With the words of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed there is confessed the belief in the “Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” There are five profound realities created by the one Holy Spirit. Each element brings clarity to the mission of God—what it is, what it gives, how it will be accomplished, and who will do it. In his Small Catechism Luther offers further explanation:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers. On the Last Day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life.
In short, Luther details the missio Dei—the mission of God. God the Holy Spirit begins it all through the living voice of the Gospel. In the midst of human living, mouths speak the Word and unbelievers are “called” into believers—adult, child, worker, and foreigner. Then, again by the Gospel, the Holy Spirit “gathers” these variously vocationed believers into a specific, identifiable community called the Christian church and the communion of saints—or as Luther translates in the Large Catechism, “the community of saints.” Through this Christian church, God the Holy Spirit “daily” and “abundantly” forgives sins—this too by the Gospel.
This goes on day by day, week after week, year after year. The life of believers—the community of saints—center on the Gospel in the life of the sinners, even up to the Last Day, where dead bodies are raised and “all believers in Christ” are given “eternal life.”
This is the missio Dei, the Gospel of Christ, at work in the lives of sinners. As Luther says, “This is most certainly true.” And it is a truth worth considering in greater detail, especially for the church of our age. Using it as a lens, or in this case as bifocals, to reexamine the life of the present North American church, can provide a needed foundation for addressing the present confusion in the church, as well as a provide clarity for the mission of the North American Church.
With his explanation Luther provides believers the joy of giving credit where credit is due. Namely, it is the Holy Spirit who works faith and this He does by nothing other than “calling through the Gospel.” No self help. No attitude adjustments. No personal decisions. Faith in Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word of God, irrespective of the particular mouth being employed to speak it.
Here, Luther locates the Holy Spirit where the Holy Spirit wants to be found, in the Word of God—spoken and sacramental. No emotions. No visions. No nebulous force floating in the air. Rather, the Holy Spirit blows fiercely and mightily through the living voice of the Gospel.
Now, I know some may object and say; This all seems so abstract, and it doesn’t consider the real world—people’s lives, their afflictions, their peculiarities, their hurts, their weaknesses, not to mention their questions, their context, or their feelings. It just sounds too formal, too sophisticated, and too sterile. Where’s the love in it?
True, as noted in a previous post, people who witness to others and come across as unloving theological snobs can certainly do a disservice and provide a bad impression of Christians (Lutheran or otherwise). However, as also noted in a previous post, that one is a theological snob is not the fault of their theology as much as it is the fault of their sinfulness. Lutheran theology simply clarifies our belief and then invites us to act and love accordingly.
Thus, my contention is that viewing the mission of the church through the lens of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed reveals a powerful way to engage postmodern people. To “believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” is to recognize and confess the power of the external Word of God—that “living voice of the Gospel.”
In other words, it means that one engages the people of the world with this belief through the only way in which this belief is possible—by caring enough about others to preach, teach, proclaim, confess, and share the truth of the Word in their lives, where they are at, as we love them in the name of Jesus. And, to be sure, this is to be done, as Paul encourages the Colossians, with all “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another” (Colossians 3:12-13).
The aim is to keep the power of the Word central and let it do what it does best, both to you (dear reader) and to the one to whom you may be witnessing. Thus, looking through the Third Article bifocals helps to refocus (or perhaps, in some cases, to clarify or correct) the mission of the Holy Christian Church.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).