Lutheranism a Tradition since.
Last year Kansas, traditionally a basketball school, surprised the college football world by going 11 and 0. When they played at Missouri, a fan was shown in the stands holding a sign that read, "Kansas Football A Tradition Since September."
That's funny, but that's what bothers some of you about the Lutheran faith. Is it really no older than Martin Luther? Does it only date to October 31, 1517? Catholics trace their church tradition to St. Peter himself. The Orthodox trace their liturgy to the 4th century. Even the Baptists say their church goes back to John the Baptist. If our church is really only 491 years old, we should leave it.
Likewise if this faith that we preach, teach, catechize, live, and die in is only about Martin Luther wishing to marry, as some Catholics claim, we would be conscience bound to leave it. This is how the Church of England came about but not how the Lutheran Church did. King Henry the VIII divorced, remarried, and immediately left the Roman Catholic Church. Luther by contrast was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in June 1520; he didn't marry until April 1525.
Okay, so the origins of the Lutheran Church are older than 491 years, and this faith didn't originate in Luther wishing to marry. Then is this faith nothing but Catholic-lite as some Protestants have claimed? We don't have the three P's: no Pope, no purgatory, no praying to Mary. But, the Protestant says, we do have the error of eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Jesus and of Baptism regenerating a person.
We do reject the three P's, and it's true; we don't recognize the bodily presence of Christ on the altar or in mouths to be an error but Scriptural. Likewise with Baptismal regeneration, we believe as Paul says that Baptism is "a washing of regeneration." We believe these teachings are the teaching of the catholic, small c' church, that is, of the universal, Christian church of every time and place. In that sense Lutheranism is catholic if you make the c' small because it believes, teaches, and confesses what the one, true, Christian Church has, always and every were.
If Lutheranism is only a tradition dating back less than 500 years, we should leave it, but this is not what Luther or our Lutheran forefathers claimed. The Gospel we believe, teach, and confess; the Gospel we will die rather than give up dates back to Adam and Eve and the Fall. Our Gospel is what the OT prophets predicted and the NT apostles preached as fulfilled. Our Gospel is what the early church professed in creeds and protected by ecumenical councils.
This Gospel and all its articles our Lutheran forefathers said they would put before the judgment throne on the last day with a clear conscience. They said in 1580, "In the sight of God and of all Christendom, we want to testify to those now living and those who will come after us. This declaration presented here about all the controverted articles mentioned and explained above and no other is our faith, doctrine, and confession. By God's grace, with intrepid hearts, we are willing to appear before the judgment seat of Christ with this Confession and give an account of it" (SD, XII, 40).
Contrast this attitude with Catholics who reject the Pope, purgatory, and annual private confession before a priest - all conscience binding teachings of their church. Contrast this with Baptists who drink, dance, and smoke contrary to their confession. Contrast this with Presbyterians who are able to take "exceptions" to their confession. None of these are willing to die in their confession or defend it before the judgment of men let alone God.
Then again, do you as a Lutheran even know what your Confession is? The center of our Confession is the Gospel, how a sinner is saved. We are saved by God the Father's free grace, won for us by God the Son, which grace we have through faith worked in us by God the Spirit using Word and Sacraments. All of what we believe, teach, and confess flows to and from the Gospel. If you're right in this teaching, you will be right in the rest of your teaching. Likewise, if you're wrong in another teaching, you can be sure you're wrong in this one too. We're not in fellowship with other churches because we differ with them about the Gospel.
What is missing in all other churches is the teaching that salvation has been bestowed on all men as a gift. It happened this way. God the Son took on flesh and blood under the Law. He took on all men's obligation to keep all God's laws and kept them perfectly. Never did He do wrong, say wrong, or even think wrong. Yet the guilt of all men was placed on Him. The guilt of every man, woman, or child no matter how small, no matter how big, no matter how innocent it seemed or perverted it was, the guilt of all was carried by Jesus and He went to the cross and bled, cried, sighed and died for it. He declared, "It is finished." Jesus declared on Good Friday, "I have kept all God's Laws and paid for the sins of all people everywhere." And the Father shouted into eternity on Easter, "Amen! I agree; all laws have been kept; all sins have been paid for," and since Jesus died to pay for our sins; God raised Him from the dead to show He accepted the payment.
