First and foremost, our church is characterized by the fact that she survived the apostolic era. I intentionally say survived. The Lutheran Church is a branch of the Apostolic Church, a part of that church that still lives today and once listened to Peter and Paul, Ignatius and Irenaeus. We too are late born limbs of the church of martyrs and catacombs, the world-conquering and worldwide church. Every Sunday, we confess that we belong to her, the one, holy, and catholic church. During the first days of the church this was evidence of true Christendom that one “holds fast to the apostolic teaching.” There have always been fanatical spirits, sectarians, and embezzlers that wanted to change the apostolic message or thought they could interpret it better and clearer than the apostles themselves.
To “hold fast to the apostolic teaching” means first and foremost to hold fast to the Holy Scriptures. It was the mother church that gave us our Bible. This, however, should not be understood as if the mother church is the source of the Word. The Word existed before. The prophetic Word had gone out. The Gospel was proclaimed. The holy history was a fact. Not everything had yet been set to writing, but everything was there as the complete work of salvation. Over this Word the church has never been lord. It has been given to her invitingly and steadfastly. However, the mother church received the great task to gather, to fix in writing, to set the holy books apart and give them as an inheritance to the church of the future.
So here the early church has given us an inheritance that is applicable for all times and all people. In this regard the work is finished. There is nothing to add or to take from the divine Word. It is inexhaustible and constantly new. Sometimes it seems silent, mysterious, and without relevance to our reality. Then suddenly a new situation arises, and the Word, that seemed to have been dead, is full of life and authority. The Word shows that it constantly has something new to say to the questions of the day, if a person only returns to it with his questions, day after day.
There is nothing to add or to take from the divine Word. It is inexhaustible and constantly new.
Nothing can be more important than that God’s Word is really taken seriously as God’s Word—first and foremost by the church’s own servants. Nothing can so weaken a pastor’s ability to help his fellow man than his own disbelief concerning the Word. It is of course the Word that creates the church, that awakens and sanctifies people, that builds up the congregation and gives faith as an inheritance to the next generation. The Word is the manner of God’s presence among us. It has pleased God to take his dwelling in this Word. This is the Bible’s own view of the Word, that with new emphasis has been put forward by the most recent scholarship: God is in this Word. It has gone out from his mouth. It has the power to establish and tear down. It is Spirit and Life.
Jesus continues his earthly wandering in this Word. He takes form among us through the Word. Where the Word has gone out from him, there he himself calls disciples and carries out the same work among them that he carried out during his earthly days: he awakens their faith, reveals his mystery, and lets the light fall upon mysterious contexts that man alone can never fathom.
So to pass over the divine Word means to break with God. It means to place oneself outside the sphere of influence where God carries out his work of salvation. The apostasy from the Word not only happens in that a person quits using it. The decisive apostasy happens in that moment when a person no longer receives it as God’s Word. The insidious thing is that a person can both read and exposit the Word in such a way that essentially denies its divine character. A person can read it with an arrogance that considers himself capable of deciding what is acceptable and what ought to be eliminated. A person can receive it as a departure point for observations that only reproduces the thoughts of men that are just now popular and commonly accepted. There is a good deal in such a sermon that can say approximately the same as God’s Word, and yet is not a proclamation of God’s Word. The proclaimer has not gone to the Word to hear what his Lord says. He has not bowed to the Word and received it as a message that he himself in no way is lord over and which for just that reason has power over others, a Word that is not the pastor’s, not the era’s, not common opinions, but proceeds from the Almighty God himself.
The decisive apostasy happens in that moment when a person no longer receives it as God’s Word.
It is truly peculiar that in the last half century many debates concerning the Bible commonly seem to have arisen because every person naturally recognizes the mystery of God’s Word, such that he knows how God’s Word ought to be procured, and so he could decide, for example, if the Pentateuch ought to be called God’s Word. In actual fact, the divine Word is a mystery before which unbelief stands just as helpless as when it stands before the person of Christ, before the divine essence, or before God himself. A person can encounter Jesus without understanding that he has seen the Father. The church can be both seen and described without discovering anything other than an all too human institution. A person can perceive God in the conscience or see him in nature without learning to know the living God. In the same way a person can both read and analyze the Bible without either perceiving or understanding that it is God who speaks there.
God really does not belong to the world that a person has at his disposal. He cannot learn to know him independently of how he stands before him. God steps into our world, into history, into our thoughts and hearts. Yet in the same moment that he is there, there is also the divine demand for love and obedience. God is a consuming fire, a holy love that gives everything and demands everything. It is impossible to stand as an objective observer before God. With the right of a creator, he makes claim on his own, and with a father’s right he seeks our reciprocal love. A man can either give God his due and this love—or deny it to him. An encounter with God always means taking a position. It is always bound with faith or denial, with childlike love or slavish fear and dismissiveness that can take all sorts of forms from complacency to blasphemy.
God steps into our world, into history, into our thoughts and hearts. Yet in the same moment that he is there, there is also the divine demand for love and obedience.
Such as God is, so now also is his Word. It is a Word with power and authority that places a man in a situation where he must bow in repentance and faith or try to push away from his Father and Creator. The authority of this Word is not an external, confirmable fact that a man can calmly and objectively test and weigh. It is God’s own authority. Here God himself speaks to his human children. He speaks in wrath and grace, in holiness and love. He rebukes our sins, describes our helplessness and our powerless conceit, our attempts to play as if we were grown when we are in fact children, our cruelty, and our fear of death. He also speaks about his own fatherly heart’s longing for his children, about his efforts that span the millennia to open our eyes and make it possible for us to receive the great work of salvation in Jesus Christ, the great mystery that says: Christ died for our sins, Christ rose from the dead and blesses us, Christ lives in our hearts through faith.
This is the message of salvation that is God’s Word to us. It is these things that it pleases him to reveal to us through the Scriptures. The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation . . . revealing righteousness from God” (Rom. 1:16–17). Here God himself is present, here God’s hand is outstretched and touches our hearts. Here, he who has ears to hear encounters his Father and his Redeemer.