[Article VII(IV):] Of the Church

Written in Latin by Philip Melanchthon (1531)

Translated from the Latin into German by Justus Jonas (1531)

English Translation by Ambrose and Socrates Henkel (1851), Revised by W. F. Lehmann (1854)

Link to Bente/Dau Translation from Latin (1921)

[1] Our adversaries condemn the seventh article of our Confession, in which we say, that the Christian church is the congregation of saints. They talk at length to show, that the wicked or ungodly ought not to be separated from the church, because John the Baptist compares the church to a floor, on which wheat and chaff are heaped together [Matt. 3:12]; and because Christ compares it to a net, containing fishes, both bad and good [Matt. 13:47].

[2] Here we have an illustration of the truth of the saying, that nothing can be so clearly expressed that an evil tongue cannot pervert. [3] We have, for this very reason, added the eighth article, that no one might presume that we wish to separate the immoral and hypocrites from the external society of Christians or the church, or that in our opinion the Sacraments, when administered by the ungodly, are without power or efficiency.

This false and erroneous construction, therefore, requires no long reply. The eighth article is our sufficient defense. We too confess and declare, that hypocrites and wicked men may also be members of the church, in external communion of name and office, and that we may truly receive the Sacraments even from wicked men, especially when they have not been excommunicated. The Sacraments are not without power or efficacy, because administered by the ungodly. [4] For Paul even prophesied, that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God [2 Thess. 2:4], rule and reign in the church, have authority and hold office therein.

[5] The Christian church, however, consists not only in the communion of external signs, but chiefly in the internal communion of heavenly gifts in the heart; such as the Holy Spirit, faith, the fear and love of God. Nevertheless this church has external signs also, by which it is known; namely, where the pure Word of God is taught, and where the Sacraments are administered in conformity with it, there in truth is the church, there are Christians. And this church alone is called in the Scriptures the Body of Christ; because Christ is its Head, and sanctifies and strengthens it through his Spirit; as Paul says, Eph. 1:22-23: "And gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all." Therefore, they, in whom Christ effects nothing through his Spirit, are not members of Christ. Even our adversaries acknowledge, that the wicked are only dead members of the church.

[6] I cannot find language, therefore, to express my astonishment, that they assail our definition of the church; for we spoke of its living members. [7] Besides, we advanced nothings new. For Paul, Eph. 5:25-27, gives the same definition of the church, and designates also the external signs, namely, the Gospel and the Sacraments. For he says: "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water, by the word; that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." This passage of the Apostle we inserted almost literally in our Confession.

And in like manner we also confess in our Creed and holy Symbol: "I believe in a holy Christian church." Here we say that the church is holy. But the ungodly and the wicked cannot be the holy church. [8] A little farther on we find in our Creed: "The communion of saints," which explains, even more clearly and explicitly, what the church is, namely, the body, the congregation, confessing one Gospel, having the same knowledge of Christ, and one Spirit that renovates, sanctifies, and rules their hearts.

[9] And this article, concerning the catholic or universal church, which is gathered from every nation under the sun, is very consolatory and highly necessary. But much greater, nay, almost innumerable is the mass of ungodly men who contemn, and bitterly hate, and violently persecute the Word of God; as for instance the Turks, the Mahometans, tyrants, heretics, etc. Moreover, the true doctrine and true church are frequently so completely oppressed and crushed, as for instance under Popery, that the church seems to be lost, nay, altogether destroyed. [10] On the other hand, the consolatory article was inserted in the Symbol:--"I believe in a catholic, universal, Christian church," that we might be assured and not doubt, but firmly and fully believe, that there really is and will continue to be a Christian church on earth, till the end of the world; that we may never doubt the existence on earth of a Christian church, which is the bride of Christ, although the ungodly predominate; and that here on earth, in the assembly which is called the church, Christ the Lord, daily operates, remits sins, constantly hears our prayers, and ever comforts his servants, in their trials, with rich and efficient consolation. This article was, moreover, designed to prevent anyone from thinking, that the church, like any external government, is confined to this or that country, kingdom or state, as the Pope of Rome would have it; and it positively maintains, that the true church is the great body of true believers in all parts of the world, from the rising of the sun to his setting, who have but one Gospel, one Christ, the same Baptism and Holy Supper, and are ruled by one Holy Spirit; although they have different ceremonies.

