Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

What does it mean to be a member of a church that espouses a definite confession of faith in Christ? What does that mean for pastors? For congregations? For individual members? Bottom line is that we look to the Word of God to give us what we are to confess.

Walking among the pagan temples on the slopes of Mt. Herman in the region of Ceasarea Philippi, Jesus queried His disciples, “Who are people saying the Son of Man is?” “Some say you are John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others talk about Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” So our culture also has many, many different ideas for who Jesus is, ranging from a “fairy tale,” to a “good man,” to a purveyor of whatever cause we believe in, as though we can pour Jesus into a mold of our making. Yet everyone seems to have this instinctive sense that they have to do something with Jesus.

“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus pressed home the question that comes to us all. Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” You are the Anointed One of Old Testament promise. You are the son of the Living God, not a son of these stone dead idols scattered about on this mountainside, but the God of life, the only One who gives life. So we profess Christ, who is the living God come into our human flesh. Jesus answered Peter, “Blessed are you Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven” (see Matthew 16:13-17). In another place, Jesus said, “No one can come to me except the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).

Then Jesus went on to promise, “I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (Matthew 16:18). A “petros” is a rock or stone you can pick up and throw. The “petra” is the bedrock, or a multi-ton foundation stone, for instance, the word Josephus used to describe the foundation of the temple. So the rock on which Jesus promises to build His church is not Peter, but Peter’s confession of faith, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Still, the confession needs confessors, people to confess Christ’s name before the world. Where this confession is made, that “Jesus is the Christ — God in our human flesh, crucified and raised from the dead for us,” Jesus promises to build His church. And “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.” Sometimes the church is on the offense, charging into the world with the Gospel message. Sometimes the church is on defense, under attack for her Gospel proclamation. No matter. “The gates of hell shall not prevail.” She is built by Christ Himself on the rock of this confession.

No sooner had Peter made this confession that Jesus began to tell them what He, if He truly is the Christ, must do. “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Peter, of course, having just verbalized this wonderful confession, would have nothing of the sort. He began to rebuke Jesus saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” You have to be the kind of Christ I am looking for!

But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:22-23). If Jesus is the Christ of God, then He MUST die on the cross and rise again, because that’s what WE needed. For “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Even as we confess that Christ died and rose “to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but also for all other sins and to propitiate God’s wrath” (AC III, Tappert, p. 30).

With the church of all places and all times we insist that Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Life, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven And was incarnate of the Virgin Mary And was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,” etc. (Nicene Creed). Among all the options the world sees, we confess Christ as God in the flesh, crucified and raised from the dead for us.

How is this confession lived out in the life of the Church? It means that the Church lives only by repentance and forgiveness. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). When people refuse to repent, the church, particularly through her pastors, is duty bound to warn them that, until they repent, their sin is bound to them. They’re stuck with it. But whenever and wherever people repent, the church and her pastors have only one thing to do — set them free in Christ by the forgiveness of sins. For the church is Christ’s bride, whom Christ loved, and for whom He gave Himself, that He might make His church holy, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27).

This does not mean that the church accepts sin, or turn a blind eye to sins, for sin unrepented, or sin excused and explained away is still sin, bound to us. No, the church welcomes all sinners, no matter what the sin, on one basis, through repentance and forgiveness. We all stand on the same ground, sinners forgiven, covered in the redeeming blood of Christ. This confession does not minimize sin, but sees sin for what it truly is: an affront to God that, left unconfessed or unacknowledged, will damn us forever. But confessed before God, the sin is removed from us, as far as the east is from the west, for Christ on the cross is the sacrifice that “takes away our sins, and not ours only, but the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

Sometimes it is said that the church should receive everyone, no questions asked about sin or sexual morality, because “Jesus doesn’t say anything” about sex outside of marriage, whether hetero- or homosexual behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, Jesus taught clearly on marriage, “… He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The only marriage taught in Scripture is between a man and a woman. Nothing else can be called marriage. Second, Jesus condemned sexual lust: “everyone who looks at woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Third, these Scriptures actually catch us all, whether we are talking about the “serial monogamy” of our divorce culture (even in the church!), or about the rampant pornography of our times, or the trend of living together without marriage. We are all on the same footing — always in need of daily repentance.

That’s why we do not excuse the sin and say, “it’s OK, we all make mistakes,” and then blissfully keep on living in the sin. No, we are called to repentance, to turn from sin, and to receive Christ’s forgiveness and hear His command, “Go, and sin no more.” The true challenge from our culture today is that so many will excuse sexual sins, both hetero- and homosexual, and make the judgment that they are no longer sin. Indeed, many wish to celebrate the sin, not repent of it. There’s the rub. Remember the Scripture says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Some will say, “but this is the 21st century, and we know more today than Moses or Paul” (both of whom condemned sexual sins). But isn’t that a 21st century version of Gnosticism, where we have some kind of special knowledge that trumps Scripture? The real danger is that this so called knowledge leaves the person in sin, for Scripture does not change, nor can the Word of God lie to us.

What about Jesus and the woman at the well? People will sometimes ask. In John 4 Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman about her sexual behavior, revealing to her that He knew she had “had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). He speaks to her, receives her, loves her, but does not accept or excuse her behavior. Instead, He leads her to repentance and faith, so that she tells her neighbors, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). To another woman caught in sin, Jesus said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11). Jesus never excuses the sin, but always leads to repentance, so that the sin can be forgiven, and the person sent on his or her way to “sin no more.”

So with Peter, we confess Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” the one who gave Himself into death for our sin, and rose again for our justification. That’s why the Church welcomes all sinners, through repentance and forgiveness. But we do not give in to any of the world’s lies that seek to excuse sin or explain it away. Instead, we find ourselves in this Word of God from the pen of St. Paul: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you! But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). For that reason, Paul says, “flee from sexual immorality…” (1 Corinthians 6:18). And, “you are not your own, you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). In other words, go and sin no more.

The church lives only by repentance and forgiveness in Christ. This is the confession we are given to make before the world today. And this is the promise Jesus gives, “upon this rock,” this confession, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (Matthew 16:18). So take heart! Go! Love people, love them extravagantly in Jesus’ name, care for people in their need, and always confess Christ, crucified and risen, for you!

+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod