Doctrine and Practice: Resisting the Influence of Evangelicalism, Part IV, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(These posts are adapted from a presentation Pastor Preus made in Sweden for the North European Luther Academy in 2006 and which was republished in the recent edition of Logia, A Journal of Lutheran Theology. We recommend both groups to the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The other posts in this series are archived in the Brothers’ Cafe under Klemet’s name.)


The Lutheran Response to Rome


Lutherans were not content simply to abandon the errant practices of Rome. As Lutherans discovered the Gospel they also realized the necessity of salutary practices which would picture and promote this newly discovered gospel. What were the unique practices of Lutheranism? I mention three.


First, the Lutherans changed the service of the mass. The changes were initiated as early as 1520 and were prescribed in Luther’s “Treatise on the New Testament; that is the Holy Mass.” Luther retained but reinterpreted some of the actions of the mass. He kept the Elevation of the Host but only so long as it was understood that the priest “elevates it not toward God but toward us, to remind us of the testament and to incite us to faith in that testament.” [1] Luther removed the more offensive aspects of the Roman mass such as the whispering of the words of institution as if they were spoken to God. He comments:


How many miserable consciences, which perished from fear and sorrow, could have been comforted and rescued by these words [of institution]! What devil has told them that the words which should be the most familiar, the most openly spoken among all Christians – among priests and laity, men and women, young and old – are to be hidden in greatest secrecy? How should it be possible for us to know what the mass is or how to use and observe it, if we are not to know the words in which the very mass consist? [2]


So, since 1520 Lutheran have heard the Words of Institution spoken clearly and loudly or chanted and since the introduction of the German Mass and Order of Service in 1526 Lutherans have enjoyed these words in their native tongue. Luther also removed from the words of institution any prayers by which the impression might have been given that the sacrament was a sacrifice to God. “Therefore we must separate the mass clearly and distinctly from the prayers and ceremonies which have been added to it by the holy fathers. We must keep these two as far apart as heaven and earth, so that the mass may remain nothing else than the testament and sacrament comprehended in the words of Christ.” [3] To this day, in most liturgies employed by Lutherans the prayers are simply not spoken after the words of institution. By the time Luther had finished with the mass he could truthfully claim, “Now if you ask what is left in the mass to give it the name of a sacrifice, since so much is said in the office about the sacrifice, I answer: Nothing is left. For, to be brief and to the point, we must let the mass be a sacrament and testament; it is not and cannot be a sacrifice.” [4] These liturgical practices, which we probably take for granted, were changes. They were necessitated by the Lutheran doctrine of the means of grace and the insight that the sacrament is a gift of God to us. Our Lutheran soteriology is, then, picture and promoted in our liturgy of the Sacrament of the Altar. I could go on to mention the restoration of both kinds in the sacrament. Or I could mention the habit of frequent communion among the Lutherans where they could honestly claim,


Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it after they have been examine and absolved


Among us it [the sacrament] is used more frequently and more devoutly. For the people use it, but only after they have been instructed and examined. They are taught about the proper use of the sacrament, that it was instituted as a seal and testimony of the gracious forgiveness of sins.” [5]


These examples will demonstrate the necessity of replacing the practice of the offering of the mass among the Papists with the giving of the sacrament among the Lutherans. Soteriology was at stake.


The importance of communion only upon instruction and examination forced upon the Lutherans a second practice. Once the Lutherans realized that trust in the merits and words of Jesus was necessary in order to receive the sacrament worthily they also realized that pastors must teach this faith. And the best tool for teaching was the catechism. “Therefore, pastors and preachers, take note! Our office has now become a completely different one than it was under the pope. It has now become serious and salutary. Thus, it now involves much toil and work.” [6] “My dear sirs and brothers who are either pastors or preachers, I beg all of you for God’s sake to take up your office boldly, to have pity on your people who are entrusted to you, and to help us bring the catechism to the people, especially the young.” [7] The catechism was to be memorized word for word without changing the wording and later “once the people have learned the text well, then teach them to understand it, too, so that they know what it means.” [8] This was a revolutionary understanding of the office of the ministry yet a task which today, I trust, we take for granted. And what a salutary practice it is. I have had conversations with Protestant pastors who expressed envy that, among some of the Lutherans in America, it is simply assumed that the children will spend two or three years learning both the words and the meaning of the catechism in anticipation of receiving the sacrament. It’s a practice which has served the children of the church well over the years. And it is a practice which is intimately connected with our understanding of the way of salvation. Christ becomes ours through the teaching of the Word.


