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Does Being Lutheran Matter?

October 31st, 2006
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The movie "Luther" sparked renewed interest in the life and work
of Martin Luther. The fact that Concordia Publishing House’s movie
companion book, Luther: Biography of a Reformer was received so
enthusiastically indicates that, if only given a chance, people are
eager to learn about Martin Luther and what it means to be and remain
genuinely Lutheran. There seem to be three types of responses to the
question, "Does being Lutheran matter?" One is, "Are you kidding
me? You better believe that it matters! Let me tell you why!"
Another response is a sort of "mental shrug" to the question,
"Well, of course we want to be and remain Lutheran, that goes without
saying, there’s no real need to talk much about it though." And
then, sadly, there is this response, "It doesn’t matter. All that
matters is being a Christian. We need to focus on what unites us
rather than what divides us." As I watch and analyze events and
trends in Christianity and Lutheranism, both in this country and
around the world, I am more convinced than ever before of two things.
First, being and remaining genuinely Lutheran matters more then ever,
and second, the reasons why this is so are unclear at best to many
people.


To be Lutheran is to be a person who says, "This is what God’s Word,
the Bible, teaches. This and nothing else is true and correct. This
understanding and teaching and confession of the Gospel of Jesus
Christ is the most accurate and most faithful to God’s Word. This and
none other. Nothing more, and nothing less, will do, for this is the
truth." In our day and age these sorts of bold assertions are often
met with angry responses, such as, "How dare you insist that
Lutheranism is actually the true teaching of God’s Word. How can you
think you have the truth? All that matters is if a person is sincere
about their faith in God." We live in a time when truth is viewed as
something relative, impossible to know for sure. The attitude common
today is reflected when we hear things like this, "I have my truth.
You have your truth. As long as we respect our differences, that is
all that matters." It seems today that the most important "truth"
for many people is their profound doubt that truth can be known, and
equally strong conviction that those who claim to know the truth are
wrong.
Before we
go further we need to clear up a common misconception. While insisting
on the truth of Lutheranism, we can never allow ourselves to do so in
an arrogant, haughty or self-righteous manner. People who are
passionate about the truth of Biblical Lutheranism know that the Bible
teaches often and clearly that we are all sinful human beings in need
of God’s constant mercy, which He so lavishly gives in Christ. To be
truly Lutheran is to receive the gifts of God with humility,
repentantly recognizing our great need. It is tempting for Lutherans
to be proud and arrogant of their great heritage, but this is a
terrible evil! To be Lutheran is to be always mindful of our great sin
and our great need for a Savior. To be a Lutheran is to be a sinner
calling out to fellow sinners, "Come and see!" Furthermore, we
would never want anyone to think that we Lutherans are saying, "We,
and we alone, are the only ones who will be in heaven. In fact, you
can’t be a Christian unless you are a Lutheran." Not so! Not at all.
We realize that the Word of God is powerful and active, wherever and
whenever it is heard, read or meditated on. There are many Christians
in other denominations and churches. They are not Christians because
of the errors in their churches, but in spite of those errors. Let’s
then have none say, "You Lutherans think you alone are Christians."
We have never said that, we have never believed it, and we never will.
The reason we insist on Lutheranism for everyone who will listen is we
believe so passionately that it truly is the most correct and most
accurate understanding of the Word of God.

Another point that confuses many people is the fact that there are so
many different churches to choose from. It is an awful mess, so it
seems. Yes, it can be confusing, but it really is not as complicated
as some would think, or want to maintain. Up until the year 1054 there
was basically one unified Christian church, distinct from a number of
non-Christian or anti-Christian heretical groups. In 1054 the church
divided into Eastern and Western Christianity. By the time of the late
Middle Ages the Western Church, which had come to be known as the
Roman Catholic Church, had reached a point of deep corruption, most
importantly in what it believed, but also in the morals and life of
the clergy and church leadership. In 1517 there began what we know
today as the Reformation, when Martin Luther, a professor and monk in
Wittenberg, Germany posted a series of "talking points" on the
practice of selling "indulgences" by which people were led to
believe they could buy forgiveness of sins, for their dead relatives
in purgatory. A person has to decide is the Lutheran view of
Christianity is correct, or the Roman Catholic view is
correct.

