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The Happy Inconsistency

“Thesis XX–In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.”

There was a reason why the church graveyard was often located next to the church building. It was a message, actually. When a funeral ended, the pastor led a procession from church building to gravesite. The message? Your fellow Christian, no longer alive on earth, is very much alive in heaven. The faith that bound you together here is not severed by death. It’s the same truth that we confess each Sunday, “ I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.

Not surprisingly, burial in the churchyard was seen as synonymous with being saved. Only those in good standing were allowed. Non-members, unbaptized babies, suicides, the excommunicated, and lunatics had to be interred elsewhere. Ultimately, “Church” with a capital C was confused with “church” with a small c.

“Church” vs. “church” is in the crosshairs of Thesis XX. Walther explained, “ The mother of the awful error which we are studying is the doctrine that the Church is a visible institute which Christ has established on earth. ” In other words, outward membership in a visible church was treated the same as membership in the Holy Christian Church.

For hundreds of years, this had been the commonly held belief of Roman Catholicism. “Catholic” means “universal.” As long as you were a Catholic when you died, you would be saved. Leave the Roman Catholic Church and you were lost.

Aren’t you glad it doesn’t work that way? What a blessing to know that, wherever the Gospel is used, the Holy Spirit is at work creating and building faith! Can a Pentecostal who is focused on living a holy life, or a Baptist who denies Infant Baptism, or a Presbyterian, or a member of any of the other churches or sects be saved? Can the Gospel break through the hard-packed layers of false doctrine the way grass pushes its way through a crack in the sidewalk? Yes. Theologians refer to this as a “happy inconsistency.” Despite a church’s doctrinal errors, the person trusts in Jesus alone and is saved.

This is possible because salvation is God’s work. God acts, we receive. Notice the verb forms in the greeting of Jude 1, “ To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ. ” All three verbs are passive. We don’t do those things, God does. The power to receive them is in the Gospel itself, just as the seed has within itself the power to sprout, grow, and bear fruit.

Unfortunately, for every “happy inconsistency,” there are many more “unhappy consistencies.” With every false teaching, Satan’s goal is to turn people away from Christ and the salvation He accomplished for them. False doctrine is never trivial and must be avoided. It permeates like yeast (Galatians 5:9), grows and metastasizes like cancer (2 Timothy 2:17), and can ultimately achieve Satan’s faith-destroying objective.

How many times have you heard the complaint “ You people think you are the only ones going to heaven ”? It is aimed at churches like ours that strive to remain faithful to the Word and refuse to go along with someone’s unscriptural beliefs. Remaining orthodox doesn’t save us any more than burial in the church graveyard saves its occupants. Only the Gospel can do that. But orthodoxy is critical for guarding the Gospel. To think otherwise would be like closing your eyes and crossing a six-lane freeway, hoping God gets you safely to the other side.


One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free online, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.