It's the Gospel, Stupid!
In the 1992 Presidential campaign the Clinton camp came up with a slogan to focus their campaign on the issue they felt they could win with. For use around their campaign headquarters they produced banners and posters emblazoned with "It's the economy, stupid." It worked. The Clinton camp relentlessly hammered the economic issue and beat Bush.
On this, the celebration of the Reformation of the Christian Church, Confessional Lutherans can do a similar thing. We can crystallize what the Reformation was all about by making banners and posters with the simple slogan: "It's the Gospel, Stupid!" This statement highlights for us that the difference between Confessional Lutherans, Catholics, and even other Protestants is nothing less than the Gospel. This slogan can be a necessary corrective to Satan's never ending campaign to make the difference be about life. How easy it is to fall into this trap. It's easy to believe that the difference between Confessional Lutherans and other Christians comes down to who lives the better Christian life.
With not much digging, we can dig up a lot of dirt in the lives of other Christians. We can dig up the fact that the pope of Luther's day was well known for immorality, gluttony, and greed. We can dig up the fornicating and baby killing that went on in Medieval monasteries and nunneries. And without any digging at all, we can point to wretched lives in the Catholic community today. We can name priests, bishops, and cardinals convicted of pornography, child molesting, or homosexuality. And we won't have much trouble digging in the lives of other Protestants, will we? We can point our shovels at immoral global evangelists, Ravi Zacharias, or we can digitally dig in the Southern Baptist Convention and find their covering up of sexual misconduct.
It seems like we Confessional Lutherans will win if we get into a dirt digging contest with other Christians. But what about our dirt? What do we find buried under the even Confessional Lutheran churches? Not just dirt. But bones. Filthy, disgusting, skeletons. Do I really have to go into this? Do I need to dig up the actual skeletons in our closet? You can name priests exposed as pedophiles; I can name Confessional Lutheran seminary professors. You can name Catholic priests removed for being homosexuals; I can name several Confessional Lutheran pastors. You can name Charismatic preachers defrocked for adultery; I can name at least one Confessional Lutheran pastor defrocked for adultery and murder. You can name Catholic and Protestant laymen who are poor excuses for Christians; I can find them in any Confessional Lutheran church. You can name greedy, gluttonous clergymen; I can look in the mirror.
See what happens if we give into the temptation of Satan and make the differences among Christians to be their lives? It leads to one of two places neither of which is God: It leads either to pride or despair. We’re prideful when we conclude our life is more Christian than others. We don't gamble, curse, or drink as much as those Catholics do. And we're not hypocritical like those Baptists who drink, those Charismatics who smoke, or those Methodists who gamble. Can't you hear that Pharisee in the temple praying, "Dear Lord, I thank you that I'm not like those Catholics or those other Protestants. I don't have repetitious prayers like those Catholics and I don't babble on and on like those Charismatics. I don't gamble as much as the Catholics, but I don't feel bad about it when I do like the Baptists." I tell you such a Confessional Lutheran does not go down to his house justified.
Weighing the lives of Christians or clergy to determine the difference between churches only leads to pride or despair. How many Confessional Lutherans have despaired because we're not as enthusiastic as Charismatics are? And hasn't every Confessional Lutheran pastor had it pointed out to him that those Baptists all carry their Bibles to church. And you watch the Vatican Christmas Eve midnight Mass and tell me that doesn’t look like the Holy Christian Church!
Satan wins when he convinces us to evaluate churches based on the lives of its clergy or members. Where was the difference between Cain and Able? Both brought sacrifices to God. Able didn't bring better or bigger than Cain. Where was the difference between Saul and David? Not in life. Both sinned grievously; in fact, David probably sinned more. Or how about Judas and Peter? Both men betrayed Christ after being warned not to. Both were sorry after they sinned. The difference between them and us and other Christian groups is the same. It's the Gospel. When we fall for Satan's lie and start debating the relative holiness of life among Catholics, Confessional Lutherans and Protestants, Satan succeeds in doing what he really wants to: draw us away from the Gospel. Luther stressed this point. "Life is as evil among us as among the papists [Catholics], thus we do not argue about life but about doctrine, whereas [previous reformers] Wycliffe and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily its doctrine" (Oberman, Between God and Devil, 55).
But it wasn't Catholic doctrine in general that Luther challenged. It was specifically their understanding of the Gospel; their understanding of how sinful man can be saved by a holy God. Look at our Confessional Lutheran doctrinal writings. Continually they state we reject a teaching because it is in conflict with the chief article which is the Gospel. The Confessional Lutherans even went so far as to say that they would tolerate the pope’s authority if he simply would allow the Gospel to be preached (AC, 28, 77).
