‘This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (Romans 3:22 NIV).
During my school years in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, people would sometimes ask me about my ‘religion’. Their frequent response to hearing ‘Lutheran’ was, ‘Is that a sect?’ Admitting to being Lutheran was a quick way to lose friends. For compulsory Religious Education, the list of denominations would be exhausted by the time I got to put my hand up.
What, indeed, is ‘Lutheran’? Why use the name of a 16th-century Saxon monk of whom most Aussies and Kiwis have never heard? And even if they’ve heard, they hardly care – unless, that is, they are already inside the smallish Lutheran bubble.
The names of many churches are pretty obvious. Roman Catholic is the Roman branch of the catholic (universal) church. Orthodox is Trinitarian Christian. Anglicanism originated in the British Isles. Uniting Church and Churches of Christ are straightforward, as is Salvation Army. Baptist is a reference to believer-baptism, Presbyterian to church governance by presbyters (elders). Methodism began with a practical ‘method’ of evangelism.
‘Lutheran’, however, was first used as an insult during a religious debate in 1519. Luther didn’t like the name, but it stuck. He wrote in 1522, ‘I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians’.
So that was one down for Luther and one up for popular opinion! It goes to show that Lutherans do not accept something as true just because Luther said it. For truth, we turn to Scripture. In 1528, seemingly having given up on the name issue, the reformer wrote, ‘Luther himself will not be Lutheran if he does not purely teach the holy Scripture’.
We Lutherans do have a bias about holy Scripture: we read it through a Christ-centred lens. We believe that we are saved only by God’s grace and only through faith in Jesus Christ. A famous Reformation painting shows Luther preaching to the congregation: his left hand on the Bible and his right hand pointing to the crucified Christ, whose cross stands front and centre.
The early Lutherans were reformers, not separatists. They retained baptism, holy communion, the ecumenical creeds, the liturgy and the seasons. They didn’t smash statues or whitewash walls. They kept the crucifix as a symbol of the crucified Christ.
Their protest was against spiritual abuse. Other things they left alone, unless they obscured the gospel.
Today we are still passionate about faith, anchored in the truth of Scripture and the centrality of Jesus. In that sense we are evangelical, a name we used for ourselves until recently. It comes from ‘evangel’, meaning ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’. The good news of God’s love for us in his Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour, is at the centre of everything we believe and teach as Lutherans.
Lutherans are at their very best when they respond to God’s call to go into the world to share the good news of the kingdom. We have all we need – God’s word, baptism, and holy communion.
Just as sauce does not stay in the bottle but must be poured out to add its special flavour, so God has placed us in the world to be poured out in his service, pointing people to Christ as the Saviour of the world. That, in the end, is what it is to be truly Lutheran.