Luther was always deeply conscious of the wrath of God as a terrible, continuing reality. He never suggested that this wrath had simply evaporated into non-existence. No, “in Christ,” and there alone, it was decisively overcome and reversed—yes, for all men. But outside of Christ and the Gospel, if one spurns the “in Christ” gift freely given in the Word, one remains under judgment and wrath. “For while the act has taken place, as long as I have not appropriated it, it is as if it had not taken place for me” (Luther’s Works, vol. 40, pg. 215). Therefore, “outside the Christian church (that is, where the Gospel is not) there is no forgiveness…” (Large Catechism, Creed, 56; Tappert ed. cited).
There is no “cheap grace” (Bonhoeffer) here. Although she glories in Objective Justification as none other can or does, the church of the Lutheran Reformation does not present this evangelical jewel as a pretext for not bothering about serious repentance. The Reformation did not abandon the awesomely realistic understanding of penitence from which it had sprung. Nor did Luther reduce the Fifth Petition to an empty sham when he wrote: “Not that he does not forgive sin even without and before our prayer; and he gave us the Gospel, in which there is nothing but forgiveness, before we prayed or even thought of it” (Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer). For he added at once: “But the point here is for us to recognize and accept this forgiveness.” What is needed is not a mere reminder of forgiveness, but the thing itself. It is precisely because our need for forgiveness is so radical and constant that it cannot be confined to times of conscious petitions for forgiveness: “Let no one think that he will ever in this life reach the point where he does not need this forgiveness. In short, unless God constantly forgives, we are lost.”
-Kurt Marquart, “The Reformation Roots of ‘Objective Justification'” in A Lively Legacy: Essays in Honor of Robert Preus.
It must be clear, however, that faith has a completely subsidiary, humble, passive function in justification. It neither creates nor enhances the gift, but merely receives it. Therefore, the accent must always fall on the gift itself, on the work of Christ, not on faith as such.
-Kurt Marquart, “Reformation Roots of ‘Objective Justification'”, from A Lively Legacy: Essays in the Honor of Robert Preus.
For the church of the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments, justification is indeed the heart and soul of everything, and is therefore also the criterion for the whole life of the church.
The central teaching of the Lutheran Church is the teaching that sinful man is saved by God’s grace alone through faith. However, this faith does not originate within yourself; it is a gift from God. In order to deliver this faith the Holy Spirit uses instruments—or means—to deliver His grace.
The first of these means is Holy Baptism. Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water that is combined with and included with God’s Word. There is a promise attached to Holy Baptism. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be damned (Mark 16:16). Holy Baptism is the washing of the Holy Spirit and of new birth (Titus 3:4-7). Baptism is salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Our churches teach that children are to be baptized. This promise of baptism is for us and for our children (Acts 2:38-39).
Holy Baptism is a precious gift by which God makes His enemies His children. By this water and promise He converts the rebellious, saves the sinner, and delivers from death to life.
The historical experience of their church body ought to warn modern Lutherans to be slow in bartering their liturgical treasures for illusory promises of huge evangelistic successes. The modern assault on liturgical worship is aimed not simply at a few old-fashioned customs or adiaphora, but at the whole liturgical, churchly spirit itself, which necessarily goes with a serious doctrine of the means of grace. One of the most significant books of our time, Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy, tells us in no uncertain terms that there is a massive cultural “shift from a religion mediated by authorities to one of direct spiritual experience.” the church of the “external Word and Sacrament” should be the last to yield to that carnal spiritualizing which is “the source, strength, and power of all heresy” (SA III, VIII, 9). And Carter Lindberg has shown the deep inner connections between the fanatics of Luther’s day, the Pietism that followed, and our modern Pentacostalist/Charismatic “renewals.” If the means of grace are to rule, and not just to reign ceremonially, then they cannot be combined with all sorts of incompatible, anti-liturgical bric-a-brac like the “Spiritual Gifts” scheme. One must choose either the one or the other, the liturgy or the “new measures,” the Gospel or enthusiasm.
