The sickness behind denominational divisions and its tough cure: 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

Critics regard the Reformation as a failure, pointing to the many denominations that sprung up in the 500 years since Martin Luther called for reform in 1517. The confessional Lutheran church is not in Christian fellowship with the vast majority of nominal Lutherans. The Reformed church splintered into innumerable Presbyterian, Baptist, and nondenominational sects. What went wrong?

The problem is not new. By 1530 Lutherans found it necessary to officially distance themselves from the Reformed and Anabaptist teachings they were accused of. Did you know Dr. Martin Luther had already not only diagnosed the disease but also prescribed its cure?

Here is the reason for the church’s fragmentation at the time of the Reformation. Recently some have considered it the result of a necessary “historical development” that there is a Reformed church with its army of sects in addition to the Lutheran church. . . . So common is this view of the formation of the Reformed church, so absurd and foolish it is. The reason for a Reformed church in addition to the Lutheran church comes simply from this: the former makes reason into the principle of theology in a number of doctrines, and thus actually ignores the fear of God’s Word, in spite of their assurance that they deeply revere it. Luther proved this origin of the Reformed sects again and again and showed their leaders how they were “thoughtless despisers of Scripture.” To be sure, the enthusiasts maintained that they had God’s honor in mind when they did not take hold of the words in the Lord’s Supper as they actually are. For if someone accepted that Christ’s body and blood actually and essentially were in the Lord’s Supper, then he would have to believe contradictory things, namely, that Christ’s body and blood are in heaven and earth at the same time, and indeed in many places on earth at the same time. But Luther was not deceived by this. Rather, he showed the enthusiasts again directly from this contradiction that they were lacking the fear of God’s Word, in that they wanted to determine according to the thoughts of their reason, instead of according to God’s Word, what a contradiction in divine matters was. Therefore, when they also discussed at Marburg how they could end the conflict between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, Luther said, “I know no other way, than that they (Zwingli and his associates) give God’s Word the honor and believe with us.” (Francis Pieper, excerpt from “The Fear of God’s Word,” trans. Andrew Hussman, Studium Excitare: The Journal of Confessional Language Studies at MLC)

What? “Give God’s word the honor and believe with” confessional Lutherans? That would even include believing the words “This is my body” exactly as Jesus spoke them! That’s saying the source of the disagreement is human unbelief, not the fact that Scripture is hard to understand. No, standing on Scripture alone is too simplistic.

Yes, we need Scripture, but we also need a healthy dose of common sense. If you think about it, it’s okay to have lots of denominations because their petty little differences about abstract things like grace and faith really don’t really matter anyway. That’s why open communion was invented.

But common sense isn’t quite enough, either. We also need the writings of respected Christian leaders to shed light on the darkness of the Scriptures. From John Calvin on, Protestant scholars have learned a lot since Luther’s time. Granted, each sect has its own revered leaders, but that’s not the point. Let’s learn what we can from the best of them and not sweat the details.

The point is this. Luther’s simple faith in Scripture alone was a good place to start in 1517. It’s not a good place to stand in 2017.

Or is it? Could it be that our own wisdom and traditions have blinded us to the light of God’s word? If so, let’s indeed “give God’s word the honor” and pray with the Psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:105,130).

On this 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, let’s turn from the unbelief of Zechariah. Along with the most highly favored maiden, may we simply believe the word that the Lord has spoken.

God’s law condemns—but his good news promises forgiveness and joy!

I feel the most vital and necessary teaching we Confessional Lutherans are “still standing” by is the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Before I became Lutheran, I attended and was involved in many Christian churches that were good at preaching the ways I didn’t fulfill God’s word but never clearly preached that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s law so I didn’t have to do anything else to be saved. Their teachings mixed the law and gospel by conveying if I just did my part, God would do his and my life would be prosperous, fulfilling, and happy. I did believe Jesus died to save me, yet the sermons that promised an “easy yoke” and an enjoyable, “Spirit-filled life” left me insecure, burdened, unhappy, and unsatisfied. I wanted to do good, but I couldn’t do enough to prove to God how thankful I was. I could not understand others saying that reading the Bible made them “feel better” or “comforted.” I kept trying the next book, experience, or deed, but got bitter results: being ashamed of my life, feeling both sad and inadequate by my “good” actions.

At the end of my rope, I read Lutheran articles that clearly separated the law from the gospel. In those articles, salvation was sure, based on Jesus’ works, not man’s. I finally understood the comfort Scripture offered! Now, my trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is where my treasure lies, my satisfaction will never disappoint, and my heart finds contentment. I confess with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17).

This post by Evelyn Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).

