The engine-room of Lutheran spirituality

Michael Spencer finds himself driven to distraction by a Christianity Today article on assurance:

Revivalistic experience… or… works. Any other choices? (Hint: Faith in Jesus as mediator.)

You know, it’s this kind of thing that makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Is it just me or is this answer thoroughly Roman Catholic? LUTHERANS!!!!!! WOULD YOU PLEASE HELP US OUT HERE? You seem to be the only ones left who understand this and we hardly know what you believe.

Now, as I said in response on the BHT, I’m not sure Lutherans have much to boast about when it comes to assurance and sanctification in practice. But one thing we do have to offer is the perspective set out in Articles IV to VI of the Augsburg Confession. This is the engine-room of Lutheran spirituality: the dynamic that links justification by faith to the preaching and sacramental ministry of the church and the Christian life of grateful service to others.

I’ve referred to these articles quite often on this blog and elsewhere, but they are worth quoting in full:

IV. Concerning Justification

Likewise, they teach that human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are receiving into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness (Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5).

V. Concerning Ministry in the Church

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel, that is to say, in those who believe that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that we are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3:14b: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the Word through their own preparations.

VI. Concerning the New Obedience

Likewise, they teach that this faith is bound to yield good fruits and that it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God. For forgiveness of sins and justification are taken hold of by faith, as the saying of Christ also testifies (Luke 17:10): “When you have done all [things] … say, ‘We are worthless slaves.'”. The authors of the ancient church teach the same. For Ambrose says: “It is established by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved without work, by faith alone, receiving the forgiveness of sins as a gift.”

The linchpin is article V: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted.” This is it: this is the secret heart of Lutheran spirituality. If there is one insight, one principle from Lutheran theology that I would love to see the rest of the church pick up on, it is this: that the principal means by which we receive the faith through which we are justified is through the gospel as it is proclaimed to us in the church’s preaching and the sacraments. That it is not an abstract gospel that we are called to believe, but the gospel that we hear in the church; that it is not an abstract Christ in whom we are called to believe, but Christ as he is present with us as the church declares his promises to us.

As I’ve said here before:

Faith isn’t something we are to try to work up in ourselves. It isn’t some inner state of certainty to which we somehow attain. God, in his mercy towards us, does not require us to hold within our heads at one moment the whole truth of Christianity, and to assent to it. Rather, he comes to us with concrete, audible promises: “Your sins are forgiven”; “Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”; “This is my body, given for you … this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. Faith is believing the promise we are hearing right now.

I would love to see Christians in all traditions become more conscious of the instrumental nature of preaching and the sacraments; that these are means by which God does something, namely creating and nurturing faith within us by the Holy Spirit. This isn’t necessarily about going the whole hog, embracing baptismal regeneration and the real presence or becoming Lutherans. Much the same perspective is found in other evangelical traditions (e.g. the Heidelberg Catechism). However, I do think it is articulated most clearly, and lived out most fully, in the Lutheran church (which is why I’m a Lutheran).

The “Article 4-5-6” dynamic then provides a framework for addressing the issue of assurance and sanctification. Article VI reminds us that true faith will certainly result in good works. However, those good works are not the basis of our assurance. Indeed, the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 shows us that most of our good works are done unconsciously, and will take us entirely by surprise when they are revealed to us.

Rather, the basis for our assurance is found in Article IV – Christ, whose death made satisfaction for our sins – and the mechanism for that assurance is found in Article V: not introspective brooding over our “Christlikeness” or good works, but a looking outward to the promises that are declared to us over and over again in the word of absolution, the preaching of the gospel, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

This entry was posted in Augsburg Evangelicalism, Key Posts, Sanctification and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The engine-room of Lutheran spirituality

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Riffs: 01:01:08: Losing the Treasure of a Christ-Centered Assurance of Salvation

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  3. L P Cruz says:


    It is iustificare per fidem propter christum…vs per Christum propter fidem, the latter always robs you of assurance.

    I got no shame,


  4. Ivy Gauvin says:

    Hi John,

    I found your site via Internetmonk, Michael Spencer. Something I have found helpful is Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism:

    I believe that by my own understanding or strength I
    cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith… (Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism, Timothy Wengert, trans., in The Lutheran Handbook, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 205.)


