Lutheranism in a nutshell

E and I were talking about the difficulties of explaining to non-Lutheran friends (whether Christians or otherwise) why we’re Lutherans and what is different about Lutheranism – while avoiding the opposite extremes of (a) plunging into a half-hour theological discourse or (b) mumbling something defensive about “not being a sect”.

It struck me that the distinctive flavour of Lutheranism (as contrasted with evangelicalism in particular) lies in its approach to worship, as summarised in Norman Nagel’s introduction to Lutheran Worship:

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise…

Our experience in our previous churches – and I want to emphasise I’m talking about how we experienced things, not making a judgment about those or other churches – is that worship was seen as being about our talking to God and our listening to people talk about God. Preaching was being taught what the Bible says; the Lord’s Supper was about our remembering Jesus; baptism was about our declaration of faith (in the case of infant baptism, parents declaring the faith in which they would be raising their children).

What we have found to be different about the Lutheran church is, as E put it, its directness. Worship is (as the quote from Nagel shows) about God speaking to us, not our speaking to or about him. In the absolution, he forgives us; in preaching, he proclaims himself to us and recalls us to the promises he made to us in our baptism; in the Lord’s Supper, he addresses us and gives himself to us in his body and blood.

This is a very different dynamic from anything we’d experienced previously. I’m not saying it is unique to the Lutheran church, but the Lutheran church is distinctive in how conscious it is of this dynamic to worship and the Christian life.

So there is Lutheranism summarised in two sentences: “Our Lord speaks” and “His Word bestows what it says”. And in a word: directness.

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23 Responses to Lutheranism in a nutshell

  1. Rev. Alex Klages says:

    Not going to get an argument from these quarters!

  2. Chris Jones says:

    This is useful in distinguishing between Lutheranism and other denominations which regard themselves as “evangelical.” But another way to put it is that Lutheranism is Catholic — because the answer to the question “is there anything happening here or are we just talking about it?” is the dividing line between Catholic (including Lutheranism and Orthodoxy) and Protestant.

  3. John D says:

    I would think that most churches believe that something is happening in their services; the important difference is whether or not the worship is dative, as it were (to borrow from Simone Weil) – whether we rise to, talk to, and talk about God, or whether God descends to, talks to, and talks about us.

  4. fws says:

    Gosh, I am not certain that any of these distinctions and distinctives hold true. Yet there is a divide.

    Petecostals believe that God “ministers” to them “speaks ” tothem “anoints” them in their services. Ditto Rome and Constantople. I would put all of them against us.

    I am saying I would not make the divide liturgical types versus those who are not.

    The divide is also not that those think they are more reaching to God and we Lutherans are passively being reached by God in the Divine Service. There IS an element of sacrifice in the Divine Service. “let my prayers rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

    Might I suggest that the difference is what give them certainty that this is indeed happening for them? Most of those would think that our Lutheran Divine Service is dead, dead, dead.

    Why do they think that? What do they mean by saying that? How do they know or recognize that about our Liturgy?

    They are, in a true sense , more right than wrong are they not? it looks like death and resurrection. Why is that? How do we Lutherans feel certain of this?

    Where Jesus is, there is life and salvation. Jesus tells us he is to be found in with and under bread and wine, water, palm on pate in absolution, and bearing the burden of one anothers sins.

  5. Chris Jones says:

    fws,

    “Might I suggest that the difference is what give them certainty that this is indeed happening for them?”

    Exactly.

    Pentecostals indeed believe that God ministers to them and anoints them in their services. But what are those beliefs based on? Not on the promises of God, the covenanted means of grace. They have devised their own “sacraments” (speaking in tongues, the baptism “of the Holy Spirit” etc.) and despised the means of grace that God Himself appointed. That is the divide.

    And of that divide, Rome and the East are on the same side as us. Whatever other quarrels we may have with them, they share with us the reliance on the sacraments as reliable means of grace — means that are to be relied upon because they bear the promise of God. The same cannot be said of the emotional and ecstatic experiences of the Pentecostals. They certainly believe that God acts through those experiences (as well He may; as they say, God is not bound to the sacraments, but we are.), but they can point to no divine promise to support their belief.

  6. Phil Walker says:

    Formally, we Reformed have your backs on that one. Informally, now that’s another matter… šŸ˜¦

  7. John H says:

    Chris: I’m hesitant to talk about the RC and EO side of things as I don’t have much experience of them.

    However, I still think the point about “directness” is valid as something which gives the Lutheran position a particular distinctiveness. As someone once put it to me, the Lutheran view of justification by faith comes down to being able to say, in the face of temptation, guilt or doubt: “I am baptised!”

    His suggestion was that the RC framework, at least, puts the ability of someone to say that in question – because I might actually be in a state of mortal sin, needing priestly absolution and so on.

    There does seem to be a distinct aspect in Lutheranism of seeing the sacraments as being vehicles for delivering God’s word very directly, rather than means by which grace is infused. I’m perhaps not expressing this very well, but I wonder if there is still some area of distinctiveness there.

    In any event, my experience is coming from the other end of the spectrum, from conservative evangelicalism toward Lutheranism, so I’m more conscious of (and knowledgeable about) the differences there.

  8. fws says:

    chris jones>

    “And of that divide, Rome and the East are on the same side as us. Whatever other quarrels we may have with them, they share with us the reliance on the sacraments as reliable means of grace Ā— means that are to be relied upon because they bear the promise of God”

    roman catholics believe that it would be arrogant and presumtuous to be certain of salvation. I am not certain where the EO are on that.

    The RCs connect the efficacy and power of the sacraments, not to Christ, but instead to “Mother Church” in itĀ“s visible Papa-licious format. Here I think John H has a point: A lutheran says “I was baptized” and is saying by that “the promises of Christ were applied to me personally, and irregardless of the verity of my own faith or repentance or life or whatever, I am simply going to hold God to what he promised to me , personally, there, in my baptism.

    RCs do not believe in baptismal regeneration, and their views on Baptism look more like that of presbyterians, where it is a replacement for circumcision and joins one in a covenant relationship, in this case to mother church.

    I donĀ“t see alot of RCs finding alot of certainty in all that. Lots of clutter and stuff. not alot of direct Jesus there.

  9. Chris Jones says:

    fws,

    I don’t know about you, but I am not talking about being certain of one’s own salvation. I am talking about being certain about the promises of God. If the RCs think it is presumptuous to be certain of one’s own salvation, then they are right — not because there is any doubt about God’s willingness and ability to save us (both His willingness and His ability to save us are shown to us in Christ), but because it is always possible for an individual to apostatize. As Lutherans we do not teach irresistible grace.

    The RCs connect the efficacy and power of the sacraments, not to Christ, but instead to Ā“Mother ChurchĀ”

    I think you would get a pretty fearsome argument from any well-informed Catholic if you try to tell him that the sacraments are not grounded in the institution and the promises of Christ. And it is certainly not Lutheran to neglect the ecclesial dimension of the means of grace. Article V of the Augsburg Confession makes pretty clear that the Holy Spirit works justifying faith in us through the public ministry of the Church, and not otherwise. It is a totally false dichotomy to separate Christ from His Church, as if “connecting the power and efficacy of the sacraments” to the Church is something entirely different from “connecting the power and efficacy of the sacraments” to Christ. Grounding one’s confidence in the sacraments in the Church is precisely the same as grounding it in Christ, because the Church is “his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.”

    irregardless of the verity of my own faith or repentance or life or whatever

    The promises of Christ are not given “irregardless of our faith and repentance.” It is all well and good to say that one’s confidence is in the promises of Christ given in baptism, but if one goes on to live a faithless and unrepentant life, the confidence that he has placed in his baptism is superficial and, in fact, totally bogus.

    RCs do not believe in baptismal regeneration

    On this point you are simply mistaken. Roman Catholics, like Orthodox and Lutherans, absolutely believe and teach baptismal regeneration. There is no conflict between baptismal regeneration and the idea that baptism places one into a covenant relationship. Of course baptism effects regeneration, but it also joins one to the Church, which is the community of the New Covenant. There is no conflict there. Just because the Reformed over-emphasize the “covenant” aspect of baptism and reject baptismal regeneration does not mean that there is no covenant aspect to baptism, nor that those who believe rightly in baptismal regeneration cannot also recognize the covenant aspect of baptism.

