By Matthew C. Harrison
In June, Thrivent — a fraternal benefit society born of a merger of two Lutheran organizations — exhorted its Instagram followers, with a rainbow heart, to “Celebrate Pride Month.” Many folks who own Thrivent products have asked us for alternatives for life insurance and investments. I especially feel for the many faithful LCMS people who serve or have served as Thrivent agents whose consciences are burdened. I think of J.A.O. Preus I (father of former LCMS President Rev. Dr. J.A.O. “Jack” Preus II), who founded Lutheran Brotherhood. I think of the Lutherans (like my family) who served so well in these institutions for so long, and all the charitable dollars to worthy causes.
In other news, a congregation in Minnesota bearing the name “Lutheran” — though not one with which we are in fellowship — has gone viral for its use of the so-called “Sparkle Creed” at a Pride Sunday service in June. Again, our voicemails and inboxes lit up with those concerned that the Synod needed to issue a statement about this “creed,” which includes phrases such as “I believe in the non-binary God whose pronouns are plural. I believe in Jesus Christ, their son, who wore a fabulous tunic and had two dads.”
These are shocking developments, but not unexpected. Thrivent long ago shed “for Lutherans” from its name, and more recently dropped “for Christians.” In 2014, it stopped allowing Thrivent Choice donations to be directed to pro-life organizations (taking what they called a neutral position on the matter of abortion). And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has advocated for LGBTQ+ issues for decades. I pray for the many Christians in the ELCA. Thank God the dictum of the ancient church — “The ears of the hearers are more holy than the hearts of the priests” — remains true. God grant to all of us wretched sinners repentance and faith in Christ. By the way, I only mention the ELCA here because the national media, in its reporting on the “Sparkle Creed,” indiscriminately lumped all Lutherans together.
While once faithful church bodies in Australia and Japan have slipped away from historic, confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice, other churches — particularly in Africa, but also elsewhere — are throwing off their entanglements with the heterodox Lutheran World Federation and seeking LCMS pastors and professors to catechize them in more faithful doctrine and practice. This vital international role of our seminaries is often overlooked. We have more requests from around the world than we can meet.
This all raises the question: What is a Lutheran? Thrivent used to be “for Lutherans.” And as we can see, a church with “Lutheran” in its name can have its members confess, “I believe in the non-binary God whose pronouns are plural.”
Being a Lutheran does not mean being like Luther or believing everything he taught. Though God magnificently used the blessed reformer to restore the Gospel to its proper place in the church, we don’t confess everything Luther taught.
Being Lutheran is also not heritage or history. Churches descended from the Reformation are not necessarily Lutheran. And being Lutheran does not mean reinterpreting glorious and thoroughly biblical Lutheran words like “grace” to mean “tolerance,” or “vocation” to mean “service.”
Being Lutheran does mean subscribing to the specific teachings of the Lutheran Confessions because they accord with the doctrine revealed in Holy Scripture. You all know this confession, which is most simply put in Luther’s Small Catechism. The catechism sets forth the great basics of the faith: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession and the Lord’s Supper.
At the core of the catechism are these words: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”
This — the doctrine of justification, on which the church stands or falls — is what it means to be Lutheran. Everything else flows from it. Original sin and the preaching of the Law (apart from Christ, all of us are “lost and condemned persons”) are about justification. Because we know that God justifies sinners, we aren’t afraid of man’s sinful condition, nor do our sins terrify and oppress us. God reckons us righteous, by grace, for Christ’s sake.
Baptism — even infant Baptism — is about justification because the font is one of the places God does His justifying work, apart from any participation of our own. The Office of the Keys is about justification because the pastor’s absolving words are God’s justifying work. The Lord’s Supper is about justification because God gathers His saints around His altar to feed them with the price paid for their justification: the very body and blood of Jesus. Even the authority of the Bible is tied to justification. Jesus says the Bible testifies about Him (John 5), and those who believe in Jesus listen to Him. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
If a church body rejects God’s Law, it cannot call sinners to repentance. It loses the fullness of justification and ceases to be truly Lutheran. That’s why we must always proclaim Law and Gospel. If a congregation rejects the church’s historic creeds in favor of something made up to fit the sexual mores of the culture, it rejects justification, since Christ suffered on the cross to pay for man’s sins, not to permit and celebrate them.
If that’s what a Lutheran is, must one be a Lutheran to be saved? No. As the doctrine of justification rightly teaches, God saves people solely out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, through simple faith in Jesus as their Savior. Wherever His Word is preached — even if imperfectly — there is hope for sinners to be saved by the working of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
One pastor I know is fond of telling his parishioners that there are no Lutheran insomniacs, at least when it comes to eternal life. No Lutheran should stay awake at night worrying about his salvation. If justification is God’s work alone (which it is), and if He works through tangible means (which He does), then a Christian can remind himself that he is baptized by God and go happily to sleep.
The point of being Lutheran is comfort, not pride. God intends His people to have full and complete confidence that they are His because of His perfect work. This is justification. This is why I am a Lutheran. This joyful confidence is the baptismal birthright of every Christian. And it’s why we won’t confess the Sparkle Creed with the “church of what’s happening now.”
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Posted July 21, 2023