Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mark's thoughts: The "missional" Martin Luther

“Missional” is an adjective that one encounters in discussions about the Church today.  I do not presume to understand all that the term entails for those who use it.  Certainly it involves a focus on speaking the Gospel to others as the Church engages in the mission of making disciples of all nations through baptism and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20).

Implicitly, and at times explicitly, “missional” is often set in contrast to pure doctrine. The concern for maintaining pure doctrine in the Church is seen as an approach that is closed off to the world – one that is more concerned about right teaching than about the sharing the Gospel.

When “missional” describes practice, this often does not have a strong emphasis on the Sacraments.  The language and worship forms are taken from the world of American evangelicalism where the Sacraments, of course, do not hold a central place in the understanding of the Gospel. 

In general, we are told that Lutherans are not “missional.”  To be sure, everyone must admit that they could be more bold in sharing Christ.  No doubt there are Lutherans who have allowed a Germanic cultural heritage to insulate them from the challenge of speaking the Gospel to others.  At the same time the Lutheran understanding of how God works through the Word and the Sacraments (Augsburg Confession, article VI) will operate in ways that are very different from those who hold to Arminianism.  Likewise in an American religious culture that has been shaped by Arminianism, those efforts will produce more of what the world calls “success.”

It was therefore with great interest that I read Martin Luther’s Church Postil on the Epistle for the Second Day of Christmas, Titus 3:4-8.  As Luther discusses the text he writes that “Christ has saved us once for all in two ways”:

First, He has done all that is necessary for our salvation, namely, He conquered and destroyed sin, death and hell, so that nothing remains for anyone to do.  Second, He has given all this to all of us in Baptism, so that whoever believes that Christ has done this, immediately in that moment has everything, and all his sins along with death and hell are gone, so that he needs nothing more for salvation than faith (LW 75:236).

In this way, God does away with idea of works that merit salvation, and instead works are done for the benefit of the neighbor and the glory of God:

God pours such superabundant blessings over us in Baptism in order to abolish works by which fools presume to obtain heaven and be saved.  No, dear friends, you must have heaven and already be saved before you do good works. Works do not merit heaven, but just the opposite; heaven, given purely by grace, does the good works, without seeking merit, simply for the benefit of one’s neighbor and for the glory of God, until the body is redeemed from sin, death and hell. Therefore, all of life which a right-believing Christian lives after Baptism is nothing more than a waiting for the revelation of the salvation that he already has (LW 75:236-237).

The Christian possesses salvation, but for now it is hidden in faith. And so Luther can say:

Therefore the rest of life after Baptism is nothing more than a looking forward to, a waiting, and a longing for the revelation of what is in us, so that we may take hold of what has taken hold of us, as St. Paul says, “I pursue it to take hold of it, because Christ Jesus has taken hold of me” (Philippians 3 [:12]), that is, that I may see what good things have been put into the shrine of faith.  He is curious to see his treasure, which Baptism has given and sealed to him in faith (LW 75:237).

It is when Luther turns to comment on this time of waiting that his thoughts take a fascinating turn.  He writes:

This waiting and the rest of life after Baptism serve [first] so that He may mortify our bodies and display the power of His grace in the conflict against the flesh, the world, and the devil; and finally so that He may benefit our neighbors through us and bring them also to faith through our preaching and life. Although He could do that through angels, He wants to do that through us, so that faith would remain and things would be done pleasantly.  No faith would remain if the angels unceasingly walked among us. That would not be so pleasant as is the nature which is like us, with which we are familiar, and which we know.  If we all were taken to heaven immediately after Baptism, who would with their words and good example convert the others and bring them to God? (LW 75:238; emphasis added).

Luther lives in a world where everyone is baptized, but he is under no illusions about that status of those who are not fed through Christ’s Means of Grace during their lives.  His thought is grounded in Holy Baptism. Saved from having to do anything for salvation, the life of faith is active in a love which shares Christ in word and deed with the neighbor.  Luther stands ready to fight for pure doctrine, but defined in Lutheran terms, that sounds rather “missional” indeed.


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