November 25, 2020

Looking For Luther

lbUPDATE: A great intro to Luther is “Luther for Armchair Theologians” written by Steven Paulson, a speaker at the recent Mockingbird Conference. Also, New Reformation Press has lots of Lutheran theology resources at 10% off right now.

Apparently, by the email count, I’ve said something right.

Earlier in the day, Blue Raja and I had a discussion at the Boar’s Head Tavern about an earlier post where I quoted a Semi-Pelagian IM commenter. It’s discouraging to read that the atonement “opened the door” for us to now live a life worthy of the Kingdom of God. As I usually do, I expressed my despair at these kinds of “living to please God” systems of salvation and the blatant dishonesty they encourage and despair they induce.

So here was one of my replies.

The Gospel was never good news for me until Luther helped me see that life could continue to be tragic. I never worry about abundant life doing more than the occasional appearance in the present. I’m content with Christ in the shadowlands if he guarantees to raise me from the dead and bring me home.

This keeps coming back to me from readers who say it’s hit home with them, and where can they find more.

Before I talk about finding more of that, let me assure you that I responded to the Lutheran altar call a very long time ago.

In 1987, I was living in Louavul, going to seminary and working at a church just off campus. One J-term- a one week, intensive summer session, I believe- I was taking “Theology of Martin Luther” from the new church history guy, Dr. Timothy George.

I’ve had very, very few mystical experiences in my life, but during one lecture in that class, heaven opened up to me like never before or since. I was transported. The personal, existential dimension of the incarnation as it applies to my salvation fell on me like a gigantic wave.

To say the least, I became a Luther reader, which led me, unfortunately, to be susceptible to 16 years of Calvinism. The reason for that was simple: I didn’t know any Lutherans. The few I met wouldn’t talk to me. It was a crucial error. If I had developed relationships with Lutherans, I could have found the Lutheran reformation. Instead, the Calvinistic resurgence in Baptist life found me (Al Martin variety) and led me to some good things (Founder’s, Spurgeon) and a lot of wasted time and self-effort disguised as doing everything “to the Glory of God.”

Thank God for Steve Brown, The White Horse Inn and Michael Horton, Calvinists who stayed on more than friendly terms with the Lutheran reformation and knew how to communicate its heart.

It was Luther’s approach to his own humanity that saved me. Literally. Luther led me out of the “victorious Christian life” swamp. He simplified the Gospel. He stayed earthy and didn’t play the goofy spiritual games that evangelicalism was so prone to adore. The center was Christ and the Gospel was for sinners.

[In the interests of fairness, I should also say that in 1980, I had visited an LCMS church and was turned away at the altar abruptly, without explanation. That was my own ignorance, of course, and my own church at the time practiced closed communion. But the experience gave me a bad taste that has never entirely gone away.]

I found Luther in several places:

1. I found him in his own writings and sermons. Especially in Dillenberger’s Luther Reader, Luther’s own Table Talk, the commentary on Galatians and the “House Postils,” usually sold as the “Sermons of Martin Luther” in sets.

2. I found him at the White Horse Inn, where Rod Rosenbladt’s voice became synonymous with all I liked about Lutheran spirituality.

3. I came to appreciate that a lot of what I was hearing from Michael Horton wasn’t typical Baptist Calvinism as a kind of Kuyperian Calvinism deeply influenced by Lutheran theology. Horton has no bad books, but In the Face of God, A Better Way and Too Good To Be True especially apply here. I haven’t read Christless Christianity, but it surely would be included. Horton’s work on the web is archived at his Monergism fan page and MP3 site. If my quote appealed to you, read “Singing the Blues With Jesus.”

4. More recently, I’ve appreciated the Lutheran Confessions, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, the Lutheran Service Book (I really love this complete guide to all worship resources + hymnal) and the many hours of fine Lutheran teaching available at Pirate Christian Radio and, especially, the best program on the radio/internet, Issues, Etc. Check out the topics at Issues, etc. the past few days. Is your church going to address “The Super Christian Myth” in a series about depression in the lives of Christians anytime soon?

5. I have to mention my friend Josh Strodtbeck. He infuriates me. I’ve kicked him off the BHT multiple times. No one has shown me less mercy in my writing. But he’s turned out to be a true friend and has made me think about Lutheranism more than any one human being. Now all he does is rant about politics, but in the golden era of his blogging, he was a very helpful teacher.

I’m a Baptist. I can’t imagine I will ever be a Lutheran. I have sacramental issues with infant Baptism. If we could get rid of the babies and not talk about “what’s really happening,” I’d probably be fine. But Lutheranism is a long way from being the core of who I am, but it has deeply influenced the way I preach, read the Bible and understand the Gospel. Today, my Lutheran side reads Capon and Zahl, both Anglicans. Go figure. I know that Luther was just as Catholic as he was Protestant, and some of that side of him is inaccessible to me given my own journey. I can let it rest.

What I like about Lutherans is their anthropology and their stubborn refusal to fall for the various “victorious life” or “holiness” schemes that evangelicals and others frequently can’t resist. Luther was realistic about himself and he was realistic about what he was doing. He had very little tolerance for the abuse of religion or the complicating/polluting of the Gospel. I’ve been reading some of his epistles on liturgical reform and it’s plain that he wants the basics to remain front and center, and the additions, inventions and accretions to be thrown overboard.

So Luther lived with a lot of mystery. He didn’t mind asserting that two different things could both be true in the language of the Bible. He didn’t bother himself with speculations a la Jonathan Edwards or an army of marching Calvinists. He didn’t try to impress anyone with how pious he was.

I’m not attracted to Lutheranism because of Lutherans or their outreaching churches. A lot of the Lutherans I’ve met won no merit badges for representing their tradition with any generosity toward other traditions. Some Lutherans are legendary for their intolerance of other Christians and lack of concern for anyone with a curiosity about Lutheranism. This is acknowledged by many Lutherans, and it is changing. Confessional Lutheranism is learning a different manner and discovering a constructive conversation with other Christians. This is a good thing, and I am glad to see it. But there is a long way to go. I am still hours away from a Lutheran church.

