The period between Ascension and Pentecost is a period of preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and so I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look at what the Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord say about the Holy Spirit.
Lutherans are often accused of neglecting the Holy Spirit, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in that. You’re much more likely to hear Lutherans talking about the Word and sacraments than about the Spirit. But if Lutherans do neglect the Spirit and his work, then our confessions give us no excuse to do so. As Robert Preus puts it in his book, Getting Into The Theology Of Concord:
[N]ot only do our Lutheran Confessions proclaim the Spirit-breathed theology of Scripture, not only do they reveal the Spirit-filled life and testimony of their authors, but they emphasize throughout in a remarkable manner the saving and comforting work of the Spirit in the life of every believer and throughout the church. (p.52)
The classic statement of Lutheran belief in the Spirit and his work is found in Luther’s exposition of the third article of the Creed, in the Small Catechism:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
What does this mean?
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.
On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
This is most certainly true.
As Revd Mark Anderson points out in an excellent sermon on the third article, this is a remarkable statement of one of the most radical and offensive (to human ears) of all Reformation doctrines. What Luther is saying here is that our confession has to be this: “I believe that I cannot believe”.
“I believe that I cannot believe”; so why is that I do believe? Because of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life: the Spirit who has called, enlightened and sanctified me and kept me in the true faith.
Crucially, though, this work of the Spirit cannot be separated from the life of the whole church. It is not that the Holy Spirit works in one way in my life as an individual, and in another way in the life of the church as a whole. No: he calls, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps the church “in the same way” as he calls, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps me.
How he does this will be the topic of the next post, though a key aspect of this is found in the next statement: “In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” There is the link – the “in the same way” – between the Spirit’s work in us as individuals and his work in the church: it is “in this Christian church” that the Spirit “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”. (It seems to me that it is rare in today’s church for the forgiveness of sins to be spoken of as a particular work of the Spirit.)
And the final part of the Spirit’s work as described in this article is another that is (as N.T. Wright, among others, has pointed out) neglected and misunderstood in the church today: “On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.”
A reminder that the Christian hope is not “going to heaven when we die”, but the resurrection from the dead. And it is the Holy Spirit who will raise us from the dead, and the same Spirit who will give us eternal life with Christ (see Romans 8:11).
As Luther concludes: “This is most certainly true”. And it is not true merely in some dry, factual sense, as a doctrine that we keep “up on the shelf” and only take down when we want to remind ourselves why we’re not Pentecostals. This short exposition of the doctrine of the Spirit is rich and dense, repays careful thought and meditation, and puts the Spirit right at the heart of our lives as Christians and as a church, and at the heart of our hope for the future.