A third practice of the Lutherans is worthy of note. Lutherans have always practiced uniformity among the churches in worship practices particularly when it comes to the divine service. The reason is clear. We believe that Word and Sacrament bestow the forgiveness of sins upon us, unworthy though we are. In Christ and by his forgiveness we are all one. We are, in fact, identical. As Gustaf Wingren says,


Before God not only does station vanish, but also every work stands as sinful and worthless. Therefore all those qualities are wiped out which differentiate among men on earth. What makes the difference on earth is the structure of many offices, with their respective works. But in heaven [and by “heaven” Wingren means the kingdom of God’s grace in Christ] all are alike. There all simply receive, and receive alike the grace of God. Thus equality in the heavenly kingdom depends only on the fact that it is the kingdom of Christ, ruled by a divine gift, the gospel, not the law. [9]


The Divine Service is the quintessential expression of God’s grace. So, as they hear and receive grace Christians should be identical. The forms which communicate God’s grace in Christ should be as uniform as can be, without legislation, for all times and places within Christendom. “As far as possible we should observe the same rites and ceremonies, just as all Christians have the same baptism and the same Sacrament and no one has received a special one of his own from God,” [10] said Luther. His practical advice, then, was that “each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder – one thing being done here and another there.” [11]


Lutherans were insistent that they were not starting a new church. They were simply reclaiming the gospel which the Roman Church had abandoned. They did not forsake the ancient liturgical traditions for the sake of something novel. They were not interested in novelties. Consequently, the Lutherans realized the importance of asserting their pedigree as rightful heirs of the traditions of Christendom. If their fathers used certain forms then so would they, provided these forms did not obscure the gospel. So Luther advocated the retention of the church’s historic collects and the offertory as well as the elevation of the host. [12] And the Augsburg Confession boasts “At the outset it is again necessary by way of preface to point out that we do not abolish the Mass but religiously retain and defend it….We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of reading, prayers, vestments, and other similar things.” [13]


Consequently, true, confessional, Lutheran theologians of America have always valued and striven for uniformity of worship. Carl Mundinger, in Government in the Missouri Synod, says:


While the framers of the [first LCMS] constitution remained faithful to Article VII of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession in that their demand for uniformity was not absolute, they did insist rather vigorously that the member congregations leave no stone unturned in their efforts to introduce uniform ceremonies. The constitution even goes so far as to claim that uniformity in liturgy, especially if this liturgy is increased and developed according to Lutheran standards, will be helpful in purifying the American Lutheran Church of its Reformed excrescences. [14]


Theodore Graebner, an early twentieth century LCMS theologian, commented upon the completion of the Missouri Synod’s first English Agenda, “Our synod unquestionably intended to make possible a liturgical uniformity in our congregations in order that this element might be conserved during the transition   from German to English.” [15] And Charles Porterfield Krauth, the first American Lutheran theologian who spoke English as his native tongue, said in 1871:


The mightiest weapon which the Reformation employed against Rome was, not Rome’s errors, but Rome’s truths. It professed to make no discoveries, to find no unheard-of interpretations; but taking the scriptures in that very sense to which the greatest of her writers had assented, uncovered the law and the gospel of God which she retained applying them as her most distinguished and most honored teachers had applied them,…the Reformation took into its heart the life stream of sixteen centuries. [16]


Lutherans have simply retained the salutary liturgical customs handed down to the church and have never sought to be innovative for the sake of innovation.    


I could give further examples of how the Lutherans developed practices which pictured and promoted their newfound understanding of the Gospel. I could mention confession in two parts, the retention of images in the church but properly taught, and especially the development of hymnody which was primarily didactic. But these three examples will suffice in showing that the Lutherans wed doctrine and church practice in such a way that the two become almost indistinguishable. In fact the confessions of the church use the terms doctrine (teaching) and practice interchangeably. [17] Lutherans teach the practice of private absolution [18] and the practice of remembering the saints. [19] We teach the practice of communing in both kinds [20] and the practice of infant Baptism. [21] The Lutherans also reject as false teaching certain practices such as the practice of the Mass, [22] the practice of requiring the enumeration of sins in the confession, [23] the practice of indulgences, invocation of the saints, [24] and the whole business of relics. [25] Salutary practices are a necessary expression of the doctrine of the gospel and bad practices can undermine the gospel with as much satanic effectiveness as can false doctrine.

[1] Luther’s Works Volume 25, 96.

[2] Ibid. 90

[3] Ibid. 97

[4] Ibid. 97

[5] AC Ap XXIV, 1, 49, Kolb 258, 267.

[6] SC Preface 26, Kolb 351

[7] SC Preface 6, Kolb 348

[8] SC Preface 6, Kolb 349

[9] Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, translated by Carl Rasmussen (Evansville IN: Ballast Press, 1994) 13.

[10] Luther’s Works Volume 53, p. 61.

[11] Ibid. p. 47.

[12] Luther’s Works Volume 35, 95

[13] AC Ap XXIV 1, Kolb 258

[14] Carl S. Mundinger Government in the Missouri Synod (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1947) 191

[15] Theodore Graebner, “Our Liturgical Chaos,” in The Problem of Lutheran Union and Other Essays (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1935), 137. Sited by Michael Hinrichs, “Liturgical Uniformity in Missouri” in Logia Volume V Number 2 (Eastertide 1996) 17.  

[16] Charles P. Krauth The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1871) 203.

[17] For a further discussion of Doctrine and Practice among Lutherans see Robert Preus, “Confessional Lutheranism in Today’s Word, Concordia Theological Quarterly (Volume 54, Numbers 2-3, April – July 1990)

[18] AC XI 1, Kolb 45

[19] AC XXI 1, Kolb 59

[20] AC XXII 1 Kolb 61

[21] AC IX 1, Kolb 43

[22] SA II, The Second Article 1, Kolb 301

[23] AC XXV 7, Kolb 73

[24] Treatise 46-49, Kolb 338

[25] SA II, The Second Article 5, Kolb 302

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