church is undeniably true!

It is therefore important for Lutherans to understand precisely what this teaching is all about and to take care when explaining their beliefs to other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics. Simply put, the historic teaching of the Lutheran Church, as stated here, is that the office held by the particular men chosen to be pope is the fulfillment of what Paul warns the church about in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:3): a man will seat himself in the church of God, as supreme ruler, and claim that his teachings are God’s teaching, making himself thus, effectively, equal to God. Elsewhere St. Paul warns the Church to be on watch for those who enact rules and requirements, like forbidding people to marry and ordering the abstention from certain food (1 Tim. 4:3). We are warned that such movements in the church will result in things like. The person and office that continues, to this day, to best fit this description, is the office of the Papacy in Rome, which continues to claim for itself supreme rule and ultimate doctrinal authority in the Christian Church on earth. At the time of the Reformation, the Papacy claimed not only ultimate authority in the church, but also claimed authority in the realm of civil government. A couple helpful documents from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod help to explain this teaching. In response to a question from a non-Lutheran about the historic Lutheran teaching concerning the Antichrist, the LCMS’ Frequently Asked Questions site states:

The LCMS does not teach, nor has it ever taught, that any individual Pope as a person, is to be identified with the Antichrist. The historic view of LCMS on the Antichrist is summarized as follows by the Synod's Theological Commission: “The New Testament predicts that the church throughout its history will witness many antichrists (Matt. 24:5,23-24; Mark 13:6,21-22; Luke 21:8; 1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 7). All false teachers who teach contrary to Christ's Word are opponents of Christ and, insofar as they do so, are anti-Christ.” However, the Scriptures also teach that there is one climactic “Anti-Christ” (Dan. 7:8,11,20-21,24-25; 11:36-45; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; Revelation 17-18). . . Concerning the historical identity of the Antichrist, we affirm the Lutheran Confessions' identification of the Antichrist with the office of the papacy whose official claims continue to correspond to the Scriptural marks listed above. It is important, however, that we observe the distinction that the Lutheran Confessors made between the office of the pope (papacy) and the individual men who fill that office. The latter could be Christians themselves. We do not presume to judge any person's heart. Also, we acknowledge the possibility that the historical form of the Antichrist could change. Of course, in that case another identified by these marks would rise. In a footnote, the Commission adds: To the extent that the papacy continues to claim as official dogma the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent which expressly anathematizes, for instance, the doctrine “that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified,” the judgment of the Lutheran confessional writings that the papacy is the Antichrist holds. At the same time, of course, we must recognize the possibility, under God's guidance, that contemporary discussions and statements (e.g., 1983 U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue statement on “Justification by Faith”) could lead to a revision of the Roman Catholic position regarding Tridentine dogma.
These things are well said, but of course we know that Rome continues to insist on the historic definition of the doctrine of justification as specified at the Council of Trent and, to that extent, remains in the gravest of error regarding the very heart of the Gospel of Christ itself. And this is the main point of this article in the Smalcald Articles. The reason the Papacy was so strongly opposed, and why to this day we must continue to reject and condemn the office and its powers is precisely because of how it conflicts with the Gospel. Here is the mystery of lawlessness and the degree to which Satan works

It is claimed by by the majority of the mainline/liberal form of the Lutheran Church as typified by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other large state churches in Europe and Germany that the differences between Rome and Lutheranism on Justification were resolved by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This claim is clearly refuted in an excellent monograph on this issue that was prepared by both Missouri Synod seminaries with the Missouri Synod’s Commission on the Doctrine of Justification. It is essential reading on this point. The other essential book that must be read is Rev. Dr. Robert Preus’ Justification and Rome. It is a penetrating analysis and summary of the critical difference between Rome’s understanding of the Gospel and the Scriptural teaching of the Gospel.

And lest we think it was only Missouri Synod theologians playing the role of eternal party-poopers in ecumenical dialogs, we need to remember that a large number of the most prominent members of German theological faculties also pointed out the failings of the JDDJ. Here is a quote from an article about this:
While sharp critiques from conservative Protestants in the United States did not constitute a hot news flash, the reaction of over two hundred Lutheran theologians in Europe (primarily from German universities) was somewhat of a surprise. Prior to the signing of JDDJ they issued a “Position Statement of Theological Instructors” which set forth seven points of objection to JDDJ. Among the signatories were eighteen professors from the University of Tubingen (hardly a bastion of conservatism), including Peter Stuhlmacher, Martin Hengel, and Otto Betz. Among their objections was that JDDJ promulgates an essentially Catholic view of justification.
And here is the text of the useful FAQ on the JDDJ available on The LCMS web site, which yours truly authored at the time of the release of the JDDJ:

Q. I would like to understand the main problem your church body has with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed October 31 by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church). Is it the fact that it implies that we are saved as a result of both faith and works?

A. Yes, you are on the right track here. The recently signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) does not signal a change in the Roman Catholic church, but rather, a willingness on the part of the Lutherans who signed it to allow Rome's doctrine of justification to stand as a valid interpretation of what the Bible teaches us about justification. This is something that the Lutheran church has never done before, and in fact, it is a great tragedy and a profoundly sad moment in the history of Lutheranism.

Rome historically has always taught that we are saved by grace, and grace alone. They emphasize that very strongly. The 16th century Council of Trent makes this point very clear. Thus, there is nothing new on this in the Declaration on this point, even though some Lutherans have made it sound as if Rome's words about grace signal some marvelous breakthrough.

What you probably have not heard is that the JDDJ very carefully avoid precise definitions of the words grace, faith, sin, etc. That is no accident. Careful definition of those terms would have shown how far apart our two churches actually are on the doctrine of justification.

The problem with Rome's view of justification is that they view it as a process, whereby we cooperate with God's grace in order to merit eternal life for ourselves, and even for others (that is a paraphrase of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches). They view grace as a sort of “substance” that God infuses into us that permits us to do those works that are necessary in order that we might earn more grace. The Bible describes grace as the loving and favorable disposition of God; in other words, grace is all about what God is doing and giving.

We distinguish between the result of justification, which is the Christian life, and the work of God to save us. Rome mixes sanctification with justification. Why is this view troublesome? Because it teaches that something other than trust in Christ is necessary for or salvation. That “something other” is what we bring to the table. And the only thing we do bring to the table is our sin, not our good works. Our works are a response that God works in us, but not a contributing cause to our justification.

The Roman Catholic Church is very careful to state that even this “something other” is made possibly only because God has given us the “initial” grace to desire more grace. But in practical reality, it is apparent that the Roman Catholic Church is finally throwing people back on relying on what they are doing, or can do, to merit eternal life. When we mix in our works in the picture of our salvation, the glory and merit of Christ always end up becoming obscured.

