What Is Article XIV?

[This post is essentially inside baseball for The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, although it certainly has implications for the Church as a whole, since the Book of Concord is a confession for the sake of the Church.]

It is only one sentence in the English translation of the Latin: “Concerning church order they teach that no one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called.”1 In the English translation of the German, it reads: “Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.”2

The controverted terms today are “no one” (German: niemand; Latin: nemo); “publicly” (German: öffentlich; Latin: publice); and “proper call” [translated “regularly called” by the Triglotta] (German: ordentlichen Beruf; Latin: rite vocatus) (Concordia Triglotta 38-39).

Current controversies in the LCMS seem to revolve primarily around semantics: what does rite vocatus mean? It is often used as shorthand for AC XIV, but no word means anything apart from its context. That fact led to this question: Why did Melanchthon (affirmed by the Confessors) find it necessary to confess just this statement on the public preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? None of the notes on the translations of these words clarifies anything for our modern problems and controversies over who should exercise the Office of the Ministry (or, perhaps better: who should be exercised in the Office). For example, with reference to the Kolb/Wengert edition, what does it mean to be called in a “regular manner by a proper public authority”? (See the note on rite vocatus.) Certainly, the Lutheran Church has historically left it an open question what constitutes a “proper public authority,”3 whether secular officials, consistories, bishops, or synods. “Regular” (and rite seems to bear this out) appears to be “simply the way things are done.” If “the way things are done” has changed from the time of the Augsburg Confession, the words rite vocatus, in and of themselves, cannot bear the weight that we try to put upon them.

Since neither the Augsburg Confession nor the other Confessions confess every possible teaching of the Scriptures, the first significant question is: “To whom or at what practice is this statement directed?” In other words: what is being confessed here and for what reason? It is clear that in the case of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the statements are presented to the Holy Roman Emperor and they are confessions of practice in the face of Roman accusations that the Evangelicals had departed from historic doctrine and practice, i.e., that the Evangelicals had separated themselves from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Evangelicals’ defense is always that they had not departed from the true teaching of the Church (meaning that wherever the Church—including the Roman Church—had correctly explicated the Scriptures and had not contravened or made ecclesiastical law beyond what the Scriptures commanded or forbade, the Evangelicals confessed nothing more or less).

This means that Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession does not appear in a theological and practical vacuum. It is not an abstraction, but it bears a specific relationship to other articles in the Confession and to the context in which it was confessed. Article XIV assumes Article V, which flows directly—even grammatically—from Article IV on Justification. Article V states the purpose for which God ordained the preaching Office (“so that we may obtain such saving faith,” a faith explicated in Article IV). Then, Article XIV states the confession of the Evangelicals regarding those to whom the Office is given for the sake of delivering the Gospel Word and Sacraments to sinners. The Office exists by the command of God, but an office cannot deliver Christ’s Word and Sacraments. So men are put into the Office4 for carrying out what God wants to give through the Office.

Of what, then, did Rome accuse the Evangelicals, so that Melanchthon believed it necessary to confess Article V and XIV? Naomichi Masaki writes that the accusation came particularly in Johannes Eck’s Four Hundred Four Articles, in which Eck conflates various statements of non-Roman theologians in order to discredit the Evangelicals and the entire Reformation. These articles forced Melanchthon to expand the scope of the Augsburg Confession in order to address Eck’s assertions.5 Eck had attributed two statements to the Reformers: “The church of Christ does not know the Sacrament of Ordination. Luther.” and “All Christians, as many as are baptized, are equally priests. And any layperson can consecrate churches, confirm children, and so forth. Luther.”6

Masaki writes, “C[onfessio]A[ugustana] V was thought as sufficient for the Wittenbergers to confess the doctrine of the ministry. … Eck had twisted Luther’s biblical teaching of the royal priesthood (basivleion iJeravteuma, 1 Pet 2:9). He accused Lutherans of setting aside the office of the ministry by including every Christian. He charged that laymen were acting as if they were ordained. Melanchthon added CA XIV to refute these charges and to exclude the suspicion that CA V talks about the priesthood of all believers.”7

Regarding the distinction between the office of the ministry and the priesthood of all baptized believers, Thomas Winger writes with particular clarity:

The office of the ministry is about service: standing in the place of Christ, the pastor brings the gifts of God to His people. If anyone is to offer a sacrifice, it is not the pastor but the priesthood of all believers (prayer, praise, and thanks…). The pastor preaches the Gospel, forgives sinners, washes away guilt, and feeds with Christ’s Body and Blood—he does not offer sacrifices. The ordained ministry cannot be viewed as flowing out of the priesthood of all believers because the two are of an entirely different nature. This clear, biblical distinction is damaged when both pastor and people are called “priests,” and likewise when both pastor and people are called “ministers” … It is therefore inappropriate and impertinent for ordained ministers and baptized priests to battle for primacy in Christ’s church. Each has a unique gift and calling.8

These two Articles (V and XIV) together, therefore, are meant to confess the catholic truth about the Office of preaching. They do this, on the one hand, by confessing that the Office is for the sake of the Gospel, to deliver it to sinners; and, on the other hand, by confessing that the certainty of the Word delivered is confirmed by the certainty that a given man is put into the Office to do God’s will by the Holy Spirit: produce saving faith in sinners by delivering to them the preached Word and Sacraments of Christ’s death and resurrection.

