“Following in the Train of the Confessors”(Psalm 119:46)
Confessors, princes, duty bound,
To Augsburg bold they came.
Before the king they stood their ground
And were not put to shame.
Their good confession made that day
Proved not to be in vain.
Gird Augsburg’s sons, Lord, that we may
Still follow in their train!
On June 25, 1530, in Augsburg, Germany, a small group of Lutheran princes appeared before the most powerful man in the world, Emperor Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire, and, at great risk to themselves and their territories, these men boldly confessed their faith. The emperor had called them to Augsburg to settle the disputes that had arisen ever since that troublesome monk, Martin Luther, had nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Now, in 1530, the emperor wanted the Lutheran princes to back down and come back to the fold and not cause any more trouble. But there at Augsburg, called before the emperor, these princes would not back down, they stood their ground, and they spoke clearly and unashamedly what their churches “believe, teach, and confess.” In confessing the faith in this way, these men were doing what the psalmist declared so many centuries earlier, “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.”
In spite of fears and dangers, the confessors at Augsburg knew what they believed and they made the good confession. Now the question comes to us today, “Who follows in their train?” Will we speak up or back down when called upon to give an answer for the hope that is in us? Will we bother to learn the faith well enough to know what to say, or will we be content to muddle along with a confused and weak grasp of Christian doctrine, never growing in our knowledge and understanding? How important is it to us that the gospel of Christ be taught in its truth and purity and that our practice in the church be in accord with it? These are the questions that confront us today, as we observe Reformation Day 2009.
The statement of faith the Lutheran princes presented that day we call the Augsburg Confession. It is the first in a series of confessional documents from the 16th century, the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, collected in a book called the Book of Concord, which your pastor and this congregation have sworn to uphold. The reason we Lutherans promise to conform our teaching and practice according to these Confessions is not because they are German or because they are some added source of doctrine alongside the Bible. No, rather, it is because the Lutheran Confessions are a clear exposition of Holy Scripture, which is the only source and norm of faith and life. The Confessions faithfully summarize the teachings of God’s Word and apply them to situations and controversies that arise in the church. That is their great value, and that is why we gladly agree to believe, teach, and confess accordingly.
And so a number of you here today have been reading through the Book of Concord this year. We’re about 80% of the way through, reading our pages in advance every week and then meeting in class to discuss what we’ve read. And we have read: the three ecumenical Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian); Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms; the Augsburg Confession; the Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession; the Smalcald Articles; the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope; and finally, the Formula of Concord, both the shorter Epitome and now the longer Solid Declaration. It’s been a fascinating study. I like to say, reading the Book of Concord is like one giant Bible study! That’s really what it is–solidly grounded on the Word of God, properly distinguishing Law and Gospel, applying Scripture to the life of the church. Now a lot of us have a much better handle on what we believe as Lutherans and why we believe it. I’ve seen the light bulbs go on over your heads!
This is good, and this is the sort of thing we should continue to do–grow in our understanding of the Christian faith–if we are to follow in the train of the confessors. Sunday morning Bible class. The weekday class–this year it’s the Book of Concord, next year we want to start reading through the Bible. Daily devotions at home. And of course most basic is the Sunday morning Divine Service, every Sunday, when Christ speaks to us and feeds us with his life-giving Word and Sacrament. These are all ways we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and thus be better equipped and built up and confident to speak up when we are called upon to confess the faith.
Why is this so important to do, to know and confess the faith? Because the content of this Christian faith is the only saving truth there is. There is no other. And therefore we do not want to mix the truth with error. Errors in doctrine or practice can lead us astray, get us off the one true path that God has marked out for us, and we end up in a ditch or a dead-end.
Let me give you an example. The Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was teaching, and its practices supported, the false notion that our works contribute in some fashion to our righteousness before God. This is wrong. This goes against Scripture. This goes against the gospel. It makes our salvation in some measure dependent on us. It runs contrary to what we heard from St. Paul, when he spoke of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ,” that we are “justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” And Paul concludes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
So in the Lutheran Confessions, we believe, teach, and confess the truth on this most important matter, over against all errors. This concerns the central article of the Christian faith, the doctrine of justification. If people are left to the notion that their works contribute to their salvation, then one of two things will happen: Either people will be driven to despair, realizing they cannot fulfill the demands of God’s law, or else they will become proud Pharisees, vainly imagining that they can keep God’s commandments well enough. So we have to be clear on the truth here. Only the clear proclamation of the gospel of Christ can give comfort to terrified consciences and give all honor to Christ. These are the twin concerns of the Lutheran Confessions, expressed over and over throughout, namely, to give all glory to Christ and to give true comfort to troubled consciences. That is why we are so insistent on pure doctrine.
Now what are the main confessional issues we face in our day–in our own church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod? Certainly no one is outright denying the doctrine of justification. No one is flat-out denying any of the doctrine we confess on paper. Everyone pays lip-service, at least, to our Lutheran doctrine. But the problem is: Is our practice–is our practice–always the best we can do at supporting our doctrine? Or does the practice in many of our LCMS congregations hide and even undermine our doctrine? This is what I call the “doctrine-practice disconnect.” But these two need to go together, doctrine and practice. There should not be a disconnect between the two, as there is when worship practice, for instance, does not do a very good job of reflecting and reinforcing Lutheran doctrine, but instead resembles more what you would find at a fluffy, happy-clappy, non-denominational church. That sort of nonsense confuses and offends those of us who are trying to teach and practice the way Lutherans are supposed to teach and practice. And yet we have synodical officials permitting and even promoting the poor practices of these fellow Missouri Synod pastors and congregations. And if we dare to speak up and object, then we are labeled the bad guys. This too is a time for confession, right now in our day, in our own church body.
“I will speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.” The psalmist and the Lutheran confessors were not afraid of the powers that be. And right now the powers that be in our synod are trying to increase their power, through a massive revision in our structure and governance. We need to resist this power grab, for it could very well be used to suppress those who speak up for the truth and to consolidate the power of those who want a more “anything goes” synod. Standing up before kings in this case means not giving them even more power to marginalize confessional pastors and congregations.
This calls for courage. There can be consequences for those who confess the truth. The Lutheran princes who stood up to the emperor in 1530–they and their successors later on had to face political pressure and even military attacks because of their stand. Some princes, pastors, and professors caved in and capitulated; they wilted under the pressure. Others held fast and suffered the consequences. Others still remained steadfast and were blessed with peace–but their confessional spirit was the same. They were willing to endure persecution, even if it did not come.
How is it with us? Will we follow in their train? You know, there is a need to stand firm and speak up in our life together, as pastor and congregation, but there is also a need to confess the faith in our own individual lives. Each one of us will have occasion–the Lord will give us opportunities–to speak our faith to our neighbor. It could be an actual neighbor, the person down the block or in our subdivision, the person we meet at the cafe or the club. It could be a family member, that in-law or cousin we see at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Perhaps scarier, it could be our husband or wife, our brother or sister, our son or daughter. When there is an open door to speak of Christ our Savior, will we walk through in faith or slink back in fear?
My friends, God will give you the courage you need to confess Christ in a hostile world. The courage and the strength come from this very gospel that gives you life. You have been set free from your fears, the fear of death, the fear of judgment. Christ Jesus has set you free by the righteousness and the forgiveness of sins he won for you when he died on the cross on your behalf. Your eternal life and salvation are a sure thing, as sure as Christ’s own resurrection on Easter and his return at the Last Day. You are free from death and condemnation. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” “If God is for us, who can be against us?” “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'”
The Lutheran confessors, by God’s grace, were not afraid to speak the truth, even when it could cost them dearly. The gospel they believed gave them the courage to speak. Who follows in their train? We do! Yes, fellow confessors, you and I have the same gospel giving us life, the same Savior freeing us from fear, the same heavenly Father watching over us, the same Holy Spirit empowering us. “We have the same spirit of faith, as it is written, ‘I believed, therefore have I spoken’; we also believe, and therefore speak.” Sons and daughters of Augsburg, today we stand with our fathers and say, “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.”