Abiding in Christ – the heart of the Augsburg Confession

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Sermon for the Festival of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Romans 10:5-17  +  John 15:1-11

You’ve already confessed 19 articles—most of the Augsburg Confession—today, in English, which Dr. Christian Beyer read out loud, in German, in the presence of Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran princes 487 years ago today. There are two more articles in the main part, and seven others that deal with the corrections the Lutherans had made to certain abuses that Rome had introduced. For the sake of time and because Article XX provides a perfect climax for our celebration today, listen to just one more article, if you would.

ARTICLE XX—Faith and Good Works

Our churches are falsely accused of forbidding good works. For their publications on the Ten Commandments and other writings demonstrate that they have provided a useful account and admonition concerning true Christian estates and works, of which little was taught before now. Instead, people were driven in almost every sermon to childish, useless works, such as rosaries, the worship of saints, becoming monks, making pilgrimages, observing appointed fasts, holy days, brotherhoods, etc. Our counterparts no longer praise such useless works quite as highly as before; in addition, they have also now learned to speak about faith—which they never used to preach about at all. But now they teach that we do not become righteous before God by works alone; they add faith in Christ to it. “Faith and works make us righteous before God,” they say. This way of speaking may bring more comfort than teaching people to rely solely on works.

Now, since the teaching about faith—which is the chief part in the Christian life—has not been promoted (as must be admitted), but only the teaching of works has been preached in every place, this is the instruction about faith that has taken place among us:

First, that our works cannot reconcile us with God or gain favor with Him. Rather, this happens only through faith, if a person believes that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who alone is the Mediator to appease the Father. Whoever pretends to achieve this and to merit grace through works despises Christ and seeks his own way to God, contrary to the Gospel.

This teaching about faith is openly and clearly treated by Paul in many passages, especially in Eph. 2: “By grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not by works, so that no one should boast,” etc. It can be demonstrated from Augustine that no new understanding is being introduced in this matter. He diligently treats this subject and also teaches the same thing, that we obtain grace and become righteous before God through faith in Christ and not through works, as his entire book On the Spirit and the Letter proves.

Although this teaching is sorely despised by inexperienced people, it is found to be highly comforting and salutary to the poor, terrified consciences. For the conscience cannot find rest and peace through works, but only through faith, if it concludes for itself with certainty that it has a gracious God for Christ’s sake, as Paul also says in Romans 5: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have rest and peace with God.”

This comfort was not formerly promoted in sermons, but the poor consciences were driven to their own works and instructed in various kinds of works. Some were driven by their conscience into monasteries, with the hope of gaining favor there through the monastic life. Some invented other works with which to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. Many of these learned from experience that peace was not attained by these things. Therefore, it became necessary to preach and diligently to promote this teaching about faith in Christ, so that it may be known that God’s grace is grasped only through faith, apart from merit.

People are also instructed that we are not referring here to the kind of faith that the demons and the wicked also have; they, too, believe the history—that Christ suffered and rose again from the dead. Rather, we are referring to true faith, which believes that we obtain grace and forgiveness of sins through Christ, and which now knows that it has a gracious God through Christ. Thus it knows God, calls upon Him and is not without God, as are the heathen. For the devil and the wicked do not believe this article—the forgiveness of sins. Therefore they are hostile to God, unable to call upon Him or hope for any good from Him. As noted above, this is how the Scripture speaks about faith, and does not call “faith” that knowledge that the demons and wicked men have. For this is what is taught about faith in Hebrews 11, that faith is not only to know the history, but to have confidence in God, to accept His promises. And Augustine also reminds us that we should understand the word “faith” in the Scriptures to mean confidence in God, that He is gracious to us, and not only to mean knowing the history as the demons also know it.

