How The Missouri Synod Once Handled Difficult Doctrinal Issues

I am trying to teach myself German. I had one year in college and a little tutoring from a brother pastor in my circuit. The method I use is to let Google Translate help me with vocabulary. Grammar slowly comes into place, but I need to knuckle down and do the hard work.

At any rate, I’ve been working on the Doctrinal Proceedings of the 1860 Convention of The German Evangelical-Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (as the Missouri Synod was once known). The topic that year was a set of theses concerning the intimate relationship of the doctrine of absolution with that of the doctrine of justification. The author is thought to be Pastor Th. J. Brohm. Here are the theses:

  1. Absolution of sins is, according to Luther’s teaching, the Gospel, whether it is proclaimed to many or to the individual.
  2. Private absolution is therefore not an extra or an addition to the existing power of the Gospel  to forgive sins. Private absolution is nothing else than the preaching of the Gospel to the individual sinner.
  3. The steward and dispenser of absolution in the public office are the preachers of the Gospel; but otherwise all Christians, because the entire Church is the original holder of the Keys; however He who forgives sins through their ministry is the Triune God.
  4. Absolution does not consist of a judicial judgment of the confessor, of an empty proclamation or wishing of the forgiveness of sins, but of a powerful announcement of the forgiveness of sins.
  5. The effect of absolution is not based on man’s repentance, confession and satisfaction. Absolution calls for faith, it works and strengthens faith. Absolution is of no use to mankind without faith, even though it is not a faulty key [Fehlschlüssel].
  6. Through private absolution, there is indeed no significantly different or better forgiveness announced, such as in the preaching of the Gospel. Private absolution is also not required to obtain forgiveness in such a way as if it took place without any forgiveness. Nevertheless private absolution still has its special usefulness and benefits, because through it the individual is certain that the forgiveness of sins is also for him.
  7. Private confession is closely related with private absolution, which is nothing more than that one desires absolution. Next to this it also has the benefit that it gives the father confessor the opportunity to question people, to exercise preaching and the catechism, to guard them against unworthy use of the Sacrament, to give all sorts of counsel in difficult cases of conscience, and finally it is an exercise in self-humiliation. In sum, it is an exercise of Law and Gospel.
  8. Confession is not commanded by God, but nevertheless is highly useful. Therefore it is not to be compelled as necessary, but where it is used, it is to be preserved. Where it has fallen into disuse, it is to be recovered through recommending and praising its benefits.

The reason why theses seven and eight are italicized is because they were considered not to be germane to the main point of the discussion. This is not to say they are important, so they are included.

What I want to show you is how the Missouri Synod once handled what could have been a divisive doctrinal issue. You will see rarely this kind of “back and forth” concerning doctrine at a Synod Convention, let alone a District Convention or even a Pastors Conference. Nowadays we seem to gloss past differences and accentuate our “tremendous unity” that is merely a unity of being in the same place at the same time under the name of a synod. Doctrinal quibbles take up “precious time” at conventions. It seems to me that doctrinal quibbles was worth the “precious time” of those attending the convention of 1860.

A rough translation from German now follows. I beg your indulgence for the length of this post, but it is worth your time to read and savor what is written. This discussion shows where Missouri once shined, and still shines to this day: the clear Scriptural teaching of the doctrine of objective justification as it relates to the blessed gift of Holy Absolution. Where there are mistakes, I take full blame.

The discussion concerns the first thesis: Absolution of sins is, according to Luther’s teaching, the Gospel, whether it is proclaimed to many or to the individual.

After it had been observed how very important this thesis is and how desirable it is that we are all in quite clear and definite agreement about the truth in it, forasmuch as in our time a truly Babylonian confusion prevails particularly over it and certainly at this point also is not devoid of ambiguity among us, it was initially expressed that when absolution here is referred to as the preaching of the Gospel, so that the holy Sacraments are in no way from, but, included with, since the administration of the Sacraments are indeed one visible preaching of the Gospel, therefore they were called the visible Word by the old Lutheran theologians.

Soon the question arose whether or not the concept of absolution in the definition given was too broad? Whether every preaching of the Gospel was truly an absolution? It was answered: Admittedly every preaching of the Gospel is an absolution; because such preaching is nothing other than administration and distribution of the existing and collected forgiveness of sins into the Gospel. This happens publicly, to a crowd, or particularly, to the individual.

Concerning the claim now made, that from the definition of the preaching of the Gospel as an absolution the necessity of faith should be offered out at the same time, came the following reply: Everything comes to this for the time being, to recognize that the great treasure of the Gospel, the accomplished redemption by Christ to all men and through it the acquired forgiveness of sins, is also offered to all according to the command of Christ: “Preach the Gospel to all creatures.” All who hear it, whether they believe or do not believe, are proclaimed and offered the forgiveness of sins. The preacher always speaks absolution when he proclaims the Gospel, even to those who do not believe; because absolution is a divine act and not dependent on faith or unbelief of people. For of course the unbeliever encounters the accomplished absolution to him also through the preaching of the Gospel itself and for that very reason is deprived of it.

On the other hand, it was argued: According to God’s Word one could and may not forgive the sin of the unbelieving sinner after all, but instead should and must retain them; since now the forgiveness of sins would not be given in preaching, how then could the preaching of the Gospel ever be absolution? Answer: The fact of the redemption and reconciliation of the entire human race by Jesus Christ, and thus the forgiveness of all sins of all people from God, which indeed the Gospel precisely proclaims offers and gives, can nevermore become a falsehood through the unbelief of people, if even the unbeliever does not accept it, but repels from it and therefore also is lost for that very reason alone. How therefore absolution or absolution of sins can be nothing else than the preaching of the gospel, it done publicly or particularly, then also any preaching of the gospel, it done by word or sacrament, always an absolution from all sins. Therefore, as absolution or acquittal of sins can be nothing else than the preaching of the gospel, done publicly or particularly, then also any preaching of the gospel, done by word or sacrament, is always an absolution from all sins.

Because it emerged from these repeatedly expressed concerns that the desired clarity and unity about the first thesis does not yet exist, the synod felt compelled to negotiate over it even further and more thoroughly. One here expressed first and foremost that there is still no proper unity among us. It appears to be that some think to separate the Gospel as means of grace from treasury of grace, namely something like this: as if a king would request through a message to come to a certain place where a treasure should be distributed, for there the treasure was not at the embassy, but must be sought elsewhere and retrieved; thus it is that the Gospel includes the treasury of grace of the forgiveness of sins in itself and the proclamation of the same proffers and imparts that treasure. The administering does not depend on whether people believe, no, the treasure is always there in his word and is administered to all who hear it. The sun shines whether or not everyone shuts their eyes and do not see its light. To illustrate, you can move here the example of the resurrection of the youth of Nain. The Word of Christ: “Young man, I say to you, stand up!” was not an empty sound, but awakened hearing and life in the dead youth. Thus the Gospel awakens spiritual hearing, faith, and thus imparts the treasury of forgiveness which it bears with it.

Here now the following emerging question enjoined itself in the synod: the phrase is always pronounced and is known by us: Through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, God has absolved the whole world, i.e. loosed from sins; if according to this the world is already long since absolved and loosed from sins, what then is absolution or preaching of the Gospel in the Church? Is it also anunmooring, or merely a proclamation of unmooring that has already happened?

Answer: The absolution of the entire world is done in God’s heart in the moment when redemption was done by the Lord Christ, and because the salvation stands accomplished before God even from eternity, then one can say: Absolution was in God’s heart even from eternity. But we do not yet have it. What now should happen in order that we obtain it? God has established the obtaining of absolution on nothing that we could do, and to earn it, but he wants to bestow it upon us by free grace. There is now no other way to receive the gift than faith in Jesus Christ. But so that absolution will be received by us, God has placed it in us and the bringing happens precisely through the gospel of what is in God’s heart. The preaching of the Gospel also brings us the absolution that is in God’s heart, so that faith receives it; this is in the Word of the apostle: “How should they believe, from which they have heard nothing?” Where the preaching of the Gospel is proclaimed, there the good Lord Himself draws near to sinners and says: I am reconciled and proclaim to you hereby that all your sins are forgiven you. How then would that not be an empty proclamation of forgiveness, but a true message of forgiveness, if God were speaking so directly to sinners, so also the preaching and absolution of the minister is none other than a proclamation of forgiveness, but such a proclamation, that really brings and gives forgiveness. The best way we can make this thing clear to ourselves is through a picture. We men are all by nature trapped in an atrocious prison; Christ has broken the gates of this prison; we don’t know, see, and feel it, but they are broken. And if we also saw it, we would also still not have the heart to go out, because we must fear that we would be taken away from the place and be thrown back. But the Gospel is the blessed message of God to us: Go forth, you are redeemed, you are pardoned, you are free! The Gospel is also not a proclamation that we are first redeemed and should be pardoned, but that we already are redeemed and pardoned, and absolution in the Gospel is none other than a reiteration of the actual absolution that has already happened through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This was once again asked: If the resurrection of Christ absolves the world, will it again be absolved by the Gospel? If one must say that the world is already absolved, must one not also maintain that the preaching of the gospel is merely an announcement of absolution?