This, ultimately, is the purpose of Article XIV: the assurance of faith. To place someone into the Office rite vocatus is to bind him to the purpose of the Office: delivering the Word and Sacraments. If there is uncertainty about whether someone is in the Office, there is uncertainty about whether he has been put there to do those things. The Office and the functions of the Office cannot be separated. The Office is never an abstraction; it is always carried out in the concrete preaching and teaching and administration of the Sacraments. So there is assurance for the preacher, as well as for the hearers. Both the preacher and the hearers have no doubt that he is there to carry out the Office, because by his public, open call into the Office, confirmed publicly by the ordination and/or installation, there is no doubt that this is the man whom God has chosen.9

Besides providing the assurance that God has put a particular man into the Office for the sake of people in a particular place, putting that man under orders serves to restrain his own sinful nature.  As a baptized Christian, the pastor certainly needs no compulsion to carry out his Office for the sake of love.  But because his sinful nature still clings to him, as much as to any person, he also may need the spur of the Law to continually put that sinful nature to death and to force him to do his duty for the sake of those whom he is given to serve.  Both Law and Gospel apply to the pastor in his vocation, as much as they do to any Christian in any vocation.

It is for these reasons that AC XIV says “no one” will publicly preach or deliver the Sacraments unless he has been rightly–even “ritely”–called. It is not for the sake of a time-bound regulation, but so that both preacher and hearer can have the assurance of the Gospel delivered by an Office ordained for that very purpose, and so the preacher will carry out his Office faithfully. In this sense, the vocatus or calling into the vocation of preacher (the Pfarramt) is little different from vocations such as law enforcement, medicine, government, or even husband and wife. Only doubt and confusion—even danger—would result from someone exercising the functions of law enforcement without the office of law enforcement; it very well could be life-threatening to have someone exercise the functions of medicine without the office of medical doctor; anarchy is the name for people exercising the functions of government without the office of governor; and adulterer is the name God gives to those who exercise the office of husband or wife without having been ordained to those offices.

Some will attempt to marshal C.F.W. Walther for support of laymen carrying out the functions of the Office of the Holy Ministry. They will appeal to the idea of “auxiliary offices” (better, “helping offices”), such as teacher. But this is an anachronism akin to speaking of elders in the Scriptures as if they are equivalent to modern Lutheran Boards of Elders. (Or a more germane example: taking for granted, without argument, that the seven “deacons” chosen to help the Apostles in Acts 6 are equivalent to modern lay deacons who preach and administer the sacraments.)

Masaki writes,

“While it is widely held that the holders of auxiliary offices can perform one or more of the functions of the office of the holy ministry, Walther in Thesis VIII did not envision this. The Hilfsamt [“helping office”], according to Walther, supports the Predigtamt [“preaching office”] so that the holder of the Predigtamt may devote himself fully to the ministry of word and sacrament. Walther’s examples of Hilfsamt are ‘[lay] elders who do not work in the word and in the teaching [doctrine] (1 Tim 5:17),’ ‘the rulers (Rom 12:8),’ ‘deacons in the narrow sense/the school teachers/the almoners,’ ‘the sexton/sacristan,’ and ‘the leader of a choir in the public Divine Service.’ Quite to the contrary, for Walther the Predigtamt is the only office that Jesus instituted, and the bearers of the Predigtamt are to care for the congregation of God and watch over their souls as those who give account for them (1 Tim 3:1, 5, 7; 5:17; 1 Cor 4:1; Titus 1:7; Heb 13:17). Walther does not hold the bearers of the Hilfsamt accountable to God, neither partially nor fully. As in Thesis II, so in Thesis VIII, Walther does not divide the Predigtamt into office and functions.”10

