Lutheranism: An Evangelical Catholic Way to Follow Jesus

      In order to articulate Lutheranism’s approach to following Jesus, we need to sort out the Lutheran self-image (at least its historical image) and appreciate the diversity within the Lutheran family.  Of course it is well known that Lutherans did not originally name themselves  Lutheran.  That title is a function of their critics naming them, rather like Christians and Methodists got their name from their critics.  The original name for the followers of Luther was Evangelical, even Evangelical [Gospel] Catholics.  Thus built into the very fiber of Lutheranism is a commitment to embrace what is truly catholic in the Christian heritage, but in such a way as to highlight the Gospel of grace.     

     As a result of these commitments Lutheranism has been characterized by several distinct strands.  Its catholic orientation permits and even mandates the presence of this diversity.  Although any characterization in terms of typology can distort, I think that most students of Lutheranism would agree that we can distinguish between its Pietistic strands and its more Confessional strands (referring to adherence to the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions, The Book of Concord).   

     Although virtually all Lutherans pledge fidelity to the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions (esp. the 16th-century document The Augsburg Confession), the Pietist strand tends to focus so much more on the spiritual life with a program for following Jesus.  This strand is also less focused on the role of the Sacraments and liturgy in Christian nurture, and is more inclined to identify Lutheranism with Protestantism.  A latter-day development of this strand, which we might call Liberal Protestantism, is in line with these overall commitments, though with more stress on apologetics and making following Jesus relevant to our context, with a little less focus  on spirituality.  My sense is that although there are regional differences, the Liberal Protestant view (combined with a conservative view of Biblical authority) is probably the dominant viewpoint in the American Lutheran pew today.  I would be bold to make the claim that the Lutheran majority in American pews is comprised of a coalition of this group with the relatively smaller group of remaining Lutheran Pietists.                                      

     The Confessional side of Lutheranism is likewise diverse.  First we think of Lutheran Orthodoxy, a strand which demands total fidelity to the Lutheran Confessions.  This approach has more of an appreciation of the Sacramental heritage than does Pietism, and it may emphasize salvation by grace more than Pietism does, but adherents tend to think of themselves as Protestant and embrace ways of following Jesus akin to most Protestants.  Proponents of this model probably dominate in The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and in the Wisconsin Synod.   

     The other Confessional model of Lutheranism might be termed Neo-Confessional or Evangelical Catholicism.  This group of Lutherans reads both the Lutheran Confessions and the Bible critically, but still in a manner compatible with more liberal, open elements of the Evangelical Movement.  Proponents of this model share the Lutheran Orthodox model’s commitment it the centrality of the justification by grace, but place more focus on Sacramental and liturgical dimensions of Christian nurture.  Indeed this commitment is so strong, along with the associated Christology and ecclesiology (or polity) that proponents of this model of Lutheranism often tend to reject identification with Protestantism.  Rather, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglo-Catholic heritages are regarded as the closest allies of Lutheranism.     

      The stress on grace also leads Lutherans who operate with this model to emphasize freedom from God’s Law and a Situational Ethic, claiming to be the true heirs of Luther.  This is my own impression, but since I identify with this strand, the preceding judgment about which strand is the true heir of Luther is certainly worthy of challenge. I can note that this is certainly not the dominant version of Lutheranism in the American Lutheran pew, and yet its unique perspectives on following Jesus warrant the attention of the Church catholic.   

     The interesting thing about these different strands and their different views of following Jesus is that historically they have usually lived together under the rubric Lutheran.  To be sure, in some cases these disagreements have led to denominational divisions, but only in extreme cases is the Lutheranism of those from whom a group separates questioned.  This is one of the senses in which we may say that Lutheranism at its best is a catholic tradition.  


     Let’s begin with what most Lutherans can agree concerning following Jesus.  First and foremost is the conviction that the Christian life must be rooted in God’s grace, that we are justified by grace alone (Romans 3:21-28; Galatians 3:10-14; Luther’s Works, Vol.26, p.106; Apology of the Augsburg Confessions, IV.2-3).  Following Jesus is a gift of God, for even faith is a Work of the Holy Spirit (Small Catechism, II.6).   

      It is at this point that we can best understand the Lutheran preoccupation with the role of liturgy, Sacramentology, and the communion of saints in nurturing Christian life. Of course liturgy cannot have a sacrificial connotation (Apology of the Augsburg Confessions, XXIV.79).  But this style of worship, the ancient character of the Communion of Saints and a Real Presence understanding of the Sacraments (Christ coming to us and changing us [Small Catechism]) are essentially related for Lutherans to the prioritizing of salvation and living the Christian life by grace alone!  They are means through which God makes us people who want to follow Jesus.  In worship, the benefits of God are received (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV.49), in Baptism we are born again and begin to live out our baptism (Romans 6; Large Catechism IV. 27), and in The Lord’s Supper forgiveness is not only received, but in our bodies we actually receive Christ Who transforms the recipients into people who are linked to all the faithful, their strengths and their needs (Large Catechism, V.22,70 ; Luther’s Works, Vol.35, pp.50-52,58,59).   

