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Lessons in the Lutheran Confessions
What the Church Is


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From the Word: 1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they order, but not the works they do. For they say, but do not act. 4 Yes, they bundle backbreaking burdens, and set them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with their finger. 5 For they do all their works to be seen by other people. They make their phylacteries broad, and lengthen their tassels, 6 and love the highest position at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called Rabbi by the people. 8 But do not ye called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called teachers, for you have one Teacher, the Christ. (Matthew 23:1–10)

From the Confessions: The Chief Articles of Faith in the Augsburg Confession

What the Church Is

Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat, etc. (Matt 23:2). Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men.

They condemn the Donatists, and such like, who denied it to be lawful to use the ministry of evil men in the Church, and who thought the ministry of evil men to be unprofitable and of none effect.

Pulling It Together: Today's reading from the Confessions underscores both justification by the grace of God alone (Article IV), and the means of grace (Article VII) mentioned before. The Confessions make it clear that God offers his grace without the assistance of perfect people. He accomplishes this through the preaching of the gospel and his word of promise in water, wine, and bread. The Church is that assembly where God perfectly bestows his grace, not a place where holy men do it for him. Just as God does not need, nor does he use, a person's virtues to bring her to saving faith, he does not require so-called "good" people to deliver his grace or make it valid in a congregation. As grace does not depend upon perfect people to preach and administer the sacraments, imperfect and even evil men cannot nullify the promise of God.

The Donatist controversy mentioned in this article is a case in point. Followers of Bishop Donatus insisted that the sacraments, especially baptisms, administered by those who had bowed to persecution and had seemed to deny the faith were now invalid. This would mean that God's grace depended upon sinless humans. But we confess that it is the Spirit who is the administrator of God's grace. Though the church and its officers be ever so imperfect, as pastors are sinners along with the rest, God's grace is not restrained. Our eyes must be ever upon the giver of grace, not the pastor who speaks the words of God's promise. It is God who washed us, gave his body, and shed his blood—not a pastor. It is the Spirit who speaks the Word of Christ to human hearts—not the one in the pulpit. So, Lutherans confess that the holy, catholic Church is that assembly where the gospel and the sacraments are rightly handled, however imperfect the bishop or pastor be who preaches and presides.

Prayer: Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for baptizing me and keeping me in your grace. Amen. 

The Sacraments is one of four books in the Sola Confirmation Series and serves as a simple and practical resource for teaching the biblical Word of God according to the traditional pattern of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Each book in the series may be used as the basis for a “come as you are” small group Bible study, as a student book for home school or independent study programs, or as a classroom tool and homework resource as part of an existing confirmation program. 

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Mark Ryman

Posted February 28, 2015 at 3:09pm

A subscriber to the Sola Devotions emails wrote me this morning with a question, and I thought I would add that exchange here. It will add some historical and theological context outside the scope of the devotion itself.

Mark Ryman

Posted February 28, 2015 at 3:09pm

Q: Would you explain the terminology evil men, good men, perfect men, etc?

Mark Ryman

Posted February 28, 2015 at 3:10pm

A: From the perspective of Donatism, evil men would be those who bowed to the persecution of the church in northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries AD by turning over their Scriptures to the authorities. Later, when the persecution was lifted, those priests were seen as evil, outside of God's grace due to their failings. The Donatists insisted that baptisms they had performed were now invalid. In terms of the Confessions, evil men are the lot of us. We are sinners and therefore not holy—save by the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Here, Luther's famous saying is helpful: "Simul justus et peccator." (Simultaneously saint and sinner.) So, while now viewed by God as holy, we are only righteous through being baptized into Christ's death. The "old man" is now dead to God but a new, reborn person is alive by virtue of Christ alone. This, ironically, makes even failed priests righteous—in spite of their failings. I say it is ironic because those very priests were "perfect" since God saw them as covered by the blood of his Son despite their sins. Nevertheless, in human terms, good men are not only hard to come by, they don't exist. If one could find a good man to preside over the Sacraments, why would Christ be necessary? Why would Sacraments be needed? Well...because we are sinners in need of the means of grace. Thus, Christ instituted the offices of the Church where we imperfect pastors are used to convey the means of grace—preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments.

Mark Ryman

Posted March 1, 2015 at 3:43am

The Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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