Augsburg Confession, Article XXI – The Worship of the Saints

We’re getting closer and closer to the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. October 31st this year will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses. The theses were meant to open an academic discussion on the prevailing Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Though Luther does make many good points here, Luther’s thought in 1517 isn’t quite the same as his confession of faith in 1529 (when he published the Small Catechism). There are reasons why we pledge ourselves to the Small Catechism, not the Theses. Therefore, this year we’ve been studying another work, which Luther would claim as another clear confession of the faith he preached and taught, the Augsburg Confession.

This month we turn to another rather visible difference between Lutheranism and the Roman Catholic Church as it has existed for more than five centuries. Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession is titled, “Worship of the Saints,” and it deals with exactly that. Or, more clearly, how do we as saints on earth relate to the saints in heaven. What role do those who have preceded us in the faith play in our lives here? Even shorter, why don’t we pray to the saints?

Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling. For example, the emperor may follow the example of David [2 Samuel] in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings. But the Scriptures do not teach that we are to call on the saints or to ask the saints for help. Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor [1 Timothy 2:5–6]. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer [John 14:13]. This is the worship that He approves above all other worship, that He be called upon in all afflictions. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:1).

Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 44.

The AC first answers in a positive sense how we on earth should view the saints. “Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling. For example, the emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings.” The Confession says that we may teach about those who have gone before us as examples for us to follow. Notice how the saint chosen is from Scripture. A king, for example, could look to David for a model – since they’re both kings. In my case, as a pastor, I could look to Timothy, since we’re both pastors.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (a follow-up document also in the Book of Concord) expands this explanation. It says, “They [the Roman Catholic opponents] absolutely condemn Article XXI because we do not require the invocation of saints. On no other topic do they speak more smoothly or wordily.” (Ap XXI, par. 1) Therefore, it says, we approve honoring the saints in three ways. The first is simple thanksgiving to God. We give thanks to God for the mercy shown to them, and that He has given us such great teachers and examples. Second, we honor the saints by being strengthened in the faith through their example. “When we see Peter’s denial forgiven, we also are encouraged to believe all the more that grace truly superabounds over sin.” (Ap XXI, 5) Lastly, we honor the saints by imitating them, first their faith, and then according to our own callings.

However, Scripture nowhere teaches us to call to the saints in heaven or ask them for help. Neither does Scripture teach that the saints in heaven can hear us; nor, provided they can hear us, does Scripture promise they can help us. “Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer.” (AC XXI, 2-3) Jesus comforts us throughout Scripture that He desires our prayers. He alone promises to both hear and answer our prayers. Therefore, with this blessed assurance, we pray to God alone while giving Him the honor and thanks for those who’ve gone before us in the faith.

At this point, the first part of the Augsburg Confession concludes. Up through this article, the confessors explain, “There is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” That means that the confessors sincerely (and correctly) believe that they have in no way departed from the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Because of this, they say, “those who insist that our teachers are to be regarded as heretics are judging harshly.” (AC Summary Statement, 1) Keep in mind, heresy was punished by execution at this time.

Further, they write,

Even here, if there are some differences, the bishops should bear with us patiently because of the Confession we have just reviewed. Even the Church’s canon law is not so severe that it demands the same rites everywhere. Nor, for that matter, have the rites of all churches ever been the same. Although, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed among us. It is a false and hate-filled charge that our churches have abolished all the ceremonies instituted in ancient times. (Summary Statement, 2-4)

The confessors recognized that differences in practice between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholics were becoming clear. But, they felt they were minimal, and that, for sake of the confession given above, they should be permitted. The only practices that were changed were those that had either become corrupt over time or had corrupt beginnings. Even then, they were only changed so that they would no longer be an obstacle to a clear confession of faith.

