Dean's List: God Speaks, We Confess
By Aaron T. Fenker
The Lord speaks, and we receive His Word. It's His Gift to us. We confess, (homologoumen, in the Greek, which means "say the same thing") that Word. We say what He says to us. He speaks, we listen, we speak that Word as He gave it. That's the way of faith. Faith defends our Lord's Word, employing other words at times. "I and the Father are one," (John 10:30) and "I will send from the Father the Helper, the Spirit of the Truth, who proceeds from the Father, whom the Father will send in My Name," (John 14:26, 15:26) are all ways to confess "the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity" (Athanasian Creed).
As the words are, so also are the Gifts: "Baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," (Matthew 28:19). There, not just Trinity as a concept, as a doctrinal checkbox, but Trinity delivered for you and to you, and you to the Trinity, too, for your help and salvation in His Name (Psalm 124:8). There is unity in His Name, so also in His Word and His Gifts. "One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:4–6). It's not a unity of our own confessing. What good would that do? It's a "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:6).
A Recipe for Disunity
The opposite of confessing is denying. To deny is to hear what Jesus says but to inject our own fleshly understanding into what our Lord says and gives (Matthew 16:21–23). The way of denying is to talk as if our Lord or His Spirit-filled messengers (apostles) meant something other than what was clearly said (John 20:23; 1 Peter 3:21). Or worse, it's to discount His Word based on the limits of our categories and thinking (The Words of Institution, John 1:1). Or worst of all, it's to go all the way to denying that Jesus said it altogether, following the way of various "quests" for the "historical" Jesus. There's only disunity there, a lack of the Spirit. That's the way of doubt and unbelief.
There's also the disunity of seeking a unity in our own confessing, because in that sort of unity not only what we say matters but also the exact way we say it. Words do matter. How they are said affects what they mean, but even as we are unified in our confessing, Old Adam rears his head, his thinking: my words are always better than your words. This is the war of words that Paul warns us about (2 Timothy 2:14). So also John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us" (Mark 9:38). "Whoever is not against us is for us," Jesus replies.
Fighting over words is precarious business. The Lord sends those who confess Him and His Word, and they end up in a particular place. Their speaking is for a specific "you." The author of Hebrews, writing to Jews, and Paul, writing to Gentiles, differ on their Old Testament examples that point to Christ. Peter and Paul echo Jesus in their own particular way (Titus 3:5–8; 1 Peter 3:21; Mark 16:16), and Paul uses different words to preach the same Christ depending on whether he is preaching to common Jews (Acts 13:16–42) or Jewish religious leaders (Acts 23:1–8) or even Gentiles (Acts 17:19–34). "I have become all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9:22). This would be something seen not only in deed but in word.
What Jesus says is confessed by faith and not denied. Faith will declare Jesus' Word in the way He gave it, at times defending what He says with other words. Those words are picked up, dropped, changed as the occasion demands. We don't hang our hats on those words and categories. "For the true unity of the Church it is enough (satis est) to agree on the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments" (Augsburg Confession VII). So also, St. Peter and the Jerusalem church extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and his Gentile gang. Different words, different lives, yet one Lord, one Spirit, one Father, one faith, all given to both sides in the one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
The "Yous" in Our Lives
We are all surrounded by specific "yous," just where the Lord baptized us to be. There are good works He "prepared beforehand that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Even more the words we say! His Word becomes ours. He gives it to us, puts it into us--our hearts, souls, and minds. He preaches, absolves, Bible-studies, devotions, Word-of-Institutions it into us, and, filled up with His Word, we speak that Word to the person He's neighbor-ed us next to. As that Word works on us, it comes out for the sake of those around us--different words, different teachings emphasized. "In, with, and under" (Small Catechism, What is the Sacrament of the Altar?; Apology of the Augsburg Confession X) is just as valid as "is" (Smalcald Articles III VI) when it comes to the bread and wine and Jesus' Body and Blood in the Lord's Supper.
There may be some differences between us, but there may be overlap, too. Difference does not mean there is disunity. If particular speaking, preaching, and teaching must match 100% of the time, word for word, for there to be unity, there would never be unity. True unity isn't in our doing, our speaking, our confessing. That would only last as long as we could keep it going through power, politics, labels, or force.
It's our Lord's Word, not ours. He speaks His Word to us, into us, and each of us says it again as He gave it. That's faith! We may use our own words from time to time, as the situation demands. If those words deny what the Lord Himself has said, that's the way of doubt, disunity, and unbelief. Rather, we say what He says to us. He speaks, we listen, we speak that Word as He gave it. We confess. That's the baptized life. That's not just the way of faith toward God, but also the way of fervent love for one another.
Rev. Aaron T. Fenker serves as pastor of Bethlehem and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Bremen, Kansas. He is also the dean of theology at Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the fall 2019 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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