The answer to that was: One does not say we are once again redeemed and reconciled, but what happened once is appropriated to us. When the apostle says: “If one died for all, therefore all have died,” then that is identical to this: One is resurrected to life, so they are raised to life. As surely as Christ has died, and died for all people, so surely God sees all people as dead for the sake of their sins. Christ’s death has redeemed sins as death for all people. On the other hand, Christ is also raised in the stead of all people, thus all people are declared righteous in Christ; for Christ needed to be as the Righteous One for His person not by resurrection, but this has been done for our sake, He died and rose again in their place, and thus all are justified in Christ. Reconciliation and justification has already happened in God’s court, but we do not have it yet. Because God has now chosen the Word to give it to us. Not by own works will we deserve it, but faith should grasp it. But faith should take this, therefore the Word is necessary, because without the Word no faith is possible. The Word and of course the Sacraments are therefore the means whereby the treasure will be administered to us. If this is understood to be a mere announcement of forgiveness that one simply tells, the question of whether the preaching of the Gospel is merely an announcement of absolution must be answered in the negative; it is such an announcement that at the same time gives what it preaches. An example can make this clear. When a rich man had determined a great gift for someone, and someone told me about it, then this would not benefit me; but if I would be like a man condemned to death in prison and the king, who would have pardoned me, his servant, sent to me with the announcement of pardons, then I would be really pardoned. So also God in Christ has pardoned me and allowed me to proclaim pardon in the Gospel. Every creature has the right to tell me: You are redeemed and reconciled to God, your sin is forgiven you: therefore Christ also says: “Preach the gospel to all creation.” The Lord could not speak more powerfully. Where only creation suffices, there this blessed message should be proclaimed: man is redeemed and reconciled with God; whoever believes has what the message says, namely, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. This example was also used for further explanation: When the court has acquitted a prisoner, he is free in the courtroom, but so long as he does not know it, he is and remains a prisoner. Now, if the court sends a messenger to him with the message: you are free, then this message is no mere story and empty proclamation, but a real message of freedom. Hence the gospel is not an empty proclamation of the accomplished redemption and forgiveness acquired by Christ, but such a proclamation which really communicates and appropriates forgiveness.

To the following remark that the forgiveness that takes place on you at God’s side is given by the Gospel and thus, as many old agendas say, conscience will be made “calm”, was added as an explanation: Imagine God as a rich man who issues to me a check for one million dollars. If God has signed it, then the sum is my property; because the statement is in my name. But the statement must be brought to me, so I know it, and the gift will be certain and joyful. God has now signed it in the resurrection of His Son; but I do not yet have the statement. Therefore Christ the Lord instituted the preaching office, i.e., made the arrangement that the Gospel may be proclaimed to me, through this message the million dollars is brought to me. The Word of the Gospel is an announcement of what God has already done, therefore it brings the treasure of forgiveness; the issuer of the statement has made the man rich, although he does not know it, he learns it through the proclamation, the abundance is also even allocated to him. Because the Church e.g. also used the formula of absolution: “I proclaim forgiveness to you,” thus many think it would be an empty proclamation of absolution. The formula: “I proclaim forgiveness to you,” is quite right, good, and precious, however, because it could be interpreted slightly in the sense of Reformed heresy, we do not require it alone. Since the announcement of forgiveness is real, we therefore say, “I forgive you your sins.” The Word of Christ:Go out into all the world, etc.; is the same as this: Whose sins you forgive, etc.; in this latter word is only displayed what significance, power and impact the Gospel had, a new office alongside and outside the Office of the Gospel is not thus raised, but has only been taught that the ministry of the Gospel is nothing else than the office of the forgiveness of sins.

One objection against the above discussions was expressed as follows: If I believe in Christ, have I forgiveness of sins, and therefore can the absolution bring to me nothing at all that already I do not have? Forgiveness is appropriated to me through Word and Baptism, thus I consistently and steadfastly have this; therefore absolution can be to me only a reminder of what I have. When I forget this, then speak the absolution to me: Remember what you have. When Peter walked on the sea, everything went well, as long as he remembered the Word of Christ: “Come here;” but as he forgot this word at the sight of impetuosity and began to sink, Christ reached out His hand to him, that he would not sink. The hand that pulled out Peter is our absolution that comforts us when our Sun of Grace of the forgiveness that once happened is covered with clouds of temptation. Therefore, absolution is only consolation against temptation, doubt, and discouragement.

