The Chief Article, One Article Among Many

Lutherans get all worked up when you mention the “chief article”. It had better be justification or else you’re in danger of hell-fire. And if you grew up in the Lutheran church, or have listened to three or more Lutheran sermons – especially at synodical or governing body gatherings – then you’ve probably hear the phrase, attributed to Luther: “Justification is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls.” Interestingly, we don’t actually have Luther saying this quote anywhere quite like this. What he have him saying is:

Quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia – or – Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses” (WA 40/3.352.3)

Apparently, the phrase, “The article of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls,” was a proverb attributed to Luther by one, Balthazar Meinser. (See here for the research upon which I stand or fall.) Of course, the two phrases are very similar and can easily be seen as the same, and I wouldn’t really argue otherwise. So why point it out? Because as often as this phrase is thrown around by Lutherans, especially when they’re defending the Lutheran church against other altars, using it as a kind of a priori bedrock of being orthodox, it can become stale and even meaningless. It is good to remember that the article of justification does not stand alone, but is part of the corpus of doctrine, an article, albeit a chief article, among many.

The Smalcald Articles; specifically Part II, Article I: The Chief Article, reads thus:

The first and chief article:

(1) That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

2) And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.

3) Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f

4) Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

5) Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

[Book of Concord,]

The point is to say that there is no way other than by the works and merits of Jesus by which we are justified. It rightly proclaims and teaches that the faith of the Church is that we are justified only by the work and merit of Jesus Christ who alone is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. For His sake only are we made righteous. It echos the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession. This is the faith of the Church. Any teaching that puts anyone else’s works or merits up as a reason or part of the reason or even a help in our salvation and justification is contrary to this chief article that Christ alone justifies.

It is easy to see why the proverb that “justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls” so easily makes it’s way into sermons and blogs and all things Lutheran. But in truth, this chief article quoted above, which is the faith of the Church, can’t be distilled to that oft-quoted (or perhaps misquoted) phrase. It can’t be distilled to such because part and parcel of this article is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It echos article IV of the Augustana, but only after first echoing article III: Of the Son of God. In order to be justified one must first have the justifier.

In fact, justification (by grace alone through faith alone) is only significant if one first encounters Jesus. Jesus must come first. So the St. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “There, that man, He is the justifier.” Oh! There is a justifier! What needs justifying? You do! Now the sinner can thank God that the justifer justifies, and that without any effort or merit on the part of the sinner. In other words, by grace alone. But Jesus comes first.

This probably doesn’t rock anybody’s world. As I said, it’s all sort  of self evident. To have justification one must have Jesus, and when one encounters Jesus, one encounters justification. But that’s just it: one must encounter Jesus. As often as we Lutheran types poo-poo the charismatics for their talk of encountering Jesus, or the mystics of all denominations and altars of talking about encountering Jesus, it’s not actually untrue. One must encounter the Son of God for forensic justification to matter.

It is the way that one encounters the Son of God that may be untrue. One does not encounter the Son of God by his or her own preparations, as if we can bring ourselves into His presence or raise ourselves up to His throne room. No, quite the opposite; the sermon the incarnation preaches loudest is that He must come to us and make His home with us. He must come and unlock and open heaven’s doors to us. The trouble with the mystics is not that they want and seek to encounter Jesus, but that they suppose and teach that such encountering happens in ways not given in the apostolic teachings. The only way we encounter Jesus is for Him to present Himself to us.

He does this through and by His Church by the proclamation of the Gospel (AC V). The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. This is chief proclamation of the Church, proclaimed by all (“for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes in the future,” 1 Corinthians 11:26). First proclaimed by the faithful women of the tomb and then spread abroad by the apostles and held fast by the Church catholic. Jesus is risen from the dead! We encounter the risen Christ through this proclamation. But we have not thereby entered into fellowship with Him. For that to happen the Spirit must open our ears so that we believe (trust) that not only is Jesus risen from the dead – a forensic fact – but that His resurrection means something for us. It means that we, too, will be raised from the dead. And if we are raised from the dead, then there is something more than this life that ends in death. That something more is to be with the One who is risen, and reigns over life and death, heaven and hell, and all things in between.

This faith (trust), isn’t an academic faith that faith alone justifies or that justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. This faith – trust in the promises of God in Christ via His work and merit – is our participation, as St. Peter writes, of the divine nature. Not to become divine ourselves but to participate in the divine nature, namely to escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4).  This is really nothing other than what St. Paul writes when he teaches us that when we partake of the table of the Lord we are participating in the body and blood of Jesus – participating in Christ – who is risen from the dead and incorruptible.

We are led then, from outside where the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead – a proclamation all creation proclaims, eagerly awaiting the reveling of the sons of God (Romans 8:19) – to the inside of the Body of Christ wherein we are united to Christ through the mysteries that unite us to Him. The mysteries (the sacraments), which include and find their source in the proclamation of the gospel, are how we encounter the living Christ. In these encounters, believing on Him whom the Father sent, that He is the Son of God who has redeemed mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil by His work and merit, we are justified. But apart from Him we die. Apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Him we are unknown. Apart from Him we are damned.

That is why sacramental participation is so vital. That is why the mysteries can never be separated from justification. That is why to say that what we really need is Jesus without also meaning that what we really need are the sacraments is to divide the Christ from His work and to put asunder what God has joined together. That is why to say that Sunday morning preaching is more important or better than the sacraments is to put a stumbling block before those that would believe. In truth, the sacraments are the sermon and the Divine Homily is in, with, and under them.

It would not be too bold to say that there is no justification apart from the sacraments because their is no justification apart from Christ. And to have Christ is to have His sacraments. And there is no Christ apart from His sacraments (1 Corinthians 4:1), which means that forms matter. Not every form must be uniform, but every form must conform to the Christ who encounters us when and where He has said He will encounter us. What of faith? Faith is not absent in any of this, but is the trust that God does not lie based on the truth that Jesus is risen from the dead.

One objection remains: does this mean that unless I participate in the sacraments I cannot be saved? Like many such ultimatums, this is a false dichotomy that serves only to sever. The answer is both yes and no. If the faith one has is that participation alone justifies; that would make the ritual the justifier (the Latin ex opere operato). But the ritual is not the justifer, but Christ. But if the faith one has is that the sacraments are Christ, as the Scriptures teach, then He is the justifier. This is why it is important that we make the distinction in our teaching that participation in the sacraments is an act of true faith in Christ, and not of faith in our participation.

She came to test him with hard questions

In 1 Kings 10, we read the account of the Queen of Sheba hearing of King Solomon’s great wealth and wisdom, his fame concerning the
name of the Lord, and that she came to test him with hard questions.  We’re not told what those hard questions are, but they shouldn’t be that hard to imagine. One can imagine that the great and wealthy queen came to ask this world-renown king of Israel, known for his astounding wealth, prosperity, and wisdom, questions such as:

“What are your views on women ruling countries?” After all, she was the queen and he a king.

“Why do you think that your God is the one true God?”

“What is your position on men sleeping with men or women with women?”

“What makes you think that the temple you’ve built in Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God?”

“How do you reconcile the history of your warring and conquering people with your poets’ words about God loving all mankind?”

“Why do you think tragedy happens to those that are seeking to be good?”

“If God is God, why can’t he stop babies from dying and sons from rebelling, and spouses from abusing?”

Remember, they were hard questions. She didn’t come to ask the great king easy questions. They were questions born of the travails and trials of this life. They were questions heretofore unanswered by anyone. Now comes this king who is supposed to be the wisest ever to have lived, powerful in wealth and influence, and she’s going to put him to the test. She wants to know the answers to those questions that haunt your soul at night and cause your heart to be weighed down. She’s wants to ask those naughty questions about the existence of God and of the truth of His love and whether or not He really gives a hoot about mankind. She wants to ask if he plans on conquering her land and making her and her people slaves.

She’s come to ask the hard, life-bending questions that we all ask because she suffered the same evils we all suffer; the evils of betrayal, death, defilement, hatred, envy, greed, loneliness, guilt, not too mention our perverse thoughts that we so desperately hope and pray never come to light before others. We all want to know, like the Queen of Sheba, why God made us this way; what’s His end-game; why has He made it so hard and terrible on us.

Verse 3: “And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.”

That’s rather profound. He answered all her questions. Her hard questions. Would that some king answer our hard questions. Would that something greater than Solomon were here. Would that the truth would be known and would set us free!

But the queen hadn’t simply asked her questions and bagged out. She didn’t email the king or send a letter. She went and saw him and stayed a while in his kingdom. Most likely the Queen of Sheba remained in the presence of Solomon and in his kingdom of no less than six months, and probably much longer. Why do I say this? Because the text reads that “the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his official, and the attendance of his servants. their clothing, his cup-bearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord.” (1 Kings 10:3-5) Considering that Solomon only offered the burnt offerings in the house of the Lord three times a year, which, as she saw and considered them, suggests that the queen was in Jerusalem for an extended stay. Moreover, the distance she traveled to get to King Solomon, and the cohort she brought (v. 2), in addition to all that she saw and pondered strongly suggests that she wasn’t there for an evening or just a few days. Rather, it was in hearing the kings answers in consideration of all that she saw and witness, that she was answered.

She came to test him with hard questions and wanted to know that his answers weren’t canned answers that had no true bearing on the way he lived. You don’t ask the hard questions without wanting to know that the answers given are answers that will stand the test of time and strength of opposition. You wait around and consider not only the words but the fruit of the words. The queen was no dummy. She heard the answers but also took stock and consider King Solomon’s reign, his wealth, his subjects: his kingdom.

Verse 6-10: And she said to the king, ‘The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the report until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me! Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, He has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.”

We are as wise as the Queen of Sheba. We’re not so easily fooled by the answers of others. We hear the answers but also consider the evidence. God is love, yet there is great evil in the world. God created all, yet creation – and we, too – die and decay. God loves us, yet we fight and kill and destroy each other while God seems to sit quietly by shaking is ancient, powerless head going, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don’t do that.” God is good, yet we are called evil and our desires and choices are called evil. God answers prayer, yet all we hear is the empty promises like a child holding a seashell to his ear: the sound is there, but no substance. We have hard questions, too. Perhaps harder than the great queen’s; if for no other reason than that they are our questions and not hers. So she was satisfied by the wise king, but we are not. Where is the wise king that we can put him to the test and ask the hard questions and receive true answers?

He is on His throne, as Solomon was on his throne. And if we want His answers, we must enter His kingdom. We must consider His actual answer rather than the pre-canned answer we expect to hear.

But this is no metaphoric, poetic rhetoric designed to stir the heart so that the hard questions soften or to pacify the questioner long enough to escape their weary gaze. Not at all. This is only to put the quest into context. If you want answers, you must ask the King. You must ask the King and you must stay to consider His kingdom: His wisdom and prosperity; His men and servants who continually stand before Him and hear His wisdom. You must enter the courts of the King and put your questions to voice. Only, consider His answers in light of His reign and of His kingdom. Do not seek to find the answers you want, but the answers He gives. You will find that they, like your questions, are hard answers. But their hardness is not in their exacting difficulty or in their intricate novelty and twisted paths of some ancient logic. Quite the opposite. They are hard in that they are stronger than your questions. They are harder like a rock that is harder than glass, able to dash the glass to pieces. They are not hard because they are exacting, but because they are everlasting.

To the troubled heart they are easy answers; to the conscience they are light and airy and carry no weight. To the suffering questioner His answers are quiet peace and calm salve. His answers don’t fight your questions or reason with them or win them over by argument. His answers are bigger than your questions as His kingdom is bigger than your world.

But the asking is the thing. You ask your questions, whatever they may be, however hard or inappropriate you might think them. Ask and hold nothing back. Ask in anger, ask in fear, ask in hopeful expectation of an answer. Or ask expecting only silence. But when you ask, know that He has answered. He has answered your questions – all your hard and difficult questions. Whatever your questions, no matter how hard and seemingly unanswerable they might be, no matter how many before Him have not been able to answer, He has answered. He answers with His virgin birth and His obedient life. He answers your questions with His passion for sinners and His quiet suffering at the hands of sinners. He answers your questions with His bloody cross and His three-day burial. He answers with His resurrection and with His ascension to the right hand of Power. He gives His answers when He washes you with His water and word; when He absolves you by the mouths of His servants; and when He feeds you from His table, food richer and more plenteous than all the tables of the impoverished king Solomon. His wisdom is wiser than men. His answers are absolute.

His sacraments are His kingdom. Not your knowledge of the Bible or your eagerness to pray (or lack thereof). His gathering is His throne room and His banquet hall. The pondering of His kingdom isn’t naval gazing or long walks on dusky trails. His kingdom isn’t knee deep in good works or swaying to the rhythm of the beat. His kingdom isn’t our efforts on putting on a worship service or our efforts at making sure the altar flowers are pretty, the babies are quiet, and no one does anything stupid or embarrassing. His kingdom is His reign through His mysteries. To ask the King and remain in His kingdom to have to go where He has promised to be and to see what He puts before you.

