Installment 15 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
The Visible and Invisible Congregation
The New Testament congregation means the congregation of God, i.e. the Christian congregation, whose members the Holy Spirit has through the gospel called, sanctified, gathered and enlightened with His gifts and protects in the one true faith (Large Catechism). The members of this congregation are called to follow Jesus in “doctrine, life and suffering.” The Christian congregation is in essence the communion – or fellowship – of saints, in which its members remember each other and carry each other in prayer. According to the Augsburg Confession, the Christian congregation is the community of saints in which the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the command of Christ.
The communion of saints differs from all temporal organizations in that it believes and lives by the will and guidance of God. In the Bible, the most common names for the congregation are the congregation of God, the family of God, people of God, the house and temple of God. The congregation is also called the body of Christ, since the congregation and Christ belong together (John 15:1–13; Eph. 4:15,16; 5:31,32).
Jesus’ work in the world continues in His congregation as the work of the Holy Spirit (Christian Doctrine, item 44). The Christian congregation is simultaneously visible and hidden. In its visible or present form it is the assembled group of believers, which nonetheless can only by faith be understood to be the holy congregation: “I believe that on earth there is a holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind and understanding” (Large Catechism).
When we speak of a hidden or invisible congregation, we also include those followers of Christ who have passed from time to eternity as well as e.g. all children all over the world. The origin of a child’s faith is in God’s righteous nature: He justified sinful humans for the sake of His Son’s promised atonement and redemption work even before the world was created. A child, nonetheless, as an heir of Adam is corrupted by original sin, but through the merit of the second Adam – Christ – the child is acceptable to God and pure, simultaneously righteous and sinful.
The Congregation is Based on God’s Word
The living congregation of God is comprised of people that truly believe that Jesus is their Savior. Luther described that where faith hears the voice of the Good Shepherd, i.e. the correct proclamation of the gospel, there it also sees the congregation of God even though the eye would only see a scorn-worthy group of people (On the Power and Primacy of the Pope). Faith is attached to the Word, not to a person. The proclamation of the true Word of God is inseparable from the congregation. The Good Shepherd and His flock belong together.
Through the Holy Spirit we see that the congregation is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Its foundation is the doctrine of prophets and apostles – the understanding of faith based on God’s unchanging Word – where the cornerstone is Jesus Christ himself (Eph. 2:20). This truth is upheld by the congregation. God’s congregation is infallible in its doctrine of justification, because it adheres to the Word of God. In this way God’s living congregation will be preserved on earth until the end of time. The Bible, the written Word of God, is the authority in the congregation.
Luther explained: “The spirit of God governs the congregation, and the Spirit of God leads the saints – Romans, 8th chapter (14th verse), and Christ is with His congregation even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:20) – We know this, I say, for in our creed we say: I believe in the holy, catholic [meaning “universal”] church. It is impossible that the congregation can err in even the smallest point of doctrine” (Bondage of the Will).
One Holy Mutual Congregation
The innermost essence of the congregation of God can be studied only with the Word of God. Since we as humans cannot comprehend God’s omnipotence and immensity, the deepest value of Christ’s congregation remains a mystery to us. The congregation has no point of comparison or equivalence in this world. Also, a human is unable to determine who truly is a member of the congregation, for only God can see into a person’s heart. The borders of the congregation go “from faith to faith and from heart to heart.” The fellowship of the Holy Spirit transcends all human borders. For that reason the members of God’s congregation can never be recorded in books or lists.
According to the Creeds, there is one Christian congregation (Eph. 4:4), because there is only one Christ. Luther proclaimed, “There is not more than one Church, or people of God, on earth. This one Church has one faith, one baptism, one confession of God of the Father and of Jesus Christ. Its members faithfully hold, and abide by, these common truths.” (Church Postil III, 17th Sunday after Trinity, Epistle Sermon on Eph. 4:1–6). According to Luther’s teaching, the Christian congregation also has one mind and understanding. It has manifold grace gifts but it is unanimous in love, without sects or schisms (Large Catechism).
