A Few Words From Pastor Brian

Reverend Brian Handrich


What is a Lutheran?

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this month, we ask a good, Lutheran question - “What does this mean?” What does it mean to be a Lutheran today? There are roughly 3.2 billion Christians in the world today and about 7 million of them go by the name “Lutheran”. How are we different from all the other Christian denominations out there? Perhaps the best way to answer this is to look at the 3 guiding principles of the reformation, the 3 solae, Scripture alone, Grace alone, and Faith alone.

But first we should clear up a few things that Lutherans are not. First of all Lutherans shouldn't really be called Lutherans. Luther himself was appalled by that term. He said, “Who am I, bag of worms that I am, that God's children should be called by my name? Did Luther write God's Word? Was Martin crucified and raised for you? No. Simply call yourselves Christian for that is what you are.” We also tend to think of Lutherans as German. While it's true that Luther was an obscure monk from a small order in the backwaters of the Thuringia / Saxony region of Germany, by the time of his death, Luther's writing has spread to England (had some correspondence with Henry VIII), Spain, and most of western Europe. Protestant / Lutheran churches had sprung up in Germany, the Sallic lands (France / Germany border today), the “Low countries” (Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark), up to Scandinavia (especially Sweden), and as far south as the Tyrolean Alps (Switzerland / Italy border). God's Word is not bound to one ethnic or national people group but is for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Neither is it bound to one time as “the Word of the Lord endures forever.” (Is. 40:8) In one of my favorite MASH episodes a wounded army dog is brought in and Hawkeye calls for Father Mulchahy. The Padre asks what denomination is the patient and Hawkeye answers, “He's German (it was a German shepherd), so he must be Lutheran.” Lutherans come in all races, colors, and ethnicities.

We should also note that there is a difference between what we believe and how we practice said belief. One cannot judge doctrine on the basis of how faithfully those who profess it carry it out in daily life. We are all sinful, and simply knowing what God says does not automatically lead to doing what God says. For example, we believe, teach, and confess that all life is valuable and sacred and that God alone has Lordship over life from the moment of conception until all brain wave activity ceases (our last breath). Yet Lutherans still get abortions or vote to allow assisted suicide / mercy killings. Just because one does not always act according to what one professes, that doesn't make the teaching wrong. We must look at the teachings themselves, not how well they are lived out.

So how are we different? The most fundamental way is our adherence to the first Reformation sola, that of Scripture alone. There are many denominations that claim to follow God's Word alone, but on closer inspection we see that it is God's Word + ____ (usually common sense / reason, councils, or societal /cultural norms). The best example of this is probably in the Lord's Supper. This was the main splitting point between Luther and the Swiss reformer Zwingli and later the Austrian Calvin. As Lutherans we look at God's Word which says, “This is my body...This is my blood...” and so we take it that the bread and wine somehow are also Christ's body and blood in, with, and under these exterior forms that we see, smell, touch, and taste. How this can be we cannot say. Why not? Scripture doesn't tell us how, only that it IS. Zwingli, and most protestant bodies, hold that Jesus meant that he bread and wine only represent His body and blood. After all, it doesn't appear to our human senses as body or blood (which would be cannibalism anyway), so reason tells us that it must simply represent. But that's not what Jesus said. He didn't say, “this is like my body” neither did He say, “this represents my body.” He said, “This is my body”. So where does that leave those denominations that claim the authority of Scripture yet deny Christ's physical presence in the Sacrament? As Luther put it, “They are fools, liars, and murderers, killing the souls of those who follow them.” A bit harsh, but true. Either one believes the Bible as it has been written, or one does not and subjects it to another Lord – be it reason (Lord's supper) or “equality” (women's ordination), or the prevailing cultural norms (same sex marriage) or some other philosophy outside of God's Word.

The sole authority of God's Word alone as the only way to establish and promote right teaching was the cornerstone of the Reformation. But there were other things that marked Lutherans as being different from other Protestants. The second sola had to do with how one becomes right with God, how sins are covered and the guilt of them taken away. This is the great motto Sola Gratia, by grace alone. It is based on Ephesians 2:8-9. The Church of Luther's day had a grace + method of forgiveness. You still had Christ dying and rising to pay the penalty for your sins, but the guilt remained. The only way to purge this guilt was through the sacrament of penance – confess your sins, do your good works, and the sin is then fully forgiven. If you didn't confess everything, the guilt could purged in a place called purgatory – kind of a temporary hell lasting only a few centuries or millennia. If you had the money, you could purchase an indulgence which would take some (or all, depending on the donation) of that time off in purgatory for yourself or for a deceased relative. While the sale of indulgences was “the straw that broke the camel's back”, many allegedly “Protestant” (protest the sale of indulgences) churches still teach salvation by means other than God's grace for Christ's sake. Many denominations require certain things to be sure of “being a Christian” or being saved – things like a conversion experience, or doing mission trips, or tithing (one local non-denominational / federated church even requires the submission of the last three years' tax returns to set one's congregational contributions to be a full, communicant member). Some have a particular “method” one must follow (hence the name Methodist) to be saved. Many others have things you must not do, like smoking, dancing (even at a wedding) or drinking – substituting grape juice for “the fruit of the vine” in the Lord's Supper. In all these other denominations one's salvation is determined by what one does or does not do; not by what Christ has already done on our behalf. This is clearly opposed to the clear teaching of Scripture, and so we loop back to the first Reformation principle. That's not to say that good works are unimportant, for they are vital to living out our faith – they are just not the requirement to receive God's forgiveness. That comes through grace alone.

Taking hold of that grace as found in Scripture requires faith. We often equate faith with belief, but faith is far more comprehensive than an intellectual acquiescence to a particular set of facts. Faith also includes an element of hope – we have faith, even if we do not yet see what it is we have faith in. Faith is also the power behind all we do – it is faith that leads us to worship, good works of love and mercy for our neighbor, or to want to live in accordance with God's Word (instead of fearing God's wrath for breaking it). As Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us, this is not something that we are able to do or to generate. Faith is the gift of God. It is faith that then trusts God's Word. It is faith which claims the Grace of God as it's own. It is faith that looks into Scripture to find the answers to life's most perplexing questions. Without faith, the Church would be just another club of people who have similar beliefs getting together to huddle and cuddle. We would be nothing more than a social services agency feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc. Faith, that “I'll risk my life and give up all I have for this” attitude is what makes one a Christian, and also a Lutheran.

So we have these three principles of the Reformation – Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, and yet just like the Trinity they are really all one. We can't take grace out of the equation without violating God's Word and destroying faith. We cannot take faith out and hope to find a God of grace talking to us as a loving Father in, with, and through His Word. We cannot remove Scripture without losing faith and grace as well. So this Reformation year, let us rejoice in these gifts Luther brought back to the Church (they never went away, they only got hidden / covered up by other “stuff”) and put our faith in the grace of God as Christ is revealed in holy Scripture. Amen.

A Happy Reformation to all;

© 2017 Redeemer Lutheran Church, Newton, New Jersey