Here the first part of the Augsburg Confession ends and the second begins. The remaining articles of the AC detail these changes in the ceremonies of the church. These things include receiving both the Body and Blood in the Sacrament, the end of priestly celibacy and monastic vows, and a right understanding of human traditions in the Church. Next month we’ll begin looking at these articles, starting with Article XXII: Both Kinds in the Sacrament. For now, some closing words from the confessors:

Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church catholic. They only omit some of the newer abuses. They have been erroneously accepted through the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of canon law. Therefore, we pray that Your Imperial Majesty will graciously hear what has been changed and why the people are not compelled to observe those things that are abuses against their conscience. Your Imperial Majesty should not believe those who have tried to stir up hatred against us by spreading strange lies among the people. They have given rise to this controversy by stirring up the minds of good people. Now they are trying to increase the controversy using the same methods. Your Imperial Majesty will undoubtedly find that the form of doctrine and ceremonies among us are not as intolerable as these ungodly and ill-intentioned men claim. Besides, the truth cannot be gathered from common rumors or the attacks of enemies. It can easily be judged that if the churches observed ceremonies correctly, their dignity would be maintained and reverence and piety would increase among the people. (AC, A Review of the Various Abuses That Have Been Corrected)


Augsburg Confession, Article XX: Good Works

“Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works,” so begins Article XX of the Augsburg Confession. It continues, “Their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and other similar writings, bear witness that they have usefully taught about all estates and duties of life. They have taught well what is pleasing to God in every station and vocation in life.”[1]

Article XX of the Augsburg Confession is subtitled, “Good Works,” and is by far the longest article in the Augustana (the Latin title of the AC). You may remember that the topic of good works has come up already – particularly in Article IV, “[We teach] people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. [They] are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith…” and in Article VI, “[We] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.”[2] Despite these clear discussions of the relationship between faith and good works, it still got muddied by our opponents. This topic was, perhaps, the chief difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans – and it remains so today. However, we will allow that the different poles have grown (slightly) closer over the centuries.

This article is a long one, so I will provide the link for you to read it here. In a nutshell, the article answers the question: “What about good works?” The answer is: we do them, not to merit righteousness nor salvation, but because they are God’s will. A living faith is bound to and will bring forth good fruit. The Lutherans were falsely accused by the Romans of both abolishing and forbidding good works. They accused us of removing good works from salvation, and then going as far as to say that we are not allowed to do them. Well, we’re guilty on the first charge: our good works do not contribute to our salvation. On the second charge, some Lutherans did teach this later on and were publicly rebuked for it.

So what do we teach? “First…that our works cannot reconcile God to us or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification. We obtain reconciliation only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake.” (9) That’s pretty much what we already said back in Article IV. Our good works do not reconcile us to God, nor do they merit anything salvific. We are reconciled to God for Christ’s sake through faith. The article goes on to quote both St. Paul and our Lord on this matter. It also defends against the charge that the Lutherans have created a new interpretation of Paul. “If anyone wants to be tricky and say that we have invented a new interpretation of Paul, this entire matter is supported by the testimony of the Fathers. Augustine defends grace and the righteousness of faith in many volumes against the merits of works. Ambrose, in his book The Calling of the Gentiles, and elsewhere, teaches the same thing.” (12-13)

But, why go over all this again? Both our conscience and the comfort of salvation are at stake. The article says, “This whole doctrine must be related to the conflict of the terrified conscience. It cannot be understood apart from that conflict.” (17) That is to say, when sins wreaks havoc in our lives and we are revealed to be the most terrible and wretched of sinners, it is of the utmost comfort to know that it is not my work that gains salvation – but Christ’s. As the hymn goes, “Thy works, not mine, O Christ.” Now, the article says, spiritually inexperienced people dislike this doctrine. Our sinful flesh would like nothing more than to take pride in our own worth. But, “God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it [this article] brings the greatest consolation.” (15)

