The Evangelical Lutheran Church — True to Our Identity

 It is not easy to be a Lutheran.  At times we seem to have no identity of our own.  While Roman Catholics see us as just another type of  Protestantism, Protestants look at us as watered down Romanists.  Lutheranism is a unique theological system with an identity all our own.  When we forget this basic premise, we always get ourselves into theological trouble.  When we fail to keep God’s theological tensions in balance, we not only lose our identity, we fall into error. The now sainted Dr. Kurt Marquart gives us helpful advice:

It has become popular in the wake of the Church Growth movement, to compose “mission statements” for congregations and church-bodies. This can be a good exercise if it digs down to first principles. The danger lies in soaking up uncritically the torrents of “biblical’ sounding verbiage pouring forth from sectarian circles and saturated with an alien, non-sacramental and therefore unevangelical theology. Lutheran congregations and synods must learn again to treasure the Book of Concord as their best and most authentic “mission statement,” and to implement its doctrinal and sacramental substance full-strength in the actual shaping of their church-life.[1]

How can we keep our distinctively Lutheran identity in a world where fads and gimmicks seem to be standard fare?  How can we sort the wheat from the chaff when programs are suggested that may or may not be faithful and true? Being true to our Lutheran identity, we must dig down to our first principles.  We believe, teach, and confess that The Holy Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God and the only source and norm for our theology and practice.  We also believe, teach, and confess that the Lutheran Confessions are a proper exhibition of that Word.[2]  Let us then turn to our “best and most authentic ‘mission statement.’”  I submit that the first six articles of the Augsburg Confession make the perfect framework for keeping us true to our Lutheran identity.

All true theology, by definition of the word itself, begins with God.  Who is the One, True God?

[I. Concerning God]

In the first place, it is with one accord taught and held, following the decree of the Council of Nicea, that there is one divine essence which is named God and truly is God. But there are three persons in the same one essence, equally powerful, equally eternal: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, undivided, unending, of immeasurable power, wisdom, and goodness, the creator and preserver of all visible and invisible things. What is understood by the word “person” is not a part nor a quality in another but that which exists by itself, as the Fathers once used the word concerning this issue.

Rejected, therefore, are all the heresies that are opposed to this article, such as the Manichaeans, who posited two gods, one good and one evil; the Valentinians, the Arians, the Eunomians, the Mohammedans, and all others like them; also the Samosatenians, old and new, who hold that there is only one person and create a deceitful sophistry about the other two, the Word and the Holy Spirit, by saying that the two need not be two distinct persons since “Word” means an external word or voice and the “Holy Spirit” is a created motion in all creatures.[3]

God is perfect, holy and Triune; what about us?  How do we stand in relation to Him? Next comes the doctrine of man.

[II. Concerning Original Sin]

Furthermore, it is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin is truly sin and condemns to God’s eternal wrath all who are not in turn born anew through baptism and the Holy Spirit.

Rejected, then, are the Pelagians and others who do not regard original sin as sin in order to make human nature righteous through natural powers, thus insulting the suffering and merit of Christ.[4]

Houston, we have a problem!  God is holy and we are not. Cut off from God and doomed as His enemy, we have no power to save ourselves, no ability to restore this broken relationship.  We need help.

[III. Concerning the Son of God]

Likewise, it is taught that God the Son became a human being, born of the pure Virgin Mary, and that the two natures, the divine and the human, are so inseparably united in one person that there is one Christ. He is true God and true human being who truly “was born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried” in order both to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but also for all other sins and to conciliate God’s wrath. Moreover, the same Christ “descended into hell, truly rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, is sitting at the right hand of God” in order to rule and reign forever over all creatures, so that through the Holy Spirit he may make holy, purify, strengthen, and comfort all who believe in him, also distribute to them life and various gifts and benefits, and shield and protect them against the devil and sin. Finally, the same Lord Christ “will come” in full view of all “to judge the living and the dead . . . ,” according to the Apostles’ Creed. Rejected are all heresies that are opposed to this article.[5]

So Jesus is the Christ, true God and true man, sent by the Father as a sacrifice for sin. What, exactly, does that mean for me, a poor, miserable sinner?

