Well, I guess it was probably inevitable but I finally lost all of my “born again” marbles and joined the Lutherans. Short of swimming the Tiber this is probably the thing conservative Evangelicals suspicious of creeds, formal liturgy, and sacraments fear most when one of their own takes a look at Christianity before and beyond the scope of that which considers the individual heart decision to receive Jesus in one particular moment of life the central focus of Christian faith. To compare the issue to something that is easily accessible for American Protestants at the moment, if we think of this in terms of the “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” video that went viral across the Internet recently, I have likely chosen that which the hip young man in the video would claim Jesus came to abolish. If religion means that you believe the central encounter of the Christian faith is that which occurs when Christians gather together on a weekly basis to encounter the risen Christ in Word, Sacrament, and one another, then color me religious and allow me to mention that Jesus had no intention of abolishing such a thing.
I will agree with Jefferson Bethke, however, that Jesus came to abolish a false kind of religion where your faith, public or private, makes no practical difference in the way you treat people for whom you believe Jesus died or live your life before the God you claim to love. That’s the real dichotomy here. It’s not Jesus v. religion but false religion v. living faith that is the all important distinction we must maintain. Likewise, when it comes to my move to Lutheranism from mainstream Evangelicalism, the divide I am crossing is not between heart Christianity and formal Christianity but between what I see as a kind of Christian faith that has unintentionally separated public and private and heart and body with its exclusive focus on individual conversion and that which more successfully integrates our total experience and need as human beings before God.
Even here, however, I am perhaps raising a dichotomy just as unhelpful and insulting as the one Bethke raised in his immensely popular diatribe. As Christians and Protestants both, contemporary Evangelicals and Lutherans, when we look at one another, should see much of ourselves in the other. The reasons are both historical and confessional. The popular and amorphous form of Protestantism we know today as Evangelicalism applies to itself the name Lutherans have applied to themselves since the Reformation. Lutherans are the first group of Christians specifically known as “Evangelicals,” and the central emphasis on the biblical Gospel that Jesus alone saves us by His cross and resurrection through faith today’s Evangelicals inherited historically from these original Evangelicals. The Lutheran spiritual tradition exalts this Gospel in many powerful ways. Gene Veith, in his wonderful book, The Spirituality of the Cross: the Way of the First Evangelicals, lays this out in greater detail, but I will spell out a few of the high points.
Jesus Christ and His cross and resurrection take the central place in every Lutheran service of worship. At the confession and absolution of sin, we ask for forgiveness "for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy, bitter, and innocent sufferings and death" for us and the Pastor grants the same to us through the Word of Jesus Christ. The Scripture readings in the service always focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament reading we are faced with the Law, which convicts us of sin and points us by types and shadows to Jesus Christ and His cross work. The practice is for two readings from the New Testament to be given, but one of the readings is always from the four Gospels and the sermon most often focuses on the Gospel text. The person, teaching, and saving action of Jesus always come to the fore in this way. Not just in the subject matter, however, but also in the manner of presentation and emphasis, the sermon also centers on Jesus, with its climax being the proclamation that Jesus has secured our salvation through His performance of the Law for us, His bearing the punishment for our sins on the cross, and His justifying us and empowering us for new life through the resurrection. Jesus and His cross and resurrection also come into sharp relief at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is Christ’s giving to us of His true Body wounded for us and His true Blood shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. And of course, the service is not seen primarily as an obedience we perform for God (Law), but rather as His offering of forgiveness to us in Jesus Christ (Gospel), to which our hearts respond by worshiping and glorifying God in gratitude for what He has done for us.
Lutheranism and contemporary Evangelicalism also exalt the Gospel by our similar focus on the Holy Scriptures as the absolute foundation for what we believe, confess, and live as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. As I alluded to above, the reading and preaching of the Word of God is central to the Lutheran service as the means of grace by which Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit not only reveals Himself to us but makes Himself present to the gathered body and individual believers for saving, teaching, and guiding us. As is the case with contemporary Evangelicalism, Lutheranism is thus only as Christ-centered as it is Bible-centered.
