Core Beliefs and Values
The Historic Christian Faith & THE Core Beliefs of the Confessional Lutheran Church
Today it is common to hear a Christian proclaim, “I just love Jesus” or “I just believe in the Bible and that’s all that matters.” In modern times, the less a church says about its specific stand on Biblical issues, the more acceptable it is. But is the Holy Bible open to any belief we happen to attach to it? Is the whole Bible the inspired Word of God or just parts of it? Is the Word of God objective and historical or is it subject to whatever we might want it to say?
A confessional Lutheran believes that the Holy Bible is the only norm and rule for Christian faith and practice and that it is God’s perfect, inerrant word, containing the active work of Christ Himself. In light of this, we believe that every word of Scripture is inspired truth.
"Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Prov. 30: 5
The entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, through either the curse of the law or the hope of the Gospel, in some way, point to Christ and the cross. This simple truth is clearly defined in Scripture. Sadly, this truth is often compromised by the more “self-focused” needs, trends and desires of ever-changing human culture, making the Holy Bible more of a reflection of ourselves than of Christ.
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39-40
The beliefs of the confessional Lutheran Church can be summed up with the simple phrase. “Christ Alone. Grace Alone. Faith Alone. Scripture Alone”
We take grace very seriously. The concept of God saving His children by grace alone means that the entirety of this work is done by God. We accept the Biblical statements, however humbling they may be, that, after the fall, in regard to things eternal, human nature and reason are dead in sin even at birth. Consequently, there is nothing we can do to contribute to the free gift of salvation distributed from Christ upon the cross.
Our human ego wants to believe that we are “essentially good” or that we are born as innocents until some theoretical age of accountability before we become guilty of sin or failure. It is so tempting to seek some level of noble quality in the unredeemed human nature, but Scripture tells us otherwise.
Psalm 51:5 declares this most clearly
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The Apostle Paul declares in Ephesians 2:3 “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”
Romans 5:18 even reminds us that we are sinful even when we break no law or command. "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.".
The fallen human condition makes us unable to accomplish even the smallest effort, or even thought, toward becoming right with God. While the term “Making a decision for Christ” has become very popular in the last century, truthfully, it is Christ who chooses us. The Gospel of John assures us that even our “decision” of faith is God’s work.
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” John 1:12-13
On the other hand, Scripture is clear that we are fully capable of rejecting this gift worked solely by the will of God. Sadly, the Bible informs us that eternal punishment is a reality for some. While ours is not the power to accept, ours is the power to reject. II Peter 3:9 tells us that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Why do some reject the gift of Christ? It is a mystery - a Divine paradox we are not able to comprehend as human beings.
The confessional church simply takes the Bible at its word: Heaven is accomplished by Christ, but Hell is fully the work of the human will. We either passively receive or actively reject the gift of Christ.
So how does grace happen? What makes the blood of Christ any benefit to us? God’s grace is delivered to us through faith in Jesus Christ and faith alone.
“By grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:7
But what exactly is faith?
Many Christians define faith as a decision or a response of our human reason to the invitation of God. By defining faith as an intellectual belief through our reason and comprehension, we have declared faith to be a human work. We also deny faith to anyone who lacks the ability of critical thinking or reason such as the mentally disabled or small children. Scripture, however, instructs us that faith does not originate in us at all. Just as we cannot create life from death, nor can we create faith where none existed before. Faith originates from God.
Faith itself is a gift created within us by the work of the Holy Spirit, not dependent on human intellect, human reason or human decision. 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us
“No one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.” John 6:44-51 states this similarly, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him"
So how does God create this gift of faith? God creates faith by the means of His Word. The Gospel of John refers to Christ as “The Word by which all things are created”.
The Gospel points us to the work of Christ in Genesis as the Word was breathed into Adam creating life from dust. The literal meaning of “Holy Spirit” in the New Testament is “Holy Breath”. Human words require breath and God’s Word is no different. In John 19:4 we are told that the last words of Christ on the cross were, “It is finished” and He gave His Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the cross as the breath of the Word of life, proceeding to our dead souls breathing life into the dust once more, Just as God’s Word and Breath breathed life into the dust of the first human being in the garden. The Gospel heard or read becomes a conduit of Christ’s blood and life, a finished work, carried from the cross by the Holy Spirit.
If the Bible is truly God’s Word, then it is not only inspired, but it is also fully trustworthy, without error or contradiction. Even more amazing, if the Holy Bible is truly God’s Divine Word, it is also the living, active presence of Christ, breathed as life to those dead in sin. Therefore, the Holy Scripture, the Word of God, is not only perfect, but has, within itself, the very power to accomplish what it says.
When we, as human beings, speak our will or desires, our words have no power in and of themselves to accomplish what they wish. Our words require further action by ourselves or another in order for them to accomplish anything. On the other hand, when God speaks, His words become reality the second they are spoken. When God speaks, reality becomes what He says. When God said "Let there be light", there was light. He didn't need to hire someone to turn on the light or persuade someone to make a light or even physically set about to build a light, His words instantaneously accomplished what they spoke.
