RICHARD DISHNORichard Dishno is assistant to the director of graduate studies and an instructor in church history at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Illinois. He has pastored Lutheran churches and served as a military chaplain.
In 1992, Americans will celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. In the same year, America’s Lutherans will celebrate the 1742 arrival of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg, the patriarch of American Lutheranism, on these shores exactly 250 years after Columbus.
Despite this long presence in America and nearly nine million members that make them America’s third-largest Protestant family, Lutherans have often been misunderstood in this country. At various times in American history, Lutherans have been seen as people who deliberately hold themselves aloof from the mainstream of religious life, sheltering themselves from involvement because of ethnocentrism and a sense of theological superiority or isolation. In recent decades, there has been a sense that America’s Lutherans have overcome the isolation to take their proper place among America’s Protestants. The question is now one of what to do with this sense of “arrival.”
Settling In America
A sense of recent arrival on the American scene may seem a bit odd given the long presence of the Lutheran church on this continent. As early as 1638, congregations were established in the colony of New Sweden on the Delaware. More permanent were the roots established in 1649 when Lutherans in the New Netherland colony first tried to call a pastor. The so-called Dutch Lutherans of the future New York actually included Germans, Scandinavians, and Poles. The arrival in 1659 of the first pastor, Johannes Gutwasser, so upset the Dutch Reformed establishment that he was promptly ordered to be deported by Gov. Peter Stuyvesant.
By the early eighteenth century, thousands of people from southwestern Germany sought refuge in colonial America. With the prominent exception of the Austrian Salzburgers in Georgia, few of them came for religious freedom. Instead, they came to escape bad weather, economic conditions, and the ravages of war. While early settlements were made in New York, the largest numbers came to the tolerant pluralistic colony of Pennsylvania where they settled on the frontier.
Most of the early congregations were founded by lay people. Over half were “union” churches with the German Reformed, although confessional distinctions were maintained in church life. The chief problem was a shortage of ministers to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. Many irregular “imposter” preachers, often men of less than sterling character, took advantage of the chaotic situation to impose themselves upon the German Lutherans of Pennsylvania, many of whom were indentured servants.
It was into this setting that pastor Henry Melchior Mühlenberg was sent in 1742 by the University of Halle in Germany to bring order and unity to the church in Pennsylvania. He was a man of untiring energy who visited small communities from New York to Georgia organizing congregational life. In his own personal stance, he epitomized two strands of the Lutheran heritage. With his Halle background, he is often described as a pietist stressing a conversion experience and the application of faith to the Christian life. His pietistic background enabled Mühlenberg to establish friendly relationships with like-minded pastors of other denominations who had been influenced by America’s Great Awakening.
However, Mühlenberg always objected to being called a pietist. His strong regard for the Reformation teachings of Martin Luther and for the Lutheran confessional writings brought him into the realm of Lutheran orthodoxy that stressed the importance of correct doctrine and theology. Mühlenberg’s moderation would lead to tensions with both pietistic and orthodox traditions. This is important since this basic tension would be present throughout American Lutheran history.
Immigrants And Unity
In 1748 Mühlenberg founded the Ministerium of North America, later known as the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first Lutheran synodical organization on the continent. It represents the ongoing Lutheran task of making a transition from the European state church to the American denomination.
Since Lutherans have not been burdened by a doctrinally mandated form of polity, they have been able to adopt basic structures that fit well in the contours of American society. Some results have been ironic. When Saxon refugees came to Perry County, Missouri, in 1839, they brought with them a strong episcopal polity. But when the first bishop, Martin Stephan, was found to be unworthy, the St. Louis pastor, C. F. W. Walther, guided the Saxons into the strong Congregationalism that has characterized the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Building on Mühlenberg’s basic synodical structures, new state and local synods were founded on the East Coast. Missionaries were sent from the east to the frontier as Germans moved west. New synods eventually arose in the recently settled areas. In 1820, under the leadership of Pastor Samuel S. Schmucker, four of the synods federated to form the general synod. Schmucker’s goals were to provide a bulwark against the rationalism that had infected parts of the church and establish an educational system for pastors.
The general synod was controversial from the beginning. David Henkel, the son of a famous frontier missionary, broke with the North Carolina synod to form the Tennessee synod on the basis of a solid commitment to the Lutheran confessions and opposition to the general synod. With his sharp polemics against revivalism and domination by easterners, his Tennessee synod was influential with German immigrants in the Midwest.
One of the problems that impeded unity even in Mühlenberg’s day was the language question. For many older Lutherans, it was unthinkable that God could be worshiped without the German language. Yet, the younger generation wanted to worship in the language of the land. Congregations split over the issue. The English-speaking Lutherans in the larger towns and cities of the East and on the western frontier discovered affinities with their Protestant evangelical neighbors. The Germans saw the growth of revivalism and benevolent societies in the English churches as leading to a watered-down Lutheranism. Not to be ignored is the fact that Lutherans were intermarrying with other ethnic groups. As early as 1810, an editor could note the emergence of a new race, the “Eirishdeutsche” (sic) in Pennsylvania, from the intermarriage of Germans and Scotch-Irish.
Complicating the picture further was the arrival of millions of immigrants from the Lutheran countries in the nineteenth century. A “German triangle” emerged in the Midwest from St. Louis to Cincinnati to Milwaukee. In the upper Midwest, thousands of Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns poured in to give that region a distinctive flavor. Many of the immigrants had been deeply influenced by the Lutheran Confessional Awakening in Europe, while many others had been affected by various revival movements, particularly in the Scandinavian countries. Thus the orthodox-pietist tension so evident in the colonial period was perpetuated during the time of the immigration.
New synodical bodies abounded among the various immigrant groups. Most were organized on an ethnic and regional basis, but theological tendencies that were held together under the umbrella of the state church in Europe tended to form separate denominations in America. Fierce verbal battles took place among the various groups, often on issues that seemed quite arcane to their American neighbors. One nineteenth-century commentator could refer to Lutherans as “the most bellicose Christians in America.” By 1900, Lutherans presented a bewildering picture of denominational disunity on the American scene.
While the ethnic factor stands out in any analysis of the Lutheran story in America, Lutherans did seek to extend their mission beyond the traditional boundaries from a very early date. For example, the Pennsylvania Lutherans formed Italian missions in the larger cities. The strongly German Missouri reached out to blacks in the post-Civil War South. The Wisconsin Synod was especially successful in missions to the Apaches in Arizona. Sigfrid Swensson, a student from the Swedish Augustana Synod, began work in Puerto Rico immediately following the Spanish-American War.
Splits And Mergers
World War I came as a shock to the divided Lutherans. German (and even some Scandinavian) congregations experienced persecution. Language transition was no longer an option. In many places it took place literally overnight. Church bodies that had been antagonistic to one another were forced to cooperate in bringing the ministry of the gospel to rapidly growing new communities and to people in uniform. With these factors and the end of massive immigration from Lutheran countries, Lutherans could begin to engage in efforts to bring unity to the church. While the process was not always smooth or edifying, a series of mergers culminated in the 1960s. By that time, 98 percent of all Lutherans were in four church bodies: the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
In the 1970s a relatively small schism in the Missouri Synod over the issue of biblical inerrancy would produce the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. This new group ignited a further unity movement that culminated in its merger in 1988 with the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Missouri and Wisconsin synods as well as the much smaller groups have remained apart from this new church.
For American Lutherans, the way to full participation in American life as well as maintaining the distinctives of Lutheran identity has been through Christian education. In Mühlenberg’s day, the Lutheran pastor was often accompanied by a schoolmaster, and the parochial school building was completed before the church.
That interest in education continues today. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod boasts American Protestantism’s largest school system. In the past, the parochial school was seen as a vehicle for keeping children free from contamination by other religious groups within the public school. However, recently the schools have been important in efforts to reach beyond the traditional constituency in providing quality education for all. Indeed, in recent years there have been experiments in several cities by other Lutherans, traditionally strong supporters of public schools, to provide alternatives through parochial schools.
The Lutheran passion for education is also reflected in the 50 liberal arts colleges and universities scattered across the United States and Canada. The immigrants would often sacrifice much for the fledgling institutions, which would provide not only Christian higher education for their youth but would provide a basis for group solidarity. The colleges were also envisioned as providers of ministers for the church.
But at the very center of the Lutheran educational experience is confirmation (see “Rites of Passage,” at left). Although it is not considered a sacrament in the sense that it is within Roman Catholicism, confirmation represents a milestone in the life of the young Lutheran when he or she claims full responsibility for the faith in Christ given in Holy Baptism. The practice of confirmation was challenged in the nineteenth century by revivalism, but essentially it remains a vital part of parish practice. The struggle and even pain to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism in order to repeat it aloud before the pastor and the congregation is an experience etched on the memories of those who have grown up in Lutheran America.
Rites of Passage
Lutherans of my generation know that confirmation does not always refer to hotel reservations. It could also be an ordeal, an adolescent rite of passage duly sanctified by God, the church, and parents who made you dress up better than usual. For my confirmation picture—dated May 11, 1941—I wore a green double-breasted suit, a silk tie, hair, and a cross, which still marks me.
In the four decades since then, my denomination, along with others, has determined there was not good biblical, theological, or ecclesiastical warrant for whatever we did at confirmation. I forget just what we did. What I remember is the ordeal accompanying the rite. For two years we memorized every word of a catechism; I can still recite most of it.
Everything built up to a climax on confirmation day, Palm Sunday. There was no sermon that day. Elders received teaching from the 13-year-olds. The pastor would ask surprise questions of each confirmand. ThatBodyft a legacy of stage fright, wet pants, and trauma. Or pride of achievement, for the lucky. Why this questioning? Because confirmation was the ticket to Communion. The apostle Paul said that people who did not examine themselves before Communion would eat and drink to their damnation. If we flunked, we might be intellectually incapable of self-examination, like those damnation-prone Lutherans down the block who had “open” Communion.