It is further taught that good works should and must be done—not that one should trust in them in order to merit grace by them, but they should be done for God’s sake and to His praise. Faith always grasps only grace and the forgiveness of sins. And since the Holy Spirit is given through faith, the heart is also thus inclined to do good works. For before this, when it is without the Holy Spirit, it is too weak. In addition, it is under the control of the devil, who drives the poor human nature to many sins, as we see in the philosophers, who undertook to live honorable, blameless lives, and yet they did not accomplish it, but fell into many great and manifest sins. So it goes with man, if, lacking true faith, he is without the Holy Spirit, and is governed only by his own human powers.

For this reason, the teaching about faith is not to be reproved as forbidding good works, but should rather be praised for teaching that good works are to be done, and for offering help by showing how a person may accomplish good works. For apart from faith and outside of Christ, human nature and abilities are far too weak to do good works, to call upon God, to endure suffering with patience, to love the neighbor, to carry out one’s assigned duties with diligence, to be obedient, to avoid evil desires. Such lofty and genuine works cannot be done without the help of Christ, as He Himself says in John 15: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

And so it’s fitting that Article XX ends with the words you heard today in the special Gospel appointed for this festival: I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit. Apart from Me you can do nothing.

That gets at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation and of the controversy with Rome and, really, with the Reformed and Anabaptists, too. It all boils down to abiding in Christ.

With Rome, the main question was, Where do faith and good works fit in, in relation to Christ? How do we poor sinners get Christ for a Savior? How do we obtain a gracious Father in heaven? Is it like Rome was saying, that faith and good works work together, so that gradually, eventually, hopefully at the end of a person’s life he will have done enough to deserve to have fellowship with Christ Jesus and to hear that blessed verdict of “righteous”—justified?

Or is it like the Lutherans were saying, that Christ gave Himself freely for all people on the cross and now gives Himself freely to all in the Gospel, that all might trust in Him and in that way have Him for a Savior, who even now is our Mediator before the Father, who even now stands between that believers and the accusations of the devil? As Jesus taught His disciples in the Gospel, good works come as a blessed result, as a product, as a “fruit” of a person already being joined to Jesus by faith. If a person is in Christ by faith, like a branch that’s in a vine, then he already has Christ and everything that Christ has, including righteousness before God. If a person has Christ by faith, then he is justified here and now, by that faith alone—by His very attachment to Christ, not by the good works that follow.

But, as the Lutherans have always said, as Jesus said in the Gospel, good works must necessarily follow faith and justification. Honoring God and His commandments, loving your neighbor—those aren’t optional things for the Christian. They’re necessary. But not to earn grace. Not to merit the forgiveness of sins. They’re necessary because God wants them done, and God is praised when they are done. And if we have faith in Christ, then that matters to us. If we have faith in Christ, then we have the power of His Holy Spirit to do the works that please God, as dear children obey their dear Father.

And where does faith come from and how is the Holy Spirit given? Those were the key questions that were in dispute between the Lutherans and the Anabaptists in 1530, and later, with the Reformed, and they remain a major point of contention still today. How does one come to be “in Christ,” and how is a person able to abide in Him?

The Anabaptists and Reformed said that God works directly on the human heart, that God doesn’t need any ministers or means of grace, that a minister’s forgiveness is not God’s forgiveness, that Baptism gives nothing, that the Lord’s Supper gives nothing but a bit of bread and wine.

But the Lutherans confessed that, according to Holy Scripture, God has chosen to work through the means of grace, through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, to convert sinners to faith in Christ, to give grace, to forgive sins, and to feed the branches with the very body and blood of the true Vine.

As I hope you can see from what you confessed today from the Augsburg Confession, everything that was confessed at Augsburg was for the purpose of being faithful to the Holy Scriptures, so that sinners can have confidence before God. So that sinners can have comfort. And ultimately, so that sinners can have Christ and abide in Christ and so have all the eternal benefits that He earned for us. May we, too, abide in Christ Jesus, our Lord, by faith! And may the words we have confessed today continue to be our confession, before God and the world! For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says…, “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. Amen.

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