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: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:
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.
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 . [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.