[IV. Concerning Justification]

Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faithwhen we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21–26*] and 4[:5*].[6]

Forgiveness of sin and eternal life as a gift of God through the person and work of Jesus the Christ; awesome!  How do I get it, since I am powerless to save myself?

[V. Concerning the Office of Preaching][7]

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.

Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that we obtain the Holy Spirit without the external word of the gospel through our own preparation, thoughts, and works.[8]

Christ is gift, forgiveness is gift, eternal life is gift, and even faith is gift; how can I ever thank you Lord, for all Your benefits to me?

 [VI. Concerning the New Obedience]

It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. For we receive forgiveness of sin and righteousness through faith in Christ, as Christ himself says [Luke 17:10*]: “When you have done all [things] . . . , say, ‘We are worthless slaves.’ ” The Fathers also teach the same thing. For Ambrose says: “It is determined by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved and have forgiveness of sins, not through works but through faith alone, without merit.”[9]

There you have it, the framework for our discussion of Lutheran identity. The next time someone suggests a stewardship program or a mission emphasis or even a song for a wedding or funeral, review it in light of AC I-VI.  This is certainly not to diminish the other 22 articles to follow or the rest of the Book of Concord, but to offer a simple and easy aid to help us stay faithful and true. Try it on your Sunday morning Bible study or Confirmation class; you might be surprised how quickly people pick it up and in turn speak and live in their Lutheran identity!

[1]  Kurt E. Marquart,  The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, Volume IX. (The Luther Academy: St. Louis, 1990), p. 185.

[2]  Lutheran Service Book Agenda, Ordination Vows, 165-166.

[3]  Book of Concord, Kolb/Wengert, 36.

[4]  KolbWengert, 36,38.

[5]  KolbWengert, 38.

[6]  KolbWengert, 38, 40.

[7]  AC IV and AC V are meant to be read together; salvation achieved and salvation delivered. For an excellent treatment of the 19th century theological shift in the interpretation of the Augustana which led to “actual departures” from this traditional understanding see, Norman Nagel, “Externum Verbum: Testing Augustana V on the Doctrine of the Holy Ministry.” Logia 6:3, p.27ff.  See also Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith-A Matter of Death and Life, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), especially chapter 5.

[8]  KolbWengert, 40.

[9]  KolbWengert, 40.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church — True to Our Identity — 12 Comments

  1. In the early 80’s Dialog Evangelism, adapted from Kennedy program, used the format-man, God ,Christ, faith. Augsburg 1530 begins with God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, proceeds to original sin, the work of Christ, justification, means of grace, new obedience. I am delighted to discern Dialog/Kennedy begins with defining man, whereas Augsburg begins with God and the fundamental difference.

  2. @Mhart #1

    This is a great example! Many folks in the LCMS wanted to be more intentional about evangelism, and seeing the success of the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program came up with the LCMS version, Dialogue Evangelism and then later DE 2. I went through all the training and even became a “certified instructor.” I once asked one of the teachers what made DE different from EE. He smiled and said “nothing but the name.” I could tell that there were serious attempts to “Lutheranize” the program, but in the end it couldn’t be done. It was a non sacramental program with no understanding of baptismal regeneration (EE). With the wrong starting point and wrong solution to the problem of sin (decision) it was impossible to “fix” it and make it Lutheran. On my final test to become an instructor, I was downgraded because I “failed to push hard enough for a decision.” Enough said!

  3. @Pastor Clint Poppe #2
    While in college at the University of Nebraska in the mid-1980’s I also went through a training program on Dialogue Evangelism at the University Lutheran Chapel there. It saddens me that it was the one aspect of my ULC-Lincoln days that I have any regrets about. The ‘decision theology” in the course gave me pause, and I never pushed hard enough to get others to go to ULC-Lincoln because of it……

  4. In Houston we went through the (multi denominational) “I Found It” campaign, which was supposed to double church attendance/membership. The bumper sticker provoked counter slogans: “I never lost it” and “Was it lost?” among them.

