In the up and coming Christian world there is a term that has taken hold, and a more important term that has fallen by the way side. It is often that we hear Christians say, "I'm going to witness for Christ today," or the question, "Have you witnessed to anyone?" In the meantime we have dropped out of our memory the better term, which is confess. To many people this distinction between witnessing and confessing is a mere splitting of hairs. It is to rigid to think that there is a problem with the use of 'witness' rather than 'confess.' The question has probably already arisen, "Why should I confess the faith rather than witness about it?" This question escaped me for a long time. I always thought that it was of no real consequence to "witness" to others. I did not consider the difference between witnessing and confessing as a noteworthy distinction. Being brought to the correct understanding of how these terms should be utilized I now have a deeper appreciation both for the power of the Word and my role as a Christian in the vocation that I have been called to. I believe we disrupt context and begin to lay out a false teaching when we insist on witnessing rather than confessing the faith, especially as it relates to the blessed doctrine of vocation that we in the Missouri-Synod are unique in possessing. To suggest that the term "witness" produces a false understanding of vocation (and ultimately the context of Scripture verses where "witness" is used) is a bold statement, but I'm convinced that it is true based on the results such so called "witnessing" has across the denominational board.
You'll notice that the title of this post begins with "The Apostolic Witness." You might say to yourself, "Hasn't this guy just spent his opening paragraph suggesting that we should not use this term, but rather confess?" This is a good question, and you are right in asking it. It is better for US to confess the faith and allow the Apostles to remain in their rightful role of witnessing about all the aspects of the life of Christ our Lord. Klemet Preus asserts in his book "The Fire and the Staff:Lutheran Theology in Practice," that everywhere the term witness is used in the New Testament it refers to people who have actually seen an event take place. I trust that he has done a proper word search to verify that this is true, but even in our English use of the term "witness" it is defined as follows: "to see, hear, or know by personal presence and perception," so it only makes sense that the Apostles would bear this special role or vocation as the witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, in turn excluding everyone else who has not witnessed these things, namely everyone but the Apostles. We can see in the book of Acts when the eleven Apostles must choose someone to replace Judas's office that that person has to be "one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection" (Acts:1:21-22). The eleven produced two men who fulfilled this requirement and from the two Matthias was chosen. From this example we can see that certain individuals were chosen for this vocation.
Preus discusses an important reason why we should confess the faith as oppose to witness about it. When you witness you might be tempted to say "'Let me tell you what Jesus has done for me.' No one really needs to know what you think when it comes to eternal life. And we certainly will never be saved by hearing what Jesus has done for you" (Preus, 389). The point is if you become a witness you might be concerned more about telling people how God is working in your life instead of confessing the universal faith that Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world. This is a good point to make, but I'm more concerned with how this false use of a term disrupts our sense of vocation.
What is meant by vocation? The literal definition of the term is a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling. So a vocation could be anything from a witness, as the Apostles were, down to a father or mother, student, blue-collar worker, "black collar" worker (Pastor,) school teacher, husband or wife etc. The key term is called. These various positions are filled when God calls us to them which is a comforting and pleasant way to look at the various stations we hold in life. For one it gives us purpose, but also it does not leave us searching for ways to "do God's will." When we are faithful in our various callings we are being faithful to our Lord. In the Small Catechism of Dr. Luther he has a portion called [IX] Table of Duties. His introduction to this table of duties is as follows: "consisting of certain passages of Scriptures, selected for various estates and conditions of men, by which they may be admonished to do their respective duties" (Tappert, 354). "Various estates," "conditions of men," and "respective duties" can easily be rendered vocations. Luther notes importantly that the following admonitions are "certain passages of Scriptures," so our vocations are given by God and he gives us his Word in order that we carry them out according to His will. In the Large Catechism of Dr. Luther and the fourth commandment he discusses why and how children should honor their father and mother and "in the second place" he says, "notice what a great, good, and holy work is assigned to children. Alas, it is utterly despised and brushed aside, and no one recognizes it as God's command or as holy, divine word and precept. For if we had regarded it as such, it would have been apparent to all that they who lived according to these words must also be holy men. Then there would have been no need to institute monasticism or "spiritual estates" (Tappert, 380).
As Luther shows we all have "great, good, and holy work(s)" assigned to us, but they are in the sphere of the vocations which we have been called to. Why is this important? For most Christians in our modern world "witnessing" is the main role of every Christian. With phrases like "every man a Minister" and "go out and witness" we have turned our faces away from the "great, good, and holy work(s)" only to suggest that somehow this zealous witnessing is something more elevated in the eyes of our Lord than the humble estates which he places us in. Oh how we have fallen into monasticism again by applying this word "witness" to all Christians instead of only those to which it was applied. In Luther's time individuals who entered into the monastic life were thought of as more holy and God pleasing because of this pursuit of God. How often do individuals think, "I'm a much better Christian than Joe because I "witnessed" to five people today and poor old Joe just went to his job, fulfilled his duties no doubt, but did not "witness" about Christ to anyone."
You might be wondering, "Well is this not just a different term with the same understanding as confessing the faith?" In shorthand the answer is no. If we are to confess, or ομολογεώ (homologeo,) than we are to say the same thing that the Scriptures say. By asserting that every Christian ought to witness as the Apostle's did, you are not saying the same thing as the Scriptures. For one you are giving an entirely new meaning to the word "witness," and for two you are placing the Law on the consciences of men where God has not placed it himself. Consider Luther's words about the book of Acts: "Contrary to what has sometimes been the practice, this book should not
be read or regarded as though St. Luke had written about the personal
work or history of the apostles simply as an example of good works or a
good life...Rather it should be noted that by this book St. Luke teaches
the whole of Christendom, even to the end of the world, that the true
and chief article of Christian doctrine is this: We must all be
justified alone by faith in Jesus Christ, without any contribution from
the law or help from our works" (TLSB, 1828). It is almost as if Luther saw the day coming when people would read this
commission to the Apostles and then proclaim, "I must do just as the
Apostles have done, so I will witness to all the world!" You can see how
devastating it is to apply this little word "witness" to ourselves.
Luther sees that if we utilize the entirety of the book of Acts, and so
including this one passage, as a way to set up the Apostles as a guide
to right living we lose the true purpose of the book, which is the
proclamation of the forgiveness we have in Christ. What a difference. In
maintaining the context and so reserving this little word "witness" for
the Apostles we can either be burdened by the acronym WWAD (What Would
the Apostles Do) to a release from the Law and the acronym WDAP(What Did
the Apostles Preach) which is the complete forgiveness of sins in
Christ, without any merit or worthiness of our own, before or after our
conversion to faith.
The clarification in context between the role of the Apostles and our own, as it concerns witnessing and confessing is important because without it consciences can be burdened by over-zealous spirits who wish to insert themselves into the role which is reserved for the Apostles. The distinction between the Apostles and ourselves lies in the notion that a witness refers to a person who has seen events first hand. The Apostles are this witness to the life of Jesus Christ, not you and I. We should reserve this term for the Apostles in order to separate their very important role in spreading the Gospel and not confuse their vocational task with our own. Let us consider the words of our Lord as he commissions the eleven:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."(Acts 1:8).
This is a great and glorious comfort to us Christians today, and for all of those who would receive this witness from the Apostles. Christ has assigned a specific task to the eleven, as well as the newly appointed Matthias, and later Saul of Tarsus.
Having the context in its proper place we can take further comfort in the fact that the spreading of the Gospel does not depend on us, but rather the Apostles. You might say, "How can the Apostles spread the Gospel, they are dead and gone," but I contest because contained within the New Testament Scriptures is the very substance that witnesses to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord (among other important events). It is this Apostolic witness which is no doubt carried into the world by pastors, missionaries, and other Church workers, but the Apostles are still the ones testifying to the life of Christ. This brings power to the Word. Is the word efficacious in creating faith? Typically those who would advocate for witnessing do not place a whole lot of faith in the power of the Word. Is this a bold statement? Maybe, but I think not because after they are done witnessing they then leave it on the one witnessed to to make a decision as to whether or not they believe what was spoken. The power has thus been drained from the Word and it is merely a listing of facts which a person can either say yes or no to. In his letter to the Church of Rome, Paul seems to speak differently of the Word: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Maintaining the distinction between the Apostolic witness and our confessing of that witness then trusts in the Word to do its job. To be sure this commission is in part fulfilled from the pulpit when the Lord's Word is read and preached. It is also fulfilled in the sending out of missionaries and other Church workers, but the growth of the people of God still does not depend on these individuals, but rather the power and substance of the Apostolic witness. The second point is something that our pride-filled flesh doesn't seem to swallow so easily. We want to proclaim, "Look at me, I am fulfilling the commission of Christ just as the Apostles did, this is the role for every Christian to partake in!" Sadly this brings a heavy burden upon the consciences of numerous Christians. In the false sense of piety and trust in our own good works we separate the role of the called Apostles, preachers, and teachers and those who are in reception of the gracious gifts of our Lord, namely the laity.
So where does this leave us? If we should extinguish the use of the word witness and it's false emphasis on the idea that all Christians are called to verbal evangelism, does this mean that we should not confess the sacrifice of our Lord to others? In his first epistle the Apostle Peter says, "but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1Peter 3:15). Paul speaks in a similar way in his epistle to the Colossians. He says, "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:6). In each of these examples it is important to note that both Peter and Paul anticipate a question or an attack. The confession then is not an evangelistic tool in the way that Evangelical Christianity would force the word witness to be. Rather it is a response or defense which suggests that you, Christian, are being approached by someone else. In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew we see Christ addressing the twelve Apostles. He says, "Therefore all who ομολογήσει (will confess) in me in the presence of men, ομολογήσω (I will confess) in him before my father" (Matthew 10:32). He also puts it negatively that all who deny Christ before men, he will also deny before his father. Taking Peter and Paul into consideration we can see that Christ is not commanding that all people go out and confess him, again, as an evangelistic method, rather this confession of Christ is presupposed by a question or an attack by another individual. And then the question becomes, how should we understand these words? Is Christ saying that our work of confessing causes a saving act? We are saved by grace through faith which is not from ourselves so I hardly think that is the case. It is essential for a layperson to confess the faith when they are questioned or attacked, but this is not something that he possesses in himself to do, rather the new man, through the motivation of the Gospel, makes the confession of faith without a thought about it. For from the newly created faith pours forth all the fruits of faith, including the confession of the Apostolic witness.
And this is not done by word only, but rather "Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works give glorify to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). This also pours forth from faith, which again is a gift. We can see too that we are called to a certain vocation in this life, but we are all called to the newness of life in Christ as well, out of which is produced our confession when defending the Gospel of our Lord and walking in the ways of the Law. It is not a compulsion, obligation, or work but rather spontaneous and God given. Will we at times fail at these tasks? The Scripture testifies with a resounding yes! This is not the end though for Christ has given the witness to some, namely the Apostles, and he grants you to confess the one true faith as he nourishes you daily through his Word and Sacraments. Let us give thanks to God that our salvation does not depend on our own self measured piety, but rather on his son who WILL confess YOU before his father even as he causes you to confess him to men when those times come.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit