A plain language explanation of what I believe
I have found lately that I am often explaining what it is that is unique about my faith. The following is a candid, common language explanation of the key elements of my belief system.
As you consider beliefs, please ignore everything you read in the news about Lutherans. For the most part, the Lutherans who make the news are extremely liberal and in my view apostate. Let me start with a few core beliefs and then explore some distinctives. Martin Luther did not want to start a new church nor did he want it named after himself. The term Lutheran was not applied until after his death when a doctrinal split nearly destroyed the reformation church. Whatever we call ourselves, there are three pillars on which we base our beliefs: grace alone, faith alone, Word alone. Our salvation is found only in the grace of God apart from all works or self justification. One statement says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength come to Him or believe the gospel, but the Holy Spirit calls me…” Balanced in paradox is the second pillar, faith alone. While salvation is a gift given only by God’s grace, the gift must be received in faith. We believe that faith itself is a gift and that it is given by God completely apart from our worthiness or even our ability to receive or understand it. It must, however, be used in order for grace to become effective. Consequently, I practice the need for an evangelical personal response and living in a personal relationship with God through Jesus. (The group to which I belong perhaps has a much stronger “personal relationship” emphasis than do other Lutheran bodies. See AFLC for more information.) The third pillar, Word alone, emphatically points to the belief that our doctrines are fully and solely Biblical. God has spoken and His Word is our only authority, not because there is power in print but because it is God’s Word. From the ecumenical and Biblical perspective, then, I believe the five fundamentals of the Christian faith: the Bible is without error, Jesus was incarnate of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is fully God and fully man, Jesus provided vicariously for our salvation by His death and resurrection, Jesus will return to earth to claim for eternal salvation those who believe in Him. Additionally, I hold very conservative Biblical positions on abortion, homosexuality, and extramarital sexuality where the sins are condemned while trying not to pass judgment or condemnation on the sinner as that is God’s job.
There are two (some would say three) primary distinctives in Lutheran teaching. (For a more indepth discussion see “A Case for Evangelical Lutheranism” which is posted on my Controversy pages.) The first distinctive is our understanding of grace. We believe that God has grace with which He gives faith to us regardless of our status (gender, economics, race, age). We believe that faith, which is gifted by grace, is not limited to our understanding so that even an infant can receive the gift. See for example Matthew 18:6 ” But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The term translated “little one” actually means very young one or even infant. David, in the Psalms, also confesses that God is his God from infancy and while he is still at his mother’s breasts (Psalm 22:9). We also believe that just as a child can have faith, so children (and indeed everyone) apart from the grace of God are lost and will be eternally separated from God unless the gift is received. (Romans 3:23 – …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…) We can find no Scriptural basis for a belief in childhood innocence or an age of accountability. The second distinctive has to do with how we believe God infuses us with His gift of grace and faith. We hold that there are two means by which His grace is given. These are the Word and the sacraments. According to Romans 10 we understand that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. Our understanding of sacraments is more unique. We define a sacrament as a holy act instituted by Christ in union with the Word using visible elements through which God gives spiritual gifts (namely grace, faith, and salvation). We have identified two holy acts that meet these criteria: baptism and Holy Communion. Regarding baptism: Jesus told us to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it is a rite celebrated according to what we are told to do in the Scriptures; it uses the visible element of water; and it carries the promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:38, 39 – Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.”) We baptize infants because of our understanding that faith is a gift and not a cognitive condition, and we would not deprive out children this life giving gift. Regarding Holy Communion: Jesus instituted it for us on the night on which he was betrayed, it is celebrated with the Word as we use the words of institution from Scripture, it uses the visible elements of bread and the fruit of the vine (there is no official theological position regarding the difference between juice and wine), and it carries the promise of forgiveness (see Matthew 26:28 – This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.) We also believe in what we call the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus gave the bread and the wine to His disciples, He said “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” We take His words literally without needing to explain them or limit them to a symbolic understanding. We say He is truly present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine. (There is also an argument being made that a third distinctive exists in which we place complete emphasis on God doing the work of salvation where many in the evangelical camp put the emphasis on “choosing” to follow Jesus or what is commonly called “decision theology.” I think the nuances are too complicated, so won’t go into that now.)
Many might suggest that there are also some particular distinctives regarding worship practices. In doctrine, there are not. In practice, there may be. There is nothing in our doctrinal statements that mandates a particular worship style or format. Most Lutherans practice a form of liturgical worship that has close historical ties to the Church at the time of the reformation. The order of worship or liturgy is predetermined and contains sung or chanted leads and responses. The pastor wears vestments which are symbolic of baptism and being yoked to Christ. Altar and pulpit cloths, called paraments, are colored to reflect the seasons of the church year. (There is a pretty comprehensive analysis of the symbols we use in worship on my church website: evergreenlutheran.com.) The independent congregation I pastor right now is very traditional which means I use vestments and we use the liturgical worship. We do have a more contemporary service the last Sunday of each month for which I dress in slacks and a sports jacket and during which we use contemporary music. Most of the congregations in the organization to which I belong (AFLC) practice what is called a “low church” liturgy. Pastors do not wear vestments, the liturgy is less formal, and the vast majority continue to use hymns rather than contemporary music.