I forget my three questions, but I must have passed. Ruth R. won the laurels for the day. We 13-year-old town-and-country kids knew all about animal sexuality, but our imaginations were dim when it came to human mischief. The pastor had to explain what adultery meant. It meant not dancing at Shady Oaks near Norfolk. Why that stricture? Our breed of Lutherans wasn’t strict about everything. I recall seeing one pious grandfather through the blue haze of his Prince Albert smoke as he played cards until all hours, surrounded by fellow beer-drinking buddies. Lutheran pastors always knew where to get beer and wine during Prohibition. Still, no dancing: at Shady Oaks you might meet and marry a Catholic or, worse, the wrong kind of Lutheran. Shady Oaks was a “road house.”
Ruth, can you give an example of committing adultery? “It means when young people go dancing in outhouses.” Oops! That was the only light moment I recall from the years of attending childhood confirmations.
I, for one, value the catechismal training, the organized learning, the festivities. I was confirmed. I could attend close, or closed, Communion. I was a man.
Today in denominations like ours children commune long before adolescence, and confirmation is downplayed. The anthropologists would tell us we may be theologically correct, but in terms of modern culture and human psychology we are wrong. Perhaps that’s why a colleague laughed when she saw post-Vatican II “ethnic Catholic girls” done up in “first Communion” dresses. But I can understand it; those girls were the center of their family’s universes. They were going through the ordeal. They won’t forget something of what the rest of us have to relearn.
By Martin E. Marty, a senior editor of the Christian Century, from which this has been reprinted with permission.
Worship In Word And Sacrament
The center of all Lutheran church life is the worshiping community. In Mühlenberg’s time, liturgies were brought from Germany in various forms. Mühlenberg sought to bring unity through his Liturgy of 1748. This liturgy was modified over the years by the various tendencies affecting church life. The transition to the English language produced many new variations.
Much consensus was achieved through the Common Service of 1888. With its adaptation by the midwestern church bodies in their English hymnals, it formed the basis for unity in worship throughout American Lutheranism. Its influence is still reflected in the Lutheran Book of Worship of the ELCA and Lutheran Worship of the LCMS, and will undoubtedly be seen in the forthcoming Wisconsin Synod hymnal.
No account of Lutheran worship life would be complete without mentioning the importance of music. It is estimated that no fewer than 20,000 hymns have arisen in the Lutheran church since the Reformation. Lutherans have always been a singing people, and it is often in the hymns that the deepest expressions of Lutheran faith and piety are found. Lutheran congregations are often noted for the quality of choirs, congregational singing, and organ playing.
Lutherans And American Society
It has been said that Lutheran evangelism once was merely a matter of waiting for traditional Lutheran immigrants and their families. But as one Lutheran leader said, “The boats stopped and the pill worked.” Whether or not early American Lutherans remained aloof from society is open to debate. Indeed, Mühlenberg and other early leaders took an active role in the politics of their day. But since World War II, there has been a change in the relationship of America’s Lutherans to the society in general.
Suburban growth and population mobility have produced congregations that have no identifiable ethnic base. Growing pluralism in American society has produced tensions within the church bodies. Economic problems in the traditional regions of Lutheran strength—the “rust belt” and the “farm belt”—have forced adjustments to new realities. There has been a growing recognition of the need to reach beyond traditional constituencies to include ethnic minorities and new immigrants.
Indicative of the changes has been the growing participation of Lutherans in national life. When William Rehnquist was named to the Supreme Court, he became the highest-ranking Lutheran in government since Frederick Augustus Mühlenberg, the first Speaker of the House of Representatives. In the 1980s, Senators Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Paul Simon of Illinois became the first Lutherans to seek the presidency.
The various church bodies have also had to grapple with the social issues of the day. Tensions have arisen within the Lutheran community over such issues as war and peace, feminism, abortion, or gay rights. Although such divisive issues have been present throughout Lutheran history in America, the postwar period has been a time when the churches have grappled for answers consistent with their understanding of Holy Scriptures and the theology of the church. Some of the debates have reached the congregational level where discussion has been lively.
America’s Lutherans face a world much different than that of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg. Yet many of the basic issues remain the same. In the future, Lutherans will undoubtedly face the same question of being truly a part of American society without losing the distinctive confessional Lutheran commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ as was faced by their colonial forebears. Mühlenberg’s slogan, Ecclesia plantanda (the Church must be planted) still remains appropriate as they face that future.
A Global Church
Like many other churches, Lutherans have become more conscious in the twentieth century of being a worldwide community. As a world communion, most Lutherans belong to the Lutheran World Federation. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a member, while the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod have remained apart.
