Why do we exist (as a church)?

Sometimes we lose sight of why we exist, especially in the Church. As a follow on to the previous post (“What does it mean to be Lutheran?”) this post looks at the vertical relationship between God and people. And as a consequence, this post looks at the ongoing relationship, as Peter wrote:

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

Note that Peter is writing that in the context of preparing for the end and the return of Jesus Christ.

Title page
Acts 2:42
God initiates, humans respond
Discipleship flows from that vertical relationship started by God. Discipleship involves growing individually in faith in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Disciples view the world as the mission field


Here is the complete Overview file.


What does it mean…to be Lutheran?

Over the past three decades I am often asked what it means to be Lutheran. What do Lutherans believe? What is most important? How does that work out in practice? This is just a brief introduction to those questions.

Despite “popular” views, Lutherans do not follow Martin Luther. Rather, we confess the same Christian faith he did; hence we do not support everything he wrote. Martin Luther appeared at a critical time in church history and had a significant influence on the entire Christian Church, but we do not “follow him,” rather we follow Jesus Christ and him crucified. The name “Lutheran” was originally a derogatory term used by Luther’s enemies. Later, it became a term to distinguish itself from Reformed (Zwingli, Calvin, and later Arminius) as well as from the radical reformation.

Historic Continuity: “The Church has always taught…”

The Lutheran Church sees itself in continuity with the historic Christian Church throughout the ages, not something invented in the 16th century. That is, in most of our official writings (called the Lutheran Confessions), we often use the phrase “As the Church has always taught” to show that what Luther and others publicly were teaching was consistent with the historic church. We frequently use the term “catholic” (meaning “universal”) to denote the true Church throughout the ages, not in reference to the specific church body known as the Roman Catholic Church headed by the pope. This phrase is critical in understanding Lutherans, because while sometimes we look like Roman Catholics, we see the papal church deviating in the Middle Ages and onward from that historic faith.

At the time of the Reformation, Luther and others continued what had been done that was consistent with the Bible and the Church through the ages, but ridded itself of false teachings (especially in worship). In that sense Lutherans were “conservative” keeping that which was solid and discarding other elements. They could and did keep paintings, statures, icons, as aids to help people learn the stories of the Bible. On the other hand, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformed leaders wanted to distance their churches from anything that looked Roman Catholic. For them, in regard to worship, they made significant alterations to the order of service and even destroyed what appeared in churches. The Reformed tended to get rid of paintings, statues, and icons.

Lutherans use the phrase “believe, teach, and confess” to denote those statement which reflect accurately what the Bible teachings. In line with that, Lutherans accept the three Ecumenical Creeds as accurate statements of the Christian faith from the Bible (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). You can find them here.

Chief article of the Christian Faith:

Also they (Lutheran pastors and churches) teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. (Article IV of the Augsburg Confession of 1530)

Everything else that we “believe, teach, and confess” is derived from this starting point of justification. That is, we do not start with a peripheral issue and work back to this central article. Rather, we start here and work out the implications from justification.

We believe that worship also reflects this central teaching, namely justification:

saved by grace (alone) through faith (alone) in Christ (alone).

Since we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), only God can make us alive (give us faith):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (Ephesians 2:4-5 )

The Tools God Uses (Means of grace)

We believe that God works through “means” or tools to accomplish his saving work. Thus, in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, we see that we make disciples by baptizing and by teaching the Word. So Baptism and the Word are the tools God uses to bring someone to faith, and God uses the Lord’s Supper and the Word to continue to grow someone in the faith (2 Peter 3:18; John 15:5, etc.). These tools bring salvation, forgiveness of sins, and a clear conscience. So, we read in the following passages:

Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Matthew 26:26-28 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

1 Corinthians 10:16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ?

(In the Lord’s Supper, we believe that we receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, the most important part of the Lord’s Supper is that vertical relationship with Jesus Christ. The secondary aspect is the horizontal relationship with people.)

Lutheran Worship

Worship for Lutherans is centered around the Word (specifically the Gospel, telling us what God has done and is doing and will do for us for our salvation) and the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of our heavenly meal with Christ. Everything in the worship service leads to an emphasis of  each of these two peaks. If something detracts from the Word or the Lord’s Supper, then we would avoid that. So, even in the use of hymns/songs, they have to pass that test. Lutherans do not sing songs just because the melody is “nice, pleasant,” etc.; rather we sing them because the words point to the work of Christ for us and our praise of Him. The music enhances our appreciation of the words, not contradict the words. Thus, we can sing ancient hymns and contemporary songs, if they meet that criteria.

Even at the beginning of the service, the words of the invocation are critical. Many years ago it was possible, even without advertising signs, within the first five words to determine whether this was a Lutheran congregation or a general Protestant/Evangelical congregation.

General Protestant/Evangelical: “We make our beginning in the name…”

Lutheran: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Notice that the focus of Protestant/Evangelical invocation is for the person/people to be the initiators, not God. For Lutherans, God initiates the service, because it is the God who baptized us who is calling us together to worship him (receive from him and give back to him). Worship then involves a back and forth movement and participation between God and His people. We can tell who is the active one by which way the pastor faces. If he faces the congregation, then God is speaking/acting; if the pastor faces the altar, then he joins the congregation in responding to God with prayer, praise, etc.

The Paradoxes of Lutheran Theology

Lutherans also live with the tensions in the Scriptures and our understandings. That is, we go as far as Scripture, but never beyond Scripture. Sometimes that leaves us in tension, with something unresolved. But God does not always explain everything to us. Thus, while Zwingli and Calvin try to resolve the tension, we let Scripture stand.

Lutherans don’t have a “Lutheran philosophy” per se. Rather we live with the tensions presented in Scriptures in terms of paradoxes. That is, what we sometimes see is not matched by the reality as seen from God’s perspective. Here are a few paradoxes:

Law and Gospel Distinctions

Kingdom of the Left (Government/Society) vs. Kingdom of the Right (Church)

Theology of glory vs. Theology of the Cross

Hidden God vs. Revealed God

Now vs. Not Yet

In each case God speaks and acts in ways that seem paradoxical. In Law and Gospel Distinctions, we find Jesus commanding the rich ruler to “keep all the commandments, especially the first” in order to inherit the kingdom (Mark 10:17-22). Yet in Acts 16:25–33, Paul in response an identical question responds with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” So in one place it is Law that is needed and spoken, in the other it is the Gospel that is needed and spoken.

In the Kingdom of the Left, relationships and order are based on the Law (do this, or suffer the consequences). The Law and the power to carry out punishment under the Law belong to the Government (Romans 13:1-7). In the Kingdom of the Right, relationships are established and maintained by the Gospel (what God does for us in and through Jesus Christ). We live in both the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. But what applies to the one side does not equate to applying the same to the other.

You hear and read much about “electing Christians” into Government positions, as if that is the “only Christian” thing to do. Yet, carrying out responsibilities in the Kingdom of the Left is not determined by “Christian laws.” Rather by being a leader of people, following the laws of the land, carrying out justice. Even an atheist can do that. And we most certainly cannot impose the Kingdom of the Right onto the Kingdom of the Left. That would change the Gospel into another Law, trying to coerce people into “being Christian”—without faith in Christ, but rather “following Christian laws.”

The theology of Glory vs. the theology of the Cross can be confusing. All Christians believe in the glory of heaven, that is not the issue here. Rather, the problem comes when someone tries to impose that future glory into the present realm. You will hear statements such as, “It is God’s intention that you be rich.” (Note: from my perspective, that seems fitting in light of my first name!) Such a claim shows the theology of glory has imposed itself into this current life. The reality under the cross is that we should expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Living in this world as Christians means life under the cross of Christ.

[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Matthew 5:10-11

[Jesus said:] “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Notice that these realities have present consequences. And Paul wrote much about the present world in which we live and the suffering and persecution of this life.

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. Philippians 1:29-30

Perhaps a challenge is for us to re-read the New Testament and take note of how much is focused on the theology of the cross. I suspect that we will discover in the process how much of the theology of glory is more American independence and individualism and not Biblically sound. In my interactions with Christians from other countries, I have found that this theology of glory stuff does not relate to their experiences and life, but the theology of the cross speaks to the heart. That they know and live with every day.

This is what we “believe, teach, and confess.”

The real world meets Law and Gospel

The real world makes it a little harder to properly distinguish and apply Law and Gospel. How would you respond in this scenario? First, let’s look at a passage about forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NAS)

Clearly this is a statement of Law… “If you forgive… then…” and “if you do not forgive …then …” With that as background, let’s take one example about whether we should apply Law or Gospel.

“I will NEVER forgive him!”

Parents come to talk, but they are not sure how to start. Fear, anger, despair. They are disturbed to the extreme. Their teen daughter had been raped and murdered. And both expressed their anger to the one who did it, in this way: “I will never forgive him!”

So the question is: do they need to hear Law (Matthew 6:15) or Gospel?

When I raise this in Bible classes, the responses are usually split 50% on Law, 50% on Gospel. We usually have a lively exchange, discussing the advantages, etc.

So what is the answer? We don’t know enough yet about the people to determine whether they need to hear Law or Gospel.

If they speak these words from the stand point of hardened hearts, then that puts them on the Law side of the diagram, trying to justify themselves. And they need Law, for instance, Matthew 6:15.

However, if they speak these identical words from anger, confusion, despair, anguish, because they are now at the very bottom of the Law scale, and have nothing more to offer, give, even the capacity to forgive. Then it may be that the same desperate words require the Gospel. But not just that Jesus died for them.

