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.

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