The Augsburg Confession: A Guide for the Perplexed

Just as living things have DNA, a blueprint of their identity, so churches have their own “DNA,” confessions which state what they believe. Such documents provide the ABCs or basics of faith and tell others where a church stands on important issues. For Lutherans, the primary means of instruction in the faith other than the Bible is Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. But in terms of a public statement of faith, the most important document for Lutherans is the Augsburg Confession (also known as the “Augustana” from its Latin name, Confessio Augustana), adhered to by all Lutheran churches throughout the world. Lutherans believe that the Augsburg Confession is a faithful summary of Christian faith, a statement to which we should adhere because it is faithful to the Bible.

The Occasion for the Augsburg Confession

At the time of the Reformers there was no separation of church and state as we have today. Instead worldly princes were insistent that their subjects belong to their religion, so that they would be loyal during times of conflict and war. So, when Martin Luther protested against abuses in the medieval church, there were political repercussions. Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which included Germany, was loyal to the pope, the head of the church. His enemies, the Turks, were threatening to invade the empire and he expected allegiance from all his subjects. On January 21, 1530 Charles invited German nobles and representatives of free-cities to assemble (called a “Diet”) in Augsburg in order to discuss the religious dissension that threatened his empire’s unity.

Gospel-Based Reform

Many medieval Christians believed that the church had strayed from the truth and sought its reform. Unlike prior calls for structural reform, Luther sought a foundational reform that would change everything built on it. For Luther this meant calling the church back to the gospel. With an intense study of the Bible, Luther came to see that the gospel is not rules by which we are to live. He came to see rules in Scripture and in life as law, not gospel. God provides the law in order to tell us that our ultimate purpose is in honoring and loving God, and that we are to serve our neighbors in our day-to-day affairs.

However, God gives us commands which we are unable to do even though they are good in themselves. This is because we are sinners. Think of it this way. If a parent tells a child, “don’t touch the hot stove,” what do you think that child will do? You already know the answer. As soon as there is a boundary, a sinner wants either to break it or find a way to get around it. True enough, the law is good, but sinners rebel against or try to sidestep it. God gives the law not because we can do it but in order to prove to us that our righteousness will not make us righteous before him. Instead, we need a righteousness that God himself gives us. Rendered passive before God by the law’s accusations, we are in need of God’s mercy.

God gives his mercy as a promise, a word which gives sinners like us new life: because Jesus has died and risen for sinners, we are welcomed into God’s arms. God grants his favor and love to this sinful world. All who trust in Jesus share in this favor and are righteous. This is no fiction because finally it is utter trust in God’s mercy that is the only stance that we sinners can have before God.

This good news needs people to proclaim it—preachers. Anyone can share this news, but in the church some are designated to do just that. And, proclaiming the gospel to sinners trapped by the accusing law results in those sinners rejoicing. Through God’s promise, they have new, clean hearts. Given that they are loved for Jesus’ sake, they can begin to love God for his own sake and serve their neighbors and this good earth quite selflessly.

Disagreement over Reform

The church in Luther’s time and some churches today have beliefs and practices which do not square with this view of the gospel. So the reformers were compelled to confess the true faith and challenge corrupt practices—this is what the Augsburg Confession is about. Luther and his co-workers reformed the church to make it true to the proper distinction between law and gospel.

Other critics of the medieval church, unlike Luther, did not see the distinction between law and gospel as the key to reform. Anabaptists, from whom modern day Mennonites and Amish descend, believed that reformation meant that Christians should live as true disciples by separating themselves from the world as much as possible. For Ulrich Zwingli, reformation meant that the church should follow specific biblical patterns for worship and that secular culture should likewise follow biblical patterns.

Additionally, Zwingli believed that Luther had not gone far enough in reforming the Lord’s Supper. Luther believed that the risen, ascended, and glorified Jesus Christ was really present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper since Jesus had promised to be there. For Zwingli, the ascended Jesus is now at God’s right hand, unavailable to be present in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper, for Zwingli, was only a memorial of Jesus’ supper long ago. In response to Zwingli, Luther noted that God’s right hand is everywhere that God is active to save us. Heaven is not some specific address in outer space but wherever God is available to save. Likewise, Luther noted that the Bible simply has no specific roadmap either for worship or for Christianizing culture. So, we have some latitude in how we worship and live.

Character of the Augsburg Confession

Since Luther had been expelled from the church in 1521 and had likewise been declared an outlaw by the Diet of Worms, he was not able to attend this Diet at Augsburg called for by the emperor. Instead, his co-worker, Philipp Melanchthon, would represent him. Originally Elector John of Saxony commissioned his theologians to prepare a working paper of the Reformers’ beliefs and practices. However, an opponent, John Eck, had written 404 Propositions which linked Lutheran beliefs with those of Zwingli. This impelled Melanchthon to show Lutheran faithfulness to genuine catholic (meaning “universal”) teaching and so develop a confession of faith. The Augsburg Confession was written in both German and Latin (the scholarly language of the time) and read in German to Charles V on June 25, 1530. It is composed of “articles” of faith—matters which must be believed if you are to be a Christian. The first twenty-one are chief articles of faith, on which Melanchthon asserted all the parties at the Diet agreed, while articles twenty-two through twenty-eight list abuses in the medieval church.

The Augsburg Confession is directed against two different groups: It is opposed to abuses in the medieval church (some which still exist even today) and it is opposed to teachings adhered to by other Protestants, such as Zwingli and the Anabaptists. Most importantly, it says that the Lutheran movement is faithful to the apostles, Jesus’ first followers and witnesses, and that it was not departing from genuine catholic faith through innovative teachings.

You as a Confessor

Our culture tends to make confession of the faith a private matter. We believe that people will get along better if they do not argue about religion. But just like the reformers were called to confess their faith before the emperor, Charles V (who did not receive it well or give it support), we too at times are called to confess this same faith with integrity and conviction. The more you learn about the Christian faith the better able you will be publically to defend and commend it.

You can read the Augsburg Confession for free, here.