Confessional Freedom

By Paul Koch

Do you confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession to be a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? And do you confess that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord—as these are contained in the Book of Concord—are also in agreement with this one scriptural faith?

Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God.

Such is the vow made by every man ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Beautiful, simple, and eloquent. Why are the confessions contained in the Book of Concord mine? They are in accord with the Word of God.

This vow and a desire to remain faithful to it are essential to what it means to be a Confessional Lutheran. When pastors and congregations speak about being confessional, they are saying that the words of the Book of Concord are their own words. The confessions operate as a regula fidei/rule of faith and are then both a summary of the faith which could be used to interpret sacred Scriptures and a collection of the most important points of the Word. As such, they give us a sure footing, a foundation upon which we do theology.

Yet, I have always been fascinated with the discussion of how this confessional subscription impacts the preaching task. I don’t think we usually think of confessions as preaching tools, but I would submit that it is one of its greatest uses.

The confessions as a dusty book on my shelf can function as a source of reassuring confidence in my teachings. As I prepare a Bible study or topical study for the members of my congregation, I can use the Book of Concord as a sort of reference work to make sure that I really said things the best way. I may even prepare a study that follows its patterns and themes. Or perhaps I could even use it as an incredible cross-reference tool to help me marshal other texts around a topic. In this way, the confessions are a rich and indispensable resource.

On the other hand, more often than not, the Book of Concord is used as a tool to wield when it is time to prove others wrong. I can certainly use it as a book to chastise others who have wandered a bit far from the fold. In fact, it turns out that the confessions of the Church function wonderfully as a sort of electric fence that, used in conjunction with the pastor’s vow, can shock and terrify the wayward.

But there is a wonderful, life-giving, and freeing use of the confessions that is often pushed to the back corner. There is a use of these beautiful treasures of the Church that is far more than an electric fence, far more than a useful reference tool or measure of quality control. And we see this most vividly on display when they are used to shape and guide the preacher of the Word. When a preacher believes that the confessions of the Church are his own because they are in accord with the Word of God, then the real power of these symbols of the Church become evident.

My favorite metaphor used to explain this is found at the end of Dr. Voelz’ hermeneutics text, What Does This Mean? There he states, “The confessional writing gathered together in the Book of Concord might be likened to a collection of maps gathered into an atlas. Instead of mapping out the geographical features on the Holy Land, however, they map out the doctrinal content of the Scriptures.” Now, maps are not intended to replace the trip. Just because you have a map of the John Muir Trail doesn’t mean that you have hiked the trail. No, the map is to provide a guide in taking the trip. And here’s the thing: I will use the map confidently until something does not agree with it. But to go without the map is almost to guarantee that I will get lost along the way.

A preacher, equipped with his trusty map in one hand and the Scriptures laid out before him, is then a force to be reckoned with. For one who uses a map and goes on a journey to reach a destination, the destination of the Word of God, the heart and center of it all is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The confessions then guide the preacher to follow in the footsteps of Paul and declare, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

In this, the confessions are not so much a fence to keep everyone in line, but a beacon that frees us to venture out. They inform, remind, and convict the preacher of what is good, right, and salutary. This then strengthens them in their handling of the Word of God for proclamation to others. There is strength and joy in this not fear and timidity.

To be a confessional preacher is to stand on the shoulders of giants, to proclaim with boldness and confidence. By the confessions, we are not limited and held back but rather set free to deliver the gifts of God to any and all situations of life. We operate with an unfair advantage over those set out alone and get lost in the woods. So, let us not relegate our Book of Concord to references of limitation but wield them as formative tools of freeing proclamation.