The New Testament congregation was born on the first Pentecost when the disciples were given the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–4,41,42). The apostles set out to bring forth the message of God’s kingdom. This task was to continue to the “ends of the earth.” That is why the Christian congregation is also called the apostolic congregation. Its foundation is the testimony of Jesus’ disciples – the apostles. This is stated as follows in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
The congregation of Christ is holy because it is reserved for God and Christ’s spirit works within it. The holiness is not due to any goodness on the part of the congregation members; rather it is a gift received in Christ. In spite of its holiness, the congregation is also sinful because its members are corrupted by original sin. For this reason the congregation will never become fully pure in this time. Many forms of sin and doctrinal errors attempt to corrupt it. Luther explained, “The congregation is pure, but it is sinful at the same time. For this reason, it believes the forgiveness of sins and prays, ‘Forgive us our sins.’ We are not called holy because of our nature, as a wall is called white because of its white paint. The holiness in us is not sufficient. Christ is our complete and whole holiness. If what we own is not sufficient, Christ is sufficient” (Commentary on Galatians).
The congregation is mutual or catholic because it represents and teaches the entire truth of the Bible and strives to spread throughout the world. Therefore, it does mission work according to Christ’s command. Jesus called His followers to perform this task. He summarized the contents of mission work as preaching the gospel and the presence of God’s kingdom (John 20:22,23; Luke 9:1,2; 10:1–11). The same sermon yet continues with possibilities given by God. He sees into people’s hearts and sends His messengers to those seeking the truth.
Mission work is not only done as organized, but each believer is a priest of the Holy Spirit who has authorization given by Jesus to testify of Christ’s grace (1 Pet. 2:9). Therein Christ becomes present for a person. Upholding the Word of God is the duty our Savior gave His followers. He has given His children grace gifts which must be used to edify the congregation and to fulfill the will of God. Peter exhorted believers to be always ready to tell those who ask what their hope is based on (1 Pet. 3:15). Opportunities for the work of God’s Word open up amidst everyday life, work or free time. Martin Luther especially ordered fathers to care for their children’s Christian upbringing (Small Catechism).
The Grace House of Absolution
Human salvation from the power of sin and death is based solely on the work of Christ. Luther summarized this as follows: “By faith alone, by grace alone, by the merits of Christ alone.” The hearing of God’s Word is essential to the rebirth of an unbelieving person, for “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). A good example of this is Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, when nearly three thousand people believed and were baptized (Acts 2:41). The Holy Spirit affected the birth of faith. The effect of the Spirit was also evident when those who accepted the gospel began to speak boldly of the risen Jesus.
Martin Luther firmly linked the congregation and justification of humans: “Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are?” (Church Postil I, Christmas Day, Second Gospel Sermon on Luke 2:15–20). Luther wrote of membership in the congregation: “one is not and cannot be a member of the Christian congregation, unless he is a correct believer, righteous and holy, as we say in the Creed: ‘I believe in the holy Christian Church.’ But one who is not a true believer, holy nor righteous, does not belong to the Holy Christian Church.” (Psalms 118 Commentary). According to the understanding of the early congregation, the congregation is part of the doctrine of salvation. A person’s new birth and entrance into the congregation are simultaneous occurrences.
In the Large Catechism, the connection between the congregation, God’s Word and faith are summarized as follows: “Therefore we believe in Him who through the Word daily brings us into the fellowship of this Christian Church, and through the same Word and the forgiveness of sins bestows, increases, and strengthens faith” (Large Catechism). God uses the congregation and forgiveness of sins as tools in justifying a sinner and keeping him or her justified. Concerning the remission of sins, Luther identified three core principles: first, the remission of sins is based on the command of Christ. Second, it is by nature the office of the Holy Spirit. Third, Christ has bequeathed this office on the congregation which has received the Holy Spirit (Church Postil II, First Sunday after Easter, Gospel Sermon on John 20:19–31). God, however, does His calling work everywhere in many different ways. His paths are untraceable, His judgments unsearchable (Rom. 11:33).
Lars Levi Laestadius’ closest coworker Juhani Raattamaa called the Biblical congregation of God the “house of grace” or “heaven of grace,” outside of which there is no pure Word. According to Raattamaa, the Holy Spirit does its work of new birth and justification through the congregation. Authorized to do so by Jesus, the congregation performs the office of reconciliation here on earth.
The Place to Care for Faith and Mutual Fellowship
The members of the Christian congregation are joined together in Christ. The most familiar image of this is likely Jesus’ parable of the vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” If the living connection to Jesus is broken, the branch will dry and God will cut it off the tree (John 15:1–6). In that case, the connection to God is severed as well. Jesus also taught about this matter in His farewell speech: “I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). The unity of the saints is unity of the spirit and love, but above all it is fellowship with Christ. Paul described the congregation as the body of Christ, the head of which is Christ Himself. He holds the body together (Eph. 1:22,23; 4:15,16).
A person cannot have a true relationship with God without the work of the Holy Spirit and the congregation. Paul compared the relationship between Christ and the congregation to that of a man and woman in marriage (Eph. 5:31,32). That connection is inseparable (Col. 2:18,19). For that reason a Christian cannot believe differently than what the holy, mutual congregation teaches. When Christ – the way, truth and life (John 14:6) – is in His congregation through His Spirit, the congregation endeavors in one faith, doctrine and hope. As the living congregation of God, it clings to the Word of God and Christ’s gospel of forgiveness.
Faith is cared for in the congregation: “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). According to Christian Doctrine, a Christian must diligently use God’s Word and the Lord’s Holy Supper, prayer and mutual Christian fellowship in order to be strengthened and remain in faith (Christian Doctrine, item 77). These were a central part of the life of the early congregation (Acts 2:42). Christians’ life together also includes encouraging one another with words of correction, rebuke and instruction (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul exhorted, “Warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thess. 5:14).
The mind of a Christian and the atmosphere of grace flow from the fellowship of love effected by God. The righteousness God gives as a gift results in the fruit of submitting to God’s love. It consists of compassion toward oneself and others as well as supporting and caring for one another in love. The intention of loving instruction is not to demand but to encourage and help God’s child in his or her battle against the power of sin.
The True People of God
Luther taught that the church is not primarily an institution or organization, but it should be the living community of Christ, which the Holy Spirit has gathered through the Word and sacraments. Within the visible church is an invisible congregation. Luther differentiated between a national church and a congregation of brethren. On the one hand he supported the idea of a national church because it cared for the people’s spiritual education. On the other hand, Luther felt that the true congregation or congregation of brethren included the practice of members caring for one another, i.e. “the practice of Christian brotherly discipline.” It was the responsibility of this so-called core congregation to do mission work within the national church (German Mass and Order of Worship).
For Luther, the most important hallmark of the true congregation was God’s Word: “First, this Christian holy people is to be known by this that it has God’s holy Word…Wherever you hear or see this Word preached, believed, confessed and acted on, there do not doubt that there must be a true ecclesia sancta catholica, the Christian holy people…for God’s Word cannot be present without God’s people and God’s people cannot be without God’s Word” (On the Councils and Churches).
Lars Levi Laestadius also found the core congregation inside the external congregation (ecclesiola in ecclesia). This living Christianity is the true people of God, the community of saints born of faith of the heart and the Holy Spirit, a people who have fellowship in the same gospel or doctrine. The Holy Spirit also renews, sanctifies and governs their hearts. Such a congregation of Christ is always within the external congregation, but it is invisible to “this world,” which does not know Christ’s own (1 John 3:1). Insight on the true people of God opened to Laestadius only after he met Mary of Lapland and with her guidance found a new life in Christ.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland [Finland’s national or “state” church] is a precious gift of God. The instruction the church provides has had a deep impact on our nation’s spiritual life, morals and wellbeing. Within this church is also the living congregation of Christ. In different parts of the world, however, there are members of the congregation of Christ that belong to some other church or are not members of any church. Nevertheless they have unity of the Holy Spirit with the congregation of Christ. This unity cannot be created by blurring doctrinal differences between churches or denominations. It is born only of God’s congregation through the remission of sins preached by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Kingdom of God – the Realm of God’s Kingship and Grace
The main topic in Jesus’ preaching was the kingdom of God. In the Bible it is also called the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of Christ. Jesus depicted the essence of the kingdom of God with over thirty parables. Our Savior taught that the coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed or seen (Luke 17:20). To Nicodemus He nonetheless said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). One who is born again sees by faith the kingdom of God, which is among people and has approached him or her (Luke 17:21, Mark 1:15). It is both visible and hidden. It is the presence of Jesus by faith in the heart of one who is born again. People who have Christ as King in their hearts are members of Christ’s body, i.e. His congregation. They are partakers in God’s kingdom and simultaneously members of the people of God.
First and foremost, the kingdom of God is the kingship and majesty of God (1 Chron. 29:11), which pertains to God’s being and His salvation work. The kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), nor does it seek temporal power. It is unconquerable and everlasting (Dan. 7:14), but it can be removed from people’s midst (Matt. 21:43). Therefore a person’s most important duty in life is to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33).
In reality, a person is not even able to seek God, but God works through other people He has saved: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12). We can read in the Bible that Jesus was received by faith only by the living congregation and its members (John 1:11–13).
Apostle Paul preached everywhere of the kingdom of God (Acts 20:25), which appeared among people in Christ. Old Testament believers beheld it with the eyes of the Spirit and awaited its appearance, trusting in God’s promise. According to the Swebilius Catechism, God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace here in this time and a kingdom of glory once in eternity. In essence it is righteousness, peace and joy given by the Holy Ghost (Rom. 14:17).
God’s kingdom can also be described as the realm of God’s grace and love. Believers inherently possess its deepest essence, which is gift righteousness. In them, God’s kingdom approaches other people.
The Congregation Proclaims the Presence of the Kingdom of God
In His Word, God has given the hallmarks of the Christian church and the kingdom of God. For that reason, the congregation must always be built on the foundation of God’s Word. The Old Testament congregation meant the people of Israel or the part of it which was assembled around the Word of God.
According to our Christian doctrine, the congregation of Christ on earth is alien, scattered and battling. It lives under the guidance of the Holy Spirit until the end of the world, but when Christ comes it will appear together with Him glorified and rejoicing (Christian Doctrine, item 50). One can also attempt to describe the congregation with other pairs of opposites: it is both earthly and heavenly. It is present and yet to come, hidden and visible, divine and human. Nonetheless, no words or human conclusions are sufficient to capture the true essence of the holy, mutual apostolic congregation.
In order to learn to know the kingdom of God, we must learn to know God. He is almighty and hidden, merciful and gracious. He hates sin. When God’s children preach the kingdom of God, they reveal the will of God. They are ambassadors of the kingdom of God.
Even though the Christian congregation and the kingdom of God are different concepts, they are not separate from one another: the message of the kingdom of God is not genuine without the Christian congregation, and only members of the body of Christ can proclaim the true presence of God’s kingdom.
Christian Doctrine Briefly Presented. Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 1948.
- Augsburg Confession.
- Bondage of the Will. Original work ”De servo arbitrio” 1525.
- Church Postils I–III.
- Commentary on Galatians. Original work “In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas commentarius ex praelectione D. Martini Lutheri collectus” 1535.
- Commentary on Psalm 118. Original work “Auslegung des 118. Psalms” 1529–30.
- Defense of the Augsburg Confession.
- German Mass and Order of Worship. Original work “Deutsche Messe und Ordnung des Gottesdiensts” 1526.
- Large Catechism.
- On the Councils and Churches. Original work “Von den Konziliis und Kirchen” 1539.
- On the Papacy. Original work “Von dem Papsttum zu Rom” 1520.
- Lutherin Vähän katekismuksen yksinkertainen selitys. 1745.
- Sydämellinen kristillisyys. Lars Levi Laestadius ja lestadiolaisen herätyksen alkuvaiheet. SRK 1989.
- Ole vapaa, vapaaksi ostettu lauma. Juhani Raattamaa – opettaja ja sielunhoitaja. SRK 1985.