Article 8: What the Church Is
You don’t have to spend much time in the church to find out that it’s inhabited by sinners as much as it is by saints. But unlike the rest of the world, Christians’ faults seem to stand out in sharper contrast against the message of love, kindness, reconciliation, and mutual sacrifice that the Scriptures exhort them to practice. And it’s not just the members of the church. Sometimes the ministers set the worst example of all with their accusations, backbiting, controversies over words, and love of dissension. It’s as if they’re a bunch of fakes. For this reason, the world calls the church a bunch of hypocrites.
First, we must understand what a hypocrite is. The world defines it as “believing the right thing, but doing the wrong thing,” such as a Christian who confesses the Eighth Commandment on Sunday, but spreads rumors about his neighbor on Monday. But in the Scriptures, a hypocrite is someone who does the right thing, but believes the wrong thing. Like the Pharisees, who kept the Law to the letter, but whose actions hid a false faith.
The reality is that both kinds of people are found in the Church. Contrary to the world’s expectation, the Church is not the place to find perfect saints; it’s the place to find forgiven sinners. And there’s always room for another. But even so, there are also hypocrites in the Church—people who play the part perfectly, but are later revealed to be faithless and wicked. They did the right thing, at least outwardly, but believed only in themselves and not their Savior.
But to this the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church says: “Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men” (Augsburg Confession VIII.1-2).
The comfort in this confession is that the Church and its holiness is not dependent upon the holiness of the people who occupy it. The Sacraments and the Word are not effective because of the perfection of the ministers who administer them, nor because they make perfect saints in this life. They are effective because of the institution and commandment of Christ. Even if the Church was completely full of hypocrites who believed nothing, the Word and the Sacraments would still stand because Christ is risen and they are His Sacraments. And because these means of grace are effective, even hypocrites can be transformed into saints by the working of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
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 serves as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.