But the Bible is clear that it is purely by grace, not by works, or else grace would just be a “help” for us to do the works that finally are what merit God's forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic view, justification is a process by which we participate with God in achieving our salvation. The Biblical view is that justification is God's declaration of our complete righteousness and total forgiveness, apart from any works. This gift is received by faith alone--apart from works (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-9).

Another point to be made is this: If, in fact, Rome does teach justification as the Bible teaches it, then there should be an immediate change in its view of indulgences, prayer to the saints and the myriad of other extra-biblical traditions that it has embraced. For if justification is the heart and center of the Bible, then these other things are incompatible with it.

I hope this helps you see that the Roman Catholic view of justification and the classical Lutheran view are definitely not complementary, but diametrically opposed to one another. The JDDJ did not change that fact. The Lutherans who signed the document did not insist on careful definition of terms so as to make absolutely clear that our salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone.

The best short study of the historic differences between Rome and Lutheranism on the doctrine of justification is available in a book called “Justification and Rome” by Robert Preus. You may purchase a copy of this book from Concordia Publishing House (CPH) (800-325-3040).
The most complete treatment of this subject is in the 16th century Lutheran response to Trent, which still stands today as the best and most complete treatment of Trent by a Lutheran. It is “The Examination of the Council of Trent” by Martin Chemnitz, also available through CPH.

And it is not only Lutheran groups that have clarified precisely what the JDDJ means, and does not mean. Here is the Vatican's own very carefully clarification and caveats issued at the time the JDDJ was being hailed as a great “breakthrough” by certain Lutherans. Read this carefully and you will see the extent to which claims that the differences between Rome and historic Lutheranism have been “resolved” are entirely false, as anyone with even the most elementary familiarity with the Lutheran Confessions will be able to see in the statement below.

From the Vatican statement issued at the time the JDDJ was announced, this from Cardinal Cassidy:
Under the title “Declaration” it is clearly stated that “a considerable agreement has been reached” on a question that has been for centuries so controversial. Indeed “it is rightly stated that there is a consensus in fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification”. At the same time, the Catholic Church is of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as to eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification. And as a matter of fact the Joint Declaration itself refers to some of these differences.

Under the second heading “Clarifications”, the Catholic Church indicates several points that need further study. The major difficulties are to be found in paragraph 4.4 of the Joint Declaration concerning the justified person as sinner. We have some difficulty in seeing how the explanation given in N° 29 regarding the Lutheran understanding of the justified person as sinful can be fully compatible with the Catholic doctrine explained in N° 30. The Lutheran explanation seems still to contradict the Catholic understanding of baptism in which all that can properly be called sin is taken away. Concupiscence remains of course in the justified, but for Catholics this cannot be properly called sin, while in N° 29 it is stated that for Lutherans it is truly sin. Moreover, the Statement in N° 22 that “God no longer imputes to the justified their sins” does not seem an adequate explanation of the Catholic understanding of the interior transformation that takes place in the justified person. The term “Opposition to God” that is used in NN° 28-30 is understood differently by Catholics and Lutherans and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. For these reasons it is difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that the Lutheran doctrine of “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decrees on original sin and justification.

One of the most discussed points in the Joint Declaration has been the question considered under N° 18, concerning the Lutheran understanding of justification as criterion for the life and practice of the Church. For Lutherans this doctrine has taken on an altogether particular significance. The Joint Declaration states clearly that for Catholics also the doctrine of justification “is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ”. Catholics, however, “see themselves as bound by several criteria” and our Note indicates what those criteria are by stating that, “according to Scripture and already from the time of the Fathers of the Church, the message of justification has been organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the regula fidei, that is the confession of the one God in three persons, christologically centered and rooted in the living Church and its sacramental”.

The Catholic Church has noted with satisfaction that N° 21, in conformity with canon 4 of the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent, states that man can refuse grace; but it must also be affirmed that, with this freedom to refuse, there is also in the justified person a new capacity to adhere to the divine will, a capacity that is rightly called cooperatio. Given this understanding and noting that in N° 17, Lutherans and Catholics share the common conviction that the new life comes from the divine mercy and not from any merit of our own, it is difficult to see how the term “mere passive” can be used by the Lutherans in this regard, and how this phrase can be compatible with the affirmation by the Lutherans in N°21 of the full personal involvement in faith. A clarification would therefore seem necessary in order to determine more exactly the degree of consensus achieved in this regard.

The Catholic Church also maintains with Lutherans that these good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace. But at the same time, and without in any way diminishing the totally divine initiative, they are the fruit of man, justified and interiorly transformed. We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.

In pursuing this study further, it will be necessary to treat also the sacrament of penance, through which the sinner can be justified anew.

And then in a third section, the Note indicates some Prospects for Future Work. The hope is expressed that the present important step forward towards agreement on justification may be followed by further studies that will make possible a satisfactory clarification of the divergences that still exist, some of which concern aspects of substance and are therefore not all mutually compatible, as affirmed on the contrary in N° 40. Particularly desirable would be a deeper reflection on the biblical foundation that is the common basis of the doctrine of justification both for Lutherans and Catholics.

And the Note finally expresses the wish that Catholics and Lutherans might seek to find a language which can make the doctrine of justification more intelligible also for the men and women of our day.

9. In conclusion, I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long disputed question at the close of the twentieth century, and on the eve of the new millennium. It is a response to Pope John Paul II's appeal in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that “the approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium” (N° 34), and will be an enormous encouragement to Catholics and Lutherans as they continue to work in the years ahead for the visible unity to which the Lord is calling us. Indeed, it will be an encouragement to the whole ecumenical movement. It will show that patient work to overcome difficulties through dialogue can achieve results that go far beyond what could have been hoped for when the dialogue began.
And of course there is this illuminating response from the Vatican prepared by the man who is now Pope. Note particularly the very telling affirmation of precisely the very doctrine of Rome that is so vigorously and consistently rejected and condemned in the Lutheran Confessions as the direct contradiction of the Gospel that it is:

1. The major difficulties preventing an affirmation of total consensus between the parties on the theme of Justification arise in paragraph 4.4 The Justified as Sinner (nn. 28-1,0 ). Even taking into account the differences, legitimate in themselves, that come from different theological approaches to the content of faith, from a Catholic point of view the title is already a cause of perplexity. According, indeed, to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God (3). It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptised is not, properly speaking, sin. For Catholics, therefore, the formula “at the same time righteous and sinner”, as it is explained at the beginning of n. 29 (“Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament ...Looking at themselves ... however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them...”), is not acceptable.
This statement does not, in fact, seem compatible with the renewal and sanctification of the interior man of which the Council of Trent speaks (4). The expression “Opposition to God” (Gottwidrigkeit) that is used in nn. 28-30 is understood differently by Lutherans and by Catholics, and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. In this same sense, there can be ambiguity for a Catholic in the sentence of n. 22, “... God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love”, because man's interior transformation is not clearly seen. So, for all these reasons, it remains difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification.
We also need to recognize, as Rome rightly notes, politely yet bluntly, that the Luthreran World Federation can not be regarded as an entity that in fact represents or speaks for world Lutheranism. In fact, at the time the JDDJ was being pushed by the LWF Executive Council many member churches of the LWF did not approve it, or sign on, or vote to adopt it. The Vatican says:

We need finally to note, from the point of view of their representative quality, the different character of the two signataries of this Joint Declaration. The Catholic Church recognises the great effort made by the Lutheran World Federation in order to arrive, through consultation of the Synods, at a “magnus consensus”, and so to give a true ecclesial value to its signature; there remains, however, the question of the real authority of such a synodal consensus, today and also tomorrow, in the life and doctrine of the Lutheran community.
Therefore, when we today read this article in the Smalcald Articles we need to keep in mind that the severity of the rhetoric reflects the reality Luther and his fellow reformers were experiencing at the time: the Roman Papacy was engaged in literal warfare against those who disagreed with Roman Catholicism. They were torturing and putting people to death for affirming the Biblical Gospel. Today we can be thankful that there the extravagant claims made for Papal authority on heaven and on earth are no longer being made by the Papacy, and we praise God for any movement more toward the proclamation of Christ that we do see and notice in more recent Papal sermons and addresses; however, the most fundamental error of Romanism remains: the claim that we are not saved by grace alone through faith alone, but that we are saved through a mixture of faith plus works. The Pope continues to insist on his universal authority in the Church.

We rejoice that we have much in common with our fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. Because of what we have in common, we are committed to working toward true reconciliation of our important differences. We can not support the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification because it does not actually reconcile the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics concerning the most important truth of Christianity. What is that truth? God loved the world so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life in our place and to die for our sins. God declares us to be totally righteous and completely forgiven because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God gives us eternal life as a free gift through trust in Christ alone. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that something more than trust in Christ is necessary for us to be saved. It teaches that we are able to merit, through our works, eternal life for ourselves and others. We believe this teaching obscures the work of Jesus Christ and clouds the central message of the Bible. Therefore, despite what has been reported in the public media about the Lutheran-Roman Catholic declaration, very significant differences remain in regard to how we understand salvation, a fact that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges. We pray for genuine reconciliation of differences among Christians. Our church is intent on working for the day when the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed with one voice. We will continue to work toward true reconciliation.

Let's be careful not to forget what Trent declared over against the Gospel:
CANON 9: "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."

CANON 12: "If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed."

Canon 14: "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

Canon 24: "If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema."

Canon 30: "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema."

Canon 33: "If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.
I ask for your kind indulgence, dear reader, as I wax a bit autobiograpical at this point in this post.

Why Separation from Rome is Still a Tragic Necessity

Some time ago, word went out that the Papacy might be considering lifting the charge of heretic against Martin Luther. This rumor was squelched. In the course of talking about it with a friend, we were going back and forth about our feelings about Rome and the Papacy. I offered him these more personal reflections on my experiences with Rome and what a truly painful thing it is to recognize that Lutheranism and Romanism must be, and remain, separate. In light of the Pope's coming trip to the USA, I thought I would share these thoughts, with a few modifications, more openly here:

The reason I have such strong feelings of frustration and, yes, anger, with the errors of Romanism is precisely because there is so much in the Roman Catholic Church that I love and cherish. "Tragic necessity" is no mere polite soundbite to me, nor to many other faithful Lutheran Christians. We cherish the Gospel that is read and heard in Roman Catholic Churches whenever and wherever it is read, or preached. We cherish the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar which is given and distributed in Roman Catholic Churches. We love and cherish these things in spite of the errors that obscure the glory and grace of God in the mercy of Christ.

I developed close friendships with many Roman Catholics growing up in the Deep South where Lutheran and Roman Catholics were but two sides of the same coin in the view of Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. There was a shared history and experience of liturgy and church history that was unknown to many, if not all, Bible fundamentalists.

I attended a Roman Catholic High School and was so deeply moved and impressed by the nuns and priests there who taught us everything from typing (thank you Sister Mary Jean!) and drilled us to death in English and grammar (thank you Sister Mary Margaret!). I loved Latin class when Father Pine, S.J., would wander in and engage in Latin with our teacher, and when he actually corrected my writing one day, walking up and down the rows of desks, "Ah, excuse me, Mr. McCain, but you seem to have a certain fondness leaving your "t's" uncrossed and your i's undotted." As my face grew red, I was able only but to agree and say "Yes, Father. You are right."

And I recall Father Foley regaling us with tales of youthful episodes with a certain "fair lass" in Ireland, where he hailed from, and I recall listening to him and Sister Mary Ellen rattle away back and forth in Gaelic, their mother tongue, the mother tongue of my ancestors as well.

And they even gave a Lutheran kid best religion student of the year award, twice in a row! And I have the warmest memories of all of the many kind notes and remembrances from the priests, sisters and brothers who, in their own dear ways, encouraged me to become a Lutheran pastor, with quiet conversations, even whispered in some cases. We shared a love for Christ!

But as for the institution and public doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, here is where the tragic necessity of separation becomes a reality.

But I sat seething through four years of Masses where the Gospel was terribly obscured with all manner of nonsense that one can only imagine that would be possible in the mid-seventies, with people trying to impress teenagers attending Mass. (It became so bad the Bishop announced he would no longer conduct mass at our high school until the behavior in Mass got better!).

For these very personal reasons, in addition to my passion for theology, I've been deeply concerned and interested in Roman Catholicism for years and feel such a kindred spirit with the Roman Church, but also at the same time, such a heart-wrenching separation when I watch the Gospel not really proclaimed sweetly and clearly.

Tragic necessity, indeed. Lord, have mercy.