And Walther, in a letter to Pastor J.A. Ottesen, writes,

“The question is whether such an arrangement is permissible according to which, on certain occasions [which are not emergency situations], the preacher may grant the laymen, as a right, to teach and lead the people in [public], when this is customarily occurring. That is absolutely and directly contrary to the doctrine of the Scriptures regarding the Office [Amt] (1 Corinthians 12:29; Acts 6:4; Titus 1:5). And it is contrary to the Fourteenth Article of the Augsburg Confession. It is against all the testimony of pure teachers and against the constant practice of our Church. Given all this, it is inconceivable how a person otherwise well versed in God’s Word and the orthodox Church can for an instant be unclear on this. To base [this practice] upon the spiritual priesthood of Christians is ridiculous [Unsinn]. For then it would happen that no one would have any reason to depend upon the pastor’s vocation. Still less so can the thing be based upon a special vocation. For the Church cannot create a vocation at will. It can only give what God has instituted and which He alone acknowledges. (This [institution] alone is that through which a minister of God comes into being, not through a human contract that lasts a few hours and days.) The matter cannot be built upon the emergency case [Notfall], as is evident.”11

Further, many would cite Luther in various places in support of preaching and administering the Sacraments by those who are  not put “under the orders” of the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Often, though, the quotations are, at best, indirectly related.  When Luther directly addresses such service, he writes things like the following:

“Here is an example. If a layman should perform all the outward functions of a priest, celebrating Mass, confirming, absolving, administering the sacraments, dedicating altars, churches, vestments, vessels, etc., it is certain that these actions in all respects would be similar to those of a true priest, in fact, they might be performed more reverently and properly than the real ones. But because he has not been consecrated and ordained and sanctified, he performs nothing at all, but is only playing church and deceiving himself and his followers. It is the same way with the righteous, good, and holy works which are performed either without or before justification. For just as this layman does not become a priest by performing all these functions, although it can happen that he could be made a priest without doing them, namely, by ordination, so also the man who is righteous by the Law is actually not made righteous by the works of the Law at all, but without them, by something else, namely, through faith in Christ, by which he is justified and, as it were, ordained, so that he is made righteous for the performance of the works of righteousness, just as this layman is ordained a priest for the performance of the functions of a priest. And it can happen that the man who is righteous by the Law does works which are more according to the letter and more spectacular than the man who is righteous by grace. But yet he is not for this reason righteous but rather may actually be more impeded by these works from coming to righteousness and to the works of grace.”12

When both Luther and Walther discuss the specific practice at issue, they (along with nearly the entire Church throughout history) certainly do not speak in favor of non-ordained people carrying out the “functions” of the Office.  Apart from quickly advancing technology in various fields, is our current culture really so unique that we must do something that has never been done in the history of the Church, except in situations of far greater need than we now face?

If it is true (and I take it to be so) that either one’s practice will be changed to match the doctrine, or one’s doctrine will change to match practice, then the LCMS currently has an uncomfortable level of tension between doctrine and practice. The language that is used of pastors in the ordination rite, and the language used by pastors in the Absolution, for example, seem to highlight the fact that the LCMS has never really come to terms with what we are actually confessing when we talk about ordination or what it means to be a pastor.

Consider the Rite of Ordination:

Beloved in the Lord, _____________ has been called by the Lord of the Church into the Office of the Holy Ministry of the Word and Sacraments. He has been prepared for this ministry by careful study and prayer. He has been examined and declare ready and prepared to undertake this sacred responsibility, and, by the guidance of God the Holy Spirit, he has in the Church’s usual order [rite vocatus!] been called to be ________ of/at _________. According to apostolic practice, he is now presented to be ordained and consecrated to this office established by God. (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, 161, emphasis added)

Later, echoing and following the order of AC IV and V, it says,

God gathers His Church by and around His Holy Gospel and thereby also grants it growth and increase according to His good pleasure. That this may be done, He has established the Office of the Holy Ministry into which you have been called by the Church and are now to be ordained and consecrated by prayer and the laying on of hands (ibid., 165).

And, at the Holy Absolution: “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Lutheran Service Book, 185, et passim). The Absolution, as we have it in our official books, is actually tied to the Office of the Holy Ministry, ordination, and calling, following on the command of Jesus Himself.13

Further, Melanchthon’s documented reason for inserting Article XIV creates an irony in this discussion: those who advocate people other than ordained and called pastors carrying out the “functions” of the Ministry are explicitly doing what Eck accused the first Evangelical confessors of doing. What are the implications of such an acknowledgment?

The question needs to be answered: Are Article V and XIV the confession of the Office for the sake of the Gospel, or are they legalistic or Romanizing attempts to hold on to some perceived “clerical power”? The contrary answers given to that question highlight the different assumptions behind the various practices within the Missouri Synod. Beyond that, the general cultural climate in the United States makes having a serious and nuanced discussion about assumptions nearly impossible, since our national political and public square (primarily social media) arguments are carried out in blindly binary terms: if you are not one hundred percent with me, than you must be with “them.” Can the Church do better?

