A Bold Church in an Age of Terrorism—Part III

—By Fredrik Sidenvall 

Translated by Bror Erickson 

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a three article series. Find part one here and part two here

Martin Chemnitz, like Martin Luther, has at the heart of his doctrine the discovery of the certainty of salvation. Torbjörn Johannsson explains in his insightful and inspiring doctoral dissertation how Martin Chemnitz in his great work “Examen concilii tridentinii” criticizes the Council of Trent for its decision that says that no one, “with the certainty of faith that cannot be mistaken is able to know that he receives the Grace of God.” The decision of Council of Trent will have the effect that “when men hear that even he who holds to Christ’s promise must remain in uncertainty they will begin to gather together all their works. Not content with the deeds that God orders in his commandments, they will instead turn to others like the invocation of the saints, supererogation, trading in indulgences, masses and merits. When these works still don’t give comfort during temptation, one has purgatory. Chemnitz calls the uncertainty taught by Trent a ‘horrible slaughter of conscience.’”

If we then turn to what Chemnitz expressly writes about the sacrament in his theological handbook, “enchiridion,” we see plainly where he puts the emphasis. This book is formatted like a catechism with questions and answers. Question 215 asks, “What is the essential thing that must be shared for it to be a sacrament of the New Testament?” Chemnitz’s response reads “Two things. First an external visible element or sign in a certain external ceremony or act, established and instituted by Christ through a special word and express command and which is bestowed upon the whole church with the purpose that it should be used to the end of the age. The second thing needed is a word or promise of grace united with the element in this act, namely (the word which says) that the sacrament was instituted by Christ with the purpose and benefit that through them with exterior means and visible witnesses he will hold forth, apply, bestow, confirm and personally seals to those using them in faith the promise of grace that is otherwise proclaimed and offered in the gospel to everyone in general.” Then he continues to describe the sacraments as weapons against spiritual terror in his answer to the question, “For what reason does Christ establish the sacrament of the word?” Answer: “So that our weak faith would be maintained and preserved in this manner, because our senses cannot so easily hold to the bare and naked word and firmly trust in it. For even if one does not mistrust the gospel’s universal promise when one listens to them, so it is yet so with a conscience that is disturbed plagued by temptations, that it usually falls into doubt as to whether the general promises also belong to and encompass him, and if he can and ought to apply them to himself. Therefore Christ who is rich in mercy has instituted external and visible sacraments to help our damage in this area; through these sacraments as such open and conspicuous testimony, he would deal with us and in this way as through such a highly secure seal and declaration testify that he certainly applies, confirms, and seals the gospel promises individually for those who use the sacrament in true faith.”

To this I will add that Christ has given us the sacraments even as weapons against the type of spiritual terror that is exerted by the spirit of lawlessness, he who wants to lull a man into a false security. At the entrance into God’s kingdom and to the Sacrament Christ’s word remains clear: repent and believe in the gospel, Mark 1:15. In Baptism the bubble of false security is burst when a sinner is crucified with Christ and the old man is killed and buried. To be dead is really a very good reason to not work in the service of sin. When our old employer calls us to work, a Christian can calmly answer: I am sorry I can’t work today, you understand I am dead, so I have to stay home with my Savior. In connection with the Sacrament of the Altar the apostles admonish us: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world”(1 Corinthians 11:28-32 ESV). Through self-examination and confession the enemies first strategy is fought, and the conditions of false security are broken in repentance. 

Naturally, this should not be understood and applied in such a way that souls believe that degrees of their repentance are a prerequisite for the effect of the Sacraments or for the right to apply the gospel to themselves. It should destroy all. The mere desire to flee God’s wrath and receive God’s blessing instead, the desire receive life instead of death, is indeed sufficient incentive to accept the gospel. Tom Hardt helps us understand this when he writes: 

“When the fathers of the Lutheran Confessions want to summarize the difference in the faith that had arisen, they said,  ‘Leo X’s bull had condemned a very important teaching that all Christians ought to hold fast to and believe, namely that we shall trust that we have been released, not on the basis of our repentance, but upon the basis of Christ’s word:’ “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). Here in this bull, which in fact is the Roman Institution’s condemnation of the Lutheran congregations as heretical, a chasm opens that separates faith from unbelief according to the Lutheran Confessions. Here the Roman teaching lays emphasis on human effectiveness in confession, namely the good works (penance) while for the Lutheran all emphasis is laid upon faith in the sacrament being instituted by Christ, he who gave the authority of the keys to the apostles . . . This Roman instruction that points to preparation must consequently also teach that because no one knows his own position, all forgiveness is also uncertain . . . What Rome never understood, and still doesn’t understand, is that the gospel (in all its forms) is God’s power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). In the perfect sacrifice that the gospel proclaims there is an eternal righteousness won once and for all, and when the Gospel comes to us in the Sacrament or in any other means of grace it requires faith and nothing but faith . . . This directs attention to the word that the pastor takes in his mouth and the sacrifice that he holds in his hand, and frees a person from all thoughts of effective preparation, the depth of repentance and a successful communion. The thought of successful communion, successful confession that always leave the individual floating between hope and despair, is replaced by the rock solid word, a sure release and the superabundant atoning sacrifice.” (Reference)