  5. Russell Phillips says:

    Thanks for your blog! You are in my list of favourites!

    I really appreciate what you are saying about the instrumentality of preaching. I think this is the Apostle’s point in Romans 10 about the word being ‘close’ and ‘near’.

    One could apply the language of reaching up to the heavens and going down into the depths as much to sought-after mystical spiritual experience as Paul applies it to pharasaical works-righteousness. Either way salvation is difficult to attain. The gospel – by contrast to both – brings salvation within reach, ‘delivers’ it to the doorstep, as it were.

    I would be grateful for any references to this concept in Luther and Lutheran confessions besides those in the Augsburg Confession.

    Russell Phillips

    (missionary pastor working with the Russian Baptist denomination in Novosibirsk)

  6. Thomas says:

    As I’ve said on ER, it’s not much of a reach to see the gospel preached and the declarations such as ‘I baptize you’, ‘I declare forgiveness’ and suchlike as the sovereign election of God himself – that is, the declarations do what they say, so that when you hear ‘I declare the forgiveness of your sins’, it has happened; when the pastor declares in Christ’s name and by his authority, ‘I baptize you’, you’re elected. So, true evangelical talk of election and predestination has nothing to do with speculations about what the Trinity was up to ‘out there’ in ‘eternity’ ‘before’ there was a creation, but is rather about the outworking of that eternal decree in this time and this place through the ministry of the gospel. To say to a person, ‘you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world’ is simply an act of faith in the power of his word to never return empty, but rather to effect what he says and thus desires.

    Then again, I’ve been told that this is heretical nonsense.

    Peace out.

  7. John H says:

    Russell: thanks for your comment. The Small Catechism (as referenced in the previous comment) and the Large Catechism are good places to start, esp. as regards the sacraments. The particular issue of the instrumentality of preaching is touched on in the Smalcard Articles. David Yeago’s essay on The Catholic Luther is also worth reading, though again it focuses more on the sacraments.

    But what is said about the instrumentality of the sacraments applies equally well to preaching: it is the same gospel that comes to us by both, just through different physical media (vibrating air in the case of preaching, water, bread and wine in the case of the sacraments).

    Thomas: I’m not sure who’s been telling you you’re a heretic. That sounds spot-on to me, and I think Gerhard Forde makes a similar point somewhere (so if you are a heretic, then at least you’re in good company 🙂 ).

  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    All good stuff. I just know how an evangelical might read it though. They’ll see that preaching is the lynchpin, and so they’ll think the solution is to “see” preaching as being important. Which can only be done where the Gospel is truly preached. Having a good attitude about preaching is not helpful if what is preached is drivel. Worse yet, some pastor will preach on the importance of preaching. Which is different from preaching the Gospel.

    So the application of this insight by the pastor is to actually preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. The application of this insight by the layman is to go where he or she can hear the Gospel preached and to receive the sacraments. Very different from a pastor preaching a sermon series on the importance of sermons for delivering the Gospel. Or from a layman deciding that sermons, whatever they may contain, are important since God delivers the Gospel through them. (As if God delivered the Gospel through sermons even when something very other than the Gospel was preached.)

    To some, all of this will sound like it need not be said. The right application is obvious. But where this is missed, it is missed in such a way that fixes become especially difficult.

  9. John H says:

    Rick: thanks for the clarification. I think this is probably another example of my own experience of non-Lutheran evangelicalism having been less negative than that of many others – mainly because of the very significant differences between UK evangelicalism (esp. of the conservative Anglican evangelical variety) and that in the US – so that I am less alert to these potential pitfalls.

  10. Tom R says:

    Jay ‘aitch,

    “linchpin”- 2 iotas, no ypsilon.

  11. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Why justification by faith is “not quite Protestant”

  12. Rick Ritchie says:

    Sure, John. Well, these pitfalls were ones I saw in better evangelical circles, and even, at times, in the chapel of my Lutheran college. I think that even those who know the doctrines of grace can fall into this to varying degrees. Gerhard Forde is great on this subject. How not all talk about grace is proclamation.

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