Agape, Eros, Caritas: Love motifs at war

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it. …sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…

—Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation


Agapē motif: Christ as mirror of the paternal heart

Agapē /ah-GAH-pay/ is the Greek word the New Testament uses for the sacrificial love that motivated the Triune God to reconcile selfish humanity to himself and to pardon all who repent and believe this good news. The Agapē motif is Anders Nygren’s term for what Martin Luther recognized in the Apostles’ Creed as the distinctive core of Christianity:

Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men. For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what He has in mind and does, yet has she never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things. But here we have everything in richest measure; for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love. For He has created us for this very object, that He might redeem and sanctify us; and in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself. For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost. These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth.

As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it, “Recognition of original sin is a necessity, nor can we know the magnitude of the grace of Christ unless we acknowledge our faults… Properly speaking, the Gospel is the command to believe that we have a gracious God because of Christ” (Article II, ¶33 and Article IV, ¶345, T. G. Tappert). In the classic Agape and Eros, Anders Nygren documents how this central motif of apostolic Christianity was clearly proclaimed by Irenaeus but later obscured by Plato’s Eros motif in the dark ages until the Agapē motif was recovered by the Lutheran Reformation.

The Eros motif: Humanity yearning upwards out of self-love

Platonic Eros, as opposed to vulgar Eros, is the yearning people have for the impersonal Highest Good. It came into conflict with the heavenly Father’s pity for the world below in its expression in Gnosticism and in Origin. The two types of love differ in their basis, direction, and nature.

The Caritas motif: Desiring God out of baptized self-love

Agape and Eros chronicles the course of the love war through the centuries. Roots of such present-day errors as bridal mysticism and Reformed theology lie in the Caritas motif. The Caritas motif is Augustine’s synthesis between the Eros motif and the Agapē motif. According to Caritas, the Christian is not to repent of self-love but rather is to redirect his self-love to what can really satisfy it: the heavenly Bridegroom and his Father. In Caritas’s pure Augustinian form, that is accomplished in a life of meritorious self-denial and humility via grace infused by the Holy Spirit.

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Forms of presbyterial oversight in the New Testament

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

1 Tim. 5:17–19 (ESV)


In the first-century church, not everyone holding the office of elder labored in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). This is the same office as the office of overseer (Titus 1:5–9), also called the presiding office but better known as the pastoral office. Interestingly, there were those holding the office who did not labor in preaching and teaching.

The Pastoral Epistles say that the elders were overseers devoted to the public ministry of the word of God and fully qualified to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, unlike the laymen we call “elders” today. New Testament elders had to adhere to the teaching of Scripture firmly enough to use it to encourage the church and expose doctrinal error (Titus 1:5–9). While some of those holding the office of elder labored in teaching and preaching, there is a sense in which others holding the same office did not (1 Timothy 5:17–19). What does that mean?

What was an elder in the New Testament?

The Greek word translated “elder” does not necessarily mean an office but can also mean an older man. As in any clear passage, the meanings of the words are known by the context.

As seen from vv. 17 and 19, substituting “older man” for “elder” does not convey what Paul was writing. Rather, he was using the term to designate the same office he referred to in the beginning of his letter to Titus. Those who labor in preaching and teaching necessarily hold the presiding office but were not necessarily elderly (see v. 17). Accusations tend to be made against leadership, not against the elderly (see v. 19).

Likewise, there was not a council of the elderly but rather a council of those holding the office of presbyter: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14, ESV).

Summing up so far, the context identifies an “elder” in 1 Timothy 5:17–19 as an overseer, not necessarily one of the elderly mentioned in 5:1.

Was an elder a layman or a public minister of the word?

A careful examination of Titus 1:5–9 reveals that “elder” is interchangeable with “bishop-overseer” in the Pastorals. Collins observed that the former term emphasizes position, whereas the latter term emphasizes the function of oversight: “The elder and an overseer are one and the same person. The man’s status is that of elder; his function is that of overseer” (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 322). There is no exegetical reason to say “elders” in 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to a different office.

While oversight in the sense of the Pastorals does not necessarily involve laboring in preaching and teaching in the strict sense (1 Timothy 5:17), the office must be held only by those with the qualifications of Titus 1:5–9. Thus, in New Testament polity, non-teaching elders were not laymen but, as public ministers of the word of God, had to meet exactly the same qualifications as other bishops-overseers. That contrasts with the actual practice of the Presbyterian Church in America and other Reformed churches in which “ruling elders” do not have the same training as pastors, the “teaching elders.” That only the latter are normally paid is another difference from the practice of the first-century church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s (ELS) statement on the ministry calls the position of elder the “presiding office” held by the ministers of the word:

That we may obtain this faith, the office of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted” (AC V). This divinely instituted Public Ministry of the Word includes both a narrower and a wider sense. The narrower sense refers to a presiding office that is indispensable for the church … The church is commanded to appoint ministers who will preside over the churches (2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5, Ap XIII, 12), who must have the scriptural qualifications for a full use of the keys: “The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent.…[T]his power belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters or bishops” (Treatise 60–61). God commands that properly called men publicly preach, teach, administer the sacraments, forgive and retain sins, and have oversight of doctrine in the name of Christ and the church (1 Timothy 2:11–12). Therefore a presiding office, whether it is called that of pastor, shepherd, bishop, presbyter, elder or by any other name, is indispensable for the church (Luke 10:16, 1 Corinthians 12:27–31, Matthew 28:18–20, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11–12, 1 Peter 5:1–2). . . . The church is free to divide the labors of the pastoral office among qualified men (1 Corinthians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 12:4–6). While every incumbent of this office must be qualified for a full use of the keys, not every incumbent must be responsible for full use of the keys. Missionary, assistant pastor, professor of theology, synod president (who supervises doctrine in the church), and chaplain are some examples of this. . . . We reject the teaching that the Public Ministry of the Word is limited to the ministry of a parish pastor.

Elders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament

Strikingly close parallels to what the pastoral epistles say about that office of elder-overseer may be found in other New Testament passages. Both Peter and Luke described the function of an elder in terms of oversight and shepherding:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him … Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
(Acts 20:17, 28, ESV)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . .
(1 Peter 5:1–2, ESV)

The latter passage’s teaching that the apostles were fellow elders underscores the diversity of Christ’s gifts for the oversight of his house by law and gospel (Ephesians 4:11).

What does the Greek word for “labor” mean?

Since the word translated “labor” in 1 Timothy 5:17 can mean “work hard” (BDAG), it may be synonymous with “rule well” in the beginning of the verse. The “especially” in v. 17 then applies to those elders who not only rule well by working hard but who do so preaching (or prophesying) and teaching in a way that other hard-working elders do not. That is clear from how Paul used the key terms and concepts in his other letters:

  1. “The use of a form of the verb kopian for work in the ministry is typical of Paul” (Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, p. 278, citing Romans 16:6, 12; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 16:16; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). He continued, “… the basic responsibility of the others is governing, with other practices engaged according, perhaps, to need or gift” (p. 278).
  2. Not all “who have the ministry of leadership have the gifts of prophecy and teaching” (Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 145, citing 1 Corinthians 12:28–29). Paul chose the word translated “labor” to stress the hard work involved in the ministry (p. 145).

What did the elders do?

As seen above, the Pastorals say that some holding the office of overseer-elder did not labor in preaching and teaching and yet that those holding the office are the ministers of the word. That indicates that there were ministers of the word in the first-century church who did not labor in preaching and teaching in the same sense as others.

There is some tension here since a minister of the word by definition teaches and preaches. The Pastorals have listed “teaching” alongside related duties but sometimes presented it as if it included all the duties of an overseer. The apparent contradiction is that not all ministers of the word labored in preaching and teaching. This is not to be resolved by denying the teaching of any clear text.

For example, some qualification is needed of Kim’s claim that a differentiation between ruling and teaching “is clearly found not only in 1 Tim. 5:17 but also in 1 Tim. 3:2–7. It is seen in Rom. 12:6–8 as well” (Novum Testamentum, Vol. 46, Fasc. 4, 2004, pp. 360–368). While there was a distinction between the two forms of elder or gifts (1 Th. 5:12; 1 Cor. 12:28; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 4:2), all elders (i.e., overseers) were ministers of the word according to the Pastoral Epistles. The ruling or governing carried out by an elder-overseer necessarily involved the judicious application of the word of God, for example, by exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement (Titus 1:5–9, etc.). In short, they were to govern not by force but by the application of law and gospel.

What does that mean? Evidently, some holding the office taught in a different sense than others. Some exercises of pastoral oversight are obviously more didactic than others. Not every public action of binding or loosing sins, although qualifying as teaching and preaching in a broad sense, would constitute teaching and preaching in a narrower sense such as classroom instruction or preaching a sermon to a congregation. Pastoral oversight does not consist in earthly administration but rather in the application of law and gospel, for Christ rules his church through his word. An example of such oversight without teaching a congregation of laymen is that of ecclesiastical supervision.

