Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Augsburg Confession: Defense, Profession, and Invitation

The 25th day of June in 1530 was an auspicious day for the Christian church in the Holy Roman Empire. On that day Saxon chancellor Christian Beyer read the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V and the assembled representatives at the Diet of Augsburg in southwestern Germany. Prepared by Martin Luther’s friend Philip Melanchthon, with input and background materials from other University of Wittenberg colleagues, the presentation of the Augsburg Confession on this day would come to be regarded as the “birthday” of the Lutheran church. In fact, this public confession has been so central to Lutheran identity that its adherents have often been referred to as the “Church of the Augsburg Confession.”

While immediate preparation for Augsburg can be said to go back a year or two from 1530, in many ways the Augsburg Confession was almost 13 years in the making, ever since Luther had initiated the Reformation as a public movement with the posting of his “Ninety-Five Theses” in 1517. Teachers and leaders of the church were now openly challenging some of the most important practices of the late medieval Roman church, and, even more significantly, the theology on which those practices were based.

Simply stated, neither this Wittenberg appeal for reform nor the Roman disciplinary responses to it since 1517 had been successful. Followers of Luther hoped that the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 would demonstrate the validity of their critique and the strength of their evangelical theological claims. On the other hand, Rome sought the kind of rejection of the reformers’ dissent that would curtail the spread of this movement once and for all.

As intriguing as the background historical detail is, much more important is the theological substance of the Augsburg Confession itself. As Luther had consistently done, Melanchthon began by affirming the classical understanding of God as Holy Trinity, and the person of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human, on which the consensus of the universal church had always been predicated. From there, he spelled out what was absolutely central to the Reformation theological argument, namely, how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forgive sinful humanity and restore spiritually helpless people to their created status as God’s own daughters and sons.

David A. Lumpp

This gospel is classically encapsulated in the Confession’s Article IV, on “Justification”: “[W]e receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace, for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” Literally everything else in the 28 articles of the Confession points to, reasserts, or flows out of this article.

Justification by faith

The Augsburg Confession’s discussion of human beings’ fallenness underscores their inability to contribute in even the slightest way to their reconciliation with God. Indeed, they “cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God” (Article II, paragraph 1). These are not matters of personal decision or human achievement. For human beings to fear, love, and trust God requires the “grace, help, and operation of the Holy Spirit” (Article XVIII, paragraph 2).

The Confessions’ articles that are joined most directly to justification reiterate Article IV’s point in similar language. The Christian life is not about earning favor with God; rather, “forgiveness of sins and justification are taken hold of by faith” (Article VI, paragraph 2). To assert anything else, Melanchthon never tires of repeating, actually minimizes and insults the work of Jesus.

The topics that emanate from justification are equally evangelical in character. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper at their core are “signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us in order thereby to awaken and strengthen our faith” (Article XIII, paragraph 1). Likewise, the church is defined not as an institution but in terms of the people whom God has restored through these very means of grace: “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel” (Article VII, paragraph 1).

These all-too-brief samples represent the theological core of the Augsburg Confession. The Confession defended the changes in practice brought about by Luther’s Reformation. It proposed a theological foundation and rationale for those reforms. In the process, the confessors at Augsburg were inviting their Roman contemporaries — and anyone else who would listen — to re-examine the Word of God and the ancient creedal tradition to determine for themselves whether or not these articles were a more faithful statement and elaboration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The invitation grounded in the Augsburg Confession’s profession of faith has had a varied reception since that early summer afternoon in 1530. Today, Philip Melanchthon and his colleagues would doubtless be heartened that the confession they made more than 480 years ago continues to be regarded as both abidingly valid and compelling. Above all, though, they would invite their fellow confessors of the 21st century to remain focused on God’s unwavering promises in Jesus Christ, as these promises of forgiveness and new life are the point from which all Christian confessing truly begins and to which it all necessarily returns.

David A. Lumpp is professor of theology at Concordia University, St. Paul. He is a member of Jehovah Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Saint Paul. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)

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