     There is an openness in Lutheran teaching to accepting all 7 Sacraments (Apology of the Augsburg Confessions, XIII.2).  And each of these rites is understood as changing the believer or at least putting him/her in a new context which nurtures new ways of behaving.   

     With regard to the Church’s role in nurturing Christian spirituality, Luther calls it our Mother, who begets and bears every Christian (Luther’s Works, Vol.51, p.166).  Again note how Christian life has a passive element, is a life acted on by grace, born and nurtured by God through the Church.  Of course we are not alone in following Jesus.  In addition to support from the Church and Sacraments Luther was open to invoking angels and Mary (whom he called the Mother of God) (Luther’s Works, Vol.42, p.113; Ibid., Vol.21, pp.328-3  29).  All the saints may pray for us, he claimed (Smalcald Articles, II.25f.).         

     The Sacraments, the liturgy, and the communion of saints all aid Christians in following Jesus.  Along with preaching and Bible study they contribute to making such a lifestyle not something to aspire to, but make it a gift, transform us into people who joyfully, spontaneously live as the kind of people God wants the faithful to be.                                                


    As I’ve noted in my previous two responses, a lot of the ways of following Jesus posited by the Pietist and Liberal Protestant strands of Lutheranism correspond to Orthodox and Catholic visions of following Jesus.  And these strands also share commonalities, along with Lutheran Orthodoxy, with most Protestant denominations.  Certainly the Catholic or Orthodox heritage is reflected in the qualified openness to Synergism one finds affirmed in official Lutheran documents.  With warnings, the synergistic joining of our will with God’s grace is not rejected (Formula of Concord, SD II.90).  Of course this openness is endorsed along with the strong Lutheran commitment to prevenient grace (the belief that grace precedes any synergistic cooperation), for   the Holy Spirit is given credit for our faith and for the surrender of the will to God (Romans 3:21-28; Galatians 3:10-14; Luther’s Works, Vo.26, p.106; Small CatechismII.6).  In this context, even embracing theosis would raise no problems from the Evangelical Catholic wing of Lutheranism, as Luther himself seems sometimes to have endorsed the concept (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280).  And the theme of being united with Christ, a theme also typical of Mysticism, is prominent of much Lutheran literature, though not widely known in the pews (Smalcald Articles, III.13;  Apology of  The Augsburg Confession, IV.72 ). 

     In accord with the Catholic and Orthodox heritage, along with most Protestant denominational traditions, there are times when Lutherans express openness to measuring how well we follow Jesus by the keeping of the Commandments (Formula of Concord SD VII; Large Catechism, I.Con), even measuring growth in the Christian life this way (Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33).  In fact, the idea of striving for perfection (implied in striving to live in purity and in accord with the process of theosis) is embraced in segments of Lutheran Pietism (Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2).   

     Although Luther himself was critical of Pentecostal experience (Luther’s Works, Vol.40, pp.83,90), and some Lutheran denominations discourage the practice (esp. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church), increasingly many American Lutherans have come to embrace the validity of speaking in tongues – as long as insights gained through the experience do not outweigh Biblical authority and the experience of the gift of tongues is not  privileged over other spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13-14; Paul Opsahl, ed. The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church).  But not only do Lutherans have a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, giving the Spirit credit for working all things pertinent to salvation and following Jesus (Small Catechism, II.6).  As we’ll note below, they also seem open to experiencing something like the ecstasy (losing oneself in the Spirit) that Pentecostals claim when in following Jesus the faithful simply do so spontaneously without prodding or calculation.              

     Lutherans also join with most Protestants in embracing the idea that all who are baptized, all who follow Jesus, are priests.  Christians who follow Jesus are priests, for they have been dedi- cated to living lives in which they perform the sacrifice of dying to their sin and rising to serve Christ and the neighbor (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, p.53; Ibid., Vol.36, p.145; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXIV.26).  Lutherans do this in living their baptisms as people now born again in the baptismal waters (note the Sacramental orientation at this point) (Luther’s Works, Vol.35, p.31).  Another affirmation that Lutherans share with many Protestants (esp. Baptists and Holiness Christians) is to regard following Jesus in terms of the need to repent (Weimar Ausgabe, Vol.12, p.591; the first thesis of The Ninety-Five Theses calls for daily repentance).        

