– that the Church of Christ or the communion of saints (sanctorum communio) consists of all those the Holy Spirit through the means of grace has brought to faith in Jesus Christ;
– that the Church is one holy and indivisible unity (Una Sancta), since there is only one Christ, only one Gospel and only one saving faith in Him;
– that the Church by its inner nature is hidden from our view, since God is the only one who can look into the heart of man and see if there is a true faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ;
– that the Church nevertheless is a manifest reality, made up by believing people all over the world gathering around the Word and the Sacraments;
– that the external marks of the Church (notae ecclesiae) are the preaching of the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments according to the institution of Christ;
– that God has given Church and State different duties that must not be confused;
– that, apart from the administration of the means of grace, the Lord has not given His Church any prescriptions how to organize itself on earth.
To the greatness of the Lutheran Church belongs that it was the first church in history that formulated a simple, plain and clear definition of what the church is. It was the Papal church with its powerful threats of banishment to the Reformers and their doctrine on salvation by grace through faith alone that forced them to go back to the Scripture and see what it actually taught about the Church. When doing so they found that the Gospel, “justification by faith alone for the sake of Christ”, was also the key to the biblical doctrine of the Church. By the Gospel and the means of grace the Holy Spirit creates faith in men, and so the Church, God’s called and chosen people on earth, arises. In the Augsburg Confession there is consequently a straight line from the great chief article on Justification through the article on the Priesthood, which administers the means of grace, to the articles VII and VIII on the Church.
The Church “is the congregation of saints and true believers” it is said in article VIII. Luther’s definition of the Christian Church has become classic: “For, thank God, today a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”
In reality the doctrine of Jesus and the New Testament on the Church is as simple as that. But this doesn’t mean that it is without depth. It’s here with the doctrine of the Church as it is often elsewhere in the Word of God: what He says is simple and at the same time inexhaustibly rich. The Scriptures describe the Church in many profound and beautiful terms, for example that it is the Kingdom of God, the spiritual body of Christ, the sheep in His herd, His chosen bride, the daughter of Zion, etc.
The Lutheran Church strongly emphasizes the unity of the Church. The Church is Una Sancta, one holy Church with emphasis on one – the only holy Church which continues in eternity. The passage in Scripture which the Augsburg Confession particularly bases its statements about the church is St. Paul’s description of the unity of the Church in his letter to the Ephesians: the unity is to have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5-6). This unity of the Church goes back to the Gospel. There is only one way of salvation, only one Saviour in whom the Spirit calls us to believe, namely Jesus Christ. That’s why the Church is and could be only one. The language of modern ecumenism of Christ’s wounded and divided body is something totally foreign to the New Testament. The Church as the body of Christ could never consist of divided or half torn off limbs. Either you are a member of the body of Christ or you are not.
The Church as Una Sancta can not be seen with the eyes. The Church is an article of faith, just as we confess in the Apostolic Creed: “I believe in the holy catholic (universal) Church.” We can’t see faith and the trust of the heart in the Gospel, the very thing that ultimately incorporates a sinner in the communion of the Holy Church. Here the words “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19) are exclusively and literally true. We can tell whether people are members in a certain denomination. But we cannot positively tell whether they are living branches in the vine of Christ or dead branches, hypocrites and Christians only by name. None of us is capable of deciding if an outward confession of Christ and his doctrine has its root in a living faith or not. Such things belong to the Lord. And how fortunate that is! He who sees and knows everything is going to reveal how such matters stand with everyone on the Last Day. Until then both kinds of branches are allowed to remain on the tree, or both the tare and the wheat may grow together, as Jesus tells us in another parable (Matt. 13:24-30).
Thus the Church in a certain respect is an invisible entity, or as Luther puts it in his book On the Bondage of the Will: “The Church is hidden, the saints are unknown.” But at the same time we must stick to the truth that the Church is not an unreal “Platonic state” (Ap VII/VIII) only existing in an abstract world of ideas. On the contrary, the Church is extremely real and is composed of human beings with flesh and blood, of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and have the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Church is thus described, now both as visible gatherings of people and as saints whose righteousness and holiness before God are not seen but must be believed. In a way it is with the Church as it is with the Holy Supper. We see and taste the bread and the wine, but we cannot see and taste that it really is the body and blood of Christ. We believe it because God has said so.
Where then, is the Church in visible sense? Even here the answer has to do with the Gospel. Since the Spirit is the one who creates, sanctifies and preserves the Church through the Gospel, the Church exists wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are distributed. The Church is “catholic” or universal in the very sense of the word. You find it everywhere all over the world where people are gathering around Jesus Christ in the means of grace, these holy meeting places which He himself has instituted and commanded. There and nowhere else does He meet sinners unto life and salvation. Therefore, it is biblical and right to say: outside the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Where the means of grace are in use, there is the Church, and where the Church is, the means of grace are in use. The external, visible marks of the Church are thus the use of the Word and the Sacraments by which the Holy Spirit creates the Church, “and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith”, as Luther says in the Small Catechism.
The Lutheran Church strongly emphasizes that the Word of Christ should be preached in truth and purity and the Sacraments be rightly administered, that is, according to the institution of Christ. It goes without saying that this belongs to the marks of the true Church. False teachings and hollowed and distorted sacraments do not only create uncertainty of where the Church is, but such also ruins the Church, cheats and hurts people. The Church is a hospital where sinners are cured and strengthened by the salutary diet of the Gospel. There will be no cure if poison is mixed into the food.
The great mission of the Church is to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. The Gospel is a free offer that must be given free without interruption, without constraint and secular instruments of force. State church systems are not founded on Scripture. They are contrary to the words of Christ: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), and they usually lead to a devastating confusion of the different offices that God has given to church and state.
Regarding the question of the Church's outward organization, the New Testament does not give us any binding prescriptions concerning the organization of the Church (church government, orders of worship, etc.). Even though the local church is a fundamental and indispensable part of the Church, we find that neither are local churches, nor any other forms of Christian fellowship regulated as to their structure or organization. The Office of the Ministry (priesthood), the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the Sacraments must of course be there according to divine order. But it has been left to the Church to organize – in the best way and in love and good order – the administration of the Gospel and the Sacraments and the Christian fellowship around them. Article VII in the Augsburg Confession is very clear on this point. It says that for the true unity of the Church it is not “necessary that human traditions, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men should be everywhere alike”. In contrast to both the Roman Catholics and to the Reformed the Lutheran Church does not believe in any divine orders for how the church should be organized and governed.
From what we have said here about the one, Holy, Christian Church it follows that no denomination could in any exclusive way claim for itself to be the Una Sancta, Christ’s Church on earth. To insist upon such a thing would be a severe delusion. This, however, doesn’t allow us to conclude that it doesn’t matter what kind of church we belong to. We will return to this question in the next section.
What the Holy Scriptures say
I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own… My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (John 10:14, 27)
Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His.” (2 Tim. 2:19)
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)
For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. (Rom. 12:4-5)
The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, “See here!’ or “See there!” For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21)
Jesus answered (Pilate), “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
… endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph. 4:3-6)
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27).
Then those who gladly received his (Peter’s) word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:41f.)
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. (1 Cor. 1:2)
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
Also they [our churches] teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5. (AC VII, Trigl. p. 47)
But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts, which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ. And this Church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews sanctifies and governs by His Spirit, as Paul testifies, Eph. 1:22 sq., when he says: And gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. Wherefore, those in whom Christ does not act are not the members of Christ. - - -
And it [this article in the Creed] says Church Catholic, in order that we may not understand the Church to be an outward government of certain nations, but rather men scattered throughout the whole world, who agree concerning the Gospel, and have the same Christ, the same Holy Ghost, and the same Sacraments, whether they have the same or different human traditions. - - -
Although, therefore, hypocrites and wicked men are members of this true Church according to outward rites, yet when the Church is defined, it is necessary to define that which is the living body of Christ, and which is in name and in fact the Church. (Ap VII/VIII, Trigl. p. 227 f.)
Neither, indeed, are we dreaming of a Platonic state, as some wickedly charge, but we say that this Church exists, namely, the truly believing and righteous men scattered throughout the whole world. And we add the marks: the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the Sacraments. And this Church is properly the pillar of the truth, 1 Tim. 3:15. - - -
Wherefore we hold, according to the Scriptures, that the Church, properly so called, is the congregation of saints, who truly believe the Gospel of Christ, and have the Holy Ghost. (Ap VII/VIII, Trigl. p. 237 f.)
For, thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. (SA III: XII, Trigl. p. 499)
For civil government deals with other things than does the Gospel. The civil rulers defend not minds, but bodies and bodily things against manifest injuries, and restrain men with the sword and bodily punishments in order to preserve civil justice and peace.
Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth. As Christ says, John 18:36: My kingdom is not of this world; also Luke 12:14: Who made Me a judge or a divider over you? Paul also says, Phil. 3:20: Our citizenship is in heaven; 2 Cor. 10:4: The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of imaginations.
After this manner our teachers discriminate between the duties of both these powers, and command that both be honored and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God. (AC XXVIII, Trigl. p. 85)
We warn against
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that anything else other than faith in Christ and his Gospel constitutes membership in the Church of God (all kinds of denials of salvation through “faith alone”);
– that you can be a Christian in your own way, without attending church, hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacraments (private religiousness, enthusiasm or fanaticism);
– that the Church is a kingdom of this world aiming at peace, social welfare and economic justice for all (social gospel);
– that the Church should strive to attain temporal power and political influence (state church system);
– that the Church should be subject to the Pope or any other human institution that demands divine respect and obedience, (antichristian error).
Thy hand, O God, has
Thy flock from age to age;
The wondrous tale is written,
Full clear, on every page;
Our fathers owned Thy goodness,
And we their deeds record;
And both of this bear witness,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.”