    I don’t think there was any appreciable change in church attendance at the end of the campaign.

  5. This is fantastic. Thank you. I was recently part of a group that was told by a couple of pastors that they do not (and we should not either) use the Lutheran Confessions in evangelism because it turns people off. In fact, we were encouraged to run from our Lutheran identity as it is an impediment to effective evangelism of “the unchurched.” Instead, Lutherans believe the Bible, just go through the Bible. That is all you need — me and my Bible. But if you are not trained to interpret and explain scripture, or you do not know your Bible very well, where are you going to look for guidance? I was surprised that the vast majority of folks in the group agreed with our speakers.

    I was trying to figure out a way to respond thoughtfully, but you have laid it out for me. Thank you. This provides a great framework for explaining who and what we are, and what we believe, teach, and confess. It also is a good evangelism tool that encourages deeper and more thoughtful discussions when the opportunity arises.

  6. When the unchurched visit our LCMS parish for worship, they
    will get a glimpse of our Lutheran identity through their
    encounter of our emphasis on Word and Sacrament. They will
    hear the Christ-centered liturgy and the Law/Gospel sermon.

    Ultimately, we hope they will attend an Adult Instruction Class to
    learn more about Lutheranism through the catechism and its
    stress on the 10 commandments, the apostles creed, the Lord’s
    Prayer, confession and absolution, Baptism and the Lord’ s
    Supper for starters. Faith alone, Grace alone, Scripture alone,
    and Christ alone will become terms that make them totally
    dependent upon justification through faith for salvation.

  7. Dialog Evangelism is/was a program. We met on Tuesday nights at 7:00 pm and would go over the material with the pastor, have devotions, and receive the “leads” for the calls. These “leads” were folks who had attended one of the services previous weeks. “Chit-chat”, their church, our church, the two diagnostic questions, and then “Man, God, Christ, Faith”. If the people had just moved into the area it was on to all the things our church had to offer (day school, roast beef/pancake supper, men’s dart ball league). If they were from another Lutheran church nearby the night was concluded with, “do you know so and so”. If they were discontent with their home congregation is was usually about service style, pastoral style, how much more our members were motivated for bible study or being “open minded” than the other churches in the area. DE recommended “shelving” topics like original sin, justification, Baptism, Lord’s Supper for later discussion. Otherwise, one might never get to the two diagnostic questions and get through the rest of the dialog.
    Right before our very eyes each Sunday we did not then realize the connection between evangelism and God’s dynamite power unto salvation. Little did we appreciate each time the pastor says, “As a called and ordained servant of the word I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” this is where the dynamite “explosion” of Good News (Evangelism) takes place. The same can be said for the preaching of Christ. “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Likewise, the pastor opens his mouth and preaches the good news about Jesus from Scripture to those gathered. “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”, God’s ordained power unto salvation. Lo and behold, it was there all along! Whereas others needed a program we have the Divine Service where the forgiveness of sins, the Good News, is delivered to us weekly.
    Thus, it is back to the basics, articles 1-6. No need for pricey new programs. No need for new documents and opinions on prayer. After all is not prayer (Lord, have mercy) in the name of Jesus happening each Divine Service and a fruit of faith? (Even a child knows that you do not gather with unbelievers and pray together with them. Elijah certainly did when he called down fire in the name of the LORD.)
    Articles one through six and Divine Service, that is evangelism for me.

  8. @mhart #10

    You have explained DE well and given me a 1980s flashback all at the same time… all I can say to your post is “Amen!”

  9. Great article! I actually started using my “pastor page” in our church newsletter to walk through the first 12 Articles of the Augsburg Confession. I give the reading for the month and then a one page summary/explanation.

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