     An additional aspect of the Lutheran version of following of Jesus which converges with many traditions pertains to Social Ethics.  Although it is not just followers of Jesus who are expected to do this (as per the Lutheran Two-Kingdom Ethic, see Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol.3/2, p.319), Lutherans think Christians are people who will always have a concern about justice for the poor (Luther’s Works, Vol.9, p.19; Large Catechism, I.7; Amos 8:4ff.).  There are a lot of areas in which most participants in this conversation can find agreement with the Lutheran heritage.  But the Lutheran emphasis on freedom in the Christian life may be problematic for many, at least if dialogue partners do not try to cut through stereotypes and really try to empathize with what is at stake in these distinctively Lutheran commitments.       


     Freedom from the demands of the Law was the crucial agenda associated with Luther’s stress on justification by grace through faith (the most important of all Christian teachings according to Lutheran theology [Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3]).  Another commitment which makes being set free from the Law’s demands absolutely essential is Luther’s contention that we sin in everything we do (Romans 7; Luther’s Works, Vol.25, p.375; Ibid., Vol.33, pp.67,115, 

176.).  For since he understands sin as concupiscence/selfishness, it follows that it is impossible to stop sinning on this side of the Fall (Ibid., Vol.31, 9,10,13).  Scientific research on the human brain seems to bear out this Augustinian insight.  It seems that one of the reasons we do good or love is because our brains are rewarded for such activities with the flow of the good-feeling brain chemical dopamine (David Brinn, “Israeli researchers discover gene for altruism”).  In short even the best human behavior is selfish.   

       With this awareness that everything we do is a sin, it follows that the best Christians can be is simul iustus et peccator (100% saint and 100% sinner) (Romans 7:14-18; Luther’s Works, Vol.32, p.111; Ibid., Vol.27, p.230).    This is a freeing insight, as it entails the awareness that we are loved by God, even despite all our sin and selfishness.  Lutherans know that all humanity is affirmed, that we can all “come as we are” to God.  This insight also led Luther to refer to an awareness that the best the Christian can do is “sin bravely”  (1 Timothy 1:13; Luther’s Works., Vol.48, pp.281-282)!       

        At this point, we need to clarify precisely what the first Reformer meant by this phrase. This is not the “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship) worried about while in dialogue with a Lutheran Orthodox theology in his day prone to separate Justification and Sanctification almost like the Holiness Movement does.  Rather, for Luther you only sin bravely when you do not give into concupiscence, when you boldly live a sacrificial, sin-denying life (live your baptism), but do so with the awareness that even then you are still sinning, that all good done is a function of God working in and through you (Complete Sermons, Vol.4, p.367).  This sort of humility about what you can do on your own entails that God must be given all the credit when it comes to our following Jesus.                       

     These commitments lead the first Reformer and his tradition to avoid exhorting the faithful how to live with guidelines, commands, or discipline (though as we have noted especially the Pietist and Lutheran Orthodox segments of the heritage allow for it).  The concern is that if you direct someone how to live you lay more guilt on them, and since we are sinning in all we do you set them up for failure.  Christians are free from the Law (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Romans 7:4ff; 
Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377).  No need for it for those who already know their sin, for good works are spontaneous (Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316).  Freedom from the Law also entails the possibility of a Situational Ethic (Genesis 22; Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61).   

     Followers of Jesus are often said to be caught up in the loving arms of our Lord.  Although it is true that like most Protestants, Lutherans often refer to justification and salvation merely as the proclamation of forgiveness (Formula of Concord, Ep III.7; Ibid. SD III.9), Luther and his tradition also refer to justification as being united with Christ (Smalcald Articles, III.13;  Apology of  The Augsburg Confession, IV.72 ).  To be in Christ is like being married to Him (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17; Song of Solomon; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.351ff.).  In a good marriage the qualities of your mate begin to rub off on you.  Thus to be married to Christ is to share His goodness and love.      

     When you live in a family, with a lover whose love works on you, the loved one does not have to tell you what to do to please him/her.  You just sort of know.  True human love is spontaneous.  Imagine then what God’s love can do to you.  In fact, when you are in love (fall in love – note the passivity) it is like an ecstatic experience.  You lose yourself.  Should we not expect it to be that way in the arms of Jesus?  This is another reason why Lutherans claim that there is no need to teach Christians how to follow Jesus.  It will just happen spontaneously when you are living with Jesus.  And likewise a Situational Ethic makes sense in a family context.  You love each of your kids and your spouse differently than you love others, and no one else loves their families in precisely the same way as you love yours.  Indeed sometimes telling a lie to boost a lover’s confidence is the right and loving thing to do.  Are there not times when the right thing to do is to break the Commandments (like Bonhoeffer’s efforts to kill a human being [Hitler])?   

