The Saving of Souls: the Ultimate Purpose, End, and Aim of our Joint Work

What would happen if we really would make the saving of souls the ultimate purpose, the end and aim of our joint work? . . . Even though all kinds of strife-causing questions might arise yet, the question:  ‘Which course is best for the salvation of souls?’ will quickly give the right solution … Whatever will win the most souls for Christ, that would decide between us …” – CFW Walther, Address to the 1st Session of the Synodical Conference, 1872.

walther-ultimatepurpose2-600x300-2As I unwound from Holy Week, I was perusing some of the books I received this past Christmas and ran across a full translation of CFW Walther’s address to the first session of the Synodical Conference in a translation of “From our Master’s Table” by CFW Walter, published in 1876, and republished in translation by Mark V publications in 2008. I’m grateful for the work of Rev. Joel R. Baseley to translate so many of the treasures of the past. They are such a joy to read!

The words quoted above have been featured prominently in some circles since 2009 when they were included in the restructuring report of the Blue Ribbon Taskforce of our beloved Synod.  I’ve numerous times heard them repeated since then, most recently at a meeting welcoming new pastors into my district.

The quote is most often used to quell theological concerns and as a hedge against “incessant internal purification at the expense of the eternal destiny of the souls of men and women for whom Christ died.”

As presented apart from its original context, the above quotation seems to support this kind of view, calling us to use the very pragmatic question, “Which course is best for the salvation of souls?” to decide in when “strife-causing questions” arise.  But, as with any sort of sound-bite proof texting, it is always wise to find the original and read it in context.

Now that I have read the entire address, it is clear to me that this text has been misunderstood and misapplied if it is taken to mean that Walther placed “mission” in any sort of opposition to the maintenance of pure doctrine.

First, it is to be noted that Walther based this address on 1 Timothy 4:16, which reads, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (ESV).” That, in itself, should be reason enough to stop anyone from trying to assert that Walther had in view a need to back-burner theological purity for the sake of mission.

But even if this is not conclusive enough, we have the following, from the very same address, that makes the point that doctrinal purity and mission go together and must not be separated:

Oh, how important it is, therefore, my brothers, that, above all, we make the salvation of souls the ultimate goal of our common labor in the kingdom of Christ! Then it is impossible for us not to ‘give heed to the doctrine’ and thus not to remain vigilant, not to flag in faithfulness to God’s Word in any way. Then, whatever doctrine it might be, we will neither allow it to be silenced nor contradicted, nor retreat from it, so we will always explain: ‘Should we take away even one means that God has given for a person dead in sins, that can awaken him from the dead? Should we take away even one comfort extended by God for a person troubled by his sins, that might restore him? Should we take away even one medicine given by God for a person lying ill in his sins, which could make him well? Should we take away even one weapon, bestowed by God for men battling for their salvation against sins, the world and Satan, by which he might protect himself and conquer? Should we extinguish even a single star, lit by God for men, wandering in error in the darkness of this world, which might be his guiding star to the blessed goal? In short, should we take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs? No, no, so we will cry out, as dear as is our salvation and that of our fellow redeemed, so faithfully will we desire to preserve, to the least letter, this Word, this gracious aid, as God’s true aid for us.’

And this is a blessed war, this war for pure doctrine, when it has the salvation of souls at its root! It is truly precious that we allow ourselves to be scorned as loveless and quarrelsome because of it. It may here be buried in shame, but there it can be expected to be crowned in eternal glory.

With a “changing of the guard” here at Steadfast Lutherans, I believe our readers have every reason to be confident that in this respect, nothing has changed.  It is clear that the regular contributors and new editor of Steadfast Lutherans share with Walther and the former editor the strong conviction that the salvation of souls is and always ought to be the ultimate goal of our common labor in the Kingdom of Christ and, for that reason, it is absolutely impossible not to, “give heed to the doctrine.”

With all Christians who have as their goal the salvation of souls, it is recognized that we must remain vigilant, steadfast, and immovable and not in any way flag in faithfulness to God’s Word nor allow it to be silenced nor contradicted nor retreat from it.

