While looking at the Old Lutheran website the other day I saw a few T-shirts that made me chuckle. One of them read, “I’m proud to be an Old Lutheran” and then in parentheses below that it read “but not too proud”. I guess that pride can be a problem, especially this year, as we approach the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation and take a nostalgic look back and thank God for Martin Luther who stood for the truth of the Gospel even though it placed his life in jeopardy.
I think celebrating the Reformation is a very good thing, but rather than only look back into history, might I suggest that we also look at where we are today? How do you think our church would look if Luther had kept silent? What if, for the sake of peace and harmony, Luther and the other Reformers had compromised the truth of the Gospel? What if they had taken the position that to keep the peace a little bit of error in teaching is okay?
Thank God that was not the case then and that now we actually have something to celebrate! Unfortunately when we get lazy, error has a way of sneaking in the back door of the Church. Consequently, each generation must contend for the truth of God’s Word and the doctrine it teaches. So once again the question is before us, how much error is too much? On this side of heaven the Church will always be plagued by error, but this “sad but true” reality must never make us complacent or lazy.
Quoting Johann Baier, one of the great Lutheran theologians, C. F. W. Walther teaches that toleration of error is as bad as or even worse than the original error itself. He writes: “Such toleration of errors, first, is in opposition to the Scripture passages which command us to preserve the whole Christian doctrine free from error (II Thessalonians 2:15), to keep the good thing committed unto us (II Timothy 1:14), that is, to keep it intact, uncurtailed and unadulterated, and to continue in the things which we have learned (II Timothy 3:14). But the doctrine will not be kept pure if opposing errors are tolerated at the same time and in an equal manner or are permitted to become mingled with it. Secondly, such toleration is in opposition to the duty of reproving imposed upon faithful teachers by God, through which [errors] are rebuked and condemned (cf. Titus 1:9, 13; II Timothy 4:2; 3:16), to which correspond the examples of Christ (Matthew 5:12ff.; 16:6) and of Paul (Galatians 1:6). Thirdly, such toleration is very dangerous, for those errors and corruptions, unless they are restrained, assailed, and condemned, will spread ever more widely; the truth of the doctrine is rendered doubtful and suspicious, or at least it is regarded as a matter of indifference; and finally those that err are confirmed, and the deceivers are given a chance to infect ever more [people].” (Walther, Essays For the Church, Volume I, p. 122-123)
Summarizing Baier, Walther cites the threefold danger that arises from the toleration of errors. If they are not stopped, they will spread, truth will become suspect, and those who teach error will be confirmed in their error.
But why, for the sake of peace and love, don’t we just overlook false doctrine and errors? Why must Lutherans be so intolerant? It is for this reason Lutherans are often portrayed as trouble-makers, uneducated, and unloving. Walther counters, and I agree, “to remain silent in the face of false doctrine is not a demonstration of love, but rather of hate; for how then can errorists be saved?” Our aim must always be to proclaim the whole council of God’s Holy Word, so that the Gospel may be proclaimed in its truth and purity and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.
May the Reformation spirit of Luther, Baier, Walther and others work mightily among us as we continue to proclaim and contend for the whole truth of the Gospel, that many may hear it and be saved.
Yep, I’m proud to be an old Lutheran, but not too proud.