My Journey Into Confessional Lutheranism (Part 2 of 2)

In part one of this two part series, I shared my theological history as well as the events leading up to my epistemological crisis. In part two, I would like to focus more specifically on some of the profound shifts that happened to me on my journey from Folk Lutheranism to Confessional Lutheranism. Unfortunately this blog post cannot contain the seismic shifts that have occurred in my journey. Therefore, I will summarize four major changes that occurred to my theology.

Shift #1: My View Of Sin?
My Folk Lutheranism understood sin primarily as a series of actions that I did or did not do. Sure, I confessed that I was a sinner, but in all reality my belief of sin was narrowly focused on external actions alone. I failed to realize that sin was primarily a condition of my heart. This led me to only scratch the surface of my depravity.

Things changed when I began to see a fuller view of sin. I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t a sinner because of my sinful actions, but rather I was a sinner who sinned. This idea of sin was a much more serious problem than I had originally realized.

Shift #2: My View Of The Law?
We have all heard the phrase, “Don’t smoke, drink or chew, nor date girls that do.” I not only embraced this but believed that if people would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps and follow the Law, that the world would not only get better, but could actually stay fixed. I viewed God’s Law as a provision for mankind to live victoriously. The problem with people was that they were simply were lazy and lacked the proper will power to enact God’s Law. Things changed though as I encountered the Epistle of Romans. I slowly began to understand the implications of a bound will and see that the main use of the Law was not to reform my sinful nature, but to reveal and expose the depths of my depraved nature.  The sinful nature needed to be crucified.

Shift #3: My Location Of The Gospel?
Probably one of the most difficult things for me to process in my shift was the fact that the Gospel was outside of me. I was taught that the, “Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy was down in my heart.” In other words, I was saved because I not only decided to follow Jesus but because I actually validated my salvation through my lifestyle. Thus I reduced the Gospel to my pious actions and located Salvation within the sphere of Matt Richard. I failed to realize that the Gospel was outside of me in the person and work of Christ.

Shift #4: My Understanding Of Biblical Verbs?
Finally, I also failed to see that many of the verbs in the scriptures were done by God to me, not by me towards God. I viewed God like a deaf old man that was passive. I didn’t understand that God came to me through the precious means of grace; therefore, I created my own ways to try and get another jewel in my crown. In other words, I constantly felt the pressure to actively ascend to God in order to bring Him my spiritual report card for affirmation. I viewed my faith as needing to be something that required action on my behalf, lest I be labeled a lazy Christian.

Painfully, my Folk Lutheranism (i.e. My Finneyistic Fundamentalistic Lutheran Theology that was coated by Evangelicalism, saturated with Pietism, driven by Purpose and sprinkled with Emergent hipness) began to collapse. My house of “isms” was finding its end.

Essentially what was happening was that the old Sinful Nature was being confronted and the unadulterated Gospel was being revealed. I was beginning to see the Law in its full force which left no room for the Old Nature to wiggle. The Old Adam had freedom to move in my Folk Lutheranism, but in Confessional Lutheranism he was not merely threatened but was finding death. Furthermore, my understanding of the Gospel was no longer conditioned by the theology of my Folk Lutheranism. It was declared boldly without “ifs, ands” or “buts.” For the sake of Christ, Christ alone my sins were forgiven.

My friends, the one thing that I have learned in this journey thus far is that if you want to have an easy ministry and Christian walk, do just this: weaken the Law by mingling Gospel with it and condition the Gospel by mingling the Law and man’s efforts with it. The old Sinful Nature loves this. Weakened Law and Conditioned Gospel means that the Sinful Nature has room to play! Relief to the Old Nature, not killed by the Law! A giddy Old Nature, free to participate with the Gospel! Yes, the Old Adam Lives. However, when the exact opposite happens, when the Law kills and the Gospel unconditionally grants life, all theologies of glory are brought to rubble and in the midst of the debris appears a Cross. Brothers and Sister, we are left with Jesus, Jesus alone, and He is all that we ever need.

May God richly bless you as you continue your journey into the depths of the cross of Christ.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at:


My Journey Into Confessional Lutheranism (Part 2 of 2) — 19 Comments

  1. Wow. From the sound of it, I’m not sure what part of your former brand of “folk Lutheranism” was actually even remotely “Lutheran” in any sense of the meaning. Maybe baptizing babies? Maybe the real presence? Otherwise, your experience sounds like most others making their way over from fundagelicalism, who at least didn’t have a Lutheran label attached to them, to boot.

  2. Thank you for this post. When you mentioned the little song ‘Joy, joy, joy down in my heart’ it brought back some memories. Years ago I helped with the music during VBS at my church. We sang this song plus a host of other ones that really didn’t express our Lutheran faith accurately. I even remember a CPH songbook that had ‘I’ve Decided to Follow Jesus’ in it. I really don’t think most people realize the theology these songs are promoting. That’s why it’s so important that pastors take an active part in Sunday School and VBS teacher training.

  3. @Diane #2

    Diane — CPH’s VBS has gotten a lot better in recent years. That said, I still don’t understand why we need all the inane little kids songs. We’ve got lots of solid Lutheran hymns that are very accessible to little kids (in fact, they can be found in My First Hymnal — available from CPH). That is what our VBS materials should be using for music, help the kids learn the hymns they will (or should) be singing in church. Teach them that the hymnody is for them too!

  4. Martin Luther did many great things to revitalize and reform
    the church. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions
    to theology was the dynamic distinction between Law and
    Gospel. Yes, the Law condemns our sinful thoughts, words, and
    actions. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The
    truth is we are lost without Christ. However, the Gospel proclaims
    the Good News of Christ who died on a cross to forgive our sins
    and rose from the grave to grant eternal life to all who believe
    in Him.

    The problem is that sinful humanity rebels against this Good News.
    It is easier to believe that this life is simply an opportunity to have
    a good time and when you die everything comes to an end.
    Earthly goals become an exercise in how to earn a lot of money and
    the belief that the one with the most toys wins. Sin is reduced to
    human mistakes or intentional errors. Death is something to be
    avoided as long as possible. The world rejects Jesus Christ.

  5. Pastor Richard, Thank you for your insightful posts. Like you, I am a graduate of Lutheran Brethren Seminary (1980), and like you, I was a Lutheran Brethren pastor although my ordination is now with the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC). And like you, my Lutheran convictions and mindset have become more confessional over the years.

    However, I am puzzled as to the sources of your “Folk Lutheranism.” The shallow definition of sin as “a series of actions that I did or did not do,” the concept of the Gospel as what I feel or do for God rather than what He has done for me, is certainly not what I was taught at Lutheran Brethren Seminary. Granted, the doctrine and practice of LBS would be more pietistic than that of many confessional Lutherans, but the view of sin and the Gospel would fully compatible.

    In no way am I criticizing your transformation. I only wish to make clear that, at least in my experience the “Folk Lutheranism” you describe is not characteristic of Lutheran Brethren Seminary, through which I received an excellent education academically, spiritually, and in every way.

  6. This quote mentioned in “PM Notes” is also wrong:

    “Tim Ysteboe in the Commentary on the CLBA Statement of Faith shares that properly speaking repentance is ‘nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin…’ Therefore, whenever a person is confronted with, agrees with and understands their sinful condition and sinful actions, repentance has properly happened.”

    Note the exclusive phrases: “nothing else” … “properly happened.”

    Contrast this to:

    “Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance.” AC XII:2b-5

  7. @Robert #6

    Really? Isn’t the Law tha tkills/condemns the Old Adam? And the Gospel gives a person NEW LIFE? I don’t jive with what you are saying….

  8. Jason :@Robert #6
    Really? Isn’t the Law tha tkills/condemns the Old Adam? And the Gospel gives a person NEW LIFE? I don’t jive with what you are saying….

