From Lecture 32 (and Thesis XX), I have quoted more than usual. It kind of falls into two parts; a curiously Baptistic denial of “visible church” in favor of “invisible”, and an argument that although the Lutheran church may be the only church with pure doctrine, it is not the alone-saving church. But instead of dividing the material into two weeks, I press toward the mark… just gotta get to week 39!
In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.
It seems strange, indeed, that after such a long time during which Rationalism and the greatest religious indifference were prevalent, men should have hit upon the doctrine that the visible Lutheran Church is the Church κατ᾽ ἑξοχήν [par excellence] outside of which there is no salvation. However, although this seems to be incomprehensible on first blush, it is easily explained by the prolific nature of error. The mother of the awful error which we are studying is the doctrine that the Church is a visible institute which Christ has established on earth, differing in no way from a religious state.
The apostle calls the Church the body of Christ. This has prompted many even of the most faithful Lutherans to say that, since a body is visible, the Church, too, must be visible. But that is an abominable piece of exegesis. The point of comparison (tertium comparationis) in the aforementioned phrase is not the visibility of the Church, but that, instead of being composed of many dead instruments, it is a vital organism of members in whom one faith and one energy of faith is pulsating. This proves beyond contradiction that the Church is not visible, but invisible. Only he is a member of the Church who experiences the constant outflowing of energy from Christ, the Head of the Church.
The objection is raised that Christ compares the Church to a field in which wheat and tares are growing. But the objection is owing to a wrong interpretation of the parable. Christ has given us the key that unlocks its meaning. He does not say: “The field is My kingdom.” In that case the Church would be a society composed of good and evil members. But He says: “The field is the world.” Matt 13, 38. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession emphasizes this fact. The Savior likens His Church to a field in which tares grow together with the wheat; to a net in which good and bad fishes are caught; to a marriage feast to which foolish virgins come with others; and to which, according to another parable, one gained entrance who is not dressed in the proper wedding garment. By means of all these parables Christ does not mean to describe the essence of the Church, but the outward form in which it appears in this world and its lot among the men of this world: although it is composed only of good sheep, only of regenerate persons, still it never presents itself in the form of a congregation that is made up of none but true Christians. In its visible form the Church can never purge itself of hypocrites and ungodly persons, who find their way into it. Not until its consummation in the life eternal will the Church appear triumphant, entirely purified, and without blemish, separated from those who were not honestly and sincerely joined to it, but only sought their own secular interest in an outward union with the Church. While hypocrites and sham Christians profess Christ with their lips, their heart is far from him. They are serving their carnal lusts and not the Lord alone. In Luke 14, 26 the Lord says: “If any man come to Me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” In this passage Christ passes judgement on all who do not want to renounce what they have. But not until all are gathered before the judgment-seat of Christ will these people become known as hypocrites. We may see people going to church, but we cannot see whether they belong to the Church. It is impossible to declare regarding individuals that they are true members of the Church. No man, but only God, knows whether thy are. To the eyes of God alone the Church is visible; to the eyes of men it is invisible.
Now, the Lutheran Church, as a visible community, is called a “church” in a synecdochical sense. It is, therefore, an awful mistake to claim that men can be saved only in the Lutheran Church. No one must be induced to join the Lutheran Church because he thinks that only in that way he can get into the Church of God. There are still Christians in the Reformed Church, among the Methodists, yea, among the papists. We have this precious promise in Is. 55, 11: “My Word shall not return unto Me void.” Wherever the Word of God is proclaimed and confessed or even recited during the service, the Lord is gathering a people for Himself. The Roman Church, for instance, still confesses that Christ is the Son of God and that He died on the cross to redeem the world. That is truth sufficient to bring a man to the knowledge of salvation. Whoever denies this fact is forced to deny also that there are Christians in some Lutheran communities in which errors have cropped out. But there are always some children of God in these communities because they have the Word of God, which is always bearing fruit in converting some souls to God.
