Historically, Lutherans have understood the primary task of the church to be Gospel proclamation. Yes, seeking and saving the lost is also central, but that cannot be done without the proclaiming of the Gospel.
With the recent emphasis and debates about the church’s duty to “fulfill” the Great Commission, where it is thought that the priority must therefore be to develop so-called “missional churches,” a shift in understanding the mission of the Holy Christian Church has developed—a shift in what the church is and what the church does. Often the message of the church has now become “go and tell,” while the redemptive work of Christ upon his cross seems to have gone out of focus.
Perhaps some don’t see the concern. Perhaps some are even asking, “Are you saying we should not seek out the lost?” Be assured this is NOT what I am saying. Rather, the primary task of the church must be made clear so that all other things fall into place.
In short, the point is that its not the seeking that saves, but the Gospel that saves. Thus, lest a blurring of the mission of the Holy Christian Church occurs, proclaiming the Gospel must lead the church in the seeking of the lost. Consequently, the message must precede and come in front of those seeking the lost. “For” as Luther says about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Large Catechism, “you nor I could ever know anything about Christ, or believe in him and receive him as Lord, unless [he was] offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore, carriers of the message cannot actually carry it unless they have received it themselves and are certain of what it is. This is why Article VII of the Augsburg Confession simply states: “The Church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.”
Here the “assembly of saints” is identified as the veritable body of believers. Not limited to one space or one building, but most easily identified when they have gathered around Word and Sacrament—what Lutherans call “the marks” of the Holy Christian Church. To be sure, there is a “going and telling,” but that flows out of the “gathering” around Word and sacrament.
In this “gathering” each member shares in its blessings and participates in its life. Again, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, “Of this community I also am a part and a member, a participant and co-partner in all the blessings it possesses. I was brought into it by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into it through the fact that I have heard and still hear God’s Word, which is the beginning point for entering it.”
There is great beauty in understanding the church so simply. Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger make this especially clear in their book, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for making disciples: “Many of our churches have become cluttered. So cluttered that people have a difficult time encountering the simple and powerful message of Christ. So cluttered that many people are busy doing church instead of being the church.” It is a point that should make the church all the more bold in proclaiming the pure Gospel and all the more eager to keep the purpose of the church simple and undeniably clear (not to mention the role of vocations).
On this Luther speaks plainly in the Smalcald Articles: “God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is: holy believers and ‘little sheep’ who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” Like my six-year-old sister Heidi said, if “it doesn’t have Jesus,” it’s out (see my previous post).
Luther’s point was that those seven-year-olds (or even six-year-olds) who were being raised in the faith would most certainly know this mark of the church. If only this were true for all seven-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds today. Regardless, what the church has to say remains what it has always said—the clear, unadulterated Word of Christ.
In his Concordia Journal article, “A Two dimensional Understanding of the Church for the Twenty-First Century,” Charles Arand puts it this way, “The Word in all of its forms (oral, written, sacramental) becomes the divinely instituted marks that identify those who come into contact with the Word and to whom are given the gift of salvation (even if it does not identify those who actually receive that gift by faith). Because the Word creates faith, Word and sacrament are not only the primary marks of the church (according to Ap VII, 7) they are the infallible marks of the church!” That seven-year-olds and seventy-year-olds in North America today do not know them only solidifies our desire, with God’s desire, to gossip to them the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Thus, for those who desire to take up their cross and follow Jesus Christ, it means we go where He goes, love as He loves, and speak when He speaks. It means we follow Jesus to seven-year-olds and to seventy-year-olds. It means we follow Him to the poor, the meek, the destitute, the lonely, the burdened, the sick, to sinners, to the cross and to the empty tomb, so that we might speak His word of love and forgiveness—so that we might proclaim the Gospel, even as it is proclaimed to us! This is, and always has been, the mission of the Lutheran church.
As always, this blog aims to foster collegial, honest, and candid dialogue about Lutheran theology and the mission of the Holy Christian Church in the 21st century. For those who are willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.