As might be expected, the largest numbers of Lutherans are found in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. West Germany, with about 26 million, has more Lutherans than any other country in the world while the Church of Sweden, with 7 million members, is the largest single Lutheran church body. Smaller churches are found in most of the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. A majority of the population of Estonia and Latvia are of Lutheran heritage. With the advent of glasnost, the German Lutheran Church in the Soviet Union has been reconstituted to minister to large congregations in Siberia.
Lutheran growth has been striking in the Third World. The first Lutheran missions were planted in India in 1706 by Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg. In 1842, Father J. C. F. Heyer was sent to India as the first American Lutheran missionary. Lutherans in India now number more than a million. After the European countries and the United States, Indonesia contains more Lutherans than any other land, while the churches in Japan and Hong Kong have been noted for their theological leadership.
Large Lutheran church bodies also exist in Africa, especially in the countries of Tanzania, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Almost half of the people of Namibia are Lutheran church members, and they have been at the forefront of the movement for liberation in that country. South African Lutherans have been at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.
Latin American Lutherans number over one million. The largest church is the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, which resulted from German immigration. American missions have also been present in Latin America. An American, William Gorski, serves as bishop of the Chilean church.
The Lutheran Church in Australia is a strongly confessional church body descended from German immigrants in the nineteenth century. Papua New Guinea also has a very large and active Lutheran church.
Globalization has been a key word in defining Lutheran mission in recent years. Active scholarship and exchange programs, especially at the graduate-school level, have given Lutherans in all parts of the world a sense of interdependence and mutuality.
By Richard Dishno.
SAMUEL H. NAFZGERSamuel H. Nafzger is executive director of the commission on theology and church relations for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Ask ten Lutherans what they believe, and you will probably get fairly similar answers. That is because Lutheran churches are creedal churches, which means the creed, or formal statement of belief, is more important than personal experiences or personalities for their self-understanding. Lutherans define themselves not by organizational structure (Lutheran bodies range from congregational to episcopal), or by rite or ceremony (there are high and low-church Lutherans), but by written confessions of what they understand the Bible, which alone can determine doctrine, to teach.
Those confessions, documents that present what Lutherans believe, were assembled and published in 1580 in The Book of Concord. These statements have served as an authoritative source of what the world’s 250-plus Lutheran church bodies profess to believe. Significantly, the first documents included in The Book of Concord are the three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.
The early Lutherans did not want to be doctrinal innovators. They, together with their contemporary descendants, maintain that they teach nothing more and nothing less than what the Scriptures teach and what Christians through the ages have believed. Lutherans therefore consider themselves to be catholic (small c, from a Greek word meaning literally “universal”). At the same time, Lutherans have always thought of themselves as evangelical (in some countries, the Lutheran church is still today referred to as simply the evangelical church).
At the heart, core, and center of what Lutherans believe is the evangel—the gospel, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Lutherans, therefore, can rightly be regarded as evangelical catholics. Standing firmly in the tradition of the trinitarian and Christological formulations of the fourth and fifth centuries, they believe that sinners are justified (declared right) with the Creator God by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), on the basis of Scripture alone (sola scriptura). These three great “Reformation solas” form a handy outline of what Lutherans believe.
At the heart of what Lutherans believe is the conviction that salvation is the free gift of God’s grace (undeserved mercy) for Christ’s sake alone.
“Since the fall of Adam, all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin,” the Lutherans confessed before Emperor Charles V in Augsburg, Germany, in 1530. This “inborn sickness and hereditary sin” makes it utterly impossible for people to earn forgiveness and salvation. Were salvation dependent on human initiative, there would be no hope for anyone. But God forgives our sins, says Luther in his Large Catechism (1529), “altogether freely, out of pure grace.”
The basis for the grace of God that alone gives hope to sinners is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lutherans believe, as Luther put it in his explanation to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, “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 creature … not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death.”
God’s grace in Christ Jesus is universal, embracing all people of all times and all places. There are no sins for which Christ has not died, including those of Alexander the Great, Josef Stalin, or your neighbor. Says the Formula of Concord (1577), “We must by all means cling rigidly and firmly to the fact that as the proclamation of repentance extends over all men (Luke 24:47), so also does the promise of the Gospel.… Christ has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” Therefore, there need be no question in any sinner’s mind whether Christ has died for his personal sins.
While God’s grace is universal and embraces all people, Lutherans believe that it can be appropriated by sinful human beings only through faith. Here is where Luther’s decisive break came with the understanding of the doctrine of justification that had generally prevailed in the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages.
A thousand years before the Reformation, Saint Augustine (354–430) had strongly fought against the errors of a monk named Pelagius. Pelagius has generally been understood to have taught that sinners could contribute to their salvation by their own efforts, apart from God’s grace in Christ. Relying on Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, Augustine held that Adam’s fall into sin had so corrupted human nature that the human will was completely depraved and enslaved to the flesh. But following conversion, and infused with renewing grace by means of baptism, said Augustine, sinners begin to be healed, and they are actually empowered to perform good works. Christians, according to Augustine, continue to commit some sins, but they begin to do more good things and fewer bad things as they are gradually justified by God—a notion still held by some Christians today.
This Augustinian understanding of justification by grace, later rejected by Luther, was nevertheless of great help to him at the beginning of his career as he fought against the crass works-righteousness of indulgence selling. But try as he might, Luther’s troubled heart would give him no rest. Despite his best efforts, Luther could not find in himself that pure love that Augustine said Christians were capable of manifesting following conversion. Following years of struggle over this question, Luther finally discovered the full meaning of “through faith alone.” God’s grace is the sole basis of salvation for the sinner only when it is appropriated solely through faith.
Luther had learned from Augustine that only the grace of God could save him. But Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel in all its clarity began when he came to see that he did not first have to do something to merit God’s saving grace. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague at the University of Wittenberg, writes in the Augsburg Confession, “Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3–4).”
The implications of salvation “through faith alone” permeate everything Lutherans believe. For example, Lutherans hold that the conversion of sinners is a gift of God and not the result of any human effort or decision. Lutherans therefore confess in the words of Luther, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel.”
Lutherans recognize the use of reason to expose anti-Christian argumentation and are by no means anti-intellectual. But they reject all suggestions that scientific evidence or rational arguments can lend any credibility to Christian truth claims. While upholding the importance of emotion and feeling in the life of the Christian, Lutherans steadfastly repudiate any reliance on conversion experiences or “charismatic gifts” for the certainty of salvation. (While there are Lutherans in the charismatic movement, their tendency to emphasize such things as special conversion experiences, speaking in tongues, and faith healing have been a source of tension and conflict within some of the individual Lutheran bodies.)
For Lutherans, the sole object of saving faith is the cross of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, and it is only by the miraculous power of God the Holy Spirit that the Christian can say, “I believe.” Faith itself is not a human work but a gift from God. Moreover, Spirit-worked faith is more than the acceptance of facts, but it includes trust in the heart.
Are Lutherans Evangelicals?
The largest American Lutheran body is also the only mainline church that uses the word evangelical as part of its name. But being mainline, it is generally not thought of as evangelical. On the other hand, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in many ways seems close to contemporary American evangelicalism. They champion inerrancy, take a strong stand against abortion, and shun the liberal-leaning NCC and WCC. But they do not like to be called evangelical.
Other smaller Lutheran bodies—notably the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Lutheran Brethren—could easily be considered evangelicals, but they are so small they as yet do not represent American Lutheranism.
So why this reluctance among Lutherans to march under the banner of contemporary evangelicalism? And why do evangelicals hold most Lutherans at arm’s length? According to David P. Scaer, academic dean at the LCMS’s Concordia Seminary—Fort Wayne (Ind.), Lutherans insist on going beyond evangelicalism. “Even if evangelicals and Lutherans stress the necessity of faith, their understanding differs,” Scaer says. “Evangelicals see faith as personal decision and commitment. It becomes the one work necessary for salvation, and thus the Reformation repudiation of salvation by works is significantly modified. Lutherans see faith as God’s gift given by the Spirit in the gospel, especially in baptism.”
Malcolm L. Minnick, Jr., executive director of the ELCA’s division for outreach, believes Lutherans and evangelicals may be more similar than most people think. “We are evangelical in our emphasis on the good news of the gospel as revealed in Jesus Christ and in our belief that the Holy Spirit empowers the church and its individual members,” Minnick says. But he believes perceptions of Lutherans as being too formal or placing too much emphasis on confessional doctrine may lead some to exclude Lutherans from the evangelical family.
Neither the ELCA nor the LCMS belongs to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and according to NAE executive director Billy Melvin, both groups will probably remain outside his organization. “By deciding to join the National and World Councils of Churches, the ELCA has effectively identified themselves as not being evangelical, as we understand that term,” Melvin says. The LCMS has sent observers to the NAE convention for several years, but Melvin says at this point there has been no talk of the LCMS joining NAE. “But because of their conservative theology, most evangelicals have a favorable view of the LCMS,” Melvin says.
Conversion And Infant Baptism
“Through faith alone” also implies that it is only through the proclamation of the gospel—in Word and sacrament—that the Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith. The proclamation of the gospel Word in public preaching occupies a central position in Lutheran theology, but this alone does not set Lutherans apart from other Protestants. Lutherans also believe that the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are means of grace. They have God’s command and promise. Here is where Lutherans differ from many evangelicals.
According to Luther, baptism “is the Word of God in water.” Lutherans believe that it is precisely in the baptism of infants, who are included in Christ’s great commission, that we can see the full meaning of “through faith alone.” Those who deny that God gives faith to infants through baptism in effect deny salvation by grace alone. To say that faith depends on a person’s ability to understand and to make a decision makes faith a human work rather than a pure gift of God through which alone he gives us salvation. This is why most Lutherans, if asked whether they are “born again” or to describe a conversion experience, will either look perplexed or else point to their baptism as infants.
Lutherans also believe that “the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper are the true body and blood of Christ,” as they confess in the Smalcald Articles (1537). In, with, and under the earthly elements, God gives the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
Lutherans therefore seek a balance in their public worship between the proclamation of the gospel in the Word and in sacrament. It is only through these “means of grace” that sinners are brought to faith in Jesus Christ and preserved in it. As a result, Lutherans are wary of any church-growth planning and strategies that do not have Word and sacrament at their center.
Finally, to say “through faith alone” means that Lutherans believe, to use a phrase Luther made famous, Christians are at the same time sinners and saints (simul justus et peccator). Justification is an act, not a process. Through faith in Christ, and only through faith, sinners are declared to be forgiven and to be perfectly right with God. This declaration is whole and complete, totally independent of any inherent goodness in the sinner. In short, because of God’s act on the cross received through faith, the sinner becomes a perfect saint in God’s sight. But this does not mean that the forgiven sinner, when judged by God’s law, does not continue to be a sinner. Lutherans are not “perfectionists.” “Forgiveness is needed constantly,” says Luther. “Because we are encumbered with our flesh, we are never without sin.”
This has led some to accuse Lutherans of advocating “cheap grace”—taking sin for granted and ignoring concern for a life of holy living. Such notions are a perversion of what Lutherans believe. “Love and good works must also follow faith,” writes Melanchthon, because “God has commanded them and in order to exercise our faith.” Good works are necessary—but not for salvation.
This emphasis on “grace freely given” raises an obvious question: “Why are some people saved and others not?” Lutherans refuse to give a logically satisfying answer. To Calvinists—who teach that since salvation is God’s free gift, hell for those who do not believe must be proof that God does not want everyone to be saved—Lutherans maintain that God “earnestly desires that all men should come to him and let themselves be helped.” And to those who look for some inherent reason in the hearts of believers as to why they come to faith and others do not, Lutherans confess that “it is indeed correct and true what Scripture states, that no one comes to Christ unless the Father draw him.” If sinners come to believe in Christ, this is the result of God’s power at work in them. If they continue to reject the gospel, this is their own fault. Lutherans do not regard this response as a cop-out but simply as faithfulness to what the Scriptures themselves teach about the doctrine of election. And this brings us to the final sola, “Scripture alone.”
Luther’s insight that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone cannot be divorced from “on the basis of Scripture alone.” For it was directly as a result of his commitment to Scripture that Luther came to this view.
Together with his contemporaries, Luther held that Scripture is the Word of God that does not mislead. But unlike his opponents in the Roman Catholic church, Luther rejected the notion that an infallible magisterium of the church was necessary for the right interpretation of the Bible. Scripture alone, said Luther, is infallible. The institutional church and its councils, as well as its teachers, including the pope, can err. But Scripture, says Luther, “will not lie to you.” While maintaining a deep appreciation for the church catholic, Lutherans believe that Scripture alone—and not Scripture and tradition, Scripture and the church, Scripture and human reason, or Scripture and experience—stands as the final standard of what the gospel is.
But Lutherans believe that confidence in the reliability of the Bible is not possible apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Lutherans believe the Scriptures because they first believe in Jesus Christ. Christ is the object of faith, not the Bible. According to Lutheran belief, the inversion of this order compromises sola scriptura and results in rationalistic fundamentalism, as if an accepted demonstration of the Bible’s truthfulness and reliability—perhaps a piece of Noah’s ark, for example—could provide a foundation for faith in the gospel. The Bible remains a dark book apart from faith in Christ, for he is its true content. But when the sinner is brought to faith in him, Christ points him back to the prophets and apostles as the sole authoritative source for the content of the gospel.
The key to understanding Scripture properly, Lutherans believe, is the careful distinction between the law and the gospel. Melanchthon writes in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), “All Scriptures should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises [gospel]. In some places it presents the law. In others it presents the promise of Christ; this it does when it promises that the Messiah will come and promises forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life for His sake.”
The law tells what God demands of sinners to be saved. The gospel reveals what God has already done for our salvation. The chief purpose of the law is to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. The gospel offers the free gift of God’s salvation in Christ. It is in the proper distinction of law and gospel that the purity of the gospel is preserved and the three solas of grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone are united. Not to make this distinction compromises, and even destroys, the gospel.
Where Lutherans Part
Differences among America’s Lutherans find their source primarily in this third Lutheran distinctive. While all American Lutheran churches profess allegiance to sola scriptura, they do not all agree on its implications. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and most, if not all, of the smaller American Lutheran church bodies hold that sola scriptura is compromised when the inerrancy of the Bible is denied, which in turn endangers both sola gratia and sola fide. They therefore reject the use of historical criticism in the study of the Bible.
The newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) accepts in its constitution the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation. At the same time, within the ELCA there is the use of historical criticism in the study of the Bible and the acceptance of the view that Scripture is not without error in matters of history and science.
Other major doctrinal differences between the two largest American Lutheran bodies can be traced directly to this disagreement on the meaning of sola scriptura. For example, the Missouri Synod rejects the ordination of women as contrary to the Scriptures, and holds that complete agreement in doctrine is the necessary basis for church fellowship. The ELCA, on the other hand, affirms the ordination of women and therefore is willing to practice models of church fellowship with other church bodies even where all doctrinal issues are not resolved. For these reasons, the ELCA and the LCMS are not in altar and pulpit fellowship with each other, though they work together in such areas as world relief and refugee settlement.
In addition to the three solas, Lutherans believe that there is “one, holy, Christian Church on earth,” which is made up of all believers in Jesus Christ wherever they are to be found. This one church is not to be identified with any one institutional denomination. All Christians are members of this one church, and they are all members of the royal priesthood of all believers. At the same time, Lutherans believe that God has instituted the office of pastor for the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments on behalf of and with accountability to the church. Distinctions among those holding this office (between pastors and bishops, for example) are of human, not divine, origin. The historic episcopate, therefore, while permissible and perhaps even helpful, is not divinely mandated.
The primary mission of the church, according to Lutheran belief, is the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. The state, on the other hand, has the divinely given mandate to provide for the temporal peace and tranquility of its citizens. So Lutherans advocate a certain institutional separation but functional interaction between church and state. (Here again, Missouri Synod Lutherans tend to be more hesitant than the ELCA to become involved in political issues, limiting the church’s role with respect to the state to those issues clearly addressed in Scripture.)
Simply stated, Lutherans believe that in Christ alone is there salvation—by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone. To share this message with the world is the mission of the church and the reason for its existence.
MICHAEL G. MAUDLIN
Feuding cousins. That is how America’s two main Lutheran denominations—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), which together constitute 93 percent of America’s Lutherans—tend to see each other. But the feud is nothing new. Lutherans have been walking at arm’s length from one another ever since the second group of Lutherans arrived in America (see p. 18).
Although the two major American Lutheran bodies share much in common, including a 700-page summary of their beliefs, they have found plenty to disagree about: open versus closed Communion, the role of women in the church, the church’s involvement in politics, and so on. Few see the possibility of the two groups getting together anytime soon.
But though they may be walking down different roads, both groups face similar struggles. Declining and aging memberships, the erosion of European identities, a more pluralistic and post-Christian nation—all are factors the churches must deal with. And that is what they did this past summer. Both denominations met in national assemblies and wrestled with questions about their identities and futures.
Missouri In Wichita
With muggy, 90-plus degree weather, Wichita in July welcomed the LCMS for its fifty-seventh national convention. But the atmosphere wasn’t any better inside the convention center.
An intense and sometimes bitter preconvention campaign for the presidency of the 2.6 million—member denomination had divided the delegates. The aggressors, those trying to unseat the current president, Ralph Bohlmann, were variously described as “conservatives,” “far right,” “traditionalists,” or all three at once. Their issues, which they thought the current administration was “soft” on, were described by their candidate, Robert Sauer, as “unionism” and “women.”
Which is ironic. Because in the seventies these were the same two issues that were said to be at stake when the Missouri Synod went through a painful split, losing a scattering of churches with a hundred thousand members and almost a whole seminary. At that time both sides of the current hostilities were united against the “liberals”—those who looked favorably on the ordination of women, the ecumenical movement, and the historical-critical method of Bible interpretation. That faction became the short-lived American Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC). Looking back on how the church handled the controversy, President Bohlmann calls it a “modern miracle” that a liberal-leaning denomination was able to clean house and restore orthodoxy.
But some think the revolution has not gone far enough, and that is what the current battle is over. While everyone is still on the same side of the original issues, the issues themselves have been nuanced. Instead of aggressive ecumenism, one of the current issues is whether or not pastors should be disciplined for holding Reformation or Easter services with other non-Missouri Lutheran churches. Instead of the ordaining of women, now it is whether or not women should be allowed to read Scripture in church or help with Holy Communion (some see these as functions of the pastoral office and thus prohibited by Scripture). Both sides uphold the inerrancy of Scripture.
Despite the intensity of the politicking, the battle was over quickly. On the first day of the convention, Bohlmann was reelected on the first ballot with 52 percent of the vote. While not an overwhelming mandate, many delegates saw in the vote the denomination’s desire to get on with the work of the church. Unfortunately, peace did not break out. Offers of peace by Bohlmann and former president J. A. O. Preus were accompanied by words of rebuke and advice for the conservatives to “shut down.” At the same time, the conservatives expressed frustration that they were being closed out of their church. And activities subsequent to the convention have guaranteed that this battle will continue to occupy at least the immediate future of the LCMS.
Inclusivity In Chicago
In August the first national convention of the ELCA met beneath the flight path of airplanes coming and going from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
Unlike the Wichita gathering, this meeting of America’s largest Lutheran body was fairly calm because, for starters, there were no polarizing issues before the assembly, and the church’s main officers were not up for reelection. More important, the delegates seemed simply pleased to be there. The denomination is less than two years old, formed January 1, 1988, by the merger of three Lutheran groups: the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the Missouri breakaway group, the AELC. As one pastor described it, he was delighted that everyone said “we” and “us.”
