November 2021 A.D.
Martin Luther’s Large Catechism
The Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed
Pastors’ Study Group, Faith, Plano, TX, by Rev. Clint Stark, St. John of Frisco, TX, October 2021
(Greatly edited and reduced for church newsletter)
Luther’s explanation of the Third Article is the longest of the three at twenty-nine numbered paragraphs compared to sixteen and nine in the previous two. However, part of me thinks that this longest section could be summarized in a few words along these lines: the second article is forgiveness won and this third article is simply about that forgiveness being given or appropriated to us by the Holy Spirit.
34 I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
35 This article (as I have said) I cannot relate better than to Sanctification, that through the same the Holy Ghost, with His office, is declared and depicted, namely, that He makes holy. Therefore we must take our stand upon the word Holy Ghost, because it is so precise and comprehensive that we cannot find another.
36 For there are, besides, many kinds of spirits mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, as, the spirit of man, heavenly spirits, and evil spirits. But the Spirit of God alone is called Holy Ghost, that is, He who has sanctified and still sanctifies us. For as the Father is called Creator, the Son Redeemer, so the Holy Ghost, from His work, must be called Sanctifier, or One that makes holy.
A few brief comments: Firstly, while it is fine to summarize the work of the three persons of the Trinity as Luther does here, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, these summaries are not acceptable substitutions for the Triune name in Holy Baptism, as some Pentecostals do. Secondly, I find that many outside Lutheranism today, and some within, complain that Lutherans are, “strong on the doctrine of justification, but weak on sanctification.” As we see here, and will see in the following paragraphs, Confessional Lutherans are not weak on the doctrine of sanctification, but it is the antinomian-leaning-nominal-Lutherans among us who are. Lastly, the phrase, “who has sanctified and still sanctifies us.”, packs a lot of theology that we systematize as sanctification in the broad and narrow senses (broad=100% sanctified/holy in Christ by faith. narrow=growing in holiness/sanctification).
37 But how is such sanctifying done? Answer: Just as the Son obtains dominion, whereby He wins us, through His birth, death, resurrection, etc., so also the Holy Ghost effects our sanctification by the following parts, namely, by the communion of saints or the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting; that is, He first leads us into His holy congregation, and places us in the bosom of the Church, whereby He preaches to us and brings us to Christ.
Notice the verbs; the Holy Spirit is doing the action and receiving the credit for effecting our sanctification. (Obviously, no room for synergistic decision theology, which is unbiblical and denies faith by grace alone, as faith become man’s work to complete conversion/sanctification.) He does this, not in a Zwinglian way, but through the tangible means of grace located in time and space. (He falsely taught at the time of the Reformation that the Holy Spirit worked apart from the means of grace. The term is, enthusiasm.)
38 For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel. The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, resurrection, etc. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost. That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which He gives the Holy Ghost to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us.
More of the same Divine Monergism here, but also the distinction between natural [Rm. 1, creation and conscience—law on the heart] and special revelation [Scripture]. This really is a summary of Romans 10. As an aside, I could be wrong, but Luther seems to allude to [Mat 13:44 ESV] 44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”, in this line, “That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried,…” If so, Luther is not as ‘Christological’ as the unknow author of the Lutheran Study Bible note, “Different interpretations of this short parable exist. One many naturally see the man as any man and the treasure as the kingdom of heaven that he discovers. However, a more Christological interpretation describes the field as the world, the treasure as you (the hearer), the man as Christ…” (p.1610) (We discussed this in Bible Class several weeks ago.)
39 Therefore sanctifying is nothing else than bringing us to Christ to receive this good, to which we could not attain of ourselves.
40 Learn, then, to understand this article most clearly. If you are asked: What do you mean by the words: I believe in the Holy Ghost? you can answer: I believe that the Holy Ghost makes me holy, as His name implies.
41 But whereby does He accomplish this, or what are His method and means to this end? Answer: By the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
42 For, in the first place, He has a peculiar congregation in the world, which is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which He reveals and preaches, [and through which] He illumines and enkindles hearts, that they understand, accept it, cling to it, and persevere in it.
I would say at this point, it is fair to start asking for a definition of congregation, which he fleshes out later. I think it is safe to assume this is in conjunction with AC VIII, “Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers…”, but that there is no congregation of saints apart from the means of grace in AC VII, “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered…”, which certainly connects back to AC IV & V. Or, to use Waltherian language, there is no invisible church apart from the visible church, or more precisely the marks of the church.
Though subtle, the phrase, “preserves in it”, implies that faith is an ongoing life-long gift that the Holy Spirit enkindles within the visible church. While many Lutherans today might rightly reject decision theology and the satanic doctrine of, “once a believer, always a believer”, I wonder how many think that a man can remain in the faith, or invisible church, while not receiving the Word and Sacraments often.
43 For where He does not cause it to be preached and made alive in the heart, so that it is understood, it is lost, as was the case under the Papacy, where faith was entirely put under the bench, and no one recognized Christ as his Lord or the Holy Ghost as his Sanctifier, that is, no one believed that Christ is our Lord in the sense that He has acquired this treasure for us, without our works and merit, and made us acceptable to the Father. What, then, was lacking?
