The Church in every generation preaches one thing: the wisdom of the cross. She comes proclaiming a message of death and resurrection. Her life’s blood is repentance and renewed faith in Christ’s saving work for His people. Her watchword is reform. The language for this is death and resurrection. Therefore, in this generation the Lutheran church must die if she is going to live. Only churches which have grown tired of the bloody business of dying and rising ignore this reality. They will not pray for it. They will not preach it. Instead they offer gimmicks, salesmanship, methods, and manipulation in place of the truths of the Gospel. All so they can go limping along, coveting a life that isn’t theirs to possess.
The Lutheran church is not one of the great institutions of the Christian religion. She is composed of those who, in their earthly vocations, preach and teach the confession of the one, true Church. The Church where Christ rules in the hearts of His people. When this is no longer true, when the fellowship of the saints is ruled by an institutional ideology, calls for reform are crushed. Sacramental fellowship consisting entirely and only of the baptized is destroyed. There are attempts to kill the Word that cannot die. They go on trying in the old, senseless way to preserve the livelihoods they don’t dare lose. But this is not our way. The Lutheran church is called in every generation to view all things through suffering and the cross. We believe renewal and regeneration arises only out of the death of everything that is not of Christ. It is impossible for the Lutheran church to be renewed and regenerated if she rejects that truth.
We must maintain this tension within our synod, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. As with all churchly institutions, our synod exists to curb and restrain the old man in Adam. It is a functionary of the law. The old man in Adam needs to be curbed and restrained. He must be kept in check. He must be prevented from the exploitation of power and influence for his own sinful gain. The new man in Christ, on the other hand, doesn’t need any curbs or restraints. He is completely free by faith in Christ. He needs only the Gospel, which is delivered by God and received by him through sermon and sacraments, conferred upon him by a preacher.
Our synod and districts exist to maintain the common good for the sake of Gospel proclamation. They are functionaries of the law. They serve the Gospel, they are not its ministers. They do not make up the one, holy and apostolic Christian Church. When the synod and districts try to insert themselves into the Church idolatry follows; because law and Gospel are confused, mixed, or worse, the Gospel is replaced by institutional laws and regulations. Our synod and districts function best when they act to make straight the way for the Lord’s preachers to enter their pulpits. To serve the proclamation of Christ. To gift the churches with preachers who proclaim a word that puts to death the old man in Adam, and raises up a new man through faith in Christ in his place. This is the true Reformation.
The call for renewal and regeneration, the call for reform, is necessary in every generation. It is the call for repentance which leads to death and new life. It is an error to think the Lutheran Reformers beginning with Luther himself set out to reform the churches according to some moral imperative, a need to renovate the status quo, or start a revival movement. No. The call to reform is the call to return to the source of the one truth of the one Gospel for the one Church: Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world and raised for our justification.
Reform won’t be realized by relying on the Lutheran church’s earthly power and influence, by counting the number of bodies in her pews, or the tally of her Sunday morning offerings. Only a church that’s grown tired of the bloody business of dying and rising gauges her success and well-being by earthly standards. This is a foolishness. For the Church bears the same marks as her Master. She is hidden under suffering, weakness, tears, and death. The Lutheran church must sow with tears before she can sing for joy. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod must die to live, or we will continue clinging to a life that was, and is, and never will be truly, rigorously, Lutheran. That is, Apostolic. Christian. The Church.
The Christian Church began as a movement which called all people to repent and believe the good news about Jesus Christ. Every generation since then has been called back to the wisdom of the cross in this same way. Martin Luther’s first thesis and his primary proclamation of the justification of sinners through faith alone is, as the theologian Hermann Sasse writes, “…the greatest example in the history of the church for this truth.”
Synods, conferences, organizations, and religious bureaucrats cannot renew the church of the Reformation. Only the Spirit of God can bring true reform to our churches. The One who crushes our reliance on everything and everyone that is not the one, true God. When He’s broken our grip, when there’s no life left in us to resuscitate, when He’s brought us to the edge, then pulled us over with Him, only then does the life-ending, and life-giving power of Christ’s cross become all in all for every Christian soul residing in our churches. Christ died on the cross, and we who are baptized into death with Christ must be put to death by the cross. As we suffer God’s heavy burdens and afflictions in this life we are being conformed to the image of His Son. By His stripes, we are healed. By our stripes, the Church is conformed to the image of her Savior.
The Church is hidden under Jesus’ stripes. Hidden under weakness, suffering, persecution, division, and false teaching. Many are offended because of these things. They don’t see this as the way of the cross. What they see going on in the Lutheran churches causes them to leave. They will argue that the true Church doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as the one, holy apostolic and Christian Church. Every Lutheran church offers the same basic teachings. Every Lutheran congregation is populated by reasonably faithful Christians. One pastor is as good as another. As long as our worship is enthusiastic and sincere it is god-pleasing.
This is the work of both God and the devil. The devil because he wants to see the Gospel choked off. God because He wants to come to His people only in faith. The true Church is not made holy by any outward thing. She is made holy, acceptable, and spotless by participation in the cross of Christ. The Church suffers because of the Good News about Christ. And the fact that many leave our churches, fall away from faith, and reject the preaching of the Gospel is part of the Church’s cross-bearing.
The idea that wealth and success are signs of God’s favor is an idol. A false god. False teaching. Obstacles to true faith. It’s the way of churches who follow the wisdom of men. They expect to find wealth, success, and renewed vitality in whatever advantages the Gospel offers them. They gauge the success of their church’s preaching and mission by showy and attractive signs. This is the devil’s work. He wants more followers than the cross of Christ attracts. The Church is best off when she is afflicted for preaching God’s Word through sermon and sacraments. When cross and affliction aren’t apparent this is a sign God’s Word has been taken away from the churches. It should be our constant prayer then that we would never suffer earthly prosperity or endure outward success. Peace and prosperity in the churches threatens the preaching of the Gospel. The true Church glories in the wisdom of the cross.
Suffering and affliction are what we can expect as Christ’s body. It isn’t evil. Christ Himself suffered for the world’s sins, and so will we. Christ lays His suffering on His followers so that we wear His yoke and share His burden. The Church’s suffering is a gift of grace. It is the daily dying and rising of baptized Christians. It is God-pleasing. As Christ suffered, and as our fathers in the faith suffered, we can expect nothing less than what our Savior and fathers received. Churches that in their preaching and mission attempt to evade this reality reject Christ. They are choosing to go it alone, on the strength of their convictions. Their minds are set on wealth, success, and guarding their livelihoods, not the cross.
Our life or death in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in this century hinges on whether we follow the allure of wealth and success, and ideologies of church, reform, and evangelism, or whether we repent of them. Will we fight to prolong the livelihoods of our institutions, bureaucracies, and ideologies of progress at any cost, or will we pray for death and resurrection as Luther and the Lutheran Reformers did? Will we preach to entertain and titillate our hearers or proclaim the wisdom of the cross? Will we chase after every wind of doctrine, or hunger and thirst for the life-giving Word preached and taught by our fathers in the faith? Will we worship carelessly, as though our liturgy is “a cupboard full of interchangeable bric-a-brac,”as Rev. Dr. Kurt Marquart once remarked, or will we return to our western catholic liturgical roots?
Let us become rigorously Lutheran. Let us not just preach an abstract, empty forgiveness of sins, but forgiveness of sins which greets repentant hearts in Jesus’ gracious name. For, as blessed Martin Luther writes: “Christ says in the last chapter of Luke 24:47 that we are to preach in His name repentance and forgiveness of sins. Many now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance.” Let us repent of wandering so far from our Lutheran home. Let us submit to the wisdom of the cross. Let us preach Christ and pray for death in our synod, our districts, our congregations, and in our vocations. Only as we are put to death are we given the sure, certain hope that Christ Jesus will raise us up together to new life, to the glory of God the Father. Now and forever. Amen.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Must Repent And Die (If She Is Going to Live)
by Rev. Donavon L. Riley