Because our salvation and the salvation of our fellow redeemed is so dear, we share the desire of every true Christian to faithfully preserve this Word, this gracious aid, as God’s true aid for us in this life which leads us as a guiding star to our blessed goal even if we must allow ourselves to be scorned as loveless and quarrelsome because of it. For, “It may here be buried in shame, but there it can be expected to be crowned in eternal glory.”

About Pastor Matthew Dent

I'm a life-long Lutheran who, prior to formal preparation for the ministry, learned most of my theology from good preaching, solid hymnody, and the consistent pattern of sound words found in the church's liturgy in a small church in Western, NY. A "first generation" pastor in my family, I took the "long route" to seminary, working in startups and small companies in the technology and internet sector for 10 years before completing my Bachelor of Arts at Concordia University, Ann Arbor in December of 2004 and continuing my studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, graduating with my M.Div. in 2008. I completed additional residential studies toward an S.T.M. at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and was ordained and first installed in July, 2009. Since January 2014, I have been serving Jesus' Church as pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Standish, Michigan where I live with my wonderful wife, Kelli, and my two kids, Jonathan and Natalie.


The Saving of Souls: the Ultimate Purpose, End, and Aim of our Joint Work — 68 Comments

  1. Thank you, Pastor Dent. I did read #7. No, ya don’t have to re write anything. I saw the way the thread was going. I asked a direct question, of Pastor McCall & he lovingly gave me, a direct answer, in the way, my question was phrased.
    This was a great article. It’s a tough thing, to see situations & the variables, in each, every day.
    Pastor McCall’s post was helpful, for me, at least, because it was simple & direct. No, my Grandparents, Parents, & now myself, did not err, in how we all were raised, as LCMS. Look at it this way, at least the thread isn’t, focusing on 1 or 2, external opportunities. Great article & I hope to see more of them, from you.

  2. I just don’t understand. There is another ISIS video, Daily Mail. While we bicker & dicker here about how to give $$$ to & why….they had time to answer 1 question: are you a Christian?

    I don’t care, what Denom, if any, those outside the US come from, I don’t care, what is “echt”, anymore. How many here, knowing what a simple yes or no, can bring, would say, YES, anyway?

    It doesn’t get more simple, than that. I can’t be there, I can’t send a check, medicine, shoes, a means, I can give my prayers, and I will continue to give, what I can, in any form I have, to make sure, my family, in Christ, gets what It needs, because, He said so.

  3. @Dutch #50

    Great comment, Dutch.  Although nobody will admit it, I get the impression some around here would limit “household of faith” to confessional-liturgical LCMS.

  4. What did I miss? Best construction, upon what? Joint work, correct? Joint effect/affect, correct?

  5. You didn’t miss anything, Dutch.   Pr Scheer caught my careless, intemperate comment and saved me from embarrassment.  

  6. @Pastor Matthew Dent #48

    Luther was certainly not a “restorationist” Pastor, he was a “reformer” and you’re never going to find him or any of the reformers claiming that the RC Church is no more Christian than is Islam, or that the Christian Church ceased to exist during the Middle Ages. He certainly wrote “I would rather have pure blood with the Pope, than drink mere wine with the Enthusiasts.”

    Here’s what we say in the intro to the AC:
    This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers. This being the case, they judge harshly who insist that our teachers be regarded as heretics. There is, however, disagreement on certain abuses, which have crept into the Church without rightful authority. And even in these, if there were some difference, there should be proper lenity on the part of bishops to bear with us by reason of the Confession which we have now reviewed; because even the Canons are not so severe as to demand the same rites everywhere, neither, at any time, have the rites of all churches been the same; although, among us, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed. For it is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches. But it has been a common complaint that some abuses were connected with the ordinary rites. These, inasmuch as they could not be approved with a good conscience, have been to some extent corrected.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  7. @Matt Mills #56

    Thanks for the info!

    That was precisely my point in making reference to Luther. I did not consider him at all a “restorationist.” And with him, on that point, I completely concur.