44 This, that the Holy Ghost was not there to reveal it and cause it to be preached; but men and evil spirits were there, who taught us to obtain grace and be saved by our works.
45 Therefore it is not a Christian Church either; for where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church, without which no one can come to Christ the Lord.
Luther switches here from “congregation” to “Christian Church.”
46 Let this suffice concerning the sum of this article. But because the parts which are here enumerated are not quite clear to the simple, we shall run over them also.
I would say at this point, Luther has accomplished my thought in the introduction that this article is simply, “forgiveness given–sanctification.” After this first part, I think Luther chases some rabbits about the history or evolution of certain phrases in the Creed, which he didn’t chase in the Second Article.
47 The Creed denominates the holy Christian Church, communionem sanctorum, a communion of saints; for both expressions, taken together, are identical. But formerly the one [the second] expression was not there, and it has been poorly and unintelligibly translated into German eine Gemeinschaft der Heiligen, a communion of saints. If it is to be rendered plainly, it must be expressed quite differently in the German idiom; for the word ecclesia properly means in German eine Versammlung, an assembly.
48 But we are accustomed to the word church, by which the simple do not understand an assembled multitude, but the consecrated house or building, although the house ought not to be called a church, except only for the reason that the multitude assembles there. For we who assemble there make and choose for ourselves a particular place, and give a name to the house according to the assembly.
Thus the word Kirche (church) means really nothing else than a common assembly, and is not German by idiom, but Greek (as is also the word ecclesia); for in their own language they call it kyria, as in Latin it is called curia. Therefore in genuine German, in our mother-tongue, it ought to be called a Christian congregation or assembly (eine christliche Gemeinde oder Sammlung), or, best of all and most clearly, holy Christendom (eine heilige Christenheit).
I’d say we have similar difficulty in teaching the concepts with the English language. The 1991 Synodical catechism in question 175 it lists four uses of the word church, in addition to its primary use, giving five total uses of the same word. So, we teach something like, “The word, Church and church, can be used in many and various ways, children. Church, capitalized, usually refers to all believers everywhere, and church, lower case, refers to a congregation, building or church body. Unless it is a specific name of a church or church body, like, “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” or “St. John Lutheran Church”, then we capitalize it, but we are not saying all in that denomination are part of the Church because we can’t see faith in the heart. Does that make sense, children?”
49 So also the word communio, which is added, ought not to be rendered communion (Gemeinschaft), but congregation (Gemeinde). And it is nothing else than an interpretation or explanation by which some one meant to explain what the Christian Church is. This our people, who understood neither Latin nor German, have rendered Gemeinschaft der Heiligen (communion of saints), although no German language speaks thus, nor understands it thus. But to speak correct German, it ought to be eine Gemeinde der Heiligen (a congregation of saints), that is, a congregation made up purely of saints, or, to speak yet more plainly, eine heilige Gemeinde, a holy congregation.
50 I say this in order that the words Gemeinschaft der Heiligen (communion of saints) may be understood, because the expression has become so established by custom that it cannot well be eradicated, and it is treated almost as heresy if one should attempt to change a word.
It is interesting to get a glimpse into how Luther might function pastorally: “Yeah, the translation isn’t ideal, but fixing it would cause more harm than good.” It would be interesting to see how he might handle similar situations today, like the innovation of individual communion cups or the singing of non-Lutheran, yet non-heretical, hymns that are weak in content or have music that stirs emotions, e.g. the redacted version of, “Amazing Grace”, in our hymnal.
51 But this is the meaning and substance of this addition: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms.
How can you reconcile the words above with the idea that sects, like the anabaptists, or modern-day sects like, bapto-methedo-presbo-non-denomo are part of the congregation of pure saints? Our response is, “I believe this to be true, but I don’t see it.” This is what our Lutheran forefathers confess. See Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics Volume III, pp.400-402. Pieper, Luther, Gerhard, etc. all say that that all who believe in Christ are part of the invisible church (p.397). They define belief in Christ as the specific personal trust (subjective justification) in the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus (objective justification) apart from works, which excludes Rome and liberal theology, but not necessarily all members in those church bodies. Pieper says, “Also those who in their ignorance believe false doctrines are members of the Church, whether they belong to an orthodox or heterodox church body, if only they cling sincerely to God’s grace in Christ (p.399).”
So, are we then saying that any amount of saving faith contains, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms in some unseen inward mysterious way, even though outwardly contradicting it by being a member of a heterodox church? Yes, saving faith makes us one in Christ and receives constant forgiveness of sins, which would include the sin of false doctrine (Pieper p. 410). The is not Gospel Reductionism.
52 I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ.
53 Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.
Again, I love the verbs. The Spirit gets all credit for our believing and the fruits “He” produces.
54 We further believe that in this Christian Church we have forgiveness of sin, which is wrought through the holy Sacraments and Absolution, moreover, through all manner of consolatory promises of the entire Gospel. Therefore, whatever is to be preached concerning the Sacraments belongs here, and, in short, the whole Gospel and all the offices of Christianity, which also must be preached and taught without ceasing. For although the grace of God is secured through Christ, and sanctification is wrought by the Holy Ghost through the Word of God in the unity of the Christian Church, yet on account of our flesh which we bear about with us we are never without sin.
Certainly, no room for 100% holiness/sanctification in this life in the narrow sense of the word.
55 Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here. Thus, although we have sins, the [grace of the] Holy Ghost does not allow them to injure us, because we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but [continuous, uninterrupted] forgiveness of sin, both in that God forgives us, and in that we forgive, bear with, and help each other.
This really is the heart of the Gospel, that our sins, though real, are not counted against us by grace through faith for Christ’s sake.
I like to note the frequent use of “daily” and not “Sunday mornings only”. While their custom was to have more public services and daily offices than we do now, I see Luther including here other settings. God’s Word is not bound to be only efficacious if spoken by a Called and Ordained Servant of the Word in the Divine Service, though that is of the utmost importance. Like many of the debates today, Luther sees no competition between a preacher preaching the Gospel publicly in His office and a father teaching the Gospel in the home at the dinner table—through the Word, the Spirit keeps us believing and receiving the forgiveness of sins daily. They are not in competition, but complementary.
56 But outside of this Christian Church, where the Gospel is not, there is no forgiveness, as also there can be no holiness [sanctification]. Therefore all who seek and wish to merit holiness [sanctification], not through the Gospel and forgiveness of sin, but by their works, have expelled and severed themselves [from this Church].
A hard reality. Hence Jesus’ desire, since we don’t know the Gospel naturally, for the Gospel to be preached everywhere.
57 Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously, and arise to entire and perfect holiness in a new eternal life.
58 For now we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever [some reason why] to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.
59 Behold, all this is to be the office and work of the Holy Ghost, that He begin and daily increase holiness upon earth by means of these two things, the Christian Church and the forgiveness of sin. But in our dissolution He will accomplish it altogether in an instant, and will forever preserve us therein by the last two parts.
I thought we were 100% sinner and 100% saint! Luther says we are half pure or 50% and 50%! Is this increase and growth of holiness in us and upon the earth an article of faith or sight? I’d say, an article of faith in this life and sight at the resurrection of the body. However, there is also room for sanctification by sight in the sense that we can see works, even though we can’t see if they flow from faith or not. This is how we determine local church membership and excommunication of the outwardly wicked and hypocrites. We can see faith and sanctification in some sense by looking at works.
60 But the term Auferstehung des Fleisches (resurrection of the flesh) here employed is not according to good German idiom. For when we Germans hear the word Fleisch (flesh), we think no farther than of the shambles. But in good German idiom we would say Auferstehung des Leibes, or Leichnams (resurrection of the body). However, it is not a matter of much moment, if we only understand the words aright.
61 This, now, is the article which must ever be and remain in operation. For creation we have received; redemption, too, is finished But the Holy Ghost carries on His work without ceasing to the last day. And for that purpose He has appointed a congregation upon earth by which He speaks and does everything.
62 For He has not yet brought together all His Christian Church nor dispensed forgiveness. Therefore we believe in Him who through the Word daily brings us into the fellowship of this Christian Church, and through the same Word and the forgiveness of sins bestows, increases, and strengthens faith, in order that when He has accomplished it all, and we abide therein, and die to the world and to all evil, He may finally make us perfectly and forever holy; which now we expect in faith through the Word.
63 Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men. For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what He has in mind and does, yet has she never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things.
64 But here we have everything in richest measure; for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love. For He has created us for this very object, that He might redeem and sanctify us; and in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself.
65 For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost.
I’d say the above is a rehash or summary of his introduction, and also full of wonderful Gospel promises.
66 These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth. For all outside of Christianity, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, although they believe in, and worship, only one true God, yet know not what His mind towards them is, and cannot expect any love or blessing from Him; therefore they abide in eternal wrath and damnation. For they have not the Lord Christ, and, besides, are not illumined and favored by any gifts of the Holy Ghost.
67 From this you perceive that the Creed is a doctrine quite different from the Ten Commandments; for the latter teaches indeed what we ought to do, but the former tells what God does for us and gives to us. Moreover, apart from this, the Ten Commandments are written in the hearts of all men; the Creed, however, no human wisdom can comprehend, but it must be taught by the Holy Ghost alone.
68 The latter doctrine [of the Law], therefore, makes no Christian, for the wrath and displeasure of God abide upon us still, because we cannot keep what God demands of us; but this [namely, the doctrine of faith] brings pure grace, and makes us godly and acceptable to God.
69 For by this knowledge we obtain love and delight in all the commandments of God, because here we see that God gives Himself entire to us, with all that He has and is able to do, to aid and direct us in keeping the Ten Commandments-the Father, all creatures; the Son, His entire work; and the Holy Ghost, all His gifts.
70 Let this suffice concerning the Creed to lay a foundation for the simple, that they may not be burdened, so that, if they understand the substance of it, they themselves may afterwards strive to acquire more, and to refer to these parts whatever they learn in the Scriptures, and may ever grow and increase in richer understanding. For as long as we live here, we shall daily have enough to do to preach and to learn this.
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