It is also clearly stated in the explanation of the Decree of Gratian, that the word church, in its general sense, comprehends the bad and good; again, that the wicked are in the church only by name, not by practice; but the good are in it both by name and practice. And there are many passages in the writings of the Fathers of similar import. For Jerome says: "He that is a sinner, and still remains polluted with sin, cannot be called a member of the church, nor can he belong to the church of Christ."

[12] Now although the wicked, and ungodly hypocrites, have fellowship with the true church in external signs, in name and office; yet, when we would strictly define, what the church is, we must speak of the church called the body of Christ, and having communion not only in external signs, but also holding faith and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in its bosom.

[13] It is necessary for us, really to know, how we become members of Christ, and what constitutes us living members of the church; for if we should say that the church is only an outward government, like other establishments, in which there are both wicked and pious men; no one would thus learn or understand, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as it really is; that in it Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and consoles the hearts, and imparts the Holy Spirit and various spiritual gifts; but men would think it an external form, a certain order of ceremonies, and worship.

[14] Again, what difference would there be between the people of the law and those of the church, if the church were only an outward polity? Now Paul distinguishes the church from the Jews, Rom. 2:28-29, by saying that the church is a spiritual people; that is, a people distinguished from the Gentiles, not only in polity and civil affairs, but as the true people of God, enlightened in their hearts, and born anew through the Holy Spirit.

Again, among the Jewish people, all those who were native Jews and born of the seed of Abraham, had, besides the promises of divine blessings in Christ, many promises also concerning temporal blessings, respecting the kingdom, etc. And, on account of the divine promises, the wicked also among them, were called the people of God; for God, by these temporal promises, had separated from the Gentiles the lineal seed of Abraham and all that were native Jews; and yet the wicked and ungodly among them were not the true people of God; nor did they please him. [15] The Gospel, however, which is preached in the church, brings not only the fore-shadow of eternal blessings; but each true Christian, here on earth, receives the blessings of heaven, eternal comfort and life, the Holy Spirit, and divine righteousness, until he shall be perfectly blessed in yonder world.

[16] According to the Gospel, then, those alone are the people of God, who receive the spiritual blessings and the Holy Spirit; and this church is the kingdom of Christ, distinguished from the kingdom of Satan. For it is certain that all the ungodly are in the power of the devil, and members of his kingdom; as Paul says, Eph. 2:2: "Ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." Christ also said to the Pharisees (who were the holiest, and bore the name of the people and the church of God, and also made their offerings): "Ye are of your father the devil," John 8:44.

The true church, therefore, is the kingdom of Christ; that is, the congregation of all saints; for the ungodly are not ruled by the Spirit of Christ. [17] But what need is there of many words on a point so clear and manifest? Our adversaries, however, oppose the clear truth. If the church, which most assuredly is the kingdom of Christ and of God, differs from the kingdom of the devil, the ungodly who are in the kingdom of the devil, surely cannot be the church; although, as the kingdom of Christ is not yet manifest, they are, in this life, among the true Christians and in the church, even as teachers and other officers. [18] But the ungodly are not, in the meantime, on that account a part of the kingdom of Christ, since it is not yet manifest. For the true kingdom of Christ consists, and will continue to consist of those who are enlightened, strengthened, and ruled by the Spirit of God, although this kingdom is not yet manifest to the world, but concealed under afflictions, even as there is, and always will be, the same Christ that was once crucified, and now reigns and rules in everlasting glory in heaven.

[19] This accords with the parable of Christ, where he distinctly says, Matt. 13:38: "The good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one: the field is the world,"--not the church.

This is also the sense of the words of John, Matt. 3:12: "He will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Here he refers to the whole Jewish people, and says, that the true church is to be separated from the people. This passage is rather against our adversaries, than in their favor; for it clearly shows, that the truly believing, spiritual people shall be separated from carnal Israel.

And when Christ says, Matt. 13:47: "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net;" and, it is "likened to ten virgins," Matt. 25:1-5; he does not mean that the wicked are the church; but simply shows how the church appears in this world. He therefore says that the church is like these, etc; that is, as among a mass of fish, there are good and bad ones promiscuously; so the church here below is concealed among the great body and multitude of the ungodly; and he desires that the pious be not offended. Again, he would have us to know that the Word and the Sacraments are not without effect, although the ungodly preach, or administer them. Thus Christ teaches us, that the ungodly, though in the church according to external fellowship, are still not members of Christ, nor the true church; for they are members of the devil.