But all churches teach this. All Christians believe this. It's true; all Christians do believe what I just said, but not all churches teach it. The Gospel is not a completed act done by God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost when churches teach, "All you need to do is accept it; choose it, ask Jesus to come into your heart." Then your decision, your choice, your request is needed to complete the Gospel. So your salvation hangs on your choosing, deciding or asking, and how sure is that?
Your certainty of salvation hangs on what the Triune God did for all people and gives to all people through the preaching of the Word and the administering of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. When churches point you inside yourself for certainty of salvation to how you feel, to whether you have an inner peace, or when churches point you outside yourself to your good works, they make your salvation uncertain.
I am not certain of my salvation because I feel Jesus died for me or even because I believe it. My sense of feeling and believing go up and down all the time, doesn't yours? I am certain of my salvation because Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and put the forgiveness He won in every drop of Baptism water that touched me and in every Word of Absolution that enters my ears. The Body He gave and the Blood He shed to win my forgiveness is in every morsel of Communion Bread I eat and in every drop of Communion Wine I drink. As sure as I taste Bread and Wine, so sure am I that I am tasting forgiveness. Likewise, I have no certainty of going to heaven based on my good works because I need forgiveness even for them. They are always tainted. I am certain of salvation because Jesus did good works that not even God the Father could find the slightest sin in, and He credits all Jesus' perfect works to my account.
The difference between our church and others is nothing less than the Gospel. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are all Gospel, so the differences between churches show up most glaringly there. When churches refuse to Baptize babies, they are denying the Gospel to little ones. When churches only baptize believers, they make Baptism a mere sign that shows you have faith not the Gospel that creates faith. When churches will not say, "I forgive you," but "I announce to you forgiveness," or "I declare to you that your sins have been forgiven," they are keeping forgiveness of sins away from people. Or when churches do say, "I forgive you," but attach a penance to being forgiven, they make the Gospel only as certain as the penance you do.
Since Jesus says Communion is the Body He gave on the cross and the Blood He shed there, this makes Communion the purest Gospel, and so we find deep divisions here. What fellowship can we who believe Communion is the true Body and Blood of Christ have with those Christians who say it is not the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar? If the Body and Blood of Jesus aren't really present, what Gospel, what forgiveness is found in eating and drinking them? What fellowship can we who believe the Body and Blood are given to Christians to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins have with those who say the Body and Blood are offered to God as a sacrifice to take away His anger over our sins? If the Body and Blood of Jesus are still being offered to take away sins today, then it really wasn't finished when Jesus said so, was it?
The name given to the teachings I've outlined above is Lutheran. We didn't pick this name, but we don't back away from it, and here's why. In the early church those who defended the Scriptural faith that Jesus was God the Son were dubbed "Athansians" by those who opposed them. Those who defended the Scriptural truth that you have no ability to help yourself be saved were called "Augustians" by those who opposed them. So we were called "Lutherans" by those who opposed the teaching that a person is saved by God the Father's free grace, for the sake of God the Son, through faith worked by God the Spirit using the means of grace. At first Luther fought against using his name. He said we should call ourselves "Christians," but later he said that since Lutheran was the name our opponents gave to the doctrine of Christ, you can't disown it without disowning that doctrine (What Luther Says, 2677).
Some of you get stuck here. You say, "I'm a Christian first and a Lutheran second." That sounds broadminded, but do you know what you're really saying? You're saying there's something in your Lutheran faith that is not Christian. If you believe that, run don't walk away from Lutheranism. Whatever your confession of faith now is the time to ask, "Am I able to live in it, die with it, and be judged for it?" because that's what's going to happen. If you're not able to say "yes" about your confession of faith, then what good is your faith tradition no matter how old it claims to be? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20081026)