A Confessional Church or a Confessing Church?

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We do not live in the greatness of our own deeds. We boast in the greatness of one deed that God himself has done through Jesus Christ on the cross.

Yes. If you have been in the church long enough, you have probably heard this before. The answer you are looking for is often, “yes.” Meaning that when God’s Word presents us with two ideas that seem to contradict one another, but knowing that God’s Word can’t contradict itself, the answer becomes a simple “yes.” Water Baptism or Spiritual Baptism? Yes. Is Jesus present in the Lord’s Supper or is he in heaven reigning over us? Yes. Can one lose his salvation or is he always in Christ? Yes. So it is with this dynamic duo. Are we called to be a Confessional Church or a Confessing Church? Yes.

To understand this, we must revisit history; a very disturbing, yet essential part of world history. In the 1930’s, the Third Reich of the Nazi Regime in Germany was being ushered in. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor by the Nazi Party. German Socialism began to take over the churches. Where the cross was, now hung a swastika. There was no longer separation of church and state. The church was being urged to conform to the state. The Confessional Church was easily swept up in National Socialism with Hitler as the German messiah. A typical altar would have looked like the one in this picture above.

Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was having none of it. Though he was a proud German, his conscience compelled him to speak out in. On Reformation Sunday, 1934, Bonhoeffer stood in the pulpit and preached on 1 Corinthians 13, with heavy emphasis on verse 13:

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

In this sermon, he was referencing the difference between the Confessional Church and the Confessing Church, two wonderful German Lutheran entities that he regularly preached about, comparing the two (1). The Confessional Church refers to the Christians who come to church on Sundays, sit in their pews (or cushioned chairs), speak crystal clear and pure doctrine, say their prayers, sing their hymns, and celebrate the Sacraments. All wonderful things that should be observed in the church.

Culturally speaking, the Confessing Church was a movement within Nazi Germany that fought back against the German Reich Church. The mission of this church was to reestablish church freedom and uncompromised fidelity to God’s Word, both which were under threat by the Third Reich. As a result, the infamous Barmen Confession, which many leaders signed (including Dietrich) became the theological charter for the Protestant church in Germany. Unfortunately, when push came to shove, many of the signees gave in to the State’s demands. The Confessional church had become, as Dietrich would say, rigid.

“A church that is great in faith must be greater in love.” Bonhoeffer preached about the Confessional Church, saying, “The message of saving and redeeming faith alone became rigid, became a dead record because it was not kept alive through love.” Pushing his point even further, Dietrich boldly proclaims, “The church of faith – even if it is the most orthodox (Confessional) faith that faithfully adheres to the Creeds – is of no use if it is not even more a church of all-embracing love.”

Did you catch that? Dietrich puts the church on blast, calling the church that does not love uesless. And so, he urges the German Lutheran church to be more than just a Confessional Church, but a Confessing Church. For Germany, the Confessing Church was a church that would love without calculating what it might cost. A church that would serve without wondering who was worthy of serving. It was a church that would not submit to Hitler and German Socialism. It was a church that would stand on the confessions of God’s Word and continue to speak truth in the face of persecution. It was a church that would not fold like a cheap tent, but be willing to drive a stake into the wheels of injustice to stop the forces of evil.

This is the love of neighbor. This is the love of Christ. For it is Christ who has stakes driven into his wrists and his feat, thorns into his head, and lashes into his back and side. It is precisely this that defeats sin, death, and the devil. All for you. Jesus was not passive, but active. Jesus did not board up the heavens and tell people how to love and serve. Jesus did not cheer hopefully for the church to prevail against the gates of hell. Jesus loved. Jesus served. Jesus stormed. Jesus acted! And he calls his church to act, too.

The Confessing Church, after all, is an active church. Confessional churches without love are useless and destructive. The Confessing Church exhibits the love of Christ, the sacrificial love of Christ. The Confessing Church serves, while the Confessional Church tells other churches that they need to evangelize. The Confessing Church storms the gates of hell because the gates of hell cannot prevail!

Let me be very clear. We are indeed saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, which is revealed to us in Scripture alone. But, for the Christian, it is impossible for faith to be alone. It cannot exist alone.

Martin Luther is another theologian who often links saving faith with serving others. “But know that to serve God is nothing else than to serve your neighbor and do good to him in love, be it a child, wife, servant, enemy, friend…If you do not find yourself among the needy and the poor, where the Gospel shows us Christ, then you may know that your faith is not right, and that you have not yet tasted Christ’s benevolence and work for you (Through the Year with Martin Luther).” He has echoes of James, who writes that faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17).

We do not live in the greatness of our own deeds. We boast in the greatness of one deed that God himself has done through Jesus Christ on the cross, dying for us and rising, giving us new life in Him. It is from this that we love and serve. It is from this work that we boast in God continuing to work through us, for even these acts of love are not ours, but they, too, belong to Christ alone.

(1) This sermon can be found in A Testament To Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, beginning on page 263.

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