[20] Nor are we speaking of an imaginary church, which may nowhere be found, but we affirm and know in truth, that this church containing saints, truly is and continues to be on earth; that is, there are children of God in different places throughout the world, in various kingdoms, islands, countries, and cities, from the rising to the setting of the sun, who truly know Christ and the Gospel; and we assert that the external signs, the ministry, or the Gospel and the Sacraments, are in this church.

This church properly is, as Paul says, (1 Tim. 3:15,) the pillar of truth; because it retains the pure Gospel, the true foundation; and as he says, 1 Cor. 3:11: "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Upon this foundation the Christians are built.

True, among those who are built on the right foundation, that is, on Christ and faith, there are many weak men who build hay and stubble on such foundation, that is, certain human conceits and opinions, by which however they do not overthrow or reject Christ, the foundation. They are, nevertheless, Christians, and these faults will be forgiven them; they may also become enlightened and better informed. [21] Thus even the Fathers sometimes built hay and stubble on that foundation; yet without intending to overthrow it.

But many of the articles of our adversaries subvert the right foundation, the knowledge of Christ and faith; for they reject and condemn our most important article, which declares, that we obtain remission of sins by faith alone, through Christ, without any works whatever. On the other hand, they teach us to rely on our works, by them to merit the forgiveness of our sins; and substitute their works, their orders, and the Mass, for Christ; like the Jews, Gentiles, and Turks, they would be saved by their own works. They also teach, that the Sacraments make men righteous, ex opere operato, without faith. Now he that does not consider faith to be necessary, has already lost Christ. Again, they establish the worship of saints, and call upon them as mediators, instead of Christ.

[22] Now while God clearly promises in the Scriptures, that the church shall always have the Holy Spirit, he also earnestly warns us, that false teachers and wolves will insinuate themselves into the church, among the genuine ministers of the Gospel. But, properly speaking, the church which has the Holy Spirit, is the Christian church. The wolves and false teachers, however, are not the church, or the kingdom of Christ; although they rave in it and waste it; as Lyra says: "The true church does not rest upon the authority of prelates; because many of high rank, princes and bishops, as well as many of low estate, have fallen from faith. Therefore the church consists of those, who truly know Christ, and properly confess the faith and the truth."

In our Confession we say the same thing, in reality, that Lyra has stated, in the clearest possible terms. [23] But our adversaries desire a new Romish definition of the church; they wish us to say:--The church is the supreme monarchy, the greatest and most powerful sovereignty in the world, in which the Pope of Rome, as the head of the church, has the absolute control of all matters, great and small, spiritual and temporal. This power (however he may use or abuse it) no one dare dispute, or even whisper against. Again, in this church the Pope has authority to set up articles of faith; to establish various modes of worship; to abolish the holy Scriptures at pleasure; to pervert and explain them in opposition to all divine laws, to his own decretals, and to all imperial rights. Moreover, he has discretional authority to sell indulgences and dispensations for money; and from him the Roman emperor, all kings, princes, and potentates, are under obligation to receive their royal crowns, their sovereignty and titles, as from the vicar of Christ. The Pope is, therefore, a god on earth, a supreme ruler, the sovereign lord of all the world, over all kingdoms, all countries and people, over all possessions, spiritual and temporal, and thus controls all things, both the temporal and the spiritual sword. [24] This definition, which does not at all accord with the true church, but very well agrees with the character of the Pope of Rome, we find not only in the Canonical Letters, but Daniel, the prophet also, thus describes Antichrist [11:36-39].

[25] If we thus define the church as a system of pomp and pageantry, such as the Pope's, our judges would perhaps be more gracious. For the books of our adversaries are at hand, in which the power of the Pope is extolled in extravagant terms, yet no one opposes them. But we must suffer for praising and exalting the merits of Christ, for writing and preaching the plain word and doctrines of the Apostles, namely, that we obtain the remission of sins by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by hypocrisy, or invented forms of worship, such as the Pope has established without number. [26] But Christ, the Prophets, and the Apostles, give a far different description of the church of Christ, wholly incompatible with the Pope's government.

[27] Those passages, therefore, which refer to the true church, must not be applied to the popes or bishops, as if they were pillars of truth, and infallible. For how many among the bishops, popes, etc., are taking or have taken an earnest and sincere interest in the Gospel, or have considered it worthwhile properly to study a page or even a syllable of it? Many examples are, alas, at hand, which show that there are many in Italy and elsewhere, who laugh at all religion,--deride Christ and the Gospel, and publicly ridicule them. And if they assent to anything at all, it is to that only which comports with human reason; all else they regard as fabulous.

