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What Luther Says

Unconditional Subscription: Unconditional Surrender To God's Word

The previous post we published about my discovery that an Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) Pastor was invited to give a Children's Message during weekly Chapel at the Lutheran Elementary School where my children attend prompted me to recall something I read a few months ago.

Doctrinal decisions should be based solely on God’s Word as interpreted by the Lutheran Confessions, not by what the "majority," or the "minority" think. (If you don’t understand the interpretive role of our Confessions, read Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s essay "Why Should Our Pastors, Teachers and Professors Subscribe Unconditionally to the Symbolical Writings of Our Church").

Basing decisions on Scripture often isn’t popular. The world, the devil, and our flesh, are very fond of twisting Scripture, each to its own liking. Topics such as abortion, closed Communion, and women’s ordination are great examples of this conflict between Scripture and what the "majority" want. It is here that we must draw the line. It should be obvious that the Lutheran position and that of the politically correct world are often at odds. What may catch us by surprise though is when Lutherans disagree among themselves. A word of warning: When the "majority" of Lutherans fall on one side of an issue, that does not necessarily make them correct. And just because some commenter somewhere questions an article of faith doesn’t mean it's up for grabs. As Dr. C.F.W. Walther aptly pointed out,
A doctrine does not become an open question when supposedly loyal Lutherans are not in agreement. And whoever permits such doctrines to be treated as open questions surrenders the fortress of the confession of our Church and is in reality no loyal Lutheran. [Ibid]
Taking a stand that opposes popular opinion leads to persecution, but stand we must. As the prophet Amos advises, "They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth" (Amos 5:10 ESV). It is easy to take the path of least resistance, the one that will create the least turmoil. If the world is giving you a big thumbs up, it's time to reevaluate. Luther warns,
The lie has always had the greater following, the truth the smaller. Indeed, I know if only a few insignificant men were attacking me, then what I have taught and written were not yet from God. St. Paul caused a great uproar with his teaching, as we read in Acts [17:5, 18; 18:12; 19:23–41], but that did not prove his teaching false. Truth has always caused disturbance and false teachers have always said, "Peace, peace!" as Isaiah [Ezekiel] and Jeremiah tell us [Ezekiel 13:10, 16; Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11]. (LW 32, 12)
So make your good confession, and do not lose heart. "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12 ESV).


Those are encouraging words indeed.

Personally, I liked these excerpts from Walther's piece on unconditional subscription...

An unconditional subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to serve the Church makes under oath 1) that he accepts the doctrinal content of our Symbolical Books, because he recognizes the fact that it is in full agreement with Scripture and does not militate against Scripture in any point, whether that point be of major or minor importance; 2) that he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to preach this doctrine without adulteration. Whatever position any doctrine may occupy in the doctrinal system of the Symbols, whatever the form may be in which it occurs, whether the subject be dealt with ex professo or only incidentally, an unconditional subscription refers to the whole content of the Symbols and does not allow the subscriber to make any mental reservation in any point. Nor will he exclude such does as are discussed incidentally in support of other doctrines, because the fact that they are so used stamps them as irrevocable articles of faith and demands their joyful acceptance by everyone who subscribes to the Symbols.

Since all divisions within Christendom appeal to Scripture, the mere confession that one believes what is in Scripture is not a confession that clearly distinguishes the confessor from the false believer. For, in spite of this confession, no one knows whether one accepts Scripture in the true sense or not or whether one is a Papist, or an enthusiast, or a Rationalist, or an orthodox Christian. Therefore an unconditional subscription is indispensable. For the sake of clarity it is necessary to declare how one understands and interprets Scripture and the articles of faith that are contained in it. It is essential to keep in mind that the purpose of our Symbols is a) that our Church clearly and unequivocally confess its faith and its doctrine before the world; b) that it distinguish itself from all heterodox bodies and sects; c) that it may possess a united, certain, general form and norm of doctrine for all its teachers, on the basis of which all other writings and teachings can be judged and regulated. But if the Church demands only a conditional acceptance of its Symbols, it virtually retracts the faith and the doctrine which it had set forth in the Symbols. Then the document which the Church had offered as its confession is after all not its real confession, and the charge can be raised that the Church is double-tongued and is deceiving the world with its Symbols. By demanding only a conditional subscription to its Symbols the Church forfeits its distinctively Lutheran characteristics, and by admitting that its Symbols contain errors it places itself on the same level with the heterodox bodies. In this case the Church is without a united, certain, general form and norm of doctrine, on the basis of which each one is able to judge his own teaching as well as all other writings and teachings.

