What’s the Church For Anyway? [Hint: Check the Third Article of the Creed!]
Pastor Paul Beisel had a good post on his blog the other day, and I’m passing it along to you.
There is a Third Article to the Creed
Martin Luther brilliantly lays out in the Large Catechism the relationship between the 2nd and the 3rd articles of the Apostles’ Creed. The Second Article teaches us about Christ’s redemption for our sins, and all that goes along with that. But, says Luther, we would never know anything about this if it were not declared to us by the Holy Spirit in the Word. The second article describes what the essence of our faith is, and what had to be done to redeem us poor sinners from death and the devil. But the third article describes the means by which all of this becomes ours.
I think that there is, in modern Christianity, a tendency to want to do an “end-run” around the third article. In other words, many Christians, many Lutherans even, have the opinion that what Christ did for me to forgive my sins comes to me directly, without the use of the Word and the Sacraments, even through my prayer. One pastor yesterday at our Winkel described it as a “Christology without Ecclesiology.” Christ without His Church, or at least, Christ without his Word and Sacraments.
The concern is a valid one: if I am stuck out in a desert somewhere for many months, having no access to a Church, to a pastor, to the means of grace, or even a Bible for that matter, can I still receive the forgiveness of my sins? Granted, this is an extraordinary situation, but many men and women of the armed forces find themselves in these circumstances during times of war. What am I to do if I have sinned against God, but have no pastor, or a fellow Christian, around to comfort me with the promises of the Gospel? Or, perhaps a better question is, how might I refresh and sustain my faith in the Gospel?
First, I would say to that person that he has his baptism. One who is baptized is a child of God. His sins have been forgiven, and he lives daily in that baptism “through daily contrition and repentance.” Of course he also has prayer, but prayer is not, in and of itself, a means of grace. God has promised to hear our prayers, and to answer them. But he has not attached his promise of forgiveness to prayer like he has to Baptism, Absolution, and the Eucharist.
Here is also where one can comfort himself with the divine promises of Scripture that he has learned by heart. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.” A Christian can, for a time, sustain his faith through the remembrance of such promises, and through the remembrance of his baptism, but once he does have access again to a Church and the means of grace, he should be all means make use of them as soon as possible.
Surely wherever there is true faith, faith that clings to the divine promises, there is also Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the good favor of God. But consider this analogy: one might eat a meal, and it could sustain him for a time, several days even, but eventually he needs to eat again. So also as Christians, our faith might be sustained for a time by our “last meal,” but eventually we will need to “eat” again.
Luther understood this better than us all–our salvation is through Christ, but what Christ did for us (2nd Article) is not given or made available to us except through the Word (3rd Article). “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” This is precisely why the Lord instituted the preaching Office: “In order that we may obtain this faith…” (Augsburg Confession, Article V). The second article of the Creed teaches us how God won our salvation; the third article teaches us how it is given and received, namely, through the Word and the Sacraments.
If we can experience God’s grace directly, immediately, without means, without the Word and Sacraments, then there is no need for the Ministry. There is, essentially, no need for the Church. Christ without the Church. Access to the Head without the Body. That is what a person is ultimately saying when he says: “I can go directly to God for forgiveness. I don’t need to go through a man.”