Thursday, June 11, 2009

What does it mean to be Lutheran and why does it matter?

That sounds very much like the title of an essay I had to write in seminary, but this one has more to do with the state of Lutheranism today as written about in this article:

This topic was brought up at our recent synod assembly, and the bishop said that in a recent survey, over 50% of the Lutherans surveyed responded that Yes, they had to do something to receive salvation. Our message of grace has somehow been trampled by the prevalent American version of Christianity that believes we somehow control our own destiny.

Martin Luther is most likely rolling over in his grave (or would, if he could), to find that in a mere 500 years, all that he argued for in the reformation was being lost to Americanism (or simply ignored). For Luther, it is only by God's grace that we are saved, for we are incapable of saving ourselves. In his response to the third article of the Apostles' Creed, Luther writes, "I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith..." In other words, not only can we not work our way into heaven, but without the Holy Spirit, we cannot even believe in heaven.

For far too long, the Lutheran church has tried to compete with other denominations by becoming just like them. If the church across town has a program that is successful, then we had better have one too, no matter what the theology of the program. Any time we remove the liturgy, or reduce the liturgy, to become more like "that other church," we not only remove a vital part of who we are, but we lose the theology that makes us Lutheran. The liturgy helps us to remain grounded in who and whose we are. It keeps God at the forefront of our worship, not the band or the choir, or whatever else we have changed to "bring more people into worship."

This is not to say that just being Christian is not important - it is, and professing Jesus as Lord and Saviour is just as important for us as it is for our brothers and sisters in other denominations. However, we need to remember that as Lutherans we bring something to the table that is unique, and important. We bring the understanding that we are who we are not because we choose to be, but because God chose us. We understand that life is not about finding Jesus, but is a product of being called and claimed. Jesus is not lost, and when we need God in our lives the most, God is already there - not waiting for us to find him, but waiting for us to acknowledge his presence.

There are many things about being Lutheran that are good, and which have helped keep Christians on track for over 500 years. Maybe it is our moderating voice that has helped others to remember that it is by God's grace that we are saved, not by our works. It is by faith that we believe, and that faith is a gift of God, not of our own doing. It is God who finds us when we are wandering in the wilderness of life, not we who find God.

So - what does it mean to be Lutheran? It means that we are saved by faith, through God's amazing grace, and not by anything that we do or try to do. We are both saint and sinner - at the same time. We constantly fall short of the glory of God, and stand in need of God's abundant mercy.

Why does it matter? Because we all eventually realize that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, earn salvation. As Lutherans, it is our calling to remind our brothers and sisters that life is not a contest to see who can do the most good so that we will be saved, but life is a response to God's amazing grace and we do as much good as we can because we know that God has already washed and claimed us in our baptism, fed us with the body and blood of Christ at the communion table, and has readied a place for us - not because of what we do, but so that we will know God's love, and so can share that love with one another.


Chris Duckworth said...

Hey ... you guys should post a little more often.

Nice comments ... I'll be reflecting on this new report next week on my blog (Sunday's sermon and intergenerational program are calling my attention now).

I think that we are often worried about making a distinction about Christian living or Lutheran teaching ... we fear that making a distinction will lead to a hubris wherein we'll devalue non-Christians or non-Lutherans. The danger exists, for sure, but our fear leads us too often to teach nothing, then. Frankly, Christians are called to certain tasks and to certain disciplines, and Lutherans DO have a distinctive theology that (in my opinion) offers a clearer portrait of the Gospel than do other theologies and traditions. Argh ... OK, more on this later.


Ray said...

Thanks, Chris. Yes - we used to post a lot more often, but have let other things take over our time. We intend to get back to it more - just takes some discipline.

Thanks for your comments - I'll watch for yours. I am interested to see what you have to add.

Andrew said...

Well said Pastors Sipes