500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation! It began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther started calling the church to return to these teachings of the Scriptures:

More information:

Celebrating in Ottawa at 3:30 pm on Sunday, November 5:

Keep all the commandments to enter life

As I opened my New Testament, I expected to read a passage and then return to life as usual. Instead I found this:
Once a man came to Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good thing must I do to receive eternal life?” “Why do you ask me concerning what is good?” answered Jesus. “There is only One who is good. Keep the commandments if you want to enter life.” “What commandments?” he asked. Jesus answered, “Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; respect your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “I have obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied.
Matthew 19:16-20a, Good News Translation
But I obviously had not obeyed all those commandments! Condemned by Jesus, I fell to my knees, begging to be allowed somehow to enter eternal life as a slave.
Years later I learned that because “the only One who is good” was sentenced to death for my crime, I not only received eternal life but received it as God’s forgiven child. Grace alone.
I did not receive it by doing a good thing but simply by believing that good news. Faith alone.
No church council or Pope could take the joy of this full pardon from me, for I had not learned it from mortals but from the very words of God. Scripture alone.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
This post by David Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).

The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: Why do Lutherans disagree with the symbolic view?

In spite of claims that the Scripture is so unclear that it needs an outside infallible interpreter, Martin Luther found some of its passages clear enough both to rely on them with complete confidence for eternal life and to shed light on many passages that are otherwise less clear. Although many individual texts lack clarity in themselves, simple trust in the straightforward texts makes the doctrine taught by Scripture, including every article of faith, completely clear. Such texts are so lucid that they need no exegesis in the sense of clarification. No more open to different interpretations than ordinary human language, the clear passages make possible the understanding of many less clear passages, the unity of faith, and the rejection of false teaching. This is what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture: many unclear passages of Scripture are clarified by passages of Scripture that need no clarification, neither from human interpreters, nor even from other Scripture. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand an unclear messianic prophecy without Philip’s interpretation, now recorded as perfectly clear Scripture that interprets the less clear prophecy (Acts 8:30-35). Many of those who deny this doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture claim that divisions among Protestants result from different interpretations of Scripture passages, …

More: The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: If the Bible is perfectly clear, why do Protestants still disagree?

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s doctrine of church and ministry (1980, 2005)

It is God’s will “that Christians unite in order to preserve the means of grace pure and unadulterated, to use these means of grace for their own edification, to show the unity that exists among them, and to join hands in bringing the good news of salvation in Christ to others. Jeremiah 23:28; John 8:31-32; Acts 2:42; Psalm 133:1; Matthew 28:19-20,” (ELS Catechism question 247, p. 146-47) This normally is done through the external forms of the local congregation, synod and denomination. Although it is God’s will that Christians gather for public worship, these external forms, as such, however, are not divinely instituted. “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation.” (Luke 17:20) Luther correctly says, “there is not a single letter in holy Scripture saying that such a church (i.e. a ‘physical, external Christendom’), where it is by itself, is instituted by God … If they can show me that a single letter of Scripture speaks of it, I will recant my words.” (LW 39, 70) The local congregation is the primary grouping because this is where Christians live and where they can readily and practically carry out the commands of God on a regular basis.

—Doctrine of the Church, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, adopted 1980

The 1980 ELS statement on church and ministry is its 2005 statement in a nutshell. For to deny the exclusive divine institution of the parish is to deny that of the parish pastorate:

Indeed, the word of God nowhere exclusively mandates the parish. Instead, what we find in Scripture is a command to the church—that is, believers—to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments (John 20, Matt. 28, etc.) and the divine bestowal of various forms of the ministry of the word, including but certainly not limited to the apostleship. Pastors, evangelists, apostles, and others called to proclaim the gospel on behalf of the church are gifts from the ascended Christ himself (Eph. 4:11).
Scripture also presents examples of a wide variety of acceptable forms of the church. What we will not find there or anywhere else in Scripture is today’s notion of a parish, let alone the divine institution of the parish as opposed to other forms of the church or the divine institution of the parish pastorate as opposed to other forms of the ministry of the word. Nor will we find legalistic restrictions on the church’s—that is, believers’—divinely conferred authority to proclaim the gospel on their behalf through called servants of the word according to the need of the situation.
For more details and for corroborating references to the confessions, the 1932 Brief Statement of the LCMS, and Walther, see Prof. Brug’s systematic investigation and clear exposition.

