When I was young I was adamant that to be a Lutheran was to be absolutely Biblical and correct. I was proud of my Lutheran heritage; I would tell people that I was a Christian when they asked, but I would immediately add that I was a Lutheran. In fact, I tried to convert my Evangelical friend (Daryl) to Lutheranism. I even worked for the church. So suffice to say, I was a dedicated Lutheran.
Then I started reading the Bible.
Now, over three years after I met Daryl, I have completely left my Lutheran days behind and have joined the Reformed, Calvinist stream of theology. After a lot – a lot – of thought, I’m going to write about why. This is the first part – the second will be up tomorrow.
There are a number of issues with the doctrine of the Lutheran Church. I’m not going to really touch Luther’s own writings, as I think that the modern Lutheran church has departed even from them. Instead I’m going to focus on the statement of beliefs as published by the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) and how Lutherans behave.
Let me clarify at this point that I don’t think that all Lutherans are wrong and that all Calvinist/Reformed are right. We are all flawed and sinful and so will never get anything right. I do, however, believe that Lutherans misinterpret the Bible in some fundamental ways.
The good stuff
As I said, not everything on the LCA’s statement of beliefs is bad. This is the introduction to the statement:
In the words of the classic Lutheran summary of faith, we believe that we are saved ‘by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith’. In other words, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favour or to gain eternal life. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has won all this and more for us. We also believe that only the Bible is the source of inspiration and teaching.
This is good. They also affirm the Trinity (and therefore Jesus’s deity), which is crucial. They also affirm justification by faith to a certain extent.
But it all goes downhill after that first point.
The bad stuff
The very next paragraph reads:
Lutherans worldwide also believe that the Lutheran Confessions, contained in the Book of Concord of 1580, are true expositions of the word of God. These confessional documents are:
- the three ecumenical creeds (confessed by Christians around the world): the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed
- the Augsburg Confession
- the Apology of the Augsburg Confession
- the Smalcald Articles
- the Small Cathechism [sic] of Luther
- the Large Catechism of Luther
- the Formula of Concord.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read “true expositions” I hear “everything these books/confessions say about God and his Word is absolutely correct”. Seeing as we are, at base, sinful and that these creeds and books were written by men who were not under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (I don’t deny that they had the Spirit, just that they received divine revelation from him and a command to write it down), is it not just a little bit dangerous to accept everything that they wrote as “true expositions”?
In fact, the Roman Catholic church, the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses allow that other texts are either “true expositions” or other words of God, and look at their unbiblical beliefs. JWs and Mormons deny the Trinity (JWs don’t publish their beliefs in any understandable format on their websites, but ask any and they’ll confirm that for you – a JW couple Daryl and I were evangelising certainly believed that) and Catholics say that to truly be saved you must submit to its doctrine, as dictated by the Pope. Hebrews 1:1-2 says that God previously spoke through the prophets but that he has now spoken through his Son. So for the Lutheran Church to say that Luther was totally correct in all he wrote is a very, very bad thing, and goes against what God said about his word. In fact, they even contradict themselves: “[We believe] that God has revealed eternal truth to us in his inspired, inerrant word, the Bible, and that it alone is the basis of the Christian faith (2 Timothy 3:15-17, John 17:17).” No allowance for “true expositions” there, and yet they are allowed in the first section… Which is it?
Baptism and communion
The LCA also says,
[We believe] that God offers his grace and forgiveness to all people, including infants, in the sacrament of baptism. We also believe that in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, the body and blood of Christ are given in, with and under bread and wine, as a further assurance of personal forgiveness to believers.
Boy, where do I start. First off, this is adding works to salvation, just as the Catholics do. When I was questioning the Lutheran beliefs toward the end of last year I was particularly concerned with how baptism is viewed. Lutherans place enormous emphasis on this practice. One leader in the church, who was at the time head of the ministry and mission department of the QLD District, said that the believer only received the Holy Spirit at their baptism, and that if someone who professed to be a Christian died before being baptized, well, he’d doubt that they were actually saved. Well, this flies right in the face of Ephesians 2:8-9. GotQuestions.Com says this:
Baptismal regeneration is not a biblical concept. Baptism does not save from sin but from a bad conscience. In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter clearly taught that baptism was not a ceremonial act of physical purification, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. Baptism is the symbol of what has already occurred in the heart and life of one who has trusted Christ as Savior (Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12). Baptism is an important step of obedience that every Christian should take. Baptism cannot be a requirement for salvation. To make it such is an attack on the sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That really says it all. In terms of communion, or the Lord’s Supper, Luther and Lutherans ascribe to a (mostly) literal interpretation of Jesus’s words at the Passover supper before his death (this is my blood, this is my body etc.). My concern is not the literal interpretation but the emphasis that is placed on this ritual. When talking to a lifelong Lutheran who my pastor (who is now a leader in QLD) described as an authority on the church doctrine I was told that communion was part of the forgiveness process. That is, to be properly forgiven one must participate in the ritual regularly. This does fit in with the “personal assurance of forgiveness” as quoted above. Once again, though, it’s adding works to our salvation, and implying that Jesus’s sacrifice was not enough. That is not OK and not biblical. That’s not to say it should never be done, but Lutherans need to stop putting it atop a pedestal, along with baptism. John Woodhouse had this to say:
- It would be wrong to make the sacrament the centre of church life, or to elevate it above other gatherings of God’s household. Whenever we meet together, we do so on the basis of Christ’s death for us, and our conduct must be shaped by Christ’s self-sacrifice. Our gathering must “proclaim the Lord’s death”. The principles and warnings of 1 Corinthians 11 should be applied to every Christian gathering. The Lord’s Supper must not be put in a class by itself.
- However, an over-reaction would also be wrong. Consider the analogy of the Lord’s Prayer. It is likely that Jesus did not intend the Lord’s Prayer to be recited word-for-word by Christians. It was a model for all prayer: “This, then, is how you should pray”. That does not mean that it is wrong for Christians to have remembered the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and use them, and treasure them. It cannot be wrong to pray that prayer, even if Jesus’ intention was not quite that! Likewise the Lord’s Supper, as conducted in evangelical churches, can be a great gospel occasion. To eat and drink together in such a way that we remember the Lord’s death is a good thing to do! To do this by remembering the Last Supper, and even modelling our meal to some extent on that occasion, can be very helpful indeed. Furthermore, the rich gospel content of the Lord’s Supper liturgies, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is a wonderful heritage. We ought to value every means by which we can bring the death of Christ to the centre of our thinking, and make his sacrifice the basis of our fellowship.
- We must beware of ritualism. An activity becomes a ritual when it is valued chiefly because of its familiar repeated form. The idea that the Lord’s Supper is based on Jesus’ command “Do this in remembrance of me”, sometimes is distorted into ritualism. “Do this” is understood as a command to repeat a formal action, and we can be satisfied that we have “done it”. However we will not be much better than the Corinthians if we regularly “attend” the Lord’s Supper, but disregard the people there (remember 1 Co 11:29!).
- It would be an imbalance to devote ourselves to the sacramental meal but neglect real meals together. Christians should share meals together, and they should be gospel-demonstrating occasions. Our behaviour towards one another, modelled on the Lord’s selfsacrifice [sic], should proclaim his death.
Now, let me make a distinction here. Though these theological issues were enough to make me seriously think about leaving the Lutheran church they were not what made me wonder in the first place. I’ll talk about that tomorrow; tune in then for the main reason I left the church.
Leave any comments or questions below; I’m happy to answer/correct anything I have wrong. Just remember to follow my comment policy.
Soli Deo gloria.