After the Reformation, many groups developed from the teachings of
persons other than Martin Luther, most notably, two men: Ulrich
Zwingli and John Calvin, who did much of his work in Geneva. These two
men and their writings gave rise to many churches that can be traced
back to and grouped under the general category of "Reformed"
churches. In America in the 19th and 20th century there arose many
splinter groups from Reformed churches, these would include
"Charismatic" and "Pentecostal" groups, along with groups that
rejected all denominations and became, in effect, a denomination of
their own, the so-called "non-denominational" churches. And so the
question then becomes, "Is Lutheran theology correct, or Reformed
theology correct?" So, is it Rome or Wittenberg. If Wittenberg, then
is it Geneva or Wittenberg?" Once those decisions are made, the
myriad of denominations today makes a lot more sense.

But there is an additional challenge unique to our century and more so
the past half-century. Today, despite all their denominational
differences and historic confessions, the vast majority of Christian
churches in Protestantism have been nearly overwhelmed by the rise of
liberal Christianity. This unites them more so than any other feature
of their confession of faith. Historic differences are no longer
regarded as divisive since these divisions were based on one group’s
understanding of the Biblical text as opposed to another group’s
understanding of the Bible. For example, the difference between
Lutheran and Reformed views of the Lord’s Supper are very important
and based on very serious and clear differences in how the words Jesus
spoke at the Last Supper are understood. Liberalism however regards
the words of Jesus in the Bible as unreliable. It teaches that we can
not be sure that what is recorded in the Bible is true and accurate,
therefore, there is no point in being "dogmatic" about much of
anything having to do with the Bible. Modern liberalism has swept
through all Christian denominations, Lutheran Reformed, Protestant and
Roman Catholic.

This impacts our question, "Does being Lutheran matter?" for we
have to realize that there are many churches in the world today that
claim to be Lutheran but have been nearly entirely overcome by liberal
views of the Bible. Therefore, they have compromised away the distinct
doctrinal position of Lutheranism. They are, in other words, Lutheran
really in name only, more by way of tradition than by any real living
doctrinal distinctiveness. They may still be fond of historic
Lutheranism, but no longer insist that it, and it alone, is true and
that other views of the Bible are in error. When we ask the question,
"Does being Lutheran matter?" It is a question that must be asked
first of those who still use the name Lutheran, but no longer insist
on the exclusive truth claims of historic, genuine, authentic
Lutheranism. Let’s examine the world’s largest Lutheran organization,
the Lutheran World Federation.

Clear-headed analysis of what is happening in world Lutheranism
reveals that the greatest threat to being and remaining genuinely
Lutheran comes from groups that call themselves Lutheran! Let’s think
about the Lutheran World Federation, for instance. No organization in
the world has done more in the past fifty years to deconstruct genuine
Lutheranism than the Lutheran World Federation. It has tolerated, even
encouraged, a loose and unfaithful understanding of the Holy
Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, all the while ostensibly
claiming a certain identity with them. The predecessor bodies that
formed the Lutheran World Federation would not reject and throw out
false teachers such as Rudolph Bultmann who worked to
"demythologize" the New Testament, casting doubt on the words and
deeds of Jesus. To this day the Lutheran World Federation pays mere
lip service to the ancient Christian creeds, but tolerates in its
midst churches whose pastors and theologians doubt, and even very
brazenly and openly deny the most fundamental tenets of the Christian
faith, casting doubt on the miracles of Jesus, His virgin birth, His
bodily resurrection, and so forth! LWF member organizations have
embraced the anti-Apostolic and anti-Scriptural practice of the
ordination of women, abortion. The large Lutheran state churches are
offering same-sex marriages. The LWF, despite its claim that it is
Lutheran, does not even insist on absolutely faithfulness to the most
basic of all the Lutheran confessions, Martin Luther’s Small
Catechism. The LWF, and most of its member churches, compromised and
walked away from the Lutheran insistence on the Lord’s Supper when it
entered into all manners of "full communion" with Reformed
churches that continue to this day to deny that the bread and wine in
the Holy Communion are in fact the body and blood of Christ. The LWF
leadership structure has embraced a compromise of the very heart of
the Gospel itself with Rome, when it accepted the "Joint Declaration
on the Doctrine of Justification" in which it allowed Rome to
continue its formal anathema of the Biblical doctrine that we are
saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from any
works.