On the other hand it was remembered, the speaker without a doubt understood absolution in the narrow sense; but we are speaking in general about the Gospel as an absolution. It was further answered: What you have just said, if one takes the words as they are, is probably based on a mistaken notion. The grace that we receive we do not put in our pocket as one puts a piece of bread in a basket, so that one could say: What I have already put in my pocket can no longer be given to me; no, the goodness of grace are of an entirely different character, they are constantly given and received. As long as we walk by faith, a give and take of these always takes place. Faith is nothing other than a receiving; from this it follows that the goodness of grace are always given, God continually gives them faith. It is true I have forgiveness of sins in baptism, received life and salvation, therefore I have it; however, if God does not continually give, we have nothing; my absolution consists in this, that I give, i.e., God gives through me. I cannot say: I have, therefore, I can only be reminded of what I have; no, it must be continually given to me. But God gives to me in this way, that He can hold His Word before me, faith seizes the Word and therefore receives what the Word does in itself. When I say: What I have, I have in faith in the Word, it does not follow: i.e. absolution can be nothing more than a mere reminder; but only this follows: absolution gives me nothing more than what I already have. The Word always gives, faith always receives. The solution to this reservation is: Faith is an ongoing receiving of the treasures in the Word; therefore the Word must always be preached and it cannot be preached enough to mankind, they cannot be absolved enough, not receive the Lord’s Supper enough. Here we live in faith that must always receive; in seeing one day it will be different. For our understanding also serves what is written in Luke chapter seven about the great sinner; the Lord Christ not only witnesses and reminds, “Your many sins are forgiven,” but also once again speaks a particular absolution.

To the question of why one nevertheless does not say the world’s sins were forgiven since the world was already absolved 1800 years ago was the answer: If you said: “The world’s sins are forgiven” so absolutely and without explanation, it would be misleading, many would understand it namely in this way: that all men were converted, believed, and came into heaven. However, when one says, On the part of God the sins of the world are forgiven, there it is said well. But what help is it to me when God says to me: “I am your Friend,” and I think: “He is my enemy?” God is indeed reconciled to us, but we are not with Him, so [Saint Paul] says: “Be reconciled to God.” God must extend the Hand of Reconciliation to us if we should be reconciled to Him; this He has extended, He is reconciled to the world, but we just do not believe Him and therefore are afraid of Him, so He says through the Gospel: “You do not need to be afraid, I am reconciled to you, only believe, all your sins are forgiven you.” One tends to think that the Word is only a means through which such a change would be worked in the heart, that a faith arises unto life, and this faith is believed to be such a wonderful work, for the sake of which God pardons the sinner, but does not consider that faith in itself is an empty hand that can only be filled.

A member of the Synod remarked: Gospel and absolution of sins is one and the same thing, that was clear to him; but if one preaches only one part of the Gospel, as for example the part of resurrection of the dead, we surely could not say that was absolution. One replied to that: It does not matter whether a part or the whole of the Gospel will be preached, it is always absolution. If one preaches in general about the resurrection of the dead, then one preaches no Gospel, because such a preaching works terror and horror in the ungodly, but when one preaches that the faithful rise, and indeed rise to eternal life, then this is an even more wonderful and glorious Gospel. To justify that absolution sticks even in the smallest morsel of the Gospel, the example of a controversy was cited, that by the saying, “God helps man and beast” at once was cunningly and powerfully comforted from all fear and distress.

Finally, the following was spoken concerning the first thesis: What Christ has done and what has happened to Christ should not be confused. His life, death, and resurrection was no absolution, but rather His resurrection from the dead. Our preaching and absolution is the moral working according to nothing other than what God has done in Christ, the only difference is that God absolves the entireworld through the resurrection of his Son, but we are only individuals, for example, preachers only absolve their congregations. Christ was our representative; He was punished for us, condemned and cursed, we in Him. He was cast in our place finally in the debtors’ prison of death, however on the third day God let Him out again and made Him glorious. So little was Christ punished on the cross for His own person, so little He was a sinner Himself, however, we were punished in Him, in Him we are also justified. God spoke the entire world righteous through Christ’s resurrection. If only we knew all this, then it would be enough; because we do not know it, however, the treasury would remain unused, if we do not come to know it. There God now speaks: “What I have done is to be proclaimed.” As certain as the resurrection of Christ is a true absolution, so surely my absolution is not a mere story, but a genuine message of forgiveness. Absolution is an act of God that is valid until the end of the world. Our absolution is nothing else than a repetition of the act of God in the resurrection of Christ. The Reformed, on the other hand, view the Gospel as nothing more than a story of redemption, which has the moral force to enable a person in a different disposition and through the other disposition in such a state in which he pleases God. Two things had to happen for our salvation: 1. forgiveness of sins must be purchased, Christ has done that; 2. in consequence of the perfection and full force and effect of the merit of Christ, the Triune God must forgive, God has done that and continually still does it until the Last Day, but no more so, as in the unique resurrection of His Son, but through the proclaiming of the Gospel.

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