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In a previous post, I posted remarks about the catholicity of the Lutheran Church. It still is receiving a response. I thought it might be good to go on record here on this “Evangel” blog what the first evangelicals had to say about the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, when they asserted that they were the Church.

What is the Church? Is Rome the Church? Ought we to listen to the Pope when he speaks as Bishop of Rome because there is some unique promise attached to his office? Smalcald Articles III, Article XII is joyously clear:

“We do not agree with them that they are the Church.” (Accent, should be on the Church) “They are not the Church. Nor will we listen to those things that, under the name of the Church, they command or forbid.”

Don’t misunderstand. Luther is perfectly clear elsewhere that he does not deny that Roman Christians are still Christians; the question is whether the Roman Pontiff is the voice of the Church and whether the curia and bishops submissive to him are the voice of the Church. The conclusion of our forebears in the 16th century was a resounding: “No way!” They are not “the” Church!

Luther goes on: “Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’”

Seven year olds could even be admitted to the Supper in those days (see Bugenhagen’s preface to the Danish Small Catechism) and thus were expected to know and confess the faith at that tender age. The definition of Church here is Christ’s own, right out of John 10. Dr. Kenneth Korby, of blessed memory, pointed out that we must get the correct sense. It’s not sight; it’s hearing. Don’t go looking for the Church with your eyes! Do the looking with your ears! Listen for where the voice of the Shepherd sounds, gathering His flock together around His divine promises. There you will find the one gathering of all believers, living - literally living - from the promises of our Lord.

“This holiness does not come from albs, tonsures, long gowns, and other ceremonies they made up without Holy Scripture, but from God’s Word and true faith.”

The holiness of the Church can’t be “put on” externally, but only believed internally. You won’t see it with your eyes, but it is given and bestowed in the Words of God’s promise and made our own by the faith that holds tight to those promises. Again, you are directed away from what you can see and directed toward what God says. Find the Gospel being taught and preached and you find the Lord Jesus gathering, feeding and nourishing His flock.

In the context of the Smalcald Articles, the Lutherans were confessing: the Words of Jesus keep the Church the Church and we do not need the papal superstructure to do so, and when the papal superstructure contravenes the Word, far from speaking as the Church, it actually subverts the Church. From from the Smalcald Articles’ confession of the Church one can understand the sung prayer of our spiritual ancestors:

Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word!

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