     Research on the brain seems to bear out Lutheran insights about the spontaneity of good works.  It seems that when the brain is engaged in spiritual exercises, the front part of the brain is activated (the prefrontal cortex).  And the brain facilitates the exercise of this cortex and the new neural connections which emerge as a result of its activity by secreting the good-feeling brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin.  It also seems that these brain chemicals are especially conducive to stimulating social behavior (Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman How God Changes Your Brain, pp.55-56; Patty Van Cappellen, et al, “Effects of  oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to mediation;” Marcello Ceboroio, “Trust, Generosity,   Affection: The Benefits of Oxytocin”).  In short, neurobiology teaches us that faith inclines human beings to do good works spontaneously!   

     The good feelings of joy and contentment that these faith-related brain chemicals afford fit nicely with the Lutheran emphasis on joy in the Christian life (Luther’s Works, Vol,44, pp26,29; Ibid., Vol.17, p.258).  This joy permeates all the activities Lutherans identify with following Jesus, Bible study, prayer, and evangelism.  They are not serious, weighty duties, but just plain fun!  And the dopamine which comes with faith also affords energy, the kind of energy required by the Lutheran expectation that action in the moment is urgent, for Lutheranism reminds the faithful that every moment can be a moment in which the Kingdom of God is realized (Small Catechism). 

   We have noted that Lutherans can at least provisionally embrace most everything other churches say about following Jesus.  Can the rest of the catholic tradition also embrace the freedom, spontaneity, and fun which Lutherans often associate with following Jesus?                         

2 replies
  1. David Ford
    David Ford says:

    Response to Mark Ellingsen (Lutheran CP)

    Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your well thought out and articulate description of how people in various strands of Lutheranism understand how to follow Jesus. I appreciate how you are always trying to find points of contact with other expressions of Christianity.

    It certainly is interesting to learn that Luther allowed a continuation of more of the historic tradition than most of his followers eventually did – such as his openness, as you say, to the seven sacraments (I had thought he only tried to continue the Sacrament of Confession among the other five traditional sacraments); his affirmation of Mary as the Mother of God; and his affirmation, as you note, of the Church as our Mother.

    It’s also wonderful to see Luther affirming the possibility of a kind of mystical communion with the Lord that can be taken, perhaps, as first steps towards a full-scale understanding of theosis.

    In light of allowing that possibility, it seems so sad that, it would seem, he then cuts off that possibility by asserting that no matter how much good we’re doing, we’re always sinning. For theosis/deification involves the gradual process of being purified from sin, with one’s thoughts and actions gradually becoming more and more free from sin. It also involves becoming more like the sinless One, through participating in His sinless Energies.

    And if I may ask, if everything good that we do is accomplished by grace alone, as you also say Lutherans insist upon, why can’t the Lord’s grace do the job completely? Why can’t He make it, or arrange it, so that we’re doing the good without concupiscence/selfishness, or any kind or taint of sin?

    And if I may further ask, does it make sense for Jesus and all the NT writers to give commandments that can never be completely fulfilled since, as the Lutherans say, all our efforts to obey them will be inevitably tainted with sin? What sense, then, can we make of Jesus commanding us to “be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)?

    And if I may also ask, if people are convinced that they can do nothing that’s not tainted with sin, how will at least some of them not be tempted to not even try to grow in “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), as St. Paul states?

    You’re asking all of us about how our traditions can relate to the Lutherans’ understanding of joy, even “fun,” in following Jesus. Yes, surely, as Nehemiah says, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10); and St. Paul certainly says, “Rejoice in the LORD always, again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). But yet, as Solomon says, “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4). Surely whatever the particular circumstances are at the moment will affect our emotional response to those circumstances.

    And the Orthodox understanding of “joy in the Lord” is that it’s something very profound and deep, not something superficial or light. It includes an inner certainty that the Lord is still in control no matter what’s happening around us or with us; this is ultimately what enables us to be joyful, even in the face of tragedy or impending death. But yet there’s still a tinge of sadness, always, as we make our way through this life—in this world which is so often called “a vale of tears”—due to the grievous tragedies and injustices that abound in this life, in this very fallen world. This is why the Orthodox often talk about “bright sadness”—a paradoxical expression that reflects the simultaneous reality of a dark world into which the light of Christ is constantly streaming.

    Thank you again, Mark, for your insightful contribution to this Conversation.

    Yours, in Christ,

    David Ford

    P.S. This quote from a 20th century holy Orthodox elder (who lived in Russia and America), I think, is very relevant to our discussion of faith and good works: “It goes without saying that good works are essential for success in the spiritual life, for they demonstrate the presence of good will in us, without which there is no moving forward. In turn, good works themselves strengthen, develop, and deepen this good will” (Archbishop Averky (Taushev), The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, p. xi).




Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *