What is the difference between popular evangelicalism and confessional Lutheranism?

Christians of Reformed heritage, including Arminians as well as Calvinists, obviously differ from Lutherans on sacramentology. More foundationally, to the extent that they maintain their distinctive teachings, they disagree on exactly what gospel (good news) the apostles proclaimed:

absolve

More: The chief difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology

“Are there legal regulations in the New Testament?” (centennial; August Pieper)


And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Matthew 27:50-51a
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Colossians 2:16-17
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
Galatians 5:2-5
. . . In the way in which it is stated in the Ten Commandments the love toward God and toward the neighbor is to express itself unconditionally on the part of absolutely all human beings and under all circumstances (except if he himself should make exceptions) and not a tittle differently (Mt 5:18ff).

Continue reading

Justification by faith alone as the hallmark of Lutheranism

Ongoing controversy between even some of the most conservative followers of John Calvin surrounding what has become known as “the new perspective on Paul” dispels the illusion that professing evangelicals, though disagreeing on minor points of doctrine, at least agree on justification by faith alone. Among the more influential denominations involved, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently commended for study a report that explains many of the points of contention, some concerning seemingly harmless definitions of terms. Noting that words in the phrase “justification by faith alone” mean different things to different people, the report criticizes what it calls “the Federal Vision” for redefining faith to include faithfulness, obedience, or other good works. On the other hand, the same document condemns baptismal regeneration as contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That regeneration by baptism as God’s visible word as well as by his spoken word was integral to Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith suggests that those who formulated the confession’s underlying system of doctrine may have, ironically, redefined justification by faith centuries before the Federal Vision.

More: Calvinistic modification of justification by faith alone: Does God save all who believe the good news of Christ crucified?

Christ’s spoken and visible words give life

In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:

Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)

The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.

More: Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament

Why do believers still need the Ten Commandments?

Just as Jesus used the Decalogue to restrain and condemn Satan, believers use it to restrain and condemn their flesh. Like Jesus, believers wield the written code against their enemies.

The one who cannot sin did not otherwise need the Decalogue. Similarly, believers, having God’s eternal will written in their hearts by the Spirit, would not need to hear Moses were it not for their ever-present sin.

While believers want to keep the commandments, they find themselves doing what they do not want to do because the flesh is weak, even to the point of clouding their judgment about what God requires. They always need to hear the law to inform them of what they already want to do as new creations. They are glad to learn which works please God and which are just human inventions.

In conclusion, believers delight in the Decalogue precisely because it is so effective in the battle against the flesh. They rejoice even more that their names are written in heaven, for only that good news can truly kill the flesh, burying it in baptism. That gospel promise alone can raise believers to new life.

Acknowledgment. I thank Robert C. Baker for helpful discussions on the third use of the law.

Resources on what the WELS and ELS teach about the ministry

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.
Proverbs 18:17, ESV

According to rumors spread both online and by word-of-mouth, false doctrines on the ministry of God’s word are taught by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and especially the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), two members of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. The misconceptions persist in part because it is more convenient to believe a soundbite than to take the time needed to study and understand what other Lutherans actually teach about the ministry. This post points to resources beyond the synods’ doctrinal statements on the ministry for those who wish to begin such a study.

In The Ministry of the Word, Prof. John Brug ably defends the position that WELS and ELS have preserved the lonely doctrine of Walther’s writings understood in context while the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) now represents a variety of views wide enough to include both some that are too “low” and some that are too “high” to be Scriptural.

Anyone seeking to develop a respectable case against the WELS doctrine of church and ministry must at a minimum interact with the points made in the 80 pages on the LCMS-WELS debates. To refute Prof. Brug would require a thorough exegetical or historical study.

For those preferring to start with a less thorough understanding of the WELS doctrine of the ministry because they cannot yet devote the time to read the book, here are some of Prof. Brug’s online papers that include many quotes from Luther and from some who have abandoned his doctrine for one closer to that of a self-perpetuating ministerium:

A wealth of additional information is readily available from www.wlsessays.net.

From the ELS perspective, Rev. David Jay Webber’s well organized and thorough webpage is well known. His church has several interesting essays on the ministry.

Finally, the president of the ELS wrote a paper with reasons that WELS does not have women communing other women and with valuable study material in the appendices: J. A. Moldstad (2011), “Public Ministry: ELS Perspective,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 51, pp. 143ff .

Christ “commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments” (LCMS, 1932)

22. Since it is only through the external means ordained by Him that God has promised to communicate the grace and salvation purchased by Christ, the Christian Church must not remain at home with the means of grace entrusted to it, but go into the whole world with the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16 . . .
30. The Original and True Possessors of All Christian Rights and Privileges — Since the Christians are the Church, it is self-evident that they alone originally possess the spiritual gifts and rights which Christ has gained for, and given to, His Church. Thus St. Paul reminds all believers: “All things are yours,” 1 Cor. 3:21, 22, and Christ Himself commits to all believers the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Matt. 16:13-19, 18:17-20, John 20:22, 23, and commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25. Accordingly, we reject all doctrines by which this spiritual power or any part thereof is adjudged as originally vested in certain individuals or bodies, such as the Pope, or the bishops, or the order of the ministry, or the secular lords, or councils, or synods, etc. The officers of the Church publicly administer their offices only by virtue of delegated powers, and such administration remains under the supervision of the latter, Col. 4:17. Naturally all Christians have also the right and the duty to judge and decide matters of doctrine, not according to their own notions, of course, but according to the Word of God, 1 John 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:11.

The Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
(adopted 1932)

The Gospels say Christ commissioned all believers

The position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1932, as carefully and precisely formulated in the above statement, was that parish pastors have a command to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and absolve sins—as those duties are delegated by the church, that is, by believers. As will be seen from the Gospels, Christ in fact commanded all believers to administer the sacraments even though it would not be orderly for anyone to do so in the congregation without a call from the others. Christ even told all believers that what they bind on earth is bound in heaven and that what they forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven.

That has been demonstrated both from the First Gospel (Matthew 16:16-19—in context, Peter represented each individual who confesses Jesus as the Christ rather than each pastor or each church; 18:17-20) and from the Fourth Gospel (John 20:21-23) in the post entitled, “Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation.” Thus, Jesus says to all believers, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21, ESV).

St. Luke taught exactly the same doctrine of the gospel ministry. According to Luke 24:48-53, the witnesses to whom Jesus promised the Spirit were blessed by him just before the ascension and then waited for the fulfillment. The promise was spoken to the apostles (Acts 1:1-13) as representatives of all believers, not as representatives of all pastors (Acts 1:14-16; 2:3-4; 2:39), in agreement with the First and Fourth Gospels.

That leaves the longer ending of the Second Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) as the last account of the Great Commission for consideration. Assuming it is part of John Mark’s composition of Simon Peter’s sermons, it is best read in light of the latter’s clear description of the functions of the priesthood consisting of all believers. He wrote that all priests offer the sacrifice of praise to God by announcing his redemptive acts (“Believers have the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom”  on 1 Peter 2:5-12). Stressing that teaching function of a priest (Malachi 2:7; B. A. Gerrish (1965), “Priesthood and Ministry in the Theology of Luther,” Church History 34, 404-422), Luther pointed out that, for the sake of order, those commanded to teach the gospel should delegate the duty of congregational teaching to a pastor (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, 441-443). In Luther’s words, the pastor “should let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others” (C. A. MacKenzie, “The ‘Early’ Luther on Priesthood of All Believers, Office of the Ministry, and Ordination,” p. 11).

Nominally Lutheran interpretations

Since Christ sent all believers to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and declare sins forgiven in all accounts of the Great Commission, it follows that it does not directly say anything to believing pastors that it does not say to all believers. To force such an interpretation upon the texts when it cannot even be proven that believers other than the apostles were excluded from the original audience (J. F. Brug, “The Ministry of the Apostles and Our Ministry,” p. 2) is to deny the clarity of Scripture—that Christian doctrine is explicitly taught in clear passages of Scripture, not built on someone’s assumptions about them. Any doctrine of the ministry requiring the absence of non-apostles from the original audience comes from assumptions about Scripture, not from Scripture itself.

The clarity of Scripture is also denied when one concedes that the Great Commission is addressed to all believers while nonetheless maintaining that it says something else to pastors. For that violates the principle that each Scripture passage has only one literal sense—otherwise, God’s word could not speak for itself (see H. H. Goetzinger, “The Pastor & His Seminary Training: The Pastor as Exegete,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium, 16-17 September 2013 on “Sensus literalis unus est”). The fact that a single prophecy may have multiple fulfillments (T. P. Nass (2011), “Messianic Prophecy and English Translations,” Forward in Christ) does not warrant reading a double meaning into the accounts of the Great Commission, one meaning for pastors and another for all believers.

Why, then, do multiple writers for Logia (T. P. Nass, “The Revised This We Believe of the WELS on the Ministry,”” Logia 10 (3) 31-41) and even some vocal pastors within the LCMS (see J. F. Brug, “The Pastor as the Representative of Christ”) now claim that the Great Commission has direct commands specifically for the clergy, a claim that cannot be supported from any passage in the Gospels? One reason appears to be the impression that certain articles of the Lutheran Confessions make such a claim. The impression vanishes once it is seen that the cited articles do not answer the question of whether the Great Commission was directly addressed to pastors in a way it was not addressed to all believers (cf. J. F. Brug (2009), The Ministry of the Word, NPH, p. 426).

Rather, they answer other questions, such as whether the Holy Spirit saves apart from the means of grace and whether pastors as representatives of the church may wield secular power. The Augsburg Confession answers both negatively. Article V answers the former question in order to refute the attempt to discredit the Lutheran Reformation by associating it with the Radical Reformation. Article XXVIII answers the latter question by reference to the Great Commission, which believers have delegated to their pastors, a delegation of spiritual powers, not temporal powers. Pastors are indeed commanded by Christ to teach the gospel, not because a double meaning should be imposed upon the Great Commission but simply because they do so “in the place of and by the command of the others,” as Luther was quoted above. The Lutheran Church followed his understanding that ministers of the gospel represent the priests who called them, as is evident from the doctrine of church and ministry presented in the Tractate/Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. The Tractate’s adoption of Luther’s simple teaching that pastors are the public representatives of the priests is fully warranted by 1 Peter 2:9 in its context and by other passages of Scripture.

The fact that writings correctly expositing the Scriptures are misused to depart from the words of the Gospels illustrates the danger in regarding any non-canonical writing as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture. That exegetical error is explicitly adopted among those of the Reformed who see it as their only weapon against sectarianism (“Scripture alone but interpreted by tradition?”). That is not how confessional Lutherans approach the Scriptures. To understand God’s “righteousness,” Luther went first to Paul and then later saw Paul confirmed to some extent in Augustine. Had he confined himself to Scripture as interpreted by church councils, there would have been no Lutheran Reformation.

The church’s mission according to other Scriptures

Is it possible that some of those denying the applicability of the Great Commission to every believer err in exegesis but not in doctrine? It does seem possible, provided that other Scriptures that teach the same doctrine are firmly and consistently held.

Such passages include Matthew 16:16-19 and 1 Peter 2:9. In the former, Simon is named Peter (rock) after the rock of his confession that Jesus is the Christ, which came only by divine revelation. Since all believers confess the same gospel, Luther was correct to observe in Matthew 16:16-19 that every believer is a “Peter” with the promise of the keys of the kingdom (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, pp. 413-415, note 18). The keys of the kingdom signify nothing other than the gospel (p. 453). That is why sins pronounced forgiven by any believer are forgiven in heaven. Every single believer is called as a priest to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds (1 Peter 2:9), which is the promise of forgiveness of sins, and that such a promise spoken by any believer is a promise from Christ himself.

The church may do so in part by appointing pastors to the public ministry of word and sacrament since believers are only restricted by the clear Scriptures in how they proclaim the gospel and since each sacrament is a “visible word” of the gospel. Pastors preach the gospel and administer the sacraments solely by the command of Christ they have received through the communion of believers, just as the LCMS once confessed.

Pastors have no other commission from Christ. Those who misread the Great Commission as recorded in the Gospels and yet affirm that pastors teach the gospel and administer the sacraments as mandated by Christ through the church have not necessarily passed from an exegetical mistake into doctrinal error. Had Christ wanted to commission pastors apart from his body, he surely would have done so with explicit orders, not with hidden double meanings or uncertain implications from apostolic practice. The Good Shepherd did not leave his flock to guess at what he really commanded. Continue reading

Seek the breath of life

In Colossians 3:1-2, Paul encourages us to seek the good things to be specified later in the chapter. One reason to seek those things is that “you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).  The other reason is that you have been raised with him (3:1). That is sanctification, in fact, the entire Christian life.

This chapter reads like a conflation of Romans 6 and Romans 12 with some elements of Ephesians 5-6, where Paul tells describes the Spirit-filled life. How is the Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5)? In the first person of Luther’s Small Catechism, I am filled with the Spirit by continuing to “believe in Jesus Christ” since it is the Lord and Giver of life who “sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth.” Indeed, I am not in any way sanctified “by my own reason or strength.”

How to be sanctified

“Let your mind be renewed” (Romans 12:1-2). Is that a command to pray for renewal (law, second commandment), a command to diligently hear and learn the word of God (law, third commandment), or an invitation to believe the promise of forgiveness (gospel)?

As Anders Nygren pointed out in his commentary, Paul had just proclaimed the good news that “he who through faith is righteous shall live” (Romans 1) in freedom from wrath (Romans 5), sin (Romans 6), the law (Romans 7), and death (Romans 8) in agreement with God’s promise to Abraham (Romans 9-11). Thus, Romans 12:1-2 invites the audience to be renewed by believing that good news.  The good works of the remainder of the book result from that renewal of the mind.

“Upon this your confession”

"But when prior to the absolution we ask those desiring it whether they sincerely repent of their sins, believe in Jesus Christ, and have the good and earnest purpose henceforth to amend their sinful life, we do not mean to imply that the remission of sins is based on contrition, faith, and improvement of life… Our one aim in asking those questions before pronouncing absolution is not only to keep secure sinners from becoming fortified in their carnal security, but to console poor, brokenhearted sinners. Any other interpretation of our form of absolution would contradict the Gospel of grace and, instead of consoling burdened consciences, would drive them into the sea of doubt" (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, volume 3, page 201).

See pages 199-207 for further discussion. The unconditional nature of evangelical absolution is what distinguishes it from the various Reformed gospels. Pieper was not exaggerating when he said, "… for the Reformed the gospel is not even the news of a remission, but merely a proclamation of the conditions under which man can secure for himself the remission of sins" (page 203).