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Ephesians 2:10 (LB)
WHAT'S A LUTHERAN?
Putting It All Together
By Gene Edward Veith, Jr.
As a refugee – or casualty – of many different kinds of churches and religions before I became a Lutheran, I find the Lutheran Church uniquely satisfying. It has the good parts of all of the other kinds of Christianity. And its distinctive qualities zero in on what is most essential in the Christian faith.
One of my relatives said, “You Lutherans are just like Catholics.” Well, not really, but sort of. Like Catholicism, Lutheranism is sacramental. Lutherans really believe that this material world can convey spiritual reality. In Baptism, physical water effects a spiritual cleansing. In Holy Communion, we really believe that Jesus Christ is there and that when we eat the bread and drink the wine we are receiving His body and His blood. (Yes, that is a mind-blowing concept, and my mind is blown every Sunday, to my great benefit.)
Like Catholicism, Lutheranism is historical, in solidarity with the Christianity that goes back throughout the centuries. This means that Lutherans, like Catholics, tend to worship with some version of the ancient liturgy. We do not have to, strictly speaking, but in my case, once I got used to it, I found it more meaningful and even more emotional than any other kind of worship I had previously experienced. (The words of the liturgy are pretty much all taken from the Word of God, so no wonder.)
Also like Catholics we draw on the rich spiritual heritage of the Church through the ages, including the church Fathers of ancient Rome and medieval writers such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux. We keep denying that we “broke away” from Rome, insisting that we were just trying to reform things, only to get kicked out! What needed reforming are things like the papacy, ritualism, indulgences, legalism, and extra-biblical add-ons to Christianity. But Lutherans do not throw out the baby with the holy water.
Yet my Catholic friends consider us Lutherans arch-Protestants. And indeed, Lutherans possess everything distinctive about Protestants also. For example, Lutherans emphasize the Bible as much as any Baptist preacher or evangelical Bible study leader. Orthodox Lutherans believe the Bible is inerrant, the ultimate authority, God’s personal revelation to human beings by means of human language. We even ratchet that up: the Word of God is also sacramental, conveying God’s grace to those who hear or read it, scaring us to death by the severity of God’s Law (bringing us to repentance) and comforting us to life by the love in Christ’s Gospel (bringing us to faith).
Speaking of that Gospel – the Good News that Christ died for our sins and offers salvation as a free gift – Lutherans preach it and cling to it, just as evangelicals do. (The word Evangelical comes from the word evangel, meaning “good news,” which is what Gospel means. The term Evangelical originally meant “Lutheran.”)
Again, as with the Word of God, Lutherans ratchet up the concept. Many Protestant Evangelicals today see the Gospel mainly in terms of their conversion, that is, when they first became Christians. Having accepted the Gospel a long time ago, they now assume that Christian life is about following God’s Law. Lutherans, though, see the Gospel as something that we need every day and every moment, so that we are always repenting and experiencing Christ’s forgiveness, receiving Christ every time we encounter His Word or receive His body broken for us and His blood poured out for the remission of our sins in Holy Communion. Our response to the Gospel is faith, and the Christian life has to do with growing in faith, which, in turn, bears fruit in good works and love for our neighbors. But Lutherans are, indeed, Protestants (a term also first applied to Lutherans.)
We are different, perhaps, in our emphasis on the freedom of the Gospel, so that we do not get hung up on extra-biblical pieties and moralisms that characterize many conservative Protestants. For example, some evangelicals are shocked and scandalized to find that Lutheran congregations may well serve beer at their church dinners! Other Evangelicals find the “Lutheran beverage” refreshing, especially because instead of feeling guilty about it, they can enjoy it as a gift of God.
Lutheranism exhibits the best parts of the different varieties of Protestantism. When I was in college, the Evangelical campus ministries that I fell in with were torn with controversies between Calvinists, Arminians, and charismatics. For me, Lutheranism fulfills them all. Like Calvinism, Lutherans believe that we are saved by grace alone, that God does absolutely everything for our salvation; but whereas Calvinists push that notion into the logical extremes of double predestination and limited atonement, Lutherans, understanding the Word and Sacraments as Means of Grace, believe that potentially anyone can be saved because Christ died for all. Like Arminians, Lutherans emphasize God’s love and the universality of Christ’s sacrifice; but whereas Arminians focus on the role of the human will in both salvation and in the possibility of moral perfection, Lutherans, with a more radical view of both sin and grace, stress the role of God’s will rather than our own. Like charismatics, Lutherans expect a direct experience of the supernatural and direct contact with the Godhead. But finessing the dangers of spiritual subjectivity, Lutherans find God’s charisma (the Greek word for “gift”) in His gifts of the Word – in which the Holy Spirit is present – and the Sacraments, in which Christ is miraculously, supernaturally present.
