Holding the Confession – Pitfalls to Avoid, by Klemet Preus

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.


Holding the Confession – Pitfalls to Avoid, by Klemet Preus — 6 Comments

  1. What great and pertinent comments! Many thanks. I may borrow some of these thoughts some time.

  2. Thanks for this great post, Pastor Preus. The “agree to disagree” mentality is tearing the LCMS apart.

  3. Pr. Preus,

    Well said, as always, in your post above. Your comments about holding fast to our confession remind me of the post-Communion prayer on LSB page 183, which reads in part: “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that You have refreshed us with this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercyYou would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another….”
    Here doctrine, practice, and ongoing vocation all have one source—our Lord Jesus’ means of grace. None in this prayer is divided from the other. Yet, I find it disheartening that in our synod, especially in the past nine years, an assumed dividing wall has been erected between doctrine and practice. Many proponents supporting this assumed separation would have us believe that we can survive on merely some social unity while having freedom to agree to disagree on stylisticly “neutral” practice. As your second popular misunderstanding exposes, many seem to sspeak of the separation of doctrine and practice like the assumed wall of separation between Church and state in our US Constitution.
    Thanks be to God, His reign is not a democracy. Rather it stands on and stems from His means of grace–the Word properly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered to His Church. (AC V, VII, VIII, and XIV, etc.) On a personal note, I take comfort in the passage from Ps. 139 which speaks of God hemming us in from behind and before. He holds us fast in His truth by His means of grace, giving us the formal and material grounding for confessing Him alone. Since His Word is not divided but one, we have the joy of praying for complete, doctrinal and practical unity in Christ Jesus our Lord. (John 17:20-26)

  4. Pr. Preus:

    A lot of Christians always talk about the five essentials of Christianity being important, and the rest of the Scriptures as being “in house debates.” CRI as an example.

    I always tell them, that for Lutherans, its not just the five essentials that are important, but that all matters of doctrine are. Only believing that the five essentials are important, leads to gross heterodoxy.

  5. I have seen all three in action as have many…and it’s not pretty.

    1) agreeing to disagree
    2) holding most of the confession together
    3) dialoging about the same divisive issues indefinitely

    Good points Rev. Preus, thank you. I am reminded of the Lutheran Confessions class I took where the last question on the final was (and I’m paraphrasing) “Explain how if any one teaching from the Lutheran Confessions is distorted or removed, the whole confession falls apart.” That was one of my favorite questions I ever had to answer on a test. Great class.

  6. This reminds me of the saying: for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of the horse the battle was lost, for want of the battle the war was lost. “Small” things do matter just as “small” sins matter. When you go to court the bailiff asks: do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If it matters in civil life, how much more so in spiritual where souls are at stake. He is Truth and His word is true and we cling to his word like a lifeline in the dark. Satan’s most insidious lies are those that are closest to the truth but with a slight variation. We do not say “my opinion is truer than yours,” for only His opinion matters. When I became a Lutheran I gave up my opinion on many things because they did not match His. As He says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” If we agree with Him we will agree with one another. Where we disagree we allow an opening for the roaring lion to enter the flock to devour unwary sheep. We cannot allow disagreements to stand but together in prayer and in the Word to resolve them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.