Article 21: Worship of the Saints
The final article on Christian doctrine in the Augsburg Confession is perhaps one of the most obvious outward practices that distinguishes Lutherans from Roman Catholics: the worship of the saints. Even today, one of the first differences people identify between the two churches is that Roman Catholics pray to Mary, the Mother of God. In fact, if you go into a Roman Catholic bookstore, you’re likely to see more products picturing the saints than you will Jesus.
But that doesn’t mean that the saints are absent from Lutheran practice. Open to the front of your Lutheran hymnal and you’ll see a lot of saints. So, what is it about the saints that is good, right, and salutary?
Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the Emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings. But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon, 1 John 2:1: If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc. (Augsburg Confession, article XXI)
First, Christ alone is worthy of worship. He alone stands between us and the Father as Mediator. This is because the sacrifice He made, the blood He shed, and the place He now occupies at God’s right hand. Prayer is effectual when it is prayed through Jesus and in His name. No other saint in heaven or on earth has done what Jesus has done. Any prayer or worship that is directed to God apart from Jesus is prayer to and worship of a false god.
Examples of faith and good works
But it’s not as if the saints never existed. We keep the memory of the saints for two reasons: as examples of faith, and examples of good works. It can be discouraging to be a Christian. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one who believes. But the history of the saints who have gone before us for generations shows us that we are not alone. As the book of Hebrews says,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)
Sinners as saints
And as to good works, the history of the saints shows us two things. First, every saint was also a sinner. Good works do not mean a perfection of life here on earth. David was a liar, murderer, and adulterer, yet also is an example of good works. Second, good works are not works that go over and beyond the works of daily life, but are simple works done in our vocations and in service to our neighbors.
So the next time a saint’s day comes up on the Church calendar, remember the simple works of faith they accomplished and be encouraged in your faith. And look to Jesus, the only Advocate we have with the Father, who is the beginning and ending of our faith.
You can read the Book of Concord at http://www.bookofconcord.org
“Concord” is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers’ knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them “with one heart” to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.