While it is necessary to read and understand this particular article in the Smalcald Articles with the errors of Rome clearly in view, there is also much to be gained from this article in addition to that. Read and applied to the situation even within our Lutheran Church raises opportunities for introspection, confession and repentance. How and when can situations arise in any church where the Gospel is obscured and the authority of a man, or men, is elevated over and above that of Christ and His Word? While the Papacy is still rightly identified as Antichrist, is the Papacy alone antichrist? What are other modern-day “antichrists” that threaten the church?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Roundtable 35: The Smalcald Articles: Part II: Article III: Chapters and Cloisters

We tend to forget that Martin Luther spent many years as a monk, in the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt, Germany. He had his choice of several different orders he could have joined, but elected to join the "Black Friars," an order known for its particularly stringent ascetic practices. Leaving behind a promising career in the law, he entered the walls of the monastery on July 17, 1505. It was only in the mid-1520s that Luther finally set aside his monk's cowl.

He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul." (See Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, pp. 53&79).

Reflecting on these years, thirty-two years later as he wrote the Smalcald Articles, Luther here acknowledges the original good intentions for the founding and maintenance of monastic communities: to educate men and women for the good of society and church. "They could produce pastors, preachers, and other ministers for the churches. They could also produce essential personnel for the secular government in cities and countries, as well as well-educate young women for mothers, housekeepers and such."

The last remark about young-women surely was written as Luther reflected on his beloved Katie, a product of the monastic system, where she had received precisely this kind of education, making her a particularly suitable helpmeet for the Reformer.

However, because the monastic institutions had lost sight of their primary and most important purpose, and had become "blasphemous" with all their "humanly invented services regarded as something better than the ordinary Christian life and the offices and callings ordained by God" they should be abandoned and torn down.

This is a key point to consider. Luther puts his finger on the chief evil associated with monastic communities: they had come to be regarded as "something better than the ordinary Christian life." This is what the unique Lutheran emphasis on vocation is all about: it is not in set-apart monasteries, or in liturgical finery, or in monastic rigor that one finds the true Christian life. No, quite the contrary. One serves God best and chiefly in the "ordinary Christian life."

There is a particularly moving and poignant letter by Martin Luther, composed during his time in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, in 1521, after he had been excommunicated and declared a public criminal. He wrote it as the dedication letter for his work Martin Luther's Judgment About Monastic Vows. It was a letter t0 his father, Hans. In the letter Luther describes the conflict between himself and his father when he became a monk over-against his father's wishes. He rejoices in their reconciliation and thanks his father for helping him to see the truly higher commands of God were not to be found in monastic life, but in the "ordinary life" as set forth in the Ten Commandments. He had come to realize that the only aspect of his monastic life that was God-pleasing was that through it God had called him into the ministry of the Word. He thanks God for reconciling him to his father and explains to his father how now, through the ministry of the Word, God is making many more sons for Himself. The letter concludes:

I am sending [you] this book, then, in which you may see by what signs and wonders Christ has absolved me from the monastic vow and granted me such great liberty. Although he has made me the servant of all men, I am, nevertheless, subject to no one except to him alone. He is himself (as they say) my immediate bishop, abbot, prior, lord, father, and teacher; I know no other. Thus I hope that he has taken from you one son in order that he may begin to help the sons of many others through me. You ought not only to endure this willingly, but you ought to rejoice with exceeding joy—and this I am sure is what you will do. What if the pope should slay me or condemn me to the depths of hell! Having once slain me, he will not raise me up again to slay me a second and third time, and now that I have been condemned I have no desire ever to be absolved. I trust that the day is at hand when that kingdom of abomination and perdition will be destroyed. Would that we were worthy to be burned or slain by him before that time, so that our blood might cry out against him all the more and hasten the day of his judgment! But if we are not worthy to bear testimony with our blood, then let us at least pray and implore mercy that we may testify with deed and word that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord our God, who is praised forever. Amen. Farewell in the Lord, my dearest Father, and greet in Christ my mother, your Margaret, and our whole family. (Luther's Works, Vol. 48:336).


Luther's remarks about the good that God brought out of monasticism, in his personal experience, applies as well to monasticism's history in general. Through the monastic orders God preserved the Sacred Scriptures and the Christian faith itself during the darkest days of Europe, when much of culture and learning had collapsed after the fall o the Roman Empire. Even as we must reject and condemn the errors born of monasticism, we must take care to thank God for the blessings and benefits that resulted from the existence of the monasteries, particularly the missionary work conducted throughout Europe in the first millennium.

Encouraging people to seek to live a "higher" Christian life in monastic communities, as Luther says in this article "conflicts with the chief article on redemption through Jesus Christ." How is that? When the Church teaches, or creates the impression, that by observing humanly devised services to God, one is in fact bringing oneself closer to God, making oneself more holy in God's eyes, then the merits of Christ are obscured, clouded and eventually set aside in favor of a focus on the "higher" calling invented by man. This is what monastic communities had become, and still are.

Even to this day in the Roman Church, those who pursue a vocation of full-time service to the Church are known as "religious" as opposed to the laity. Here, and elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, monasticism is soundly and roundly criticized and rejected, chiefly because of its threat to the "chief article" — the Gospel of Christ.

Though brief, this article contains a profound insight for the church today, and a challenge. Consider how it is possible to give people the impression that it is when they are doing things at their church that they are serving God in a higher way? There is always lurking about the danger of a "New Monasticism" by which people are made to feel that it is only when they are on the congregation's property, involved in a parish committee or project that the are truly serving God. Thankfully in recent yeas there has been a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, whereby we are able to see that the entire "ordinary life" of the Christian is service to God. And it is the "ordinary life" of our various callings and stations in life that we are the witnesses to Christ that we are called to be.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest use of this particular article today is to help us understand the high calling each of us has in Christ in our "ordinary life," made new in Christ.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roundtable 34: The Smalcald Articles: Article II: The Mass

"The Mass in the papacy has to be the greatest and most horrible abomination, since it directly and powerfully conflicts with the chief article." Thus Luther launches into perhaps the second most important portion of the Smalcald Articles. For it is precisely in the way Rome regards the service of the Lord's Supper that one finds the most dramatic example of Roman Catholicism's misunderstanding and false teaching on the "chief article" — the doctrine of justification by grace along, through faith alone, on account of Christ, alone. When Luther refers to the "Mass"in this article, he is referring to the Roman Catholic version of it. Elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, the term "Mass" is used simply to refer to the service of Holy Communion. In this sense, Luther forcefully rejects and condemns the Mass:

First, a "purely human invention" and something that "has not been commanded by God."
Second, as something "unnecessary" that can be "omitted without sin and danger."
Third, the Sacrament "can be received in a better and more blessed way (indeed, the only blessed way), according to Christ's institution." (SA II.ii.2-4).
Fourth, the Mass "should be abandoned" because of all the abuses associated with it.
Fifth, "the Mass is and can be nothing more than a human work."

And Luther then returns to the main point, the Mass, for all these reasons, must be abandoned, rejected and condemned because it "conflicts with the chief article."

Luther's keen insight is that the public service of worship in the Church of his day has become the chief means by which the Gospel itself was obscured and contradicted. A council called to reform the Church should deal with this, the greatest of all abuses, first and foremost (SA II.ii.10).

Here Luther asserts, flatly, "In this, we remain eternally separated and opposed to one another." (SA II.ii.10). Why? Because if the Mass, as practiced by Rome, falls, then so falls the entire Papacy. In addition to the five points Luther lists, he identifies a series of "many vermin and a multitude of idolatries" that the Mass has produced in the Roman Catholic Church:

Purgatory: "purgatory, along with every service, rite, and commerce connected with it, should be regarded as nothing more than the devil's ghost. For it conflicts with the chief article: only Christ, and not human works are to be help souls." (SA II.ii.12).

Evil spirits and their wicked tricks: "unspeakable lies and tricks demanded Masses, vigils, pilgrimages, and other alms. . . Here to there is to be no yielding or surrendering." (SA II.ii.16).

Pilgrimages: "Here too, the forgiveness of sins and God's grace were sought, for the Mass controlled everything. Pilgrimages, without God's Word, have not been commanded." (SA II.ii.18-19).

Monastic societies
: There had developed elaborate provision for the perpetual saying of Masses, to benefit both living and dead, and thus Luther rejects these as well, "nothing but a human trick, without God's Word . . . contrary to the chief article on redemption." (SA II.ii.21).


Relics
: Bits and pieces of holy persons, things and places had become objects of devotion, even worship: "So many falsehoods and such foolishness are found in the bones of dogs and horses that even the devil has laughed at such swindles. . . . Since they are neither commanded nor counseled, relics are entirely unnecessary and useless. . . Worst of all, these relics have been imagined to cause indulgence and the forgiveness of sins." (SA II.ii.22-23).

Indulgences: Luther concludes his review of the various abuses and false practices that grew up around Masses with a scathing rejection of indulgences: "By indulgences, the miserable Judas, or pope, has sold Christ's merit, along with the extra merit of all saints, of the entire Church, and such things." (SA II.ii.24).

And he concludes, once more, driving home the point that all these things must be rejected as being contrary to the chief article: "For Christ's merit is obtained not by our works or pennies, but from grace through faith, without money and merit. . . not through the pope's power, but through the preaching of God's Word" (SA II.ii.24).

Luther launches into several more paragraphs rejecting the invocation of saints as "one of the Antichrist's abuses that conflicts with the chief article and destroys the knowledge of Christ." (SA II.ii.25). It is the most clear and concise explanations of why the Church should never invoke, or pray to, saints. The article concludes with Luther's firm rejection of the Mass:

"We cannot tolerate the Mass or anything that proceeds from it or is attached to it. We have to condemn the Mass in order to keep the Holy Sacrament pure and certain, according to Christ's institution, used and received through faith." (SA II.ii.29).

Questions that come to mind as reading this article include:

Does the Roman Catholic Mass today still warrant Luther's strong words of rejection and condemnation? Has Rome fundamentally changed in its understanding of the purpose and use of the Lord's Supper? Is it wise for Lutherans today to use the word "Mass" when describing the chief service of the Word and Sacrament? How can the Lutheran Divine Service become similarly misunderstood and abused by God's people? How does the "chief article" help us understand the purpose and meaning of the chief service of Christian worship: the Lord's Supper?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Roundtable 33: The Smalcald Articles: The Chief Article

It is appropriate that we have come the point in our conversation about the Book of Concord that we are treating in this post the very heart of the Book of Concord: a bold confession of the chief article: the Gospel. And we do so on Pentecost Sunday, May 11, 2008, most appropriately indeed!

Has the Gospel become cliche? The dictionary defines "cliche" as "something that has become overly familiar or commonplace." The way the word "Gospel" is used in much of modern Christendom has, indeed, turned it into a cliche. "Gospel" has come to mean anything but the true Gospel. The Gospel, as taught in Sacred Scripture, through Old and New Testaments, is the good news that Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and that by His blood we are cleansed, pardoned and renewed, receiving the righteousness of Christ as a gift, through faith, alone, entirely by grace, alone. This is the Gospel; however, for much of Christendom the Gospel has been reduced to a cliche. Jesus: the kind man, philosopher, moral example, moral leader, friend of the downtrodden, model of humility, revolutionary, paragon of virtue, model of human kindness.

What makes all these "Jesus cliches" appealing is that there is truth to be found in each of them. But they all fall short and ultimately prove misleading. In the second part of the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther sharply focuses on the "chief article." He is simply laying out the very heart and soul of what Christianity is all about and what sets it apart from any human religious opinions or systems. Because of its significance for understanding the Smalcald Articles, let's put the entire text on the table for discussion (italics added for emphasis):

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

3 All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

4 This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

5 Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.
Looking through the rest of the Smalcald Articles, we see how Luther comes back to this point, over and over again. Consider Luther's statements:
The Mass in the papacy has to be the greatest and most horrible abomination, since it directly and powerfully conflicts with this chief article. (SA II.i.1; Concordia, p. 264)
If these institutions will not serve this purpose, it is better to abandon them or tear them down than have their blasphemous, humanly invented services regarded as something better than the ordinary Christian life and the offices and callings ordained by God. This too is contrary to the chief article on the redemption through Jesus Christ. (SA II.iii.2; Concordia, p. 267).
Since monastic vows directly conflict with the first chief article, they must be absolutely abolished. (SA III.xiv.1; Concordia, p. 283).
Luther's constant theme is one echoed throughout the Lutheran Confessions, note for instance:
It is necessary for the chief article of the Gospel to be preserved, namely that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not by certain observances or acts of worship devised by people. (AC XXVIII.52; Concordia, p. 61).
Melanchthon hammers the point home in the Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession:
In this controversy, the chief topic of Christian doctrine is treated. When it is understood correctly, it illumines and amplifies Christ’s honor ‹which is especially useful for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ, and alone opens the door to the entire Bible›. It brings necessary and most abundant consolation to devout consciences. Therefore, we ask His Imperial Majesty to hear us with patience in matters of such importance. For the adversaries do not understand what the forgiveness of sins or faith or grace or righteousness is. Therefore, they sadly corrupt this topic, hide Christ’s glory and benefits, and rob devout consciences of the consolation offered in Christ. (Ap IV.2-3; Concordia, p. 82).
And again:
It [the article on repentance] contains the chief topic of the Gospel, the true knowledge of Christ, and the true worship of God. (Ap. XII.2; Concordia, p. 158).
This is the chief article that we are debating with our adversaries and the knowledge we regard is necessary to all Christians. (Ap. XII.58; Concordia, p. 165).
And:
Among the people, whoever understood the doctrine of repentance as presented by the adversaries? Yet this is the chief topic of Christian doctrine. (Ap. XXIV.25; Concordia, p. 228).
The constant drumbeat of justification continues in the Formula of Concord. Note:
This article about justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article [see Ap IV 2–3] in all Christian doctrine. Without this teaching no poor conscience can have any firm consolation or truly know the riches of Christ’s grace. Dr. Luther also has written about this: "If this one teaching stands in its purity, then Christendom will also remain pure and good, undivided and unseparated; for this alone, and nothing else, makes and maintains Christendom.… Where this falls, it is impossible to ward off any error or sectarian spirit." [LW 14:37] Paul says especially about this article, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” [1 Corinthians 5:6]. Therefore, in this article he zealously and earnestly urges the use of exclusive terms [particulas exclusivas], that is, words that exclude people’s works from justification (i.e., “apart from works of the law,” “apart from works,” “by grace” [Romans 3:28; 4:6; Ephesians 2:8–9]). These show how highly necessary it is that in this article, along with the pure doctrine, the antithesis (i.e., all contrary doctrine) be stated separately, exposed, and rejected by this method. (FC SD III.6; Concordia, p. 536)
These and similar errors, one and all, we unanimously reject as contrary to God’s clear Word. By God’s grace we abide firmly and constantly in the doctrine of the righteousness of faith before God, as it is embodied, expounded, and proved from God’s Word in the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology issued after it. Concerning what is needed further for the proper explanation of this profound and chief article of justification before God—upon which depends the salvation of our souls—we direct readers to another document. For the sake of brevity we refer everyone to Dr. Luther’s beautiful and glorious commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians [1535]. [LW 26–27] (FC SD III.67; Concordia, p. 546).
It is only the Biblical Gospel that is Gospel—at all. Gospel, of course, meaning in the Greek, literally, "a message of good news." There any number of other religious philosophies and opinions that proclaim "good news" but the actual "good news" of Jesus Christ is what makes Christianity, Christianity, and it is what makes Lutheranism, Lutheranism.

It is a hard, but necessary, word to speak to fellow Christians when we declare that other confessions of the Gospel distract from, and obscure, the glory and merit of Christ, but they do and that is why we continue, to this day, and until the return of Christ, to hold high the banner of the Gospel, as it is so beautifully, clearly and powerfully confessed in the Book of Concord.

Why? Because we know that it is only the truth and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that comforts sinners. We are not interested in any other message. We preach Christ and Him crucified and risen because it is only Christ and the preaching of Christ that rescues people from the misery of their sin and an eternity of separation from God in hell. We know that it is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that gives life meaning. It is the Gospel, alone, that gives us the peace that passes all understanding, and joy, even in the midst of sorrow and hardship. The Gospel not only gives, it is. The Gospel is love, hope, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. The Holy Spirit gives these gifts as the gifts of the Gospel. The Gospel is what gives life meaning.

Only the good news is the power of God that saves. Therefore, we stand fast and proclaim this alone-saving truth: the Gospel of Christ, the chief article of the Christian faith. We can not do otherwise. God help us. Amen.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Roundtable 32: The Smalcald Articles: The First Part

"The Awe-Inspiring Articles on the Divine Majesty" is how the first part of the Smalcald Articles is described. Repeated here are the historic creedal formulas that confess the Holy Trinity, and the two natures in Christ. Luther saw no point in spending any time discussing these truths, since "both sides confess them" and concerning these articles "there is no argument or dispute." To this day, between classical Lutheranism and the Church of Rome, there is no dispute over the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures in Christ. Unity in the Trinitarian Christian Faith is a blessing from God, for which we should always be deeply grateful. It is a fundamental starting point for our two confessions. Sadly, today we can no longer assume other Christian confessions do in fact insist on the historic confession of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine. For instance, the United Church of Christ, the most liberal of the various mainline protestant churches, includes in its clergy ranks individuals who are not Trinitarian in their confessions. What is the implication for us today that both then, and now, historic Lutheranism is one with Roman Catholicism in the confession of the Holy Trinity and the two natures in Christ? As we reflect on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, how, and why, does it inspire awe? What is the result of this awe? What implications does it have for the church's confession and practice? For your life?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Roundtable 31: Preface to the Smalcald Articles

"I have decided to publish these articles in plain print in case I should die before there would be a council (as I fully expect and hope)." (SA Preface, 3; Concordia, p. 259). This is the assumption of Martin Luther as he composed what we know today as the Smalcald Articles. His prince, Johann Frederick the Magnanimous, asked Luther to put together this statement of "non-negotiables" that the Lutherans would take with them when, and if, they attended a council called by Pope Paul III (see Roundtable 30 for more details). [Painting by Lucas Cranach of Luther in 1535, a year before he wrote the Smalcald Articles].

So, how does Luther proceed? The Smalcald Articles are a very personal statement for Luther. By this time the Reformation had been well underway, long enough for Luther's own writings and statements to be used against him, even by "false brothers who profess to be on our side" (Preface, 4). To counteract the claims of those who would come after Luther saying, "Dr. Luther would have agreed with this, or have said that" Luther was anxious to present these articles, particularly in light of his equally strong conviction that he was going to die.

"They want to dress up their poison with my labor. Under my name, they want t mislead the poor people. hat will happen, dear God, when I am dead?" (Preface, 4). Indeed! What has happened since Luther's death? Is it not sad reality that the greatest abusers of Martin Luther are the very people who often use his name in their church's body name?

Luther goes on at some length bitterly bemoaning the abuse of his writings, an inevitable reality that Satan is responsible for. And then he moves into the purpose of this document almost cheerily says, "I really would like to see a truly Christian council, so that many people and issues might be helped. Not what we need help. Our churches are now, through God's grace, enlightened and equipped with the pure Word and right use of the Sacraments, with knowledge of the various callings and right works. So, on our part, we ask for no council." (Preface, 10).

And so what is Luther's concern? All the parishes that have not been so blessed with the brilliant light of the Gospel once more, those languishing under the supposed pastoral care of Roman Catholic bishops who are more concerned about their fancy clothing and various rituals than for "how the poor people live or die. Christ has died for them and yet they are not allowed to hear Him speak as the true Shepherd with his sheep [John 10:11-18]." (Preface, 10).

