The Reformation: The Augsburg Confession

Tom Nettles
| February 21, 2018

In a continuing effort to maintain Christian unity without denying what they considered revealed truth, Lutheran Princes and theologians met in Augsburg on June 25, 1530, to discuss points of agreement and disagreement between the Lutherans and the Romans Catholics. Setting forth the theological convictions of Luther through the compositional powers of Philip Melancthon (1497-1560), they presented to Emperor Charles V, in both Latin and German what is known as the Augsburg Confession. The reading of it took two hours and created an atmosphere of spiritual exuberance for one party and of distress and tactical perplexity for the other. Luther, stowed in safe territory at the castle of Coburg in light of his outlawed status in both church and empire, heard daily reports and responded with his approval or suggestions and marveled that the gospel had been preached by princes before the Emperor himself. He saw Melancthon as more fit for the task than himself; indeed, Melancthon was given the task of answering the Catholic refutation of the Augsburg Confession, an elaborate work known as Apology of the Augsburg Confession. It represents a remarkable recovery of Melancthon after having almost conceded all to Rome in the pressures of the weeks of discussion in Augsburg that followed the presentation of the confession. That work itself became a highly valued doctrinal standard and is one of the parts of the Lutheran Book of Concord. J. A. Wylie called Melancthon “the clearest intellect and most accomplished scholar in the Lutheran host.”

The Confession began with twenty-one articles that the Lutherans contended had nothing “contrary to the Holy Scriptures or what is common to the Christian church.” The substance of these twenty-one articles was preached regularly in their churches for “proper Christian instruction, the consolation of consciences, and the amendment of believers.” They had no desire to put either their souls or their consciences in peril by teaching what does not accord with the pure word of God and Christian truth. They were convinced that they set forth nothing that was not common to the universal Christian church or even the Roman church as seen through the writing of the ancient western fathers.

Perhaps this claim was in earnest but also quite strategic in seeking to prompt the Roman theologians to respond with specific points of divergence, which they did, and right soon. From there, the Lutherans could point out that the differences came from innovations on the part of the Roman church, not from the Scriptures or the discussions of the Fathers. One must suspect this is the case when we read the statement on justification, article IV.

It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5.

Though many of the words, and indeed the concepts, were not alien to Roman theology, the particular arrangement, synthesis, and notable omissions would call for some clarification and correction on the part of the opponents. Certainly, the same would be true of a sentence in article V on “the office of the ministry:” “And the Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this.” Finally, in fact, it was a clinging to the merit of good works that doomed the Romanist attempt to make Melancthon cave to their strong-armed proposals of concessions.

The relation of justification to faith on the one hand and good works on the other constitutes one of the most pervasive elements of the statement. Again, though set in the section of commonly held points, this clearly was a difference and was an item of perennial contention, as it is today. The Lutherans stated in article VI, “The New Obedience,” that “faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded.” These should be done for “God’s sake” with no trust in them as meriting favor before God. To align any obedience of ours with the perfect obedience of Christ, or to make any level of penitence of ours a partner with the death of Christ in achieving forgiveness and also righteousness makes a grotesque mongrelized absurdity of the character of right standing before God. The Lutherans stated simply, “For we receive forgiveness of sin and righteousness through faith in Christ, as Christ himself say, ‘So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you say, We are unworthy servants (Luke 17:10).’”

The same theme dominates the longest article in this supposed positive realm, article XX, on “Faith and Good Works.” This begins with a sentence that shows that several erroneous ideas had been confronted by the Lutherans. It begins, “Our teachers have been falsely accused of forbidding good works.” Not so, they responded, but true good works such as are required by Scripture are established instead of the inventions of men such as rosaries, monasticism, pilgrimages, and worship of the saints. It is true, they explained, that Lutheran preachers eliminate good works from any share of achieving right standing before God, but rather they point to the merit of Christ received by faith alone. In this sense faith and good works are hostile to each other. Both Paul and Augustine so taught. Scripture is honored and consciences benefit from this teaching, for all sense that they have not done all good and, in fact, all that they have done is plagued with sinful weakness in some way. But when faith comes, then true good works may be done. “When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works” for the honor of Christ and in true love of righteousness. “Consequently,” they concluded, “this teaching concerning faith is not to be accused of forbidding good works but is rather to be praised for teaching that good works are to be done and for offering help as to how they may be done.” Patience in suffering, loving one’s neighbor, pursuing one’s calling faithfully, avoiding evil lusts—“Such great and genuine works cannot be done without the help of Christ.”