    The Roman Catholics have got a lot of stuff wrong, not the least of which is a serious over-emphasis on the institutional superstructure of the Church. But it will not do to over-react to that by excising the role of the Church in the economy of salvation, putting the venerable title of Mother Church in scare quotes. Whatever errors the Roman Catholics may be guilty of, the Church is still our mother, she is still the bride of Christ, she is still the fulness of him who fills all in all, and it is still through her that the Word of God and the Spirit of God bestow upon us our salvation. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

  10. John,

    This is all way too darn objective. You mean I can’t just know Jesus by feeling him in my heart? He has to say something that doesn’t contradict something he said (himself or through his apostles) 2000 years ago? Shoot.

  11. fws says:

    chris jones.

    are you SURE presbyterians and roman catholics believe that a day old infant actual receives faith in christ through the waters of holy baptism^? can you point me to something on the internet that would let me know that?

  12. fws says:

    chris jones. I also would be really happy to see something like this on EO as well.

  13. fws says:

    the fact that EO commune infants would lead me to believe that they DO believe that infants have faith , but it would be great to see a statement from them somewhere.

  14. Chris Jones says:

    fws,

    are you SURE presbyterians and roman catholics believe that a day old infant actually receives faith in christ through the waters of holy baptism?

    I neither know nor care what Presbyterians believe. I have more important things to do than to worry about the errors of the Reformed.

    I do happen to know what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about baptism, and it is fairly easily accessible to those who wish to look it up. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church are both available online, and provide definitive information on this as on many other issues. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of baptism effects regeneration. Catholics would not regard “regeneration” as simply equivalent to “receiving faith in Christ,” but the gift of faith certainly is included in their understanding of regeneration. On the notion of faith as a gift, the Catechism (para. 153) says: Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. “Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'” And in discussing the issue of infant baptism, the Catholic Encyclopedia says To the objection that baptism requires faith, theologians reply that adults must have faith, but infants receive habitual faith, which is infused into them in the sacrament of regeneration. (article on Baptism). So it is clear that the gift of faith is understood as being given in baptism as part of regeneration.

    On the broader issue of baptismal regeneration, the following excerpts from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 are relevant:

    As regards the use of the term [“regeneration”] in Catholic theology, no connected history of regeneration can be written, as neither Christian antiquity nor medieval Scholasticism worked consistently and regularly to develop this pregnant and fruitful idea. At every period, however, the Sacrament of Baptism was regarded as the specific sacrament of regeneration … the Council of Trent regarded regeneration as fundamentally nothing else than another name for the justification acquired through the Sacrament of Baptism. Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), article on Regeneration.

    The Roman Catechism (Ad parochos, De bapt., 2, 2, 5) defines baptism thus: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration by water in the word (per aquam in verbo) … Later theologians generally distinguish formally between the physical and the metaphysical defining of this sacrament. By the former they understand the formula expressing the action of ablution and the utterance of the invocation of the Trinity; by the latter, the definition: “Sacrament of regeneration” or that institution of Christ by which we are reborn to spiritual life.

    The term “regeneration” distinguishes baptism from every other sacrament … [baptism] was instituted to confer upon men the very beginnings of the spiritual life, to transfer them from the state of enemies of God to the state of adoption, as sons of God.

    The definition of the Roman Catechism combines the physical and metaphysical definitions of baptism. “The sacrament of regeneration” is the metaphysical essence of the sacrament, while the physical essence is expressed by the second part of the definition, i.e. the washing with water (matter), accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Trinity (form). Baptism is, therefore, the sacrament by which we are born again of water and the Holy Ghost, that is, by which we receive in a new and spiritual life, the dignity of adoption as sons of God and heirs of God’s kingdom. Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), article on Baptism.

    These excerpts from the current official “Catechism of the Catholic Church” are also informative:

    Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” (para. 1213)

    This sacrament is also called “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one “can enter the kingdom of God.” (para. 1215)

    Catholics and Lutherans certainly differ in the way they speak of and define “regeneration” — we identify regeneration more closely with the gift of faith while they distinguish the two — but both we and they teach and confess that God performs regeneration through the sacrament of baptism. For both Catholics and Lutherans, to be “born again” and to be baptized are two ways of saying precisely the same thing.

    Let me hasten to say that I carry no brief for the Roman Catholic Church and I believe them to be heterodox on some important points. But baptismal regeneration is not one of them, and it is important to give credit where credit is due.

  15. Chris Jones says:

    I also would be really happy to see something like this on EO as well.