The Gospel needs to be more specific: Jesus forgives your inability to forgive; but even more Jesus forgives that murderer in your place, even when you are not able to forgive. For you see, the Gospel is more than just Jesus taking our sins on himself, which is the negative side of our failure to meet the demands of the Law. The Gospel also includes Jesus’ positive fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). That means in every instance he fulfilled all requirements, including forgiving when we cannot. And because he did it perfectly, his righteousness is credited to us. That righteousness includes forgiving in our place.

But the key here is that we do an injustice to the person if we rush to judgment. We often assume we know what the underlying problem is. We assume that we can diagnose it correctly with only a fleeting glimpse into the person’s pain. Sadly, if we start giving our diagnosis to the person, we see three things happen: 1) the person clams up, and may not hear anything we say; 2) we move forward thinking that the person is so messed up “they couldn’t even listen to my Christian advice,” 3) and we miss an opportunity to bring Jesus to the person and the person to Jesus.

As I look back on my life and ministry I can see times when I rushed to judgment, where I thought I had it all figured out. And missed it completely. We fail in this task. Thank God, that he forgives even my inabilities in this area. I do not give up, though. For the reward of applying Law and Gospel appropriately is so great. To see a person in bondage to despair over not being able to fulfill a demand of the Law and who finally hears the extent of the Gospel and specifically applied to her or him is to see one move from death to life, from the crush of the Law to the sweetness of the Gospel, from despair with no hope to confident hope in Jesus Christ.

My desire is that we all see how critical the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel is for the Christian life, for the Church, for our mission. This is not about church politics, not about worship wars, not about a church with factions. This is about life, life on the raw edge, life filled with sin, and all its ugliness. This is about life redeemed, saved, renewed, refreshed.

No wonder Martin Luther noted that if someone can rightly distinguish Law and Gospel and apply them appropriately, then the person should be given a doctor of theology degree.

We may not get a doctor’s degree in theology, but we can speak God’s appropriate Word into peoples’ lives. And that is what God has called us to do.

When to confront…when to comfort

In the past few posts we have looked at Law and Gospel, as a lens by which we can see God’s Word. Properly distinguishing between the two is critical. But it doesn’t take too long for a student of the Bible to go through a passage of Scripture and determine whether it is a statement of Law (what we are to do or not do, and God’s punishment for that) or a statement of Gospel (what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what he is still doing). It might be tempting to say that we have learned to “properly distinguish Law and Gospel.” But have we?

The real challenge

Not really, because the real challenge is to determine whether Law or Gospel should be applied in a specific, real-life situation. Let’s look at two cases from the Bible: Mark 10:17-22 and Acts 16:25-31

Mark 10:17–22 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. 18 “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

So, is the question in v. 17 a Law question or a Gospel question? While it includes “eternal life” and some think it is Gospel, notice that the heart of the question is: “What must I do?” That is a Law question.

What is the answer to the question? In v. 19 Jesus provides the answer(s)—”Here is the Law, follow all of them (second table of the 10 Commandments).” So a Law question is answered by a Law statement. Makes sense, doesn’t it? By the way, the rich man claims to have followed those laws since he was a boy. Our first reaction might be: “Let’s get him on the Board!” But when Jesus confronts him with the the 1st commandment: “No other gods” then the man goes away sad. That Law statement was too much.

Acts 16:25-31 NIV

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

So in v. 30 is that a Law question or a Gospel question? Again, it is tempting to see the word “saved” and assume it is a Gospel question. But he asks the same question as the rich man in Mark 10: “What must I do?” It is a Law question. Now based on the consistency of the Bible, we would expect, just like Jesus did in Mark 10, that they would answer with the Law (“Do this, do that, don’t do this, etc.). Instead Paul and Silas answer with the Gospel (“believe in the Lord Jesus”). Notice that the word “believe” is the word which extends the Gospel to the jailer (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9).

So what is the difference between the two situations? The rich man was still trying to climb up the Law ladder (left side of the Law-Gospel diagram). What he needed to hear was the Law to show him that the only acceptable performance under the Law is perfection (Matthew 5:48). Whereas the jailer knew he faced death and there seemed no escape. He was at the bottom of the Law, crushed and waiting for death. Law would not help him at that point, only discourage him more. For him the answer is the Gospel, what Jesus has done. And that is what saved him.

The Next Step

With this new insight, we begin to look at our own lives and those around us. We discover that perhaps we have not always understood what was going on. A person can ask a Law question, and need the Law; at other times the same person will ask a Law question but need the Gospel. Maybe we didn’t understand what was going on behind the questions. Maybe we needed to listen more carefully before prescribing a “solution.”

Stayed tuned for the next post in which we look at a couple real-world examples.