WordAlone - Commentary on the Admonition
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Admonition —

for the sake of the true peace and unity of the church, a commentary

by Dr. George W. Forell (Carver Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the School of Religion at the University of Iowa)

November 18-19, 2002

The center of the Christian Faith is the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for our sins and raised for our salvation. Without Christ there is no Christianity. This might seem obvious to most of us but we live in a time in which there are some, claiming to be Christians, who believe that the overwhelming centrality of Christ for Christians is an embarrassment in a pluralistic world. photo of Dr. George ForellThey say, “We should consider all founders of religion and important religious leaders of equal significance.” Our answer must be our Lord Jesus Christ is not the founder of a religion or a great religious leader. He is the second person of God, the Holy Trinity. To downgrade Jesus to a religious leader or prophet is for Christians blasphemy. Christ is our only saviour. We are saved by faith alone through Christ alone. How do we know this? Luther summarizes:

. . . the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true. (Small Catechism, Tappert, 345/6)

Salvation is a divine gift, not a human achievement. The primary gift is the forgiveness of sins on which we all depend all our lives. We are in need of this forgiveness because we are sinners as long as we live and God’s eternal law, which all human beings encounter every day, makes us aware of our sin and our dependence on God’s forgiveness. And this forgiveness enables us to live as sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This new life is not an effort to earn God’s forgiveness, a task we could never accomplish, but an expression of our gratitude for the forgiveness we have been granted by grace alone.

We live this life in the one holy catholic and apostolic church created by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Only the gospel and sacraments of holy baptism and holy communion are the means of grace, which create and sustain the church. They are God’s gifts and human beings cannot add to or subtract from these gifts. But the fruits of these gifts are a life of love to God and all the people who need our help. We must live this life not because we rely on such works to merit peace with God and in our families and with our neighbors and the world in which we are called to live, but in gratitude for the love of God bestowed upon us through Christ our saviour. One major fruit of God’s love is the ministry of the Gospel, our task to share the Gospel with all men and women throughout our entire life. The true apostolic succession is the sharing of the apostolic witness as found in the Scriptures with all people. “To preach and administer the sacraments publicly in the name of the church is the specific calling of the ordained ministry.”

But belonging to the church is not limited to the reception of the word and the sacraments though they are the realities that constitute the church. Worship is a vital part of Christian discipleship but for Lutherans the form of worship has changed over the centuries and is still changing. Such changes contribute to the vitality and relevance of our worship. They are influenced by our history and culture. The essential element of worship is that it is always an instrument, a tool of word and sacrament; if it obscures God's Word it is inadequate or even false worship, even if it makes us feel good, is entertaining and brings in good crowds.

And the church must find ways to serve the world. The Christian Faith must be active in love. But if we are only concerned about such activities and lose sight of the faith, created by word and sacrament, which should motivate the service, we will soon notice that the works of love become ever more shallow and superficial. Works of love not rooted in faith fade away. They are like cut flowers whose beauty is bound to dry up and vanish. We do not have the power to serve without being always restored through God's grace and forgiveness. Human sin can and does distort and destroy the most impressive human achievements and institutions.

The church also needs discipline to shape all its activities in the service of word and sacrament. But such discipline must always be developed in the light of word and sacrament and not in order to create a hierarchical institution which substitutes human power for God's power. We believe that order is necessary but it is not dependent on uniformity.

Lutherans have been able to serve God with the help of a variety of orders and organizations. They must always be evaluated in relationship to word and sacrament. They must constantly be examined as to their effectiveness in supporting the proclamation of the Gospel. If an organization seems to exist only to preserve itself, it may have to be abandoned. That something is old does not necessarily make it true; at the same time that something is new does not assure us that it is better.

We must measure all rules and organizations by the standard of service to the Gospel. A system that may have been useful at one time may interfere with the proclamation of the Gospel in a different historical or cultural setting. Hierarchies may have actually served the proclamation of the Gospel when monarchies ruled but may have become counter-productive in an age of democracy. Monarchies or democracies are not Christian. They are human devices to rule human beings. They do not save. To make salvation dependent on one kind of sociological organization falsifies the Christian message and denies the sufficiency of word and sacrament. By exalting human organizations as essential we deny Christian freedom. The Lutheran Confessions explicitly state, “. . . the community of God [the Latin reads “churches of God”] in every locality and every age has authority to change such ceremonies according to circumstances, as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God." (Formula of Concord X, Tappert, 493/4)

To demand of Lutherans to accept any non-biblical human order as essential for the unity of the church denies the Christian freedom St. Paul exalts in Galatians 5:1. We can practice ordination by bishops as long as presbyterial ordination is equally acceptable and it is obvious that an adiaphoron (a human device) has not been made a theological necessity. Likewise the two practices of installing bishops with or without the participation of three bishops in Episcopal succession must be options of equal standing.

For almost 500 years most Lutheran pastors have been presbyterially ordained and were valid servants of word and sacrament and most leaders of synods were installed without the assistance of bishops in Episcopal succession like, for example, Hanns Lilje of Hannover and Eivind Berggrav of Norway. Their service to the Gospel was not diminished by the absence of historical succession but guaranteed by the presence of word and sacrament. The presence or absence of the so-called "historical episcopate" does not guarantee the validity of the ministry but the presence of the word and sacrament does. We do not need apostolic succession of bishops but must have succession of an apostolic witness. For that both laypeople and clergy are, and must remain, responsible. We are assured of the apostolic witness when we study the scriptures and receive the sacraments, this is the obligation of all people.