Read the section in the Small Catechism on the Apostles’ Creed.
A creed is a basic statement of faith. The Apostles' Creed, as we now have it, dates from the eighth century. However, its roots are in the “Old Roman Creed” which was used in some parts of the ancient church as early as the third century (200’s CE). While this creed does not come directly from the apostles (Jesus’ followers sent to share the good news), its roots are apostolic (in keeping with the teaching of the New Testament apostles). The creed describes the faith into which we are baptized and therefore is used in the rites of Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism.
The Apostles’ Creed is used by many of the protestant mainline churches, the Roman Catholic church, and others. It is part of what ties us together because we share it and it articulates our common beliefs about who God is and what God does.
While the Creed does lay out our Trinitarian understanding of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), in a very real way Luther understood that we encounter God in reverse order. You see this clearly in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed which starts, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel….” It is the Spirit which works in us first, giving us the gift of faith in Jesus who saves. It is through Jesus, God’s self-revelation to us, and through the Holy Spirit given to us, that we have our experience of who God is.
Luther understood that the Ten Commandments are written on the hearts of all people. But he also knew that no human wisdom can comprehend the Creed. It is only the Holy Spirit that makes it comprehensible to us.
Article 1- I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Luther understood that creation is a gracious act of God on behalf of him. God has done this for him and for everyone and everything. Note also that creation is not finished, but that this is an ongoing process. One by which all my needs are met.
My response to this continued support from God is thanks, praise, service and obedience. The thanks and praise are echoes of Commandment # 2 and Luther’s explanation (we’ll wait while you go back and take a look!). We tend to think that we are the ones who provide this laundry list of things for ourselves. Luther reminds us that everything comes from God, the one who in Commandment # 1 we are called to “fear, love, and trust.”
Note the emphasis for Luther was on God as creator. That experience of God is what drove his understanding of who God is. God is that intimately involved with God’s creation, with each of us, each plant, each animal. God is that much up in our business. Note also that this creating God is caring for creation, specifically each of us, right down to the shoes on our feet. It reminds us that all that we have comes, ultimately from God.
Questions for thought and conversation:
- Since God is good and has given us these gifts of our body and of this creation, how then do we use them? Do we use them in a fashion that honors God and that gift?
- Is it scary or reassuring to you to think of how intimately God is involved in your daily life as described in this explanation?
- What stands out to you in this explanation? What most challenges you?
Article 2- I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
The main image Luther used in his 1528 sermon on the Second Article was that of a good lord rescuing us from an evil tyrant. We are called Christians because we call Christ our Lord.
A note, we should be careful in seeing a particular atonement theory being espoused by Luther. Instead, we should focus on what he sees as the actual experience of God at work in Jesus Christ: loosening, buying back, freeing. The Lord has bought us, called us into his kingdom through baptism, and freed us from the law to serve others. A service that is not offered because we must do it (Law) but because we are free to do it (Gospel).
This article tells us the core reality and the true gospel; Jesus was sent by God to redeem (buy back), to free us all. This happens through his death and resurrection. He does this for our sake, so that we may all belong to him and no longer be enslaved to the evil triumvirate of sin, death, and the devil.
Questions for thought and conversation:
- In this article lies the core of the Gospel, the Good News of God come to us in Jesus Christ. Why is this good news to you?
- What words in Luther’s explanation stand out most to you? Why is that?
- Are there other things that stand out to you in this explanation? What most challenges you?
Article 3- I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
This article and its explanation are at the center of the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel. To fully engage that understanding there are several things we need to talk about first.
Whenever Luther talks about the Word, he is referring to one of three things:
- Jesus Christ- Jesus is indeed the Word incarnate. Jesus is first and foremost God’s Word, God’s message to us. Christ in the Gospel of John is called the “logos” or “word”. It is this word of God who is present in the creation and through whom God creates. It is through this Word of God that we are saved.
- Scripture- Luther spends much time talking about the direct link between encounter with the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit (whose activity is described in the explanation of the 3rd article). Wherever you hear the Word the Spirit will be at work. Luther writes that it is self evident in scripture that God has ever worked through means, something physical. This is for our sake. So, we come to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit through means and this is for our benefit, because we need such things. The written Word of God is also what Luther calls the “cradle” of Christ. This is the primary means by which we encounter the Word that is Jesus.
