A Message from Pastor Hale
A Critical Review of Being Lutheran by A. Trevor Sutton (CPH, 2016)
The worst theological errors are not technical or merely a manner of false speaking, but a thinking which obscures Christ and makes His Gospel less universal, comforting, and complete than it really is. Therefore, saying that a book has passed doctrinal review or contains no doctrinal error is not actually helpful. Doctrinal error is categorized in old, dogmatic terms, while new errors usually pervert the truth in a new, slightly different way. An a-doctrinal approach is not easily rejected with traditional Christian terms.
One cannot simply be Lutheran. That actually goes against Lutheran theology and doctrine. What people are or identify as is not the issue. Rather it is the substance of what is believed and confessed that should be the focus of our attention. One cannot have Lutheran hair, Lutheran eyes, or Lutheran toes. “Lutheran” medical care, banking, and insurance is impossible. Lutheranism cannot course through the veins of a person and act like magic pixie dust on all their actions, even if one's family was raised in the Lutheran church for generations and possesses a really Germanic or Scandinavian name. Neither can a publishing house or human institution simply be Lutheran for all time. The label of “Lutheran” applies most accurately to particular words and teachings that tell the saving truth of God. Lutheran is not a static category, like good or bad, rich or poor, black or white. To embrace the Lutheran doctrine is to continually fight to hold and maintain the pure truth.
While the book Being Lutheran may technically be right on some aspects of Lutheran teaching and describing life as a Christian, its basic framework is un-Lutheran and actually quite dangerous. It describes Lutheranism from a human point of view and implicitly takes the Gospel for granted in how it fails to emphasize confessing doctrine, which can never passively exist and be stored in unvarying form on a shelf. The focus inherently shifts to people and institutions, who embody Lutheranism in what they do—not what Christ Himself does in justifying sinners, who remain sinners according to their flesh. Our inheritance is in heaven, not in our bodies right now. We are not good or Christ-like, but we are, in Christ, called holy. So our identity cannot be in ourselves, our actions, or what sinners do.
It is said that “Being is where thinking and acting collide”; it is “thinking and acting” (xvii). But our actions never live up to God's standard. The Law is not merely a scarecrow. It is God's holy will. The emphasis on “being” leads to a focus on one's identity, how the sinner sees himself—not how God sees us according to the holy law and holy Gospel. For example, Sutton writes: “Lutherans act on their convictions.” To include things we should want to do as defining us is to confuse what we do with what Christ did to save us. To believe the Lutheran teaching does not make one excited and motivated to confess Jesus at all times. The Gospel does not “get us more hyped than ten cups of coffee” or “put a thump in our bones.” Neither do we always “love to share the Gospel” (20). The evidence is abundant. C.F.W. Walther said in contrast: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you describe believers in a way that is not always realistic—both with regard to the strength of their faith and to the feeling and fruitfulness of their faith” (Law and Gospel, Thesis XVII). No one can live up to this damning law: “Being Lutheran is resisting lazy and embracing work” (92).
As a phenomenon, Lutheranism is not cool or hip. True doctrine will cause disgust, offense, and division. Not because Lutheran teaching is wrong, quite the contrary. The pure doctrine will be hated and persecuted by the world, including many fleshly, so-called Lutherans. Many people who claim to speak for Christ and profess to love Him, do not. To proclaim the entire truth and to believe it is not within our power. All people hate the truth, according to their sinful nature, no matter how much Christian living is dressed up with Christian language. The sinful part of man rebels against Christ and His simple truth. Christ calls the Gospel the savor or aroma of death (2 Cor. 2:16). It gives life, but has an awful stench to the dying who cannot tolerate it. Why? It takes the glory away from selfish idolaters (all of us) and gives it solely to Jesus, who died for the helpless and weak. But we cannot be repentant and dependent on our own—it is a continual battle. Or else we who have the inheritance of Lutheran doctrine assume we can tread on the basis of our heritage and tradition—what formerly was believed. This is always the danger: “I know that you are [Luther’s] descendants, but you seek to crucify My word, because My word has no place in you.” (Jn. 8) For every generation this process of killing the old Adam and proclaiming the pure Gospel begins anew. There is no progression beyond calling sinners to repentance and making the dead alive by the Gospel. And if this does not happen, we are no better than the Jews who trusted in their identity of being Abraham's descendants. Calling oneself by the name “Lutheran” is not a confession of Christ or an indication of what Scripture actually teaches.
To simply be something implies that the battle is won, so the focus can move away from Christ's teaching to ourselves, who hate Him and His Law, according to our old Adam. What is it to be Christian? To acknowledge that we cannot be one, but believe God's promise of life through the Holy Spirit. Christ Himself must do everything for us. We can only resist. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. (Rom. 7:18-19) To confess Christ as Luther did is not to think lofty thoughts or merely mouth historical statements, but to die to our own flesh continually and resist its impulses. We live in Christ by His Word, not in ourselves.
The problem is not that we close and open the Gospel. A “closed Gospel” is not the Gospel at all (9). Sutton continually makes the subtle claim that we are the ones who open the Gospel by our actions and lives. But pastors merely have to preach Christ purely and He does all the work of saving. The Gospel delivers the fruit of Christ's death. It can never be inert, dead, or “closed.” False doctrine, misrepresenting Christ, is the greatest danger. The truth cannot be institutionalized. The name “LCMS” does not ward off Satan. It could actually be His tool, if people care more about the name than the words of Christ and the doctrine through which Christ rules us. We beg the question when we make people to be good, faithful Lutherans, without testing all their teaching against the actual words of Christ. We must judge what is said by Christ's Word, to see if it measures up. Not everything that is labeled Lutheran or Christian actually is. It is a Lutheran activity to reject every false teaching which endangers the Gospel—to care about Christ and His Word of Scripture more than people, reputations, and the traditions of men. It is easy to rely on a past confession of Christ and think we are “Lutheran” by mere deeds, instead of actively relying on Christ's teaching. But this takes Christ for granted. “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32).
Early Lutherans did not “write theology books just for fun,” they were risking their lives and families to follow Christ in all that He taught (14). It was and is a bold and audacious thing to go against Satan and his subjects who resist the freedom we have in Christ. Though we are wretched sinners who do not follow Christ well and continually act against Him in our lives and words, all guilt is put away, having been nailed to the cross. This salvation is dependent on the death of Christ, not our hype or fleshly excitement. Dying to sin and crucifying the flesh is not fun or exciting. Yet we endure suffering in the hope of being with Christ.
What is distinct about Lutheranism? We claim and proclaim the pure doctrine, which is the Lutheran, that is, scriptural doctrine. A Lutheran proclamation speaks the full truth of Jesus. All other churches mix in human opinion and error, even if most do retain enough of Christ's Word to sustain saving faith. This is a recurring action, involving a continual repentance. No institutional slogan or enshrined historical document can replace actually knowing and speaking the truth in its fullness. A church body is a collection of sinners that must continue to confess and believe the truth in order to be in Christ. Every day they must die to the Old Adam which wants their focus to be on their works and feelings, not Christ—and rise to new life by the promise of eternal life. The Reformation is not a once every 2000 years event—it happens every time Christ is rightly proclaimed.
Take heart if you do not feel Christian or embody the confidence of Lutheran teaching. Your inheritance is “incorruptible and undefiled” and “does not fade away.” It is “reserved in heaven for you.” “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1). There must be testing, suffering, and death in sincerely following Jesus into life.
Being Lutheran in doctrine is not merely repeating a trite phrase about “being all about Jesus and following Him.” It is to confess a particular confession of Jesus—the one He gives purely in Scripture and which is also found in the man-made Book of Concord. The ordination rite of our church demands a confession: “Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these [ecumenical creeds and Lutheran] Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with the Holy Scripture and with these confessions?” No one can do this without the help of God, but to the extent this is done and Christ's Word is faithfully proclaimed, that activity can be called Lutheran. The pastors doing so will not be holy or always eager to preach and teach (look at Jonah before and after he preached to Nineveh), but Christ is always eager to save and receive sinners for whom He died. Every Christian is to know Christ's Word and judge on the basis of His teaching, not human reputations, stale traditions or nondescript names, like “Lutheran.” Where Christ's Word is proclaimed, there His kingdom is and faith is generated and people are made new before God. This will go on until our Lord returns. Amen.