Why the Third Article?

Perhaps you are wondering if my affinity for the explanation of Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed (from the last few posts), along with my claim that it can give clarity for the church’s mission, simply stems from a narrow minded view of theology and a personal preference for nostalgic sixteenth century confessional dogma.

It is true, at least in part, that my preference comes from it being a Lutheran doctrine. However, it is one that I believe gives a simple clarity for a very confusing postmodern time. And, interestingly enough, it is an article of faith that was forged out of a similarly confusing time. Hence, there is a profound clarity and distinct direction that it gives, not only to the church of Luther’s day, but for the church of our day as well.

When we compare the conditions of the church during Luther’s time to the state of the North American church today, some interesting commonalities begin to come clear. In the preface to his Small Catechism Martin Luther writes:

The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld!  The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.  Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! 

Thus, out of necessity Luther was compelled to design and create a simple and clear tool for instructing people in the faith, and so the Small Catechism was born. As Luther recognized action was needed, so action was taken.

Today, some would argue that the church, especially the church in North America, is suffering a similar crisis. Stanly Hauerwas and William Willimon began calling attention to this denomination-spanning crisis in 1989 with their seminal work Resident Aliens. Here they described the fall of the church noting that, “What we call ‘church’ is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another ‘helping institution’ to gratify further their individual desires.”

David Wells resolutely began following suit in 1993 through 2008, citing the maladies of North American evangelicals in no less than five scholarly works. Laboring over the culture and condition of the evangelical church, he laments its ultimate and interminable decline. From his 2005 work Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World:

The indicators of decline and weakness, I believe, are already beginning to appear, though as so often happens to those who see themselves as still in the flush of success, these indicators seem not to be there. I can now only attempt to illustrate my judgment in one particular area, that of the new ways of “doing church,” though my concern here is obviously selective. What I shall argue is that in this area, the lure of success is the very means by which success is actually disappearing and, in the next generation, we will see the bitter fruit appearing more evidently than we can see it now. And the irony which today is almost completely lost on evangelicals is that in this new quest, this new way of “doing church,” those who once stood aloof from the older liberalism are now unwittingly producing a close cousin to it.  By the time this becomes so evident that it will be incontrovertible, it will be too late.

It is a sad prediction, but one that must be addressed, not just for evangelicals, but for all who follow the “new ways of doing church.”

But even before these voices were put into print, Gerhard Forde was calling Lutherans to task. In a 1987 article entitled, “Radical Lutheranism,” he observed that Lutherans were suffering from an “identity crisis,” even blatantly chiding that Lutherans “seem to be looking for someone to sell out to.”

He ultimately identifies the malady facing Lutherans to be a crisis of gospel proclamation. “The continuing crisis for anyone who is grasped by that radical gospel comes both from the fact that the world and its church cannot do other than resist and attack that gospel (as a matter of self-defense), and from the fact they cannot escape the constant temptation to make compromises which disguise or blunt the sharp edges of its radicality.”

In other words, what had plagued the church of Luther’s day has again returned, though now it is colored with a few more subtleties. Churches today certainly have preaching, training and theology for pastors, but, as Forde asserts, it is sadly, too often, of the compromising kind.

With a voice of clairvoyance Forde directs us back to the purity of the Gospel. “If Lutheranism is to recover a sense of its identity and mission today, it must begin to consider what it means to preach the gospel in radical fashion.”  This is why, I claim, an intentional return to the simplicity and clarity of Lutheran doctrine as expressed in the Explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed remains altogether desirable.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be the 21st century Lutheran church that desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


2 responses to “Why the Third Article?

  1. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Hi, Pastor Woodford!

    Indeed, the radical Gospel proclamation is in critically short supply in the North American church. I would argue that there is a problem even with that diagnosis. What is in critically short supply that makes the Gospel proclamation in such a critically short supply is the proper preaching of the Law in its severity. In speaking with a Baptist the other day, she remarked that there is no “fire and brimstone” preaching anymore. Lutheran churches suffer from the same malady. Remembering back to my childhood and my pastor’s preaching, there was the Law in all its terror being proclaimed.

    Go back further to the sermons of Luther and you’ll see even more of it. Every year on Good Friday, I read a portion of Luther’s Good Friday sermon of a year I can’t remember. This is the Law in all its condemning fury. Read the Church Fathers and you get the same thing.

    What has come to be proclaimed instead of the severity of the Law is more along the lines of Law Lite – a third less condemning than regular Law and only half the curses! But, if a different Law is proclaimed (you’re not reaching your full potential or something like it), then the radical Gospel will not be proclaimed either. Instead, we get a Jesus who is our buddy and really kind of stays away until we really need help.

    God bless!

    • Pastor Jennings,

      I appreciate your thoughts. And I think you are correct. Unfortunately, one of the challenges facing us today comes in distinguishing authentic Law/Gospel proclamation from accommodation to culture or merely addressing felt needs. It is not that I think one can’t tactfully address the notion of felt needs, or be culturally aware, but my argument is that they must be cast in their proper light and located appropriately, cast against the backdrop of the reality revealed by the Scriptures (we are dead in our trespasses and sins), and allowed to be fully eradicated in the face of the Gospel, lest, as you note, we simply get Law Lite and its corresponding Gospel Lite. Indeed, Law/Gospel preaching continues to be a high art. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Rev. Woodford

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