I hear we have a little thing coming up that people call an election. Last night I watched an episode of Frontline that focused on President Trump, Robert Mueller, and this kerfuffle over Russian interference in our elections. The possibility of Russian interference in an American election is certainly an important issue to be concerned about and perhaps even worthy of a special prosecutor, but there’s a much older version of election hacking we ought to be concerned with as well.
For Martin Luther, the question of the church’s identity was all about election. Instead of voting for future office-holders, God is the one who chooses. God’s work and the church’s mission concern God’s gracious choosing: God elects the ungodly for Christ’s sake by sending a preacher to announce the forgiveness of sins. The goal of Articles VII and VII in the Augsburg Confession, written by Philip Melanchthon to present to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530, was to see to it that God’s election doesn’t get hacked. Melanchthon defined the church’s place in the election process: “It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”
The hacking of God’s electing work happens in a way not unlike what Russian GRU operatives supposedly did with social media in the run-up to the 2016 vote. They flooded Facebook, for instance, with incendiary messages intended to get you to think ill of one candidate or party or another. The hacking of God’s election comes when I become captivated by the world, the devil, and my sinful self so that I think that I can’t count on God’s promises in Jesus. Divine election hacking happens with the proposal that God’s Word is irrelevant and powerless, weak and impotent. Jesus is not enough, and something needs to be added to the cross.
Usually what gets added to Christ crucified is a moral program, a social benefit, or a political movement that the hackers of this divine election say is worth your time. The opponents to the Word move in from both the left and the right, from both mainline Christianity and conservative evangelicalism. We get divided into camps behind either therapeutic moral deism that advocates for social reform, a focus on reparations for victims, and liberal political programs on the one hand, or behind a certain kind of fundamentalism and legalism that would embed a list of conservative religious and social values into the structure of society by means of legislation and make America Christian again. Or there’s a third way called the “prosperity gospel” simply treats God as a weak-kneed divinity who can be swayed by your devotion and grant you the perfect life you’ve bargained for.
All these hackers use the tools of popular culture to hook people and reel them in. They play on your desire to fit in, to be regarded as somebody, to hang with the beautiful and powerful, and at the very least to have some measure of control over your future days in this life and over God’s ultimate thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the last day. At best, these hackers want you to serve many noble causes and not-so-random acts of kindness that make the world a better or more moral place. But like Russian operatives, the result is always that you take your eye off the ball to serve your own autonomy. Your attention is pulled away from the one single thing you need for your salvation, the one thing required for the existence of the church. What’s missing from this picture is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
In “On the Councils and the Church” (1539), Luther provided a list of what he called the “seven marks of the church,” that is, the seven signs by which you can determine if you’re seeing Christ’s church: the word of God, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, people called to deliver the public proclamation of the gospel, worship, and suffering. We can make clearer sense of Luther’s list if we remember what he said about individual Christians in The Freedom of a Christian. He said that each of us has two selves inside us: the old, outer person of the flesh and the new, inner person of the Spirit. The old person who lacks faith relies on works to earn salvation, disregards the Word, and seeks to manage life through relentless activity (or sometimes quits caring altogether). But the new person of faith relies solely on Christ and can be spotted by bearing Galatians’ fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). In the same way, there’s an outer church and an inner church.
Luther argues that Christ’s kingdom “does not consist in the external pomp of robes and gestures…as our ecclesiastical priesthood does today. But his consists in spiritual things, through which, in an invisible, heavenly office, he intercedes for us” (The Freedom of the Christian, 503). The outer church is defined by structures, building, hierarchies, legal matters, and all sorts of metrics by which we can check on our religious progress. At St. Somewhere Church, you’ll find plenty of outer church stuff: it has a building, it has a church council, and it has stuff that fills offices and classrooms and kitchen that are used in carrying out the church’s work. It has people on staff and under call. And it has, whether explicit or implicit, a constitution and by-laws.
But in the inner church, the one thing that prevails is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That inner church is something we see through a glass dimly. It’s barely visible because it exists in the moment between when the promise of the Gospel is delivered and when the Spirit creates a trusting heart in you. Church is a verb. It’s something that is done by the Holy Spirit. The church is like brain chemistry. When our gray matter is engaged, we have electrical impulses that move along neurons. When the electrical jolt gets to the end of a neuron, it faces a gap and moves across to get to what’s next. That gap is a “synapse.” The inner church exists in the gap where all leaps of faith happen, where the move from the old person to the new person takes us from unfaith to faith.
Article VII of the Augsburg Confession refuses to concede the church’s true identity to the outer qualities that can be degraded by the hacking with which the world bewitches us. It points solely to the Spirit’s work in preaching and the sacraments:
They teach that the one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.
When the church takes up its true calling, it does so according to its only power and authority. The church’s task is to assert the universal truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All need the mercy of Immanuel, God-made-flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. And the way they get it is via election, that is, by means of mercy announced to the ungodly in the name of Christ. Agree with that and we’ll have the unity Christ prays for in John 17, which goes far beyond any outer church vestments, liturgical accoutrements, or ecumenical agreements.
The church can’t be judged by schisms that rend it asunder. The church lasts until the Last Day because Jesus Christ, the focus and agent of the inner church who comes in the Gospel and sacraments, is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The church, then, is where the unhacked goods are delivered and the Spirit moves people to faith so they grab hold of Christ’s benefits of forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation.
If the church is inner and outer, it’s because the people assembled there are themselves inner and outer. It was an offense to the reformers’ opponents that anyone could consider anything less than absolute religious purity as acceptable. Both the Roman church on the right and the enthusiasts on the left wanted to make the inner church visible. Luther’s Roman opponents wanted a church bound to the hierarchy and papacy. The enthusiasts wanted a church that didn’t involve mediated promises, but instead wanted an immediate and measurable display of spiritual gifts. So a Roman view of baptism regarded a baptized life as being proved in participation in the Mass and in acts of charity. And the Anabaptists said being a baptized Christian meant having a seal on your decision for Christ and embarking on a new born-again life of moral renewal. All those things might be suitable things for Christians to be involved in, but they’re not the church. They’re a mighty good response to the Gospel and part of new obedience that comes with faith.
Because Christ’s church is the inner church, it stands forever. It’s strong enough to bear the weight of seismic changes in our culture. That means we might let go of our anxiety over denominations heading the way of the dodo bird. The day of denominations is fading. Antioch and Alexandria are no longer epicenters of faith as they were in the early church. The outer church never lasts. It never holds sway. But the inner church shall stand “even when steeples are falling.” The Holy Spirit will hold sway. The Gospel will be preached. Christ will put all things under his feet. People of faith will gather in pockets of faith and ferment. We will find our affiliations within the inner church. The church is ever located where real sinners encounter radical and authentic preaching that’s fearless in naming sin and declaring what Christ has done about it.
The hackers of divine election will want to map things statistically to prove the church’s hypocrisy and weakness. But when the church exists in the synapses, it becomes a matter of faith. And the church constantly shifts when and where it pleases the Spirit to create faith. In a sermon in Leipzig when Duke George, Luther’s bitterest opponent, died and the city became a new Lutheran stronghold (LW, 51:301-312), Luther talked about the church as the Heufflein Christi, Christ’s little band. The body of Christ is a bunch of broken folks barely clinging to the one who has a much stronger hold on us. In the inner church, the reckoning has happened. You are elected.