- 1 Original Title and Subtitle
- 2 Preface
- 3 On the Reformation
- 4 On Holy Scripture
- 5 On the Triune God
- 6 On Creation and Sin
- 6.1 Faith in the Creator and natural knowledge
- 6.2 On sin
- 7 On Christ
- 8 On the Holy Spirit and His Gifts
- 8.1 On the Holy Spirit
- 8.2 On justification, faith, and sanctification
- 8.3 On obedience of the law and on life in the orders
- 9 On the Church
- 9.1 On the church
- 9.2 On office and confession
- 9.3 The church and the communities in history
- 9.4 Church and worldly authority
- 9.5 The church and the Jews
- 10 On History and on the End of All Things
- 11 Footnotes
Original Title and Subtitle
The Confession of the Fathers and the Confessing Congregation (The so-called Bethel Confession)
Offered for reflection by a circle of evangelical theologians and published in their name by Martin Niemöller
When in July of this year more and more pastors were subject to surveillance in their proclamation and were attacked in the exercise of their office; when it appeared doubtful whether the publicly guaranteed recognition of the free proclamation, only bound by the word and the confession of the church, would be put into practice; when concerned men earnestly desired to examine themselves whether they had not unconsciously fallen to subjective notions of doctrine or to the influences of the forces of the age – at that point in time a circle of younger pastors turned to Dr. von Bodelschwingh asking him to provide for a theological opinion concerning the doctrines that are controversial in today’s church. This opinion was to remind the pastors of the confession to which they are bound by their ordination vow; it was also to serve the purpose of strengthening them and their congregations.
After a smaller circle of theologians had come up with a draft, it was sent to a larger circle with the request of examination. In consideration of the thereupon received opinion this preliminary version emerged. In it, the theses are presented to the wider circle of brothers whom they are to serve and, at the same time, provide stimulation for the further joint pondering of the insights presented in them.
We first are addressing pastors, teachers, and presbyters of the church because we know that it is the stir caused in doctrine where our work is meant to provide assistance. Our work is not about the missionary will of our church toward our own nation, also not about the bold decision to do a new thing – all this is reserved for future studies. It is, first of all, about the question of what it means that the German Protestant Church solemnly appeals to its confessional basis. It appears to us that it is most necessary at this point in time that this appeal is done in truth. If truth rules here, then the confession of the fathers does not fall into a state of being untouchable like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle, but is capable of becoming a well-armed fortress.
We as the authors gladly put up with the question, raised within the circle of our admonishing advisors, whether a “renewed Augsburg Confession” at the present time could really help; whether it would not appear too “intellectualistic” to the “voluntarist member of the SA;” and whether it would not, by its constricting view on apologetics, paralyze the will to fight. We know quite well that the SA-member has to be told the gospel in the language of today. At the same time, we know that deliberations as presented here will not reach him directly. Yet we also believe to be certain that no pastor will be able to preach confidently, who neither can nor will give himself an account of what the doctrine of the church has to say about today’s burning questions.
This is why we affirm the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the place from which we speak. We do not leave the confessional writings behind to speak simply based on Scripture, and we undertake it even less to attempt to formulate a doctrine unifying Lutherans and Calvinists.
We know that only Scripture is the basis of doctrine, “the only judge, rule, and norm according to which as the only touchstone all doctrines should and must be understood and judged as good or evil, right or wrong” (FC-Ep., Rule and Norm, 7). However, when speaking as ministers of God’s word, we are members of a specific church, bound to its doctrine and its order. This in particular became a significant experience for us today, that we, also in church and office, are bound to a specific place, directed to a specific heritage.
This is why we could not take up the slogan of a union church defined by this opposition alone. We, for all interested in the teaching office of the church, are content to take seriously the demand raised so decidedly today, namely, to ask the “confession” of the fathers as to what it has to say to us today. In doing so, we hold the conviction that those who think along with us will experience a significant support for the service in the congregation that is required of us today. For it was not our intention to call for looking backwards, but for going forward.
Above all, we envision this going forward to happen in this way, namely, that in the circle, to which we present these pages for reflection, people start thinking about what is to be said to the congregation in preaching, be it in the worship service, be it in missionary proclamation. One of the proposals received makes a promising beginning in this endeavor, so that we are certain that our preliminary work fosters such an undertaking.
On the Reformation
In the Christian church, Jesus Christ alone reigns as its Lord by means of his word; only the renewal of this insight gives the church of the reformation its foundation and its right to exist. This is why only the preaching of the free grace holds sway in it, as it is attested in Holy Scripture. By rejecting this insight, Roman Catholicism gave up the unity of the body of Christ. This is why, the evangelical church has to be an essentially “protestant” church vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism. However, it is equally separated from every kind of “Protestantism” which lets the unfolding of independent moral, religious, cultural, and nationalistic powers reign instead of, or alongside, God’s word and which thereby evades the judging power of God’s word.
For the church of the reformation, Martin Luther is the faithful witness to the grace of Jesus Christ. As such, he is “prophet” and “evangelist” among Germans. Yet it means to misunderstand his mission if his deed is seen as breakthrough of the Germanic spirit or as origin of the modern feeling of liberty or as institution of a new religion. He fought against the modern religiosity by proving that the delusion of man to come to know God by his own preparation and without the preached word is enthusiasm; and he fought against the modern striving for autonomy by teaching to regard the blind trust in human reason and in human freedom as blindness.
By preaching justification by grace alone, he showed to believing man the possibility to receive gratefully his natural life in the world as a gift and to lead it in obedience. By doing so, he also served the German people as a nation. Yet as he knew himself to be a member of the one catholic church and as he wanted to have its confessions preserved in the church called by him to reformation, so he also knew his ministry to be limited not only to the German people. Through him, the Christian church of the Evangelical-Lutheran confession has become church on all continents and among all peoples.
Alongside the Lutheran reformation, tied to it by close relations while separated from it by essential differences, there emerged a second reformation from the work of the reformers Zwingli and Calvin. The “Reformed church” grew out of it. The Evangelical-Lutheran church of the reformation era knew itself to be one with the Reformed church in the quest for the pure, unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ. However, in the understanding of the word of God (law and gospel), of the sacraments (Lord’s Supper), of justification and predestination, of the essence and order of the church there appeared such grave and deep differences in doctrine that a unification of the two evangelical churches was impossible in the 16th century. The attempts to produce unity by artificial unions that either evaded the question of truth or did not take it seriously enough have proved incapable of brining about a real unity of evangelical Christianity, even in those places where evangelical union churches of various kinds had been put into place. This is how, split in various confessions, evangelical Christendom today faces the other church fellowships. This results in the painful fact that, even in present-day Germany, evangelical Christians are unable to give a unanimous answer to the questions they are being asked. Yet this makes all the more urgent the commitment laid upon all of us, namely, that we, first of all, become again united where the reformers, despite all the differences that existed between them, were united and, furthermore, that we, whether we are Lutherans or members of Reformed or union churches, seriously ask for the one truth of the one gospel, which may be obscured or misunderstood by human error and human sin, but which can never be destroyed. Part of this is that we, as our confessional writings call us to do, submit the teachings of our church time and again to God’s word as the norming norm of all teachings and that the living process of formulating confessions, which came to a standstill in the 16th century, is brought back into action. The Lord of the church said about himself: “I am the truth.” He has promised to his church the Holy Spirit who is to lead them into all truth. We do not want to grow weary of asking him that he might let us become one in the truth, so that this word might be fulfilled in us: “One body and one spirit, as you were called to one hope. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above you all and through you all and in you all” (Eph. 4:4f.).
