by Edward G. Kettner
There is increasing confusion both outside and inside Lutheranism as to what it means be a Lutheran. This is partly because others define the term Lutheran in ways foreign to what Lutheranism has historically stood for, and because we often fail to give witness to the Christian community about what is distinctive about our confession. In responding to an invitation from the Edmonton Baptist Seminary, Dr. Edward Kettner provides a clear response to the question of what it means to be a Lutheran.
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today and to make a beginning toward answering the question, "Why am I a Lutheran?" This isn't an easy question to answer. I was only partly joking with my students yesterday, when I told them that if I wanted to do justice to the topic I would have you take the nine hours in basic systematic theology courses that I teach plus the six hours in the Lutheran Confessions. The best I can do today is touch upon some of the high points, the central issues that make Lutherans unique among Christians, and the particular spin on these issues that Lutherans desire to stress in their conversations with other Christians.
To answer the question, "Why are you what you are?" is to fulfil St. Peter's exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15 to "always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within you." Regardless of the confession to which one belongs, the answer one gives will always be based upon the manner of ones confession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For me then, the answer to the question "Why am I a Lutheran?" must fundamentally be: "I am a Lutheran for the sake of the Gospel."I am a Lutheran because I am convinced that the Lutheran church, the church of the historic Creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian), and of the Augsburg Confession and other confessions that make up the Book of Concord, most faithfully and most clearly enunciate the Gospel of Christ in accordance with its revelation in Holy Scripture.
The points I will make note the distinctive ways Lutherans confess the faith over against Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy on the one hand and over against the rest of Protestantism on the other hand. And I unashamedly declare that I am convinced that it retains the clearest expression of the Gospel among all the confessions of Christendom.
I was raised in the Lutheran Church, made a member of the Holy Christian Church by the washing of water with the Word when I was about a month old. There has never been a time when I did not know I was a child of God, never a time when I had questions or problems with what I was taught, or with the teachings of the faith as presented to me when I was instructed as a child and youth on the basis of Luther's Small Catechism, at least no more so than any young Christian struggling with the faith might have. This is not to say that I was never exposed to other views. Through religion courses at the University of Kansas, I received my introduction to modern theology. In seminary I read the works of theologians, both liberal and conservative, of other traditions, examining their views over against the presentation of the Gospel in all of its articles seen in the Lutheran Confessions.
After my Lutheran seminary education, I continued my studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where I had the privilege of learning from such learned people in the evangelical movement as Kenneth Kantzer, Norman Geisler, J. I. Packer, and others. Through this continued study, I became all the more convinced that, of all the traditions that exist and even thrive within Christendom, the Lutheran Church most clearly articulates the Gospel of salvation by grace for Christ's sake, through faith.
What do Lutherans offer?
But what do Lutherans teach that makes them such bold and clear proclaimers of the Gospel? At a gathering of Lutheran theologians I attended last year, the question was asked, "What do Lutherans have to offer the rest of Christendom?" The answer agreed upon was that Lutherans have a law-free Gospel. The Lutheran Church declares that the Gospel is nothing other than the declaration of the forgiveness of sins. Everything else in Christian theology either precedes it (creation, sin) or follows it (sanctification, the Christian life, the last things). For Lutherans, the most important task of the preacher is to properly distinguish between the law and the Gospel. The law of God, which tells us what God would have us do, always accuses us and reminds us that we have failed in living up to Gods requirements. If the law is preached in a way which gives the impression that we can keep it completely, or even worse, that we have done a pretty good job of keeping it, we will end up creating Pharisees. Conversely, when the law is preached properly and drives people to see they have failed to do what God would have them do, and that, because of this they deserve Gods eternal punishment, we have a word of consolation to give them, assuring them that Christ died for them and that all who put their trust in the mercy of God for Christs sake will be saved. This, of necessity, includes the bold proclamation, given on the basis of Christ's universal work for fallen humanity and given upon confession of faith, "Christ died for you. Your sins are forgiven."
