Why I Am A Lutheran: MLD
Today we begin a series of celebrations…celebrating and learning about traditions other than our own.
Eugene Peterson wrote wisely:
“Maturity develops in worship as we develop in friendship with the friends of God, not just our preferred friends.
Worship shapes us not only individually but as a community, a church. If we are going to grow up into Christ we have to do it in the company of everyone who is responding to the call of God.
Whether we happen to like them or not has nothing to do with it.”
Hopefully we’ll learn to like each other as well…
I can think of no one who represents his clan better than Martin Luther’s Disciple…and I thank him as I give him the floor.
Why I am a Lutheran: Getting myself onto the Wittenberg Trail
Reflecting back as I put together this article I see more clearly the experiences I had with the Lutheran Church long before I ever became a Christian. I was raised in a non religious, but culturally observant Jewish family. I had absolutely no experiences at all with Christianity when I met my wife in high school in 1966, she was something called a Lutheran. As someone who was not hostile to religion, I would go to church with her periodically to keep her and her parents happy. In 1969 we were married by her Lutheran pastor after going through the church pre marital counseling. The pastor made no demands on me other than to say that I needed to understand faith in my wife’s life. Between 1974 and 1978 my 3 children were baptized as babies and I stood in as god father to our best friend’s two children. This was odd as I had no Christian feelings or thoughts at all – but it was the American way.
Fast forward to 1981, I was saved at Calvary Chapel Riverside (now Harvest) with Greg Laurie as the pastor. I was the most excited and dedicated new Christian around as I am sure that my experiences were very similar to the ones each of you had when you became a Christian. To me all I could think of was “this Christianity stuff is great!” But did you ever have the feeling that perhaps “everything is great” may not be so great? During the next 25 years I always had this thought in the back of my mind, “why isn’t my wife as excited as I am about this Christianity? I wouldn’t find out until 2006 when I sat in a Lutheran service with her.
In 1990, someone at a bookstore came up to me and asked if I had ever looked into Reformed theology. I must admit that I was really embarrassed as I had no idea what ‘Reformed Theology’ was, at least by that term. He mentioned that there was a new radio program starting up called The White Horse Inn and I should listen. Let me tell you what an eye opener this program was since after 10 years as a Christian in Calvary Chapel and SBC churches, I had never heard a discussion about theology or about Christ Centered Christianity.
Now I know that this statement will be a bit controversial, but I mean no harm – most American Evangelicals and their pastors think that they are Christ centered, but with the definition that I will use, they are not. Christ centered (Christocentric) is that every sermon and Bible study must have Jesus as subject, not just as an add on at the end of the message to lead to an altar call. However, all of that obviously did not take me to Lutheranism; it was just a bothersome stone in my shoe for the next 12-13 years. What it did was make me think outside of the evangelical box and forced me to look at some tough issues in a different light; baptism, the Lord’s Supper, end times events and how to read the scriptures. I was faced with this question, “why do so many intelligent theologians disagree with what I have been taught?” (I would hope that people in their camp would ask the same questions in reverse). I don’t know how to explain this, but once I asked that question out loud I became free to explore the other views. Prior to that, if I did investigate other views, it was to prove them wrong.
Well let me advance along to 2003 where I found myself convinced that evangelicalism as I knew it was not for me at best and actually wrong at worst. At the same time I was not sold on Reformed Theology although I liked their thinking and the way they approached the scriptures along with the fact that it was the only place to get into in depth theological questions and discussions.
This next part of my story is just whimsy but it changed my theological life. I have been a big fan of Greg Koukl’s from Stand to Reason since the mid 80s when he would appear as a guest panelist on the old radio program Religion on the Line. Several times he had mentioned on his own radio show that during the week he had been interviewed on a mid west radio station – without ever mentioning which station. After a couple of years, I sent him an email asking him which station and his reply was KFUO in St. Louis, a Lutheran program called Issues etc. with Todd Wilken as the host. I found them on the internet and they had all their programming archived. All I can say is that after 20 years being a Christian and at least 11 looking for my Christian niche, I found it! For the next 2 years I catechized myself in Lutheran theology, accepted the theology as my own and still had not stepped back into a Lutheran church – it was hard to make the break as I was happily teaching classes at my Calvary Chapel. One evening during a class, it hit me like a rock to my head when I realized that I was teaching more Lutheran theology than I was Calvary Chapel theology. I resigned my classes the next day and set out searching for a Lutheran church, which we found and attended the next Sunday.