- Spoken Word- As the Gospel is proclaimed, so the Holy Spirit is active bringing to faith and strengthening faith in those who hear it. Paul in Galatians says they have received the Spirit not through the works of the Law but the preaching of faith (3:2). In Romans he writes (10:17) “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” Luther placed a premium on “fine, goodly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers.”. This spoken Word is also primary for Luther. So much so he called the church a “mouth” house.
The Word is considered by Luther to be a means of grace, just as the sacraments (baptism and communion) are. For it is a concrete thing through which the Spirit acts. You can be saved without a sacrament, but not without the Word.
Law and Gospel-
Another thing to keep in mind is Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel.
In the Ten Commandments and the Creed your have the clear example of Luther’s understanding of the necessity of both Law and Gospel (in that order).
Luther understands that the Law kills, the Gospel makes alive. Both are needed and necessary to keep the other in check. They cannot be mixed, but you also cannot have one without the other. Both are the Word that is the means by which the Holy Spirit comes, they just serving different functions.
Luther understands that the Law commands us to do and not to do. It demands obedience and service. It constrains us in its civic use (in society). It convicts us in our religious life by showing us that we cannot do what God calls us to do. It drives us to rely on Christ alone. The Gospel bids us simply receive the offered grace of forgiveness and salvation and be satisfied to have it given to us as a present.
As professor Timothy Wengert writes, “What a relief to would-be preachers! We do not have to try to make our hearers do something through our words. It will never happen in any case. Rather, we get the opportunity simply to tell the truth about the human condition, that’s the law, and to tell the truth about God, that’s the gospel.”
The key words of this explanation lie here, “I believe that I cannot believe.” Martin Luther understood that human beings are so caught up in sin (as shown by the Ten Commandments) that when it comes to our relationship with God, we can do nothing but turn from God. In this way, we have no free will. No ability to do even the smallest thing to believe. I believe that I cannot believe.
Instead, Luther understood that “faith is not a work or even a ‘response’; it is an event, what happens when we hear the lover’s voice and fall in love.” Through the Holy Spirit (which comes to us through the Word) we receive the gift of faith. We live in response to that faith, that free, undeserved and unearned gift from God. We do so not because we must earn it or keep it, but because we have it. And that is who we are.
Now, when it comes to our decisions about earthly things (what I will wear, how I will treat the planet, what I have for lunch) we do indeed have free will. It is just in relationship to God that we cannot, by our own understanding or strength, believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him.
It is this very belief, so difficult for us to grasp, that makes us different from most Christians in the United States. There the claim is that faith is our choice, our work. That we choose God. There are several problems Luther had with this idea, but one that comes to mind is this; If I choose God, it means that my salvation rests not solely on Jesus, but on me as well. Then, my salvation gets kind of shaky, because I know me! Instead, if my salvation depends upon God alone, I know that if God says something is so, it is so!
This understanding of how God acts in and through the Word to transform our lives comes out in the Lutheran doctrine-
Justification by Grace through faith for the sake of Christ apart from works of the law.
By this, Luther means that we are made right with God not through any action of our own but purely through God’s grace.
Justification is the crowning jewel of Luther’s understanding of the Gospel. It comes from the treatment on the second and third articles of the Creed.
Justification for Luther is always viewed in the context of the end-times. He had no interest in the psychological event in the person being justified or in the question of how the person being saved participates in it. He was only concerned with how it affects our judgement at the end-times. When Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Word and faith are in mutual relationship in which the Word is always preeminent. Faith is a free, divine gift given to us. In faith, Christ is present. This “alien” righteousness of Christ is why we can say we are fully righteous; the leftover self is the reason we can say we are fully sinners.
As Christians who happen to be Lutheran, when it comes to our status before God, we believe works have no role. The only thing that matters to God is faith alone. And that faith is a free gift from God. We are made right with God through faith, not by what we do.
However, where there are no works one can assume that faith is dead. “If good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but … dead faith.” “True faith is not idle. We can, therefore, ascertain and recognize those who have true faith from the effect or from what follows.”
As with most things Lutheran, there are some difficult concepts to keep in balance here, but they are central to our particular understanding of the Gospel.
Questions for thought and conversation:
- What is your first, gut reaction to this article? Why do you think you reacted that way?
- What is at stake in this understanding of how God is at work in the world?
- Why do you think this is the most important article of the Lutheran tradition?
- What questions/concerns does this raise for you? Are there places where it makes you sigh in relief?