[28] Hence we draw the conclusion, according to the holy Scriptures, that the true Christian church consists of all those throughout the world, who truly believe the Gospel of Christ, and have the Holy Spirit. And yet we acknowledge, that in this life, among true Christians, there are many hypocrites and wicked men, who are also members of the church, so far as it concerns external signs. For they hold offices in the church, preach, administer the Sacraments, and bear the title and name of Christian. Nor are the Sacraments, Baptism, etc., without efficacy, because administered by unworthy and ungodly men; for they stand before us by virtue of the call of the church, not on their own authority, but as representatives of Christ, who says, Luke 10:16: "He that heareth you, heareth me." Thus Judas was also sent to preach. Now although ungodly men preach and administer the Sacraments, they officiate in Christ's stead. And this declaration of Christ teaches us, that in such cases the unworthiness of the servant should not offend us.

[29] But on this subject we have explicitly stated in our Confession, that we do not agree with the Donatists and Wickliffites, who held that those commit sin, who receive the Sacraments in the church from ungodly ministers. This, we think, is sufficient to defend and sustain our definition of the church. And, since the true church is called in the Scriptures, the body of Christ, it is utterly impossible to speak of it otherwise than we have spoken.

It is certainly evident, that hypocrites and the ungodly cannot be the body of Christ, but belong to the kingdom of the devil, who has taken them captive, and rules them at pleasure. All this is indisputably clear. But if our adversaries still continue their calumniation, they shall be further replied to.

[30] Our adversaries also condemn that part of the seventh article, in which we say, that it is sufficient for the unity of the church, to agree in the Gospel and in the administration of the Sacraments, and that human ordinances need not everywhere be uniform. This they grant, so far as to say, that the unity of the church does not require special traditions [concerning rites and ceremonies,] (traditiones particulares) to be alike. But they maintain, that the true unity of the church calls for uniformity in general or universal traditions (traditiones universales).

[31] This is a most awkward distinction. We say that those are one church who believe in one Christ, and have one Gospel, one Spirit, one faith, and the same Sacraments; we are therefore speaking of spiritual unity, without which, faith and a Christian character cannot exist. This unity, then, we say, does not require human ordinances, whether universal or particular, to be everywhere alike.

For righteousness before God, which is brought by faith, does not depend on external ceremonies, or human ordinances, and faith is a light in the heart, which renovates and quickens it. To this work, external ordinances or ceremonies, whether universal or particular, contribute little or nothing.

[32] And we had good cause for drawing up this article; for many great errors and foolish opinions concerning human traditions have crept into the church. Some imagined, that, without such human ordinances, Christian holiness and faith avail nothing in the sight of God; and that no one can be a Christian, unless he observe such traditions; while they are nothing but external ordinances, which often accidentally, or for certain reasons, differ in various places, as, in their worldly government, cities have different customs. We also read in history, that churches have excommunicated each other, on account of such ordinances, for instance, in regard to Easter day, images, and the like.

Hence the ignorant believed, that such ceremonies and services make us righteous before God, and that no one can be a Christian without them; for many absurd writings on this point, of the Summists and others, are still extant.

[33] But we maintain, that the harmony of the church is no more broken by variations in such human ordinances, than it is by variations in the natural length of the day in different places. Yet we like to see the general ceremonies uniformly kept, for the sake of harmony and order, as in our churches, for instance, we celebrate the Mass, the Lord's Day, and other great festivals.

We also approve all human ordinances, which are good and useful, especially those, which promote good external discipline among youth and the people generally. [34] But the inquiry is not: shall human ordinances be observed on account of external discipline and tranquillity? The question is altogether different; it is: is the observance of such human ordinances, a divine service by which God is reconciled; and can we be righteous before God without such statutes? This is the chief inquiry, and when this shall have been finally answered, it will be easy to judge, whether the unity of the church requires uniformity in such ordinances.

Now if they are not necessary to serve God, it follows that we may be pious, holy, and just, be the children of God, and Christians, even without observing the same ceremonies that are in use in other churches. For example, if it be true that the wearing of German or French clothing is not a necessary service of God, it follows that some can be just and holy, and in the church of Christ, although they do not wear German or French garments. [35] Thus Paul clearly teaches Col. 2:16-17: "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy-day, or of the new-moon, or of sabbath-days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." Again, verses 20-23: "Wherefore, if ye be dead with Christ, from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using,) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh."