Pastoral care for pastors

Just as the sacraments should only be administered by those holding the office of pastoral oversight, other exercises of pastoral oversight should only be executed by those holding the office. It is inconsistent to permit a synod to authorize a layman to exercise pastoral oversight of pastors in his district without also permitting a church to authorize a layman to administer the sacraments. As authoritative uses of the keys of God’s kingdom, both activities are specific to the divinely instituted office of pastoral oversight.

How ironic if laymen, not holding the God-given office of overseer, were placed at the highest levels of doctrinal oversight in a church body! How bizarre if parish pastors charged with such oversight were told that it was essentially left-kingdom work, not their real pastoral work! That would encourage oversight by the principles of business administration rather than by law and gospel.

Since believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom (John 20:21–23; 1 Peter 2:9), they are free to choose a district president not only to correct pastors but also to absolve them on behalf of the church. Wouldn’t law without gospel be as harmful in pastoral supervision as it is in disciplining children or any other believers? In fact, Matthew 18:15–18 does not permit withholding absolution from those responding to Christian discipline. No one may absolve as a representative of the church without a proper call.

In any case, there is nothing in the New Testament to rule out the possibility that some ministers of the gospel were teaching and preaching in the familiar sense while other ministers of the gospel labored in church discipline, which would involve teaching in a less formal sense or to a lesser extent. The office of elder-overseer would be the same and does not include laymen.

In conclusion, the tension in Scripture’s teaching that some ministers of the word did not labor in teaching and preaching can be largely alleviated by exploring narrower and wider senses of teaching and preaching.

Confessional Lutheran orthodoxy

The idea that some ministers of the gospel preached and taught while others administered church discipline is not as novel as it might seem at first glance. Chemnitz, an author of the Formula of Concord, taught on on the basis of 1 Timothy 5:17 that some performing the “ministry of the Word” preached and taught while others administered ecclesiastical discipline* (Examination of the Council of Trent II, Kindle location near 12990). That would imply that they exercised church discipline not by secular administration but rather by law and gospel.

That coheres with his more general observation that the “orders” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 5:17, and other Scriptures “were free at the time of the apostles and were observed for the sake of good order, decorum, and edification, except that at that time certain special gifts, such as tongues, prophecies, apostolate, and miracles, were bestowed on certain persons by God. These ranks, about which we have spoken until now, were not something beside and beyond the ministry of the Word and sacraments, but the real and true duties of the ministry were distributed among certain ranks for” the welfare and edification of the church (Examination II, Kindle ~13000).

As is well known, the lists of gift in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30 and Ephesians 4:11 are not comprehensive. Bound only by the word of God, believers remain free to distribute the duties of the gospel ministry according to the circumstances. Continue reading

Scripture backs WELS on ministry: Gifts to proclaim the gospel

According to Scripture, different believers were called to perform different functions of the ministry of the keys of the kingdom, applying law (the “binding key”) and the gospel (the “loosing key”) as authorized by Christ (Matthew 16:19; 18:17-20). The ministry of the keys took different forms, in the words of Thesis D6 in the ministry statement of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

This is seen first in the presiding office, the office of teaching the word of God publicly, which means on behalf of the church. While apostles, parish pastors, and evangelists all had divine calls to the presiding office (Ephesians 4:7-11) and were charged with administering the sacraments and with public teaching (Matthew 28:19-20), not all had exactly the same function. For example, apostles were called to testify in ways that parish pastors are not, which is why they had to meet additional requirements (contrast Acts 1:21-22 with 1 Timothy 3:1-7).

In the office of the keys, the power to choose such ministers is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Christ’s words (Matthew 16:19; 18:17-20; John 20:21-23). There is no divine command to choose local pastors (as opposed to apostles and evangelists), neither implicit in any of those binding/loosing texts nor explicit in some other passage.

The best candidate for a clear passage of Scripture as a divine mandate for parish pastors is Titus 1:5, which calls presiding officers “elders,” transliterated as “presbyters.” However, the reasoning needed for that conclusion would also find a divine mandate for Sunday collections in 1 Corinthians 16:2, which contradicts Romans 14:5. Further, Titus 1:5 may refer not only to local pastors but also to other presiding officers (see below on 1 Timothy 5:17). Therefore, there is no divine mandate for parish pastors as opposed to other forms of the presiding office.

Thesis D6 expresses that conclusion somewhat vaguely in its Antithesis:
“We hold it to be untenable to say that the pastorate of the local congregation (Pfarramt) as a specific form of the public ministry is specifically instituted by the Lord in contrast to other forms of the public ministry.”

