Dearest Brothers in the Office:
I greet you in the name of Jesus, our constant hope and consolation in the ministry.
I’ve been re-reading Martin Brecht’s great three-volume biography of Luther.* Luther’s life was full of joy, love for the Scriptures, friendship and great conviviality. But it was also filled with disappointment. Near the end of his life, he described himself as “old, cold, lame and one-eyed.” He was so miffed at his own congregation in Wittenberg that the summer before he died, he resolved to leave town for good. He wrote Katie on July 28, 1545:
I would like to arrange matters in such a way that I do not have to return to Wittenberg. My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer. I wish you would sell the garden and field, house and all. . . . It would be best for you to move to Zölsdorf as long as I am still living and able to help you to improve the little property with my salary . . . I would rather eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my poor old age and final days with the filth at Wittenberg, which destroys my hard and faithful work. You might inform Doctor Pomer and Master Philip of this (if you wish) . . . (AE 50:278, 280–81).
Katie did inform them, and the Elector sent Melanchthon out with a reconnaissance party to retrieve the old man, promising to make some improvement in the city. Luther was indeed a grumpy old man by this time, but his frustrations with the congregations in Wittenberg were hardly limited to his old age. There was, of course, the uproar early on, while he was hiding in the Wartburg after his great “Here I stand” speech at Worms. (During this week of Invocavit, you might check out the first of Luther’s “Invocavit Sermons” for a clinic on preaching to people in the pew, especially on preaching “love,” i.e., “third use of the Law!” See AE 51:70–75.) And already from 1526-27 and the time of the plague in Wittenberg, Luther frequently expressed his great frustrations with the city parish, both in sermons and private correspondence. The Gospel did not have the effect among the people that he had hoped, and it bothered him greatly at times. Of course, as he readily admitted, his old sinful flesh only exacerbated the matter.
And so it is with us. One cannot paint the whole Missouri Synod ministerium with one broad brush, to be sure. There are many brothers experiencing excellent times in their lives of service at this moment, and abundantly so. There are also many experiencing the cross in their office, and intensely so. It is, in many respects, like the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” It is a great moment in that, while post-modernity has demolished the purely rationalistic and empiricist opposition to metaphysical realities, leaving the door wide open for us to make the case for Jesus, yet the flood of “spirituality” and individualistic fantasy has pulled the populace away from the Church. Sadly, that includes a great many of our own. I don’t need to rehearse here the demographic challenges that we, and all of Western Christianity, face. You know this challenge very directly and deal with it daily.
Brothers, there is consolation, even for ministers of the Gospel. “What God institutes and commands cannot be an empty thing. It must be a most precious thing, even though it looked like it had less value than a straw” (LC IV 8). Luther’s comment applies to us pastors. “Therefore, every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to do all his life. For he has always enough to do by believing firmly what Baptism promises and brings: victory over death and the devil (Rom. 6:3–6), forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38), God’s grace (Titus 3:5–6), the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with His gifts (1 Cor. 6:11). In short, Baptism is so far beyond us that if timid nature could realize this, it might well doubt whether it could be true” (LC IV 41). Before you were called and ordained, all that is given in Baptism was yours. And it remains yours, even in times when your “timid nature” might not feel it or realize it.
And there is an even greater consolation precisely in your eternal election to salvation, which was made manifest in your Baptism. You know full well, pastor, all of those “in Him,” “in Christ,” “in the Beloved,” statements in Ephesians 1. “In Him you also, when you heard the Word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which He lavished upon us . . . making know to us the mystery of His will …” (Eph. 1:7f.). You are baptized, pastor. That rock won’t move, come what may.
Moreover, you have not chosen your vocation by yourself. Sure, God gave you a desire to study for the ministry (1 Tim. 3:1); you were encouraged along the way by God’s people. Faithful teachers encouraged you. But it was the church, which finally put you into an office, or Amt (auf Deutsch). “St. Paul tells Timothy and Titus to entrust the ministry to faithful and able men (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:2; Titus 1:9)” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion, 28**). The church recognized your gifts, and God’s people in a specific location called you with a “special and legitimate” call. You were prepared, called and ordained to this ministry; you didn’t just start “gassing off” on your own (Rom. 10:15; Jer. 23:21; Heb. 5:4).
