For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.
• Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, III.12
In order to deal with the religious controversies that had emerged between Rome and the Protestants, Martin Luther and others regularly appealed that a council of the Church be held. However, in 1536, when Pope Paul III ordered a council at Mantua in May of 1537, he did so for the express purpose of “the utter extirpation of the poisonous, pestilential Lutheran heresy.”
Thus, it became apparent that there would be no free, general council which would include the Reformers. In light of the situation, Luther drew up The Smalcald Articles as a summary of the Protestant position:
I have accordingly compiled these articles and presented them to our side. They have also been accepted and unanimously confessed by our side, and it has been resolved that, in case the Pope with his adherents should ever be so bold as seriously and in good faith, without lying and cheating, to hold a truly free Christian Council (as, indeed, he would be in duty bound to do), they be publicly delivered in order to set forth the Confession of our Faith. (SA, Preface)
Luther followed this uncompromising statement in 1539 with his treatise, On the Councils and the Church. It consists of three parts:
- Part I: Luther argues that the church cannot put its hope for reformation in the councils of the church or the church fathers, but only in the Word of God.
- Part II: Luther discusses the apostolic council in Acts 15 and the first four ecumenical councils: (1) Nicaea in 325, (2) Constantinople in 381, (3) Ephesus in 431, and (4) Chalcedon in 451. He concludes that the purpose of councils is to “defend…the ancient faith and the ancient good works in conformity with Scripture” against innovation, and not to establish new articles of faith or good works without or outside of Scripture.
- Part III: Luther leaves the matter of councils and turns to a positive exposition of the true marks of the Church according to God’s Word.
It is this third section that we will discuss today.
Luther starts with a definition of “church” as a community of people who are in Christ by faith and in whom the Holy Spirit is at work to make them holy.
“If the words, ‘I believe that there is a holy Christian people,’ had been used in the Children’s Creed, all the misery connected with this meaningless and obscure word (“church”) might easily have been avoided,” he writes.
The German word “kirche” did not carry this idea as clearly as Luther would have liked, and so he clarifies:
Ecclesia, however, should mean the holy Christian people, not only of the days of the apostles, who are long since dead, but to the end of the world, so that there is always a holy Christian people on earth, in whom Christ lives, works, and rules, per redemptionem, ‘through grace and remission of sin,’ and the Holy Spirit, per vivificationem et sanctificationem, ‘through daily purging of sin and renewal of life,’ so that we do not remain in sin but are enabled and obliged to lead a new life, abounding in all kinds of good works, as the Ten Commandments or the two tables of Moses’ law command, and not in old, evil works.”
In the course of his presentation, Luther stresses the “common holiness” of God’s people. By this he means that the Holy Spirit “renews heart, soul, body, work, and conduct,” in contrast to Catholicism’s emphasis on a “special, higher, different, better holiness” that they “invented” through extraordinary religious works of merit. “Just throw a surplice over your head and you are holy in accordance with the Roman church’s holiness,” he sardonically observes. The true common holiness of Christ is seen rather in true faith (the first table of the law) and in faithful living in our ordinary human relationships and responsibilities (the second table of the law).
From this definitional basis, Luther lists the marks of these “Christian, holy people.”
“This is the principal item, and the holiest of holy possessions…” Wherever this word is “preached, believed, professed, and lived,” we should not doubt, said Luther, that the true church is there. If there were only one sign, this would be it.
MARK II: These Christian, holy people are recognized by Baptism.
This “holy bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), if “taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance,” is a “public sign and a precious holy possession by which God’s people are sanctified.” This sign surely indicates the presence of a genuine Christian, holy people.
MARK III: These Christian, holy people are recognized by the holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Again, Luther stresses that the Lord’s Supper must be “rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution.” As with baptism, he asserts that it “belongs to him who receives it, not to him who administers it,” therefore, one need not worry about being properly dressed to receive it or whether you are male or female or young or old. Nor does one need to be overly concerned about the holiness of the one giving it. Communion is God’s sacrament, benefiting those whose receive it with faith in Christ.
MARK IV: These Christian, holy people are recognized by the Office of the Keys exercised publicly.
The office of the keys (Matt 18:15-20) involves the confession and forgiveness of sins—“if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out.” The keys must be used differently, both publicly and privately, according to the needs of the penitent. “Now where you see sins forgiven or reproved in some persons, be it publicly or privately, you may know that God’s people are there.”
God has so arranged the church that it has officers. That is, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4, though all the church is the Body of Christ, he has instituted that “competent and chosen” people should be entrusted with administering the Word, Sacraments, and Keys. (Luther specifically exempts women from this function, and in the rest of this point he goes on a rant about Rome’s requirement for celibacy.)
MARK VI: These Christian, holy people are recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God.
Here Luther advocates for congregational worship in which all who gather may participate and learn: “However, we are now speaking of prayers and songs which are intelligible and from which we can learn and by means of which we can mend our ways. The clamor or monks and nuns and priests is not prayer, nor is it praise to God; for they do not understand it, nor do they learn anything from it…”
MARK VII: These Christian, holy people are recognized by “the holy possession of the sacred cross” (suffering).
“They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.” Here we see Luther’s emphasis on the way of the cross vs. the way of glory as marking the path of Christian, holy people. “This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.”
• • •
In addition to these seven marks, Luther goes back to the matter of sanctification and allows that a holy life and growth in sanctification is also meant to mark Christian people out as belonging to Christ. Nevertheless, he does not include this with the other marks, for the following reason: “However, these signs [of sanctification] cannot be regarded as reliable as those noted before since some heathen too practice these works and indeed at times appear holier than Christians…”
After setting forth the seven marks of the Christian, holy people who constitute the genuine Church, Luther proceeds to critique two opposite errors regarding the external signs that testify to the presence of God’s ecclesial community.
- First, he sets his sites on Rome and criticizes them for taking the fact that God uses outward things to sanctify his people as a reason for multiplying manmade sacraments and outward rituals for people to rely on. “With this aping tomfoolery he estranges men from faith in Christ and causes the word and the sacraments of Christ to be despised and almost unrecognizable because it is easier to perceive such things than to blot out sin…”
- Second, he rejects the pietistic approach of Müntzer and the Anabaptists, who in many cases rejected outward signs altogether in favor of the inward work of the Spirit alone.
Finally, Luther takes up matters which may been called, “adiaphora.” These are “ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but are introduced into the Church with a good intention, for the sake of good order and propriety, or otherwise to maintain Christian discipline” (The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, X).
Luther’s counsel regarding such matters is, “Thus here too everything must be conducted peacefully and in order, and yet there must be freedom if time, person, or other reasons demand a change; then the masses will also follow harmoniously, since (as was said) no Christian is thereby made any more or less holy.”
Martin Luther concludes On the Councils and the Church with an encouragement that schools also be maintained in order to provide educated clergy as well as people who can serve well in various occupations throughout the world. He also reminds his readers of the importance of keeping good order in the “three hierarchies ordained by God”—the home, the civil government, and the church.
With regard to “God’s own home and city,” the church, the community of “Christian, holy people,” the reformer says, “If the Holy Spirit reigns there, Christ calls it a comforting, sweet, and light burden; if not, it is not only a heavy, severe, and terrible task, but also an impossible one…”