Here we see plainly that the point with the means of grace is certainty of salvation and victory over the monster of uncertainty, the worst of all terrorists. Against this background we can see the importance of first understanding communion in a sacramental manner as God’s perfect gift to us and not primarily in a sacrificial manner as our imperfect gift to God. It also stands clear that truth of Christ’s body and blood actually present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper can never be emphasized enough, because it has a direct existential impact on the souls, namely this blessed certainty of participation in Christ’s eternal and perfect sacrifice. 

The basis for Luther’s boldness in the area of conscience through faith in grace and the means of grace is his boldness in the area of truth. The boldness in the area of truth has its basis in that scriptures are true and clear. Luther writes: “All the points of Christian doctrine must be such that they are not only fully certain in and of themselves but also confirmed by such clear scriptures that they stop the mouths of all.”

Contrary to many who have argued that Luther was estranged from dogmatic teaching and the authority of scripture, Luther says: I will hold fast for all eternity to what I have taught up to now, and say that whoever teaches otherwise or condemns me, he condemns God himself and must remain a child of hell. For I know that my teaching is not my teaching.” When Martin Luther stepped before the Diet of Worms with the whole world against him and spoke the powerful words “Here I stand, and I can do no other so help me God,” that was the church speaking with boldness.   

This boldness is grounded in the clarity of Scripture, in a pure and clear gospel and objectively effective means of grace.

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy

A Bold Church in an Age of Terror

—By Fredrik Sidenvall

Translated By Bror Erickson 

This article first appear in Kyrka och Folk Nr. 37 Sept 10 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part series.

The gospel frees us from fear. It is the church’s great and glorious discovery and the church’s errand to humanity. With the boldness of this faith that Christ gives, the church has reached out to all peoples in good and bad times and taken great risks. This boldness is born from the belief that God is good and desires our best. God’s word is not a threat but a gift. The truth makes us both free and bold. This grace and redemption that Jesus won for all on the cross gives us the privilege to be God’s free and beloved children. From this secure relationship, the church of every age has found the courage to be different, despite various human power structures that wanted to get her to adapt and commit herself. 

We love the Church of Sweden. The message she has in her confession along with her historical commission to reach all people with the gospel is given by God. Yet today, we cannot escape seeing many decisions, choices and new teachings are typified by anxieties and fears. “What should people feel and think? How shall mass media see this?” In this manner the Church of Sweden has been reactionary. Her message is reactionary and formed by ideologies other than the gospel. Fears have crept in so deep that fellow Christians have begun yielding to others because external pressure. 

At the same time we see another movement among people. Those who have never been in the presence of the church’s life but are completely typified by post war era secular society are seeking answers to their questions. What they are looking for is not a dull mirror image of the one dimensional culture they come from, but they are looking for a fresh alternative. They rejoice to encounter a bold church. 

The bold church sees it as her call to work so that the Church of Sweden in its choices and decisions at all levels should be typified by a steadfast faith in God’s will and opportunities. We will work so that the Church of Sweden should be free and brave to openly step forward with the gospel as part of Christ’s worldwide church. It is our prayer and hope that the Church of Sweden shall return to the joy of her work and awaken the whole hearted commitment of the people. 

As you can see, there is the thought behind the slogan “Bold Church” such as receives validation from outside the borders of Sweden. It is a possession that is needed and which shines forth in a world typified by spiritual and physical terror. 

Now I think we should take a moment to study the bold church of the Old and New Testaments. First we will look at a few examples of the terror against which only the Holy Spirit can sustain the church’s boldness. 