I used to have a co-worker who was Charismatic. He’d been raised Lutheran. He would come to my breakfast table, see I was reading something liturgical and start in. “None of those Lutherans were saved. I never heard the Word of God from them. They aren’t free.”

I heard three things here: 1) These are people who aren’t constantly trying to re-save everyone. 2) They probably used lots and lots of scripture. 3) There weren’t any ridiculous hi-jinks blamed on God.

Sounded good to me.

Some of you reading this heard what I said about Luther allowing life to still be tragic, and your heart beat faster. Could it be that there is a way off that treadmill? Is there a way out from under that pressure? Is there a door out of the evangelical circus into something else that won’t drive you to despair?

Yes, and chances are, if you are a typical evangelical or Calvinist, you know almost nothing about the Lutheran way. So spend some time getting to know it.

NOTE: Commenters are encouraged to list other Lutheran resources on the web and in 3-D.


  1. Great article. Of course, I admit bias towards liking this article, seeing as I am Lutheran. 😉
    As for other great Lutheran resources, I would definately recommend the Wittenberg Trail. You can find it at:

    Also, I would highly recommend just about anything from Concordia Publishing House (CPH).
    Their website is

    Other than that, the best resources on Lutheranism would probably have to be the classics- the Book of Concord and Luther’s Small Catechism. Look at the Book of Concord if you want all the details and complicated theological background to what Lutherans believe. The Small Catechism presents the same thing, only in a much simpler manner.

  2. alvin_tsf says

    hi. thanks iMonk. i grew up Baptist and am now with the Christian Reformed. thanks for the suggestions on Luther. i know nothing of his works and very excited to read.

    your blog has really helped me to appreciate other traditions. i’ve often wondered why the best theology i’ve read were written by Anglicans… and Catholics.

    thanks again!

  3. check out Theology is for Proclamation by Gerhard O. Forde:

    I want to read some more Forde, but haven’t gotten the chance. ^That one is really good though.

    (I’m a raised Lutheran who goes to an evangelical church and constantly brings up the lutheran point of view in hypercalvinist discussions.)

  4. First let me state that I’m not a theologian in any sense of the term.

    During much of my childhood/adolescence I search for this “abundant life” (esp. as it relates to freedom from sin), but couldn’t find it in my experience or the experience of any Christians around me.

    However, the problem is that I found the description of this abundant life in the Scripture: by their fruits you’ll know them, if we walk in the Spirit we won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh, no one born of God makes a practice of sinning. . . etc.

    So, how can we reconcile the Biblical explanation of how our reality should be with our actual experience????

    I need to see how I’m misunderstanding many Biblical statements or else see an example of a Christian whose reality is congruent with the Biblical descriptions.

    • Dear Rich W-

      the question you ask is a very important one. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of Scripture, that seemingly defy our reason, and confuse us to no end. However, may I offer these words of encouragement and explanation.
      First off, we have to decide how are we interpreting Scripture. Is it as bunch of stories? is it a set of rules for living (a reference to the so-called “abundant life”)? Is it recounting the history of God’s people, only it is plagued by the cultural bias of the authors’ time- that it is a combination of some human opinion and some Divine knowledge? What is it?
      The hermeneutic (type of interpretation) that I use (and that Luther used) is that at the center of Scripture is Jesus Christ.. Every part of the Bible, whether it is the Exodus, the Psalms, or the Book of Revelation, all points us to the Person of Jesus, and His redeeming work. Bear with me- this will make sense soon.
      God commands us to be perfect even as He is perfect. We are called upon to “love the Lord our God with all are heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourself”. And as you say, we are to “judge the tree by the fruit it produces”. As we all know, however, we fail miserably. Nothing we can do can fulfill this completely; we can never be perfect. How are we, then, to live up to the expectations that the Word of God sets before us?
      The answer is we can’t. We can never fully live up to our Father’s expectations. We can never “be ye perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect”. What, then, are we to do? As you say:
      “So, how can we reconcile the Biblical explanation of how our reality should be with our actual experience????”
      The answer is the one we learn in Sunday School- Jesus!
      In Christ, we are perfect. We are united to Christ; we are clothed in His righteousness. When God our Father looks down on us, He does sees Christ His Son. He sees the perfect Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. Jesus died on the Cross- FOR YOU! He gives us His perfection for our sin. Now, of course we shouldn’t go about trying to sin. But rest assured that in Christ, we are forgiven. For that is the True Abundant Life- that in Christ we have fogiveness, life, and salvation. And in Him, we can strive for holiness, knowing full well that our holiness lies not in our efforts, but in the Holy One Himself- Jesus.
      I hope that helps Rich W.
      Sincerely your brother in Christ,

  5. Oh, and here’s the Galatians commentary you mentioned. KNOCKED MY SOCKS OFF!

    • thanks for that link… I’ve been wanting to recommend that to many people, and then they are like “where can I get it” and I’m like “well… it’s on Amazon, you have to buy two books… for like $35 each…”

  6. I was a pastor for nearly 30 years in non-denominational evangelicalism. My wife and I now worship and participate in an ELCA Lutheran congregation. We visited LCMS churches, which are better at confessing the Lutheran faith in dogmatic terms, but I could not get past: (1) closed communion, (2) creationism as a declared doctrinal standard, (3) the doctrinal position that the Pope is the Antichrist. I also don’t agree with their position on women in leadership and a general culture war mentality which I find among them. Within the ELCA, which, Lord knows, has a multitude of its own problems, I am at least free to hold confessional Lutheran doctrine while at the same time experiencing what we have found to be a more hospitable fellowship. The Word is still primary, and that’s what really counts where we are, along with a much deeper appreciation of the meaning and approach of worship.

    Above all, Michael, I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is Luther himself who attracts me to this part of Christ’s Body. Any sound theologian who preaches and teaches so pastorally, and who encourages me to go drink a good beer when I’m spiritually depressed, is my absolute hero.

  7. I like this Luther guy :). I appreciate you sharing your spiritual journey as well as resources and dialogues like the “gangstas”. All these varied confessors of Christ show us just how big he is. Sometimes Luther, sometimes Calvin, Augustine, Fenelon… but all in Christ and in harmony with the mysteries of his word.

  8. Luther rocks. And I agree, “Luther for Armchair Theologians” is a great intro. I also suggest watching the movie “Luther.” It’ll really get you excited about learning more about him (and learning more about the Gospel).

  9. Weslie Odom says

    As a former Baptist turned future LC-MS pastor, I can recommend several short books:

    Gerhard Forde, “On Being a Theologian of the Cross”
    Oswald Bayer, “Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification”
    John Pless, “Handling the Word of Truth”
    Hermann Sasse, “We Confess Anthology”

    As per the sacraments, I would read Luther’s “On Re-Baptism”, “Whether These Words: ‘This is My Body’ Still Hold True”, and the Large Catechism.

    As per Baptism and the sacraments in general, I had the same hang-ups. The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, III.

    Questions to ponder: What is faith? What is the extent of sin? You mention appreciating Luther’s understanding/honesty concerning the approach to his own humanity. Again, what is the extent of sin? How does this affect our ability, as blind, dead, enemies of God, to come to Him?

  10. Oh yeah, and I’ve come to appreciate the Lutheran view of baptism too. You can find my thoughts about this at:


    I thought I posted this earlier, but it didn’t show up. I KNOW you said that links don’t show up right away, but the after the first one was moderated, the second one seemed to post right away. So, if this is a duplicate, disregard it. If it’s not, you can edit one of my other comments, if you like. Or… just edit this one. I’m not sure what special blog-owner powers you have.

  12. I’ve been horribly lax when it comes to reading Luther. The only work of his I own is The Bondage of the Will recommended to me by Calvinists. They at least like that one.

    But you’ve reminding me that I need to keep reading MORE of Luther and his sermons – thanks. I’ll try Paulson’s book out too. The last one I read was Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand years ago, and while I can highly recommend it, it’s time for more.

  13. Luther’s thumbprints are all over the BCP and the Articles of Religion. Anglicanism is dependent on Luther. His stuff is great.

    Philip Cary’s stuff on the unreflective nature of Luther’s faith is priceless.

  14. M. Mattox’s chapter “Luther’s Theology of Scripture” in the edited volume Christian Theologies of Scripture

  15. John Zahl says

    Have you heard Rod Rosenbladt’s line, that “mysticism is nothing more than man’s perennial attempt at playing God”? Dang!

  16. Once more, thanks Michael.

  17. Good online resource for Luther’s writings and others: Project Wittenberg at

  18. God bless you Michael! BTW, all my friends who I emailed your previous “Lutheran” post to say thank you! Keeping the law/gospel distinction clear is essential to good salvation theology. Have you read Cruciformity by Gorman? Read it. Now. You WILL enjoy it! And read his other stuff too. He has a new one that I’m buying tomorrow for my trip to NYC.

  19. Dr. Gene Veith’s book (The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals) is a very nice introduction to the Lutheran view of things.

    The Wittenberg Trail ( has a special group for people exploring Lutheran theology. Lutheran pastors called “Trail Guides” host the group. The “guides” are available to answer your questions.

  20. “The Gospel was never good news for me until Luther helped me see that life could continue to be tragic.”


    • I don’t think most people want to hear that there is no magic cure for tragedy and suffering. There will always be a bigger audience for “Best Life Now”. That is why the law needs to do its work to break us and despair us of any answer but the cross.

      But such preaching tends to thin the crowd. Too negative. So if a pastor’s goal is massive church growth, then he or she will be forced to appease the old Adam through preaching moralism, environmentalism, positvism, success principles, health-wealth, and other ladders to glory. Give the people what they want, rather than what they need.

      • Well, to argue semantics (armchair theologians favorite hobby), Christ really does give you your best life, and He does give it now. Can’t blame Him if we don’t recognize it or go right on our way seeking something completely different. Too many people are seeking a god who will grant them their idols. Christ wants to be the God who grants us Himself. His life is the best life. And it will include suffering.

  21. Luther, huh? My wife and I were married in a beautiful local ELCA Church. And my younger son was baptized there. The pastor was pretty instrumental in the early stages of my ultimate turn to Christianity, though I’m not entirely sure he ever really knew it. He was just being who he seems to always be to everyone. I love most of the Lutherans I know.

    But my reading of historical works in the Church tends to go back centuries before Luther. And looking at my bookshelf of modern authors, I do see a lot of Anglicans and Orthodox on it.

  22. I’m not going to make myself very popular here, I imagine, but am I the only one who thinks there could be something to the whole “weak on sanctification” stereotype? I’m not saying that I haven’t benefited from Walther, but I still find myself questioning whether the law/Gospel dichotomy isn’t just as much an artificial framework as the Calvinistic TULIP. Now, trust me, I was almost destroyed by “third use of the Law” morbid introspection. In fact, it still haunts me in my search. So, I’m not advocating that by any means. Having come from a heavily Wesleyan dominated area, I’m also not arguing for a truly Semi-Pelagian “lose your salvation at any moment” Revivalism, either. I am searching for a liturgical church– that I know. However, I keep tripping over the legal framework of both the Swiss and German Reformers. Is getting forgiven really all it’s about? Is there more? I keep asking myself these questions. Of course, I know that morbid introspection and inward looking are no good. However, I wonder if this isn’t partially the fault of a non-Sacramental worldview. When one tosses out any number of means of grace, it seems all one is left with is one’s own effort. So, then, it seems like a choice between a Mongergism that often allows one to simply rest on their laurels, whether it is their infant baptism, their answer to an alter call, a vague philosophical acceptance of the notion of “the finished work of Christ,” etc., or a Semi-Pelagianism that leaves one constantly wondering if they measure up. This is why I am still leaning Orthodox or Anglo-Catholic and do not at this time (and I could certainly be proven wrong) consider Lutheranism the most promising option. I just keep thinking there has to be more. What if it’s not so much about appeasing the wrath of the angry Father as the loving Creator who called his creation “good” and who called the creature he created in his own image “very good” restoring his creation to the pre-Fall state– “putting the world to rights” as N.T. Wright might say? Although I know it’s not about what I want and what I find attractive, I must say that the healing and hospital metaphor prevalent in the Theosis concept of the Eastern Church and some high church Anglicans such as Lancelot Andrewes warms my heart and makes me feel that God, maybe, just maybe, might actually love me. I guess this just makes sense to me, as it seems to tie up both justification and sanctification in a beautiful, relational package which seems, at its best (and it isn’t aways), able to circumvent the Scilla and Chharibdis of both legalism and antinomianism. Do I want to be forgiven? Of course. Do I need to be forgiven? Without question. But if I love Christ, it seems I should want more. I know, like Bunyan, that I can call myself “the chief of sinners,” and that I could certainly not advance an iota towards God had he not himself provided the way. But what if he has provided a way for us to experience not only forgiveness, but the beginnings of a sharing of his Trinitarian love even while still on this mortal coil? I’m probably not making much sense, and I’m more than just an armchair theologian– I’m a total newb. However, although I think what Luther did was probably necessary given the direction Medieval Catholicism had taken, I just have some concerns which prevent me, at this time, from pursuing this avenue. Lutheran brothers, pray for me. If I am wrong, may God open my eyes.

    • Are there some Lutherans that are weak on sanctification? Yeah. But there are also folks from every other tradition that are too. Lutheran teaching doesn’t ignore sanctification. A lot of it may sound fishy on the surface, but if you can get past that and see it for what it really is, it’s not weak on sanctification at all. I hate that T-shirt from Ref-press.

      Go ahead, peruse Lutheran Avenue. Park for a while and check it out by foot. After you see the sites for yourself, you can always drive somewhere else, such as E. Orthodox Alley or Catholic Circle or Anglican Rd…. even Orthodox Presbyterian Parkway. But… I think that if you “get” Lutheranism, you might want to stay.

      • A big chunk of Luther’s catechism addresses sanctification. Luther said we daily live our baptism through repentance, daily fighting against the flesh, the devil, and the world. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us through word and sacrament, not subjective, esoteric experiences or self-motivated legalism. Luther did not teach fatalism or defeatism; we don’t wallow in sin as if there is no escape. But he also taught that the struggle against sin will not end until the resurrection of the dead. That is why we daily need forgiveness.

        The revivalistic ideal of instant sanctification is truly the weak view, because it tries to replace the hard work of daily putting to death the old nature with a one-time experience, which never cuts to heart of our sinfulness. There is no room for forgiveness, because those who are instantly sanctified have no need for forgiveness. This is why the whole “weak on sanctification” criticism drives me crazy. What makes me even more crazy is when Lutherans buy into such criticism and abandon Lutheran teaching on sanctification for revivalistic teachings on the subject.. But who can blame them? Who wants to engage in a struggle that has no end, versus drinking the koolaid which promises instant, permanent results? Rationally, the choice seems obvious. But after half a life spent vainly searching for that magic experience which will make everything perfect and solve all problems, I find rest and comfort in Luther’s view.

    • Lutherans are honest on Sanctification. If a person wants to keep looking for the fall and their own fallenness to be called off prior to rez, go ahead. Lutheran theology doesnt go for that kind of piety. Sin honestly that grace may abound.

      • Eric Rodgers says

        Gerhard Forde’s book Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life is actually very strong on the Lutheran view of Sanctification. He shows a proper understanding of the roles of Law and Gospel in Sanctification.

        • IggyAntiochus says

          Also, Harold Senkbeil’s book, “Sanctification, Christ in Action,” from Northwestern Publishing House is a great resource.

    • Dave138,

      The Law /Gospel distinction shallowly or wrongly understood becomes a sad caricature of itself and can be open to the charge of being a legal fiction. Many critics of the distinction(notice I said distinction- not seperation) are skewering a lopsided understanding or application of the doctrine. Usually they end up charging the Lutherans of draining any meaning from the commands of Christ (and the rest of the scriptures for that matter) and reducing them to a foil for the Gospel, and thus the charge of “legal fiction.

      Gene Veith’s book ‘Spirituality of the Cross’ is a good intro to the subject . Also on Pastor Cwirla’s blog there is a good post on the proper distinction.

      Another post here.

      • Thank you to all of you Lutherans for your comments and suggestions. I’m sorry I’ve not had time to comment in any detail. I do appreciate your thoughts. Thank you to Michael for hosting and leading this discussion.

  23. Best Lutheran Intros I’ve found (since ’74)

    Gene Veith (lcms): Spirituality of the Cross

    John M. Drickamer (ELS): What is the Gospel – It is Finished (has the requisit funniness about fellowship, but otherwise great)

    Alfred W. Koehler: (lcms) Light from Above.

    I include Koehler because those w/ a more artistic, tender hearted (as opposed to tough minded) have found Koehler to be excellent. I recommend it on their behalf. My preferences is Veith – anything he writes.

  24. Bill McReynolds says

    In the mid-90s, through the journal Pro Ecclesia, I was led to a prayer book based on the liturgical year and published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, Delhi NY 13753-0327. The 4-volume set is titled For All the Saints. There are daily prayers, scripture readings, icons, the Catechisms and relevant thoughts from all over the Church, including, of course, a lot of Lutherans. This Presbyterian loves it!

  25. I wish that Closed Communion wasn’t the big issue for LCMS Lutherans and “seekers”, I puzzle as a pastor at how to get around the offense while maintaining the (I believe) salutary practice. Its funny, Roman Catholics and Orthodox don’t get singed by this, but Lutherans do.

    Be careful with Luther, his theology corrupts (in a good way), it will not leave you the same!

    Another good book, though a bit obscure, is “Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel” . Letters of Luther addressing specific individual/congregational issues. It is, if you will, where the rubber meets the road for Luther.

    The key to Sacraments in the Lutheran sense is the very earthiness admired in the anthropology. As real humans beings, made of clay and earth, we need these means of grace that we can see, touch, and taste not so called spirituality that is ephermeral. Lutherans and gnostics are not friends.

    • Eric Rodgers says

      At my vicarage congregation, my supervisors say, “If you have not learned what we believe about Communion, we would not presume to invite you forward now to confess the same beliefs that we have by taking the Lord’s Supper with us.” Because they say it that way, I think they have avoided a lot of unfair and undue criticism. It’s not just a doctrinal affair, but a pastoral concern as well.

    • “The key to Sacraments in the Lutheran sense is the very earthiness admired in the anthropology. As real humans beings, made of clay and earth, we need these means of grace that we can see, touch, and taste not so called spirituality that is ephermeral.”

      Love that statement!

      I’m in an evangelical church and the pastor does preach grace, not law. However, mostly I feel like I’m just a brain that needs to be stuffed full on Sunday mornings. I’m longing for something different/more. But, how to leave a church when it’s small and we have developed friendships?

      • “I’m longing for something different/more. But, how to leave a church when it’s small and we have developed friendships?”

        Small churches often have this issue. I attend a small church, and have had similar thoughts. My husband and I have chosen to seek the sharpening iron in places like this. My advice to you: Seek to be fed by the Spirit until He leads you to help Him feed the part of the Body w/ which you worship. You will be used to build that body on the meat of His Word.

  26. …Dave 138 said:..”Is getting forgiven really all it’s about? Is there more? I keep asking myself these questions”…..i ask the same questions Dave… and that is leading me back in history to the early church with its practices and traditions..and im finding in it a large discrepancy in the way we do church now compared to how they “did it”.. and its disturbing…the writings of the early church Fathers reveal an awesome sovereign God deserving of our respect..not like the intimate jesus who wants to be your boyfriend type of today….so now im looking at the Orthodox and the Catholic Traditions with eyes wide open……..God help them…..

  27. Daniel Preus authored ‘Why I am a Lutheran Christ at the Center’ which is another good intro to the Lutheran Faith.

    If you want to see what the Christian life looks like from a Lutheran perspective check out Gene Veith’s ‘God at Work Your Christian Vocation in all of Life

    This book is excellent and lays the axe to the root of the myth that says unless you are involved in ‘ministry'( ie. something at or with the church) you aren’t serving the Lord. Had a huge impact on me and many I know.

  28. I too am a Calvinist who is heavily influenced by Lutheranism. I read your interview with Josh Strodtbeck a few years ago as well. There is so much I have learned from Lutheranism. I have been a Calvinist for 12 years, and I struggled with assurance of salvation for all that time. It was only recently, about a year ago, that I found assurance when the White Horse Inn way of thinking really clicked with me. I am a member of a Reformed church that rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel.

    I am encouraged by your article as well. And I am reading Luther for Armchair Theologians right now too! How ironic that I read a chapter of it today, and I was just surfing the web and reading articles on Lutheranism, and then I found this article, which you wrote today.

    Thanks again!

  29. Thanks, Michael.

    Here were some key writings for me:
    The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel by C.F.W. Walther (Some bad sections on “sinning on purpose” for which the best antidote is the rest of the book.)
    “Concerning Rebaptism,” by Martin Luther, found in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings edited by Timothy Lull and also in Luther’s Works, volume 40
    Living by Grace by William Hordern
    Luther’s Works, volume 37
    Let God be God! by Philip Watson

    I can see why a church move would be a hurdle. I can’t picture having made that move when I was going to school in Boston.

  30. Can someone point me to the whole “weak on sanctification” argument. I’ve heard this thrown around by friends before, but I’m not entirely sure what the problems are.

    • Since we deny that good works obtain favor with God, traditions that affirm this say that we have no motivation to obey the Lord. See, in their thinking, you need a selfish motivation to love your neighbor–i.e. if you don’t win brownie points with God for loving your neighbor, or don’t do it in order to escape hell, you have no motivation at all. Since Lutherans do not have a profit motive for obedience, they argue that we have no motive at all.

      Says more about them than us IMO.

  31. Though I was raised Lutheran, I didn’t really get it until after going to a bunch of Baptist, E-free, campus crusade, etc. type events and youth groups in HS and college, and then going to a catholic grad school. In trying to respond to Baptist and Catholic “recruiting pitches” I researched a lot of doctrine, and it started to click.

    They all preached law: missions, good works, diligent Bible study, confession, etc were obligations and done out of duty.

    Lutherans preach Gospel. I thought it boring and repetitive, and too simple. We’d joke in confirmation the answer to every question is “because Jesus died on the cross for me.”

    But it really is that simple. The life of a Christian is in further understanding that we can never measure up, and we need God’s mercy. THe more we understand that, the more we rely on Christ’s promise that those who believe are saved, and the greater our love for him. It is only after being justified and receiving faith in Christ that we can love God, and it is only in love of God that we can do all those other things. They are not obligations. They are our joy and blessing!

    I regularly fail to have that joy, and often see good works, mission, etc. as a burden. (That is, my faith is often dead! With true faith, I would have joy in good works!) Here is where Lutheran doctrine is the only way to find assurance and comfort. Our continual failures do not drive us to despair because we do not look to our works as a sign of salvation or as part of our salvation. For assurance of our salvation, we look to what Christ gives us: in baptism, he tells us he makes us his own. In the Gospel, he reminds and teaches us about what he did for us. In Communion, he gives us his physicial body and blood so that we remember his sacrifice. These are promises Jesus made, and Jesus will not break his promises, and in hearing his Word and receiving the sacraments, God continuously revives our weak and dying faith. The more we consider these gifts, the greater our love for him, and the more truly good works we are blessed to do.

    • “Lutherans preach Gospel. I thought it boring and repetitive, and too simple. We’d joke in confirmation the answer to every question is “because Jesus died on the cross for me.”
      When my confirmation kids start joking this way, and I can joke back, then I know that I have finally taught them something worth keeping for life. It’s at that point that I know they will flirt with other expressions of Christianity and find them wanting. They know the gospel, they will know it when they hear it, and they will know when they do not.

  32. Another thing, the process of daily drowning the old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentence, and living out our Christian life, sometimes seems like the Catholic process of being continually justified and sanctified. I’ve had many Catholics tell me its the same. But its not, because they put justification as dependent on the good works. That’s backwards.

    For Lutherans, there is an order to it: we receive faith by Word and Sacrament and are justified — we are now saved– with the Holy Spirit now in us, we respond with love and thankfulness to Christ by doing good works

    • Boaz, for the record, you may have misunderstood the “backwards” Catholic way of describing justification and good works. Excerpts from paragraphs 2017-2029 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church say:

      “The grace of the Holy Spirit confers upon us the righteousness of God. Uniting us by faith and Baptism to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, the Spirit makes us sharers in his life.

      Like conversion, justification has two aspects. Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high.

      Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man.”

      Full citation here:

      Simply put, grace is entirely of and from God. But He does not force Himself on us. In my own life, I am fully aware that any and all graces I receive are from God alone. I also know that at any time, I have the free will to reject Him and his workings. However, when I do, I also know that I can confess my sin and be given the grace to continue in my journey of sanctification. This “order” is very logical to me.

      Christ asks us to take up our cross and follow him, and persevere to the end in order to be saved. That is a good work, yes, but He alone has provided the grace to do it.

    • PL: Then explain purgatory.

      • Well, first the Catechism reference:

        Purgatory is for the elect, not those going to hell. It is the final purification from attachment to sin so that we may be completely sanctified and fit to be in the presence of God in heaven. It’s not a “second chance” at heaven if we’ve previously rejected God – it’s our final “clean-up.” If I were to die today, I would be among the elect, but my inner sanctification, promised by Christ, is not yet complete. Purgatory is my final “cleansing fire.”

        The Church does not teach a number of “days” to be in purgatory, how it will be accomplished, etc. I personally think that we when we fully glimpse the glory of God after death, we will long to go through whatever it takes to get rid of the last vestiges of our tendency to sin; however, that’s just my own speculation.

        But is that your real question?

      • Any discussion of Catholic views of justification that don’t admit 3 things are less than accurate imo:

        1. The RC belief in purgatory
        2. The RC belief in indulgences
        3. The RC denial of assurance in this life.

        Whatever the catechism says- and its language on this is great- these other issues make it clear we aren’t talking about the reformation doctrine of justification and never will be.



        • I thought it was sort of a given that the Roman Catholic and reformation doctrines of justification are not the same 🙂 .

          I might disagree with #3 a little – Catholics believe we can be assured of salvation if we are living the Christian life in faith and are free from mortal sin. There are plenty of places in the scriptures that speak of believers committing apostasy, falling away, not persevering, etc. and then being cast out. However, the Catholics I know and I don’t live in fear of that, because if/when we do commit mortal sin, we confess and receive forgiveness, bringing us back into a state of grace.

          Anyway, I didn’t want to open up a can of worms – heaven knows you’ve heard it all before (and then some). I had just wanted to clarify from Boaz’s original statement.

          Peace to YOU, my brother and thanks for all you do!


  33. The internet archive has a lot of helpful (out of copyright) resources:

  34. I decided to look at Luther’s Small Catechismonline and it’s very good. So far, it looks to me like a Catholic would agree with all that I am reading there.

    I agree with you, Michael, that the closed communion of both the Lutheran and Catholics can be off-putting. I understand their line of thinking and their wanting to make people realize just how special Holy Communion is. At the same time, I believe people can come to Communion even with only a partial understanding and the world will not end. The acceptance they receive would outweigh anything else. But that’s just me and it won’t prevent me from continuing to me a member of the Catholic Church.

  35. Gerhard Forde has been mentioned already, but I’ve found that one of his oldest and earliest works is the best summation of Luther’s theology I’ve ever read: “Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel.” Its still in print:

    Here’s the google books preview:

  36. A few thoughts in no particular order:

    1. Michael – sorry about the bad experience at being “turned away from the altar.” It could have been at my own congregation. Believe me when I say that this is as difficult for us pastors as it is for those who have not been included that Sunday. There isn’t space here to go into the rationale for closed communion, though I would note that most communions are closed to one extend or another, more so as one believes in the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. My advice is to look beyond the incident to the underlying faith and pastoral care that this was intended to convey.

    2. Books on Lutheranism – in addition to the ones mentioned above:

    Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism (Concordia Publishing House). Not easy reading, but one of the best treatments of the radical distinction of the Law and the Gospel with the Gospel being the center of Christian theology.

    Harold L. Senkbeil, Dying to Live (CPH). A devotional walk through the Small Catechism.

    John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace (CPH) Lutheranism with an Aussie accent. Great writer.

    In the Book of Concord, I would focus on the Small and Large Catechisms first. Then the Augsburg Confession and it Apology. Then the rest. The Small Catechism was written for illiterate parents to teach their children; the Large Catechism is Luther’s sermons on the topics of the Small Catechism. These are the crown jewels of the Reformation, in my opinion.

    For a good Luther reader, I recommend Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Fortress Press). A good selection in chronological order.

    Bear in mind that Lutheranism does not subscribe to the writings of Martin Luther but to the Lutheran Confessions. There are times when Luther isn’t Lutheran, at least all the way through. Many non-Lutherans do not understand this and hold Lutheranism accountable for everything Luther wrote, and he wrote a lot. He also wrote in an occasional and topical way, not in an orderly, systematic way, which makes most “theologies of Luther” less than satisfying or true to the man.

    3. Podcasts and blogs – There are so many in Lutheranism – good, bad, and ugly. Here are a few good ones. As with all things on the net – caveat emptor! (sometimes silly, but occasional random nuggets of truth) (shameless plug)

  37. And let’s go ahead and say that Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and actions, as well as his endorsement of violence against others are NOT part of Lutheranism nor anything to be imitated, but condemned or deplored.

    Pr. Cwirla: I find that liturgical churches struggle with explaining their liturgy, including things like limits to participation. Fr. Peter Mathews church goes the extra mile and prints the liturgy with commentary in the sidebar.

    And there’s always the modest use of video projection 🙂

    • Even some of Luther’s explorations in predestination are not strictly Lutheran (we are more shaped by Melanchthon). Since Luther’s writings are largely occasional writings, they have tendencies, one way or another. His anti-papal writings sound very Protestant; his anti-radical reformation writings sound very Catholic. Anything before 1525 needs to be read carefully, as Luther is still struggling to work out the Gospel implications of justification.

      Liturgy is best learned in the way of Cyril of Jerusalem’s liturgical catechesis. Experience it and then talk about it. Our catechesis and Bible classes frequently discuss liturgical topics. I experienced the liturgy as a child long before I fully understood what everything was about. Like poetry, making everything in the liturgy explicit and explaining everything in a functionalistic way spoils all the fun. (Umberto Eco has a great essay on the lack of the implicit in “Traveling With a Salmon and Other Essays.” But I digress.)

      Speaking of projection, I’m working on a PowerPoint style presentation on the liturgy entitled “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Liturgy” (with all due respect to the atheist Douglas Adams). It was a very popular youth conference presentation a couple of years ago.

  38. Richard W. says

    What I love about Luther is his realism–his “theology of the Cross,” vs. what you hear in pietistic circles, the Joel Osteens, the Joyce Meyers–the “theology of glory,” which usually winds up justifying THEIR glory instead of God’s. God is with us in a very special way in the midst of suffering and our screw ups–thank God! The day I brought my wife home after a week of brutal cancer surgery, I turned on TV to watch Joel for what I hoped was some comic relief. Joel talked that evening about a friend of his who had cancer who “thought away” his cancer cells with positive thoughts. I almost put my foot through the TV set. Luther would have strung up Joel.

  39. I’m what they call a “lifer” Lutheran, but I choose, very intentionally, to stay Lutheran for two reasons:

    This one:
    “So Luther lived with a lot of mystery. He didn’t mind asserting that two different things could both be true in the language of the Bible.”

    and this one:
    “…their stubborn refusal to fall for the various “victorious life” or “holiness” schemes that evangelicals and others frequently can’t resist.”

    Life sucks. Sometimes an awful lot. Lutherans “get” that, and point you to the Cross instead of telling you your life sucks because you’re not a good enough Christian.

    As to resources? I’m sure someone mentioned it above, but listening to Issues, Etc. Hands down, the best.

  40. Thanks for writing this article. I’m about 8-9 years into my “Calvinism” and lately I’ve been reading more about Lutheranism and reading more about Luther. A co-worker asked me the other day if I was becoming Lutheran. A year ago ( heck, 6-months ago ), I would have said “No”, but my answer now is Yes and No.

    I’m in the PCA, but I find reading Luther and reading stuff by Luterans ( I love Pirate Christian Radio! ), has changed how I think, read and even teach my family the Scriptures.

    There is something about Lutherism, the confessions, the TDP. I wish I could meet in person some Lutherans that are like the folks I read online.

    Fortunately I have three LCMS churches within 30-40mins from where I live and one WELS church.

    Such a tough thing to think about “leaving” my current church…friends, family, etc.

    • I was in seminary hoping to be a pastor for the PCA or OPC and now I am at a LCMS seminary. If you are interested in hearing why I made the switch, just let me know.

  41. Michael,

    Thanks so much. And thanks to all the commenters who have recommended our “good stuff” instead of our trivia (key Luther readings — esp. the Smaller Catechism, larger Galatians commentary, Book of Concord, Dr. Veith, H. Sasse, G. Førde, Steve Paulson, et al. I might add Jim Nestingen — esp. his voice, doing orthodox Lutheranism with a Norwegian instead of a German accent! — Drickamer (thanks, Robert!), and the books Rick R. mentioned (Hordern was, unfortunately neo-orthodox, but if one ignores that, he’s really great on what we call “the material principle” (the Gospel) and, particularly the subject of “living by grace.”

    Remember, we confessional Lutherans are new to the “larger conversation,” have been pretty proud that we’ve avoided any and all contact with “other brands of American Christians!” Remember, too, that unlike most others, we really have only one card in our hands — not fifty! — and that’s theology (particularly with verses: “Quod non est biblicum not est theologicum!” — Luther).

    Anyway, thanks for the post, and thanks to the commenters, too.


    • Richard W. says

      Thank you for your ministry, Dr. Rosenbladt. Thank you for pointing us to Christ, and not to ourselves.

  42. Can’t love me unless ya hate me. “He infuriates me” brought a tear to my eye.

  43. Micheal,

    Have you read Francis Chans book Crazy Love? It is a book that I have struggled with and seems as someone who is trying to figure out the Luther view would you say that that book fits?