In our own country, we have seen the devastating consequences of this
compromising view of Lutheranism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America. It is in full communion fellowship with the most outrageously
liberal of one of the most outrageously liberal protestant churches in
the world, the United Church of Christ. The UCC does not even insist
that its member pastors confess the Holy Trinity! The disaster taking
place in the Episcopalian Church in this nation merely is a portend
for what the ELCA faces, which only recently had a prominent woman
theologian officiate at a homosexual "wedding" service with two
women and then shortly after a pastor in their midst do the same for a
male couple. Because of the "Concordat" of full communion the ELCA
has with the Episcopalian Church USA the newly consecrated homosexual
bishop is now, de facto, also a bishop received and recognized by the
ELCA. Within our own Synod there is the constant temptation on the
part of some to bury their head in the sand and hope and pretend these
situations are not taking place or that somehow, perhaps by magic,
they will just all go away or that we can ignore these realities and
go on with business as usual. These pressures and theological trends
also are at work in our own Synod.

Does being Lutheran matter? Many would suggest that to insist on being
and remaining Lutheran is to insist on what divides us from other
Christians rather than on what unites us with them. "I’m more
interested in people being Christian, rather than Lutheran" is a
comment one actually hears these days quite often, sadly and
tragically, even from Lutheran pastors. Clearly this is a we must be
on our guard to avoid. Being Lutheran is not a matter of culture,
tradition or habit, at least is should not be simply that. No, being
Lutheran is about being passionate about the truth, the full truth,
and nothing but the truth as revealed by God in Holy Scripture. As
much as we care about the truth of God’s Holy Word and the
proclamation of a pure and unadulterated exposition of the Scriptures,
being Lutheran matters. Martin Luther was concerned that people would
be using his name, but then he realized that using the name
"Lutheran" was a way to identify with what he stood for, to identify
with his confession of the Gospel, in other words, to clearly identify
oneself as a person who holds to a specific confession of Christ and
none other. There are so many competing points of view of what
Christianity is. Being Lutheran therefore is a way to distinguish and
teach and confess and bear witness to the Christian faith in a very
specific and faithful way.

Being and remaining truly Lutheran takes courage and determination. It
is not easy. Faithfulness to the Word of God is never easy, or
convenient, or popular. This places unique demands on our pastors and
congregations and our church body, since we are determined to be and
remain truly Lutheran. Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of The
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, offers important insight in his
masterful study of Lutheranism titled The True Visible Church on
Earth
.

Contrary to our detractors, the Lutheran Church has never
claimed to be the only church outside of which there is no salvation.
No, not at all. We do believe that the teachings of the confessions of
the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Book of Concord of 1580, are in
fact the pure, divine truth, because they agree with the written Word
of God on all points. It is for this reason that the Lutheran church,
and consequently our Synod, demands of all members, especially of our
ministers, that they acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions without
reservation and show their willingness to be obligated to them. And it
is precisely because we so value and honor the purity of the Gospel
given as a gift to us that we stand with Scripture (1 Cor. 1:10; Rom.
16:17) and our Confessions (AC VII; FC SD X) in rejecting every
fraternal and ecclesiastical fellowship that rejects the truth of the
Lutheran Confessions, either in whole or in part.


This is why we say that being and remaining Lutheran does
matter. We Lutherans therefore have no choice but  to sound the
call for true, orthodox, confessional Lutheranism. We want no poor
imitations, but the real thing. We will continue to call for complete
faithfulness to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, recognizing
the blessing that such faithfulness has been since the time of the
Lutheran Reformation. Our desire is always to be maximally faithful,
not merely minimally so.

With this call for faithfulness comes the Lord’s call for outreach. In
no way must we ever permit ourselves to pit faithfulness against
outreach. Faithfulness to the Word results in outreach with the
Gospel. Faithful outreach is based entirely on a faithful proclamation
of the Word. The constant hallmark of a genuinely Lutheran Synod, and
a genuinely Lutheran congregation, is this two-fold emphasis:
faithfulness to Scripture and the Confessions, and outreach with the
Gospel.


God forbid that we would ever apologize for wanting to be, and remain,
a truly Lutheran church, or that we would ever hesitate clearly to
speak up when we notice others walking away from the truths of the
Word and the Lutheran Confessions for the sake of unity, which is no
unity at all, since it is not based on agreement in the teachings of
the Word, but only on an agreement to disagree! Thus, we pray that the
Lord would continue to strengthen and embolden us to be a true,
faithful and courageous Lutheran church body, to the glory of His holy
name and the extension of His kingdom.

It is particularly interesting to me how many younger are keenly
interested in Lutheranism. They want substance in worship and in Bible
study and in every aspect of their church life. They want
"authenticity," not the showy and manipulative "hype and hoopla"
that their parents and maybe now even grandparents found so alluring
in past several decades. They have been raised in a culture that at
every turn is trying to manipulate them into buying something. They
have had enough of that. They see how shallow it is and they want
instead substance and content and rich depth of meaning. This is where
Lutheranism excels, for we rejoice in the depths of God’s truths, not
resting content with simply "once over lightly."

We wonder why, when people have a choice, they leave the Lutheran
church. Why bother to remain Lutheran if there is nothing anything
worth remaining for? If the differences that distinguish Lutheran from
any other option in Christendom are never mentioned, or made to appear
no more important than picking amongst various ice cream flavors, is
it any wonder why people leave our congregations to find "greener
pastures" in other churches? That is why the constant challenge we
face is gently, pastorally, warmly and winsomely to be working hard at
reinforcing good understandings and encouraging careful thinking and
reflection, helping our people to see the issues of our day, and
thereby recognizing and appreciating the fact that Lutheranism is the
best option for anyone who wants to remain genuinely faithful to God’s
Word.

So, how
does one remain Lutheran? Fond hopes, fervent wishes, pious prayer.
Yes, all that, but more. The old Benedictine motto: "Ora et labora"
applies! Pray and work and then, pray and work some more. Teaching is
key. We must disciple people into the truth. This involves long, hard
work. Passion, energy, excitement, dedication, enthusiastic desire to
pass along the truth-these are key to being and remaining Lutheran.
Nothing is more exciting than the truth, and if that is so, shouldn’t
our attitude toward it be equally one of excitement and energy and
conviction? If Lutheranism appears to be dreary, dull and plodding
whose fault is that but ours? High-quality intensive teaching is the
key to the future of Lutheranism. We sing, "Lord, keep us steadfast
in Your Word" and then we work to make it so among us, for our sake
and for the sake of those who will come after us.

Does being Lutheran matter? Yes, it matters. It matters as much as
being and remaining true to Christ and His Word and Sacraments
matters, as outreach with the Gospel matters, and as loving our
neighbor matters. Our great privilege is helping all those whom we
can, be and remain genuinely Lutheran, for that is to be nothing more,
and nothing less, than true to Christ and His Gospel. To that end, may
God bless our efforts, and may He guide our work together in this high
calling and noble task-being and remaining Lutheran.
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