From the fact that men may be saved in all the sects and that in all sectarian churches there are children of God, it by no means follows that one can remain in communion with a sect. Many people cannot comprehend this; they imagine it is an utterly unionistic principle to hold that a person can be saved in any of the sects. But it is true, and the reason is that we are saved by faith, which some members of sectarian churches may have. However, if I perceive the error of my heretical community and do not forsake it, I shall be lost because, though seeing the error, I would not abandon it.
Let me show you that this is indeed the doctrine of our Church. In the Preface to the Book of Concord, we read, “it is in no way our design and purpose to condemn those men who err from a certain simplicity of mind, but are not blasphemers against the truth of the heavenly doctrine, much less, indeed, entire churches, which are either under the Roman Empire of the German Nation or elsewhere; nay, rather has it been our intention and disposition in this manner openly to censure and condemn only the fanatical opinions and their obstinate and blasphemous teachers (which, we judge, should in no way be tolerated in our dominions, churches, and schools). … For we have no doubt whatever that even in those churches which have hitherto not agreed with us in all things many godly and by no means wicked men are found who follow their own simplicity, and do not understand aright the matter itself, but in no way approve of the blasphemies which are cast forth against the Holy Supper.
You may cite this fine passage if you meet with such as reproachingly say that the Lutheran Church claims to be the alone-saving Church. True, the Formula of Concord has condemned the doctrine of the Reformed, but this condemnation does not apply to those who err in the simplicity of their hearts, but only to obstinate false teachers and blasphemers.
The preface continues: “Wherefore, by this writing of ours we testify in the sight of Almighty God and the entire Church that it has never been our purpose, by means of this godly formula for union to create trouble or danger to the godly who to-day are suffering persecution.” The Lutheran confessors here refer to a rumor that was being spread by the Calvinists that the Lutherans in Germany would imitate the Romanists in France and institute a St. Bartholomew’s night of their own. The Lutherans asseverate [assert] in this passage that they are not planning to persecute anybody. The blood of the Huguenots will be only on papists’ hands. In general, the Lutherans condemn none but those who condemn themselves by resisting the known truth.
To this day the papists seek to keep the people with their Church by telling them: “You know that we are the true Church. No matter what the Church teaches, if you want to be a true disciple of Christ, you must hear the Church. If the Pope decrees that he is infallible, or that Mary was conceived without sin, or that the saints must be adored, you must accept these dogmas. You may not consult your reason. The true Church has set up these dogmas, and it cannot err. If you fall away from the Roman Catholic Church, you fall away from the true Church.” This is the bait with which they hook the people.
Luther [writes]: “When I had disproved all the arguments against me with Scripture and thus overcome them, I scarcely succeeded, by the grace of Christ, in overcoming, with great anxiety, trouble, and labor, this one final argument, that I must hear the Church. For with all my heart I was much more in earnest and much more reverent in regarding the Pope’s Church as the true Church than these abominable and blasphemous perverters, who are now opposing me boastfully with the Pope’s Church. If I had despised the Pope as those despise him nowadays who are praising him highly with their lips, I should have been afraid to see the earth open and devour me as it did Korah and his mob.”
Luther had already discovered the untenableness of nearly every papistic teaching, except this one point, which, he says, troubled him greatly at the beginning and kept him from becoming really assured of the truth and being cheerful. The papists themselves cooked the soup which they had to eat later. God’s hour had come for revealing the Antichrist.
May God keep you from becoming entangled with this false teaching concerning the Church, viz., that the Lutheran Church is the true visible Church of Jesus Christ in the sense that one can be saved only in this Church! The Lutheran Church is indeed the true visible Church; however, only in this sense, that it has the pure, unadulterated truth. As soon as you add the qualification “alone-saving” to the Lutheran Church, you detract from the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and confound Law and Gospel. May God keep you from this error for the sake of your own soul and those that will be entrusted to your care!