“Provoked to Profession of the Church”
“I believe in the . . . holy catholic church.” Lutherans still confess these words in the Apostles’ Creed. While some “believers” think they can do without the Church, we recognize and confess the significance of the community of faith. There are no “Lutherans on the loose.” If you are Lutheran, you additionally profess (from the Latin: pro- before + fatēri to acknowledge = “acknowledge before others”) the Church, by being a real and active part of a specific and concrete congregation.
The Church is biblical. It is what is demonstrated in the Scriptures. The Lord Jesus calls people together in the gospels (cf., Lk. 6:13). The Evangelist Luke describes the fellowship of believers for sharing, support, prayer, and worship in Acts (2:44-47). The Apostle Paul addresses his letters to tangible expressions of the Church by writing to congregations, such as those in Corinth or Rome. Even when Paul writes to individuals, like Timothy or Philemon, he writes to them as members of communities of faith. It is the understanding and example throughout the Holy Bible that people, true believers, live out their faith in congregations.
In the sixteenth century, the Lutheran reformers defined how we understand the Church. The German text of the Augsburg Confession asserts that the Church “is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel” (C.A. VII). Notice the three things that constitute the Church. Of course we are well aware of the first two, “Word and Sacraments,” as we surely learned about them in Confirmation classes. The Gospel rightly preached is the message that “we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith” (C.A. IV). Historically, the Sacraments “administered according to the gospel” meant infant baptism, and communion in both kinds (i.e., bread and wine). But, do not miss the third thing that constitutes the Church, namely, “the assembly of all believers,” the gathering together of real people around the specific Word proclaimed and the concrete Sacraments administered.
The Church is made real when we assemble in congregations for worship, bringing our “prayer, praise, and thanksgiving” to God, being supported in our fellowship, and receiving from God the means of grace in Word and Sacraments. This constituting of the Church in the gathering of congregations for worship is important enough that God has decreed it in the Ten Commandments. Above, we heard Luther’s explanation of the right use of God’s name in the Second Commandment. The Third Commandment tells us that we need the Church every seven days, that is, the sabbath day that we are commanded to “remember” happens every seven days. [And lest someone argue that “to remember” is merely to think about something, one authoritative Hebrew dictionary indicates that the meaning of zakar includes “inward mental acts accompanied by appropriate external acts” (TWOT #551).] And Luther’s explanation of that commandment reminds us to keep God’s Word “holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
It seems unfortunate that only a few decades after our Lord’s glorious Resurrection, the writer of the book of Hebrews had to remind those who were “neglecting to meet together” to join the assembly for worship. We read, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:23-25). Or perhaps, by the providence of God, these words were written for us today.
Because you, fellow Lutheran, believe in the Church, may you be provoked and encouraged in this Lenten season to be the Church, gathering to receive from the God who never wearies of giving, the means of grace through the proclamation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yours in Christ,