What is most sure in our lives is the name God placed on us in our Baptism: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

All Saints Day, November 1, comes the day after Reformation Day. This juxtaposition points to the fact that we do not make ourselves holy, but that Jesus makes saints by His death and resurrection through His Word of promise. Everything we do apart from Jesus is tainted by sin and leads only to death. God forms the Church, His holy ones, through the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus. So we begin with the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for this is how God has revealed Himself. Attached to that name are the promises of God, promises beginning in the Garden for our first parents, promises for all people. Every promise of God is fulfilled, comes to a head, comes to full flower in Jesus Christ.

The Church follows from these promises, for the promises of God create the church: especially the promise that all who trust in Christ alone are justified by grace alone through faith alone.  Therefore we do not put our trust or confidence in the Church, or the character of the pastor, or the behavior of Church members, but only in the promises.

Did you ever notice that the definition of the Church in Augsburg Confession VII is singular? “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII.1).[1]

The assembly – singular…

Also, the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, we say in the creed (that is “catholic,” small “c,” “universal,” wherever believers are found). One holy Christian Church, that is, the communion of saints.

The communion – singular…

Though now tragically divided by schism and heresy, by false teaching and sinful pride, we still confess that the church, properly speaking, is one. In essence the Lutheran theology of the Church sees the Church from the perspective of the end. We see the Church as the Lord revealed it to John in the Book of Revelation, as the Bride of Christ, prepared by her bridegroom, adorned, washed clean, no spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, ready for her husband. Now we see this only by faith. Now we perceive it in the Promise, but she is, in the end, truly the ransomed and forgiven Church of Christ, revealed to John in the Revelation (7:9-17):

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12  saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16  They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (ESV)

Human beings will fail us. “Put not your trust in princes,” Psalm 146:3 says. Human organizations and structures will fail us. This is why the Lutheran Church can exist in various structures – episcopal, congregational, Synodical. The STRUCTURE is not ultimate. It can and does fail. People fail. But the Word and promises of God? These will never fail us. And these are what create the Church.

That’s why the article on which the Church stands or falls is the article of justification.  Everything hangs on the promise. Who are those we see around the throne? “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 7:14).

Who are those who are justified? Drawn from Scripture, in Augsburg Confession IV we confess:  “Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us” (AC IV).[2] So, from the perspective of the end, the Church is the one assembly of all believers in Christ, justified by faith, gathered around the throne.

All believers are justified sinners, saints, holy ones, in the Lord Jesus, “for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

But where do you find this Church today? Looking for the right structure, or the right organization, will not necessarily reveal the church. The Church exists within various structures, but the Church LIVES by the Word and Promise of God. That’s why our confessions also say, by the way, that we find the Church by its marks, by looking for the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. This is also the reason the Lutheran Church is identified, not by a structure or an outward gathering, but by our Confession of faith, by the content of our Symbols.

Or, to ask the question another way, if the Church is believers, where do you find believers now? You look for what brings people to faith, namely the Word and Promises of God. But these Words and promises of God are not simply abstract words on a page. The Word of God must be spoken, proclaimed, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

So there must be preachers and teachers of the Gospel, those called and sent to proclaim the Gospel, publicly, that is, on behalf of all. “That we may obtain this faith…” our confession says, echoing Scripture, God “instituted the ministry,” the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.[3]

Yet Scripture also charges all the baptized with the task of “proclaim(ing) the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In our vocation, our daily life, wherever God has placed us, all the baptized are called to tell what God has promised. Because the Church lives by only Word and promise, God has called the whole Church, the whole communion of saints, to speak that Word before the world. “Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15).

Our testimony points beyond ourselves to the things most sure and certain: the name of God applied in our Baptism, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together with the Word and promise of God in Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for us. “Come and see” (John 1:39), we say, “see what Christ has done for me and for you.” His Word gives life. That’s what is sure. May God bless our witness and our continued reflection on All Saints and Reformation!

+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, ed, The Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000, p. 42.

[2] Kolb/Wengert, pp. 39f.

[3] Augustana V, Kolb/Wengert, p. 40.