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What About Those Lutherans? Things You May Not Know About Lutherans

January 23rd, 2013
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NOTE: My friends over at The Gospel Coalition, a good group of Calvinists (no, really, they are-[smile]), asked me write up an article, as a result of some back forth I had with Kevin DeYoung a while back. It has now been posted and I thought you might like to read it. So, here it is:


What About Those Lutherans?

The invitation to contribute this article followed a conversation with Kevin DeYoung, who asked the question, “What’s Up with Lutherans?” Kevin invited me to write about things people may misunderstand about Lutheranism.

Disclaimer: As most of you know, not all Lutherans are really Lutherans, just as not all Calvinists are really Calvinists, or all Reformed are really Reformed. Sadly, in our ranks, as in yours, we have people who claim to be such, but have strayed far from the historic confession and faith of their church. I write from the perspective of a Lutheran who regards the historic doctrinal standard of the Lutheran Church, that is, the Book of Concord of 1580, to be a true and correct exposition of God’s Word. When I was ordained a Lutheran pastor nearly 25 years ago I pledged my unqualified acceptance of, agreement with, and commitment to the Book of Concord. If you don’t know much about the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the Book of Concord you can see/read and download them all here.

Puzzled by Lutherans

OK, now what we have that out of the way, let me address a few things that Calvinists, or Reformed, or evangelicals, may find sometimes to be puzzling about Lutherans. I’d like to hear what you would add to the list.

First, Lutheranism is a bit perplexing to outsiders when they notice that we look and sound a lot like Roman Catholics when it comes to our historic worship life and our historic spirituality and traditions. As one person told me years ago when I explained that I was a Lutheran pastor, “Oh, yes, I know about Lutheranism. You guys are just like the Catholics, except you have two sacraments instead of seven, and you can have a wife.” On another occasion an older person visited my congregation in Iowa and attended the Divine Service. Just so happened that Sunday I chanted the entire Lutheran liturgy as we celebrated the Sacrament of the Altar. As she left she said, “Oh, Father, I just loved your Mass, it sounded just like Mass used to be before Vatican II ruined it, only it was in English and you talked a lot about Jesus. I liked that. And your wife is so nice. I wish our Masses were like yours, and I think it would be great if our priests could marry.”

The reality, which Lutherans often have done a good job of keeping secret, is that historic, orthodox Lutheranism does in fact consider itself the rightful heir of everything that was and is good about the catholic [small "c"] church, in its Western expression. The beating heart of the Lutheran confessions is a warm, vibrant, Jesus-centered spirituality in worship, both public and private, that holds high the gospel. We were, after all, the first to be called “evangelicals” in the Reformation era. It’s a shame so many Protestants have swum the Tiber or the Bosporus in look for a richer spiritual, historic, and liturgical Christian faith and life when all the time the spiritual heirs of little Wittenberg in Germany could have offered those very things. Shame on us for not being more aggressive in our efforts to hold the flag high for historic Lutheranism!

Grateful Response

Second, Lutherans do give a hoot about good works and the life of Christian sanctification (that term defined narrowly to refer to the new life in Christ we are given as a gift by God). In spite of what some modern Lutherans may, or may not, say about the third use of the law, we do expect our pastors to exhort in their sermons. This is quite a debate in some circles of Lutherans, mind you, often in reaction to evangelical preaching that seems to “assume” the gospel or regards it as “something that happened to me when I accepted Jesus” Lutherans don’t believe it’s appropriate for sermons to become fairly long harangues about what the Christian should be doing. Putting Christ at the center of our preaching means that in a typical confessional/orthodox Lutheran sermon you are going to hear a lot about Jesus and what he has done for you, as opposed to a sermon to make you feel better about what you are doing for Jesus. Yet we still urge people to do good works and to pursue holiness in grateful response to the forgiveness of sins so richly lavished on them through Christ our Lord.

Third, Lutherans enjoy talking theology with Calvinists, or anyone else for that matter who is willing to stand for something. We often feel a much greater kindred spirit with those who agree on key doctrines and points of the Christian life shaped by fidelity to the Scriptures than we do with our fellow “Lutherans.” All too often those who take the Reformer’s name have ditched our confessions, compromised away virtually every key truth confessed in the Lutheran Confessions, usually with liberal Calvinist or Reformed Christians. They have even bargained away the very gospel itself in a rather breathless pursuit of some kind of acceptance by the Vatican. Ironically, the Vatican is well aware of liberal Lutheran tendencies and much prefers the kind of Lutherans who still believe the historic faith of the church, who believe killing unborn babies is murder, still believe that God created Adam and Eve as man and wife, and so forth and so on.

Fourth, Lutherans can be a cranky and contentious bunch. I lament the fact that some of my fellow Lutherans, in a zeal to guard the truth, give the impression that they would rather go “Amish” on the greater Christian community and shun everyone else. But please don’t mistake our practice of “closed communion” as an example of what I’m decrying. We confessional Lutherans firmly hold to the old principle that church fellowship is altar fellowship. We, along with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, believe that we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper together when there is the “consensus on the doctrine of the gospel and on the administration of the sacraments.” Still, you will just have to put up with us sometimes for coming across as more than a little unconcerned or disinterested in anything any other Christian church has to say. That’s a problem, and we need to get over it. We might even be willing to do things like write an article for a Calvinist website.

We Lutherans, by God’s grace, strive, in the knowledge that we are both saints and sinners, to give all glory to God, who loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to save it.

Paul T. McCain serves as publisher at Concordia Publishing House in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wife. They are the parents of three children. He is the general editor of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions and blogs at cyberbrethren.com.

©2013 Paul T. McCain. This article may be copied and shared as long as there are no changes made to it.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. Steve Newell
    January 24th, 2013 at 18:42 | #1

    I enjoyed your posting. I really enjoyed reading the comments. It’s always interesting reading the responses to those who are presented Lutheran theology and the historic roots of it.

    What always bothers me is when comments are made about those raised in LCMS churches but left and heard the gospel else where more clearly. This is a sad commentary of many pastors who don’t teach and explain our doctrine.

    • January 25th, 2013 at 07:58 | #2

      It is important when reading those kinds of comments not to make any assumptions about why this was true, or even if it is true. Every person’s experiences are unique and it is impossible, and quite dangerous, to try to reach any conclusions from anecdotal remarks.

  2. January 25th, 2013 at 08:51 | #3

    I’m glad that you wrote about ‘not all Lutherans are the same’. People that are not Lutheran ask me questions that are actually focused on ELCA. I have to first explain the difference and then answer the questions.

    Thanks for writing this in a good-natured, friendly way instead of long, drawn out comparisons of different churches,etc. That was not an easy task! Perhaps now more people will understand us!

    • January 25th, 2013 at 09:04 | #4

      There is a time and place for the “long drawn out stuff” but not when you are an invited guest on another group’s blog site.

      : )

  3. January 26th, 2013 at 18:12 | #5

    Well done, Pastor McCain. Right on the mark!

Comments are closed.