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).

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 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?

Assurance of salvation, election, and the revealed will of God

A Puritan heritage

In response to an article maintaining that God made the covenant of grace only with the elect, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently asked how he could attain assurance of election given that “The identity of the elect is one of those hidden things that belong to the Lord. I’ve been working for seventy-five years to make my calling and election sure, but I haven’t arrived yet” (New Horizons, July 2005, p. 21, Letters). Although Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity, it does so in order to strengthen confidence in Christ alone for eternal life. Misuse of these doctrines can have the opposite effect, as when Puritans desperately looked for their own faith, sanctification, or work of the Spirit within as evidence that they had been chosen. For example, 2 Peter 1 is inadvertently wielded against apostolic teaching whenever interpreted to imply that a new convert cannot have full joy in believing the good news until diligently assuring himself of his election by asking questions like, “Have I really added self-control to my knowledge?” or “Have I really added love to my brotherly kindness?” As even Calvin taught (on 1 John 3:19; 4:17), God does not give subjective signs of salvation as the foundation of assurance, which rests on the objective promise of the gospel, but as added confirmation. In Word and Sacrament, the Son of Man sincerely offers the free water of life to all who thirst, longing for them to simply accept his invitation (Matthew 23:37; John 7:37-38; 1 Timothy 2:1-6). He certainly will not turn away anyone who relies on his shed blood for the forgiveness of sins.*

If you have been baptized, you have been baptized into Christ’s death 

Even long before the Puritans, it seemed reasonable that confidence of salvation would result from progress in sanctification (Romans 6:1-2). Paul reversed the order: he urged those baptized into Christ to walk in the Spirit by depending on the already accomplished crucifixion of their flesh with its desires (Galatians 3:26-29; 5:16-24). Indeed, to assure the members of the Roman congregation of their identity in Christ, Paul pointed them to their baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The idea is not that baptism saves apart from faith any more than the gospel saves apart from faith, but rather that faith relies on baptism as the Spirit’s work of uniting the believer to Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). Characteristically, Paul argued deductively (Romans 6:1-14):

  1. We who have received Christian baptism have been united with the death and burial of Christ.
  2. Since the slaves of sin, who belong to this age, were put to death in baptism, we have been freed from every obligation to serve sin.
  3. Those united with Christ’s death and burial have already been united with his resurrection, to culminate in the resurrection of the body in age to come.
  4. Because we are now alive from the dead, we are to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness.

Such dependence on baptism seems strange to those taught to see it as a human work, but Paul presented baptism as God’s gift of grace, as the tool he used to bring freedom from the curse of the law (Romans 6:14). Luther contrasted this objective certainty of baptism with the doubts that arise from probing into the secret things that belong to God:

As far as we are concerned, we now have God’s Word, and so we ought not have any doubt about our salvation. It’s in this way that we should dispute about predestination, for it has already been settled: I have been baptized and I have the Word, and so I have no doubt about my salvation as long as I continue to cling to the Word. When we take our eyes off Christ we come upon predestination and start to dispute. Our Lord God says, Why don’t you believe me? Yet you hear me when I say that you are beloved by me and your sins are forgiven.’ This is our nature, that we are always running away from the Word.**

Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21). Regeneration by water and the Spirit is certain precisely because it rests on the will of the truthful and loving God, not on anything in people (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8). Yes, the hidden things do belong to the Lord alone, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

* A shorter version of this paragraph appeared as a Letter in the October 2005 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists: “… I’m not sure of my calling and election (2 Pet. 1:10). It seems to me that believing and knowing on the basis of God’s Word that Jesus died to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21; John 6:44, 65) is not the same as believing and knowing on the basis of some subjective decision, feeling, or act that he died to save me” (emphasis original). I hope to write more on this soon. [The planned paper was added on October 20, 2005.]

** Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther’s Works, vol. 54: Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 54, Page 57-58). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Emphasis added.

P. S. (added 10/30/05) In spite of its use of Lutheran terminology, the Federal Vision, inasmuch as it limits the atonement, offers no objective assurance of salvation.

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:


More: The chief difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology

Faith is clear, not defined in terms of good works

Many evangelical Christians tend to think they disagree with each other only on what they consider minor issues such as whether to baptize infants and whether the gift of tongues is for today, but that they agree on how the forgiveness of sins is received: by grace, through faith alone. This illusion is dispelled upon the realization that different evangelical churches mean very different things by the word faith. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Faith really means deciding to accept Jesus as Savior by sincerely saying a sinner’s prayer.
  • Faith really means making the decision to accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord.
  • Faith really is not just belief in God’s promise that his Son died for our sins and rose from the dead, but includes a benevolent love for God, a pious hatred of sin, covenant faithfulness, an obedient heart, or some other commendable quality.

With all the differences of opinion, can anyone know with certainty what faith means? Does it matter?

More: Does faith really mean faith, or did James redefine it?

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

The words of institution in context and the impossibility of the real presence in the Lord’s supper

If Jesus simply meant the bread was in some sense like his body and the wine like his blood, his words were somewhat less clear than under a more literal reading. However, Jesus often used figurative and even cryptic speech in other contexts. While it is improbable that his words of institution were more cryptic than those instituting the original Passover, it’s not impossible. The alternative, that his human flesh and blood were in, with, and under the bread and wine, is simply impossible, for it violates all our thoughts of what it means to be human. Sherlock Holmes observed, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Eliminating the impossible real presence would then leave us with the improbable truth of symbolism to be deciphered.

After all, Jesus was a Rabbi giving a farewell address to his disciples. So perhaps it would be natural to make the words by which he instituted the supper for remembering him more symbolic, as most sects do. In that case, we would expect him to cryptically institute a new Passover meal before expecting him to promise the impossible, the true presence of his human body and blood with the bread and wine to orally eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. A cryptic memorial meal, while initially improbable, sounds very reasonable, very acceptable, very predictable.

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