In October, with Reformation Day coming at the end of the month, Lutherans typically reflect a bit more on what it means to be Lutheran. When people ask, “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” you could answer that question in several ways. You could hand them a copy of the Small Catechism and have them read it. You could tell them to read the Book of Concord, but after looking at its girth, they would reply, “You’re kidding, right?” You could tell them that we believe the Bible, but that means different things to different people. Many Christian churches (and a few non-Christian cults) claim to believe the Bible, but each has certain distinctions that set them apart. With this in mind, over the next few months in these newsletter articles, I’d like to help you answer the question “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” by using some words that will assist us in our task.
Lutherans are “evangelical.” That word is derived from the Greek word “evangel” which means “good news” or “good message.” The word “Gospel” is an Old English word that means “good news.” Lutherans are “evangelical” because we focus on the Gospel. True Lutheran theology clearly proclaims the Good News. And this is the Good News: the Son of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose to life again, and those who are baptized and believe in him have forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. This is all a pure gift of grace. We can’t earn it nor do we deserve it. God has done it all for us for Christ’s sake.
Unfortunately, the word “evangelical” is misunderstood today. It has become politically charged. The news media uses it when referring to the large voting bloc of Bible-believing conservative Christians in our country, no matter what their confession or denomination. Those of a liberal political bent may use it as a pejorative term, although socially liberal political views are becoming more acceptable in some evangelical (and here I use the term the way the media uses it) circles.
But Lutherans were the first “evangelicals.” That term was first used to describe Lutherans back at the time of the Reformation. The teaching that good works contributed to salvation had become entrenched in the church’s teaching by the 16th Century. Luther, through his study of Scripture, recovered the fact that the central teaching of the Bible was justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Good News is not about good works helping us along the way to salvation. Rather, good works flow from a heart that has been forgiven in Christ and filled with faith in the Good News. It was this focus on the Gospel that caused the followers of Luther to be called “evangelicals.”
So there’s the first word you can use when someone asks you, “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” Tell them that we are “evangelical.” Then tell them what that means. It doesn’t mean we are going to tell them who to vote for in the next election (although our faith certainly informs our votes). It doesn’t mean that we are just like all the other churches out there (far from it). It doesn’t mean that we expect them to make a decision for Jesus (because they can’t ... people are spiritually dead until the Holy Spirit breathes life into them through the Word of God). It does mean that all that we say and do and teach flows from this central teaching of the Bible: that we are saved by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s what it truly means to be “evangelical.”