    Despite the fact that I was myself Eastern Orthodox for ten years, I can’t point you to an online source for this. The Orthodox are not given to expressing their doctrine in systematic catechisms and confessions, nor do they have an institutional magisterium which can issue something definitive like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I can certainly tell you based on my own catechesis as an Orthodox that the Orthodox Church firmly believes and teaches baptismal regeneration.

    The best way to see what the Orthodox believe and teach is to look at how they pray. In the baptismal liturgy, after the actual baptism, the priest prays the following prayers (emphasis added):

    O Thou who through Holy Baptism hast granted forgiveness of sins to this thy servant, bestowing upon him a life of regeneration, vouchsafe that the light of thy countenance evermore shine in his heart; maintain the shield of his faith against the plotting of enemies; preserve in him the garment of incorruption which he has put on undefiled and unstained; preserve in him the seal of thy grace, being gracious unto him and us according to the multitude of thy compassions, for glorified and blessed is thine all-honourable and majestic Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and throughout all ages, Amen.

    O Sovereign Master and Lord our God, who through the baptismal font bestows heavenly illumination to those who are baptized, and who hast regenerated this thy servant, bestowing upon him the forgiveness of his sins: lay upon him thy mighty hand, and guard him in the power of thy goodness. Preserve unspotted his pledge of faith in thee. Account him worthy of life everlasting and thy good favour. For thou art our sanctification and to thee we send up all glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and throughout all ages, Amen.

    These post-baptismal prayers express the Orthodox belief as to what it is that baptism accomplishes; and as you can see that specifically includes regeneration.

    the fact that EO commune infants would lead me to believe that they DO believe that infants have faith

    This, of course, is exactly right.

  16. fws says:

    chris Jones:

    I am convinced that the EO believe in infant baptismal regeneration.

    I am not sure from your quote that RCs believe in infant regeneration and especially do not believe that they believe that infants acquire exactly the same thing the bible calls “faith” that adults do. I believe that they do not do this for the same exact reason that the reformed do not: it is not reason-able to believe that.

    “ng the issue of infant baptism, the Catholic Encyclopedia says To the objection that baptism requires faith, theologians reply that adults must have faith, but infants receive habitual faith, which is infused into them in the sacrament of regeneration. (article on Baptism). So it is clear that the gift of faith is understood as being given in baptism as part of regeneration.”

    “habitual faith” what.in.the.heck.is.that?

    on a different note, I assume that you are not a confessional Lutheran. What tips me to that is that you feel it would be arrogant to be certain of oneĀ“s salvation. All of Lutheran doctrine can be said to have as itĀ“s sole end as the assurance to a troubled conscience that it can, indeed, and should indeed, be entirely certain of salvation.

    Any confessional Lutherans here care to disagree with what I just said?

  17. fws says:

    chris Jones:

    btw: my absolute “dead” certainty of my personal salvation is that I was baptized. I hold God to his promises there and know he willĀ“s to preserve me in that faith to the end. Since he is both the author AND finisher of my faith, I do not have to fear the devil , the world, or even my own sinful flesh, that unholy trinity.

    And further: Yes, I cling to GodĀ“s promise in my baptism, irregardless of what the devil throws at my face in terms of my lack of faith, lack of repentance, and sad , pathetic, embarrassing, and condemning lack of evidence of my christian walk, life, renewal, etc.

    I am more than willing to confess that it is completely true that I lack anything close to true and proper faith or trust in God. Indeed : I constantly find myself whoring after false gods. The evidence of this is my worry, which is the unholy liturgy of this idolatry, both crass and refined I am so horrified to find in myself, again and again and again and….. I see pagans who are living lifestyles that I find repugnant to be keeping certain parts of GodĀ“s Holy Law and Will waaayyyyyy better than i ever have or hope to do. So what does THAT say about MY own life? nothing that merits GodĀ“s favor and everything meriting temporal and eternal punishment. If you knew me you would probably know that I am telling you the sanitized version of all this. Am I sad about this? You bet! am I as truly sad and repentant about this as I really SHOULD be? nope.

    I was baptised Chris Jones! Let me be a total liar, but I will trust God in Christ hanging dead on that cross. Irregardless of my faith, or repentance or anything else that is putrifying in this worthless flesh that can only properly die die die. there is no saving it. this all start with my idolatrous ideas that my “sanctified will power” is of ANY use whatsoever. It too needs to die die die. especially it. Trying harder simply does not cut it.

