by Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr.
Which is more important? Doctrine or mission?
For Lutherans, that’s like asking whether a coin can have a “heads” without a “tails.” Yet, “Pastor A” and his congregation are all about outreach but feel a concern for doctrine impedes their efforts. “Pastor B,” on the other hand, becomes so focused on correct teaching he fails to lead his people in outreach. Pure doctrine is fine, says Pastor A, but never at the expense of people. Meanwhile, Pastor B is not opposed to outreach, though his shrinking congregation is surrounded by unbelievers. Do you agree both Pastor A and Pastor B have something to learn? Our Lutheran confession must move us into the mission. These two must be one: doctrine and outreach. Neither is complete without the other.
Here we are not talking about confession of sin, but that our church identifies itself by specific statements of faith. The Bible is the Word of God and Christ the only Savior of the world. We trust we are forgiven and find favor with God solely by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith in Christ and His death and resurrection for us. This central teaching of the Bible is explained in our Lutheran Symbols, or Confessions (for example, Luther’s Catechisms and the Augsburg Confession, all in the Book of Concord). Just as every U.S. ship flies the U.S. flag to identify itself, our Confessions, our Symbols, are our theological flag, identifying us as Lutherans. These do not add to the Bible but help us keep the central message of the Bible clear: salvation in Christ alone.
God’s mission begins in the heart of the Father who created all things by His Word. The Father sends that Word in the person of His Son, sends Him into our flesh to give Himself into death that we might have life. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit through the Word of God proclaimed to sinners. Jesus pours out His Spirit on His disciples and His Church so that they (we!) proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations (Luke 24:47). Disciples make more disciples by baptizing and by teaching all He has commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). Christ sends preachers to proclaim His Word because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17 ESV). He commissions the baptized to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). All this the Father gives the Son when He sends Him “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) because God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God’s mission and our confession show that any Lutheran congregation focused inward on itself has, in reality, forgotten what it means to be Lutheran. The Lutheran Confessions are focused outward, not inward. Over and over they repeat the phrase, “Our churches teach . . .” and “We believe, teach, and confess . . .” “We condemn” the contrary doctrine. These are dynamic, active, seeking words. Our church is a witnessing, proclaiming church.
“[T]he forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world” (Smalcald Articles III 4, italics added). “In short, the whole Gospel and all the offices of Christianity belong here, which also must be “preached and taught without ceasing” (Large
Catechism II, italics added).
The heart and core of our biblical (Lutheran!) teaching really is good news! It brings maximum comfort to the sinner who knows his or her lost condition. This teaching is not a heavy burden, but a magnet that attracts and draws sinners to Christ. Our Augsburg Confession shows this clearly. In Article I we confess God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a world of uncertainty, this one thing is sure: the name of God put on us in our Baptism. Article II teaches the true nature of our sin, inherited from our parents. If sin is only a small problem, we need only a small savior. But none of us can decide not to die! Sin is always fatal, bringing death and hell. Without Christ, we are completely lost. There is no escape. It takes a real Savior, God in human flesh, to rescue us. Therefore Article III confesses Jesus Christ, one person fully God and fully human, who truly died and rose from the dead for us. He is the Savior we need. In Him alone we live.
Article IV of the Augsburg Confession brings the maximum comfort: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4).”
The forgiveness of sins and justification by faith are like the hub and axle of a wheel. They are the center around which every teaching of Scripture turns, the hub that holds them all together. Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, for instance, are not ordinances to follow but gifts of Jesus bringing the forgiveness of sins to the believer who receives them: Maximum comfort for the repentant sinner. Talking to anyone who is passionate about bringing the Gospel to people, you will find someone who has been broken, someone who knows what it is like to be desperate to hear this good news. That’s also what makes him desperate to tell others.
God Carries Out the Mission
That we may receive this faith, says Article V of the Augsburg Confession, God instituted the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments. Through these means God gives the Holy Spirit and brings people to faith when and where it pleases Him. You will not find the Spirit of God except in the Word of God, nor will the Word of God ever be found without the Spirit of God (see Acts 2). Because of this dynamic power of the Word of God (Rom. 1:16), the Lutheran Church is a proclaiming church. That’s why, at the command of Christ, the Church calls qualified men to fill the preaching office on behalf of all. Those baptized into Christ are also called by that Baptism to tell His truth. Yet, God does it all, by His Word.
The mission of God is carried out through congregations, pastors, and “holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (Smalcald Articles III 12). Strengthened and nurtured by Word and Sacrament, congregations send believers into the world to serve and to love others. (Our Synod’s Ablaze! movement fosters opportunities to share the Gospel, expand mission work, and revitalize congregations.) Congregations focused inward may have forgotten why we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come”! Here, “we pray that the kingdom may come to those who are not yet in it, and, by daily growth that it may come to us who have received it. . . . Dear Father, we pray, give us first Your Word, so that the Gospel may be preached properly throughout the world” (Large Catechism III, italics added). This is why Lutheran congregations send missionaries to plant churches at home and abroad. This is why we ordain pastors and consecrate deaconesses to serve, why we send chaplains into the military and into prisons. This is why we commission teachers and have schools and preschools.
So how are you and your congregation focused outward? How will the people around you be connected to Christ? The life of God is not the result of moral instruction and moral living, but is God’s gift of a new relationship in Jesus Christ through repentance and faith. The beating heart of your congregation is the life of Jesus Christ—His life lived for us and offered up for us on the cross. His life triumphant in His resurrection. His life freely given in His body and blood, in the forgiveness of sins, in the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. Now, through our various vocations, Jesus sends us on His mission, for the sake of the hungry, the needy, the lost, the hurting, those who do not yet know Him.
Get Out There!
Confession of the truth—outreach to the lost. You will not be faithful in one without an equal emphasis on the other. To all who count themselves “confessional,” we say, “Great! Now get out there and confess!” Our Lutheran Symbols are clear and faithful expositions of God’s Word of Law and Gospel bringing the greatest possible comfort in Christ. Don’t hide this truth. God desires all to be saved. Don’t water it down, but bring it to as many as possible in winsome, relevant ways.
On the other hand, to all who put outreach at the top of their list, we say, “Excellent! Going into all the world with the Gospel of Christ is Christ’s own command!” We believe people are lost forever unless they hear the Word and are brought to faith in Christ. Outreach is what we are about. Now let’s be sure we are bringing people the “real deal,” the “good stuff” of God’s undeserved grace and mercy for the sake of Christ alone, received through faith alone. Bring the whole load, don’t water it down. Doctrine and mission are one.
About the Author: Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr. is president of the LCMS Southern Illinois District.
The quotations from the Lutheran Confessions in this article are from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pocket edition) published by CPH.