    The Holy Spirit is at work wherever the Word of the Gospel is present to create and sustain faith “where and when it pleases Him in those who hear.” Thus it would be nearly impossible for the Church to go out of existence, even if nobody on earth purely proclaimed the Gospel or rightly administered the Sacraments. This is confessed also in AC VII when we say, “one holy Church is to continue forever.”

    To be direct and pointed, I do not believe the church ever “ceased to exist”. The One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church has existed from the time of it’s inception by Jesus to the present day. It has existed whole and undefiled among those who share the Holy Spirit just as Jesus teaches when He says, in John 10, “my sheep hear my voice,” and continues in John 14:26 saying, ” the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you,” and is elaborated upon in 1 John 2:27 – “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.” What is necessary is that the sinful nature which remains be drowned and die in baptism so that we aren’t drawn away from the truth and may continue to “abide in him.”

    Regarding the RCC, I would point out that there is a significant difference between our day and the time of the writing of the Confessions of our church – namely, the canons of Trent wherein the Papists denied and anathematized all who believe in justification by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone. I think that marks a pretty big departure, on an official confession level, and since the anathema has yet to be repudiated, it sincerely draws into question whether that body, in the core of it’s official teachings “has the Gospel,” and whether those who teach according to the official teachings of Rome ought to be considered teachers of “Christianity.” And if they do not teach, “Christianity,” we have to ask upon what basis we call their organization, “Christian.”

    In discussions on fellowship among “Christian bodies”, which is what this conversation (and, oddly, all the other conversations engendered by the original article to which I have been a party) seemed to turn into (in spite of the fact that my purpose in writing had almost nothing to do with that topic), I think we need to be very careful to draw clear, bright lines.

    Within such discussions, the designation “Christian,” when applied to any corporate body, should be guardedly used to refer to those whose teachings are aligned with Christ’s; that is, those who, as a corporate body, “hear his voice,” and “abide in Him.” This can only be proved by the alignment of their public confession with the plain teachings of Scripture.

    Lest the newly converted and those with little background in these matters be confused when we talk about “Christian Churches,” I don’t believe it to be helpful to apply the term “Christian,” to any organized body that denies central/essential tenets of the Christian faith. Furthermore, because of the errors and abuses of the past, I think it is essential that organizations considered to be “Christian” publicly affirm “essential” teachings of Christianity, in accord with the principle of our confessions, “…to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” (AC VII) But, I would say, we must have at least that much agreement, or else we are professing a false “unity” by designating another body as “Christian.”

    According to our own Confessions, “The Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as they are included in Luther’s works [are] the Bible of the laity, wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation.(Formula of Concord, Epitome, Rule and Norm 5)

    Except perhaps in a purely political, left-handed, anti-ecclesiastical sense, I see no benefit to considering those associations, corporations, or other aggregations of people who in their official corporate confessions deny baptismal regeneration, the real presence, that it Christ alone who has purchased and won me from sin, death and the devil, or any other teaching of the Small or Large Catechism, to be “Christian” as if to imply there is an “essential fellowship” between that body and our own. I say this understanding that because the Gospel exists (though veiled by the falsehoods taught), the Holy Spirit works faith in individuals within erring assemblies.

    That Christians are given faith in Christ by the Spirit within Romanist churches (or GASP! gatherings of TSA or even SBC assemblies) cannot be denied. But that does not render the official position and teaching of the corporate body to be “Christianity” any more than the fact that (now former) Muslims who heard from their teachers a full out attack on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and yet still have the Spirit work in them to convert them and draw them into orthodox churches makes Islam to be “Christianity”. To be sure, less error is better(!), but the fact that there is less error in Rome than came from Mecca and Medina is, to my mind, ultimately irrelevant if we’re talking about confessing “unity” between organizations.

    The Word of the Gospel delivers the Holy Spirit even when it is seriously perverted and even when it is buried in assertions of its falsehood (AC V does not place any shackles on the work of the Holy Spirit, and AC VIII further, specifically teaches the effectiveness of the Word and Sacraments delivered by “evil men”). But the fact that the Gospel delivers the Holy Spirit who works faith in people gathered around those assertions does not make the individual or group making those assertions “Christian teachers,” and it doesn’t make their gatherings or faith communities “Christian.” Because if that were the basis upon which we labelled a group “Christian,” we would, of necessity, be required to say that Imams were Christian teachers, and Mosques were “Christian.”