    “We are justified solely by faith in Christ, without works; and the Holy Spirit is granted solely by hearing the message of the Gospel with faith, not by the message of the Law or by the works of the Law…

    From this it is sufficiently evident what the distinction is between the Law and the Gospel. The Law never brings the Holy Spirit; therefore it does not justify, because it only teaches what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches what we ought to receive. Therefore the Law and the Gospel are two altogether contrary doctrines. Accordingly, to put righteousness into the Law is simply to conflict with the Gospel. For the Law is a taskmaster; it demands that we work and that we give. In short, it wants to have something from us. The Gospel, on the contrary, does not demand; it grants freely; it commands us to hold out our hands and to receive what is being offered. Now demanding and granting, receiving and offering, are exact opposites and cannot exist together. For that which is granted, I receive; but that which I grant, I do not receive but offer to someone else. Therefore if the Gospel is a gift and offers a gift, it does not demand anything. On the other hand, the Law does not grant anything; it makes demands on us, and impossible ones at that.” [AE 26:208]

    “But the Holy Spirit is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ, as St. Paul says in the introduction. Faith, moreover, comes only through God’s Word or gospel, which preaches Christ, saying that he is God’s Son and a man, and has died and risen again for our sakes, as he says in chapters 3[:25], 4[:25], and 10[:9].” [AE 35:368]

    “Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12–13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.” [AE 35:370]

    “For, as Dr. Luther writes in the preface to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, ‘Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God [John 1:12–13*]. It kills the old ‘Adam’ and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.’” [SD IV:576]

  9. @Rev. Don Kirchner #10

    Okay, that helps. I can see the point. Still a bit wierd, but I will think on this. And while opposing, I think Law and Gospel still need to work together, lest we fall into Gospel Reductionism. Thank you for the explanation.

    @Robert #6

    Pr. Kirchner helped me understand your comment much better. I see you post in a new light now.

  10. @Jason #11

    Indeed, daily repentance is a Law-Gospel dynamic and a return to our baptism.

    “Here you see that baptism, both by its power and by its signification, comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called penance, which is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and strength to suppress the old creature so that the new may come forth and grow strong.

    Therefore baptism remains forever. Even though someone falls from it and sins, we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old creature. But we need not have the water poured over us again. Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless not be more than one baptism, and the effect and significance would continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what has earlier been begun but abandoned…

    Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time. Every day they should be found in faith and with its fruits, suppressing the old creature and growing up in the new.” [LC 4: Concerning Baptism]

  11. @John Eidsmoe #5
    @Pastor Matt Richard #9

    John and Pr Matt,

    Your exchange has highlighted an important point. Though one’s education can be right, that does not always mean that our actual beliefs conform to what we were taught. The answers students give on tests represent the material taught in the course, but not always the confidences of the heart. Many other things besides what we were taught can be the sources of what we actually hold in heart.

    This is a good thing to keep in mind not only at the seminary and pastor level, but at other points as well, particularly confirmation instruction. Confirmation is seen by many as something a kid has to do once, and then can safely neglect. In that view, one simply gives right answers, not the answer of the heart. Isn’t it one of the trickiest areas of pastoral ministry to focus on the objective truth being taught, and the importance of the student recognizing the value of that truth and its objectivity, while also, I don’t know what word to use, let’s say probing the hearts of the students to see what correspondence there is between the answers students give and their hearts. As to the probing, too much of that, and we can sink into Pietism or Infused Grace, and too little of it, and we can have sound instruction with functional Folk Lutheranism. I don’t know how a pastor is supposed to deal with the tension between those two undesired outcomes.

    I realize I have cobbled that paragraph together, but I think the two of you and most onlookers can see the problem I’m trying to identify. Are there works you can refer readers to about how to deal with that problem?

  12. @Robert #7

    It is nice to meet you Robert. In regards to your concerns:

    Tim Ysteboe was actually quoting the Augsburg Confession when he shared, “Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin…” (Tappert, 1959, p. 34-35) The Augsburg Confession then goes on to share the wide sense of repentance saying, “yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution…” When I shared Tim’s thoughts I intentionally placed three dots “…” in order to indicate that it was a partial quote. This quote is not wrong, just incomplete.