Lutheran spirituality and theology also, however, bring the same central Gospel into focus by emphases different from those highlighted by contemporary Evangelicalism. Both traditions will point to the same realities but focus on them in different ways and to different degrees. For instance, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, we both affirm the Triune God as a priority in our worship and thinking, but it has been my experience that Lutherans and other classical Protestants as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox place more explicit emphasis on the Triune God than most Evangelicals do. This is important because we obscure the Gospel inasmuch as we obscure the reality that God is Triune. The Trinity is the bull’s-eye center of the Christian faith because the doctrine of the Trinity is the expression of everything we know about God because of His revelation of Himself to us as Jesus Christ. The Trinity reveals the Gospel as the greatest demonstration of the love that characterizes the inner life of God, and it is the Gospel that most clearly reveals that God is Trinity, for our redemption is the work of the entire Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The explicit emphasis on the Triune God in the life and worship of Lutheranism also shows how the Gospel is co-extensive with the community and the way of life it produces. Because the Trinity reveals to us how God is, not just in His inner life but also as He is with His creatures, the Trinity also reveals to us how we are to be with one another in our life in God. If God Himself is a community of love, life in God is always life in community, and the life in the Christian community is to be characterized by love.
The emphasis on the Triune God in Lutheranism also keeps us aware of and in continuity with the ancient Christian Church, in which the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity took place. Not only does the oneness of the Triune God keep us cognizant of our Savior’s prayer that we be one as He and the Father are one, but the Ecumenical Creeds that are our inheritance from the process of the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity were delivered to today’s divided global Christian Church from the undivided ancient Church.
The invoking of the Trinity with the sign of the cross at the beginning of the service, the offering of the peace of the Lord to one another, the reciting of the Creeds, prayers offered “through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever,” and the conclusion of our services with the threefold Amen both actualize and keep us mindful of our sharing in the Triune life of God and all the implications of this reality.
Lutheranism and contemporary Evangelicalism, however, differ more in regard the diverging emphases we place on spirit and matter and the internal and the external in the way God communicates to us the salvation Christ accomplished for us. For instance, while we both understand and proclaim loudly that God has accomplished salvation for the world and humanity through His Incarnation as Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection in His physical body, Lutherans understand according to the Scriptures that God continues to use material realities to communicate to us the body-and-soul salvation Christ accomplished for us through His human nature. This starts with the way we understand the agency of the Word of God in salvation. Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit working, in, with, and through physical words on a page or spoken audibly by mouth, gives faith and salvation to believers. The efficacy of the sacraments as means of salvation comes through this same operation of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the promises of His Word. Baptism saves through the use of water to apply the promises of God's Word to us. Jesus Christ in His Body and Blood comes to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper in a literal and supernatural manner by the power and promise of His Word.
While for contemporary Evangelicals such an earthly and physical understanding of salvation by sacraments would seem to imply salvation by works, Lutherans understand this precisely to be a corollary of salvation by Christ alone through faith alone. Powerless to grasp God's salvation from within ourselves, God, who is far from us because of our sin, comes to us from outside, putting his forgiveness, life, and grace into us through the Word we hear, the Triune Name he puts on us in baptism, and His Body and Blood we receive through eating and drinking the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. It's by these physical means that we understand that we have not saved ourselves, not even by our emotional or spiritual appropriation of grace, but by God's objective salvation He renders to us as pure gift, which we receive as helpless and needy creatures from the merciful hand of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. In this, we also understand that the forgiveness and grace we have received through Christ and His cross and resurrection, grasp us and have implications for us body and soul, internally and externally, individually and corporately, both now and in eternity.
I will conclude by saying that I do not see my arrival in the Lutheran churches and tradition as a repudiation of my Evangelical heritage. Rather, the buds I still see growing richly in contemporary Evangelicalism have both their roots and fullest flowering blossoms in the faith and practice of the first Evangelicals.
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