For me, Lutheranism represents a wholeness of Christianity, embracing the most salient features of Catholicism (including Eastern Orthodoxy) and Protestantism (including its various sects). This, of course, means that Lutheranism will be attacked from all sides (Catholics condemning it for being protestant, Protestants for being Catholic, Calvinists for being Arminian; Arminians for being Calvinist; charismatics for being dead). And frankly, it means that Lutherans will attack all of the others for what they leave out. Part of the unattractiveness of Lutheranism for some people is its theological combativeness. But it isn’t that Lutherans have the only truth, though some may seem to act that way. Lutheranism has actually helped me to appreciate other kinds of Christianity. But the Lutheran synthesis depends on a delicate balance that must be defended at every point.
Lutheranism, of course, has its own distinctive elements that can pretty much be found only in Lutheran churches. These could be held in other churches, but they usually cannot be found among non-Lutherans, even though they go into the depths of the Christian mysteries.
One is the Lutheran focus on Christology. Martin Luther said that we ought not to think of God apart from His incarnation in Jesus Christ. We often think of God the Father as an abstract idea or as an amorphous being far above the universe who looks down on human suffering. But God has become flesh. Not that Lutherans deny the transcendence of the Father or that we believe in the Son of God only at the expense of the other persons of the Trinity. But God the Father has revealed Himself fully in Jesus. To see the Father, we must see Jesus. As Jesus told Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) So our knowledge of God must be mediated by our knowledge of the man Jesus.
One of the main reasons some people do not believe in God at all is the problem of the evil and suffering in the world. How could there be a God who looks down on all of the world’s evil and suffering and does nothing about it? Notice the assumption: God is a transcendent being who “looks down.” What if God actually enters this world of evil and suffering? What if, somehow, he took all of that evil and suffering into Himself? What if this incarnate God suffered the just penalty for all the world’s evil? What if this allows for a cosmic forgiveness?
This, of course, is what all Christians believe that Jesus accomplished on the cross. But few Christians, oddly enough, apply Christology to the problem of suffering. This brings us to another Lutheran distinctive: the theology of glory versus the theology of the cross. We would expect God to come down as a mighty king to be victorious over His enemies, to answer all of our questions, and to solve all of our problems. Instead, God came as a baby to an unmarried mother who laid Him in a cattle trough; he was homeless; He was executed by torture. The incarnate God set aside His rightful glory for a cross. In doing so and by rising from the dead and then ascending to His glory, he redeemed us. By the same token, we want the way of glory – and so we expect all of our questions to be answered and all our problems solved – but we, too, have to bear our crosses. Ironically, in those times of our own weakness, suffering, and need, we find that Christ has taken up our crosses into His.
It has been said that American Christianity has no theology of suffering. Consequently, we assume that suffering is meaningless, and if we suffer we cannot bear it, to the point of thinking we must be outside of God’s favor or there must not be a God at all. Lutheranism, to its great credit, has a theology of suffering.
But it also has a theology of everyday life that brings satisfaction and joy. One of the most helpful things I have learned since I became a Lutheran is the doctrine of vocation. To realize that just being a husband, a father, an employee, and a citizen are all callings from God, that the day-to-day tasks that all of these entail are holy before God – that was a revelation to me. Not only that, but God is working through human beings to bestow His gifts: he gives me my daily bread through farmers, bakers, and cooks; He protects me by police officers; e heals me by doctors, nurses, and pharmacists; He proclaims His Word and gives me Christ’s body and blood through my pastor. And somehow, He is working through me. He created new life through my wife and me when we had our kids. He has taught young people to write through me in my job as an English professor. All of these vocations have the same purpose: to love and serve the different neighbors whom God brings to us in each of our multiple callings.
I used to think that I served God when I did church work and that everything else was just living or making a living. Now that I am a Lutheran, I know that in church God serves me through His Word and Sacraments and that He sends me out in my different vocations to live out my faith in love and service to my neighbors. He is still present, though, even in the mundane, ordinary routines of life, working through me and serving me through others. That gives my life purpose and a meaning that I never realized before.
One more distinctive: Lutherans talk about “the chief article,” “the doctrine upon which the Church rises or falls.” That refers to the teaching of justification by faith, or to be more technical, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ – in other words, the Gospel, the Good News of salvation through Christ. In Lutheran theology, everything goes back to this. Baptism is Christ saving us. Holy Communion is Christ giving us His broken body and His poured-out blood for the remission of our sins. The Bible conveys God’s Law, which brings us to repentance, and His Gospel, which brings us to justifying faith. The Trinity is a unity of three persons, which enables us to say that God is love, and because He loves us, He saves us. Jesus is true God, because only God could bear our sins and save us like He did. In vocation, we are, to use Luther’s words, little Christs to our neighbors as we sacrifice ourselves in love and service, just as Christ did for us. This “chief article” holds Lutheran spirituality together. It also holds life together. I never realized that until I became a Lutheran.