When God speaks forgiveness and faith through His word, that too is accomplished and created in us, just as He created light at the beginning of the world.
“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Rom. 10:17
Scripture and the Sacraments
If salvation and our righteousness before God is purely external, the work of Christ, how can we know for certain that we have received this gift? How can we know that we are initially and continually in a righteous state before God and assured that our eternity is with Christ in Heaven?
Just as the Word was enfleshed in the very ordinary form of a humble carpenter’s son and born in a stable; that same Word is tangibly present in very common forms today.
We receive the forgiveness of Christ through the written and spoken words of the Holy Scripture, the good news of the Gospel, but our Lord works this faith within our souls in ways that are often hidden to our limited human intellect and reason. But we are not left to wonder and worry because, according to Scripture, Christ offers us the tangible and very visible Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are physical applications of the Word of God. Christ, through His Word, is truly present in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in a miraculous way. Because of this we have objective, tangible and external means by which can be initially and continually assured of our standing before God regardless of our human faults and failures. In the Sacraments we have the confidence of physically touching and tasting the personal promise of our creator and redeemer.
The modern church often frowns on such simplistic and repetitive rites, but what about Scripture? At the creation of the world, we see the Father and the Word (The Son) and the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters. Water was the palette of the creation. The Bible tells us that ordinary water, when combined with the Word of God provides us with Baptism. In the first chapter of Genesis God begins creation at the water, by His Word and through the Holy Spirit which hovered above the waters.
Our new life, much like the creation in Genesis, begins with water:
“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” Rom. 6:3-6
The essential nature of baptism is affirmed many places in Scripture, such as in I John 5:6,
“This is the one who came by water and blood-Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”
The Bible gives no specific measure for the amount of water necessary for Holy Baptism. Hebrews 12:23-24 connects our Baptism to the cleansing by the priest with the blood of sacrifices;
“You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Often, contemporary theologians will claim that the original Biblical Greek word, Baptizo, meaning baptism, only means to dip or immerse. Some might be surprised that in Mark 7:4 “the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.” is described using a word translated “wash” which is actually that same Greek word. Tables are tough to dunk!
Baptism is actually one of the rare occasions where the original word in the language of Scripture is not translated, but simply carried over into English due to the distinctive nature of its meaning. There is also no occasion in Scripture where the actual amount of water used for Baptism is specifically described, nor prescribed for the church.
Finally, the earliest artistic symbols of Christian faith include pictures of the shell as a portrayal of their use in baptism. Even if standing in a large body of water, such as a river, early Christians often had the water poured over them as they were baptized in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is not to say that full immersion is not a wonderful symbol of the death, burial and resurrection, but it is the Word of God connected with the water which consecrates baptism and any amount of water whether sprinkling, pouring or immersion is enough to do the job.
The Word is further enfleshed in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Confessional Lutherans believe that Christ is truly and physically present in and with the bread and wine of the supper in a miraculous way. The bread and wine are just as present and just as simple as they always were, but through the consecration of the Word of God, Christ is tangibly present in a miraculous way as well. This is accomplished by the word of Christ, not a human priest or pastor. How this happens, that bread and wine can be, at the same time, the physical body and blood of Christ, is a Divine mystery, beyond human comprehension.
It is very difficult to ignore the Scriptures that describe the Lord’s Supper in this way.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” 1 Cor. 10:16-17
The apostle Paul also speaks of people who failed to take this presence of Christ seriously and were even dying because of it.
“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” I Corinthians 11:27-30
Jesus Himself makes this case in the Gospel of John: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." and “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” John 6:51-58
While faith is required to receive any benefit from the Lord’s Supper, the presence of Christ occurs neither through the work of any pastor nor the belief of those partaking in communion. It happens through the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God as it is connected to the bread and wine. As in Baptism, the benefits of the blood of Christ are distributed to those who have passively received and not actively rejected the faith created in them by the grace of God.
Christ Alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone.
The simple yet meaningful truth of these phrases upon which confessional Lutheranism stands is not meant to be divisive but cohesive. All of us desire loving unity among Christians, but unity must grow from truth. Unity without truth accomplishes nothing.
“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4
The modern church is often tempted to wander from life-giving truths of Scripture in its well-intended attempt to accommodate culture and society. The simple message of the cross often gets diluted and can become almost indistinguishable from the message of the world. Instead of offering death to the old self, the church is tempted to just offer improvement to the old self, to provide what the world provides, but with a Christian label. The world does an excellent job of providing wealth, entertainment and pleasure. The church’s job, however, is to proclaim Christ, teach truth and provide the means to eternal life.
As confessional Lutherans we hold dear the precious gift of Biblical doctrine that has been faithfully proclaimed by the church for millennia. The deathbed words of one of the reformers of the medieval church were, “We are but beggars, this is true.” This is the glorious paradox upon which we stand: We are nothing, Christ is everything, yet He loves us as though He was nothing and we were everything. This we will never understand, but on this we firmly stand.
Rev. Robb Ring
Immanuel Lutheran Church of Orange, 2022