Juhani Uljas | 2000 The Treasure Hidden In a Field --
As a young man, I attended a spiritual gathering. The speaker at the occasion was a traveling pastor, who also sold religious literature. I purchased some volumes of Luther's Selected Works. I got them cheap as they were the last of an old printing. I do not remember whether I purchased them to actually read them, or merely to support a good cause. However, I glanced through them at home and became interested in the book, entitled “Regarding the Keys.” On various occasions, I had discussed with my Conservative Laestadian friends about matters concerning faith. They often spoke about the keys and the authority of the keys. Of what opinion might Luther be regarding the matter in question?
I thought that Luther surely would deal with the matter on the basis of the Catholic church's practices. I had read church history in school and had been interested in it even. But it certainly was possible that I would find in Luther's views some enlightenment on the question that had started to occupy my mind.
I read and underlined the portions that, in my mind, were most essential and worth remembering. One portion stopped me. Luther wrote that the keys are an office or power given to Christendom by God to forgive people their sins. He based his understanding on the place in the New Testament (Matt. 9:6), in which it is described how Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man and only after that healed him and how the crowds of people praised God, Who had given such authority to man. Luther further said, that God does not forgive sins in any other way.
So Luther was of the same opinion as my Laestadian friends on this, that God has left the office to His congregation to forgive sins and that an unbelieving person cannot receive peace for his conscience unless he hears and believes the preaching of the forgiveness of sins. I did not immediately go to tell my friends that they were correct and that I was in error. I did not admit that my argument, that God can forgive sins in many ways, was a Pharisaic fantasy although Luther so labeled it. It was not easy to give up my own opinions and humble myself to be a beggar of grace. My structures began to crumble and my foundations give way. I had to ponder over and over again how God gives faith and peace of conscience to a person who is seeking and yearning for Him.
God Has Instituted the Office of Preaching
Probably, I am not the only person who has found it difficult to accept the fact that God has given to people the duty of preaching remission. This was the way it was in the time of Jesus. When He preached the forgiveness of sins to the man with the palsy, the scribes became angry and thought, “He is blaspheming God” (Mark 2:5-7; Matt. 9:2,3; Luke 5:20,21). I did not comprehend the matter either until I received the grace of repentance. Only after that, have I understood that the office of the preaching of reconciliation is a deeply scriptural matter that belongs to God's salvation plan.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). God was in Christ, He suffered, died and atoned for the sins of men in this manner. When the spear of the Roman soldier pierced the side of Christ, the holy atoning blood that flowed from it extinguished God's anger and fulfilled the demands of His righteousness. Christ's blood did not flow to dry on the rock of Golgatha and merely be a historic fact within our reach. God preserved its sermon of atonement, so that the purity and forgiveness that it provides would be therein offered to the penitent sinner. Having arisen, Christ appeared in the midst of His disciples behind closed doors. He brought the greetings of the peace made upon the cross. He showed His pierced hands and side as signs of victory. He breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:19-23). In this manner, the disciples received the office and the authority to preach the forgiveness of sins. The resurrected Lord bound himself to the sermon of His disciples.
This office was not received only by those disciples of Jesus to whom He gave it himself; it has been received by all who have themselves believed the sermon of the forgiveness of sins. Man is truly unfit for this duty, but God has made His child fit for it. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament” (2 Cor. 3:5,6).
The Office of Preaching Is the Function of the Holy Spirit
The office of preaching is not bound to anything visible, such as the sacraments. An examination or demonstration of skill is not required of this office holder, as is demanded of one in the official outward office of the priesthood. The duty, nevertheless, has its own qualifications. This is clarified by the cited portion of the Gospel of John, in which Christ gave His disciples the authority to forgive sins. The office of preaching atonement is the office of the Holy Spirit. Paul reveals the same matter in this manner, “We have this ministry, as we have received mercy” (2 Cor. 4:1). The Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of the pardoned sinner and authorizes him as a holder of the office of the Spirit without taking into consideration education or gender.
The Office of Preaching Builds One Congregation of Christ
In the Acts of the Apostles, it tells how the disciples set out to fulfill their missionary duty. Jesus had given it to them on Easter evening and renewed it before He ascended into heaven. When the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had been fulfilled, the apostles preached the gospel of the resurrected Christ to the people gathered. God blessed their sermon and a large group believed. Luke concludes his description of the first Pentecost services, "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47).
The office of preaching gathers the gospel's believers into the fellowship of the congregation. The Holy Spirit builds Christ's church through it. When man receives the grace of new birth, the Holy Spirit does not leave him an orphan and separate, but joins him to the body of Christ as a living member.
No one can take the office of preaching out of the congregation. The words and the outward form of the proclamation can be borrowed but its power cannot. Luther reveals the unity of the office of preaching and the congregation that is ruled by the Holy Spirit in this way, "There is no Word of God without the congregation, nor is there a congregation without the Word of God." By saying this, he does not mean the written, but, specifically, the preached Word of God.