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What Makes Us Lutheran?

Pr. Tom Walker

October, 2010

photo of Pr. Tom WalkerMost people feel confident about what makes a person Christian. It is faith in Jesus as Lord and a willingness to acknowledge the Bible's authority to direct our lives and understandings. But when it gets to the matter of what makes us Lutheran, things seem to get more confusing. The definition of what makes someone Lutheran spans the spectrum from someone going to a church with "Lutheran" in its name to a deep scholarly understanding of the writings of the reformer. I'm wondering if we could come up with a more workable understanding on an everyday level.

I think that just as the Bible teaches us about being Christian, Luther's Small Catechism teaches us about being Lutheran. Please note that those two things are not of equal importance. Being Christian is essential to salvation. Being Lutheran is just a great choice among a lot of really fine ways to be Christian. But if someone wanted to be a Lutheran, then Luther's Small Catechism is the key resource. Written in easy to understand language, this little document packs a lot of wallop! With every word backed up by Scripture, it seeks to address important questions that Christians ask about their faith and how to live a Christian life.

Take for example the question, "How does a person come to Christian faith?" The explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles Creed gives an amazing answer:

"I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith."

Can you get a more clear definition of salvation by grace than that? And it is explained in clear language that everyone can understand.

Or let's consider the question, "How should Christians speak the truth?" In the explanation to the eighth commandment Martin Luther writes:

"We should fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do."

In this amazingly tidy package we have clarity about our actions in truth speaking. Motivation comes both from fear of God and love of Him. Not only do we refrain from hurting our neighbors with false witness, but we actively seek to speak well of them. The term neighbor itself puts the focus of our actions beyond our circle of family and friends to those God places around us in our lives. It is this clarity and vision that has always been the heart of what it means to say things in a Lutheran way. It is clear that we learn it best from Luther's Small Catechism.

"How should Christians pray to God?" is another crucial question for Christians. Again the Small Catechism addresses this in a fresh, clean style that anyone can understand. It says in the explanation to the Introduction to the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven":

God encourages us to believe that he is truly our Father, and that we are truly his children, so that we may boldly and confidently pray to him, just as beloved children speak to their dear father.

Faithful prayer, as taught by the catechism, comes because of how God encourages us to see our relationship with him. Building on experience we are taught to pray with the same kind of boldness and confidence that children use to talk to a loving father. This is the correct attitude and manner for Christian prayer. Again, grace filled clarity becomes the Lutheran way of explaining this important understanding.

Although the five parts of the Catechism do not address every question one could think to ask, most of the truly crucial questions are covered. Answers provide clarity from a strong Biblical foundation, but they leave room for contemplation and conversation as Lutheran Christians use this tool to work toward a better understanding of their life together in Christ. Better yet, proper use of the Catechism draws the Christian ever deeper into the Word.

If you haven't looked at your small catechism in a while we urge you to do so. In this time of confusion you may find it very useful. It will be especially useful if you want to get better in touch with what being a confessional Lutheran is all about.