November 30, 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. …enjoyed hearing more of your story. Glad you recommended Paulson’s book, I am enjoying it. A portion he shares (page 90-91) sort of reminds of your reply–“Luther once had a daughter who died in his arms. His grief broke him, since he had no other God to pray to than the one who took his child. He was not interested in nice hair-splitting explanations of this event, such as that God didn’t want his child’s death or had nothing to do with it, or couldn’t change it even if he wanted to. In fact, Luther understood that trusting God only increased the problem of having a God, so that he commonly quoted Psalm 116: “I believed, therefore I was greatly afflicted” (au. trans.). If life’s main goal is temporarily to minimize problems by hoping they go away, then it is better not to believe in Jesus Christ.”

  2. Have you read, “I Trust When Dark My Road”, by Todd A. Peperkorn? LCMS World Relief and Human Care has been offering it as a free publication – print and pdf. It is a Lutheran view of depression.

    Depression is a complex issue, but I wonder how much worse it is for those who are brought up believing good Christians never have problems, struggles, or tragedy and are never sad or discouraged.

  3. I’m late to the dialog here but… I grew up in the ALC/ELCA, but didn’t come to a point of understanding the gospel until I was in college through the ministry of Campus Crusade. I don’t blame the Lutheran church for this—I think it was the hardness of my own heart—but I did go through a long period of thinking “I once was Lutheran, now I am a Christian.”

    I now have a great appreciation for Martin Luther and Lutheran theology. I credit Issues Etc and the White Horse Inn for helping me to see that Luther provided the foundation for the gospel that I finally came to understand through Campus Crusade.

    I have been a member of Evangelical Free Churches for the past 25 years, and am happy there. I draw on Luther, but am not considering going back to the Lutheran church (though there are things that are appealing about that idea). Where would I go? The ELCA is going off the theological deep end. I’m not sure what direction the LCMS is going (some are rather happy clappy, others want to stay in the 16th century). Plus the LCMS is heavily into young-Earth creationism, which I view as pseudo-apologetics.

    • Kevin,

      Many congregations in the LCMS don’t tow the young earth line. Where did you hear that we were?

      • Patrick:

        I have no doubt that there are LCMS congregations that don’t make a big deal about young-Earth creationism. My reasons for my statement are largely from personal experience and include:

        –Conversations with LCMS coworkers, who, if they have a viewpoint on the topic, are young-Earthers
        –Listening to Issues Etc, which I love, but is very adamant about YEC.
        –Looking at the books on creation available from Concordia Publishing House on creation
        –I cannot find any LCMS or LCMS church web site that allows for an old Earth.

        Thanks for your reply

      • This is from

        “A few weeks ago, Michael Spencer asked the Lutheran members (and lurkers) at the Boar’s Head Tavern to answer the question, ‘One thing that really sucks about Lutheranism is…’

        I find this a very easy question to answer. The feature of Actually Existing Lutheranism which causes me the most anguish and dismay is what I have described elsewhere as its “Babylonian captivity to young-earth creationism”. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, in particular, requires all pastors to subscribe to a 1932 statement of beliefs which insists on six-day creation, to the exclusion of any other interpretation or understanding of the biblical doctrine of creation.

        Emphasis added.

  4. One hundred comments about Luther and Lutheranism, and the word “beer” has only come up once!

  5. Kevin,
    Speaking as a pastor in the LCMS, the reason why we hold to a six day creation is primarily because to deny it (in favor of some system where death precedes man’s creation and the fall) is an assault on the Gospel. If death is normal, and not an abboration that is a result of sin, then Christ’s death is utterly meaningless. Furthermore, then a physical resurrection isn’t a solution because death isn’t a problem. If that is the case, I just might as well be a Nietzschian atheist as my faith would entirely be in vain.

    • Did you just say that all those who believe in evolution might as well be atheists?

      • No, but it is quite hard to consistently confess the Gospel and any system that involves death leading up to the first man…. a felicitous inconsistency… possibly… but still a sever inconsistency nonetheless..

      • What I would say is that if there is no resurrection of the dead, our faith is in vain… and yes… if that is the case Nietzsche is right.

    • Matt L:

      To me, the LCMS stance on creation is an unfortunate obstacle, and Biblically an unnecessary one as well.

      I see what you are saying when it comes to human death, but young-Earth creationism applies this to animal death as well, even though none of the relevant passages (Gen 3, Rom 5, Rom 8, 1 Cor 15) say anything whatsoever about animal death.

      Likewise, the creation passage says nothing that would prohibit biological evolution. Some portions even imply processes rather than fiat creation, such as Gen 1:24, which says, “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds'” (ESV). The current trend among young-Earthers is to advocate a rate of biological evolution after the Flood that would make an evolutionist blush.

      In summary, the LCMS stance on evolution is going beyond what the Scriptures themselves say.

      • Actually Scripture is clear, that all death, and the fallenness of creation is a result of man’s sin. I wholeheartedly disagree with your assertion that our stance on evolution goes beyond what the Scriptures say. Furthermore, we don’t have an “age of earth” stance. YEC is not to be necessarily confused with a rejection of speciation via evolution. Exegetically one cannot get around both Moses and Christ citing creation as the reason for the Sabbath, and thus it is impossible (unless one is wrong) to take those six days any other way than “normal” six days (and no I’m not going to get into a post enlightenment driven discussion about time keeping, ask any Jewish 4 year old what a day is and they will tell you “evening and morning”).

        • Matt:

          Which passage about Adam, sin, and death says anything about animals? Which passage forbids evolution? I gave one that infers processes being involved in the creation of life.

          You say that the LCMS has no stance on the age of the Earth, but then you seem to insist on a literal six calendar-day creation.

          As I said, I have a lot of respect for the LCMS (at least the Issues Etc wing). Lutheranism has a rootedness and Christ-centeredness that is at times absent from evangelicalism. As a scientist, however, I see the LCMS ties to young-Earth creationism as a problem.

          With respect.

          • Kevin,
            Gen. 1:24 hardly infers what you think it infers. In fact the context of the first chapter of Genesis is quite the contrary namely creation ex nihilo by the Word of God. Furthermore, before I get into a proof-texting spat, could we agree on the authority of Scripture, even in the face of contradictory scientific observations (such as dead people… not seemingly or mostly dead, but dead people… do not come back to life).

            My Scriptural proof however that death must not have preceded the fall is this: Christ died and rose from the dead of which the 4 Gospels testify and of which also nearly the rest of the New Testament proclaims.

            As a scientist, you would do well to listen to your very own field which has found that its own observations are quite imperfect. Not only that, but as we find in the study of quantum physics, the very act of observation affects the result… even the very substance of what is being observed. Ultimately, science must be ministerial to Scripture, serving it, but not being its master.

            The Gospel is such (as it is based on fact and not an ideology), that if one part were to be found to be not true, the whole thing unravels (not to cause a crisis of faith for any readers). One aspect of this is the scientifically absurd notion of the resurrection of the dead. Another, just as absurd from a scientific perspective (at least by popularity vote), is the creation. It is (to use an annoying term of those in the ID camp) irreducibly complex. If we are not created, there was no fall, thus no necessity for redemption, and surely no need to be raised from the dead, and thus our faith is in vain. But, just as Christ is risen, so to can we be assured of the Scriptural account (not a twisted perversion that makes science or reason lord over Scripture) of creation is in fact true.

          • Matt:

            I agree with you on the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture.

            I’m not advocating human death before the fall; only animal death before the fall, a topic on which the Scriptures are completely silent (and a topic on which young-Earth creationists are very vocal).

            If we are not created, there was no fall, thus no necessity for redemption, and surely no need to be raised from the dead, and thus our faith is in vain. — One could be a theistic evolutionist and still affirm this statement.

  6. Recently stumbled across your blog and this post really hit a spot for me. Can you please directly me to a good (and I stress good) resource that compares Calvin to Luther? Having been a guy that has been reading the bible for a decade or so and never getting caught up in anything other than just knowing God I have not studied them in depth and would appreciate some direction.

    As I am not a spring of income any free resources would be appreciate. I can google search myself however I would appreciate being directed to a resource that has been analyzed by someone that has a grasp of both views and appreciates a resource as being accurate in the analysis of both sides.

    In Christ,


    • This Philip Cary link was recommended above, so I’d suggest it again. It deals with the important topic of Sola Fide.