We begin all conversation about God at the cross of Christ. It marks our Lord as the sole judge and redeemer of humanity. It declares all human actions as unable to merit salvation even as it takes our sin and renders it fully and eternally forgiven.
Our transgression against God and our neighbor certainly can be seen in our various thoughts, words and deeds. Yet is goes much deeper to our core condition: We are held captive by our own will, holding God is suspicion, hoping to create our own future and working to manage life itself. Thus, we are unable to create or will faith in God or goodness on our part.
Our Lord promises that wherever two or more are gathered in his name he is there in the midst of them. Thus, the church is not defined by structures or boundaries but by Christ’s relationship with the sinners he claims as his own. The church is present wherever God’s word creates faith in sinners’ hearts. Conversely, the church is not present where the cross of Christ does not bring mercy to troubled consciences.
God establishes faith in sinners’ hearts by proclaiming the good news of his justification of the ungodly in Christ Jesus. This is God’s ministry, not ours, and it occurs wherever law and gospel are present in word and sacrament.
The pastoral calling
The primary duty of pastors is to understand the distinction between law and gospel and, thus, proclaim what is and is not Christ for sinful people everywhere.
The calling of lay people
God calls all the faithful to two tasks: The first is acts of charity out of concern for the neighbor rather than for the sake of one’s standing before God. The second is to judge doctrine, to assure the church’s public proclaimers are faithful to their calling.
Christian worship is a vehicle for God’s delivery of Christ’s benefits to sinners, even as it provides a venue for these forgiven sinners to make their prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God in response. While certain forms of worship may make the latter more entertaining or accessible, they must always be judged by the former.
The holy scriptures in the Old and New Testaments are God’s word speaking judgment and mercy to sinners. While human avenues of biblical investigation are helpful for discerning secondary matters regarding the text itself, the proper hermeneutic for God’s word is law and gospel, which makes clear how God is speaking in any given passage. Thus, while the preaching of the church’s public proclaimers is based on scripture, the preacher must also ensure that the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection interprets and even attaches itself to any text.
Because the church exists wherever sinners are captured by the gospel, the church’s structure must remain fluid and organic and its primary life is found on the local and personal levels. Wider geographical judicatories should exist not to create programs for ministry, but to serve and facilitate the church’s work at the lower levels. Institutional judicatories only have the authority and power to attain those ends.
The mission of the church
Because the gospel of our Lord only springs to life in the hearts of actual specific people, the church’s mission is gripped by an urgency to identify where the law has brought consciences into doubt and despair and to declare to those consciences that they are forgiven in Christ. The church need not create social statements or lobby for specific political legislation. Instead, the institutional church must trust that God’s Spirit will awaken hearts to serve their neighbors in their daily vocations, not because of a mandate from the church but because the neighbor’s need cries out and is heard by the faithful.