by Rev. Mark Bestul
Our study of the Smalcald Articles now brings us to the “Third Part.” Recall that the “First Part” was a brief confession of the Divine Majesty, the Triune God. The “Second Part” then included (1) articles that discuss the merit, office, and work of Christ Jesus as the Savior of all mankind and (2) articles that highlighted and condemned the Roman errors that detract from Christ’s sufficiency as our Messiah. Now, the “Third Part” of Luther’s Smalcald Articles are the issues that can be discussed with various individuals who may agree with the first two parts, but because of various erroneous teachings, may be confused about what the Bible actually teaches regarding these (the following 15) articles. In other words, this “Third Part” really represents the “evangelism” that is our discussion among non-Lutheran Christians. Thanks be to God that they believe in the Trinity and that Jesus died on the cross for their sins! But, how often we find our fellow Christians (or non-Christians who know the basics of our theology) perplexed in their understanding of these important articles of the Christian faith! So, let’s help them, and let’s have Luther’s help in so doing!
The first article that may be discussed with folks concerns sin. A lot of people think they know what “sin” is, but usually see their remedy to sin as “try harder, do better.” This not only confuses the remedy, but also the ailment! How important it is to help people trace sin not to merely the ‘outer conduct’ but the inner Old Adam. In other words, “I am not a sinner because I sin; I sin because I am a sinner.” Thus, Luther must first confess that sin is about the deep corruption that has afflicted human nature since the fall:
“Here we must confess… that sin originated from one man, Adam. By his disobedience, all people were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil. This is called original sin” (SA III, I, 1).
- Consider how widespread is the misunderstanding of original sin. Some deny it altogether. Others teach it, but only as an ailment, injury, or hindrance. How do such views that man is born with an inherent ability to do good amount to a false gospel that jeopardizes one’s hope in Christ?
Now, as we are all of Adam’s line, that original sin continues to bear fruit (actual sin) in and through each of us. Luther highlights this in his confession: “The fruit of this sin are the evil deeds that are forbidden in the Ten Commandments” (italics added).
- What does his use of the word “fruit” say about each of us as a tree at its core, according to the Fall? Consider Jesus’ words, “A good tree bears good fruit.”
The following sentence might help the reader understand why this article on Sin–which seems so obvious on paper–is so difficult for sinners to appreciate in daily life. Luther remarks: “This hereditary sin is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather, it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture.” (III, I, 3).
- Based on the above statement by Luther, how might we explain to others the pervasiveness of original sin? Are there examples in daily life that show sin (actual sin is evidence of original sin) even among “the innocent children” among us? Yet, when something is so thoroughly a part of daily life that one cannot readily notice it, how does the Christian know about it? Remember Luther’s observation: “It must be believed from the revelation of Scripture.”
And because people so readily dismiss the deep reality and thorough effects of original sin, they have a corrupted view of the corrupted world around them and of their own corrupt spiritual state. Thus, Luther continues by listing off various points of “scholastic” (philosophy-based) “error and blindness” that resonates as “Christian teaching” to many around us. Notice the false teaching that Luther highlights and consider how detrimental these are to the Christian hope in Christ:
- By nature, people have a right reason and a good will, a free will to do good and not to do evil… and can observe and keep all God’s commands, loving God and neighbor, based on that good will.
- If a person does his best, God certainly grants him His grace.
- A person may commune as long as his heart doesn’t have a wicked intent to commit sin.
- One doesn’t need the Holy Spirit (and His grace) to do good work, just needs a good intent.
As you re-read these, consider:
- How prevalent are these views among people you talk with? And, what are some of the results in their habits and confession?
- People think God is pleased with them for their good moral efforts.
- People stop depending on Word and Sacrament; they either stop going to church or go just to earn points with God.
- People go to the Lord’s Supper not because they hunger and thirst for the benefit, but because “it’s what good Christians do.”
How necessary is a proper understanding of the weight and condemnation of original sin, that we might repent of it and actual sin and flee to Christ!
5. Against all the above errors, Luther concludes this article: “If such teaching were true, then Christ has died in vain.” Have you ever thought of that? If people can do good in a manner that pleases God and earns his grace and favor, then Christ didn’t really have to die, did he? His sacrifice no longer rises to the level of necessary.
When considering your own hope for salvation, or when speaking to friends and neighbors about their hope for salvation, Jesus on a cross may be a common image on which many say they are willing to hang their hat. But if they’re still confused about sin and its seriousness, ask them (or yourself) what that image means if “my own efforts can please God unto salvation; if I didn’t really need a substitute but merely need an opportunity to do good and to show my truly good intentions.”
When original sin is rightly confessed, it not only drives us to our knees as we despair of our ability to save ourselves, it also helps us realize just how necessary (not just ‘a way to salvation’, but ‘the only way’) is Christ. Thus, what an essential article of the Christian faith and our certainty in Christ crucified is this article!
The Rev. Mark C. Bestul is pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Elgin, IL.