Tuesday, August 13, 2013

An external structure that will not impede the internal structure...

Having spent some quality time with Hermann Sasse and John Pless (and a dozen or so others), I have come to appreciate Sasse much more than initially thought.  I will be posting some tidbits from the class in the days to come.

One of the nice things about Sasse is the way he distinguishes the internal structure of the Church from its external structure.  The internal structure of the Church (or government or rule) is Christ who rules in His Church via the means of grace.  As Luther put it in the Catechism, In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.  And how?  Through the Word and the Sacraments.  It does not matter what we think or do, Christ rules in His Church and He does so through the means of grace, forgiving our sins.  This is not some mere hidden truth which we must discern by faith.  This is the clear teaching of His Word.  In the Augustana we reflect this and insist that the office of the ministry and the very life of the Church is all about faith and the forgiveness of sins.

It might do well to remember that in the draft Augustana, articles IV and V were originally one article.  They are intimately connected. 

Article IV: Of Justification.

1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.   

Article V: Of the Ministry.

1] That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.
4] They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works.

This is the internal structure or government of the Church.  The external government (be it episcopal, synodical, presbyteral, or congregational) is not prescribed by our Confessions and Lutherans have chosen various governmental structures.  What is key, however, is that the best structure is the one that reflects and does not impede the internal structure, namely, Christ's working through the means of grace to impart faith, forgive sins, and impute righteousness.

Sasse has his hand on the key here.  It is not the external structure which makes the Church work but the internal structure.  We can choose the ancient form of an episcopal structure (which I think best) but it, in and of itself, will neither guarantee apostolicity nor success.  We can choose a synodical or congregational structure but it, in and of itself, with neither guarantee apostolicity nor success.  Only Christ can do this.  However, the worst structure is whatever one gets in the way of Christ's work in the internal structure of the Church.  All of the choices have done this from time to time over the span of Christian history.  So the Church is ever in a state of reform to prevent the external government from interfering or competing with what is quite properly Christ's work.  In this way the Reformation is, as Sasse says, the Spirit working in history and not a reflection of an heroic Luther, a national zeitgeist, or the flowering of culture.

To extend Sasse's point is to see how when we lose confidence in Christ's work through the means of grace we rely solely and completely on our work.  That is the point that gets me.  We seem, as Lutherans, to have lost confidence in Christ's work internally through the means of grace and so we shuffle the structural options like a deck of cards on a sinking ship.  I am not opposed to restructuring from time to time but to think that our structure will make the Church work and give the Church success is to believe the lie of our own exceptionalism and to deny Christ's unique authority and work still ruling the Church.

And this is exactly the problem we have today.  Unsure as we are of Christ to keep the promise of the Word and Sacraments and justify, impart faith, forgive sins, and impute righteousness, we have turned to our own efforts and ramped up our confidence in our ability to determine, accomplish, and give success to the mission of the Church.  Without confidence in the work of Christ (Is. 55:11), we are left to do on our own what none of us can do.  This is the root of the problems in the Lutheran Church today.  Nothing left and nothing more.  Unsure of what the Gospel is or how it works, we have substituted works of the law and they simply cannot deliver.  Only Christ, only the Gospel, only the means of grace...

Perhaps we cannot help ourselves.  We are so enamored of our own abilities and so uncertain that God will keep His promise, we have substituted gimmicks for the Word and Sacraments and contented ourselves with success defined by numbers on a spreadsheet instead of the joy of one sinner who repents.  The office of the ministry has become about leadership or administration or enabling or therapy or teaching or mentoring or vision casting or whatever instead of preaching the Gospel so that Christ may do what He has promised.  Impatient as we are, we are in such a rush to complete the Kingdom of God that we have ended up sidelining the Lord Jesus from the very work that is only His by the means He has appointed.  That is the root of our problem.  Until we get to the root, the fruit will always be tainted at best or rotten at worst.

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