The article then points out the fact that, up until then, the consciences of God’s people were plagued by the doctrine of works. There was no comfort offered in the Gospel of Christ. Instead, people were driven into the desert and monasteries, hoping to merit grace by a pious life. Over time, more good works were invented to merit grace – pilgrimages and such. To these things, people were pointed – and not to the comfort of the Gospel of Christ. “That is why the need was so great for teaching and renewing the doctrine of faith in Christ, so that anxious consciences would not be without consolation but would know that grace, forgiveness of sins, and justification are received by faith in Christ.” (22)

Next, the article moves onto what we mean by “faith.” It says, “People are also warned that the term faith does not mean simply a knowledge of a history, such as the ungodly and devil have. Rather, it means a faith that believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history.” (23) This is actually pointing back at our opponents. It was taught that if one simply acknowledges the historical facts of Christ’s passion, it was enough. The Lutherans teach that assenting to the bare facts is not enough. Faith is also trusting in the effects of it all: Christ suffered and died for us on the cross so that we may receive forgiveness and righteousness by grace through faith. As it says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

Lastly, “We teach that it is necessary to do good works. This does not mean that we merit grace by doing good works, but because it is God’s will.” (27) It is only by faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and through those things He also renews our wills and causes us to bring forth good works. Without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to do good works. Works that seem to be righteous (considered righteousness even by the world) are in fact sinful, when done apart from faith.

It is necessary to do good works according to God’s holy will. Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit leads us to do them. While we are in the flesh, we will never be perfect in our works. Our sinful flesh is always at war with the law of our minds, as St. Paul would say. Nor are all good works visible. Prayer on behalf of others is an example of a good work that flows from faith, but isn’t necessarily visible.

This was a rather long discussion. But, then again, it’s a rather important topic. Where does our righteousness before God – and salvation – come from? From our works? No, but from Christ. Christ is our righteousness, and His work is counted to us through faith. Do we then discount good works? No. Good works are to be done. It is God’s will. As the hymn goes, “For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”

Next month we’ll cover a topic that maybe you’ve had some questions about: the saints in heaven. What are they up to, and why do Lutherans not pray to them? After that, we’ll turn to the next section of the Augustana, concerning errors that had popped up in the practice of the Church, which are now corrected. Examples? Communing in both kinds, the marriage of priests, and the authority of the Church. See you next month!

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 42. Further quotes from this article are marked by their paragraph number.

[2] Ibid., pg. 33.

Augsburg Confession XVIII and XIX: “Free Will,” and “The Cause of Sin”

In our study of the Augsburg Confession last month we covered a few articles that were a little lighter than some others. For the most part, these were articles that – properly understood – aren’t necessary to salvation. Christians may legitimately have differences of opinion over involvement in political offices or over the return of Christ. Our articles this month bring us back into territory that is really important. In short: after the fall into sin, what are humans capable of salvation-wise? In other words, are we able to cooperate in our own salvation and, if so, to what extent? The article on free will is one that separates us from the Roman Catholic Church on the one side and nearly all Protestants on the other. Article XVIII on Free Will:

1 Our churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do things subject to reason. 2 It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness. For “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). 3 This righteousness is worked in the heart when the Holy Spirit is received through the Word [Galatians 3:2–6].

4 This is what Augustine says in his Hypognosticon, Book III:

We grant that all people have a free will. It is free as far as it has the judgment of reason. This does not mean that it is able, without God, either to begin, or at least to complete, anything that has to do with God. It is free only in works of this life, whether good or evil. 5 Good I call those works that spring from the good in nature, such as willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn various useful arts, or whatsoever good applies to this life. 6 For all of these things depend on the providence of God. They are from Him and exist through Him. 7 Works that are willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, and so forth, I call evil.

8 Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who teach that without the Holy Spirit, by natural power alone, we are able to love God above all things and do God’s commandments according to the letter. 9 Although nature is able in a certain way to do the outward work (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder), yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, and so on.[1]

The real meat of this article is the question of what a person can contribute to salvation. The answer is nothing. We covered that already in Article IV (“People cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.”) Those opposed to the reformers charged them with saying that humans have no free will at all. That isn’t what we’re saying. What we are saying is that, while we’re free to do some things, there are some things that we are incapable of doing by our own free will.