So, after all of that, who cares how I got there? Now you want to know what I see as different enough to make a difference.
The proper distinction between Law & Gospel: In Lutheran circles the distinction between Law & Gospel is the interpretive grid used to properly interpret scriptures. Often called God’s two words, they are God’s ‘yes’ and God’s ‘no’, they are the way that God speaks to us. Law & Gospel are interspersed throughout the entire scriptures, both old and new testaments. Simply put, Law is God’s commands and Gospel is God’s promises. The reason that they must be properly interpreted is that God’s commands (Law) are never done and never accomplished by man. On the other hand, the promises (Gospel) is always done and accomplished by Christ alone. If the two are mixed up in preaching, then the people leave the services thinking that the Gospel of Christ is wrapped up in their own obedience and moral living – so they write down what they have been taught as “their list” for the week. Not long afterwards, they are in complete failure of “their list” and fall into despair. What they needed to hear was that Christ is there to forgive them in their failure because he has already accomplished “their list.” The Law needs to be preached in all of its harshness (even to believers) so that they know that there is no pleasing God on our own merits, even after salvation. The solution to this problem is the Gospel which needs to then be preached in all of its sweetness to relieve the repentant sinner from this despair. Many times what happens in evangelical circles is that the Law is properly preached as is the Gospel, but then the preacher returns to the Law by saying, “now that you have heard this good news of what Christ has done for you, here is “your list” and leaves them right back in the Law. In our Lutheran church, at the conclusion of the Communion, the pastor will say “go in peace, you are free.” What a way to leave the Divine service, knowing that you are free from your sin and failures.
Simultaneously Saint and Sinner: I think in this category there is a huge gap between evangelicalism and Lutheranism. Evangelicalism does not recognize that we are still 100% sinners along with being 100% saints. The general consensus seems to be that we should be continually improving our lives and increasing the saint 50% to 60% to 70% etc while lowering the sinner 50% to 40% to 30%. But as Christians, we still struggle daily with the old Adam. Being a saint isn’t about what I do or don’t do but about who I am in relationship with God. That’s also true of being a sinner. The Lutheran confessions define sin as the self-centered failure to trust God (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II). Adam and Eve’s problem wasn’t just that they ate a piece of fruit or broke one of God’s rules. Their real sin was their desire to be “like God,” relying on their judgment rather than trusting God’s word. For us, too, our specific sinful behaviors are only symptoms of this self-centered condition that theologians call “original sin.”
A good example of our self centered nature is when yearbooks were given out at the end of the school year, whose picture did you look for first?
The Theology of Glory vs The Theology of the Cross: As an evangelical, the implied teaching was that God revealed himself to believers through obvious outward “blessings” or “spiritual experiences”. You knew that you were doing God’s work or were in God’s will because you could see blessings in your life or on your work (“look how God has blessed our church with a 200% growth in the past 3 years.”). Christians compare themselves by their spiritual blessing and give testimony to such. The Theology of the Cross is a pretty unique Lutheran teaching that says that God reveals himself most clearly, in the hiddenness and lowliness of the cross and sufferings–first and foremost, through the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:18-25), and then also through our identification with Christ’s cross through faith (Gal. 2:20) and through our sharing in his sufferings as cross-bearers for him. If a church grows by 200% or doesn’t grow at all is no indication of God’s blessing or not – in fact, the pastor of the non growth church may be more faithful than the growth pastor in that the growth of the church may be within the individuals themselves and not the number of fannies in the seats.
The Book of Concord: This book contains the Lutheran creeds and confessions. Recognized as writings below scriptures, they do serve a valuable purpose in stating the Christian theology through three periods of time; (1) presented to argue against the Pope and RCC teachings; (2) continual statements to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to convince the political authorities that Lutheran doctrines were not blasphemous nor divisive and (3) to reunify correct Lutheran beliefs after some division and turmoil following the death of Luther. The value comes in that they have stood unchanged since 1580. Lutheran doctrines do not change on the whim of man.
The Doctrine of Vocation: Vocation is Latin for Calling. All Christians have a call/vocation that we are to live out. Evangelicalism seems to place the calling to be church related life (you have your job and you have your calling.) In Lutheran life, you life is your calling, and you have several – as a child, as a parent, as a spouse, as an employee or an employer. You have a vocation as a citizen, as a neighbor, as a community leader etc. All of these are as much a calling of God as being a pastor. The calling in all areas is to love and serve your neighbor. Lutherans even look at driving the speed limit as a part of their vocation – looking out for the safety of your brother.
The Means of Grace: God has given humanity an amazing gift in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His gift is genuine, sincere and of priceless worth. Yet many do not know this or benefit from the gift. Our heavenly Father wants us to receive the benefits of Christ’s work, so in the scriptures, he is very clear about how he makes those benefits available to his children. The means of grace are the Gospel and those applications of the Gospel known as the sacraments. Through the life giving word of the Gospel, baptism, absolution and the Lord’s Supper, the Spirit conveys the grace of God to people. Evangelicalism has seemed to turn all of these around so that baptism is not God’s working and delivering his forgiveness to us (grace), but our work giving to God (obedience). The Lord’s Supper is not God coming to us in the supper to bestow his gifts (grace) but us showing God our remembrance (obedience), and lastly absolution, freely hearing the voice of God through his called and ordained servant to whom he gave the keys for that very purpose (grace) to, well I don’t know what since confession and absolution seem to hold no place in the church at all and has been relegated to purely a private matter. Christianity is about confession and forgiveness.
End Times events: This topic has been exhausted here on the Phoenix Preacher in the past so I will keep it short. Being from an Amillennial position, I think frees the church to focus on Jesus Christ, His work of salvation and forgiveness. Imagine if all of the Left Behind books had been replaced in bookstores with good theology.
Catechism and Church membership: Although not uniquely Lutheran I do think that a formal catechism (teaching, testing and confessing) is important. Of all of the churches I have been a part of in the past 30 years, only the Lutheran church asked me what I believed. We went through a process together of “getting to know each other” and to assure ourselves that we were actually in true fellowship. The church trained me in the doctrines and thoughts of the church, gave me the opportunity to say if I agreed and then asked me to publicly proclaim before the body our common beliefs. Through this process, I made commitments to the church body and they in turn made commitments to me.
The role of the Church body: Lutherans while holding a high view to the office of the minister (office of the keys) it also holds a high view of the church body itself. People’s vocation within the church is by divine call and God uses the church to make that call. It is not the pastor who chooses who will serve but a call of the body. Our Lutheran school teachers are called by the body as is the ministerial staff. The high view of the church body is also shown by the position of children in the body. The kids are full participants in the church service (except communion until a certain age). They are not warehoused in a Sunday school setting (although they do go to classes at a different time). The pastor, knowing that the children are a part of the body, calls them to the front of the church for the ‘children’s message’ on the same topic as his sermon. In my church at the service I attend, there may be 60 kids (ages infants to 12) sitting up on the chancel steps listening to the message. I think that this attitude towards the kids teaches them that they are a part of the body and not an interruption to what the pastor is trying to do.
So, back to my wife and her feelings right from the start in American Evangelicalism, what is it that I recognized all these years later as she lit back up in her faith when we returned to the Lutheran church? Primarily she was off the treadmill of “do” and was allowed to rest in “done.” She had grown up learning that salvation was of Christ, from start to finish and what she experienced after that was a contrary view. In just watching that reaction was confirmation that we had made the right decision. To conclude, let me just try to put this in a nutshell (which may not be fair to either position) and say that the overall difference can be seen in view of this; Evangelicalism seems to preach “how you can make Jesus Christ a part of your story”, whereas the Lutheran message seems to be “How God has made you a part of His story.”
Thanks for reading,