  44. JoanieD, Ratzinger has a good essay on the divergences from traditional Catholic theology in Luther’s Small Catechism in “Ecumenism & Church Politics.” The most striking novelty he finds is the “for me” emphasis. In Catholic theology, as Ratzinger explains, “faith” is the posture of accepting whatsoever the Church teaches as objectively true, but for Luther, it is the conviction that you are in good standing with God because of Christ’s work on the Cross. This is considered presumptuous in traditional Catholic theology.

    • Talking about faith, “…but for Luther, it is the conviction that you are in good standing with God because of Christ’s work on the Cross.” Gee, I am a Catholic but I don’t have any trouble agreeing with Luther here. I guess I am just not a good Catholic. It could be the influence of hanging out with a non-denominational Evangelical group for some years and then some Assembly of God folks. I don’t know.

      Thanks, Fearsome Comrade.

      • Fearsome Comrade says

        Well…Ratzinger has a cagey way of putting things, too…just when you think he’s criticizing something, he adds, “Don’t assume that I think this guy is completely wrong.” That’s why I carefully qualify things with “traditional.” Anyway, you can see this sentiment in the Council of Trent, VI.IX, which says, “no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.”

  45. Josh was my 2nd favorite blogger, behind JN. I wish Josh & I had the same kind of relationship that Jim & I do. His is a first-class mind, the kind I really like being around.

    I don’t know if I am Lutheran or not. I just know that I left the evangelical reservation a long time ago. I know that shit happens, and I know that Jesus loves me. Sometimes that is enough, sometimes it is not. But I take comfort in knowing that His grip on me is tighter than mine is on Him.

    Peace, my friend.

  46. I think the beating heart of Christianity is the proper distinction between law and gospel, as understood by the Lutheran reformers. This is why I remain an LCMS Lutheran.

    I think any Christian who gets this, and manfully struggles with it and proclaims it as Michael has is a real Christian. Whether you leave your own imperfect church body to join my imperfect church body is not all that important. That you care for the souls entrusted to you is really the meat of the matter in my opinion.

    And I well understand the offensiveness of closed communion. This causes problems in my family as well. I think pastors like Cwirla are very honest about the anguish this causes them. I won’t rehash the arguments because I’m sure you know them but I don’t think this offensiveness is reason to abandon the practice.

    Likewise, I hope you can understand how horrifying your line is about “if we could just get rid of the babies” is from a Lutheran perspective. I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

    A couple of closing thoughts: Lutheran theology frees the Christian from the requirement to be nice. “Be Nice” is the great unwritten commandment of the contemporary church. Any number of church fathers (including Paul and Christ himself) could be remarkably blunt and “divisive.” But American Christianity always has to have a smiling face, even if its phony, and our society picks up on our phoniness. Therefore, many Lutherans often come across as grumpy, argumentative and uninterested in being your pal. Some of these are quite active on the Internet!

    I don’t think a Lutheran has to be like this in order to be genuine, however. Fortunately, our church these days is blessed with pastors like Cwirla, Wilken and Rosenblatt who can be blunt and genuine without being irritating.

  47. Call me crazy, but in my recent period of Cartesian doubt I have been racking my brain and soul in search of a perfect ecclesiology. Somebody scream the obvious at me: it doesn’t exist. This has come as a painful discovery to me. Some questions I may never find answers to. However, exposure to multiple theological perspectives, especially the Lutheran ones here, have greatly helped me to, at the very least, find a better ecclesiology. (Can somebody write “Your Best Ecclesiology Now” already?) The answer cannot lie in just one denomination, but I think that most denominations have something to learn from the others. Are there any books out there on comparative theology that offer balanced, side by side views on the church from Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and Baptist perspectives? That would be especially helpful for me. Thanks.

    • Miguel asked, “Are there any books out there on comparative theology that offer balanced, side by side views on the church from Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and Baptist perspectives?” I agree that this would be very helpful. Throw Catholicism in there too.

    • Chad Rushing says

      “Somebody scream the obvious at me: [perfect ecclesiology] doesn’t exist.”

      It might be accurate to say that no imperfect Christian institutions have ever achieved it in this world, and none ever will; however, I am convinced that perfect ecclesiology does exist somewhere in the Scriptures and in the mind of God Himself. We are just too impeded by our fallen natures in ever fully grasp and achieve it. If we could fully grasp and achieve it, I strongly suspect that there would no longer be a legitimate excuses for maintaining separate denominational structures … no Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc.; there would just the local branch of The Christian Church without any qualifications.

      That being said, there are probably some Christian institutions or organizations today that are closer to the mark of perfect ecclesiology than others like hundreds of arrows shot at a target of concentric circles around a discrete bullseye. I have always hoped to find one of those closest to biblical ecclesiology and be a part of it. It seems that the the best way to achieve that is to study the Scriptures as a whole (not just selected texts taken out of context) to such a degree that those doctrines and practices that are in conflict with them stick out like a sore thumb.

      Studying the history of the very, very early Church (1st century tops) would probably help, too, as it was not too long before people started tacking their own practices, traditions, and interpretations onto various congregations. More often than not, the Apostle Paul had probably not made it a mile down the road from a city before the local congregation he was departing started going awry, so even the early congregations all had their flaws as was apparent in the letters he would later send them.

  48. If you have trouble with semi-Pelagianism, I would think infant Baptism would be a cinch for you. Why not mark out God’s claim on the faithful long before they can even think they’ve attempted to live a life worthy of the Kingdom of God?

    • Because I’m a fully convinced credoBaptist who doesn’t believe infant Baptism showed up till the second century.

      Not going to debate that subject btw. I appreciate and accept infant baptism.

      • No interest in debating infant baptism here! Just a little good-natured needling from a Lutheran who enjoys your blog. Thanks for the post on my father in Christ.

  49. Abortion dwarfs all other political issues (you can see which part of the parady hit close for me). There is no other issue that comes close. We are talking about the wholesale slaughter of millions every year. Other than that Mrs Lincoln how was the play.