Now, we are talking about humans as we exist now – after the fall into sin. Taking that into account, we believe that we are free to choose and do things that are civilly righteous. We can be good neighbors, pay our taxes, be good lawyers and judges. These things all proceed from natural reason. However, we are unable, after the fall, to choose to do things that are righteous in God’s eyes. One can only do works pleasing to God after the Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Word. How does this affect the regular person? This means that we cannot make ourselves Christians. After the fall, we are incapable of choosing to believe in God. Nor are the good works that people do apart from faith actually good works, according to God. The Holy Spirit makes that happen through the Word and Sacraments.

On the flip side, we reject the idea that one can, naturally, choose to believe in God and do what He commands. This is a heresy called Pelagianism, which was condemned by the Church catholic over 1,500 years ago. However, that idea still floats around in various church bodies. We agree that it is possible to do things that, on the surface, seem pleasing to God. We can not murder people and refrain from stealing. In reality, those things are only pleasing to God when they proceed from faith. Apart from the Holy Spirit, there is no faith and thus, no pleasing God. Since the fall into sin, humans are incapable, apart from the Holy Spirit, of choosing to believe in God or do what He desires.


Article XIX is another short one that shouldn’t cause us to pause too long. Basically, it confesses where sin comes from – not God. In the above article, we said that humans are incapable of choosing to believe in God or do what He desires. Humans are free only to sin. Now, God makes humans. We all agree on that. Does that make God the author of sin? That’s what the Lutherans were accused of saying. But, it isn’t what we say. Here is article XIX on the cause of sin:

Our churches teach that although God creates and preserves nature, the cause of sin is located in the will of the wicked, that is, the devil and ungodly people. Without God’s help, this will turns itself away from God, as Christ says, “When he lies, he speaks out of his own character” (John 8:44).[2]

In the Lutheran church, we believe that God created mankind. He formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. In His mercy, He continues to form each and every person in their mother’s womb. However, God does not make sin. God originally made both the angels and mankind with free will, the ability to freely choose between good and evil. Both mankind and some angels chose evil. The angels who chose evil were forever cast out of heaven. Man, was cast of out Eden. The fall into sin introduced a corruption to human nature. Whereby, before man was perfect, after the fall the human nature is corrupted by sin. This includes our will – which is where sin comes from.

By His mercy, God continues to create and preserve human nature, even in its corrupted form. The cause of sin is the devil and the evil will of wicked people. In the Catechism, we learned it like this, “the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.” Without the help of God, without the gift of faith created by the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, the human will only turns away from God. This is where sin comes from, not God. The bigger question is: why does God allow this to be? For the answer to that, we will have to wait until the Resurrection. Next month we’ll cover only one article, a big one, Good Works. See you then!

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 40–41.

[2] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 41.

On Civil Government and the Return of Christ

Welcome back to our congregational study of the Augsburg Confession! In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been working our way through the AC, article-by-article. It’s been fairly difficult at times, and I congratulate you for reading so far. This month we’re going to look at a couple articles that sometimes slip by us: whether Christians can hold political office and what we believe about the return of Christ. Here’s Article XVI: Civil Government –

Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage [Romans 13; 1 Corinthians 7:2].

Our churches condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these political offices to Christians.  They also condemn those who do not locate evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but place it in forsaking political offices. For the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart (Romans 10:10). At the same time, it does not require the destruction of the civil state or the family. The Gospel very much requires that they be preserved as God’s ordinances and that love be practiced in such ordinances. Therefore, it is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws. The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

As we’ve encountered already, this article is broken up into 2 parts: what we believe and what we reject, more or less. First, what do we believe? We believe that, “lawful civil regulations are good works of God.” That means that, when we keep civil laws – such as, not murdering or stealing – we’re actually doing things that are pleasing to God. That’s because not murdering and not stealing are things God has told us in Scripture. Also, since we learn in Scripture (Rom. 13) that civil government started as God’s idea, it is perfectly fine for a Christian to hold office, be a judge or police office, be a politician, buy or sell in the marketplace, swear before a judge, etc.

