Monthly Archives: August 2011

Accountability vs. “The Mutual Consolation of the Brethren”

Amongst Evangelicals, it is common to have an “accountability partner” or an “accountability group”.  The well-meaning goal of this is in light of the fact that we are sinful, to find a person or group who can help us in the sins that we especially tend to commit.  There is a danger in this though.  Such “partners” and “groups” have at their goal a law oriented remedy.  While some sort of “improvement” may be made in behavior, the inevitable results are one of the following:  despair over not being able to kick the sin or a false sense of self-righteousness where sin is disregarded.  Bonhoeffer talks about the latter in Life Together and calls this the “pious fellowship”:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.

There is another way.  A way which does not end in despair or hypocrisy: Luther called it the “mutual consolation of the brethren”.  Such a relationship puts the Gospel at its center.  It does this through confession and absolution.  This has two parts:  first there is contrition, that is repenting of one’s sin; and the second is absolution, that is the speaking of forgiveness to another.  When forgiveness is the goal and end not only do we deal with one another honestly as sinner to sinner under the grace and forgiveness of Christ, but we also are given the very thing (the Gospel) which produces the good Fruit of the Spirit which walks according to the Holy Will of God.

Some further reading:

1 Confession in the churches is not abolished among us. The body of the Lord is not usually given to those who have not been examined [1 Corinthians 11:27–28] and absolved. 2 The people are very carefully taught about faith in the Absolution. Before, there was profound silence about faith. 3 Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command. 4 The Power of the Keys [Matthew 16:19] is set forth in its beauty. They are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences and that God requires faith to believe such Absolution as a voice sounding from heaven [e.g., John 12:28–30]. They are taught that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins. – Article XXV of the Augsburg Confession

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain, 50 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).


13 Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the confidential confession that is only made before a single brother. If something particular weighs upon us or troubles us, something with which we keep torturing ourselves and can find no rest, and we do not find our faith to be strong enough to cope with it, then this private form of confession gives us the opportunity of laying the matter before some brother. We may receive counsel, comfort, and strength when and however often we wish. 14 That we should do this is not included in any divine command, as are the other two kinds of confession. Rather, it is offered to everyone who may need it, as an opportunity to be used by him as his need requires. The origin and establishment of private Confession lies in the fact that Christ Himself placed His Absolution into the hands of His Christian people with the command that they should absolve one another of their sins [Ephesians 4:32]. So any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins…

32 When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian. If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to Confession. For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst. They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted deer, burning in the heat with thirst, 33 “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God.” In other words, as a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, Absolution, the Sacrament, and so forth. 34 See, that would be teaching right about Confession, and people could be given such a desire and love for it that they would come and run after us for it, more than we would like. Let the papists plague and torment themselves and others who pass up the treasure and exclude themselves from it. 35 Let us, however, lift our hands in praise and thanksgiving to God [1 Timothy 2:8] for having graciously brought us to this our understanding of Confession.

– Luther’s Exhortation to Confession

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain, 651 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

Growth and Success in the Church

All too often, as a pastor of a small congregation, I hear the drumbeat:  “we gotta grow”.  Tied to this is that if we are not at some arbitrary number we are not successful.  Of course we get this idea from big mega churches and televangelists, but if we look to Scripture we’d be hard pressed to come up with any kind of “theology of growth and success”.  In fact if we look to Jesus’ ministry (which I’m not convinced is intended to be a model for how Church looks), we see him going from feeding 5000 men plus women and children (so possibly up to 10,000 people) to 12 in the matter of 1 day.

Yet I would argue that if you look at the whole chapter of John 6, you will actually find what it really means for the church to grow and to be successful:  that the Word of God is proclaimed and that disciples believe.

Really, if we want to talk about “growth” we should not start with some obsession with how many butts can fill seats (and subsequently how many of those butts have fat wallets to dole out money), instead we should be concerned with hearing, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Word of God.  This is the food which sustains and grows the Church.

So what about success?  Again, if we look to the numbers game, we should just give up now, as we have been promised people will flock to hear what their itching ears want to hear.  Paul describes success in the Church in his inspired instruction to Pastor Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

So are you at a congregation and want to grow and be successful?  Gladly hear the Word of God.  Encourage your pastor to preach and teach not what your itching ears want to hear, but what the Word of God says.  Learn from it.  Repent and receive absolution.

Will the numbers come?  Maybe… maybe they will get worse.  Frankly, that’s up to the Lord.  If your congregation is faithful, it is a growing and successful congregation.

Edit:  It turns out I’m not the only one saying this:  Check out this article from the White Horse Inn –

Closing thoughts on the Commemoration of Hermann Sasse

One of the most memorable times in my Seminary career was my Tuesday nights during my final year.  After Intramurals several students would gather at the house of Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn and discuss an essay or letter written by Hermann Sasse.  While he was very well spoken, Sasse had a certain earthiness to him that really spoke to the very ministry which we were preparing for.  In fact, it was because of Dr. Feuerhahn and Sasse that I really came to love studying historical theology.  A wise person once said “If one does not learn the lessons of the past they are bound to repeat it.”  Or as an even wiser man once said by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Solomon in Ecclesiastes).

