The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Must Repent And Die (If She Is Going to Live)

LCMS_corporate_sealThe 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.

photo3427The 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

Advent 2012


The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Must Repent And Die (If She Is Going to Live) — 18 Comments

  1. More confusion of sanctification and justification, Law and Gospel, and denial of the Law’s third use, courtesy of Gerhard Forde.

  2. @Robert #1
    Ridiculous reaction. In some people’s attempt to highlight the 3rd function of the Law, they forget that their are two other functions of the law on the life of Christian and only those who repent and believe can actually begin to live out of the Gospel. Recall the 1st Theses of the 95: that when Christ calls us to repent, He is calling for an entire life of repentance. That is sanctification-to know you are a sinner and need Christ to forgive you, to raise you, to sustain you now and forever.

  3. Robert, you are regularly commenting on Pr. Riley’s posts, and that is good – however if you are going to make comments like the one above, I would ask you provide proof of your accusation – otherwise it just falls flat.

  4. From the main post: “Peace … in the churches threatens the preaching of the Gospel.”

    From the Bible:

    “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18

    “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Romans 14:19

    Prayer suggestion, in light of these challenging times:

    “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands!”
    Psalm 90:17

  5. Robert –

    I don’t want to “pile on” as it were . . .

    But exactly what did you mean?

    Pax – jb

  6. Jeremiah 6:13-14: “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

    How does one give peace? Not by ignoring, sheltering, or hiding the truth. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Eph 4:25)

  7. Pastor Riley, thank you so much for that inspiring, insightful article! I nearly felt as if I would cry my eyes out.

    The fact is (as I understand it), that the Synod is broke. They call for gifts–a laudable opportunity for us as Christians–but where is it actually going? Perhaps if we saw what Walther and his associates encountered, we would understand our mission a bit better (if we just can’t get it into our heads from God’s Word and Concordia). Walther had no synod when he came to America; I imagine he had little in the way of capital. And yet the pure Gospel was preached, and the Sacraments duly administered.

  8. And this is the reason why I love Lutheranism: because there is this sort of honesty about Christianity as written by Pastor Riley.

    A word of encouragement to you good Lutherans from an ex-evangelical: Don’t ever give up the fight on this. Don’t EVER let your churches, your congregations, your ministers, your vicars, your leadership–don’t let it fall to the siren song of the world or of mainstream evangelicalism. Because once you start down that road, you leave behind the very thing that makes you so strong: you leave behind the authority of the Word of God. Too many evangelicals base “spirituality” and “God’s favor” on how full the church is, or how loud the service is, or how much money is pouring into the coffers. It’s pragmatism, and it pleases man rather than God.

    I once remember a Presbyterian Pastor making an excellent point about this with regard to contemporary worship (although the point applies equally to any other “fad” or attraction outside of the Lutheran church). He brought up the point that prophet after prophet called the nation of Israel to repentance when she was found violating God’s word, but not once did any prophet ever say “You know, if you want to keep your young people in the fold and keep people coming to worship YHWH, you need to update your worship style, change your rituals, and reinterpret some of those divine commands and ordinances.” Sound advice to think about.

  9. Pastor Riley’s post was excellent. Synod is Law, pure and simple, and it can serve no other function. And that’s fine. But that means it is fallible and will, necessarily, be corrupt. Because when the law enters in, it reveals corruption.

    However, the following from Pastor Riley is rather overstated: “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.” This is, in fact, just as legalistic as the legalism of those who preach health-wealth gospel, if taken literally and not as hyperbole. Perhaps Rev. Riley meant it as hyperbole.

  10. “Strictly speaking, only that Word which mortifies the old man and applies strength to the new man is the means of sanctification, namely, the Gospel (the means of grace), not the Law. It is only the Gospel which dethrones sin; the Law can only multiply sin (Rom. 6:14; 7:5-6; Jer. 31:31 ff.)…

    “The strength to do good works and to abstain from evil works is supplied solely by the Gospel. Paul admonishes the Christians “by the mercies of God” (Rom. 12:1) to present their bodies a sacrifice unto God. The only thing that will create the love of God and of the brethren in us is “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, 11). In every case the Gospel must write the Law of God into our hearts. Luther reminds us that those preachers who use the Law instead of the Gospel to effect sanctification are to blame for the paucity of sanctification and good works.”