Luther then launches into a condemnation of the problems in secular society: "high interest rates, greed, disrespect, lust, extravagance in dress, gluttony, gambling, pomp, and all kinds of bad habits and evil." (Preface 12). Much to think about for our own time! A council can hardly begin to address all these issues, but the church's leadership is more concerned about regulating things that are not pertinent to the much more important "commands of God" given us to observe "in the Church, the state, and the family"; so many in fact that we can never hope to fulfill them all. And then comes one of the several prayers found in the Book of Concord, and here Luther offers it before beginning the various points in the Smalcald Articles.

O Lord Jesus Christ, may You Yourself hold a council! Deliver Your servants by our glorious return! The pope and his followers are done for. They will have none of You. Help us who are poor and needy, who sigh to You,and who pray to You earnestly, according to the grace You have given us through Your Holy Spirit, who lives and reigns with You and the Father, blessed forever. Amen.

For consideration:
How do Luther's words apply today, to our times and to our churches? Where are our priorities?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Roundtable 30: Introduction to the Smalcald Articles

We have come to the conclusion of our roundtable discussions about the Augsburg Confession and will now turn our attention to the Smalcald Articles. You may read them on-line at bookofconcord.org. The purpose of this post is to offer an introduction to the historical context of the Smalcald Articles; in words and pictures, providing a brief overview of the events that led to the writing of these doctrinal articles and their eventual inclusion in the Book of Concord. [Note about the photos: the church pictured to the right is the town church in Smalcald. If you view the church from this angle, and then turn around and look down the street, you see the house where Luther stayed in 1537, as pictured later in the article. The other photo immediately below is of the court chapel in the town castle. Note the uniquely Lutheran architecture with pulpit over altar, in the style of the first, from the ground-up Lutheran church built in the Elector's Torgau Castle. This was, no doubt, an imitation of that design].

Smalcald, as it is commonly known in English, [Schmalkald in German] remains much as it was in the days of the Reformation, a small town nestled among rolling forested hills in Thuringia, accessible only by twisting and turning two lane roads on which one can become quite easily lost, particularly when it is foggy, raining and one has not figured out yet how to use the GPS system in the rental car (speaking from personal experience). It is about 89 km north-northwest of the Coburg Fortress, and about 70 km southwest of Erfurt, and some 270 km from Wittenberg.

This little town came to play a pivotal role in the Reformation because it was in Smalcald that a number of German rulers and leaders of free cities gathered to form the Smalcaldic League, a sort of "NATO" for the Evangelical German territories. The Schmalkaldischer Bund was formed as religious association of rulers and free cities, which soon recognized the need to marshal their forces politically, economically and, most significantly, militarily. It came to a tragic end on April 24, 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg, which decisively concluded the Smalcaldic War.

The Smalcaldic League was formed in February of 1531, in the wake of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession the previous June. John Frederick the Magnanimous was the leading figure in the Smalcaldic League. A lifelong Lutheran, he had been tutored by one of Luther's oldest and best friends, George Spalatin, and regarded Luther as his spiritual father his whole life. He was a large man, in body body and soul, and, was, arguably, the single most important lay leader of the Lutheran Reformation. He demonstrated remarkable courage and self-sacrifice where many others failed when the moment of testing came. He asked Luther to prepare a series of doctrinal assertions to be used at what the Lutheran princes were told was the soon-to-be convened Roman Catholic council, which Pope Paul II had called for in 1536. It was supposed to have begun in the Italian city of Mantua on May 23, 1537, but did not materialize. In fact, it was not until after Luther's death that the first sessions of the Council of Trent finally took place.

The challenge given to Luther by John Frederick was to provide a set of articles that the Lutheran princes could use as their "non-negotiables." John Frederick particularly was in no way inclined to compromise, at all, with Rome. He had, no doubt, learned from his experience at the Diet of Augsburg that a compromising and irenic spirit did not get the Lutherans anywhere with either the Emperor or the Roman Curia, and so he asked Luther to set to work on the article they would take with them to the General Council. [Painting: Johann Frederick the Magnanimous, by Lucas Cranach, 1531].

Martin Luther himself had been calling for a free and open general council of the church since at least 1520, in his Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. There was however considerable debate among the Lutheran nobility when Pope Paul II issued his call for a council in 1536. John Frederick flatly did not want to attend. He believed that the very act of attending would be an acknowledgment that the Pope was the head of Christendom. Luther encouraged him, and the other Lutheran princes, to attend because of the opportunity it presented to bear witness to their faith and to persuade others. In September 1536, John Frederick's concerns were heightened after the Pope indicated there was to be no debate, dialog or discussion about any of the points raised by the Lutherans in their Augsburg Confessions, but only, "the utter extirpation of the poisonous, pestilential Lutheran heresy" (see Bull Concerning the Reforms of the Roman Court, AE 16). [Painting of Pope Paul III].

Finally, John Frederick was persuaded to attend and on December 11, 1536, he formally directed Luther to prepare the confession of faith in the form of articles for a meeting of Lutheran theologians and lay leaders in Smalcald on February 7, 1537. He did so saying, "It will be necessary for Doctor Luther to prepare his foundation and opinion from the Holy Scriptures; namely, the articles as hitherto taught, preached, and written by him, and which he is determined to adhere to and abide by at the council, as well as upon his departure from this world and before judgment of Almighty God, and in which we cannot yield without becoming guilty of treason against God, even though property and life, peace or war, are at stake (Bente, 120). Indeed, this was very serious, even deadly, business. [Photo of house in Smalcald where Luther stayed and where the Lutherans met].

It is important therefore to read the Smalcald Articles in this light, and to recognize that they are very much Luther's theological "last will and testament." He knew precisely what he was doing when he wrote them, how significant they were and how seriously they would be regarded by friends and foes alike. Given Luther's health difficulties at this time, which he and his friends regarded as life-threatening, he did regard the Smalcald Articles to be his last chance in a public statement to testify to what he believed, taught and confessed. [Photo: The house where Luther stayed while in Smalcald].

After Luther had finished his first draft in December 1536, they were reviewed by fellow theologians in Wittenberg, who offered a few minor changes, which Luther accepted. He then signed his document and forwarded it to John Frederick, who in turn presented the theses to the meeting of the Smalcaldic League in February 1537. The Elector was sure that the articles would be simply accepted by the League. But things did not turn out the way he had planned. [Photo: Coat of arms of the members of the Smalcaldic League in the city museum in Smalcald, Germany].

Some of the League's members were concerned that Luther's statement was too strongly worded; a feeling encouraged by Philip Melanchthon who was there, with Luther, and who, unfortunately, worked behind Luther's back to discourage the Smalcaldic League from accepting them. The decision was made simply to present the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

Ironically, this decision set in motion a series of problems created because of the fact that Melanchthon was tinkering constantly with both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, a problem that came to a head when Melancthon's changes became quite substantial, resulting in Lutheran doctrinal assertions being changed, for instance concerning Free Will and the Lord's Supper, were seriously jeopardized because of Melanchthon's changes. This would be cleared up later when the Book of Concord was being edited. The decision was made to reject all of Melanchthon's second and later editions of the Augustana and the Apology and to stick with what were regarded to be the first and better editions from 1530 and 1531.

Ultimately, Luther was not able to be present personally for the meetings of the princes, but he lay in a house nearby the town castle, which was located just down the street from the city church in Smalcald, where Luther preached. The Lutheran leaders gathered also in the house in which Luther was staying to be able to seek his advice and input, though he lay suffering from what were apparently kidney stones. The ride back to Wittenberg jostled them free and he said he felt like a man "reborn."

And so, although the Smalcald Articles were not formally adopted by the Smalcaldic League in 1537, forty four of the Lutheran princes present did sign them. Five delegates from cities in Southern Germany, who were inclined to Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper did not sign the articles. By the time the Formula of Concord was completed and adopted in 1577, Luther's articles were highly regarded and were included in the Lutheran Church' formal confession of faith. John Frederick so highly regarded them that in 1554 he ordered them to be printed as a part of his last will and testament when he recognized his death was drawing near. And so it was that the Formula states that the Smalcald Articles are "everywhere regarded as the common, unanimously accepted meaning of our churches" to be used to interpret and explain and understand the meaning of the Augsburg Confession.

The Smalcald Articles return, again and again, to the beating heart of the Gospel of Christ: the sinner's justification before God by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. They consist of fifteen articles, prefaced by affirmations of historic Christian truth concerning God.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Roundtable 29: Church Authority

A dispute arose among the Apostles, on more than one occasion, over the question of power, authority and rights. The desire for power and control is an ancient evil temptation that plagues humanity; and so, it should come as no surprise that it also has been an ongoing subject of concern, debate, discussion and intense disagreement in the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Matthew 20, says, "It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (vv. 26-28).

Article 28 offers an expansion of several points made about the nature of the ministry of the Church and the authority of the Church, in Articles 5 and 14. What power, precisely, do Christian pastors have? What authority do supervisors, or bishops, have in the Church? Over the course of the centuries, bishops had become powerful political as well as ecclesiastical leaders.

To be fair, this happened often through the force of circumstances. When the political and social structure of the Roman Empire was collapsing in the sixth and seventh centuries, it was the Church that was the only institution that had a structure that could provide societal order and control.

Roman bishops and popes soon were claiming, by divine right, the authority to govern and to rule both the Church and civil society. Lutheranism often refers to these two realms as the "kingdom of the right" and the "kingdom of the left." The Augsburg Confession offers in this article its assertion of proper Biblical teaching concerning the authority Christ has given to His Church and, by extension, to the Church's ministry and ministers.

The pastoral concern of this article is clear from the outset when Melanchthon writes, "All the while the popes, claiming the Power of the Keys, have instituted new services and burdened consciences with Church discipline and excommunication. But they have also tried to transfer the kingdoms of this world to the Church by taking the Empire away form the Emperor." (par. 2). No doubt this comment was made in an effort to persuade the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be more sympathetic toward the cause of the Lutheran princes and theologians. Charles V was no great fan of the Roman Papacy.

The Lutherans point out how these problems in the Roman Church had been the subject of many learned men's protests and concern (par. 3). This article makes very clear that the authority specifically given to the Church, referred to as the Keys, is the "power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments." Why? Because Christ had sent His Apostles out with this very set of marching orders, as recorded in John 20:21-22.

"This authority is exercised only by teaching or preaching the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, either to many or to individuals, according to their calling." (par. 8). This is a key sentence in this article. "According to their calling" indicates that there are various offices in the Church by which the authority of the Keys is carried out, but in every, and any, case, the authority of ministerial offices in the Church is the authority that Christ has given to the Church to proclaim the good news of forgiveness. The focus and point of the Church's ministry are eternal things: eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life. "These things cannot reach us except by the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments." (par. 9).

Civil government is instituted by Christ to "deal with things other than the Gospel does. Civil rulers do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace." (par. 11).

The confusion of the power and authority of the office of bishop had reached a point where there was great confusion between the different authority God entrusts to the Church and to the civil government; in addition, bishops assumed that because they had been given authority by God to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, they also had authority to come up with new "ordinances, instituted as though they are necessary, or with the view that they merit grace" (par. 50). The Augsburg Confession rejects this claim. What is essential in the Church, and most necessary, is "for the chief article of the Gospel to be preserved, namely that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not by certain observances or acts of worship, devised by people" (par. 52).

But what then is the Church to do about ordering itself properly to provide for all things to be done decently, in order to facilitate the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? Is it the case that it is in the Church's best interest for there to be a "free for all" when it comes to proper order and the institution of certain customs and practices? No, this was never the intention of this article, or any other in the Book of Concord concerning things termed later in the Book of Concord as "adiaphora." This point is one that is the source of considerable confusion in the Church today. The Augsburg Confession acknowledges that it is in fact perfectly "lawful for bishops, or pastors, to make ordinances so that things will be done orderly in the Church, but not to teach that we merit grace or make satisfaction for sins" (par. 53). But, the Augsburg Confession asserts "that it is proper that the churches keep such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquility, to avoid giving offense to another, so that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion (1 Corinthians 14:40; comp. Philippians 2:14).

Article 28 concludes on an irenic tone by indicating that the Lutherans would be willing to accept the leadership of Roman bishops just as long as they "allow the Gospel to be taught purely, and that they relax a few observances that they claim it is sinful to change." Allowing the Gospel to be taught purely was, and remains, a very tall order for an ecclesiastical system of thought, like Romanism, premised on certain key and fundamental theological positions that conflict with the very heart of the Gospel: justification by grace, alone, through faith, alone. Rome acknowledges salvation is by grace alone, but it is the continuing failure of Rome to acknowledge that grace is received through faith alone that remains the problem, resulting in the dangerous interjection of imperfect human works into the equation, thus throwing sinners continually back on their own devices, rather than exclusively, always, and only Christ and Him Crucified.

About the painting:

Albrecht Dürer
The Four Holy Men (John the Evangelist and Peter)
1526
Oil on panel