The church’s historic liturgical ways, however, are not, as it were, a necessary evil, and evangelistic liability, to be endured for the sake of orthodoxy. Quite the contrary, the “liturgical mode” is actually a great missionary advantage, because it is the best, most natural setting for the priceless jewels of the means of grace. It is deeply moving to observe among the spiritual heirs of Zwingli, Calvin, and Finney the sort of yearning for sacramental and liturgical fullness expressed by The Chicago Call of 1977. A decade later some 1,800 of these “evangelicals” as a body joined the Antiochene Orthodox Church. But why did these seekers have to wander as far away from the Reformation as exotic Damascus? Why did they not see in contemporary Wittenberg a credible bearer of historic Christianity, in content as well as form?
In sum, the argument for this writing is not a plea for an unthinking, rigid traditionalism. it is rather an appeal for spiritual, churchly consistency. Let Lutheran practice be determined by Lutheran theology, and then it will be accorded the kind of respect which is the best possible basis for genuine missionary attraction. Integrity, not image or cheap verbiage, must draw men to the Gospel (1 Pet. 3:1-2), and the Gospel itself converts and affirms. No one can doubt the Good Shepherd’s missionary zeal and compassion for his sheep. Yet he draws them with a quiet dignity that is entirely free of that breathless pestering and pandering which is mere salesmanship. When multitudes turn from him in fickle disenchantment, he does not run after them, shouting, “Wait! Just a moment! You’ve misunderstood my words about flesh and blood. All this can be put differently, too! Let me make it clear to you in cultural forms you will find more congenial!” None of that. Sadly but serenely he turns to his disciples: “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” Peter replies for them and for the church of all ages, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).
An individual stands justified before God by faith in Christ. He receives this faith through the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and the Sacraments. This implanted faith blossoms into the fruits of good works in service to the neighbor.
But faith isn’t only about the individual. “Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” These two things—God’s Word and the Sacraments—are sufficient for the true unity of the Church, even though local traditions, rites, and ceremonies may differ from place to place.
This one holy Church is found wherever the Word of God and the Sacraments are being administered according to Christ’s institution and command, even if evil people and hypocrites are mingled together with them. For the Church is not a creation of man, a collection of like-minded individuals who discover that they have something in common, but a divine creation. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and congregates the Christian Church on earth, from place to place and from time to time, as it pleases Him.
The Augsburg Confession itself says that “nothing contributes so much to the maintenance of dignity in public worship and the cultivation of reverence and devotion among the people as the proper observance of ceremonies in the churches” (“Articles About Matters in Dispute…,” par. 6, after AC XXI). And since “good order is very becoming in the church,” reasons the Apology, it “is therefore necessary” (Ap XV, 22). Slovenly irreverence must be called to repentance, lest priceless evangelical pearls be trampled underfoot by swine (Matt. 7:6).
Connected with good order is the matter of the stability of liturgical form. There are two aspects to this stability. One is the principle of continuity with the ancient church. The church of the evangelical Reformation wishes to be neither a new-fangled sect nor a biblicistic one which imagines that it can bypass the whole intervening history of the church. Wanting to be simply a faithful continuation of the orthodox church of the ages, it makes a point of having “introduced nothing, either in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Holy Scripture or the universal Christian Church” (AC Conclusion, 5). Article XXIV in both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology repeatedly refers to the church fathers and to the Greek liturgy, by way of precedent. Luther’s Large Catechism says, “Since from ancient times Sunday has been appointed for this purpose, we should not change it. In this way a common order will prevail and no one will create disorder by unnecessary innovation” (LC I, 85). Behind this respect for genuine tradition–Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead”–stands what might be called the principle of ecclesial humility: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:36).
The second aspect concerns the pedagogical value of stability. In his preface to the Small Catechism Luther strongly urged the teachers of the Catechism to “adopt one form, adhere to it, and use it repeatedly year after year,” and not to “alter a single syllable or recite the catechism differently from year to year,” so as not to confuse the simple (LC Preface, 7-8; [note: the reference is to the Preface of the Small Catechism – JWE]). What holds for catechetics holds perhaps even more for liturgics, even though Luther’s early writings seem to encourage a laissez-faire attitude. After his encounter with the flutter-spirits of emotional fanaticism, Luther grew more cautious, and the various Lutheran church orders of that time are decidedly conservative.