Today, June 25, is a big day for Lutherans. It was 490 years ago today that the Augsburg Confession was presented to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. This was a breakthrough moment in the reformation, and this document remains one of Lutheranism’s most important writings. Congregations in my denomination, the ELCA, continue to agree to live by its teachings, and hold it up as a “true witness to the Gospel.”
But what can this 490-year old document teach us what it means to be Lutheran? And, more importantly, how can it help us to more faithfully follow Jesus? In this post, I ponder these questions and offer a (Lutheran) spirituality based on this famous document.
Justified by Grace through Faith
The starting place for a Lutheran spirituality, according to the Augsburg Confession, is easy: it is the doctrine that has always been of fundamental importance to Lutherans, the teaching on which it is said our church will stand or fall: that of justification by grace through faith.
Many spiritualities these days focus on what we can do to better ourselves, or on what we must do to be saved. The emphasis with these spiritualities always ends up being on us, not God. Our Lutheran spirituality teaches us that when we focus on ourselves, the end result is inevitably despair, because we simply can’t do it ourselves. As much as we’d like to, we simply cannot. And so Lutheran spirituality is wonderfully honest: it begins by acknowledging what we cannot do. Here is how Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession (AC IV) puts it:
Human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins.
This may seem an odd place to begin a spirituality – on what we cannot do. But we are reminded of it every Sunday at the beginning of our worship service, when we confess our sin with words like these: Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But the good news, indeed the gospel, is that God – through Jesus – does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are justified on account of Christ through faith when we believe these things.
But one more comment about this must be made, concerning our believing these things. The Augsburg Confession says that we are justified when we believe, which can sound like something that we must do. We must believe in order to receive these promises, in order to be justified. But we Lutherans are quick to point out that even faith is not our work; our faith is itself a gift of God. And what a wonderful gift our faith is! Through the storms of life, our faith helps us to hold on to the promise that God is with us, saving us from our sin and helping us through the storm.
Obtaining this Faith
Our faith is a gift, but the obvious question this raises is, how to we get this gift of faith? The very next article in the Augsburg Confession (AC V) answers that question:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ.
So, Lutheran spirituality begins with what we cannot do. It then focuses on what God has done for us through Christ, which we take hold of by faith. The focus then shifts to how we obtain this faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. And the way we obtain it is through the Word and the sacraments, through which the Holy Spirit is given. This is why, for us Lutherans, Holy Baptism is so important – the “greatest comfort on earth,” according to Luther. And this is why Holy Communion is so essential to us – the body and blood of our Lord given for us. And this is also why coming to church and worshiping and hearing God’s word proclaimed is so important to us. These things, which we often summarize as word and sacrament, are how the Holy Spirit is given to us, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are given faith, and it is through faith that we take hold of the promises of God, the promise that we are justified by God’s grace.
So, church is essential to our Lutheran spirituality, and it’s not first and foremost because we like the people, or the music, or the preaching. It is first and foremost because the church is where the Holy Spirit works faith, “where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.”
As an aside, this is one obvious reason why this coronavirus pandemic has been so difficult for us – because it keeps us away from these things that are so essential to our Lutheran spirituality. We can still pray, and read God’s word, and watch worship services online, but this does not take away our desire, even our need, to come together as the body of Christ to have our faith nourished by word and sacrament. And I know that I am not alone in praying and longing for the day when we can physically gather together again to have our faith nourished by word and sacrament!
Faith – A Living, Busy, Active, Mighty Thing!
Still, we have this gift of faith. We are nourishing it as best we can. So, what then? What do we do with this faith? Or better yet, what does this faith do in us? The very next article of the Augsburg Confession gives us the beginning of an answer. From AC VI:
This faith is bound to yield good fruits and it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God. For forgiveness of sins and justification are taken hold of by faith.
Many times, Lutherans are accused of de-emphasizing good works to the point that they don’t really matter. But we Lutherans aren’t de-emphasizing good works – we are just making sure that our motivation is right. We don’t do good works in order to merit justification before God. After all, there’s nothing that we can do to merit that on our own. Instead, we do good works because God wants us to, and because God commands us to. We do good works because our faith is bound to yield good fruits.
Martin Luther puts this memorably in his famous Preface to Romans:
Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.
Coming Back to Christ
What a gift our faith is! And what a living, busy, active, mighty thing it is!
But not always! We are sinners, after all. And a Lutheran spirituality is nothing if it is not honest. So one last dimension of Lutheran spirituality I want to lift up today concerns what happens when we fall, when we sin. And here, the key word is repentance. Repentance is not a very modern word, or very popular anymore, but it is very important to our Lutheran spirituality. And it is a word that our modern world could probably stand to hear more about. Here’s how AC XII describes it:
Those who have fallen after baptism can receive forgiveness of sins whenever they are brought to repentance and the church should impart absolution to those who return to repentance. Now, properly speaking, repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition for the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. Thereupon good works, which are the fruit of repentance, should follow.
A Lutheran spirituality, then, is one which simply keeps coming back to Christ. He is all that we need. And he is our only hope. When we fall, or sin, we repent, which means we come to Christ – both in terror, because of what we have done; and in faith, because of what Christ has done. And we do this, over and over again. Whenever we fall, we return to Christ, we return to our baptism, and find the comfort of the gospel.
This is why Luther wrote in his Large Catechism:
Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.
The Augsburg Confession was written and presented a very long time ago, in a world very different from our own. But it still has a lot to teach us about what it means to be Lutheran, and what it means to live as a Lutheran Christian. I’m still learning from this remarkable document. And I hope you have learned something helpful from it, too.
(The quotes of the Augsburg Confession I have used in this post are from The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Fortress Press. If you would like to read the Augsburg Confession for yourself, you can find a free online copy here: http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php)