    The blog post that you referenced was not an article pitting a “narrow sense” of repentance against the “wide sense” of repentance. Rather it was pitting “true narrow sense” repentance against what the reformers called “false/partial” repentance. This false/partial repentance typically occurs when individuals see sin primarily as a series of actions (i.e. what I do) rather than primarily as a condition of the heart (i.e. who I am). My hope was to show the “proper” understanding of narrow repentance in contrast to false/partial repentance, thus the reason why I only used part of Tim’s Augsburg Confession quote.

    I apologize for any confusion that I may have caused you.

    Grace and Peace to you my friend.

  13. @John Eidsmoe #5

    It is good to meet you John. I apologize if I communicated that I received Folk Lutheranism through the systematic theology at LBS, for this was not the case. The systematic theology that I received from LBS was excellent. As I shared in the first article in this series, while I was at LBS, “the theology that I encountered attacked my old nature and worldview. I can recall reading Pieper’s, ‘Christian Dogmatics,’ and Walther’s, ‘Law and Gospel,’ longing for the Gospel that they presented, yet warring with it in my mind.” My regret is that during my time at seminary, my ears were often unable to hear/receive the full good confession. However, this was all a part of the journey!

    As with everyone’s epistemologies/worldviews, they are formed and shaped by a lot of variables. (i.e. time, parents, sunday school curriculum, books, sermons, articles, school, etc…) Though it would be a fun article for myself, I would hate to bore everyone with all the sources that influenced and shaped my theology!

  14. From conversations with a friend who is on the CLBA roster, it seems that the confessional Lutheran theology taught in the seminary by men such as Eugene Boe is at odds or at least in tension with the Folk Lutheranism practiced in the parishes. Out in the parish there other other influences at play as well. In some regions, there may be a non-denominational or Baptist church nearby that are attracting the young out of Lutheranism and even leading their parents to question the Lutheran teachings such as baptismal regeneration.

  15. I have found it helpful to look at the things Paul opposes from each other.

    Law Gospel/Promise

    works vs faith
    flesh vs Spirit
    bondage vs freedom
    sin vs righteousness
    sinner vs Christ
    old self vs new self

    The things on the left are all in the same category, so when we think about what efficiently drowns and kills the old Adam, we should simply ask what efficiently washes away sin: The Law or the Gospel? The Gospel, of course. We can’t separate the sin and the sinner. The sinner is accused and condemned daily by the Law, but it is crucified, drowned, washed away, and efficiently killed by the Gospel. This is through contrition and repentance which, though struck by the Law, trusts in the Promise.

    Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that the Letter (law) kills and the Spirit (gospel) gives life. This is true. The Law brings wrath (Rom 4:15). The Law will kill you. He who sins under the Law will be judged under the Law. But the Law doesn’t get rid of your sin, rather, it can only expose it and then condemn you and put you in the grave. But the Gospel puts you in Jesus’ grave and raises you anew daily. So if the law can’t get rid of your sin, it certainly can’t get rid of the old Adam, since they are really the same thing. Being crucified with Christ in baptism and daily returning to that baptismal burying of sin and the Old Adam is not done by the Law, but by the Gospel. Sure, you need the Law to teach you what is good and pleasing to God so you can learn what you need to repent of and how to treat your neighbor. But the law doesn’t drown the Old Adam, because the Old Adam can only be drowned in the waters of Baptism, that is, the Gospel.

  16. @Pastor Matt Richard #17
    Thanks Pastor Richard. One of my favorite (this Canadian computer wants me to spell it favourite, but I insist on spelling it the American way!) hymns talks about how we share in the tomb of Jesus.

    Awake my heart with gladness!
    See what today has done!
    Now after gloom and sadness
    Comes for the glorious Sun!
    My Savior there was laid
    Where our bed must be made.
    When to the realms of light
    Our spirit wings its flight.

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