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Lessons in the Lutheran Confessions
Concerning the Power of Bishops, Part 5


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Galatians 3:1–3

From the Confessions: The Augsburg Confession

Concerning the Power of Bishops

If bishops have any other power or jurisdiction in the hearing and judging of certain cases such as matrimony or tithes, they have this authority by human right. When bishops fail in their duties, princes are bound even against their will to dispense justice to their subjects for the maintenance of peace. Additionally, it is disputed whether bishops, or pastors, have the right to introduce ceremonies in the Church, to make laws concerning meats, holy days, and grades—that is, orders of ministers, etc. Those who give this right to the bishops refer to the testimony of John: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). They also refer to the example of the Apostles, who commanded to abstain from blood and from things strangled (Acts 15:29). They refer to the Sabbath day as having been changed into the Lord's Day, which they see as being contrary to the Decalog. There is no example in which they make more fuss than that concerning the changing of the Sabbath day. They say that the Church's power is so great that it can even dispense with one of the Ten Commandments.

Concerning this question, Lutherans teach that bishops have no authority to decree anything against the gospel. Canon Law teaches the same thing (Dist. IX). It is against Scripture to establish or require the observance of any traditions, if the point of the observance is making satisfaction for sins, or earning grace and righteousness. When we endeavor to merit justification by such observances, Christ's merit suffers injury. It is clear that because of trust in traditions, they have greatly increased in the Church. The doctrine of faith and the righteousness of faith have meanwhile been restrained. Gradually more holy days have been created, more fasts appointed, new ceremonies and services in honor of saints instituted—all because the authors of such things thought that by these works they were earning grace. Therefore, the Penitential Canons increased, of which we still see some traces in the satisfactions.

Pulling It Together

No bishop or pastor should create any tradition that promises people God's grace. Nor should the people be threatened with God's disfavor when they do not obey these human inventions. Yet this is precisely what happened in the Church leading up to the Reformation. When we insist that man-made ceremonies and rules reconcile God and justify sinners, we not only mislead people, we belittle the saving work of Christ's death. One modern illustration will make this clear. Some preachers these days promise their followers that God will bless them financially if they will send in an offering of a particular amount of money. This is often called a seed gift. If one plants the seed, they say, God will grow the plant. In other words, if a donation of the right amount is given, God will be pleased to multiply it back to the giver. People then give, trusting that this earns God's favor to the degree that he will now prosper them. This is bad enough, though I am unaware of any of these preachers threatening people's souls if they do not give. Yet the Church at the time of the Reformation was telling people if they did not keep certain ceremonies, which by the way, brought in vast sums to the Church, that their souls were in danger. Obviously, this was and remains today a successful strategy for raising lots of money. Yet, bilking people is the least troublesome concern here. What is far worse is that people are taught to trust these strategies for God's favor and salvation.

Lutherans teach that God's mercy and grace comes only through faith in Christ's work on the cross. We receive God's grace freely through faith, not through works of the flesh. Therefore, Lutherans also teach that bishops—pastors—have no right to promise God's grace through any means other than what God himself has ordained and instituted in Scripture. 

Prayer: Help me, God, to fully trust in Christ Jesus, who alone can save me. Amen. 

Some of the best-known instances of Jesus' teaching come in what we know as his parables. Through these teaching-stories, Jesus describes the experience of faith in the kingdom of God. The Wise & the Foolish is a Bible study that focuses entirely on Jesus' "people parables"—or what might better be descirbed as discipleship parables. These are the character stories that focus on the nature of discipleship and what it means to be a wise and faithful follower of Jesus. This nine-session Bible study is intended for use by women's and men's groups, or for other small group fellowships gathering around the Word of God.

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