Getting to Know Mr. Luther

02.21.2012 by Reed Dunn


This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).

The Lutheran Captivity of the Church: Part 2 of 7 - So, what is Lutheranism anyway?

Martin Luther was, obviously, the father of Lutheranism.*  He was, by all accounts, obsessed over his sin.  He could never feel free from the guilt he carried with him.  When Luther made the turn towards what would become Protestantism, he saw it as a triumph of grace and forgiveness over and against the law and guilt of sin.

Luther was not all wrong.  In fact, he was way more right than anything else.  But he did steer the church in a very specific direction and it is fair to say that going in any one direction means overshadowing some of the other directions the Bible wants to go.  Luther’s “one direction” was justification by faith alone.  Justification, to the Lutheran, is everything.  It is the grid to evaluate all things Christian.  Lutherans teach that we are sanctified by believing in our justification.  They teach the sole purpose of the law is to show our need for justification.  They teach that all the antagonists in Scripture denied justification.  Their sermons always come back to the same application: justification.

Once, while attending a Lutheran/PCA church, I heard a sermon on Matthew 5:20.  The minister preached that, since no one but Jesus is more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees, Christ was telling his followers to rely upon his righteousness rather than their own.  "Grace alone" had to trump even the Sermon on the Mount!  That sermon was a turning point for me.  It convinced me that at least some Lutherans were abandoning the whole council of God to maintain a philosophy of grace.  I don't know how Luther dealt with Matt 5, and I don't really care.  This teaching is out there, it's happening in books and in pulpits.

Let me add this disclaimer: I am not against justification by faith.  I am all for it!  I talk about grace as much as the Bible does, which is a lot.  But if you will stick with me you may see that taking one theological concept and making it absolutely central to everything is dangerous.  It stunts us.  The lessons are all around us...

The Lesson from James
: Do you ever wonder why Romans is towards the front of our Bibles while James is at the back?  It is because Luther saw justification taught in the book of Romans, but not in the book of James.  Luther thought this book was suspect primarily because it didn’t preach justification by faith alone.  Let that sink in.  Luther decided what the "real" Bible should be, instead of letting the "actual" Bible teach him.  James is a kind of leftover after the Pauline meal - and that is the Lutheran teaching.

The Lesson from the Pharisees
: What do you think of the Pharisees?  Do you think they were a bunch of legalists who were working their way to heaven?  You probably do.  On what text do you base that?  Jesus doesn’t  call the Pharisees legalists, he mostly calls them hypocrites.  Jesus attacks every single aspect of their religion, but rarely (if ever) charges them with trying to please God based solely on their works.  Why do we see them as legalists?  Mostly because Luther saw himself as Jesus and the Pharisees as the Roman Catholic Church.  (I want to be on record as sayting that I do believe Paul charges "Jews" with legalism - but whether that be Pharisees or judaizers it isn't always clear.)

The Lesson from Jesus
: And lastly, to get at Luther’s influence, we need to look no further than our own Savior.  Most of us struggle to understand what Jesus is doing when we read the gospels.  That's partly because Jesus doesn’t speak our language - Luther's language.  It is hard to find justification in Jesus' teaching - though it is in places, of course.  I think we miss out on Jesus because he is talking about something we don’t quite have categories for, mostly because our categories are so influenced by Luther.

Calvin was a much more well rounded theologian, but we borrow more from Luther.  The Bible is our only rule in all of life yet we sometimes see only justification in its pages. In short, I believe that Luther’s obsession has rubbed off on us.  I think most Protestants have zeroed in on what “gets us to heaven” at the expense of everything else.

In this series, I plan to take Lutheran teaching to task in some of the areas it oversteps.  Topic by topic, it will be my goal to provide a richer, more biblical alternative for talking about our salvation. I am not a great theologian, I just plan to post my observations.  Further reading will be necessary if you really want to get at the bottom of all this, but this issue has dominated much of my study for years.  As we get into the nuts and bolts of this thing, it is my hope that you will be encouraged, even if you don't fully agree with me.

* DISCLAIMER - I am not critiquing the Lutheran Church or even formal/historical Lutheran theology.  These posts address a form of Lutheran theology that is active in the Presbyterian Church in America.  Whether the critiques hold true outside the PCA, I could not be the judge.

This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).