Normally, today we would celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Half-way between last year’s Christmas, and this year’s Christmas. It was actually yesterday – June 24. Today, June 25 is the day the Augsburg Confession was presented to the emperor Charles V. This year is the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, it will be 500 years since Luther posted the 95 theses. As important as those were, Luther didn’t intend to break away. He thought they would just be discussed among professors. The Augsburg Confession was designed as a statement of what the church teaches, and what it rejects.
Most people – even in the Lutheran Church – don’t know what the Augsburg confession is or who wrote it. So, let’s look at the history for a minute:
1517 – Luther posts the 95 theses.
1521 – Luther is excommunicated by Rome. Later that year, Luther is declared an outlaw by the Emperor – Charles V.
1526 – Luther marries Katerina von Bora.
1529 – The Large and Small Catechisms are published.
1530 – Seventeen years after the 95 theses – The Emperor calls all of the princes in the Empire to Augsburg. The Lutheran princes want to present a statement of what the church teaches. It is written – not by Luther, but by Luther’s friend and colleague, Philip Melanchton. At Ausgburg, the emperor demands that the princes re-instate the sacrifice of the Mass, the Corpus Christi processions, and so on – basically, that they give up on the Reformation. The princes not only refuse, but offer their necks to the executioners axe, should the emperor insist. And so, they present to him a brief statement of what the churches in their lands teach. It is nothing more than the teachings of holy scripture – put together in an organized way. That simple confession becomes the basis for the Lutheran Church. Not that the princes said, “Now we’re establishing the Lutheran Church.” The Augsburg confession just explains what had always been taught in the church. There’s nothing new in it. In fact, it says several times “There’s nothing new here. We’re just teaching what has been taught since the time of the apostles.” So why is it the foundation of the Lutheran church? Because no church has ever even bothered to claim the name Lutheran without accepting at least the Augsburg Confession. The Small Catechism is how people are taught in the Lutheran Church. The Augsburg Confession is the standard by which teaching is judged.
In it, we confess one God in three persons, two natures (God and Man) in one Christ, that we are conceived and born sinful, and so under the condemnation of sin, that we are freely justified, for Christ’s sake, through faith, that we are given this faith by the Holy Spirit through the preaching office, that this faith brings forth good works, which are the fruit of faith but don’t earn us salvation, that the Holy Church is found wherever this Gospel is taught purely, and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, that children are received into God’s grace through Holy Baptism, that the true body and blood of Jesus are present in the Sacrament of the Altar, that when we sin, we should repent of our sins, and return to Christ, trusting not in our merits but his, that everything in the church should be done decently and in good order, whether it is calling pastors, or celebrating festivals, etc., and that Christians can participate in civic life and hold offices like mayor or senator. It also discusses various abuses that had been corrected: giving the body and blood of Christ to all – as Jesus commanded; allowing clergy to marry, as scripture teaches in Genesis 1&2; purifying the Divine Service of false doctrine, the proper use of confession and absolution, and ending the abuses of the monasteries, which taught salvation by works.
But the Augsburg confession is not an academic exercise. It isn’t intended to be something only studied in ivory towers. Each article begins “Our churches teach”. This is a summary of the day to day life and teaching of churches. It’s what’s actually going on in parishes. And today it still serves that function for those who take seriously our confession. It is also a practical statement of what God teaches.
It tells us what the life of the Christian should look like. And we say this:
For this is Christian perfection: to fear God from the heart, and yet to trust that for Christ’s sake we have a God who has been reconciled, to ask of God, and to expect His aid in all things that are to be done; and meanwhile, to be diligent in outward good works, and to serve our calling.
What a beautiful summary of our life in Christ. The pressure to perform so that we can please God is taken away. Jesus does it all. We are now free to show love to our neighbor, not because it earns us anything, but because of the love we are shown by God in Jesus. As we pray in the post-communion collect – that we would grow in faith toward God, and in fervent love toward one another. That is the pattern of Christian living.
And yet, the opposition to this was so strong, that teaching those simple truths from God’s Word was to risk your life. The princes at Ausgburg risked their lives and livelihoods just to read this out loud to the emperor. Because the one thing Satan hates is that the truth of God’s word be taught.
Satan will not allow the confession of the truth to go without opposition. Even today, the truth is opposed by the world. And the church continues to make the good confession. The same confession that was spoken of in the Epistle and Gospel readings – where Jesus says “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” We are to confess the truth, without fear of what may happen to us. And that truth is that Jesus is the Son of God, who died to save us. As long as Satan can use the church to turn that word toward ourselves, he is content. But when that word is properly focused on Christ, Satan tries to distort it, to ruin it.
Today, even in the church, even when the truth is confessed, too often we forget to also reject error. But that’s part of our Baptismal service. We even ask the little children, Do you reject the devil, and all his works and all his ways… When we are Baptized we reject the lies of Satan. The pattern of our Lutheran fathers was always to not only confess the truth, but also to reject error. So, for example, the Augsburg confession say that we worship one God in three persons. And then it rejects any teaching that would contradict this. The Arians who teach that Jesus is a lesser god (we see them today in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and in Mormonism) – Islam, that teaches that Jesus was only a prophet, and so on. We confess the truth. We reject error. As another example, We confess that children are to be Baptized, and so reject those who teach that they should not be baptized. And so on.
We can not confess the truth if we refuse to reject error. That leads to universalism. It’s a very popular way to do things in our postmodern, anything goes world. But that’s not how God’s word works. Jesus can not be the Son of God, and not the son of God. Only one can be true. Our Father either created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible, or he did not. Our works either earn us something, or nothing. If something, then our salvation ultimately would depend on us. The comfort of the Gospel would be destroyed – replaced with the idolatry of our own works. We must reject the error that our works earn us anything. It leads away from Christ. And if we are heading away from Christ – especially if it is to ourselves – then we are heading away from God.
Not that we get absolutely caught up in just rejecting error, without ever acknowledging the wonderful truth of our salvation. That would lead to legalism. We need both: We confess the truth of the Gospel, we reject errors that lead away from Jesus. Our fathers in the faith did that beautifully at Ausgburg. It was not clergy, but the laity that confessed. Even the author of the Augsburg confession – Melanchthon – was a laymen. It isn’t just pastors that must confess the truth – anyone who would be saved must confess the truth. Must acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Whoever confesses me before men… says Jesus … I will confess before my father in heaven.
And Jesus is the one we confess. All that we believe points us to Jesus. He is our center, our goal, our life. He gave his life to take away our sins. He is your righteousness.
Thanks be to God that the confessors at Augsburg refused to yield, refused to give up even one part of this pure teaching. And thanks be to God that our heavenly Father preserves his church from age to age, and brings Jesus to us through his holy word, through the water, through the body and blood. Thanks be to God that we have been given His salvation.