In explicitly affirming the divine mandate of the presiding office as well as the more general public ministry of the keys, the statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) is clearer than the WELS statement. The ELS statement avoids two extremes:
1. Denying the necessity of the presiding office
2. Limiting the presiding office to the parish (local congregation)

The WELS and ELS statements both cite Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts that include not only functions of the presiding office but also other gifts from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:6-8). Indeed, Paul did not make our sharp distinction between a spiritual gift and a called office. Rather, some gifts in those passages had a one-to-one correspondence to certain offices. In fact, the Holy Spirit imparted a “gift” (we would say “office”) by the laying on of Paul’s hands (2 Timothy 1:6).

Since, as seen above and in 1 Peter 1:9, the keys of the kingdom have been committed to the church, believers may appoint presiding officers (Titus 1:5-9) to use the keys publicly without appointing them to what the ELS statement calls “the full use of the keys,” the power to the presiding office to teach, exhort, lead, and administer the sacraments. Accordingly, some holding the presiding office in the first century led the church but did not teach and proclaim the good news in the same sense that others did (1 Timothy 5:17).

The statement calls an official exercise of law and gospel a “limited public use of the keys” when the called individual is not a presiding officer (see Romans 12:7-8). Teachers of Christian schools fall in that category if they are charged with teaching the gospel to children on behalf of the church. No one should assume such a role without a proper call.

Finally, there is a “private use of the keys,” as explained in Article I of the same statement. This is the unofficial use of law and gospel by individual believers, all of whom are priests offering proclamations of what God has done to bring them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9). The private use of the keys is essential to Christian parenting, bringing up children in the training and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).

In short, Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to believers so they would herald the gospel to the whole world by taking advantage of all available means, including different forms of the ministry. They do that in a variety of ways, taking advantage of every opportunity by announcing the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choosing pastors and others to announce the gospel on their behalf (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 12:7-8; 1 Timothy 5:17), and administering discipline to bring about repentance and forgiveness (Matthew 18:15-18).

For more information, see Spiritual Fathers: A Treatise on the Lutheran Doctrine of the Ministry, with Special Reference to Luther’s Large Catechism (by David Jay Webber).

30 June 2014. Revised 1 November 2014. Hyperlink on 1 Timothy 5:17 added 30 November 2015.

The church is wherever 2-3 agree in Jesus’ name

Unlike leaders of the Swiss Reformation, those in fellowship with Luther did not object to the episcopal polity but rather to its abuse in attacking the gospel and in usurping the authority of the state (Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today, T. J. Wengert, 2008, Fortress Press). Lutheranism has flourished in various church structures, as Sasse emphasized.

What the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) teaches about the forms of the church, the flock of sheep listening to the Good Shepherd, is explained in Thesis D4 of its statement on the church. A careful examination of the Scriptures cited, especially Matt. 18:17-20, demonstrates that the teaching is grounded in the word of God. (Note: The point about “church” in the singular in Acts 9:31 relies on a debated manuscript tradition and is not necessary for proving the thesis.) The conclusion of the thesis is summarized as this Antithesis:

We hold it to be untenable to say that the local congregation is specifically instituted by God in contrast to other groupings of believers in Jesus’ name; that the public ministry of the keys has been given exclusively to the local congregations.

This thesis has implications on the ministry since Jesus gave the power of the keys to the church according to Matt. 18:17-20, as the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (the Tractate) confesses. The promise is not to a highly organized body, which would be anachronistic, but simply to two or three gathered in Jesus’ name. In the context of Thesis D4, Thesis D3 is not limited to the local congregation but includes other assemblies bearing, to a greater or lesser degree, the marks of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

That means a large group of baptized Christians from different geographic locations assembling in his name wields the keys (Matt. 18:17-18). Therefore, it may call a missionary pastor to start churches, preach, absolve, baptize, and administer the sacrament of the altar in other locations. Since the body in question assembles in order “to receive [the gospel’s] blessings and to bring them to others” (Thesis D3), that is, in Christ’s name, it may choose one of its members to open its meetings with devotions and with communion (Matt. 18:17-20). If that assembly is a synod consisting of representatives of local congregations, it may call one of its members to supervise pastors with discipline in agreement with the above passage and with the consent of the local congregations. Such discipline, when proceeding to its final stage, could involve the synod as the visible manifestation of the invisible church, depending on the procedures adopted for the sake of order.

To sum up, the office of the keys is given to the believers, as the Tractate (9, 24, 67-69) confesses on the basis of Matt. 18:17-20 and John 20:21-23. Neither of those binding/loosing texts restricts the use of the keys to the local congregation as opposed to other assembles agreeing in Jesus’ name. In conclusion, WELS Theses D3 and D4 on the church faithfully echo the teaching of Scripture.

Revised 5 July 2014.

Which church has the keys of God’s kingdom? What are its marks?

What is Coke? The soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe of the Coca-Cola company. How can I find some? Look for its marks: it is found in cans and bottles with red and white labels that read in distinctive cursive, “Coca-Cola.” Does that mean Coke is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. Coke, by definition, is the soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe.

What is a church? A communion of believers in Christ. How can I find one? Look for its marks: it is found where the gospel is taught in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command. Does that mean a church is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. A church, by definition, is a communion of believers.

The difference is crucial since in looking for the marks, many have forgotten what they were looking for. For example, some teach that churches in the strict, literal sense include unbelievers. Forgetting that a church is a communion of believers was addressed by the Reformers:

Although, therefore, hypocrites and wicked men are members of this true Church according to outward rites [titles and offices], yet when the Church is defined, it is necessary to define that which is the living body of Christ, and which is in name and in fact the Church [which is called the body of Christ, and has fellowship not alone in outward signs, but has gifts in the heart, namely, the Holy Ghost and faith]. And for this there are many reasons. For it is necessary to understand what it is that principally makes us members, and that, living members, of the Church. If we will define the Church only as an outward polity of the good and wicked, men will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is righteousness of heart and the gift of the Holy Ghost [that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as nevertheless it is; that therein Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and comforts hearts, and imparts the Holy Ghost and various spiritual gifts], but they will judge that it is only the outward observance of certain forms of worship and rites.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Articles VII and VIII, paragraphs 12-13, emphasis added

A failure to distinguish the marks for identifying the church from the definition of the church is a root of all kinds of confusion. The holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the congregation of saints, the flock hearing and believing the Good Shepherd’s voice, as Luther explained. A church by definition is a communion of saints;  this is the the narrow, literal sense of the word “church” (A. Pieper, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline,” p. 10). F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (III, pp. 419-420) makes it clear that even local churches, strictly speaking, have no unbelieving members:

When we speak of a Christian congregation, or local church, we always mean only the Christians or believers in the visible communion. The congregations, too, consist only of believers. As the wicked and hypocrites do not belong to the church universal, so they are no part of the congregation either. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.

Indeed, churches are hidden in the sense that unbelievers posing as believers may be in the midst of the believers. They are the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Hypocrites do not really belong to the churches they pretend to join (1 John 2:19).

At the same time, the communion of saints is known by its marks, especially the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the administration of Christ’s sacraments according to his command. To the extent that visible gatherings have those marks, we may call them churches in a figurative or wide sense because they manifest hidden churches, the communions of saints within them. Such visible gatherings are primarily among believers living in the same region (1 Corinthians 16:1), but other gatherings, such as synods (Acts 15:6-29), and even what Walther called “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” also display the marks of the flock to varying degrees.

A church by definition is a communion of believers. Some communions have more believers than others: they vary in size from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:15-18). This is forgotten once we leave those words of Christ to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers.

For example, some Lutherans have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism and because administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command is an essential mark of the church. Were they consistent, they would have to conclude by the same reasoning that local congregations among the elderly that do not have occasion to administer baptism cannot be churches and that the local congregations among the Reformed cannot be churches because they do not really have the sacrament of the altar. These Lutherans reason that since synods are not churches, they do not have the keys of the kingdom and therefore cannot call ministers or administer church discipline. That at first sounds convincing since the marks of the church are easily mistaken as the definition of the church, but what do the clear passages of Scripture say? Jesus did not give the keys and priesthood of the kingdom to any organization bearing the marks of the church but rather to the church, that is, to the believers, as seen in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9, which are addressed to believers without the word “church.” The local and synodical churches the believers form for the use of the keys are distinguished from congregations of unbelievers by the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the correct administration of the sacraments. In that way, the marks of the church play their proper role, that of distinguishing Christian congregations from non-Christian congregations. The marks of the church are not for distinguishing local Christian congregations from synodical Christian congregations. Since a church is simply a communion of believers, to deny that a synodical congregation is a church is to imply that it is a congregation of unbelievers (see Psalm 50:16-23). Thus, Lutherans who assert that synodical communions of believers are not churches thereby admit to holding that a church is something other than a communion of believers. That is the source of the confusion.

The keys and priesthood of the kingdom belong only to the sheep hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 20:21-23), not to any organization with a constitution, rules of order, corporate legal status, etc. While the sheep are to do everything in good order, they have wide freedom in how to best organize themselves for announcing the saving deeds of the Shepherd who called them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9).

