The Ministry of a New Covenant

The Ministry of the New Covenant

Text: II Corinthians 3:4-6

— by John T. Pless

Editor’s Note: The Rev. John T. Pless preached this sermon for the ordination of Michael Daniels on Trinity XI (August 7, 2016) at Salem Lutheran Church, Taylorsville, NC.

 This past month in Cleveland and then in Philadelphia, the attention of our nation and even the world was turned to decisions being made by the two leading political parties as to who would be put forward as their respective candidates for president of the United States. There were stirring speeches and rhetorical appeals. Those gatherings captured media coverage and commentary, and no doubt the dust will not settle until the election takes place in November. 

Prof. John T. Pless

Prof. John T. Pless

By way of contrast, we are gathered here this afternoon not to put forward a man for political office with all the ruckus of a convention. Instead, we are here on this lazy August afternoon because Christ Jesus is putting a man in a spiritual office, the office of preaching, the office of the holy ministry of Word and Sacraments. This is not an office of worldly authority, but it is an authority for it is the office of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. So Dr. Luther says in one of his many sermons of John 20: “This was not Christ’s mandate to His disciples, and He did not send them forth for secular government. Rather, He committed to them the preaching office, and the government over sin, so that the proper definition of the office of preaching is that one should preach the Gospel of Christ and forgive the sins of the crushed, fearful consciences, but retain those of the impenitent and secure, and bind them” (LW 69:383). 

That is the office, Michael, into which you are placed today. The media might yawn at a church service which seems so pale and insignificant when set alongside the commotion of a convention hall, but I would submit to you that what is taking place today will have a significance — yes an eternal significance — long after the names of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are forgotten (and for that matter, even your own name is no longer remembered). The kingdoms of men and nations rise up and pass away, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. It is an everlasting Gospel, this word of the cross, which you, Michael, are ordained, that is, put under orders to proclaim.

The person who is put into the office of president has weighty responsibility on their shoulders. The man who is put into the office of preaching has an even heavier burden to bear. Presidents and prime ministers, kings and emperors are given charge over things temporal. Pastors exercise an office with eternal consequences as they are charged to forgive the sins of the broken and retain the sins of the self-righteous, those who in their fleshly security refuse to repent.

The Rev. Michael Daniels and his wife, Emily

The Rev. Michael Daniels and his wife, Emily

Political candidates recommend themselves for secular offices even as they seek to the approval and recommendation of others. But who can recommend himself for the office of preaching? As he writes II Corinthians, Paul does not commend himself, but Christ Jesus. So also with this young man, this son of Salem congregation, who is ordained today; it is finally not about Michael but about Jesus. 

Certainly, there is much to celebrate and give thanks for this afternoon. It is fitting that the congregation has a godly pride in the fact that one of your own, taught the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism in your midst, nurtured in the fear, love, and trust in God above all things, confirmed in the faith at this altar and fed here with the body and blood of Christ has been led to prepare for the pastoral office. On behalf of the whole church, I speak a word of thanksgiving for the gift that you have given in providing Michael for the work of the ministry. It is good and right that his parents and family who have supported and encourage him at each step along the way, now rejoice that Michael has come to this day. And Michael and Emily are no doubt relieved that the rigors of seminary education are in the rear view mirror and a big bright Texas-size future awaits them. There is eagerness and excitement now to get on to the work which you have been preparing for these past years. That is all well and good, but there is more. There is the one thing which you are to know and never forget. It is this: Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead is alone your sufficiency for preaching office.

The Rev. Chris Hull, senior pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Tomball, TX

The Rev. Chris Hull, senior pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Tomball, TX

Your confidence is finally not that you have a Master of Divinity degree from Concordia Theological Seminary, or that you have the set of skills required for effective ministry, or that Zion Lutheran Church in Tomball, Texas thinks that you will be a good fit to work with Pastor Hull. All of that may be helpful but you have something greater. The Apostle puts it like this: “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” In a few minutes, Michael, you will make some God-sized vows, solemn promises that your teaching will be completely bound to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and that your life will adorn and reflect the doctrine of Christ you are sworn to deliver in season and out of season. These vows should cause you to tremble more than a little. You can finally give a full-throated and unqualified “yes” to these questions because your confidence is toward God through Christ.

That little phrase that Paul uses “through Christ” is the key. Paul’s ministry was not validated by his cleverness or perseverance, by his eloquence or appearance, by his credentials of heritage or education but only through Christ. So it is with you, Michael. You are sufficient for this work only because your sufficiency is from God through Christ. 

He has made you competent to be a minister of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of the new covenant that God would make with His people. The old covenant made at Sinai was shattered by Israel’s sin. There is no salvation there. The Law can only curb and condemn sin; it is powerless to forgive sin. Instead, Jeremiah proclaims a new covenant. That new covenant contains a promise absent in the old covenant. And the promise is this says Jeremiah: “ I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).

You are a minister not of the letter that kills (that’s the Law) but of the Spirit who gives life (that’s the Gospel). Yes, you will preach the Law in all of its sternness to those who are hardened in their unbelief but that preaching will never take their sin away. You will preach the Law only so your hearers might come to hear the promise of the new covenant: “ I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The letter kills, the Spirit gives life. The law never finds righteousness, and it is powerless to create it. The Gospel only finds sinners, but it is the power of God for salvation for it bestows righteousness in the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ.

You, Michael, are today authorized to be an agent and ambassador of the new covenant, on your lips are the words of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world. His words are spirit and life (John 6:63). Your competence and your confidence are in them. Move away from Jesus’ words, start referencing yourself, proclaiming something other than the Law and Gospel or mixing and muddling the two, and then you will have neither competence nor confidence. For this reason, your confession like that of the disciples can only and ever be: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Preach the Law? Yes, for it is necessary to bring secure sinners to repentance. Afflict those who are comfortable in and with their sin. To those who have been so afflicted, preach the comfort of Jesus Christ who atoned for the sins of the world and by His resurrection gives forgiveness of sins to all you will receive it. That is the work of the minister of the new covenant. Today, Michael, it is the work committed to you.

Christ Jesus is sending you on your way today as a minister of the new covenant, not the letter that kills but the Spirit who gives life. You cannot see the ending of the path set before you. The Lord who sends you does not promise that the journey on which you are now embarking will be an easy one. This culture of death into which you are sent despises Christ. The ever-deceiving world, your own stubborn flesh, and the clever devil will always be on the attack. But you have a promise that is guaranteed by the Lord Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead never to die again. This is the lively and life-giving hope which will not disappoint you. In Him your life and work are secure for in this Jesus your sufficiency is from God. He has made you competent to be a minister of the new covenant, not the letter that kills but the Spirit who gives life. You have His promise. That is enough. Amen. 


Prof. John T. Pless is assistant professor of pastoral ministry and missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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.



Standing Bold Upon Firm Ground

— By Gunnar Andersson

Translated by Bror Erickson

At the beginning of this month (June) the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia in synod decided to update the church order to say that only men can be ordained as pastors. The decision reinforced what was already the practice since 1993 when Janis Vanags became archbishop. Seventy-seven percent of the delegation voted for it; only seventy-five perfect was needed for such a change to be made.

The 2016 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meets in the Cathedral of Riga.  Photo via the ELCL .

The 2016 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meets in the Cathedral of Riga. Photo via the ELCL.

It is very encouraging that the church in Latvia has integrity and stands up to pressure from different directions to follow along with the modern agenda. To see that a church dares to go against the stream, towards the word of God and not away, is a sign of hope in our time.

During the same synod a Swede (!), Hans Jönsson, was elected bishop for the Diocese of Liepaja. Because of his faithfulness to the Bible and confession even in the question of holy ministry, Hans could not be a pastor in the Church of Sweden, and this finally led him to Latvia where he was ordained in 2003. Since then he has garnered more and more confidence as dean, as overseer of the Church’s economy, and as chairman of the board of regents for the church’s seminary. His consecration as Bishop takes place on the sixth of August in Riga’s Cathedral.

No church is free of challenges and worries, not even in Latvia. But there is a decisive difference between striving against God’s word and serving with God’s word. The latter has the Lord’s promise with it. For a long time, the Church of Sweden has been on a collision course with the Bible and the confessions and has said no to people the Lord has called to ministry precisely because they are not able to compromise with their consciences that are bound to the word of God. Instead of faithful pastors, many communities have received those that would lead them away from their Savior.

