The Holy Spirit in the Lutheran Confessions (1): who and what

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.

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9 Responses to The Holy Spirit in the Lutheran Confessions (1): who and what

  1. Phil Walker says:

    I’m assuming Lutherans don’t have so many charismatics in their midst as, say, we do? One of the things I struggle to get people at church to appreciate is (and I’m guessing you’ll get onto this) how much the Spirit works among us already. I’m guessing you’ll go on to talk about the Word and sacraments as the places where the Holy Spirit promises to be working among us; but it’s always a little touchy, trying to explain that to Baptists, particularly the “sacraments” half of it.

    Anyway, my point really was that if you lot talk about the Word and sacraments, then you’re talking about the ways the Holy Spirit promises to work in and among us, even if you could use making that more explicit now and again.

  2. John H says:

    Phil: yes, I agree, there is a need to be explicit about the Spirit’s role in the ministry of Word and sacrament, for several reasons:

    1. It gets us away from a “magical”, ex opere operato view of the Word and sacraments – puts our focus back on the Giver rather than the gift.

    2. It stops people looking for the Spirit in the wrong places. They’ve been told that the Spirit works in the lives of Christians, but haven’t been told that he works through the Word and sacraments. So they look for the Spirit in something other than the Word and sacraments, and frequently end up downplaying or even actively denigrating the Word and sacraments.

    3. It increases our excitement and enthusiasm (in the good sense of the word!) for the Word and sacraments, because we recognise them as a place where we will encounter the Spirit’s work in our lives.

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you for this post. Luther’s explanation of Article 3 is my favorite part of the catechism. We cannot, I cannot believe on my own. I need the Spirit. I need the church.

  4. Bror Erickson says:

    I think the hitch of it is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t save by talking about himself, he saves by working through the Gospel which is all about Christ, His death and His Resurrection. This is possibly why us Lutherans don’t spend as much time talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit isn’t working when we are talking about Him, so much as when He are talking about what Christ has done for us. The Holy Spirit isn’t there to draw attention to Himself, But to draw us to faith in Christ.
    I too, like the explenation to the third article of the creed. I remember a dark night in Aviano many years ago, having a conversation with a friend, when that part of the Catechism jarred my memory and sent me off on the journey to become a pastor. But look at it closely, this part of the creed is explaining what happens in salvation, how it works, it in essence is talking about the Gospel, but isn’t quite preaching the Gospel. It’s a bridge to the abstract of Pieper’s Dogmatics. Contrast that with the Second Article. The Second article is the Gosple proper. Preach the second article, and now the Holy Spirit is doing, what it says he does in the third article.

  5. John H says:

    Bror: I agree that the priority is to actually preach the gospel (as per the second article), but I still think there is a proper place for remaining conscious of the Holy Spirit’s work as described in the third article – not least because we have the example of the apostles, the NT authors, the Reformers and indeed the Lord himself to follow in this regard.

  6. Bror Erickson says:

    John H,
    Of course we should remain conscious of the Work of the Holy Spirit. I even hold that there are times when a pastor ought to preach about the Gospel, as long as he also gets around to preaching the Gospel. I was just explaining why us Lutherans aren’t always caught talking about the Holy Spirit. A pentecostal might think it is evangelism to go about talking about the Holy Spirit. But us Lutherans know the Holy Spirit really isn’t doing his primary task unless Christ is being spoke about.
    We are rightly worried that maybe it is a different spirit, when people are fixated on the Holy Spirit, gifts etc, at the expense of Christ and the cross.

  7. Bror Erickson says:

    John H,
    Maybe I’m just feeling punch here, but I have to wonder when you write:
    “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 ”
    This is somewhat on the level of jibberish for me. I haven’t read any of Wright’s books, so maybe if I did it wouldn’t be jibberish. But of the writing of books,(and blogs), and consequently of reading them, there is no end. In anycase, I wonder if this is all more a false dichotomy, based on the false impression the Reformed have of heaven. I have always believed in the resurrection of the flesh, and have never seen any reason why that would bar me from heaven seeing as Christ is in heaven in the flesh also. The Bible talks a lot about the kingdom of heaven awaiting believers after they die. I even perceive that heaven and earth will be quite entwined for us believers in Christ. “the new heavens and the new earth bit. In short I see no reason why believing in the resurrection of the flesh, should exclude me from hoping for eternal life in heaven.

  8. John H says:

    Bror: I think Wright has a point when he says that many Christians have a sub-biblical view of “heaven” as a disembodied state and so on, and a tendency to conflate the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection) with the eternal state post-resurrection. And I’m sure that mistaken perception is not restricted to Reformed Christians.

    Even if we set aside the question of whether he has accurately characterised what Christians mean when they talk about “heaven”, I find Wright’s emphasis on the resurrection of the body as the true hope of the church to be a heartening one, and in keeping with the teaching of the NT and the convictions of the early church. One of the best aspects of his theology.

    And yes, I am sure you are right about the intertwining of earth and heaven for the resurrected. But that is still some way from what is often suggested by the phrase “going to heaven”.

  9. Bror Erickson says:

    John H,
    I have known many lutherans who have mistakenly helled the reformed view of heaven, as being somewhere on the darkside of the moon if I may carictuize it. But it is still the reformed view as opposed to the Lutheran view.
    And the resurrection of the flesh is a heartening emphasis, but I don’t think it should be done at the expense of heaven. Rather I think it should be used to explain what heaven really is. Rather than used to continue the false dichotomy.
    Tell you the truth, though I even wonder if there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection, or if that gap isn’t some how filled by eternity. I think you might still be able to dig up the bones of the theif who died next to Christ, but if you were to see him in paradise today, he would be in the flesh. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. But there isn’t a one to one ration between time and eternity.

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