On Holy Scripture
Holy Scripture, the Old and the New Testament, is the only source and norm of the church’s doctrine. It attests, valid in its unity, that the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate is the Son of the living God, the promised Messiah of Israel, the King of the church.
Everything the church does in God’s service must take place in obedience to Holy Scripture and in relation to it must prove itself to be in agreement with God’s will. The testimony of divine revelation is Holy Scripture. God reveals himself by history, that is, by his non-recurring and non-repeatable action that is complete in itself and affects all eternity. It begins with the creation of man and with the promise for man become guilty. It receives its temporal consummation when the elect from every nation enter into the glory of God’s Son. The church proclaims this history as God’s revelatory act that is valid for us. By witnessing these acts, Scripture is God’s word to us, and the church is able to do God’s will only in obedience to the command of Scripture.
The history attested to in Holy Scripture is salvation history, that is, it is the work of God’s grace that bestows on the world the life from God and for God. Not the holiness of men, but the salvation granted them in their unworthiness, guilt, and plight of death through their call to his knowledge is what makes Holy Scripture to be God’s word. A fully valid understanding of this history is first possible from the New Testament that attests to the consummation of the divine plan of salvation in the incarnation, in the words and deeds (Luke 24:19), in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the institution of the church. The Old Testament is God’s word because in it the living God bears witness to himself, as he makes Israel into his people, judges its unbelief, and makes those called from it into bearers of his word for humanity.
Holy Scripture is a whole. Its unity is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. He speaks through all of Scripture. We are not the judges of God’s word in the bible, but the bible is given us so that we let ourselves be judged through it by Christ. Only by the Holy Spirit do we hear God’s word from the bible; but this Spirit comes to us only though the word of the entire Holy Scripture. Those attempting to separate word and Spirit fall into enthusiasm and lose the promise given the word.
In agreement with the confessions of the evangelical church of the reformation era, we reject the false doctrine alive also today, according to which Christ attests to himself also without Scripture and outside of the same and that the Holy Spirit is given also without the word of preaching based on Scripture and the sacrament: AC V, 4: “Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that the Holy Spirit comes to us through our own preparations, thoughts, and works without the external word of the Gospel.” Sm. Art. III, VIII, 9f.: “In short, enthusiasm clings to Adam and his descendants from the beginning to the end of the world. It is a poison implanted and inoculated in man by the old dragon, and it is the source, strength, and power of all heresy, including that of the papacy and Mohammedanism. Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil.” Sm. Art. III, VIII, 3: “In these matters, which concern the external, spoken Word, we must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before. Thus we shall be protected from the enthusiasts — that is, from the spiritualists who boast that they possess the Spirit without and before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures or spoken Word according to their pleasure.”
We reject the false doctrine that Holy Scripture is no more than the record of a past history. God, who revealed himself once in the history witnessed by Scripture, speaks and acts in this history today and all days. This is why Holy Scripture is meaningful for us – not because in it general religious truths are enunciated and religious-moral values are contained which are illustrated by the reported facts by way of example.
This is why the God-given character of all of a nation’s laws in general cannot be deduced from the God-given character of the Law of Moses. The salvific acts of God recorded in Scripture are not examples or symbols that could be interpreted, but revelation that is to be proclaimed.
The Old Testament law is different from the laws ordering the lives of other nations in that it is given to Israel as the people of God, as the people chosen to be the church. For this reason, it is not an object of comparison, but only an object of proclamation.
We reject the false doctrine that tears apart the unity of Holy Scripture by rejecting the Old Testament or by even replacing it through non-Christian documents from the pagan early history of another nation. Holy Scripture is an indivisible unity because it is in its entirety a testimony of and about Christ.
Those who reject the Old Testament and recognize it only as the bible of Jesus and, respectively, primitive Christianity tear this unity apart.
We reject every attempt to separate God’s word and man’s word in Holy Scripture based on the insight granted us and on the experience given us. Luther’s word, that Holy Scripture is God’s word where it promotes Christ, by no means allows for an arbitrary choosing in Scripture. All of Scripture, as it is comprehended in the canon, promotes Christ. Yet the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us in Scripture where and when it pleases him. The Holy Spirit who speaks to us through one word of Holy Scripture is always the Spirit of all of Holy Scripture. This is why he must never be confused with the ability to see and know granted us and with the measure of faith and love given us. Rather, it is important to promote the Lord of Scripture, Christ, where Scripture runs the risk of being promoted against Christ. Yet our judgment in the use of Scripture remains true only when it emerges from the willingness to hear the entire word of Scripture. This humble bowing is expression of the recognition that God’s word is never in my power, but that it gains power over us from God.
On the Triune God
The church teaches that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct Persons in the one divine Being and Nature – is one single God who has created heaven and earth; that the Father is born of no one; that the Son is born of the Father; and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Sm. Art. I, I), which is the greatest mystery in heaven and on earth (FC-SD VIII, 33). This triune God has revealed himself to us men in Jesus Christ, which is why the entire holy Trinity points to Christ as the book of life (FC-SD XI, 66). Thus witnesses Scripture: No one comes to the Father except by Christ (John 14:6); no one comes to the Son except the Father draws him (John 6:44); no one can call Christ Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3); the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (John 15:26; 14:26). Thus, the triune God is recognized as Father through the Son, as Son through the Father, as Father and Son through the Holy Spirit, as Holy Spirit through Father and Son. In such faith the whole Christian church confesses and witnesses to the triune God. No human reason is able to resolve this mystery of the revelation of the triune God.
We reject every attempt to tear apart the revelation of the triune God and thus to wish to understand separately either the Creator and his creation or the Redeemer and his redemption or the Holy Spirit and his work.
On Creation and Sin
Faith in the Creator and natural knowledge
The church teaches that in the beginning God created the world out of nothing and is its Lord. We receive this faith only out of the proclamation of the revelation of the triune God, as the church witnesses to it based on Holy Scripture. Pious natural knowledge is able to comprehend neither God as the Creator nor the world as creation in accordance with the witness of Scripture. For natural man, who only knows nature, God remains the ground of the world; and he runs the risk of speaking of unresolved contradictions in the world, thereby reviling the Creator and Ruler. He either is ruined by God in his quest for God or loses himself in speculations about the mysteries of the divine majesty which the creature should and can neither know nor search. The natural, pious knowledge never knows God as the living Lord who calls and summons man in his thinking, willing, and doing. The natural pious knowledge knows God only as exalted, enigmatic, dark, or terrifying. Faith has its foundation, not in the works of God displayed in nature, but in his word. In view of death and evil in the world, it can spring forth only from the word revealed by God himself, not from the world. For faith, creation is something established by God from eternity into time, from nothing into being, from invisibility into visibility. The Creator carries out this establishment every moment anew by his creative word (continuous creation, cf. Hebr. 1:3, FC-SD I, 34ff.; FC-Ep. I, 4). God-wrought faith knows that what blind and spiteful man in his rebellion against God calls contradiction and riddle is transformed into light and life by the revelation of the Christ and of the new creation created by him (1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Cor. 5:17).
Faith and natural knowledge are no longer one because we live in God’s creation as men fallen into sin and because this creation therefore can no longer be for our reason the clearly heard word of God. The fall into sin separates us from creation. Not only God’s blessing, but also his curse is active in man’s life and in history. Not only does God’s grace create and order our life, but God’s curse also is revealed in every instance of man’s godlessness and injustice and in all of the world’s lacking redemption. Not only God, but also the devil is at work among mankind fallen under sin (Ap. II, 46ff.). This is why we depend solely on his self-revelation, witnessed in Holy Scripture, when it comes to knowing God. First in the obedience to the word of Scripture the Creator’s glory displayed in nature means more to us than the consciousness of our dependence and the commitment to silent surrender, namely, the call to glorify him in the faithful and grateful use of his gifts.
We reject the false doctrine that we can know God the Creator and Father without Christ; for outside of Christ the Creator must become an angry despot for us. All trust in the ruler of all who is kind to all remains limited to the natural content of life and is a hope without certainty and without object.
We reject the false doctrine that this world, as we know it, corresponds to the original creative will of God; that it gives us life and that it therefore is to be affirmed in an unbroken manner. For this means, in contradiction to the bible, that sin is not deadly and that our world has remained undamaged by it.
Struggle is not the basic principle of the original creation, and a fighting attitude is therefore not a commandment by God established by the original creation. Struggle first comes about by the fact of good and evil. Its goal of mutual annihilation is a consequence of the fall, after which good and evil no longer remain unmingled in a single man. This is why all struggle against evil, that is, against sin, must never be directed at the carrier of evil, because evil is at work on both sides. The struggle is directed at the evil as such. Since victory over evil is granted only by God in his sovereign decision, the struggle against sin in this eon is to be carried out only by means of the prophetic word (Eph. 6:17). This struggle is, in regard to man, without promise of victory. The victory is promised and fulfilled only in Christ (1 Cor. 15:57; John 16:33). Only by faith do we now know of the victory (1 John 5:4). It will be revealed at the end of all things, when God is all in all. Then God’s peace in his kingdom begins. It is not the quiet of motionlessness, but God’s undisturbed governing beyond human history which transcends our human understanding. To be sure, pointing to the real condition of this world as it is corrupted and dominated by struggle rightly contradicts all enthusiasm and utopianism. Yet the knowledge that this world has fallen to death is unable to overcome death.
We cannot know God and God’s will apart from the situation given us, in which we are placed as creatures; for God’s will in creation, which is always also his will of preservation, summons us in our creatureliness and binds us to the neighbor.
God, however, does not speak out of a particular, historical time to us and does not reveal himself in a direct action in creation. The desire to perceive God’s will without the external word of Holy Scripture, to which God has bound himself, is enthusiasm.
The thesis that the voice of the people is God’s voice is an enthusiastic interpretation of history. The voice of the people cries: “Hosanna!” – “Crucify!” “Yet then they all cried and said: ‘not him, but Barabbas.’”
The church teaches that man, fallen away from God by freely transgressing God’s law, is in the misery of sin and in the destruction of death with all his nature and all his deeds, that he also lost the image of God. It teaches “that nothing sound or uncorrupted has survived in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers. It is as the church sings, ‘Through Adam’s fall man’s nature and essence are all corrupt.’ This damage is so unspeakable that it may not be recognized by a rational process, but only from God’s Word. No one except God alone can separate the corruption of our nature from the nature itself” (FC-Ep. I, 8-10). It teaches that man is not only sick but dead to all that is good, and that he is from the time of his birth without faith, without the fear of God, full of evil desire, and standing under the just wrath of God, but that he still has not ceased to be God’s creature.
We reject the false doctrine that man, on account of sin, is no longer God’s creature; for Christ went to the cross for man and thereby bears witness to God’s love for his fallen creature (FC-SD I, 34).
We reject the false doctrine that sin is only the separation from the organic connectedness of life. This would mean that all acting within the organic connectedness of life would be without sin and good. Yet this means a denial of the biblical idea that also the world of organic life is corrupted by the fall into sin. There is acting “that does not tear apart the organic connectedness of life” but is still sin, because it takes place without love. Sin is rebellion against God’s absolute claim of lordship in the law of love.
We reject the false doctrine that speculatively reduces creation and sin to a common principle, thereby making sin to appear as only another aspect of creation. Creation and sin are ultimate opposites that cannot be reduced to each other anymore. They relate to each other as God’s world and the devil’s world, while it of course remains true that God is also the one who overcomes the devil. The Gnostic attempt to understand sin as necessary excuses sin; makes black into white; makes it possible for man to justify himself; thus cancels the reconciliation by the death of the cross; furthermore takes the ultimate seriousness out of the opposition of good and evil; and thus leads to licentiousness.
We reject the false teaching that sin is moral failure or imperfection or ignorance, which one gets rid of by doing better the next time around. Christ bore our sin to the cross, and only by Christ’s death sin is forgiven (FC-SD I, 16-25).
The church teaches: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Adam’s Son, David’s Son, true God and true man, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, the Sinless One in the flesh of sin – he is the only salvation of man. Those who reject him lose their life and remain under God’s wrath. Christ is the end and the fulfillment of the law, the forgiveness of sins, the victory over death, the Lord of the congregation. He alone is the turn of the ages. Jesus was crucified and raised to reveal the divine judgment over our unbelief and our selfish desires, that is, our self-addicted greed. We are justified in the Risen One. With Holy Scripture and the confessions, we call him Lord because he “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity” (SC II, 4).
We reject the false doctrine that the appearing of Jesus represents a flare-up of the Nordic nature in the midst of a world tormented by corruption. He is the splendor of God’s glory in the world (Hebr. 1:2). He was humbled to be born in a human nation. According to his birth, he is a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David, sent not only to the sheep who remained with the Shepherd, but also to the lost sheep of Israel.
We reject the false doctrine that we declare ourselves for Jesus as our Lord due to his heroic piety. He is our Lord only as the Son and Savior who was sent by the Father and was crucified and rose for us. Along with the confessions, we hereby reject the error of the new Arians, “that Christ is not a true, essential, natural God, of one divine essence with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, but is merely adorned with divine majesty and is inferior to and beside God the Father” (FC-Ep. XII, 28).
We reject the false doctrine that the cross of Jesus Christ is a symbol for a general religious or human truth, e.g., for the thesis: common interest goes before self-interest. The cross of Jesus Christ is not at all a symbol for anything – and this is why it cannot be placed next to worldly symbols, as honorable as they might be – but it is God’s once-for-all revelatory deed in which was carried out for all people the fulfillment of the law, death’s judgment over all flesh, the reconciliation of the world with God. It is therefore not possible to compare Christ’s death on the cross with some other sacrificial death, the suffering of Jesus Christ with the suffering of any other man or nation. Christ’s passion and cross can be proclaimed only as God’s judgment and grace over the entire world.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the crucifixion of Christ were the fault only of the Jewish people, as if other nations and races had not crucified him. All nations and races, also the noblest ones, are also guilty of his death and daily become guilty of it anew, when they insult the Spirit of grace (Hebr. 10:29). “What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain; mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain” [O Sacred Head, Now Wounded]. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6; Ap. XIII, 8; XXIV, 56).
On the Holy Spirit and His Gifts
On the Holy Spirit
The church teaches that the Holy Spirit, true God in eternity, neither created nor made, proceeds from the Father and the Son; that he is given to man only by means of the external word and the sacrament in the church; that he makes comprehensible and effective such message and the sacrament testifying to it; that by him are separated from all nations according to God’s election those who are called to the church of Christ; that he teaches, judges, and creates faith, conversion, and renewal in man.
We reject the false doctrine that the Holy Spirit can be known in creation and its orders without Christ or is given to us by means of our natural impulses; for the Holy Spirit is at the same time always from the Son, in whom this world is judged, in whom the new order of the church as the people of God is established above the peoples. Because God the Father is not the God of one nation; because Christ is the Lord of all men; and because the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, he wants to be preached to all nations and must be preached in all languages. The mission to all nations is commission of the church from the Holy Spirit. AC I, 5-6: “Therefore all the heresies … are … rejected … that … assert that … the Holy Spirit is a movement induced in creatures.” Ap. XXIV, 70: “For the Holy Spirit works through the Word and the sacraments.” Sm. Art. III, VIII, 3: “… we must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before. Thus we shall be protected from the enthusiasts — that is, from the spiritualists who boast that they possess the Spirit without and before the Word …”
On justification, faith, and sanctification
The church teaches that godless man finds a gracious God only by faith in Jesus Christ who as Mediator was crucified and rose for him. The Holy Spirit gives this faith through the word concerning Christ. Against reason, against the pride of the flesh, against erring conscience, faith clings only to the biblical word promising God’s grace. It is this faith alone that justifies.
When the gracious God is gracious toward a person and reveals him his grace in his word, so that the person realizes that Christ is the crucified and risen one for him in particular, then the person is called by this word to new obedience. “Since faith brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new light and life in our hearts, it is certain and follows necessarily that faith renews and changes the heart. And the prophet shows what kind of renewal of hearts this is when he says (Jer. 31:33): ‘I will put my law into their hearts.’ After we have been born anew by faith and recognized that God wants to be gracious to us, that he wants to be our Father and helper, we begin to fear God, to love him, to thank him, to praise him, to ask him for and expect all help, and also to be obedient according to his will in afflictions. Then we also begin to love our neighbor. There is now inwardly a new heart, mind, and mood by the Spirit of Christ” (Ap. IV, 125; German text). There is no faith without obedience and no justification without sanctification. Merely hearing the word without obeying it despises God’s grace and is man’s deadly insolence. The church that only teaches and “believes,” but does not act, is not the body of Christ. God’s call summons us to make a decision.
However, sanctification and obedience are not autonomous deeds of man, but God himself in his Spirit through the miracle of love prepares me, and equips me for obedience and love. The believing Christian is utterly bound to Christ as the word of God who judges us, who lets us die before God, and who calls us back to life by invisible grace and power. The believing Christian knows God’s wrath, stands in repentance, fears God, takes his grace as the miracle without par which the world cannot comprehend. Yet the believing Christian also knows that God prepares and opens man for himself in the miracle of love to hear him, the living God, and to obey him. In the miracle of love God gives the joy of obedience and the strength to fulfill his gracious will.
The heathen who trusts in god understands god as an anonymous power to which one must submit, that is, as fate. The believing Christian knows God as the living, holy, righteous, and merciful Father and Lord who reveals himself in Christ alone. The person who in Christ trusts in God obediently accepts this world and his place in it out of the hand of the Father revealed in Christ; he takes up his cross and bears it in the power of the promise that God will create a new heaven and a new earth at the end of all things. The believing and obeying Christian therefore is always in a state of waiting for the end.
We reject the confusion of heathen trust in god and faith as disdaining God-wrought faith. Claiming God’s grace in self-confident presumption without fear as something natural for oneself turns faith upside down: it turns the eyes to the events in this world; it seeks the justification by God before the world without knowledge of Christ, of the end of all things in Christ, and of His future.
It betrays an Israelite mindset to say that in the final judgment God will ask man only for his “decency.” Here the meaning of the gospel and of Luther’s faith is fundamentally misunderstood. In judgment, the believer will ask God whether he is merciful to him; he asks in faith in Christ, and in this faith alone man is to be righteous before God. This faith is His work, and its fruit are the works to which he has prepared us beforehand (Eph. 2:10). Trusting in God and a sense of duty also belong to the fruits of faith. Yet they must by no means be confused with faith itself. One must also not draw conclusion about a person’s faith based on their trust in God and their sense of duty. For both can be phantoms, temptations, and thus works of the devil in man. The faith that is entirely God’s work does not look to its fruits, but only to its Lord. It does not appeal to itself, but only to Christ. Trust in God, sense of duty, and joy of struggling in the service of Christ grow out of faith in the kingdom of God in Christ as gratefully received gifts.
On obedience of the law and on life in the orders
Time and again, man is called to obedience by the commandment of God in the revelation of the word, and a life in sanctification and love is demanded of him.
The commandment of God is the personal address of the living God in his revelation to man: I am the Lord, your God! It is God’s call that meets man at a particular time and in a particular situation and that tells him what is His good and gracious will with him. It is God’s claim of lordship over man, as it demands total devotion to Him in the love of God and neighbor. This law or commandment of God is revealed in the bible in many, individual demands which we do not understand as applications of a principle, but which have the authority of a genuine witness to the freely commanding Lord. (The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount agree in this.) The church therefore does not proclaim the law of Scripture as principle with changing applications, but as God’s concrete claim of lordship which binds us time and again to the one Lord revealed in the bible. The Christian hears God’s law and commandment only in the scriptural proclamation of the church. First in this commandment of God man knows the created orders as God’s orders (ordinationes divinae or Dei: AC XVI; Ap. XVI; XXIII).
We teach according to Scripture that God the Lord commanded man before the fall to be fruitful, to hold dominion, and to work; that God created man as male and female; that man gets his food from nature by means of his lordship over nature and the service of his labor; that man cannot live in isolation but only through the community. All this the creatureliness ordered for man.
Every order which is not commanded by God’s commandment, being thus defined and sanctified by God’s law, must again and again fall to the devil. Thus God keeps man alive through his life-creating word in these orders and gives him in them life and salvation through Christ (Ap. XVI). The orders do not have any value in themselves, but only live from Christ, the Word. Yet this means that they exist as orders of preservation only for the sake of Christ’s future and for the sake of the new creation. This is, then, their ultimate and deepest meaning and their limitation: that man may and should live in them until redemption. The orders are valid orders of God; therefore they are not indifferent matters, but they are also not final orders of God. The orders of preservation have the unconditional value of being divine institutions, and their transgression makes us enemies of God and closes access to the Christ. At the same time, however, they are cancelled and overcome from Christ and his future.
As such orders have been established for us marriage, family, nation, property (labor, economy), vocation, worldly authority. Man cannot evade any one of these orders, and none of them can be changed or transformed into another.
The question whether race belongs to the orders of creation is discussed much today. Based on Holy Scripture and the confession it is to be answered this way: Race, unlike marriage or worldly authority or nation, does not belong to the orders of life with which God’s commandment has charged man. It belongs to the orders of nature to which all life, even outside of mankind, is necessarily subjected (cf. the “laws of the seasons,” Ap. XVI, 6). In this sense, the reality of race, as all orders of nature, may be counted among the divinae ordinationes in the broader sense. Holy Scripture, in what it says about our flesh, attests to what is true in the modern ideas on race, namely, that the inner life is bound to the form of our corporeity. The church’s doctrine concerning race cannot go beyond this. In particular, it must reject all attempts to place the natural phenomenon of race on the same level as the institutional orders that are grounded in a direct divine commandment to man.
Man is placed in a constant state of tension by the demands of the diverse orders. The tension between the orders makes for the rich content of life and makes life into labor and struggle. Labor and struggle first become the joyous obedience of faith when the orders become apparent to the Christian as God’s concrete claim of lordship. The tension is the most visible hint at the fact that the world is not redeemed yet, a fact which is cancelled only in Christ. The inner-worldly resolution of the tension is a task of worldly authority, and the Christian knows that, alongside the inner-worldly resolution of the conflicts by the state in which he joyfully participates, true life comes from the gracious activity of the Christ who calls him to obedience within these orders.
We reject the false doctrine that there are some final orders in the world which are not placed under God’s wrath for us by the fall and which, as unbroken orders of creation, can be known and affirmed in their original state. For in this way, man’s withdrawal into the sinless world would be made possible, whereby Christ’s death on the cross would be made superfluous.
We reject the false doctrine that the orders of the fallen world mentioned above are an indifferent or even invalid matter for the Christian because they are not final. We therefore reject every attempt to make out of the gospel of love a new law for the construction of a new harmonious order of society. “However, as long as this life lasts, God nonetheless lets us use the laws of orders and estates which exist in the world … the gospel does not tear apart worldly authority, economy, buying, selling, and other worldly public administration, but confirms authority and government and commands to obey the same as God’s order … We have recounted this so that also strangers, foe and friend, might understand that authority, government, imperial law, etc. are not overthrown, but rather elevated and protected by this teaching” (Ap. XVI, 2, 5, 13; German text).
We reject the false doctrine that a specific form of ordering the estates can be called God’s order of creation. To be sure, according to Luther’s teaching, human society is ordered, but it is ordered in such a way that the same person belongs at once to all the different orders or estates (ordo oeconomicus, politicus, ecclesiasticus). It would mean to fall back into Catholic social teaching, if a certain historical form of social order is declared to be grounded in natural law.
We reject the false doctrine that makes obeying the orders dependent on the Christian faith of the person representing these orders. What obliges us to obeying the person is not that he is Christian or heathen, but that he rightly carries out the duties of his office. “The gospel … commands and wants to have it that we should obey the laws and the authorities under whom we live, be they heathen or Christians” (Ap. XVI, 3; German text). “Accordingly Christians are obliged to be subject to civil authority and obey its commands and laws in all that can be done without sin. But when commands of the civil authority cannot be obeyed without sin, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)” (AC XVI, 6f.).
We reject the false doctrine that we ourselves are capable of restoring the order of creation damaged by sin to its purity. The world is restored in Christ alone; first the new creation will stand before its Creator in visible purity. “No one except God alone can separate the corruption of our nature from the nature itself” (FC-Ep. I, 10).
We reject the false doctrine that God’s orders are identical in the laws of the nations and the law of God. This is true only for the Old Testament law of the people of Israel. For Israel is at the same time nation and church. It alone is chosen. This reality is expressed in the difference between the Ten Commandments and all other national laws. Its unique character consists in that in the First Commandment every attempt to claim any orders as God’s laws is contradicted. Only based on the First Commandment the entire Israelite law of God’s people is in force. The First and Second Table of the Ten Commandments are an indissoluble unity and are to be proclaimed as such. The Christian who desires to live obediently in the orders as according to God’s law can do so only based on the proclamation of the biblical law.
On the Church
On the church
The church is the body of Jesus Christ. The Crucified and Risen One is the Lord who created and continues to create his people. His people is the church. It is present wherever people are called to repentance and faith and are connected to each other by him in the word of the gospel and in the sacrament. This is how the church becomes the communion of “saints.” Its members are not holy because they are without sin. Their holiness is not the fruit of human efforts; it rests in God’s active call alone. This is why the church is a communion of sinners, that is, a communion of the godless, that is, a communion of men who are lost. These godless individuals in the church become God’s children only from God in his forgiving justification which seeks and saves and makes alive those who are lost.
Looking on man, there is no possibility of self-boasting for the church; it is certain only of its own utter weakness and insufficiency. This is why the church confesses that it fails and sins. On the other hand, however, when the church looks on Christ whom it proclaims, it can only be filled with boasting in the certainty of the fact that he cannot be overcome. It confesses that it is the communion of saints. This is why it is withdrawn from every judgment of the world. It stands under God’s killing and life-giving word – under his judgment that is always also grace.
What the church is can only be understood within the church, never outside of it. For natural reason, the doctrine regarding the church is either presumptuous or foolish. No science, but also no politician or worldly authority is able to comprehend what the church is, except by faith in and through Christ the Lord.
Before the eyes of the world the church as God’s people and body of Christ is hidden, as the Lord of the church, God the Creator and Redeemer, is hidden to the eye; through him, it is a reality in the world. Only faith knows the true church in the visible institutions and forms in which the church enters into history. Its only marks are the purity of the proclamation of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments; the religious or moral condition of its members is not a mark for the reality of the church, but a fruit of the faith living in the church.