    Francis Pieper, “The Means by Which Sanctification is Effected,” Christian Dogmatics III:6, 18-19.

  11. “Sanctification, the death of the old man and the resurrection to a new life, is not only typified by Baptism, but actually effected. In Rom. 6:1-11 Paul teaches that the Christians are dead unto sin, but alive unto God. This, however, is an effect of Baptism (dia tou baptismatos).

    Sanctification, according to both its negative (dead unto sin) and its positive side (alive unto God in Christ Jesus) is a status quo created through Baptism… Baptism is… a means of forgiving sin. Likewise the mortification of the old man and the resurrection of the new, holy man is not only typified, but effected in Baptism. The Bible certainly teaches no other means of mortifying the old man or of causing the Christian to die to sin than the remission of sins, or the Gospel. By the Law sin is not mortified, but mobilized (Rom. 7:5-6). But believers int he Gospel, or the forgiveness of sins, are told: “Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). No, just as surely as Baptism belongs to the Gospel, that is, a means of forgiving sins, of washing away sins, of cleansing from sin etc., the old man himself is put to death in Baptism… And that is the very thing Paul asserts when he says that we are “buried with Christ by Baptism [dia tou baptismatos] into death” (Rom. 6:3 ff.).

    Francis Pieper, “What Makes Baptism a Sacrament (Forma Baptismi),” Christian Dogmatics III:3, 270.

  12. 1) Pastor Riley: “Our synod and districts function best when they… 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.”

    2) If so, and if the death of the “old man in Adam” (this conflates two terms regarding the flesh) and the raising “up of a new man” pertain to sanctification as Pieper (and Luther!) teaches,


    3) Our synod and districts function best when our preachers effect sanctification.

    1) Pastor Riley: “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.”

    2) If so, and if our death and resurrection pertain to sanctification, as Pieper (and Luther!) teaches,


    3) Only as God sanctifies us are we “given the sure, certain hope that Christ will raise us up together to new life, to the glory of the Father.”

  13. In saying that the Gospel mortifies the old man, Pieper would appear to be turning Gospel into Law. Baptism is both Law and Gospel, a dying and a rising. The quotes from Pieper would also cause one to wonder if Pieper messes up the “simul” character of the Christian.

    Great article, by the way. Pr. Riley is correct. The church body, synod, congregation, Christian who will not die cannot live. How much of synodical life really amounts to “life support” in order to forestall dying?

  14. I’m very saddened, William, to learn that you do not agree with biblical, confessional Lutheran theology on this topic. Your view is out-of-keeping with traditional Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod theology. By Christ’s mercy, I fraternally encourage you to reconsider your position.

    The proclaimed Gospel is pure Gospel. Baptism is pure Gospel. Absolution is pure Gospel. The Lord’s Supper is pure Gospel. Suggesting that Baptism is both Law and Gospel is a confusion of Law and Gospel, and a confusion of sanctification (that which God does whereby we cooperate to an extent) and justification (that which only God does).

    Pieper continues, “The Law of God, which is also contained in Scripture, must be excluded from the concept ‘means of grace,’ because the Law does not assure those who have transgressed it–and all men have transgressed it–of the remission of their sins, or God’s grace, but on the contrary proclaims God’s wrath and damnation. For this reason the Law is expressly called ‘the ministration of condemnation,’ whereas the Gospel is ‘the ministration of righteousness.’ (Christian Dogmatics III: The Means of Grace) 105.

    More to the point, Pieper writes, “Baptism does not belong to the Law, but to the Gospel (here Pieper cites SA III:IV) as we have set forth earlier under the doctrines of grace, of faith, of justification, and more extensively under the doctrine of the means of grace.” (Christian Dogmatics III: Baptism a True Means of Grace) 263.

    Of course, Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics was based on Baier-Walther, the first dogmatics of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. It is far more likely that you and others, who agree with you on this point, err, than that the entire Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which has consistently held the same position for over 166 years, errs.

  15. Pr. Riley,

    Thank you for this.

    May we never crave more than Christ, and Him crucified.

    And may we never settle for anything less, either.

  16. Sheesh! The Old Man IS DEAD ALREADY! The Law proves it. When we say the Gospel mortified “makes dead” I am wondering how that is. The Gospel is NOT for the dead, but the living. The dead care nothing about good news.

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