Bibliographic note: “LW 39, 70” cites Martin Luther (1520) “On the papacy in Rome against the most celebrated Romanist in Leipzig,” Luther’s Works, vol. 39, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, pp. 55-104 (1970). | Excerpt

The Fourth Gospel on the real presence: Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood according to John

An initial reading of John 6:22-71 leaves the impression that through the living bread discourse, Jesus taught his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Lord’s Supper. This is not only the interpretation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but also that of orthodox theologians immediately following the time of the apostles and by some confessional Lutheran theologians today. (Except when explicitly indicating metaphorical, nonphysical eating and drinking, the words eat and drink will be used in the plain, oral sense, as Jesus meant them when he said, “Take, eat” and “Take, drink.”) This view will be vindicated by establishing these two teachings from the straightforward reading of the passage:

  1. John 6:51-58 speaks of the eating and drinking commanded in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as opposed to merely metaphorical, non-physical eating and drinking.
  2. In this passage, the objects of eating and drinking, referred to as “true food” and “true drink,” are the literal body and blood of Jesus, not merely the sacramental symbols or spiritual benefits of his flesh and blood.

More: The eucharistic nature of John’s Bread of Life discourse: Jesus did not lie about eating his flesh and drinking his blood

The Lord’s Supper in the context of the Passover

On the night of his betrayal, the Lord instituted the Eucharist with the simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body… Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). A multitude of arguments have been employed against taking those words to mean that in the distribution of the bread and wine, he gave his disciples his body to eat and his blood to drink. Jesus could not possibly have done so while remaining truly human, according to Zwingli, Calvin, and a plethora of denominations following them. Other arguments are less philosophically sophisticated. Perhaps the most common seeks to cast doubt on a literal reading of the words of institution by pointing to figures of speech Jesus used, as when he said, “I am the door” and “I am the true vine.” This argument indeed proves that Jesus sometimes spoke metaphorically, as everyone already knows, but falls short of providing any evidence that he did so in his Last Supper. As relevant as such expressions may be to interpreting “I am the true bread” as non-Eucharistic, their structure is not sufficiently close to that of “This is my body” (Pieper 1953, vol. 3, 305-311) to take the argument as more than a rhetorical ploy. In fact, it has more force when reversed: there would be no need to use obviously metaphorical passages to bolster a claim that the words of institution are metaphorical if those words were just as clearly metaphorical. As much as these kinds of arguments are advanced in debate, the real reason for much of the opposition to a more straightforward reading of Christ’s words may lie elsewhere. Among Protestants, a particularly strong motive for taking the words of institution symbolically is the desire to distance themselves from Tridentine Catholicism, especially from its idea of sacrificing Christ in every mass. The doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body in the bread and his blood in the wine is seen as synonymous with the doctrine of the priest’s offering Christ as a sacrifice, even though the former does not imply the latter …

More: The Lord’s Supper as the true Passover meal: Proclaiming the Lamb’s death or the Christian’s faith?

The apostolic nation called to herald the gospel of the kingdom

Starting with a remnant of the assembly of Israel, Jesus built a new assembly on the confession that he is the long-awaited Messiah (Matthew 16:18). Not only Peter but all the apostles represented that “little flock” (Luke 12:31-34). The Twelve represented the new Israel (Matthew 19:28 = Luke 22:30), the nation rendering the fruits of the kingdom that the old Israel did not (Matthew 21:43). That is how the judgement of the nations according to how they treated Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 25:31-46) will fulfill the prophecy that the Gentiles would be judged according to how they treated Israel (Joel 3:1-12).

The call of the Twelve, including Judas, is the call of the new holy nation to proclaim the glad tidings of the kingdom (Matthew 4:19). The end will not come until that good news, the same gospel committed to Judas, is preached to all nations (Matthew 24:14; see Mark 14:9). In these last days, the church continues the same apostolic ministry of the new covenant in the Messiah’s blood (Luke 22:20). That continuity means every believer does both the works he did—healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead—and greater works (John 14:12).

The call of the Twelve to the public, representative ministry anticipated their taking the place of the priests and prophets, the public ministers of the old covenant. The breaking dawn of the new kingdom in the proclamation of peace by the Messiah and his ambassadors was nightfall for the temple-centered ministry of the word. That ministry of types and shadows gave way to the apostolic ministry as the light of the world filfilled one Messianic prophecy after another. John the Baptist, the greatest minister of the law and the prophets, gladly decreased as Jesus increased. Even he, the greatest of the old covenant, ranked under everyone in the new kingdom (Matthew 11:11).

In conclusion, there is no ministry of the word other than the ministry committed to the Twelve to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, the good news of righteousness from God. That continuity of the public ministry of the New Covenant is acknowledged in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. Jesus did not commit the ministry to them by giving it originally to Peter but rather in his calling of all twelve apostles (Treatise 10, German translation). As the ministry was thus originally given to the new Israel, that holy nation retains the authority to appoint public ministers of the gospel (see John F. Brug’s “The ministry of the apostles and our ministry”).