[36] The meaning of Paul is, that faith in the heart, through which we become righteous, is a spiritual thing, a light in the heart, through which we are renewed and receive another mind and disposition. But human traditions are not such a life-giving light and power of the Holy Spirit in the heart, they are not eternal; therefore they do not produce eternal life; they are only external, bodily exercises, which do not change the heart.

We cannot, therefore, believe, that they are necessary to righteousness before God. In this sense Paul says to the Romans, 14:17: "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." [37] But it is unnecessary here to quote many passages of Scripture, as the Bible is full of such, and we have adduced many of them in the last article of our Confession. We shall hereafter dwell more particularly on the chief question of this subject, namely, whether such human ordinances are a divine service necessary to salvation. Then we shall speak more fully on this subject.

[38] Our adversaries say that we must observe such ordinances, especially the universal ceremonies, because it is probable that they were handed down to us from the Apostles. What great, holy, eminent, apostolic men! How pious and spiritual they have now become! They are willing to observe the ordinances and ceremonies, established, as they say, by the Apostles; but not willing to follow the doctrines and clear words of the Apostles. [39] But we say and know, that it is right, concerning all ordinances, to entertain and express the same views that the Apostles themselves advanced in their writings; and they everywhere contend, most vigorously and earnestly, not only against those who would exalt human ordinances, but those also, who are disposed to regard the divine law, the ceremonies of circumcision, etc. as necessary to salvation.

The Apostles were far from desiring thus to burden the conscience, by preaching, that it would be sinful not to observe such ordinances concerning certain days, fasts, meats, and the like. [40] Moreover, Paul (1 Tim. 4:1,) plainly calls such teaching the doctrines of devils. What the views of the Apostles were in this matter, must therefore be ascertained from their clear writings: it is not sufficient to give mere illustrations. True, they observed certain days; not because this was necessary in order to become righteous before God, but that the people might know when to come together. They also observed various customs and ceremonies, such as reading regular lessons in the Bible, convening at stated periods, etc. In the beginning of the church also, the Jews, who had become Christians, retained many of their Jewish festivals and ceremonies, which the Apostles then adapted to the Gospel history. So our Easter and Whitsuntide were derived from their Passover and Pentecost. The Apostles wished, not only by teaching, but also by such historical festivals, to transmit to posterity a knowledge of Christ and the great Gospel treasure. [41] Now if such ceremonies are necessary to salvation, why then did the bishops afterwards introduce many changes in them? If they were instituted by the command of God, no man had power to alter them.

[42] Before the Council of Nicaea, Easter was observed in different places at different times, but this want of uniformity did not in the least injure the faith or Christian unity. Afterwards Easter was intentionally changed, so as not to fall on the same day with the Passover. But the Apostles enjoined the keeping of Easter in the churches at the time, when the brethren, who were converted from Judaism, observed it. Some bishoprics and people, therefore, even after the Council of Nicaea, strongly insisted, that Easter, should be observed at the time of the Passover. But the Apostles did not intend by their decree to impose such a burden upon the churches as necessary to salvation, which the decree itself clearly shows; for they distinctly say, that no one should trouble himself about the brethren, who keep Easter, etc., although they may not exactly compute the time. For Epiphanius refers to the words of the Apostles, from which every intelligent man may clearly perceive, that the Apostles wished to turn the people from the error of making holidays, certain seasons, etc., matters of conscience. Indeed, they expressly add that no one should be much concerned, though there be an error in the computation of Easter. [45] I could produce a mass of such testimony from history, and show still more clearly that such difference in external ordinances, separates no one from the universal Christian church.

Our adversaries, who teach that the unity of the Christian church consists in ordinances relating to meats, days, vestments, and the like, which God has not enjoined, by no means understand what faith, or what the kingdom of Christ is. [46] In this matter every one may perceive what pious and exceedingly holy people our adversaries are. For, if universal ordinances are necessary, and if they should never be altered, who authorized them to alter the order of the Lord's Supper? Which is not a human ordinance, but a divine institution. We shall, however, especially treat of this subject hereafter.

Previous: [Article IV(III):] Of Love and the Fulfillment of the Law

Next: [Article VIII(IV): What the Church Is]