Charm, Politics, Waiting Games, and the Vanishing Gospel

[NOTE: This article was written before the recent announcement by Dr. Mathew L. Becker that his ecclesiastical supervisor, the District President of the Northwest District of the LCMS, had initiated procedures to expel him from synod following a charge by Rev. President Terry Forke of the Montana District that, until Dr. Becker announced it, had not been publicly known, and further that this article is not about only Dr. Becker.]

When a member of synod is engaged in public false teaching, the confessional brothers must call that erring one to repentance. If he repents, wonderful. If he relentlessly continues in public false teaching, he must be removed from the synod. That won’t stop him from continuing to publicly teach falsely, but it will removed the leaven from the loaf of the synod, and it will make clear what the synod teaches. Otherwise, our tongue is forked.

The Missouri Synod has notorious cases of public false teaching and so far, synod has failed in disciplining the false teachers and those who provide them disciplinary sanctuary. Meanwhile, the confessional brothers among the leadership of synod continue trying to do something, but alas, for all that can be seen, all their efforts (with a few great exceptions) are merely tactical, not strategic.

One of the methods that has been tried and still is being tried is the charm offensive. I have to temper my use of that term. A charm offensive is a campaign of flattery and friendliness designed to achieve the support or agreement of others. I do not accuse anyone of using flattery. Nothing insincere is being done. But we do see a campaign of friendliness that is both sincere and aimed at gaining support for synodical discipline of false teachers and their protectors. It doesn’t work.

Another method is politics. Here, again, I must temper my use of this term. I am not implying any of the negative connotations of the word politics. The church is populated by humans and, to boot, sinners. So it is unavoidable that we must have polity and politics. I am referring only to a dependence on conventions, elections, overtures, bylaws, and so forth to remedy the problem. The hope is to take the time for such things as triennial district conventions to do things like change the composition of the Council of Presidents. It doesn’t work.

Another method is temporizing. Some people believe that many of Dr. Matthew L. Becker’s supporters who have signed public letters of support for him are elderly. They view many of the supporters as remnants from the Seminex days. That makes it tempting to just let the course of nature work the magic of attrition on his support demographic. But by teaching as a professor, he is reproducing, and not all of his supporters are old. It doesn’t work.

A common denominator in all these approaches – charm, politics, and temporizing – is that all of them are works of man. They are all human efforts. That puts a ceiling on the level at which they operate. At the highest, they can be only tactical, if that. No human work can achieve the level of strategy. None of these well intended efforts are strategies.

This is not to say that we should not identify and recruit good candidates for district president, and so forth. But we should not fear, love, and trust in such things either. In corporations and civil government, one might depend on things like that. In the church, however, to reach the strategic level, we need acts not of man, but of the Holy Spirit.

We call the second half of Luke’s writing the Acts of the Apostles. That is a good name for it. An equally good name, however, would be the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Consider Acts again from this perspective. Keep in mind Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed. Everything is about what we cannot do and what the Holy Spirit does.

As soon as we start thinking this way, two apparent and related problems seem to arise. First, we become pessimistic because the Spirit’s ways are mysterious. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8 Second, we realize that we cannot compel the Spirit to act by any mode of invocation of him. “The Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God.” Augsburg Confession, Article V.

But these are not real problems. The fact that the acts of the Spirit are mysterious does not mean that we know nothing about his acts. He is the “Spirit of truth.” John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6. He uses the means of the Word of truth, the Gospel, to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian church. To the statement of the Augsburg Confession just quoted, it is added that the Holy Spirit works faith “in them that hear the Gospel.” The acts of the Holy Spirit coincide with preaching, teaching, and hearing the Gospel.

In other words, we don’t invoke the Holy Spirit. It is just the other way around. He is calling us, and He is calling us to launch the truth offensive. He is calling us to play the theology card rather than the charm card, the politics card, or the temporizing card. I do not know how much the Holy Spirit cares about charm. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, so, yeah, maybe. But I don’t know. I don’t know how much the Holy Spirit cares about conventions. Maybe He does. I just don’t know.

But we know that the Holy Spirit cares about the truth and that the proclamation of the Gospel is one of his chosen instruments for his acts. This is enough for us to see what we should be doing and what effort has any possibility of becoming strategic.

Most, if not all, of the cases of false teaching involve gospel reductionism. This is the narrowing or shrinking of the Word of God down to just the gospel. Gospel reductionism does not allow anything else in Scripture to be normative, and it denies that many things in Scripture are even true, let alone normative.

This eliminates the Law, and that is bad enough. It has terrible, cruel consequences. But even more, and directly related to the matter of getting onto the strategic level in disciplining false teachers, what also goes missing in gospel reductionism is the Gospel! In the name of making only the Gospel normative, the Gospel itself is discarded. What is left is not the Gospel, and that is why I have not capitalized the word gospel whenever I have spoken here about the gospel as it is in gospel reductionism.

Theologians and doctors of the church must launch a theological offensive on two fronts that shows how the false teachers are robbing the people of the Gospel. One front is writing and speaking for an audience of other theologians, pastors, and teachers. The other front is for the laity. Strategy requires that the truth about how gospel reductionism eliminates the Gospel be made plain and simple for lay people. Refuting heresy always has been a part of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel. The refutation clarifies what the Gospel is.

For example, some gospel reductionists cast doubt on the virgin birth of Christ. In this, the Gospel is lost. The work of Christ cannot be divorced from the person of Christ. The birth of Christ is part of the identity of his person without which, in his crucifixion, he joins the hundreds of thousands of unknown others who were crucified. None of their crosses atoned for their own sins, let alone for yours and mine. The reason the cross of Christ atones is that it was Christ, the virgin-born, only begotten Son of God who was crucified. That’s an essential part of what makes his suffering holy, innocent, bitter, vicarious, and atoning.

For another example, some gospel reductionists reject the resurrection of Christ. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury is reported to have said, “I can tell you frankly that while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived and that He was crucified on the Cross, we cannot know that He was raised by God from the dead.” Paul teaches that without the resurrection, the Gospel collapses.

If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. … And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Under gospel reductionism, the momentum of reduction or shrinkage of Scripture does not stop at eliminating the Law. As momentum, it carries on past that to eliminating the Gospel. Its motion reaches the vanishing point of the Gospel where the Gospel disappears. Really what is left is the opinions and druthers of the reductionist.

By this, false teachers rob the people of the Gospel. This is every bit as bad as indulgences, the portrayal of the Mass as a sacrifice man offers to God rather than as a sacrament that Christ gives to us, and all the other Gospel-robbing errors of the Roman church in the day of Luther.

So far, most among even the most confessional of the laity perceive the problem of the false teachers as only being about the Law and historical or scientific issues such as miracles, creation, and the like. That’s good as far as it goes, but it is insufficient for the strategic needs in purging heresy.

It is time for the theologians and leaders of the synod to launch the truth offensive, to play the theological card. They must explain that we are losing the Gospel.

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