This doesn't mean that we dont see good works as important. It means, rather, that we see good works in their proper perspective. I have heard sermons which more or less assume the Gospel. "These people are saved," they seem to say; "Now let's get on with the business of the Christian life, and spend our time telling people what they should be doing." Lutherans, who confess with St. Paul that Christ is the end of the law, and who maintain the significance of the Gospel for the Christian life, would see this as a counsel to despair; as even the best of Christians, as they examine their lives in light of the law, find themselves falling short of God's will. Rather, in preaching the Gospel, Lutherans declare that the message of forgiveness must predominate; for it is only the unconditional message of the forgiveness of sins that frees us for real living, giving both power and motivation for service, and comfort in our shortcomings. This is not to say that the law does not direct our lives. In Lutheran theology, the sanctified life is formed by the Gospel and informed by the law. Gerhard Forde, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one Lutheran theologian who particularly stresses the scriptural reality that justification moves us from death to life, as Jesus says in John 5:24. Forde says that sanctification is nothing other than getting used to our justification. In other words, justification moves us from death to life, and sanctification is the life the child of God then lives, continually sustained by the Gospel, the message of the forgiveness of sins.
The means of grace
Related to the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel is its confession that God gives the Gospel to us through the means of grace. Lutherans declare that for the sake of the sinner God gives the Holy Spirit through means, so we may be sure that it is God who is truly at work and that the work He has done in Christ is truly for us. The objective Gospel, which comes in preached form, in declaratory form in the words of absolution, and in visible form in Baptism and the Lord's Supper, offers forgiveness and creates the faith that receives it. This Gospel is a clear, bold declaration to the sinner, "Christ died for you." "In the stead and by the command of Christ I forgive your sins."
Some have accused Luther of beginning a Reformation of the Church but then not completing it: teaching justification by grace through faith but then retaining the Roman understanding of the sacraments. In fact, the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments is quite different from Rome's. Rome sees the sacraments as good works performed by the recipient which merit grace even apart from faith. God is said to give His grace through the sacraments he has ordained, but this grace is understood as a power poured into the Christians enabling them to gain further merit by which they then save themselves, rather than being purely and simply the favour of God for the sake of Christ. The work of Christ merely sets the stage upon which the Christian must build to save himself. The Church, then, is the visible organization within which one works out one's own salvation by receiving and acting upon the power God gives.
The Lutheran understanding of the sacraments is quite different. Lutherans see the sacraments as Gospel, the means by which God comes to troubled sinners to give them assurance that grace is theirs, their sins are forgiven, and they are truly children of God. The benefits given in the Gospel are received by faith, and the means are instrumental in creating and sustaining the faith that receives them. The fact that God has tied His promise of forgiveness to the proclamation of the Gospel gives the sinner great comfort, for the clear words of grace act to overcome the doubts and fears our sin creates, and turn our focus from our own feelings to the promise of Christ.
Now there are some, unfortunately including some raised in the Lutheran Church, who don't fully understand how Lutherans view the means of grace. For example, some have the impression that Lutherans teach that once you are baptized you are "home free" in the sense that you can live your life anyway you want since you have already been saved. This then makes the sanctified life unnecessary, or something separate from being saved. Nothing could be further from the truth! The Lutheran is just as appalled as St. Paul with the idea, "Let us continue in sin, that grace may abound" (Romans 6:1-2), and recognizes that Baptism creates a new life, a life directed toward God. Lutherans note that Baptism is Gospel, the assurance to us in the face of our sins that we are still children of God. Martin Luther is said to have had a plaque in his study which said, "I have been baptized"; words which comforted him in his times of despair. In contrast, those who take their Baptisms for granted, thinking the fact of their Baptism can become an excuse for sinning, the word of law again needs to be spoken. Once they repent of this idea, the spoken word of the Gospel points them back to their Baptism. This assures them that God continues working in their lives, creating and sustaining faith, and keeping them in the life He has given them: life that avails for eternity.
For Lutherans, Baptism is the centre of the Christian life. In his Small Catechism, when Luther answers the question, "What does baptizing with water indicate?" he says, "It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever."
He goes on to point to Romans 6:4 where Paul says, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." Baptism raises us to new life, a sanctified life. As Luther talks about Baptism in his Large Catechism, he makes much of the fact that Baptism is first and foremost a divine act, not a human act. God bestows His own name upon the one being baptized, making them a member of His family with all of the rights and privileges, the first and foremost of these, of course, being the Holy Spirit. For Lutherans, the words "Be baptized," are not so much a command as an invitation to receive the benefits of forgiveness of sins, life and salvation which God has attached to Baptism.
For those who have received the mercy of God and have been instructed in the faith, the Lord's Supper serves as a means by which God continues to strengthen the faith of His people and knit them together in His body. Lutherans confess that Christ gives His true body and blood, the very body and blood given and shed on the cross, to all who partake. The Lutheran insistence on an objective Gospel states that all who commune, whether they believe or not, receive Christ's body and blood with their mouths; those who believe, for the forgiveness of their sins; and those who do not believe to their judgement. This gift of Christ of Himself in His body and blood is a token to those who receive it that Christ died for them and their sins are forgiven. For the struggling Christian overwhelmed by his own sinfulness, and who may even wonder how God could possibly love him, receiving the Saviour's very body and blood with the words "given for you" and "shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins," is a very personal and direct application of the Gospel, and a great source of comfort.
Some may get the impression that Luther did not reform the sacraments (as he did justification) because Lutherans have also retained much of the historic liturgy. Lutheran pastors often wear clerical collars and traditional liturgical vestments during worship. The service also has many parts identical to Eastern, Roman, and Anglican orders of service. But Luther and his followers took care to retain only those parts of the liturgy which were compatible with the Gospel and removed all of those parts which obscured or denied it. This included the canon of the Mass, which saw the Lord's Supper as a re-sacrifice of Christ and an earning of more merit through it, rather than the distribution of the benefits of that once-and-for-all sacrifice on Calvary. Luther and Lutherans saw the importance of retaining the ancient forms of worship; first of all, because for the most part their origins are in Scripture or summarize the universal Christian response to the Gospel; second, because they help us see our connection with the Church of the past and testify of our trust in God's promise that the Church and the Gospel will continue until Christ returns; and third, because they help us see that worship does not merely consist of our own little group getting together on Sunday morning or another time to do something for God. Rather, they help us see that public worship originates with God's activity for us. He gathers us together as He has gathered together His saints throughout history, so that when we worship we do so as members of the One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church, joining with saints on earth, and with angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven, as the liturgy for Divine Service declares.
Lutherans would deny that we are Romanists, but would declare that we are catholic with the small "c." There are some who call themselves "Evangelical Catholics" noting our continuity with the ancient church and with the Church Universal, but noting that the Gospel - the Evangel - stands front and centre in our teaching. We accept much of the tradition of the church, but receive it critically, only when it agrees with the Gospel. We believe that this continuity marvellously illustrates both the unity of the church and Gods sustaining activity within the Church as He continues creating and sustaining the faith of His people.
For an excellent summary of what it means to be Lutheran written for the wider Christian community, see the article Evangelical Catholics & Confessional Evangelicals by Gene Edward Veith published in the May/June 1998 issue of Touchstone, a periodical which calls itself "a Journal of Mere Christianity" (11, no.3: 14-17). Veith is a layman, a professor of humanities and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences of Concordia University, Wisconsin. He is a Lutheran by conviction, having joined the Lutheran Church during his graduate school days at the University of Kansas. His recent book, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, published by Concordia Publishing House, explains in detail how Lutherans live their sanctified lives under the cross.
In summary, Lutherans teach a Gospel that is both universal and efficacious, which declares that salvation is Gods work from start to finish. The Holy Spirit is seen as attaching Himself to the external Word, always working through it to bring about His purposes. As Augsburg Confession Article V puts it, "Through the Word and sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel." The Word which brings life to us who are born into this world spiritually dead, is as powerful as the Word which brought creation into being, as powerful as the Word which told the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to rise. The Lord who did all of those things by His Word now authorizes His Church to forgive sins. He made that clear on the day of His resurrection, when He told the apostles, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven" (John 20:23). When that Word is spoken, it is to be understood as coming from the mouth of Christ Himself. What a comfort it is to hear such a message which cuts through both our self-righteousness and our self-rejection and tells us that without a doubt we are children of God.
Why am I a Lutheran? For the sake of the Gospel! For the sake of the Word which tells me that Christ, beyond a shadow of a doubt died for me, and which, in telling me that, creates the faith in my heart which lays hold of the promise; for the sake of a word which also comes in visible form, confronting me with Christ's love for me in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine which are His Body and Blood.
This article is also available for viewing in Adobe Acrobat
I wish to subscribe to Word&Deed