Organization is especially important for public discipline since the due process required by the Eighth Commandment requires some fair procedure. In the early days of the Reformation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church carried out its work of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments for some time before courts could be organized to hear cases (Walther’s Pastorale: American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, 1995, Lutheran News: New Haven, pp. 234-235). Unlike Calvinists and others among the Reformed, Lutherans do not consider discipline to be a mark of the church.

That is because the Evangelical Lutheran Church takes her stand on the bare Scriptures. The flock uses the keys when Christ is present with two or three sheep according to his promise in Matthew 18:18-20. Jesus made the promise to the church against which the gates of hell would not stand before there was a local congregation in any organized sense (Matthew 16:16-19). In using the keys, the sheep proclaim the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choose pastors to proclaim the gospel in word and sacrament (Matthew 28:19-20), and administer discipline subject to the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus cannot lie or deceive. He is there “in the midst of them.”


“Pass the Coke,” she requested. He snapped, “Coke is all over the world! ‘Pass the Coke?’ You never defined a local Coke!” Looking at the bottle on the table with the usual red and white label, she repeated, “Pass the Coke.”

“But that can’t be Coke! The bottle is open. It’s not even full! Coke comes in closed, full bottles. That’s what you told me when you sent me to Walmart!”

Assessing the situation, she smiled and rose to pour more Coke for her guests and herself.

Created 26 June 2014. Revised 7 July 2014.

Will I fall away from Christ?

What if I fall away from Christ when temptation comes?

According to Martin Luther (Bondage of the Will, VII, xviii), it is a great comfort to know salvation does not depend on free will but only on Christ’s promise that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:28-29). That promise ensures that the elect who are straying into mortal sin will return prior to death (III, ii).

How can I believe that promise when the Parable of the Sower mentions the withering of those who believe only for a time? What if I am one of them?

The case of a permanent loss of saving faith is there to warn those who would, in Calvinistic fashion, rely on an earlier profession of faith rather than on Christ’s promise. The law warns them, “If you do not persevere in hearing and believing the word of God, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, any past faith will not save you.” As an example of Calvinism’s deadliness, Pieper pointed to Cromwell’s false security in his memory of having once been in a state of grace.

By contrast, saving faith looks to Christ “outside us,” never to itself. Faith clings to the ever-present promise of forgiveness and preservation, not the reasoning that one may have believed at some time in the past. Christ promises that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:27-29).

1 February 2014. Modified 2 January 2016.

The new nature against the old nature

As a saint, the Christian keeps the law already and does not need to be told to do so. As a sinner, the Christian does not keep the law and needs to be told to do so.

Upon hearing the law, the Christian daily repents and turns to the promise of forgiveness in the means of grace. That is the only way the Christian is truly sanctified and renewed by the Spirit.

For that reason, the new nature has in itself no need of hearing the Decalogue from a pastor or of reading the Decalogue in the Scriptures. The Christian has such a need, still having the old, sinful nature. That is why Decalogue is to be preached to Christians and not only to unbelievers, not that the new nature needs it.

The response of the Christian to the Decalogue is to slay the old nature by returning to baptism in repentance and faith in the gospel since the Decalogue in itself can never sanctify. (While the Decalogue tells us what to do, it does not tell us how to do it.) Sanctification comes only with justification as the sinner-saint daily hears the Decalogue and dies and rises again in baptism to walk in newness of life.

The necessity of properly distinguishing the old nature from the new nature is clear in the writings of Luther. As Article VI of the Formula of Concord says, were it not for the fact that did the Christian has the sinful nature, there would be no need for hearing the Decalogue.

Luther’s stress on the distinction between the old nature and the new nature is striking in how much importance it gives to that teaching, as found in Paul’s letters, compared to the minor role it has in Calvinism and Reformed theology more generally. An error of Reformed theology is to inadequately make the distinction, leading to confusion of law and gospel.*

There should be no doubt that he who is born again cannot sin, that sin is lawlessness, and that anyone who sins has not been born of God according to St. John’s first epistle. At the same time, no good thing dwells in the Christian according to St. Paul. Whereas Calvinists and other Reformed Protestants harmonize the two scriptural teachings into a progressive view of sanctification in accordance with their reason, Lutherans embrace the paradox by recognizing that they speak of the new nature and the old nature, respectively.* In this, they follow the apostolic texts themselves. For example, Romans 7:18 clarifies that no good thing dwells in the flesh of the Christian.

