Day of Commemoration of the Augsburg Confession
The Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens
Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (ESV)
Today we examine another confession, not the Apostles’ Creed, which we have spent the the past few months looking at. Today is about the unaltered version of the Augsburg Confession, which was delivered 478 years ago today at the Diet in Augsburg to the Holy Roman Emperor, and yes, there is also an altered version of the Augsburg Confession that contains problematic content! The pastors of our Lutheran Church to this day will still bind themselves at their ordination to that unaltered version, just as the congregational bylaws of St. Mary’s Church cite the unaltered version as the basis for all our doctrines and confessions. Yes, the Augsburg Confession is the only confession in our Lutheran confessional writings which the Church year has given its very own day of commemoration, and so this evening we will again reflect on what we actually confess and what the Confession themselves say.
And so the Epistle for today’s Feast Day from the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy is an important help. Certainly, the verses that we have heard in the Epistle have originally been a reminder of an ordination: Paul reminds his student Timothy about the confession, which he had sworn at his holy Ordination before many witnesses, and about the words, which he had spoken at his Ordination. However in this reminder of ordination, in this encouragement to Timothy to also live from the gift of his ordination, is that some fundamentals of the Christian confession will also become clear, which can also help us today, since most of us have not had the office transferred to us as Paul had passed on to Timothy. St. Paul shows us here that the confession is, always
a disputed confession
an accepted confession
a prayed confession
Why does one actually need a confession? To be completely straightforward, you need it because what one confesses there in and with this confession, and has called into question because of this confession, therefore this confession is always a disputed confession.
This struggle has very different counterparts: It is first of all a struggle with the devil and the powers of evil that want to hinder us from confessing Christ, our Lord. And so it belongs to the Church already at the confession of Baptism when for the first time the rejection of the devil and all his work and ways occurs. Whoever confesses Christ altogether renounces Satan and engages in a struggle with him. By this confession we continually challenge the opposing natures of the world and men, so that we want to know nothing except Christ. Yes, such a confession, such a confession of Christ, expects Christ our Lord, so we have heard it even in the holy Gospel: Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My heavenly Father. And finally the confession also serves to differentiate true doctrine from false doctrine within the Church, so the confession always has as its reverse the rejection of the false doctrine.
In our epistle, Paul also speaks of the good struggle of the faith, encouraging Timothy to fight this good fight of the faith by reminding him that he, Timothy, has sworn the good confession before many witness at his ordination. Yes, to put everything into this good fight of the faith: he is involved in the struggle between Satan and Christ, which everyone has put on through our Baptism, and it is also the struggle with the world when our confession disagrees with their reflected confessions. Paul reminds Timothy of the good confession that Christ had testified under Pontius Pilate, a confession before the pagan public, a confession, that He has finally been introduced by His death on the cross. And likewise Paul forcefully warns Timothy in both letters about the false doctrine, which also penetrated into the Church, namely that the resurrection is only a spiritual resurrection and not a resurrection of the flesh, the body; such false doctrine has been around for nearly 2000 years.
The Augsburg Confession also laid out disputes when it was presented to the emperor 478 years ago. Yes, they even had to calculate that this confession could possibly cost them their lives.
Certainly, the particular concern of the Augsburg Confession was to clearly show that with their teaching they represented the doctrine of the true Catholic Church, that they stood in the continuity of the Church. They even reiterate in their confession the doctrines that the Church rejected in the first few centuries, and that they have no desire to establish a new Church. They claim, however, that they are and remain catholic, which put them into conflict with the Roman Church of the of that time, yes, specifically over what they taught and preached concerning the justification of the sinner before God. And so the Augsburg Confession became and also remained a confession born in controversy.
We are not surprised, therefore, when we, as a confessional Lutheran Church, always encounter opposition; we are not surprised when we are challenged from the devil, from the world that surrounds us, yes even within the Christian Church because of our adherence to confess Christ. Our confession is and remains a disputed confession.
As we can infer it from the words of St. Paul, our confession is also an accepted confession.
Today, we are easily at risk to look at the Confessions, to which we as the Lutheran Church have been bound, as a type of collective bargaining: Sometimes we as a church are perhaps open and accommodating to a different teaching. What can we surrender from what we have confessed until now? And that includes what the other side claims and confesses, which is really heresy? Perhaps one could rightly understand, and then we need what we have confessed before, but it is no longer formulated quite as clearly as before! And when specific clauses of faith that were previously confessed in the company that surrounds us, is now no longer accepted – can one formulate something non-offensive and comply with those who thus make something heavy? For example, must one still speak today about Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross? Is it not surprising when one does confess that God is love?
St. Paul teaches that our confession distinguishes us from an entirely different perspective: We put this confession first and foremost not before other people, but first and foremost before God.
Before Him, all things are made alive, before Him, we have Jesus Christ’s confession under Pontius Pilate, we have first and foremost responsibility. Yes, the proper direction of all our confessions is Christ’s return, which asks for our confession. No, it is not that in the course of time the Confessions become obsolete and must be replaced with new ones, but it is to confess Christ, what He has done for us, and that He gives us a present or gift, this confession is always current, given the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, just as Paul formulates it here. It is precisely this proper distinction, this responsibility before Christ’s judgment bench, that the publisher of the Book of Concord, the collection of the Lutheran Confessions, also designates at the end of the 16th century in his Preface, and it is precisely why today that the proper distinction of all doctrines and the proclamation of the Church must also occur: not: What is good for the people, what is clever church-politics, by which we feel good? But: What can I be responsible for before Christ, when He comes? Have I actually held on to His word and believed it, or can I change something about it, tone it down, and go against the grain? No, our confession shall never become an item of collective bargaining; it is and remains an accepted confession, responsible before none other than to the return of the Lord.
The words of our Epistle finally make a third point: Our confession is also always a prayed confession.
The words of St. Paul immediately exhorts his student to praise the living God, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, how Paul formulates it here in deliberate contrast to the claims of the Roman emperor. God is praised and worshipped – that is the last and most sovereign form that the Christian confession has.
No, when we describe and understand ourselves as a confessional Lutheran Church, then this does not mean that we are in an ecclesiastical order where a series of confessional writings is listed, or that the Lutheran Confessions are distributed in any proper Lutheran pastoral office.
But we see that we are a confessional Lutheran Church, as it is proven to us in the Divine Service, proven in the Confessions, proven in our prayers, and proven in the liturgy, so that we have nothing other than the prayed dogma. No, I cannot merely report the content of the Confessions as I would report about a soccer game. But when I speak about God, when I speak about Christ, when I confess that He, the Triune God, has done and does for us, then I am turned to praise God in the worship, just as it also occurs here in our Epistle. If in our Divine Service we no longer stand upon what our Lutheran Confessional writings stand upon, and even the Augsburg Confession stands upon, then we cannot describe ourselves as a very confessional Lutheran Church. Let us continually study anew the Confessions of our Church – not because they are interesting historic documents, but because by them we are trained to pray, to celebrate the Divine service, to worship the Triune God, to which all the Confessions ultimately aim. Yes, to Him, the Triune God, be honor and eternal power! Amen.