Against this background of the church and congregations in Sweden depriving themselves of the call and gifts of the Lord, it is a joy to note that the church in Latvia values and receives the ministry of those who want to remain faithful to the Lord’s will. Let us pray for the Lord’s blessing and protection for the church in Latvia and her future bishop.

The need in Sweden for genuine evangelical divine service and congregational life is acute. The remaining functional congregations in Sweden are being disposed of at an alarming rate. Many have been anesthetized by continuing to sit under pulpits where God’s word was first diluted before moving on to pure heresy. Congregations and priests, bound to the confessions of the Church of Sweden but independent of the presently politically bound organization are needed in many places, both so that the Christians can be built up and strengthened in faith and trust in Jesus, and so that new converts could be won for him.

Unfortunately, there have been very different opinions both concerning the need and the way forward among groups and individuals within the confessional movement. To judge from the growing number of converts to the Roman Catholic Church many seem to have subsequently given up hope for evangelical Lutheran Church life in Sweden. Perhaps there is reason to question how much the evangelical Lutheran faith really meant for them. Or perhaps the discord within the Church of Sweden become an excuse for them to do what they have always wanted?

Another worry that can be sensed is that we in different areas have been eager to defend our specific spiritual traditions and are not capable or willing to see and affirm that which is good and in other places. Faithfulness to the Bible and confessions is a must, but freedom of expression needs to prevail as it fits.

The most significant initiative to bring forth the great heritage of the Swedish Church is the Missions Province, the college of pastors of which Hans Jönsson is a member. The Province is not big, and it isn’t growing very fast. At the same time, numbers and greatness are not anything the Bible emphasizes as a sign of whether or not we have the Lord’s blessing. However, the Lord asks for faithfulness.

There is every reason for the Mission Province to work boldly, both to nurture the already established congregations, and to establish new congregations. This is especially true in areas where there are few alternatives, organizationally independent of the Swedish Church. The newly established congregations in Borås and Karlskrona are examples of this.

No matter which country one lives in, or how the congregation’s circumstances look, there is great reason for boldness if one stays on the God given firm ground. The Lord remains seated on the throne!

This article was originally published in Kyrka och Folk Nr. 25-26 23 Juni 2016 93 Årg.

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.

The Office and the Sacrament

—Prof. John T. Pless

The practice of licensing laymen to preach and administer the sacraments by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at its convention in Wichita in 1989 is widely recognized as theologically problematic. Attempts to address the so-called “Wichita Amendment” to the Augsburg Confession, as the late Richard John Neuhaus called it, have been diverse and have, in some incidences, created additional and ongoing difficulties of both a doctrinal and practical nature. Sometimes the debates surrounding the office and the attempt to correct Wichita overlook the fundamental unity of the office.

The office is inseparable from the means of grace that it is instituted to serve (cf. Matthew 28:16–20; Mark 16:14–16; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; AC V).

In the view of the New Testament there is but one office which derives its right to existence from the founding will of Christ Himself, namely the *ministerium verbi*, the ’ministry of reconciliation,’ administered by persons bearing varying titles. For practical reasons, it may also, according to the discretion of its incumbents, create special sub-agents for itself. However, titles and sub-divisions are human regulations. The *jus divinum* is confined to the *ministerium verbi*, because it was bestowed on this office, and on this office alone, by the one materially indivisible commission of Christ.[1]

The “ministry of reconciliation” of which the apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18 is singular even as there is one Gospel announcing that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Those placed in this one office are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) making Christ’s own appeal to be reconciled to God. As Elert points out, the nomenclature of the New Testament may vary as the officeholder is identified as evangelist, teacher, elder, overseer, and so forth, but these are not divinely established grades or ranks but ways of speaking of the singular office instituted by Christ for the sake of the Gospel. “For there is only one office of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.”[2]

AC XIV tells how men are put into this office in the way of the *rite vocatus* without which no one is to preach or administer the sacraments. Preaching and administering the sacraments go hand in hand. There is not one office for preaching and another for the administration of the sacraments. The linkage of proclamation and administering the sacraments demonstrates what Elert has identified as the coordination of word and sacrament. Problems come when word and sacraments are split off from each other so that preaching becomes a verbal abstraction or the sacraments become wordless rituals.