    Note, very carefully, that I do not deny that there are Christians in erring bodies. And where there are Christians in the presence of (even the deeply perverted) Word of God, there is, “the Church.” (AC VIII)

    But the body or organization in which they are found is only improperly called, “church,” by their presence (Walther, Church and Ministry, Thesis VI on the Church) – and the essential and concrete unity of the Spirit that is shared among the individual Christians across organizational boundaries does not filter up to a concrete and essential unity between organizations and we need to speak clearly so as not to falsely represent it as such.

  8. “The LCMS recognizes all Trinitarian church bodies as Christian churches (in contrast to “cults,” which typically reject the doctrine of the Trinity and thus cannot be recognized as Christian). In fact, a primary “objective” listed in the Synod’s Constitution (Article III) is to “work through its official structure toward fellowship with other Christian church bodies”—which explicitly assumes that these “other church bodies” are “Christian” in nature. That does not lessen the Synod’s concern for the false doctrine taught and confessed by these churches, but it does highlight the Synod’s recognition that wherever the “marks of the church” (the Gospel and Sacraments) are present—even where “mixed” with error—there the Christian church is present. Such a church is a heterodox church, that is, a church that teaches false doctrine.” –

  9. @John Rixe #58

    The quote you provide specifically and categorically denies that we are “in fellowship” with such “Christian churches” since it is a primary “objective” for Synod to “work through it’s official structure toward fellowship.”

    I have specifically affirmed the fundamental assertion of the quotation you provide when I say, “Note, very carefully, that I do not deny that there are Christians in erring bodies. And where there are Christians in the presence of (even the deeply perverted) Word of God, there is, “the Church.” (AC VIII).” I would willingly elaborate that thought to say, “there is the Christian Church.”

    However, what I specifically deny is, “the essential and concrete unity of the Spirit that is shared among the individual Christians across organizational boundaries … filter[s] up to a concrete and essential unity between organizations.” Such a concrete and essential unity is implied when we speak, behave and acting as if they all rightly teach “Christianity.” Thus, I posit that, “we need to speak clearly [i.e., carefully] so as not to falsely represent it as such.”

    The one thing that you may be able to persuade me to reconsider is the means by which I would propose to do so which is, in part, to exercise caution in how our use of “Christian” is applied and used when it comes to representing and discussing “Christian unity” (typically termed “fellowship”) which is what, so far as I can tell, has been the primary concern of this discussion.

    There is no desire to exclude from the household of faith individual Christians within erring church bodies. In fact, their spiritual welfare is firmly in view since, “a little leaven leavens the lump.”

    There is, however, a desire not to mislead the public, the newly converted, or others who are poorly catechized or confirm them in their misbelief that all “Christian” church bodies are essentially the same and the differences between them are veritably inconsequential and are more a matter of personal opinion and preference and not truly substantive.

  10. @Pastor Matthew Dent #57

    Pastor, we confessional Lutherans are the only ones who believe teach and confess that justification is by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone. Certainly all Arminian churches reject that, and the Calvinist reformed deny the efficacy of the means of grace. That would tend to make me conclude that you consider us as the only Christian Church, and were that the case, you might want to re-read Walther’s Thesis XX in LAG, because he denies that bluntly.

    To admit that there are Christians in erring bodies doesn’t go far enough from a confessional perspective, and saying that we should be in altar and pulpit fellowship w/ all Trinitarian Christian churches goes too far. Why not just go w/ the official statement of your own denomination and recognize all Trinitarian church bodies as Christian churches, while asserting the heterodoxy of the rest (oh, and about a third of our own.)

    -Matt Mills

  11. @Matt Mills #60

    I do not assert that we are “the Only Christian Church.” I do assert that only the Evangelical Lutheran Church (that is, the Church whose teachings are in agreement with the Lutheran Confessions) teaches “Christianity.” I make this distinction because I believe that most people, when considering what we mean when we say this or that group is “Christian,” are understanding us to say, “they teach (or confess) Christianity,” not, “God is at work among them through the Word and the Sacraments.” Teaching is a category most people can relate to. The Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament is not.

    As to accepting the “official statement” of my church body, I have no problem with the assertions that the statement on the LCMS website makes in context (though I’m not sure it qualifies as “the official position of our churchbody” simply by it’s appearance on the website or even the personal writings/speakings of the former president). The statement is made in response to a question about “the salvation of Catholics [i.e., individuals within the Roman church] who adhere to Roman dogma.” It is not about the “Roman Church,” as such.

    I also note that the quotation provided is not the complete answer to the question. The remainder of the answer deals specifically with individual believers within erring bodies. It is true, it speaks of “church bodies” that are “‘Christian’ in nature,” but it then goes on to qualify what makes us able to recognize them as such are the marks they bare – i.e., the Gospel and the Sacraments (which, I would hastily add, according to the official confession of our church is, “The Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered.”).

    Along with the author of the answer, I also assert, “wherever the marks of the church exist, even where ‘mixed’ with error—there the Christian church is present.” I go on to assert – There it is present in it’s fullness among those who share faith in Christ and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is precisely because it is the Holy Spirit who works faith through those means that we can say this. But that is not an ontological statement concerning the external organization within which those Christians exist. That the church “is present” “wherever the marks of the church exist,” is different from saying, “the external organization is, itself ‘the (a?) Christian Church’, apart from the members in it’s midst who are Christians by Spirit worked faith.” (Here it is fair to fault me for not saying, “except insofar as the organization exercises itself in the Gospel [purely preached] and the Sacraments [rightly administered].” But here even you concede that we’re the only ones who do that, so I’m not sure it’s worth the fuss.)

    Walther predicates our ability to call a group “Church” [or for our purposes “Christian”] on the believers within it in Thesis VII on the Church in Church and Ministry when he says, “visible congregations that still have the Word and the sacraments essentially according to God’s Word bear the name ‘church’ [or for our purposes, ‘Christian’] because of the true invisible church of sincere believers that is found in them.”

    Here He picks up on Thesis VI where He says, that it is “because in this visible assembly the invisible, true, and properly so-called church of believers, saints, and children of God is hidden,” that the Scriptures, “in an improper sense” calls them “church”.

    Ultimately, I don’t see Walther making any further assertion than, “We CALL them ‘Christian Churches’ on account of the true Christians in their midst.” Which is my position.

    So, “from a confessional perspective,” exactly HOW, “doesn’t [it] go far enough,” “to admit that there are Christians in erring bodies” and it is only on this basis that we consider the body itself “Christian”? It seems to me, on this point, Dr. Walther would disagree with you (unless I’m missing something – a possibility which I am always more than willing to entertain).

  12. Pastor Dent,
    With the utmost of respect: laity, in the US, let alone outside it, only have, what our Seal holds & our Small Cat, if that. Work from those, on up, in this. I cannot agree, with you, in this. I can see a lot, what the Holy Ghost, our Heavenly Father, & the Holy Lamb of God, sees? I’m glad, I can’t.

    Aim small, miss small, Pastor.

  13. Pr. Dent,

    Kudos, and a non-military “hu-rah!” if the Marines out there will allow it. Speaking as a layman (and a T.O. (“Theological Offspring”), granted), I don’t see how you could have made your points any clearer, and am quite frankly baffled by the evinced “confusion”. The Church is found within the church(s). A church is not The Church. And, begin at home and work your way out. (That is simply a clear explication of the Doctrine of Vocation).

    As for those who seem to be opposing what I think was the thrust of your article, I will offer this for contemplation (though it will probably get me crucified, if anyone is still reading this); What is the difference between giving money to an organization which teaches “another gospel” because they do mercy work, and monetarily supporting an abortion provider because they “provide free health care for women”?

    soli Deo gloria,

  14. Grendelssohn,
    I think you may have meant, Oorah. My Dad, was a former USMC. In many ways, this article was, however, questions, should be asked, to clarify and quantify, the intent & orders given.

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