3. Being Lutheran

February 2022

For good or for bad, the label that has been applied to us is “Lutheran.” Martin Luther preferred the term “evangelical” and absolutely did not want those who agreed with him in what they believed to be called Lutherans. But that is what they were called, and that's the name that stuck. So, I embrace it and here offer five reasons I am happy to be known as a Lutheran: sola scriptura, sola gracia, sola fide, the means of grace and the sacraments, and being willing to living in the tensions.

I'm not sure why we hang on to the Latin terms. Maybe it's more ecclesiastical. Sola scriptura is “Word alone.” While we study the writing of the Church fathers, Martin Luther, and other reformers in the Lutheran tradition, we confess that everything we believe is directly from a “plain” reading of Scripture. Perhaps these words from Part I of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord say it best: “...Holy Scripture remains the only judge, rule, and norm according to which as the only touchstone all doctrines should and must be understood and judged as good or evil, right or wrong.

“Other symbols and other writings are not judges like Holy Scripture, but merely witnesses and expositions of the faith, setting forth how at various times the Holy Scriptures were understood by contemporaries in the church of God...” (Tappert, Fortress Press, 1959, p. 465).

Based on God's Word alone as our source of truth, we than confess that we are saved sola gracia, by grace alone. We need to be rescued from the sentence of eternal separation from God—eternal death—that has been pronounced over us because of our rebellion and breaking God's law. Nothing we do can lessen the sentence. But God... God does not want us to be separated from Him forever, so God took upon Himself the punishment we deserve. He did this when the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being and died our death on the cross. He showed His power over sin and death through His resurrection from the dead. Because Jesus died in our place, we are declared not guilty of our sin; and the sentence of death is removed from us. We are pardoned, forgiven, and given new life. All this God did because He is a gracious God. Our pardon has nothing to do with our merit and all to do with His grace.

That God declares us all “not guilty” however does not mean we will all be saved. There is a third “only.” Sola fide. Faith alone. One of the promises in Word alone is that through the hearing of God's Word, through the implanting of God's Word in us, we are given the gift of faith that makes it possible to believe, to trust, that what God did is personally for me, for you, for us. No amount of trying, no amount of doing, no amount of being good, no amount of obedience can earn or accomplish for us what Jesus did for us. At the same time, what Jesus did for us will not be ours if we don't have faith that our sins are forgiven because of Jesus' death and resurrection. Believing that what Jesus did is for me leads me to confess my sin, to repent, and receive His cleansing and forgiveness.

With some variation, Christian everywhere agree that we are reconciled to God by Word alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Where we who live under the Lutheran label are unique is in what we might call “the delivery system.” Two terms that are ours that help us understand how God extends His salvation to us are “means of grace” and “sacraments.” We believe that God teaches in His Word that He uses the very Word and the two sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion as means, as channels, as piping, to deliver salvation to us. The Word of God is the primary means and absolutely necessary for salvation. The sacraments follow. They are critically important and necessary, though we might even say they are not absolutely necessary. They are part of the gift, however, and to be used and celebrated.

This quick look at these four pillars (really three pillars and a delivery system) will undoubtedly raise some questions. There are, admittedly, some tensions in three “only's,” in the the definitions, and in the process. Our human nature wants these tensions to be solved, and so there are a variety of theories that have been suggested (cf. Calvin, Zwingly, Arminius, Menno Simons and all their permutations). There is one more reasons I am not only willing but also eager to claim the Lutheran label. We have concluded that it is not necessary to solve all the tensions. We recognize that God, in His sovereignty, has not answered all our question in the way we might want. That is okay!

At the same time, it is good for us to study God's Word to find as much clarity as possible about these things we believe. You might have guessed already that I will be sharing insights and specifics about these core elements of our faith. Future conversations will include deeper looks at grace, faith, sacraments in general, Baptism, Holy Communion, and paradoxes. Thank you for joining me in this journey into the things that shape and determine what we believe and how then we live.