Every so often there is a text for the sermon that has something in it really worth analyzing but other more seasonal emphases in the text force me to preach the text in a different direction. Such was the case on the first Sunday in Lent. The text from Hebrews 4 talked of Christ who was tempted like us in every way but without sin. So I talked about Christ being without sin which was the emphasis for the first Sunday in Lent.
But there was another phrase in the text which I wanted to weave into the sermon and could not. It says in Heb 4:14 of the text that we should “hold on to our confession.” That is a phrase also worthy of discussion.
“Hold on” means to grasp forcibly. It is the word used to describe the retention and imprisonment of a criminal. You lock him up and don’t let him go.
“Confession” means to “say the same thing.” So a confession of faith is both that we say the same thing as God does in the Bible and that we say the same thing as others in the church. Creeds are the most notable confessions of the church since virtually all Christians subscribe to them.
You put these two words together as the author of the letter to the Hebrews does and you have something pretty dramatic. We are being taught that the congregation and the broader church ought to attach as much importance to saying the same thing about God as the police do when they apprehend a prisoner. We should unite both in the process and in the outcome of arriving at theological statements which all can endorse and apply.
I think that our congregation does this and consequently whatever disagreements we might have are not over truly crucial matters. But the church at large is different. Let me site three examples.
First, I have often heard the statement in the church that we should “agree to disagree.” That may be good advice about matters which have nothing to do with the faith such as who to hire to plough the parking lot or what to allot the various lines of the budget. But when it comes to matters of the church’s confession we should never “agree to disagree.” Rather we strive to “say the same thing” even if that means stepping on people’s feelings or having to engage in the arduous task of talking through the confession to make sure we all agree. In the early 20th century many of the Lutherans in America “Agreed to disagree” with each other on the question of whether you cooperate in your conversion or not. Since then these Lutherans (not the LCMS) have been content to disagree about almost everything and have experienced endless conflict as well as a general erosion of their confession in other areas.
Second, I have lately heard in many places that we should celebrate our unity because we agree on most matters of doctrine. The impression is often given that if can agree 80% of the time or 90% of the time then we are in essential agreement and should hassle the other 10%, It reminds me of the Leonard Cohen song where we hear the lyrics, “everybody knows that you’ve been faithful – give or take a time or two.” It is not enough to be faithful to the confession of the church and the words of the Bible most of the time. God expects us to grasp the confession in everything that confession says. Besides, disagreement on some matters usually results in disagreement on an increasing number of confessional concerns.
Third, because agreement in the confession is so important sometimes the church is required to engage in dialog over a period of time. So among the Lutherans following the death of Luther certain divisions in the church’s confession arose which required almost a generation to resolve. But there have also been examples of the church engaging in dialog for centuries at a time living with conflicting confessions indefinitely and almost eternally. For example within the LCMS we have been discussing for over 65 years the questions of who should come to the altars of our congregations and questions of the role of women in the church. There really is no reason why it should take over half a century to come to a common understanding and for everyone to grasp the confession about these matters. Rather, there is a tendency among us simply to live together holding conflicting views as if it doesn’t matter. This is not what God had in mind when he said to “grasp the confession.” He wants us to say the same things and to make this an important part of our life as the church.
God wants us to “grasp the confession.” That means to hold on to the same words. This we do when we refuse to be content with 1) agreeing to disagree, 2) holding most of the confession together, and 3) dialoging about the same divisive issues indefinitely.
The confession of the church is a gift from God. We hold it and never let it go.