I do not claim to have any comprehensive solutions to the apparent thirty-year impasse on lay ministry (indeed, far too much has been written for me even to claim any new contribution to the discussion), and this short paper is not meant to address every circumstance that may be anecdotally raised in support of laymen serving as pastors without actually being put into the Office.14 Even so, the Church of Jesus Christ never starts with the varying experiences of sinners, even forgiven ones within the Church, as a basis for its teaching and practice. It is precisely such emotivistic anecdotes and appeals to experience that have seriously undermined the authority of the Word of God in the churches, and brought about the Biblical, confessional, and theological chaos that now reigns in the United States. Instead, the Church asks, “What has Jesus said and given us?” and we then rejoice to hear and live by that Word.

The wider point is that many of the “sides” in the Missouri Synod are starting with radically different assumptions and definitions. (I suspect that we will see these differences on full—though, I pray, not sinful—display at the 2016 Synod Convention.) In order to work together for a common purpose (which is, I think, agreed upon: the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments to sinners, who are in need of Jesus’ life), we must return to our unanimous confession. If we cannot, are we still a single Synod? If we cannot act as a Church organized around the Gospel given out according to Jesus’ own chosen means, are we still united around those means? We cannot dismiss these foundational questions as irrelevant or assumed. Once we take for granted such questions, we will lose the unity inherent in the answers our ancestors in the Faith once confessed. And if we cannot confess anew the foundations of our unity, for all intents and purposes, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at that point would simply cease to exist.15

May God the Father, who has given Jesus as Head over His Church, preserve His pure Gospel and Sacraments among us, according to His own promise.

Rev. Timothy Winterstein

The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Presentation of Jesus, A+D 2016



1 Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (p. 47). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

2 Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (p. 46). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

3 Indeed, Apology XIV points to exactly this issue when it states: “Concerning this subject we have frequently testified in the assembly that it is our greatest desire to retain the order of the church and the various ranks in the church—even though they were established by human authority.”

4 The Church has, since the time of the Apostles, put men into the divinely ordained Office by the laying on of hands, which, in itself, is a ceremony that has no command of God. But I understand “ordination” to mean that putting under the “orders” of the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. That is the evangelical Office, and while the means of putting into Office (laying on of hands) is an adiaphoron, the fact that men should be publicly put into the Office is not optional, precisely for the public certainty about whom God has placed into the Office (see Johann Gerhard, On the Ministry, Theological Commonplaces XXVI/1 (St. Louis: CPH, 2011), 209f.). It is not enough to simply state that “ordination is an adiaphoron” without also recognizing the reason (namely, the Roman assertion on the necessity of canonical ordination) that the confessors held to such a position.

5 “This publication imposed upon Melanchthon and the other representatives of Lutheran reform the necessity of going beyond what they had originally planned to present to the emperor. It compelled them to confess their adherence to the core of catholic teaching, to the heart of the biblical message, in the presentation of their call for reform to Charles” (Robert Rosin, “Introduction to John Eck’s Four Hundred Four Articles,” Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord. Eds. Robert Kolb, James A. Nestingen. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 31.

6 Johannes Eck. Four Hundred Four Articles for the Imperial Diet of Augsburg. No. 267-268. Transl. Robert Rosin. Sources and Contexts, 65.

7 Naomichi Masaki, “Augsburg Confession XIV: Does it answer current questions on the ministry?” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 70(2), 149.

8 Thomas Winger, “The Priesthood of the Baptised: the Testimony of Luther, Peter, Humpty Dumpty, and a Goat.” You, My People, Shall Be Holy. Eds. Stephenson; Winger. (St. Catherine’s, Ontario: Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, 2013), 324, 336. Winger’s other, longer papers on this subject are exhaustive and well worth considering: Winger, “The Priesthood of All the Baptized: An Exegetical and and Theological Investigation” (STM Thesis, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis: 1992); and Winger, “The Office of the Ministry and Ephesians 4:12 – The Question of a Comma” (M.Div. Thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Catherine’s: 1990).

9 So Chemnitz writes, “These very great and comforting promises concerning the ministry ought to be displayed , as it were, in a prominent place in the church, in order that the dignity of the ministry might be extolled against the fanatics, and that those to whom the ministry has been committed may go about their labors and bear their difficulties with greater eagerness, and that men may learn to use the ministry reverently” (Examination of the Council of Trent. Transl. Fred Kramer (St. Louis: CPH, 1978), II:693.

10 Masaki, ibid., 144-145 (emphasis in bold added).

11 Walther, “On Luther and Lay Preachers,” At Home in the House of My Fathers. Ed. Matthew C. Harrison (Lutheran Legacy, 2009), 140.