Wherever on earth the gospel is proclaimed in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to their institution, there God gives faith by the Holy Spirit; there the holy, catholic church is a reality in the world. Where one of the two is falsified or abridged, there the church is no longer present; there is then only one group among the many religious associations and world views.
With these statements we declare ourselves again for the doctrine regarding the church, as it is set forth in the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession and, in indissoluble connection with it, in articles five, eight, fourteen, and twenty eight of the same as a fundamental doctrine of the evangelical church and as it is explained in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. We reject the following false doctrines:
- that the church is a religious society which comes about through the association of pious individuals (Enlightenment, Pietism, Liberalism);
- that the true church is invisible and that every visible church is only an imperfect attempt to realize the ideal of the true church (Idealism);
- that there are yet other marks of the true church in addition to word and sacrament, especially that the moral or religious perfection of its members belongs to the essence of the church (perfectionism);
- that the unity of the church rests on other things in addition to unity of doctrine; that there could be unity of the church and church fellowship where there is no unity in doctrine (unionism);
- that the church has a prescribed polity on whose presence depends the existence of the true church (Romanism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Irvingism, etc.);
- that the external order of the church is irrelevant because the doctrine of the gospel is not affected by any polity (spiritualism);
- that the government of the church by the princes during the reformation era was something other than the transitory emergency privilege of the foremost members of the church over against the antichristian papacy and the worldly bishops who no longer carried out the functions of the spiritual office; that, rather, the worldly authority as such is the ruling estate in the church (later Lutheran doctrine of the threefold order and the estates ruling the church);
- that the state government as such has the right to govern the church; that it especially has the right to install and depose ecclesiastical office holders and to make laws which directly or indirectly affect the doctrine of the church (doctrine of the absolute state, Erastianism, Caesaropapism);
- that the church will be absorbed into the state and must more or less give up its independent existence as a publicly and legally recognized corporation (idealistic liberalism, religious socialism);
- that the church, because it is essentially not bound to a certain nation, should not be considerate of the peculiarities of each individual nation in its structure and proclamation (clerical internationalism);
- that the church is the religious organization of one nation; that it should give religious support to ethnicity; that the boundaries of the church and the nation should be identical (religious nationalism).
On office and confession
As the church, so the ecclesiastical office also does not have its foundation in the will of man or in human needs, but only in the gracious will of God. Jesus Christ called his apostles. He commissioned them to call the nations to faith by the preaching of the gospel and holy baptism. Thereby he instituted the office of proclamation and of the administration of the sacraments. For faith comes by preaching (the hearing of the word), but preaching comes by the word of God. The church cannot be without this office. It continuously renews itself out of God’s word in which the Lord of the church says to those who are his: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” [John 20:21].
This commission of Jesus Christ is carried out by men. It is directed at the whole congregation as the body of Christ, and every believer as a member of this body has a share in it. However, as the functions of the body are not carried out by every member, so the exercise of the office is also bound to order (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). The external forms in which the office takes shape – e.g., the external forms of the call – are human institutions and therefore changeable. Yet in all external changes the office remains the same as to its essence. Whether it is conferred by an individual office holder, by an individual congregation, or a territorial church, it is always the office of the church only through the commission of Christ.
The other offices of the congregation, the presbyters and deacons, also participate in this commission. The existence of this office is the presupposition for the congregation’s effective appearance in the world. As “shepherds,” “overseers,” “elders,” “leaders” (Heb. 13:7, 17) the bearers of the office are leaders of the congregation. Such leading, however, is essentially different from every kind of leadership in the world. It is not lordship, but service. It has its authority not in the person of the leader, but only in the command of Christ. In this sense, the bearer of the office is ambassador in Christ’s stead. We therefore reject the attempt to apply the modern idea of leadership, which has grown out of the natural world, to the preaching office.
The office is carried out by people. This is why the purity of the proclamation of the word and the scriptural offering of the sacraments is always threatened. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it” [John 1:5]. This threat gives the task of teaching its deadly seriousness. Christ’s word is never just speech, but always speech and act at the same time. Therefore, all doctrine must not only be order of thought, but also ground of action. Therefore, everything depends on teaching rightly, because otherwise not only thinking but also acting is falsified. This is why the church must time and again take refuge in Scripture (Luther) and judge and adjust all proclamation according to this single rule. The result of such searching is the confession. Here the church’s valid interpretation of Scripture is codified (FC, Rule and Norm). This is why the confession is the indispensable safeguard of the churchly proclamation against every form of arbitrary scriptural interpretation as well as against anti-scriptural false doctrines, regardless of whether these are championed by individual teachers, groups, or denominations. Holy Scripture and the confessions emerging out of it are the norm for the service of the office in the congregation.
By the application of the confessions, the church at all times has to watch over the purity of doctrine. At the time of grave threats to the purity of doctrine, the Lord of the church forces the supplementation of the confessions by calling for witness. This is why the formulation of confessions is never concluded. It takes place by giving a unanimous account of the concordant doctrine (magno consensu) in agreement with the orthodox church of all times.
We reject the false doctrine, as if the office is an order that precedes the word and sacrament and generates it. We reject it in the form of the Roman and Romanizing hierarchy and in the form of enthusiasm.
As a ministry of the word of reconciliation the office lives by the word of Holy Scripture alone and can be judged only from there. It therefore receives its commission neither from the nation nor from the state nor from a political or intellectual movement.
The office of bishop, in its essence, is identical with the office of proclamation and therefore not superior to it. According to human, not divine right it is superior to the office of congregational pastor in order to unite the congregations in an orderly church body. The bishop is to be a shepherd of the shepherds, a leader of the leaders. The foundation and limitation of his office is found in the word of Scripture alone. Therefore, where the bishops “teach, introduce, or institute anything contrary to the Gospel, we have God’s command not to be obedient in such cases” (AC XXVIII, 23).
The church and the communities in history
Christ is sent as the Redeemer of the whole world. This is why he commissions the church to bring the gospel to all nations. As it carries out this commission, it enters into the forms and structures of the nations of their time. It can live among a multitude of nations as the one church regardless of political boundaries. It can be a national church within the boundaries of a realm regardless of ethnicity. It can be church within a certain ethnicity while transcending political boundaries. It can be church within a certain ethnicity without transcending political boundaries, but within the boundaries of this ethnicity. Its external form is not subject to duress, but is determined by the only rule, namely, “by all means to gain some” [1 Cor. 9:22]. This is why it becomes a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, a Chinese to the Chinese, a German to the Germans. The manner and extent of such entering into time can be determined only based on the commission of the church. The proclamation of the church always remains the alien grain of seed that is planted in the ground. Where the content of a specific time becomes the content of the proclamation the gospel is betrayed, because it is no longer said to the time, but absorbed by it.
The proclamation of the message concerning Christ is equally accessible and equally inaccessible for all nations. This proclamation is always good news and offense at the same time. God’s Holy Spirit alone works faith in man. He alone creates the fellowship of confessing rightly. The fellowship of such confessing is never coextensive with the boundaries of a certain ethnicity.
The church of Christ never floats above the nations. It lives in the nations. The nations are not the church. Yet the members of a specific nation, who are at the same time members of the church living in this nation, are inextricably connected to both. They participate in the glory and guilt of their nation and in the promise and guilt of their church.
We reject the false doctrine, in whatever form it may appear, concerning a naturally Christian soul of certain individuals, nations, or races.
We reject the false doctrine that the existence of the nation is a presupposition for the existence of the church, or that the existence of the church is a presupposition for the life of a nation.
The church can live even where there is no nation, for “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20].
A nation can live and have a grand history, even where there is no church. Nations live within the natural world and have incurred the law of death that reigns over all creation. This is why a nation as a whole cannot be redeemed, for redemption is always God’s act upon an individual. However, the church, grateful to God, always lays hold of the assistance offered to it in the ethnicity or other natural orders for the execution of its commission.
We reject the false doctrine that the church belongs to the nation, or that it exists for the nation. The church does not belong to the nation, but to Christ. He alone is its Lord. Only in intrepid obedience to him it truly serves the nation in which it lives. It exists for every member of the nation, to gain him for the congregation of Jesus.
We oppose the teaching that it belongs to the essence of the church to be a national church [“Volkskirche”]. The church is free to be national church, so long as this form is a means to carry out its commission.
Church and worldly authority
Only in Christ man has salvation and life before God. This is why the word of the church lays hold of the whole man.
Church and worldly authority are both from God. Both have been given an office in the world judged from Christ. We again declare ourselves for the teaching of the reformation (AC XXVIII, 4) “that because of God’s command both authorities and powers are to be honored and esteemed with all reverence as the two highest gifts of God on earth.” Both are entirely dependent on each other and yet separated from each other by insurmountable boundaries.
Church can never be absorbed into worldly authority. It always remains “opposite” to every worldly authority due to the content of its proclamation.
Church and authority are connected to one another in three ways:
- Their service is intended for those people who receive the fellowship of bodily life, with all that it contains, in the same ethnic or political order. Both lay hold of the whole man in their office.
- Worldly authority summons and forces man into its order, which the church teaches him to know as God’s order and for which it equips him to act rightly out of obedience to God.
- Worldly authority is above the church insofar as the church stands in the order administered by worldly authority. The church is above worldly authority insofar as it delivers to it the claim which God has over it in the execution of its office.
The symbol of the God-given office of the state is the sword. It is God’s servant for good and the prosecutor of the law over against the evil (Rom. 13:4). It is not “without from God,” that is, God establishes its beginning and end. It is a sign of God’s goodness who halts his wrath over the world and preserves it from dissolution by means of worldly authority. It “does not protect the soul, but with the sword and physical penalties it protects body and goods from [external violence]” (AC XXVIII, 11).
The content of the God-given office of the church is word and sacrament. Its power consists in the word alone (AC XXVIII, 8). It forgives and retains sins. It does not protect body and possessions, but through the word of the joyful news concerning the redemption in Christ it proclaims the liberation of the souls to life, by which man comes under the grace-filled rule of Christ. In obedience to God, it enables him to act resolutely in the order of this world.
Church and worldly authority must never be absorbed into each other, that is, the one cannot be integrated into the other. In the execution of their office, they point each other to their order and limitation, lest they become a tool of the devil who wants man to worship either the church amalgamated to the authority as the realization of the kingdom of God on earth or the authority amalgamated to the church as giver of life and bringer of salvation.
The church does violence to its office and transgresses its limitation if it abuses worldly authority for its purposes, if the former, e.g., wanted the latter to make membership in the church (baptism) a prerequisite of citizenship. In other words, it does violence to its office if it fails to carry out its office – either out of fear or out of incompetence – only by means of scriptural proclamation and walking in the spirit of love. Worldly authority does violence to its office and transgresses its limitation if it wants to abuse the church as a tool for its self-seeking will to power and no longer puts up with the witness of the sole rule of Christ; if it can no longer hear that its dignity, along with the world of sin, has incurred death and judgment.
When church and worldly authority carry out their office rightly, that is, according to God’s order, then they are genuine help and genuine protection for each other.
We, therefore, reject the false doctrine of a “Christian state” in every form. Here the gospel is made into a law and thereby, totally contrary to its essence, becomes a cause for sin (hypocrisy, coercion of consciences, etc.). Worldly authority among heathen and Christians rightly carries out its office only if it uses its sword rightly and remains within its limitations. On the other hand, it always remains the goal of the church that those who are charged with the office of authority are Christians who obediently serve under the word of God revealed in Christ.
The church and the Jews
The church teaches that God chose Israel to be his people among all the nations of the earth. He did this only in the power of his word and for the sake of his mercy, by no means for the sake of some natural prerogative (Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:7-11). The High Council and the nation of the Jews rejected Jesus, the Christ promised by the law and the prophets. They wanted a national Messiah who was to liberate them politically and give them dominion over the whole world. This is what the Christ Jesus was not, and this is what he did not do; he died by them and for them. By the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ Jesus the wall between Jews and Gentiles is broken down (Eph. 2). The Old Testament covenant people is not replaced by another nation but by the Christian church that is gathered from all nations by the message concerning Jesus Christ proclaimed in all nations.
God exuberantly praises his faithfulness by not casting aside Israel according to the flesh – from which was born Christ according to the flesh – despite all its unfaithfulness, even after the crucifixion of the Christ. The church has received from its Lord the commission to call the Jews to repentance and to baptize the believers in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Also in the case of a Jew, flesh and blood cannot give faith in Him, but only the Father in heaven by his Spirit (Matt. 16:17). This is why it is Judaistic enthusiasm to assert that the faith of the Jewish Christian is, in distinction from that of the Gentile Christian, blood-bound.
No cultural or political considerations can liberate the church from the duty to call Israel to repentance and to baptism. Just as little can the Gentile Christians separate themselves from the Christians out of the nation of Israel. Their fellowship in word and sacrament is the sign for the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is the heir of Abraham’s promise. By being baptized, the Jew enters into the true Israel. By recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as his Messiah, he recognizes the King of his people and separates himself from his unbelieving people. This is why the church must resist all secularization of the mission to the Jews which views the reception into the Christian church only the sign of the reception of the Jews into Western civilization. Likewise, it considers every Jewish and non-Jewish teaching, which either regards Judaism as merely a “denomination” (Moses Mendelssohn, humanitarian liberalism) or recognizes Judaism as merely a “nation among nations” (Zionism, nationalism), as a false doctrine that is foreign to the spirit of the bible. Israel is always both nation and church, be it believing church or resisting church. Where one or the other is forgotten, there the word of Scripture is not heard. The Christian congregation grants to the baptized Jew all the rights that it, as congregation of Jesus Christ, also grants to the Gentile Christian; this is a sign of the fact that this Jew returns home to his designation of recognizing in Jesus – the Son of Abraham, the Son of David (Matt. 1:1) – the Messiah and Son of God.
On History and on the End of All Things
Ever since the fall of man the world is sustained by the gracious will of God toward the end – until the end. God leaves his promise to man who has entered into opposition to him, namely, the promise to subject the earth to himself, that is, to shape it according to the gifts God gave him. This human activity is called “history.” In all liberty of willing and doing, man still remains bound in his creatureliness. This is why God is the Lord who in grace and judgment acts also in history in inexhaustible liveliness.
Man believes to recognize and shape in history something that is ultimate, that is accessible to him, for the deepest motive of all human activity in history is sinful man’s desire for power and greatness out of his own strength in assertion against God. The goal of God’s acting is the redemption of all of mankind. In immeasurable patience God again and again calls man into the decision.
He chose Israel to be his people to raise up the Messiah in it. Yet it rejected the Christ. Israel’s heir became Christ’s church. It is the people of the elect from every nation. The nations are therefore directed to the church in a peculiar way. It lives among them as the living promise of God. This is what makes the life and history of every nation, among whom the word concerning Christ is preached and baptism in his name is administered, rich and dangerous. For now this nation always runs the risk of walking the way of Israel. It runs the risk of abusing the promise lifted up in its midst in the church, the host of the ones “called out,” in the same way Israel abused it: it demanded that the Messiah glorify the greatness of the chosen people and did not want to hear that God has his kingdom proclaimed as one that is not of this world.
This is why the church can only proclaim the summons of God to the world; it must not take up as God’s call what sounds forth from the world and return it as God’s word. Its proclamation is always a call to decision before Christ and for Christ.
Such decision is judged in judgment. It is God who judges at the end of time. He alone knows what always remains hidden from man’s eyes. This is why no person, also no church, can proclaim his judgment in time.
In all historical events God and the devil are at work. God’s blessing and curse, grace and judgment can therefore not be separated and distinguished by natural man in an unequivocal manner. Natural man, the nation, the world seek to interpret and recognize history as events surrounding them; the believer, the church confesses the revelation of God in history as something that happens towards Him. Such confession can only be received and spoken in faith, only in free, intrepid obedience under the command of the Lord of the church based on the testimony of Scripture.
The nation that demands that its church speak where it has not been granted a word, or remain silent where it hears God’s commission to speak, commits the sin of Israel.
The church that out of attachment to the world, that is, out of a will to power and ambition or out of fear, speaks where it is not commanded to speak, or is silent where it is commanded to speak, becomes a false prophet and thereby a tool of the devil.
In view of God, all history is history of the end; for He is the end, that is, the cancellation of history. This is why every moment is a last moment for the believer and an incomprehensibly great gift of the patience of God who once more gives room for the decision.
In view of the world, every moment is at the same time end and beginning, result and cause, and therefore a call to shape the future anew. This is why every moment is a gift of the grace of God for the believer which orders the creatureliness, by which he is called to work and act.
Only where both are fully present – the total devotion to the historical moment and the total detachment from it – can the individual as well as the church speak and act rightly. This is why it is the task of the church to fill every moment with the witness of its message that the nation with all who live through the moment are called into the responsibility of the decision for or against Christ. This responsibility comprehends the entire life: the things that are Caesar’s as well as the things that are God’s. This is why the word of the church, spoken in faith, is always a living word, that is, a word that creates action.
God establishes his kingdom according to his plan that is withdrawn from human understanding. All human attempts to bring such kingdom of God about are therefore ridiculous presumption. We reject with the reformers such Jewish opinions [AC XVII, 5] in every form, whether they appear in the form of apocalyptic fantasies or in that of secular utopias, in the form of belief in progress or in that of pacifism.
The end of history is not brought about by human effort, but is established by God in the return of Christ and in his judgment. In this judgment will become apparent what is now hidden to our eyes. In this judgment each must given God an account for himself (Rom. 14:12) to receive as he acted while alive in the body, be it good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10).
The world of the resurrection will be a new earth and a new heaven “where the former shall not be remembered anymore” (Isa. 65:17). “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there will be no more death and suffering and crying and pain; for the former things are past” (Rev. 21:4).
Before the end comes the antichrist who, with a false appearance, declares himself to be the Messiah, the Christ, and wants to seduce the church. He is dangerous in the world, more dangerous yet in the church. He brings struggle to the congregation of Christ; people will be divided because of him. The end of history is division; the struggle of the congregation of Christ against the rule of the antichrist. Yet this end of history that “comes” is coming already “now.”
Both the Christ and the devil are at work at every moment. This is why the division takes places continuously. The power of the coming antichrist is seen in all seduction to disobedience and to denial; the power of Christ, however, becomes apparent in every strengthening of his disciples unto joyful confessing, unto faith that makes ready for deed and sacrifice, for obedience, for suffering. The task of the church in the time is therefore not the calculation of what is to come, but watchful readiness in the fear of God and in the certainty of his promise.
We reject all false doctrine which unilaterally either affirms or negates either the world of hope or our world. All flight from the “not yet” or from the “now” to the “now” or to the “not yet” is flight from the Lord of all things in whom time and eternity are one. Unbroken worldliness as well as pious world flight are unable to grasp the certainty that the world has been judged in Christ and awaits judgment; that the redemption is present and coming – only the believer is able to grasp it as he totally stands in the world and is totally taken out of the world, because he is certain of the promise of Christ.
To him, however, be glory and praise, who was, and who is, and who comes. Christ the Lord.
- ↑ SA is the abbreviation for Sturm-Abteilung or Attack-Detachment. It was the paramilitary wing of Hitler’s national-socialist party and, until it became marginalized in mid-1934, played an important role in his rise to power in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
- ↑ Unless indicated otherwise, the translations of the 1580 Christian Book of Concord cited here are those of the 1959 Tappert-Edition. The abbreviations of the Lutheran confessional writings contained therein are as follows: AC – Augsburg Confession (1530); Ap. – Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531); Sm. Art. – Smalcald Articles (1537); Tr. – Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537); SC – Small Catechism (1529); LC – Large Catechism (1529); FC-Ep. – Formula of Concord, Epitome (1577); FC-SD – Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration (1577).
- ↑ A religious group founded by Edward Irving (1792-1834), a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It was also known as the Catholic Apostolic Church. Its teachings include the imminent second coming of Christ; spiritual gifts and miracles; a threefold ministry under present-day apostles. Since the last apostle, F. V. Woodhouse, died in 1901 and ordinations into the ministry required apostolic consent, the group declined ever since, the last ministers dying in the 1970s. Congregations were most numerous in Germany, which explains the reference at this point in the Bethel Confession.