This is part twelve of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.
Every year, the Lutheran Church celebrates Reformation Day on October 31st. She sings “A Mighty Fortress” in a sanctuary clad in red. She recounts Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. She boasts, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Many unfurl the banners waving, “Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Sola Scriptura.” To conclude the festivities, some finish the day with a sauerkraut covered brat and wash it all down with a fine German lager.
Over the last 500 years, Lutherans have become lax, sitting back on their laurels, believing that the Gospel has been restored to the Church and that the Christian life is now good and we need never worry again. These essays were written with the hope of opening sleeping eyes to the reality that “the Church is always reforming.” As long as we live in a sinful world, prowled by the devil, error will sneak its way into the Church. She must be ever watchful. She must deal honestly when errors of doctrine and/or practice, having made their way in undetected, are brought to light. She must ever be strengthening the weak and correcting the erring. The Lutheran Church must always heed the angel’s words to the church in Sardis:
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1-6 ESV)
While most of us have been feasting on bratwurst, the devil has been ravaging the Church under our very noses. The simple teachings of the Christian faith as spelled out in Luther’s Small Catechism have been forgotten or twisted by a Methodist spirit. The clear, unwavering confession which once bellowed from the Lutheran Symbols has been replaced by the sound of pandering to the whims of the times. Many Lutherans around the world have been so far removed from Lutheran doctrine that they believe the spirit of Luther is social reform, something Luther himself spoke against in “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” Against the rebukes of Luther, since Christian freedom has been restored to the Church, we have found countless ways to abuse it and serve our bellies instead of our Lord and Savior.
When I was nineteen, a pastor introduced me to the Book of Concord, a book I never knew existed before then. Upon purchasing a copy translated by Theodore Tappert, I dove into the Augsburg Confession. I quickly learned the meaning of these words spoken by the Ethiopian eunuch, “How can I (understand) unless someone explains them to me” (Acts 8:31). Though I was able to read the words, the depths and meaning of the doctrines were indiscernible to me. I pushed through and read most of the Confessions, getting burnt out and overwhelmed in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Tappert was put on the shelf for eight years. Upon entering the seminary, I was quickly introduced to the men who would be my Phillip. The professors explained the Scriptures and Confessions. Through lectures and reading the assigned books, the doctrines in the Book of Concord became understandable. And even more than that, they became my confession.
I learned that growing up in a Lutheran (LCMS) congregation didn’t automatically make me Lutheran. I had grown up thinking I had Luther as my father and that was enough (see Matthew 3:7-10). The most shocking to me was learning that what I was taught to be Lutheran was actually Reformed or Fanatical! The blind were leading the blind and I fell into the pit of ignorance. Through the study of history, I learned that when most of my teachers in the church grew up, the Missouri Synod was on the brink of losing not only her Lutheran identity, but her Christian identity. Ponder that one. Many grew up in the Lutheran church during the 1960’s-70’s, when the LCMS was the least Lutheran the Missouri Synod has ever been. So now, many life-long Missourians are in the same darkness I was. They were taught, and still believe, that the Lutheranism they grew up with is the way it should be, never knowing that it’s not Lutheran at all.
At the time of The Reformation, the Lutheran Church had to fight to remain Lutheran. The previous essays were written to teach this very point. If the Lutheran Church was in that much danger in her infancy, how much more danger exists on her 500th birthday? Eating brats and drinking beer doesn’t make you Lutheran, neither does singing “A Mighty Fortress.” Believing, teaching, and confessing the doctrines taught in the Holy Scriptures and expounded in the Book of Concord makes you Lutheran.
As the year celebrating the 500th anniversary of The Reformation comes to an end, let the Lutheran Church be ever reforming. Read your Book of Concord; beg and plead with your pastors to explain these Confessions to you. Be Lutheran in faith, not just in name. Fight the devil and evil spirits who constantly penetrate our ranks to destroy the pure preaching of the Gospel amongst us. Be ever reforming. Constantly return to the teaching as it was taught by Christ to the apostles, by the apostles to the Church, and by the Church to you. As we conclude the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, boast not in the name “Lutheran” but boast in the name of Christ, who died and rose and is preached for the forgiveness of our sins. Boast in the doctrines of Scripture, explained in the Book of Concord.