    I can only beg for GodĀ“s grace to grant me to inflict the absolute minimum amount of damage on myself and my neighbor, and trust , in faith, that he will use even my sinful acts and turn them into some sort of blessing to my neighbor.

    Lord have mercy. The Lord HAS had mercy!

  18. fws says:

    chris jones:

    “I neither know nor care what Presbyterians believe. I have more important things to do than to worry about the errors of the Reformed.”

    we SHOULD be worried about what they think. reformed/arminian ,bapti-costal thinking is the theological and cultural assumption for millions of americans. We, like our Lord, need to be equipped to meet people where they are at donchathink? Yeah it tires me too… at least the liturgical churchs tend to use the same terminology in the same way so communication and identification of differences isnĀ“t some wierd shell game like it feels so often with protestants…

  19. Chris Jones says:

    I have never claimed to be a “confessional” Lutheran; only a member in good standing of a Lutheran congregation. Nevertheless I think that to say that all of Lutheran doctrine has as its sole end the assurance of the certainty of salvation is construing the Lutheran Confessions very narrowly indeed, as well as setting the Confessions outside the mainstream of the Apostolic Tradition. “Assurance of salvation” is at best a minor theme in that tradition, as it is in the Scriptural witness. The heart of the Catholic faith is the objective character of the person and work of Christ, and of the economy of salvation — not the subjective concern with personal assurance.

    Indeed I think a preoccupation with personal assurance is a spiritual delusion. If that makes me other than a “confessional” Lutheran I guess I will have to live with that.

  20. fws says:

    chris Jones:

    I think if you read through the confessions, the audience in mind is always those with a “terrified conscience” and bringing that conscience to a point of peace.

    there is a good chance that we might be talking past each other. the objective character of the person and work of christ is indeed the ONLY thing that brings rest and refreshment to a terrified conscience.

    someone who can say “I was baptized!” when satan comes and informs us (correctly so) that we are utterly bankrupt in the areas of personal faith, repentance and reformation of life, and simply trust God and hold him to his promises outside of us has no need of “personal assurance ” beyond that applied personally in the waters of baptism. agreed?

  21. John H says:

    FWS: ISTM that the distinction between what you’re saying and what Chris is saying is between the assurance of being able to trust God’s promise now (“I am baptized!”, “I forgive you your sins”, “This is my body” etc.), and knowing that you will persevere in faith to the end.

    The comfort for the “terrified conscience” is that present word of forgiveness, not the guarantee of perseverance in faith. I assume this is what Chris meant when he said:

    I am not talking about being certain of oneĀ’s own salvation [i.e. being sure you will be saved in the end]. I am talking about being certain about the promises of God. [i.e. being sure that God’s present word spoken to us in the gospel and sacraments is true, and “for us”, now.]

  22. Chris Jones says:

    fws,

    there is a good chance that we might be talking past each other

    I doubt it. If Satan informs us that we are utterly bankrupt in personal faith, repentance, and reformation of life, the answer is not to ignore that bankruptcy and “simply trust God.” The answer is to fight the spiritual warfare that we are called to fight; or, as Dr Luther put it, the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise. For, as the Confessors say in the Book of Concord:

    as soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness … This doctrine, therefore, directs us to the means whereby the Holy Ghost desires to begin and work this, also instructs us how those gifts are preserved, strengthened, and increased, and admonishes us that we should not let this grace of God be bestowed on us in vain, but diligently exercise it [those gifts], and ponder how grievous a sin it is to hinder and resist such operations of the Holy Ghost. (FC SD II.65 & 72)

    Baptism is not the end of our struggle, but the beginning of the spiritual warfare which characterizes the life in Christ. An attitude of personal assurance based on baptism gives rise to complacency and minimizes and neglects that spiritual struggle, leaving us prey to the wolf of souls. We can be absolutely confident, to be sure, that the grace of God is given to us in baptism; but we must never ignore the terrible possibility that this grace may be “bestowed on us in vain.” It is through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit (as the Formula of Concord teaches) that we are to take care that it is not in vain.

    As I said, “personal assurance” is a dangerous delusion.

  23. Chris Jones says:

    John,

    The comfort for the Ā“terrified conscienceĀ” is that present word of forgiveness, not the guarantee of perseverance in faith.

    That is indeed what I meant. Thank you.

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