The purpose for which the Church demands a subscription to its Symbols is twofold: a) that the Church may convince itself that its teachers really possess the orthodox understanding of Scripture and the same pure, unadulterated faith as the Church; b) that the Church may bind them with a solemn promise to teach this faith pure and unadulterated or renounce the office of teaching instead of disturbing the Church with their false teaching. This twofold purpose is completely nullified if the servants of the Church are permitted to accept the Symbols of the Church on a conditional basis. For when the Church is satisfied with a conditional subscription, it openly admits to its teachers that its Symbols may contain doctrines which are contrary to Scripture. By making such an admission the Church loses all means of convincing itself what the teacher believes when he subscribes conditionally, and releases him from the obligation of teaching the Word of God pure and unadulterated according to its Symbols, which are the norm for teaching in the Church. Furthermore, when congregations demand that those who want to teach subscribe to their Symbols, they are looking for a guarantee that no teacher with an erring conscience nor an outspoken errorist will come in and teach them all sorts of errors. However, if congregations demand only a conditional subscription to their Symbols, they weaken that guarantee, give the false teacher a weapon against themselves, and rob themselves of the right of deposing a teacher who teaches contrary to their Symbols.

Some say we can accept the Symbolical Books only "in so far as they agree with Scripture, but in so far as men have written them, it is not possible for us to base our faith on them." True, but the question is whether he who wants to enter the office of teaching understands and believes that they do agree with Scripture. The declaration that one accepts the Symbols "in so far" and not "because" they agree with Scripture is not a pledge to teach according to the Symbols, but according to his conscience and opinions.

But is it not possible that the Symbols of the orthodox Church contain errors in less important points? Yes, but the possibility does not establish reality. Only a skeptic, who is always learning and never coming to the truth, despairs of ever finding the truth and will maintain; Men have written this, and therefore it must contain error. But if error should really be found in our Symbols, we would be the first to pass the death sentence on them. But we defy the whole world to point out an error in doctrine in our Book of Concord. For the past three hundred years all the enemies of our Church have tried in vain to find an error, but have failed. They have shown, and we admit it, that our Symbols contain points which are contrary to their blind reason; but they have failed to prove that our Symbols contradict Scripture in the smallest point.

What good is a confession of faith if you're not willing to stand upon that confession when push comes to shove? Or, to be more specific, why call ourselves "Lutheran" and claim to subscribe unconditionally to a particular confession of faith when we're not willing to confront half-truths and lies in the name of God when then come walking into our Lutheran Churches and Schools with a smiling face?

In a Lutheran Layman's terms, "unconditional subscription" does not mean a blind acceptance of what our church fathers had to say simply because they said it first, but it actually means unconditional surrender to God's Word, because (quia) the Lutheran Confessions expose Holy Scripture's teaching, and that's why we subscribe to them.

As one commenter put it, "The Confessions are not themselves divinely inspired, but over 400 years have been examined, weighed, measured, and found to be in full agreement with Holy Scripture. So, yes, we can take them authoritatively. We do not take the name 'Lutheran' because we follow Luther, but because we stand with Luther and the Lutheran Confessions as accurate expositions of God’s Word." Amen!

Thus, if someone were to come along and provide clear evidence from Scripture that the Lutheran Confessions were doctrinally in error, then Lutherans would be required to revise their Symbols...or they would have to cease being Lutherans. It's as simple as that.

Perhaps I should prepare to share a copy of Walther's 1858 essay with a few people.

[NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with Lutheran doctrine -- in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word -- so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray. Thank you in advance for your time and help. Grace and peace to you and yours!]


About JKR

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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