12 Luther’s Works, 25:234-235.

13 I leave it to the reader to catch the sonic dissonance between having the unordained serve at Word and Sacrament and these statements from the ordination rite and the Absolution.

14 Although I suggest that if we want to remain a single Synod, we ought to consider the broader implications of our local practices prior to implementing them. If those practices cause or highlight disunity, we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you,” but we are obligated to have a discussion free from generalized accusation, ad hominem attacks, and impugning of opponents’ motives. Beyond that, it seems beneficial: (a) to assume that various parts of the Confessions are not in conflict with each other or with the Scriptures; (b) to study how difficulties in providing pastors were addressed in the past; and (c) to make sure we have definitional clarity when discussing the constellation of issues surrounding the Office of the Holy Ministry and the way that it is carried out among us. We cannot assume that since we are using the same words, we mean the same things. It is incumbent upon each of us to define each controverted term for the sake of others: e.g., to what, specifically, are we referring when we talk about “ministry,” “pastors,” “ordination,” or “adiaphora” (as Charles Arand has said, not all adiaphora are created equal); we must cite specific sources when referencing the Scriptures, Confessions, and our Lutheran ancestors, so that anyone can check our work; we should be willing to modify or reject, in part or in whole, aspects of our thinking that do not match the Scriptures or the Lutheran confessional writings. If we cannot define our terms and be specific when making the arguments for one position or another, we only increase the rancor and misunderstanding. For that reason, I believe having calm, rational discussions in local gatherings of pastors is necessary, before trying to summarize positions and objections for convention talking-points. If we cannot talk locally, with those we know, without assigning bad motives to arguments and those who make them, then there is no real chance of talking cordially across the Synod.

15 I admit my own skepticism about whether it exists currently. In his “Duties of an Evangelical Synod,” Walther said, “Therefore a synod’s primary purposes are 1) unity of confession and 2) integrity of practices. … If the study of doctrine is not the number one priority at synodical conventions, then one of two things will happen: Either the convention will be manufacturing laws, or even worse, it will degenerate into an affair of mutual praise, love, and assurance, and life insurance” (At Home in the House of My Fathers, 300, 301).

Allowed to Disagree

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of George Bernard Shaw, “In some matters the difference between us seems to amount to this: that I very respectfully recognize that he disagrees with me, but he will not even allow me to disagree with him” (“Our Birthday,” G.K.s Weekly, 21st March, 1935; in The G.K. Chesterton Collection on Kindle).

Part of the difference between Lutherans and Reformed on the Sacrament of the Altar seems to amount to this: that while the Lutherans (most of the time) respectfully recognize that the Reformed disagree with us, the Reformed will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them about the Supper.  This is not a new phenomenon.  All the way back to the earliest disagreements among the different confessions arising from the Reformation, the Lutherans made church fellowship the sine qua non of altar fellowship, and vice-versa.  One necessarily entailed the other, just as it did from the very beginning of the Church of Christ on earth (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship).  On the other hand, the non-Lutheran Reformed began, at least as early as 1631 at the French Synod of Charenton, to welcome Lutherans to Reformed tables.  Whether it was because sharing mere bread and wine does not require any agreement on what is happening to and for Christians there, or whether it was because the Lord’s Supper didn’t belong to the essential core of the Christian Faith (Zwingli), the Reformed have never understood the Lutheran objection to a shared Supper.  They will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them.  (Regarding the myriad contradictions that serious Reformed see in Lutheran teaching, see Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 105ff.)

Besides the current cultural context, which inevitably reduces and minimizes confessional differences, the Reformed descendants of Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, et al. find the Lutheran position to be a loveless one.  In the uniform (until recently) and historical Lutheran practice of sharing the communion of the Lord only when confessional unity under the Scriptures is recognized, the Reformed hear only an accusation against them that they are not Christians or not “Christian enough.”  But it is at precisely this point where the Lutherans feel the exasperation of Chesterton when arguing with Shaw: we simply want to recognize the real and substantial gulf between the Lutheran and Reformed positions, and they will not even allow us to disagree with them.  The Lutherans believe that the two positions are as far apart as heaven and earth: the bare fact of whether we eat Christ’s Body and Blood with the bread and wine, or whether we do not, is–quite literally–everything.  This is why, for Lutherans, “all questions of the life and teaching of the church ultimately [lead] to the question of the Lord’s Supper” (Sasse, “Why Hold Fast to the Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?” The Lonely Way, I:453).