The new nature already knows the law and has no need to hear it preached, but the Christian needs it to reprove him. In the words of the Formula of Concord,

“And, indeed, if the believing and elect children of God were completely renewed in this life by the indwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would need no law, and hence no one to drive them either, but they would do of themselves, and altogether voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law, what they are in duty bound to do according to God’s will; just as the sun, the moon, and all the constellations of heaven have their regular course of themselves, unobstructed, without admonition, urging, driving, force, or compulsion, according to the order of God which God once appointed for them, yea, just as the holy angels render an entirely voluntary obedience . . .

“For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; for these belong to this [mortal and] imperfect life.”

Article V of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession also explains putting off the body of sin and rising to new life in terms of repentance and faith:

“. . . there is first terror and anxiety in the conscience. Thus contrition and faith go side by side. One is putting off the body of sins; the other is the rising again through faith. Neither ought these words, mortification, quickening, putting off the body of sins, rising again, to be understood in a Platonic way, concerning a feigned change; but mortification signifies true terrors, such as those of the dying, which nature could not sustain unless it were supported by faith. So he names that as the putting off of the body of sins which we ordinarily call contrition, because in these griefs the natural concupiscence is purged away. And quickening ought not to be understood as a Platonic fancy, but as consolation which truly sustains life that is escaping in contrition. Here, therefore, are two parts: contrition and faith. For as conscience cannot be pacified except by faith, therefore faith alone quickens, according to the declaration, Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17: The just shall live by faith.”

Thereby raised, the new nature delights in the law, meditating on God’s word day and night (Psalm 1; 119).

* On the remarks about the Calvinistic branch of Reformed theology, see David Scaer’s article (note 20 of page 243); the top of page 238 is relevant to the continual complaint that Lutherans would be more sanctified if their pastors better understood the third use of the law. David Scaer exhibits a penetrating grasp of Reformed theology. He calls the Lutheran position by contrast “Nestorian” in its teaching on the old Adam and the new Adam striving against each other in the same Christian.

The good news of eternal election

Scripture on election

The doctrine of election appears in several New Testament passages, including Romans 8 (“whom he justified, he glorified”) and John 6:40 (“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”). Paul addressed Christian congregations as the elect. “Christians can and should be assured of their eternal election. This is evident from the fact that Scripture addresses them as the chosen ones and comforts them with their election, Ephesians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13” (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1932 Brief Statement).

Scripture’s clear promise of eternal election has been obscured by denominational divisions, with the effect that election is seen as a teaching of Scripture to be used more for debate than for the strengthening of faith. The most important debates focus on how to use the teaching for what all Scripture was intended: comfort and hope from the promise of the gospel (Romans 15:4). In fact, Scripture’s hopefulness led the second-generation Lutheran Church to faithfully confess the biblical doctrine of election.

The Lutheran confessions on election

The church that takes its stand on the bare words of Scripture concerning justification by faith alone and concerning eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ also stands firmly on the bare words of Scripture concerning election.

That is why the Lutheran Church adamantly opposes two opposite errors as threats to faith in the gospel:

  1. Eternal security: Anyone who has ever believed the gospel will inherit eternal life even without remaining in the word of Christ.
  2. Synergism: Free will plays some role in salvation.

The first error removes terror from God’s law, which sternly condemns us in order that we continue to take refuge in Christ as the one who has faced and defeated that terror for all people. The second detracts from the comfort of the good news that salvation is entirely God’s work.

Consider these gospel excerpts from the article of the Formula of Concord on eternal election:

Thus this doctrine affords also the excellent, glorious consolation that God was so greatly concerned about the conversion, righteousness, and salvation of every Christian, and so faithfully purposed it… that before the foundation of the world was laid, He deliberated concerning it, and in His [secret] purpose ordained how He would bring me thereto [call and lead me to salvation], and preserve me therein.

It can be seen that “every Christian” and “me” refer to the same person: every believer, every Christian. That would mean God was concerned enough with the salvation of every child of God to preserve him or her in it.

Therefore, whoever would be saved should not trouble or harass himself with thoughts concerning the secret counsel of God, as to whether he also is elected and ordained to eternal life, with which miserable Satan usually attacks and annoys godly hearts. But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life…

The formula said there that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Far from leading to fatalism, apathy, or lawlessness, the good news of the election of all God’s children motivates the Christian life. The Formula continues with the exhortation to live in repentance, in the forgiving promises of word and sacrament, and in confident prayer:

According to this doctrine of His they should abstain from their sins, repent, believe His promise, and entirely trust in Him; and since we cannot do this by ourselves, of our own powers, the Holy Ghost desires to work these things, namely, repentance and faith, in us through the Word and Sacraments. And in order that we may attain this, persevere in it, and remain steadfast, we should implore God for His grace, which He has promised us in Holy Baptism, and, no doubt, He will impart it to us according to His promise, as He has said, Luke 11:11ff : If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him!

The Formula of Concord likewise affirms these articles among others:

4. That He will justify all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith, and will receive them into grace, the adoption of sons, and the inheritance of eternal life.

5. That He will also sanctify in love those who are thus justified, as St. Paul says, Eph. 1:4.

6. That He also will protect them in their great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh, and rule and lead them in His ways, raise them again [place His hand beneath them], when they stumble, comfort them under the cross and in temptation, and preserve them [for life eternal].

7. That He will also strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work which He has begun in them, if they adhere to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness [grace], and faithfully use the gifts received.

In short, God will raise and preserve for eternal life “all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith” (paragraphs 18-20), and he will do so by means of his word and sacraments and in response to prayer grounded in his promises.

Election in the wounds of Christ

Following Luther and the Formula of Concord, Pieper (Christian Dogmatics III:483-484) instructed us to discern our election in the wounds of Christ, that is, in the promise that he takes the sins of the world away (III:482-483). Here is an example of how the Formula grounds the assurance of election in the universality of the atonement (paragraph 70):

But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life: He testifies to all men without distinction that it is God’s will that all men should come to Him who labor and are heavy laden with sin, in order that He may give them rest and save them, Matt. 11:28.

Not all denominations receive Scripture’s good news that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Taking the Presbyterian Church as an example, the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly makes the promises of the gospel conditional on evidence of conversion. By contrast, the scriptural article of election is a promise of the gospel.

Not everyone believes. Pieper correctly attributes a lack of faith solely to the stubborn rejection of the offer of salvation Christ makes to all, sincerely desiring their salvation. At the same time, Pieper also correctly attributes faith solely to the grace of God. There should be no question that election is a cause of saving faith. Pieper rightly stressed, “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” While aware of the apparent contradiction, Pieper points out that all attempts to resolve it lead to either Calvinism or synergism.

The Lutheran teaching on divine preservation did not originate with the Formula of Concord but can be traced at least as far back as Luther’s Large Catechism:

Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.

Everyone confessing faith in the second article of the Creed (that Jesus Christ is Lord) thereby confesses faith that he “preserves us in” righteousness. Indeed, every baptized child of God has justifying and sanctifying faith and thereby believes all articles of gospel, including its promise of preservation in righteousness.

Warnings against apostasy

What about the threats of Scripture against those who only believe for a time? Of course, the word “believe” has meanings in the language of the New Testament apart from its specifically Christian meaning, “believe with saving faith,” and context always determines how a word is used. For example, the Fourth Gospel spoke of children of Satan who had believed in Christ without really keeping his word (John 8:31-33, 43-44, 51):

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone…” “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

See also John 2:23-25 and 5:37-38.

Law and gospel

God’s word comes to us as law and gospel. We must take both its warnings concerning apostasy and its promises of election seriously by considering the former as law and the latter as gospel. The law says that if you fall away from the faith and do not repent, you will perish eternally. Indeed, there are former believers who completely fall away from grace because they stopped believing the gospel.

While the law of God does threaten his wrath, his gospel cannot since it is by definition nothing but good news. It says those who persevere in saving faith do so solely by the power of God and in no sense by their free will. The gospel, including the promise of preservation, is available to all since God sincerely desires the salvation of all, as the Lutheran confessions emphasize.

The threats in John 15:1-10 and other Scriptures about what happens to those who believe but do not remain in the word of Christ pertain to the law, not to election, since election is pure gospel. The promise of eternal life is even for those of God’s children who, having fallen away from the faith, repent in response to the warnings of the law.

3 September 2011. Modified 2 and 31 January 2016. I thank Daniel Gorman and Guillaume Williams Sr. for informative discussions.

Eternal election

One should not seek assurance of election according to speculations about God’s hidden will but rather in the wounds of the Christ who as God reconciled the world to himself,  as Luther found. That good news is proclaimed by word and sacrament, through which the Spirit creates and sustains saving faith in the same gospel. Faith in that good news includes confidence in one’s election.

These Reformed errors contradict that gospel:
1. The Calvinistic teaching that anyone who ever has saving faith can never cease to have such faith even if committing mortal sin.
2. The Arminian teaching that the human will is free to choose to exercise saving faith.

That is the gospel. Those who actually fall away and remain unrepentant instead need to hear the law: if they die in unbelief, they will be condemned.

Modified 2 January 2016.

“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).