The coordination of word and sacraments is expressed in the fact that the one office of preaching has responsibility for the administration of both. The office bearer is entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries of God according to the apostle: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2). The preaching of God’s word both calls to the sacrament of the altar and governs its use.

One person must bear the responsibility for the conduct of this concrete worship. If this is to be orderly and really edify the congregation. Its course dare not be determined by opposing or clashing wills. All other wills must cooperate with and merge in the will of one man. The administration of the sacrament of the altar in particular demands one man, who is responsible for the admission to it. Thus every administration of the Holy Communion also includes an act of church government. Therefore the chief form of worship cannot be executed properly without a man, who as shepherd of the congregation, administers the main worship service.[3]

Writing during World War II, Hermann Sasse makes the case for the unity of word and sacrament:

The office of preaching the Gospel is also the office which baptizes and celebrates the Supper. It is also the office of the keys, whether or not this is reckoned among the sacraments, as in the Augustana, or viewed as a special case of proclamation of the Gospel, as happed later in the Lutheran Church. At all costs it is the office of the administration of *the* means of grace, not only of *one* means of grace. And the Lord who left behind these means of grace for his church is also the Lord who instituted the office of the ministry.[4]

More recently Dorothea Wendebourg:

The ministry is one. It is one because its task, the public proclamation of the gospel in twofold manifestation, preaching and the administration of the sacraments is one.[5]

The role of the pastor cannot be viewed in a reductionist way that only applies to the speaking of the words of consecration; the pastor is also responsible for admission/distribution. The practice of having the pastor speak the words of consecration and then have vicars, deacons, or lay persons distribute the sacrament at another time or place cannot be defended on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions.[6] If a layman assists in the distribution in the Divine Service, he should do so by serving the Lord’s blood as the pastor admits to the altar with the administration of the Lord’s body. But it should be recognized that the practice of laymen assisting with the distribution is relatively recent in American Lutheranism and is not known in some areas of the Lutheran world, Madagascar, for example.[7]

The apostolic exhortation for self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:27) does not relieve the pastor of his responsibility as a steward of the mysteries of God (see 1 Corinthians 4:1–2). Also see AC XXIV: “Chrysostom says that the priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to Communion and keeping others away” (AC XXIV:36, Kolb-Wengert, 71). Nor can the pastor hand this responsibility off to others; it belongs to the nature of his office as overseer. Again Sasse:

The *ministerium ecclesasticum* may also be unburdened of peripheral tasks through the establishment of new offices. That happened already in the ancient church through the creation of the diaconate, or in more recent times by the creation of the office of church counselor, church elder [*Kirchenvorsteher*, *Kirchenältesten*], or whatever else those who lead the congregation may be called. The essence of the *ministerium ecclesiasticum* is in no way impinged upon by these offices. Preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments belong neither to the deacons nor to him whom we today call the presbyter. The former have the work of love and caring for the poor. The latter has the duty of helping in the administration of the parish. According to Lutheran doctrine, they do not have a part in church government [*Kirchenregiment*]. For Luther and with him the confessions of our church (AC XIV and XXVIII) mean by church government the exercise of the functions peculiar to the office of the ministry: ‘an authority and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to dispense and administer the Sacraments’[AC XXVIII:5].[8]

The suggestion of the “Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Task Force” that perhaps the Synod establish an “ordained diaconate” where “perhaps they (the ordained deacons) could preach and baptize but not consecrate the elements” (Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures 2013, 417) splits apart what the Lord has joined together in the one, divinely instituted office. It amounts to attempting to fix one problem (laymen functioning as pastors) by creating another. A more careful solution is needed for which Lutheran theology has the resources.

Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

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

  1. Werner Elert, The Christian Faith, 264.  ↩
  2. Edmund Schlink, The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, 230.  ↩
  3. Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, 237.  ↩
  4. Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II: 1941–1976, 128.  ↩
  5. D. Wendebourg, “The Ministry and Ministries” Lutheran Quarterly XV (Autumn 2001), 139.  ↩
  6. Here see, Roland F. Ziegler, “Should Lutherans Reserve the Consecrated Elements for the Communion of the Sick?" Concordia Theological Quarterly (April 2003), 131–147.  ↩
  7. See “Administration, Not Presidency” in Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage by Oliver K. Olson, 36–39.  ↩
  8. Sasse, The Lonely Way Volume II:1941–1976, 128–129.  ↩