4 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? 5 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me?... 13 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, “The Lord will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 36:3–5, 13–15 ESV)

Opposition to a Bold Church

The opposition to the evangelium (gospel) is kakangelium (kakos means bad or evil in Greek) – the evil message, the bad news. It is precisely this kakangelium that Rabsheka, the Assyrian commander, who shows signs of being an apostate Jew, preaches to Jerusalem. He has with him a stunning military superiority. It is to that which is seen that the kakangelium draws attention, not to any invisible reality, not to some promise. Rabsheka cleverly attacks the faith that trusts in the Lord. He wants God’s people to think that they have the Lord himself against them, and that the Lord has sent enemies on account of their sin. 

Eliakim, King Hezekiah’s representative, quickly loses courage before what he sees and hears and now anxiously pleads with Rabsheka that he would not speak Hebrew but Aramaic. He is afraid that the people on the city walls shall hear and understand and panic. 

The situation reminds us of how we would like the liberal theologians and the learned armies of unbelief to speak theological and philosophical “Aramaic” and not the “Hebrew” of the people of the church so that panic would not spread from the pastors to the people. This is what we have experienced over the last twenty years in the Church of Sweden, that bishops and pastors have begun to proclaim for common church people the theology that has been taught in academia for the last hundred years. 

There is even an element of God’s word in the kakangelium according to Rabsheka. It is actually true that God will punish his people because they have set their hope on Egypt instead of the Lord. But the law that is proclaimed in the kakangelium never drives to Christ but only to despair. One can see a parallel to this in the life of the church today where unbelieving men emphasize the church’s historical mistakes and abuse of power and the church is expected to pray for forgiveness from one group or another. The forgiveness one hopes for is not the unconditional grace of God, but the highly conditional grace of man and media. Because it is the church’s traditional teaching that is seen as having led to the abuse, and the teaching of Christ and his redemption is part and parcel of this, the kakangelium does not drive one to Christ, but away from him to the arbitrariness of man where ultimately there is nothing but despair in the waiting. 

A strange picture in an old issue of the church’s newspaper shows an enormous stone erected in memory of the women who were burned as witches. In front of the stone stands the atheist (if he isn’t now a crypto-muslim) journalist and author Jan Guillou standing tall and talking, behind him and to the right has a woman who with her head held high, probably represents the witches, and to the left stands a little plump and hunched over bishop with his head hanging low giving us a picture of what a bold church is not. 

Now it is important to remember that the evil message is not only proclaimed as an attack against the Christian church. It is preached for all of humanity and has many faithful listeners. It focuses on two main areas, namely truth and conscience. As we have heard the bad news sounding stronger over the last century there have come to be two variations: 

  1. The modern variation which says that there is an unambiguous truth that all have to bow before, and this truth excludes all hope and confidence before material constraints and facing death, all that we have is here and now, and we are all subject to the unyielding laws of nature. 
  2. The postmodern variation which tells us that there are many truths and therefore no truth at all by extension. In this situation, when there isn’t any truth to seek or find, there remain only the truths one can argue. It is a courage of despair that we discern behind the politically correct defenses of the media and politicians. Joined by great desperation in the fight for the one constructed truth we find many different extremist groups such as the resurgence of ISIS followers and animal rights activists among others. 

The other area that the kakangelium speaks to is conscience. Here too, it goes along two diametrically opposed lines. Along the first line it is proclaimed that for the contemporary man there is no day of accounting to have before your eyes, no absolute norm by which to test yourself and by which one can have true guilt. All residual values from earlier eras, in particular norms with religious backgrounds must be fought and crushed in constantly new expression using films, art and music to affirm and celebrate the previously taboo. 

But when people are shaken in such a manner from peace in a normless everyday existence then the kakangelium spreads the realization of failure. When confession of true guilt is not permitted, the suppression leads to vague anxiety, self-hatred or shame. Shame that one is not happy, or not successful in one area or another, or not beautiful. Today, people experience a guilt in areas where God’s law never accuses them, and a thin hollow boldness in areas where there stands opposition to order of life and God himself. The false security and the false guilt is the perfect environment for the spiritual terrorists. Yes, today we experience the fruits of that which is in opposition to the boldness of the evangelium (the gospel) namely the kakangelium of fear: “and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. (Luke 21:25-26 (ESV) 

It is in such a world characterized by the distress of the end times that the Holy Spirit builds up God’s bold church with the gospel. 

To be continued . . . 

Fredrik Sidenvall, pastor in the Church of Sweden, serves as principal for the Lutheran High School of Gothenburg, where he lives with his wife Anna. He is editor for the weekly Lutheran magazine Kyrka och Folk (Church and Nation) and co-founder of the North European Lutheran Academy. 

Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Farmington New Mexico. He has translated and published several books including Then Fell the Lord's Fire by Bo Giertz and Witness by Hermann Sasse. 

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.