You might know that the Lutheran Reformation wasn’t the only one happening in the 1500’s. Another group around at this time was called the Anabaptists. They believed that the civil realm was absolutely sinful; therefore, a Christian could not hold a political office. If you were a Christian who did – then you weren’t a true Christian. We, of course, disagree with that for the reasons above. Instead, we would say the Gospel encourages us to continue in our vocations, including serving in a civil office or aspiring to one. We also believe that it is a Christian’s duty to obey their rulers and laws. “The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God rather than men.”


Now for Article XVII: The Return of Christ for Judgment –

Our churches teach that at the end of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise all the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:2]. He will give the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but He will condemn ungodly people and the devils to be tormented without end [Matthew 25:31–46].

Our churches condemn the Anabaptists, who think that there will be an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils.

Our churches also condemn those who are spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed.

Again, this article is broken into a couple parts – what we believe and what we don’t. With the majority of the Church catholic (universal), we believe that at the end of the world Christ will return and raise the dead. At His return, He will also render His eternal judgment against sin. Those who, by grace, received His Word in faith for the forgiveness of their sins will enter eternal life. However, those who rejected Christ and His Word will be condemned to eternal separation from God’s love in hell.

The same group we mentioned earlier, the Anabaptists, come up here. They taught, and some still do, that there is an end to the condemnation of hell. In a nutshell, they taught that one could leave hell and enter heaven. The second thing we reject may be a more familiar idea, since it is part of the premise of the Left Behind series that was popular a little while back. We reject that – before Christ returns – all evil will be destroyed and Christians will be the rulers of this world. Though they aren’t mentioned here, we also don’t hold to the ideas of the Rapture or Tribulation. None of these are actually Christian ideas, originally. We simply believe that the end of the world will be when Christ returns. Those who received Him in faith will enter the new creation, those who rejected Him will be condemned.

I hate to end of kind of a bummer of a sentence. I guess, I encourage all Christians to give thanks for the grace they’ve received and pray that the number of God’s people would be increased. Next month we’ll return to a couple articles that hit on the core of the faith. We’ll study the articles on free will and the cause of sin. See you next month!

The Augsburg Confession, Article I – God

In the Thursday morning men’s Bible study we’ve begun looking at the Lutheran Confessions. They are a collection of documents that mark us as specifically Lutheran Christians. Though they were written close to 500 years ago we continue to use them (and our pastors swear to uphold them) because they are a rightful exposition of the Holy Scriptures. We believe that like Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions can also speak to the common issues of our day as well. The first article of the Augsburg Confession is on God. Specifically, it was written to show that Lutherans are continuity with the historic Christian faith, we hold the same confession that Christianity has held for all time. We believe in one God, yet who exists in three divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three are of the same essence and power.

On this side of the grave we will never understand the doctrine of the Trinity fully. We must rest content on what is revealed to us in the Bible and know that we will understand more fully in time. Article I of the Augsburg Confession follows:

“1 Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true. 2 It is to be believed without any doubt. God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. He is the maker and preserver of all things, visible and invisible [Nehemiah 9:6]. 3 Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19]. These three persons are of the same essence and power. 4 Our churches use the term person as the Fathers have used it. We use it to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

5 Our churches condemn all heresies [Titus 3:10–11] that arose against this article, such as the Manichaeans, who assumed that there are two “principles,” one Good and the other Evil. They also condemn the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Muslims, and all heresies such as these. 6 Our churches also condemn the Samosatenes, old and new, who contend that God is but one person. Through sophistry they impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons. They say that Word signifies a spoken word, and Spirit signifies motion created in things.”[1]

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 31.