Ponder His answer, which is Himself; ponder and meditate His answer given, and take stock of His kingdom. Remain in His kingdom a while and consider it. Happy are His men, for they do not fear their sins, nor death,  nor darkness! Happy are His servants that stand daily before Him and hear His wisdom! His wealth and prosperity and greater than you have been told, than you have imagined. He is ruler of all that is seen and unseen. Heaven is His throne and the earth is His footstool. His wealth is not the wealth of nations, but everything belongs to Him.

Something greater than Solomon is here. The Great King reigns in peace and grace amid  a world of hard questions. They have all been answered. But that is not the end.

When the Queen of Sheba left the city of King Solomon, she gave him a token of her gratitude in gold and spice and rare wood. Added to his wealth it was but a pittance. This is our pittance of giving whatever we might give. Meanwhile the king gave to her “all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon.” (v. 13) The queen returned richer and wiser than she had come; full and satisfied by the king. So, too, you. Hear His answer and meditate on His kingdom, and He will give you the desires of your heart and you will be richer than the kings of earth, more satisfied than the wealthy among men. and wiser than the sages of this age. For the King’s bounty is eternal life and His gifts are everlasting peace, and He sets you free.

The Cross Your Bear

Our Lord said that whoever does not take up their cross and follow Him cannot be His disciple.The cross we bear

The cross our Lord speaks of is defined by His cross. His cross was taken up by Him to carry the wrath of God on His shoulders for other people – for all sinners. His cross was the stripes He received for the healing of other people. His cross was the chastisement meant for other people. His cross was reconciliation between God and sinful man, not between God the Father and God the Son. His cross is divine love.

In short, Jesus’ cross was not for Himself. It was not for His good. It was not for His growth. It was not to strengthen Him. It was not to make Him a stronger child of God. His cross wasn’t for Him at all. It was for us.

So your cross is not for you. It isn’t there for your good. It isn’t there for your growth. it isn’t there to strengthen you or make you a stronger child of God. Your cross is there for other people.

Which means your cross is laid on your shoulders by and for other people. As St. Peter preached to the sinful men on Pentecost Day that they crucified the Lord of Glory, so we are crucified by the sins of others. Our cross does not bring divine atonement, but  it does bring 1 Corinthians 13. Love bears all things.

This also means that your sickness; it’s not your cross. Your debt; it’s not your cross. Your lack of a job; it’s not your cross. Your broken down car; it’s not your cross. Your hard class at school; it’s not your cross. All the crap that seems to be going wrong in your life; these aren’t your crosses. They are the fiery trials of which you are not supposed to be surprised that they are upon you. They are the testing of your obedience. They are the forming of your character. They are the temptations that are sure to come. Tempting you to question your heavenly Father’s love. These produce endurance and hope and all godly qualities as you patiently endure them, trusting in your heavenly Father. These trials are for you, but they are not your crosses.

But when you learn obedience by what you suffer, then you will take up your cross and bear its load for other people. Your cross is what you suffer because of the sins of others. Your cross is your forgiveness as your heavenly Father has forgiven you. Your cross is when you patiently suffer for the sins of others so that you can forgive them. Your cross is when you are kind to those that hurt you. Your cross is when you do not boast in yourself, but wait for the vindication of the Lord when your reputation is smeared or your body is violated or when your family deserts and hates you, knowing that a better and more permanent glory awaits you. Your cross is you not insisting on your own way, which would be to call down lightening and thunder on those who would do you wrong and are your enemies. Your cross doesn’t resent those for whom you are crucified, but rejoices in the truth that your sins are forgiven as are the sins of those that hate you. For the Lamb of God bore the sins of the whole world; not for us only, but for all humankind.

And having been tested and found faithful, having born the cross for others, forgiving as you have been forgiven and loving as you have been loved, then there awaits for you the crown of life. For the Lord did not simply say to take up your cross, but to follow Him. Follow Him through the temptations and fiery trials. Follow Him to Golgotha. Follow Him into the tomb. Follow Him out of the tomb. And then follow Him to eternal life and the glory of God.