From the Keynote Address “Open for Dialogue and Ready for Reform”
Lutheran Renewal Conference in Toowoomba (20-22 November 2015)
This address is submitting a theological assessment and reform agenda for the LCA, the Lutheran Church of Australia, which Lutheran Renewal, as a national movement, wants to pursue and implement.
Throughout church history, pastors and church members have frequently lost their understanding of the true nature of saving faith.
“… James … condemns the idle and smug minds who dream they have faith but do not … We have already shown often enough what we mean by faith. We are not talking about idle knowledge, such as even demons have, but about a faith that resists the terrors of conscience and encourages and consoles terrified hearts. Such a faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine; nor is it a human power, but a divine power that makes us alive and enables us to overcome death and the devil” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 248-250).
“When our opponents talk about faith … they do not mean justifying but the general faith which believes that God exists, that punishments hang over the wicked, etc. Beyond such ‘faith’ we require everyone to believe that his sins are forgiven him. We are contending for this personal faith … This faith follows on our terrors, overcoming them and restoring peace to the conscience. To this faith we attribute justification and regeneration, for it frees us from our terrors and brings forth peace, joy, and a new life in the heart” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XII – Penitence, paragraph 60).
Today we hold Dietrich Bonhoeffer in high esteem as a martyr of the church but he was a Lutheran and only last century pleaded desperately with his fellow Lutherans to become serious again about repentance and to recognize the importance of repentance for the enjoyment of grace. Maybe his words are not yet dated and also speak to us:
“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins.
The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM Press 1959, p35-36).
As Lutherans understand it, a false “theology of glory” exalts human glory and pride, human self-effort and achievement, but there is also a rightful theology of glory which exalts the glory of God and praises the experiences of his goodness through the Holy Spirit:
“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts” (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).
Our Lutheran Confessions are quite clear that unless God is experienced, there can be no saving faith and salvation:
“But, although this doctrine [justification by faith] is despised by the inexperienced, nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because consciences cannot be pacified through any works, but only by faith, when they are sure that, for Christ’s sake, they have a gracious God. Paul teaches [Rom. 5:1]: ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.’ This whole doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience; neither can it be understood apart from that conflict. Therefore inexperienced and profane men judge ill concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness is nothing but the civil righteousness of natural reason (Augsburg Confession, Article XX – Of Good Works, paragraph 15).
“For it is once for all true that in genuine conversion a change, new emotion [renewal] and movement in understanding, will and heart must occur, namely, that the heart perceive sin, dread God’s wrath, turn itself from sin, perceive and accept the promise of grace in Christ, have good spiritual thoughts, a Christian purpose and diligence, and strive against the flesh. For where none of these occurs or is present there is also no true conversion” (The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article II – Free Will, paragraph 70).
At the beginning of the Christian life, there seems to be a threefold process of repentance, baptism with water and receiving the Holy Spirit (being baptized with the Holy Spirit):
“After the disciples had preached their very first sermon, the people responded and asked them, ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). The disciples answered by encouraging the crowd to seize three distinct experiences that were available to everyone:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
The disciples asked the people 1) to repent, and 2) to be baptized (with water) for the forgiveness of their sins, so that 3) they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (meaning here the experience of being baptized with the Spirit). These three experiences were part of the process of becoming a believer and they all belonged together in the whole package of starting out as a Christian” (Edgar Mayer: Surprised by the Holy Spirit, Citta Sant’ Angelo: Evangelist Media 2012, p15).
We have built a denomination on unanimous thinking and uniform practice. In 1966, we adopted a Document of Union which states:
“… Nevertheless, according to the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions, church fellowship, that is, mutual recognition as brethren, altar and pulpit fellowship and resultant cooperation in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, presupposes unanimity in the pure doctrine of the Gospel and in the right administration of the Sacraments.
We reject all religious syncretism or unionism (see Theses of Agreement II, 2, and V, 14,15). Accordingly, we cannot acknowledge ourselves to be in fellowship with Churches with which we are not one in doctrine and practice” (Document of Union – Church Fellowship and Cooperation, 5-6).