We would be well advised to take heed of the lessons learned from Sasse’s scholarship.  Many of the struggles of his day, from combating apathy towards the Word of God and the Sacraments, to speaking out about violence to humanity, to his concern for continued eccumenical dialog in a fractured Church are ones that we face to this day.

Sasse, Dr. Feuerhahn, and my favorite hymn is “Lord Jesus Christ, with Us Abide”:

Sasse Quote – Baptism and the Resurrection

This will be the final quote of the day from the sainted Pastor Hermann Sasse.  I hope the quotes today I have provided have given insight, provoked some thought, and been beneficial.

Your resurrection began when you were baptized.  “We were buried therefore with Him [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the gloy of the Father, we too migh walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  With Christ you died at that time, with Him you were buried, with Him you shall rise.  With Him, for you have been made a member of His body.  That is the deep secret of the fellowship of the saints.  So we, “though many, are one body… For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).  And again: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).  That is certainly a fellowship which the world does not know and can never understand.  It is the imperishable communion of saints.

-Herman Sasse, “The Church Lives:  A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47 for the First Sunday After Trinity” (June 27, 1943), We Confess:  The Church, p.134

Sasse Quote – Error in practice introduces error in doctrine

The rule lex orandi lex credendi [the rule of prayer is the rule of belief… in other words, what one practices shapes one’s belief and vice versa] appears to be the way things go even more so with false doctrines.  It was along the path of liturgical development that the worst heresies made their way into the church.  Consider the doctrines which came in the with the cult [worship] of saints and of Mary.  In Luke 1:28, the Ave Maria is the greeting which the angel gives Mary.  This greeting from heaven acclaims her as the mother of our Redeemer, the mother of God.  Thus she is confessed also in evangelical [Lutheran] doctrine, for her Son is no less than truly God.  When this greeting from heaven becomes an invocation of her on earth, we may observe the cult of Mary.  Even though liturgy may indeed have its inherent laws of essence and form, yet it does not produce its doctrinal content out of itself.  This it receives from what God has revealed.  Whatever the liturgy says is subject always to the judgment of the norma normans [ “ultimate/norming norm”] of Holy Scripture.  The assertion that something could be liturgically right and doctrinally wrong may indeed be true of the ancient mystery religions, but never of the Christian liturgy.

– Hermann Sasse, “The Lord’s Supper in the Catholic Mass” (1941), The Lonely Way, Volume II, p. 25

Sasse Quote – Apostolicity of doctrine

The doctrine of the Roman Church is no longer apostolic.  Even in 1854 and 1870 it was still possible to claim to be reaching back to relatively old traditions, or to what were regarded as such.  Passages of Scripture could be interpreted so as to be persuasive for faithful Catholics.  With the dogma of 1950 [on the Assumption of Mary] this is at an end.  The Assumption of Mary is a late legend, and only “conclusion theology” can produce Mary as mediatrix of all graces and coredemptrix.

At work here has been the “theory of development.”  This was proposed by J. H. Newman and has been avidly put to use.  By the way, one can find it already in [Johann] Möhler.  This theory, which is supposed to justify the modern dogmas, is the product of Romanticism and of the 19th century as a whole (the obvious parallels are Darwin and Marx).  The picture is that of a seed.  At the beginning of the church all its doctrines were contained within the seed, and these then unfolded from century to century.  Was not this the case with the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Person of the God-man?

To be sure, the understanding of these doctrines progressed through generations.  They were, however, already there from the beginning in the apostolic witness [emphasis mine].  The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ is not a creature but the eternal Logos.  The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ, ture God and true man, is one Person.  What unfolds in the church is the ever deeper understanding of the apostolic words.  But nothing can unfold if it is not there in the apostolic words.

-Hermann Sasse, “Apostolic Succession” Letters to Lutheran Pastors No. 41 (1956), We Confess:  The Church, p. 89

Sasse Quote – On Alleged Marian Revelations

I am not a Catholic, but a simple Lutheran who reads and meditates daily on the Bible and Luther’s Catechism. As such I have so much love and respect for the mother of my Lord that I cannot believe that she, the humble handmaiden of the Lord who became the ‘Theotokos’, the Mother of God, could ever give such messages. The mouth who spoke the Magnificat could not say, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’, to confirm the dogma of Pius IX. Still less could she say what the Madonna of Fatima said, referring to the punishments of God in World War I:

In order to stop that I shall come to ask for the consecration of the world to my Immaculate Heart…The outlook is gloomy. But there is a ray of hope: My immaculate heart will triumph.

One is reminded of the messages from beyond allegedly given through a spiritistic medium by great men of history whose mind seems to have deteriorated in the world of the spirits. Whatever that holy occultism of Lourdes and Fatima may mean – in both cases politics were involved, the politics of the Second Empire in France, and the politics of Portugal and the Pyrenean peninsula and even of European Catholicism as a whole since 1917 – in any case these revelations were not divine. Not the true and living God has spoken in these events, but human beings or, what is still worse, superhuman minds through the mouths of weak children.

From Holy Church or Holy Writ? The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation (Sydney, IVF Fellowship (Australia) 1967).