Finally, we simply want to be honest, and state that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between those who confess Christ’s Body and Blood eaten and drunk by everyone (even, God forbid, an unbeliever) who communes, and those who say that there is only bread and wine eaten and drunk by some or all.  This is not a difference in how Christ’s Body and Blood are present, but whether they are.  Lutherans have never confessed a particular mode, means, or mechanism of describing Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament (e.g., “consubstantiation”).  But Lutherans have always confessed that His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk by everyone, quite apart from an individual’s faith.  This is what Jesus says, and our horizontal unity around the altar depends on making the same confession about Jesus’ own words.  That is what “confession” means: saying the same thing.  And that is what “communion” means: union-with.  Union with Jesus in His Body and Blood (which is impossible if His Body and Blood are not actually there); and union with the other members of His Body precisely because we all share the same Christ as He gives Himself to us.  This, and nothing else, is the cause of “closed Communion.”  Closed to all who refuse to confess with us the simple words of Jesus, but open to all who receive these words with faith and joy.  We cannot force anyone to accept this confession, but we do ask that those who don’t accept it allow us to respectfully disagree with them.


An Open Letter to the Guilty

This is not for anyone for whom everything is great.  This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health.  This is for the guilty and the desolate.

I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really.  You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control.  You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.

You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you.  You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation.  You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.”  You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children.  Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do?  What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?

You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God.  Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.”  But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith.  In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.

You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it.  Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.”  The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.”  The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”

The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners.  All sinners.  You.  And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them.  Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances.  Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig.  The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them.  The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin.  The Gospel is for you.

The Gospel is unmerited and unconditional.  Do you see what that means?  Exactly that your (in)ability to keep yourself from horrible sin cannot save you.  You were dead in sin from the very moment of your conception.  The Judgment had already come down, and it was not in your favor.  But you can’t be any lower than dead.  Dead is dead, and you were.  So individual sins are not a surprise, particularly not to the God who decided to save dead, damned sinners.  You did not “fall into sin;” you sinned because you were already fallen.  So there was no merit to lose.  You can’t lose what you never had.

That’s why God’s love is unconditional.  His love in Christ has no strings attached; it has no requirements, no small print.  The cross means nothing if it doesn’t mean this: that every sin you have committed–every sin–was felt by Jesus in His flesh.  Willingly.  Nothing drove Him to death on a cross but His completely unmerited, unconditional love, the singular love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The point of the mercy of God in Jesus is that He takes all your sin, trading for it His eternal life.

Do you think that God would not want you because your sin is horrible? It is true that He doesn’t want you because He can still see a little good in you, and once that little good disappears, He no longer wants you.  He doesn’t want you because He can imagine the good person you have the capacity to be.  He wants you only(!) because He is merciful in Christ.  That’s what grace means.  The Love of God is not great because it finds incredible value in you.  Then, His Love would be lessened according to how valuable He found any given person.  Try Romans 5 again:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:6-11).

Of course it doesn’t make sense to you.  Why would God want you?  Why would God welcome you back?  Your sin is terrible, and you’ve carried its guilt for many years.  But the logic of the Gospel is contrary to all sense and reason but its own.  Mercy in Christ doesn’t work like the Law, with its threats and punishments toward those who do not keep it, and promises and rewards to those who do.  God’s righteousness is outside, apart from, of a distinctly different character from, the Law.  The Law and the Prophets point to the Gospel, but they are not it.  It is sui generis, of its own kind.

And it is only the cross that can teach us this Gospel: Christ’s, and the cross laid on us because we belong to Him.  So Pastor Luther writes,

“The holy Gospel is a powerful Word.  Therefore it cannot do its work without trials, and only he who tastes it is aware that it has such power.  Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power.  It is a Word of life.  Therefore it must exercise all its power in death.  In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death. … God lays a cross on all believers in order that they may taste and prove the power of God–the power which they have taken hold of through faith” (Luther’s Works 30:126-127).

In other words, if you haven’t already despaired of yourself and what you can do, you will not really believe the Gospel.  The cross is not the absence of God’s power, as you think; it is the precise location of God’s power.  Jesus’ death is life for the world.  That’s why Paul says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  There, in the very midst of death, we are in life.  If the Gospel cannot do anything for those who know their sin very intimately and see that it is horrible, God-denying, and utterly indefensible, then it cannot do anything at all.  If it is not for sinners such as you and me, then it is for no one.

But it is for you.  Christ is risen from the dead.  And now He brings the absolution from the cross; now He brings His crucified and resurrected flesh and blood; now He delivers it to you, or He delivers it to no one.  All of it, every drop and every word, for you.


“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

Endless Discussion

Featured image

Hermann Sasse was frequently prescient, and since his words so often apply to multiple generations, it’s not surprising that he continues (rightly so) to be read.  One particular passage continues to apply to the Church in general, and to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in particular:

Not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion.  It is necessary to remember that in an age which has a superstitious belief in dialogue as the infallible means of settling everything.  There are questions raised by the devil to destroy the church of Christ.  To achieve this, he may use as his mouthpiece not only ambitious professors of theology, his favorite tools, but also simple, pious souls.  Why women cannot be ordained is one of these questions. [“Ordination of Women?” The Lonely Way, II:402]

To which question Sasse spends the rest of the essay giving (or rather confessing) the answer.

Matthew Becker (someone who continually touts his position as a professor of theology) is one of those who holds to continual dialogue as the proper means of (un)settling every question.  I am not commenting on this because I expect that he will be removed from my church body’s roster; I don’t have a lot of confidence in that, even though he teaches several things contrary to what has been the Synod’s unchanged position throughout its history.  On the other hand, I happen to think that Becker’s particular brand of reductionistic Lutheran theology is either going the way of the dinosaur, or is going to be folded into the amorphous blob of modern, Protestant theology (which, as it turns out, are usually the same thing).  But his latest public comments (in one of the few friendly online places left to him in the LCMS) are so disingenuous and pedantic, and their irony is so palpable as nearly to require exhibition.  Not only that, but he manages to strike both the high notes of triumphalism, as well as the bass notes of persecuted humility (which was probably predictable, since the LCMS has failed for twenty years to find anything officially objectionable in his public teaching–which does make one wonder whether any pastor could ever be defrocked for false teaching in the LCMS, at least as long as he was able to take refuge in academic freedom and at the same time sufficiently obscure the pertinent Scriptures).

Becker’s contention is not that he doesn’t teach or advocate contrary to the position of the LCMS (and, it should be admitted, to the nearly unanimous understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout time and space); his position is that the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions do not speak clearly on the issue and, therefore, he is justified in continuing to “ask questions” and pursue the “theological task” with respect to the Missouri Synod’s position.  I’m not going to spend time responding to his claims about what the Scriptures do and do not say about who should serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  There has been more than enough discussion of those points, even if Becker does not find them compelling.  (Or maybe he hasn’t read them, since he seems to think that no one has ever taken up the issues which he is so nobly–even Luther-like–raising?)

But two points stand out:

Continue reading

An Entirely Wrong Scriptural Sermon

Featured image

C.F.W. Walther gives us some insight into why not every sermon (or song, for that matter) that is built from the Scriptures is a true or orthodox sermon.

That is the litmus test of a proper sermon.  The value of a sermon depends not only on whether every statement in it is taken from the Word of God and on whether it is in agreement with the same but also on whether Law and Gospel have been rightly distinguished.  If the same building materials are provided to two different architects, sometimes one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, will make a mess of it.  Because he is dim-witted, the latter may want to begin with the roof, or place all the windows in one room, or stack layers of stone or brick in such a way that the wall will be crooked.  One house will be out of plumb and such a bungled piece of work that it will collapse, while the other will stand firm and be a habitable and pleasant place to live.  In like manner, two different sermons might contain all the various doctrines–and while the one sermon may be a glorious and precious piece of work, the other may be wrong throughout.  …

This frequently happens when students give sermons. [Walther is giving lectures to seminary students.]  You will hear comforting remarks such as “It is all by grace,” only to be followed by “We must do good works,” which are then followed by statements such as “With our works we cannot gain salvation.”  There is no order to such sermons.  Nobody understands them–least of all the person who needs one of these doctrines most.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, 37-38

“The Flight Into Egypt” III

Featured image

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes–
Some have got broken–and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week–
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted–quite unsuccessfully–
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress with joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

W.H. Auden, For The Time Being (ed. Alan Jacobs), 63-65

Reformation Week: Loehe on the Lutheran Church


The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord gives his Holy Spirit only through his Word and sacraments, and therefore it recognizes no other effective means than Word and sacrament. …

From its knowledge of human nature it knows that men will sooner open their hearts to the truth when it is gladly but sparingly imparted than when they hear its voice speaking constantly.  Therefore it understands how to give people enough of its means but not too much.  It does not consider it an insult, nor is it eager to interpret it as an insult, when someone says, “This pastor thinks it is enough if he preaches, catechizes, administers the sacraments, hears confessions, and comforts the sick!”  It knows that even the most faithful pastors do not do enough of this.  It has little use for multiplying pastoral duties but treasures those which are commanded in the Scriptures and have been recognized since ancient times.  To many people it is something novel that a man should not be a jack of many trades but a master of the few precious means, yet this is what the church has always thought.  In a word, it accomplishes much through a few means. …

It is enough, and more than enough, if a man just carries out the ancient duties of a pastor.  Superfluous and even a hindrance is the officiousness of modern pastors.  Here the slogan should be, “Not many, but much.”  The poverty of our fathers is richer than the wealth of their opponents.  It is through alternating periods of withdrawal and public appearance, stillness and publicity, through persistent use of Word and sacrament, through giving of a quiet but full measure, through modesty and steadfastness that the Lutheran church attains its goals.

