Fight the Good Fight (1 Timothy 6)
- Order of Service: Vespers
- Hymns: LSB #656, 658, 585, “Lord God, Keep for Us the Augsburg Confession Pure”
Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12)
As we gather this afternoon, we celebrate the foundational document of the Reformation. The Augsburg Confession. The Augsburg Confession is the “good confession” given by the German princes who had accepted Lutheran teachings in their realms. Philipp Melanchthon prepared this confession that stated the Lutheran position on a wide variety of doctrines. For two hours, Christian Beyer, the Chancellor of Saxony, a layman, read the Confession in German before the dignitaries that represented the entire Holy Roman Empire. Some of you probably thought our readings hymn was going to last those two hours. But it succinctly summarizes the Augsburg Confession in all its articles. Lutheran theologians in every generation have encouraged all Lutherans to read and be knowledgeable of the Augsburg Confession and the rest of the Book of Concord.
The Augsburg Confession was how the German princes fought “the good fight of faith” against the Pope's tyrannical abuses. What makes the Augsburg Confession different from many other writings published over the centuries is its timelessness. This “good fight of faith” is still going on today. The issues in the sixteenth century are the same in the twenty-first. The Lutheran Reformation is still seeking to spread the true Gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of the devil's attacks from inside and outside the Church.
The major point of contention between the German princes and Rome comes in Articles IV-VI. The correlation between justification and faith. On this basic relationship, all of the rest of the Confession rests. Listen to these powerful words of faith:
- 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).
- So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ's sake.
- Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that through their own preparations and works the Holy Spirit comes to them without the external Word.
- Our churches 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. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Luke 17:10). The Fathers teach the same thing. Ambrose says, “It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving forgiveness of sins, without works, through faith alone.”
Justification is the basis for the “good fight of faith.” Justification is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls. And the fight still continues today about the proper understanding of justification. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church still describes a works-oriented, man-oriented definition of justification:
- Like conversion, justification has two aspects. Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high.
Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man. This all sounds good until you read two paragraphs later: “Grace is the help God gives us to respond to our vocation of becoming his adopted sons. It introduces us into the intimacy of the Trinitarian life.” Grace is the catalyst that brings you into a position where you can make ourselves God's adopted son or daughter, Is that what you learned in Confirmation? Is that the grace taught from this pulpit? From the pulpit in your congregation? Absolutely not.
The German princes, through powerful preachers and writers like Luther and Melanchthon, fought against the idea of grace being a help to get you to turn toward Christ. Luther preached that everything, justification, faith and grace—all three of them—were free gifts from God. And they cited the Church Fathers to support them. The same Church Fathers Rome would try to use to discredit them. The early Church held its ground against those who wanted to take away God's gift of justification and faith and make it into man's work. Although Rome openly anathematizes the same people, they follow the very same teachings. They just place a thin veil of philosophy over it to obscure that fact.
The German princes fought hard against anyone who would deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone on account of Christ alone. In 1999, all these things were supposed to be taken care of. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation (of which the Missouri Synod is not a member) signed the Joint Declaration on Justification. In this document, they supposedly reversed all the fighting the Reformation had done by consentual agreement. However, this agreement is so vague that both sides can continue to use their own definitions of all the terms and still claim agreement. So the fight still continues today.
What is the object of this fight over justification? To “take hold of eternal life.” What is eternal life? “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Justification is the central focus of salvation. Justification gives eternal life through the forgiveness of sins. A justified sinner takes hold of eternal life because of Jesus' promise.
As you take hold of eternal life, you “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” These are all the fruits of justification. Sanctification is not part of justification, as Rome teaches, but a fruit of it. Sanctification pursues the good gifts Christ offers. The gifts Jesus offers through His death and resurrection. The justification of all souls. The hope of the world. The habitation of the Lord's house. Where His glory dwells.
Take hold of this. Eternal life through the forgiveness of your sins. “Faith believes, nor questions how.” Faith in Christ takes His promise at His Word. This is what the German princes did when they stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and made their Confession. They knew it might cost their earthly lives, but they had eternal life firmly in their grasp.
Having fought the fight, having a firm grasp on eternal life, you can make the “good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Emperor Charles V tried to dissuade the princes from the very beginning. At the very first meeting, in the spring of 1530, he declared that no Lutheran preaching would be allowed in Augsburg. George, the Margrave of Brandenburg and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, immediately approached the Emperor and bowed his head. “Before I let anyone take from me the Word of God and ask me to deny my God,” he said, “I will kneel and let them strike off my head.” A bold profession of faith from one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire! A profession that every Christian should be willing to make because they have firmly grasped in their hands.
The Christian life is this series of confessions and professions before witnesses, whether many or few. The Christian life is a life of witness. The Augsburg Confession is a good confession. A confession based on Christ's free gift of justification. The forgiveness of sins. The preaching of the Gospel. The life of good works necessary “to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is impossible for you to do by yourself, but you are not by yourself. You are in Christ. You have been justified. All your sins forgiven. Brought into God's family as cherished children. Emboldened to live in Christ and confess His name.
The German princes made their good confession at Augsburg. They followed St. Paul's exhortation to St. Timothy. They followed Christ's example as He stood before Pontius Pilate. Jesus declared the truth. Pilate sentenced Him to be crucified. But Jesus rose from the dead. He is coming back once again to judge the living and the dead. To reward those who have fought the good fight of faith, have taken hold of eternal life and made the good confession. “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in Heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in Heaven.” Fight the good fight. Take hold of eternal life. Make the good confession of Christ. Amen.