There’s the rub. Roman Catholicism compromises the Gospel in the way they understood the Mass or Communion. In Catholic doctrine the Mass is something you do for God. You come to meet a God who is angry with you for your sins of the last week. The priest resacrifices Christ in an unbloody manner on your church altar to atone for your sins right then and there. All through Catholic doctrine the sinner must do something so that God isn’t angry with him. You do penance after confessing so that you might show repentance is sincere. You call upon Mary or the saints because they have more good works than you do, and so, God hears them. At death you go to Purgatory to be purified by fire, from all the wickedness left in you.
In Catholicism sinners must do something to offset their sinfulness. But how do they know if they’ve ever done enough? How do they know when they have been to Mass enough, done enough penance, good works, or Hail Marys to be certain they’ll go to heaven? To Luther, this was the worst thing about Catholicism. Not the wicked lives of priests or people, but what he called the "monster of uncertainty," "the Gospel of doubt." It's the Gospel, stupid. That's the difference between Roman Catholicism and Confessional Lutheranism. And, as hard as it will be for you to believe, the Gospel is the difference between us and other Protestants.
There are many different forms of Protestantism but they all, in some manner, take away from the Gospel. In some form or fashion Protestantism teaches that God does not put away His wrath toward you until you do something. You must choose to follow Jesus and then God will love you. You believe first and then for faith’s sake God puts away His anger towards you. You must repent and then God will forgive you. You must worship God joyously and then He'll be happy with you.
This understanding of the Gospel strikes close to home, and that’s why we Confessional Lutherans are easily tempted by Protestant doctrines. We stumble sometimes over baptizing our babies because it makes sense to us that God should only want to baptize someone who has asked Him to come into their life first. We stumble over Christ placing His body and blood on our altar because that would mean anybody at all who ate and drank of it would actually receive it. It makes sense that only those who have faith to ascend to Christ in heaven receive His body and blood. And it makes sense that we should worship so as to generate emotion, so that we can feel lifted up from this sinful world into the high realms of holiness where God dwells. And it makes sense that if God chose some in eternity for salvation, those He didn’t so choose He chose for damning.
Protestant doctrines are alluring to us. That's why we need to be reminded: It's the Gospel, stupid. The reason the Reformers would have no fellowship with the Catholic or Protestant church was the Gospel. The Gospel is that God for Christ's sake is not angry with world. His laws that we never keep were kept perfectly by Christ in our place. Our sins that deserve temporal and eternal punishment have been paid for by Christ's holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. The Gospel is that God justifies ungodly sinners; He doesn't wait till they're more or less godly in life and then pronounce them forgiven. The Gospel is that while we were still blind, dead, enemies of God, Christ died for sinners and reconciled the world not some, but all the world, to God.
It’s no Gospel to say you must do something and then God will be pleased with you. The Gospel is that God so loved the whole, rotten, sinful world that He gave up His only Son in it's place. The Gospel is that God put the sins of the entire world on Christ thousands of years before anyone believed, repented, worshiped, or decided to follow Jesus. God doesn't wait to be invited to forgive sins. God doesn't wait till a baby is old enough to decide to follow Jesus to forgive its sins. No, by means of water and the word, the washing of regeneration, God clothes little babies in the robes of Christ and calls them His dear sons and daughters. And I don't commune to make God not angry with me. I commune because the Gospel promises me that God isn't angry. Communion isn't me doing something for God. It's God coming down in flesh and blood to this fallen world where I live to assure me that though I am a poor miserable sinner I am right this moment in the same church as angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.
Confessional Lutherans historically have had divine services not worship services. We don't gather to give worth to God, that is worship we gather so divinity, can serve us: Divine Service. God doesn't seek to get something from you on Sundays whether it be faith, repentance, worship good works, or money. He seeks to give you something. The Gospel. The Gospel is all gift. He seeks to give you heavenly things by means of ordinary earthly things. Through the mouth of an earthly pastor He pronounces heaven's forgiveness on all who will hear him. Through earthly water He gives heavenly life to all baptized. Through earthly bread and wine He gives His body and blood for sinners even though holy angels can’t eat it.
It's the Gospel, stupid. That's what the first president of the Missouri Synod said over 100 years ago. "This is what is missing in all other churches: They do not believe that redemption has been completely bestowed as a gift on all men." Our Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ are told they must do something to finish things between God and them, Confessional Lutherans for 506 years have been saying what Christ did on the cross: It is finished. That is not at all stupid! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20231029).