In spite of the emphasis on the merits of Christ and reception of the gospel by faith, sacramental elements remain. “Baptism is necessary [for salvation in the Latin text]” and “grace is offered through it.” Children should be baptized “for in baptism they are committed to God and became acceptable to him.” Of course, those who “teach that infant baptism is not right are rejected.”

Articles XXII through XXVIII deal with issues in which the Lutherans propound that “abuses have been corrected” but not in an “unchristian and frivolous manner.” Instead, these abuses were corrected in order to be more truly aligned with God’s commands and not hide the gospel. The Lutherans gave both bread and wine in the sacrament. They permitted the marriage of all men and women, including those who formerly had taken vows as monks, priests, or nuns. In the Mass, people are instructed what they need to know about Christ and also about the false teachings that had been imposed on the sacrament such as private masses, transubstantiation, and the mass as a sacrifice. This article gave opportunity for the evangelical commitment to be expressed again: “St. Paul taught that we obtain grace before God through faith and not through works. Manifestly contrary to this teaching is the misuse of the Mass by those who think that grace is obtained through the performance of this work.” Errors in confession, distinction in foods, monastic vows, and the power of bishops in temporal matters round out the articles. Another example of the Lutheran concern that such falsely contrived traditions and practices ignore Scripture and obscure the gospel may be seen in an introductory remark on foods: “In the first place, it has obscured the doctrine concerning grace and the righteousness of faith, which is the chief part of the gospel and ought above all else to be in the church, and to be prominent in it, so that the merit of Christ may be well known and that faith which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake may be exalted far above works and above all other acts of worship.”

Several colloquies over the next decade and a half failed to achieve agreement. Attempts to reconcile Luther and the Pope were, according to the former Augustinian monk, like seeking to reconcile Christ and Belial. These failures led to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Schmalkaldic Wars (1546-1555). The contemporary “Lutheran-Catholic Joint Dialogue” has not solved these basic issues of merit and the relation of justification to sanctification though it has cut through some of the purposeful misrepresentation of differing positions and has ameliorated much of the spirit of anathematization.

Any attempts at dialogue must not minimize the importance of any of the solas of the Reformation. Their deep and systemic implications for the whole of biblical doctrine turns any compromise into a cascading collapse of vital saving truth. While we recognize many common themes of revealed truth and their orthodox formulations and share the framework of a common worldview, the doctrines that give cohesiveness and spiritual power are not on the auction table.

Viewed atomistically, we share some assumptions about the plight of humanity in a world created by God and governed by his law. We affirm that we live in a world created by the triune God, that we are fallen persons in a fallen race and now can know him only on the basis of special revelation. We can be restored to a right relationship with God only by the mercy and grace of Christ, the great mystery and wisdom of God manifest as eternal Son and created child of Mary united in one person. The righteousness of his life and death is communicated to us in some manner by the Holy Spirit. We should desire holiness and the restoration of the divine image to our sadly corrupted souls and yearn for the glory of his presence in heaven as our final and eternally satisfying abode.

The details, however, that give holistic power to this atomized list can be surrendered only at the peril of a voided gospel. We know, and can never relativize the biblical conviction, that we embrace these truths and experience this reality only by the sovereign effectual operation of the Holy Spirit. This is so because concupiscence blinded our eyes to Christ’s meritorious glory, shut our ears from hearing graciously revealed truth, and imprisoned our hearts to aggressive godlessness. We are accepted and preserved in the Beloved, therefore, on account of his righteousness alone imputed to us by grace alone. Any blurring of the distinction between Christ’s merit and our demerit is fatal to saving truth. Any attempt to collapse justification and sanctification destroys absolute righteousness and suspends the hope of eternal life on the thread of unfulfilled law and incomplete holiness. This saving work of Spirit and Son is a perfect outworking of an eternal intra-trinitarian covenant flowing from the will of God the Father in his eternal electing love. These truths come to us by the consistent witness of Scripture alone.

While we recognize that, in God’s purpose, those truths commonly held, such as the Nicene Creed, may descend in saving power on those who do not share the holistic framework within which the saving operation of God comes, no principle of compromise or minimization should ever govern our ministry of preaching or our attempts at fraternal discussion. We have a stewardship of truth through which sinners will be rescued out of the power of condemning darkness and may also embrace the pure doctrine of the grace of God.

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