It is not concerned with new means of encouraging good works, although they have been highly praised.  It does not desire to do its good works the way societies or factories do.  It knows that works carried out in the fashion of modern societies easily displace other works, disturb the harmony of manifold good works, and make men one-sided and intemperate.  It is afraid that societies which separate from the church and act as if everything depended on them may become organizations of extravagance and intemperance, even though they carry the name “temperance” in their titles.  …

The church has various activities, therefore, even though the means through which it performs them and encourages all good things are always the same–Word, sacrament, the holy office of the ministry.

Few means–many good works!  That is the way it is with the church.

J.K.W. Loehe, Three Books on the Church, 164-166

New Traditions and Old

Featured image

Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place.  I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse).  I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures.  Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe).  Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building.  Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.”  Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”)  Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed.  Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic).  Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.

Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever.  They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith.  They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians.  Fine.

But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old?  It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism.  It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront.  I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy.  I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things.  Language matters and every action teaches something.  I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.  I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries.  I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining.  Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant?  As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?

Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere.  From where do the songs come?  From where do the thoughts about the texts come?  From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come?  From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together?  Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition?  Of course not.  But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church?  I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing.  If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.

[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences.  If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]


Why Sports?

This probably isn’t the best time to have this discussion.  Indictments, criminal and otherwise, are floating around in the smoggy sports air.  Some people, who probably didn’t like sports — especially football — much at all, are using the current troubles to crow their triumphant and smug “I-told-you-sos.”  Others are commenting and opining because it’s their job.  Still others are commenting because it’s what you do on your computer, even though you have no more knowledge of the situation than anyone else does.  And still others are just sitting down in front of their TVs on Sunday afternoon and watching/shouting/cheering/crying when their teams win or lose.

I acknowledge all of that, and I agree that it’s easy to get a little (or a lot) cynical.  It seeps into the college game, and it seeps into youth programs where parents who yell at their pro teams (who can’t hear them) start to yell at their kids or their kids’ coaches (who can hear them).  It’s all a little disgusting.  But sports endure.  More rules, maybe.  More “safeguards” put in place.  More agreements and bargaining and limits on what can and cannot be done by athletes.  But people, even in spite of themselves, still watch.  They still pay to see the games live.  They still buy the jerseys and the hats and the other paraphernalia.  Why?  Why do sports (and for me, it’s primarily football) continue to compel our attention, even when we’re annoyed or disturbed (and sometimes, it still happens, inspired) by the lives of athletes off the field?

I don’t have a full answer to that question, but I do wonder if part of the current problem is that both fans and athletes take sports too seriously.  These are games, after all.  Some people view that to be an argument against pro sports.  I think it is actually the opposite: we enjoy watching sports precisely because they are not serious — not serious, at least, in the same way Christ and family and literature are serious.  Sports are, in fact, like all good things: problematic when they leave their proper realm.

Chesterton once wrote on politics:

Males, like females, in the course of that old fight between the public and private house, had indulged in overstatement and extravagance, feeling that they must keep up their end of the see-saw. We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it. We said that everyone must have a vote in the country; similarly our wives said that no one must have a pipe in the drawing room. In both cases the idea was the same. “It does not matter much, but if you let those things slide there is chaos.” We said that Lord Huggins or Mr. Buggins was absolutely necessary to the country. We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this. We only expected that they might leave us a little more margin for our nonsense; we never expected that they would accept it seriously as sense. [What’s Wrong with the World, Part 3, VII]

Now, whatever you want to make of his arguments against female suffrage, I feel like something similar has happened with sports; not necessarily between men and women (although something of Chesterton’s description comes through), but in the argument about whether sports matter.  Certain people (male or female) might act, discuss, argue as if sports really mattered to the world, as much as Huggins or Buggins mattered to the world.  We never expected to be taken seriously.  Suddenly, people have begun to say all the nonsense that we sports fans hardly believed when we said it.  It was always a diversion.  It was always something declaimed as serious and important when it was nothing of the sort.

But now people take it seriously.  I don’t know if the athletes themselves always did.  But sports has, in many ways, become too serious for its own good, as all idols eventually do.  It is no idol to cheer for a team, to find oneself in a community of like-minded individuals celebrating or commiserating together.  It is no idol to care what the team’s record is or whether they make the playoffs.  It becomes an idol when it leaves the realm of the sport and enters the realm of the serious.  It is an idol when it begins to matter in the same way your religion or, to a lesser degree, your family matter.  From the Christian perspective, sport (which, I venture to suggest, has been around since the beginning of creation) is simply one more good thing in the creation.  It is not The Good.  And it would be good if we could remember that again.