It is certainly true that all Christians are spiritual priests and enjoy the full privileges of this priesthood. As Chemnitz wrote, “. . . all Christians have a general call to proclaim the Gospel of God (Rom. 10:9); to speak the Word of God among themselves (Eph. 5:19); to admonish each other form the Word of God; to reprove (Eph. 5:11; Matt. 19:15) and to comfort (1 Thess. 4:18). And family heads are enjoined to do this with the special command that they give their households the instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But the public ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments in the Church is not entrusted to all Christians in general, as we have already shown (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:12). For a special or particular call is required for this (Rom. 10:15)” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion, 29).
I’ve always loved being a pastor. There is something amazing about being invited into peoples’ lives at their very best times and very worst times, and often in the lives of the very same people! But much more than that, we come into the lives of people with Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus for those who already know Him, and it’s all about Jesus for those who don’t. And as Dr. Walther so concisely and wonderfully stated in Thesis III of The Church and the Office of the Ministry, “The preaching office is not an optional office but one whose establishment has been commanded to the Church and to which the Church is properly bound till the end of time” (Church and Office, 181;*** Walther’s proof text for this is Matt. 28:19–20). The office is not finally about power or even authority in the sense that we usually think of. Jesus, after all, exercised His authority (exousia) by sacrificing Himself (Phil. 2). Thus, as Walther states (Thesis IV), “The preaching office [Predigtamt] is not a special state in opposition to or holier than that of ordinary Christians, as was the Levitical priesthood; rather it is an office of service [Amt des Dienstes].” And we pastors are called to serve up Jesus. “We preach Christ crucified,” or we should not speak at all, frankly. We bring the love of Jesus to the hurting, the weak, the sick, the destitute, the lonely, the aged, the young and everyone in between. And we do so because the Lord mandates that there be pastors after His own heart who do so.
Chemnitz notes several reasons why a pastor must have a legitimate call, and these points provide consolation for us today. It is not merely a matter of human arrangement or good order, he says.
- “God himself deals with us in the church through the ministry as through the ordinary means and instrument. For it is He Himself that speaks, exhorts, absolves, baptizes, etc., in the ministry and through the ministry” (Luke 1:70; Heb. 1:1; John 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:10, 17; 5:20; 13:3). So, states Chemnitz, we have clear proofs that God wants to use pastors as “His ordinary means and instrument.” If God is so minded, will he not hear your prayers pastor? Does he not care for you, too?
- “Very many and necessary gifts are required for the ministry (2 Cor. 2:16). But one who has been brought to the ministry by a legitimate call can apply the divine promises to himself, ask God for faithfulness in them, and expect both, the gifts that are necessary for him rightly to administer the ministry (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; 2 Cor. 3:5–6) and governance and protection in the office entrusted to him (Is. 49:2; 51:16).”
- “The chief thing of the ministry is that God wants to be present in it with His Spirit, grace and gifts and to work effectively through it. But Paul says in Romans 10:15: ‘How shall they who are not sent preach’ (namely in such a way that faith is engendered by hearing)? But God wants to give increase to the planting and watering of those who have been legitimately called to the ministry and set forth doctrine without guile and faithfully administer whatever belongs to the ministry (1 Cor. 3:6; 15:58), that both they themselves and others might be saved (1 Tim. 4:16).”
- “The assurance of a divine call stirs up minsters of the Word, that each one, in his station, in the fear of God, performs his functions with greater diligence, faith and eagerness, without weariness. And he does not let himself be drawn or frightened away from his office by fear of any peril or of persecution, since he is sure that he is called by God and that the office has been divinely entrusted to him.”
- “Finally, on this basis the hearers are stirred up to true reverence and obedience toward the ministry, namely since they are taught from the Word of God that God, present through this means, wants to deal with us in the church and work effectively among us” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion 29–30).
Dear Brothers in the office, we have a sacred vocation of service. We serve. Because we bear Christ’s own office, an office our Confessions say is derived from Christ and the apostles, we can expect among the joys and great blessings, thorns, trials, crosses and difficulties. Some of these are brought upon us by the weaknesses of those whom we serve. But the office is an office designed only to serve sinners! This is the way of Christ. Some difficulties, often more than we might like to admit, we bring upon ourselves through our own weaknesses and sinfulness. And I think, especially in my own life, of my sins of discontentment and anxiety. Yet we know, in repentance, that even our own failings are worked for good by our merciful heavenly Father!
I covet your prayers, even as I pledge you mine. I plan to write these letters from time to time to encourage you, not to burden you.
*Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. by James L. Schaaf, 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985–93).
**Martin Chemnitz, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion, trans. Luther Poellot (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981).
*** C. F. W. Walther, The Church and the Office of the Ministry, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012).