In our founding statements, we warn that care must be taken “against sinful unionism” (Theses of Agreement II, 10) and by the term “sinful unionism” we denounce as sin any mixing and mingling with other Christians when it leads to an impression of unity in faith and fellowship, which falls short of our perfection, our confident standards of unanimity and uniformity in the LCA denomination (Thesis of Agreement II, 2d). Therefore, in our relations with other Christians, we warn against the “failure to reject and denounce every opposing error” (Theses of Agreement II, 2b) and we counsel our church members not to attend worship services of other churches to “avoid promiscuous worship” (Theses of Agreement II, 4).
The clearest expression of what our church foundations mean in practice can be seen in our 1968 synod resolution regarding the Billy Graham campaign:
“We acknowledge that God has used Dr Graham – as far as we can judge – in many parts of the world … We cannot, however, recommend participation or cooperation of our pastors and congregations in Dr Graham’s campaign. Dr Graham does not proclaim the Gospel in its whole truth and purity. He expresses no adequate view of the Sacraments, particularly of Baptism. And he stresses man’s act of decision in such a way that the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion is not given its proper scope.
Participation in the preliminary prayer meetings and cooperation in the campaign can hardly avoid compromise of the truth or entanglement in unionism …” (Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions of the Lutheran Church of Australia, G10).
The price that we have been paying for our pride is high. If the mindset of 1966 sets the standard of unanimity and uniformity for all times, then we are doomed to be frozen in time because any new thought – any new revelation – any correction – will immediately threaten to upset the very foundations of our existence, the unity that has been carefully constructed around the unanimous and uniform thinking and practice of 1966.
Yet, Lutherans subscribe to the Latin phrase, “Ecclesia semper reformanda” (“the church must always be reforming”). The work of church reformation is an ongoing work. It is never finished because we are never perfect.
According to the Bible, unanimity in theological thinking is a result of church unity and not a precondition for it:
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace … until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:3-13).
It is possible to preach sound sermons without power. Our Lutheran Confessions warn against practicing the Christian faith “ex opere operato” (“by the doing it is done”) which means trusting that there is a spiritual outcome whenever the religious exercise has been performed:
“… Nowhere can our opponents say how the Holy Spirit is given. They imagine that the Sacraments confer the Holy Spirit ex opere operato, without a good emotion in the recipient, as though indeed, the gift of the Holy Ghost were an idle matter.
But we are talking about a faith that is not an idle thought, but frees us from death, brings forth a new life in our hearts, and is a work of the Holy Spirit …” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 63-64).
“God has not changed. He still speaks to His people. If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience (Henry T. Blackaby, co-authored by Claude V. King: Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Nashville: Lifeway Press 1990, p36).
The Bible never cancelled God’s heart for dialogue with us. God just loves to communicate with his children and learning to listen to him is life-changing and exciting.
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth …” (John 16:12-13).
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:14).
In the LCA, we used to have “worship wars” where, for years, we argued fiercely about the rights and wrongs of “traditional” and “contemporary” worship styles. All of our debates seemed to revolve around doctrinal soundness. Yet, the soundness of the running sheet – the songs, prayers and responses – was no guarantee that we would actually draw close to God.
In the Bible, God made Moses construct a tabernacle for worship that was modelled on the sanctuary in heaven, meaning that it would contain principles of worship that were eternal:
“They [human priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5).
Like Moses and all of God’s people, we begin worship in the “Outer Court” and then his presence intensifies until we receive his greater glory in the “Holy of Holies”. Even today, following our diverse liturgies, we start at the “Outer Court” and then God moves us into the “Holy Place” and then finally into the “Holy of Holies”. Leaders of corporate worship can be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and follow his lead as he moves to bring people into the “Holy of Holies”.
In the LCA, most of us seem to agree that spiritual gifts are still available today, including the gift of speaking in tongues and prophecy. If this is the case, they are not optional and we need to make room for them in public worship. They will further upset our running sheet but in a good way.
In closing, Lutheran Renewal is emerging as a national movement in the LCA and also in New Zealand. Now is the time to join the dialogue, speak out without fear and pursue the change of thinking and practice that are necessary for renewal. In short, it is time to repent.