But there were some troubling clouds. For one, the church had a first-year deficit of $15 million. Also, there were questions about just what kind of denomination they wanted to become.
Voting to downscale the budget to 88 percent of the current level and instituting a cost-saving pension plan helped to handle the deficit, at least for the short run. And there was some reflection on the fact that total giving was actually up; it simply isn’t being passed on to the national office.
Questions about denominational identity were a larger concern. Should they be more mainline or independent? How will they react to the prochoice, prolife, and progay lobbyists within the church? Whom should they reach out to in their ecumenical and evangelistic strategies?
In keeping with their tradition of ecumenical involvement, the assembly voted to maintain membership in both the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the National Council of Churches (NCC), which was significant because membership in both organizations had been only provisional until the vote and because not all the original constituting churches had been members.
The buzz word from the platform was inclusivity. At the constituting convention in 1987 the assembly set a goal of having 10 percent of the denomination’s membership being “people of color or people whose primary language is other than English.” While the current ratio within the denomination is 1.8 percent, the convention’s representation matched the quota.
Women’s issues and feminist concerns also fall under the rubric of “inclusivity.” One pastor referred to God as “she” in his sermon, adding “I don’t know what gender God is, but I don’t want to rule anything out.” Over 50 percent of lay delegates and 21 percent of the clergy were women.
Potentially divisive issues such as abortion and homosexuality were raised, but the assembly avoided acting on them. The primary purpose of this first meeting seemed to be just getting to know one another.
Facing The Facts
Declining, graying, marginalized. Other than for the Catholic church, these words have characterized America’s traditional church bodies. And America’s two main Lutheran denominations are no exception.
For both, membership decline has not been as precipitous as it has been for other groups: Since 1965, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, for example, have declined by over 25 percent, and the Methodists by 18 percent. The LCMS, on the other hand, has only shown a 5 percent loss over the same time period. (Because of mergers, it is harder to determine the exact numbers for the ELCA, although in the last year they only lost two-thirds of 1 percent of their total membership.)
But determining who is falling the slowest only provides relative comfort, and even that solace disappears when one gazes upon the statistical and demographic future.
Both churches are strongest where America is most in decline: the farm and rust belts of the Midwest. Of the 8.5 million Lutherans in the U.S., over one million dwell in Minnesota alone. Also, despite strong youth programs—and for the LCMS, a strong parochial school system—the congregations for both church bodies are growing older. In the ELCA, for example, 40 percent of its members are aged 55 or over, whereas the percentage for the U.S. population is only 26 percent. And the group that makes up over 90 percent of both churches—white, middle class, of European ancestry—also has one of the lowest birth rates in the nation.
Charts and number crunching seldom paint a complete picture. Neither group is in any danger of disappearing, and both Bishop Herbert Chilstrom (ELCA) and President Bohlmann gave statements that they expected their churches to start growing. Said Bohlmann, “We should be growing much more than we are.” Their strategies for how they will accomplish this turnaround, however, differ markedly.
Open Or Closed
Historically, the churches that make up the ELCA have grown through denominational mergers. Both the LCA and the ALC were born in the early sixties through a coming together of smaller Lutheran bodies. But with the formation of the ELCA, this method of growth has come to a halt. None of the remaining Lutheran churches in America wishes to merge.
The challenge for the ELCA is to go beyond its traditional constituencies. Thus, it aggressively pursues ecumenical concerns. In a statement passed at the convention, the ELCA committed itself to “Christian unity” with the goal of “full communion, i.e., the full or complete realization of unity with all those churches that confess the Triune God.” The church is in communion fellowship with the Episcopal church and is in dialogue with a wide range of other church bodies. Church historian and ELCA minister Martin Marty comments, however, that institutional mergers are unlikely. Since “you lose more than you gain in the homogeneous model,” he feels that ecumenical associations of distinct church groups will be the more likely scenario.
Thus, for the first time in its history, the church cannot depend on external factors for growth. This is where the strategy of inclusivity comes into play. Mission90, a document presented by Bishop Chilstrom and adopted by the assembly, states that “congregations will give priority to evangelism. They will take up the challenge to increase the rate of growth, or diminish the rate of decline, in membership. A specific part of their efforts will be to invite persons of diverse racial, ethnic, language, cultural, and economic backgrounds to become members of this church.”
While it is hard to argue with the sentiments expressed in the document, some worry about the practical implications. Chicago ELCA pastor Paul Landahl argues that there is a danger in being so open that the church’s Lutheran identity becomes “fuzzy.” Martin Marty sees church-growth strategists running around the denomination telling everyone to do whatever it takes to bring people in. If churches follow their advice, he predicts that four-and-a-half centuries of the Lutheran gospel could be lost in half a generation once all the moorings are removed. He feels that “the church grows by natural inclusivity if it is alive.”
The Missouri Synod also plans to step up its evangelistic efforts, but it will do so without facing the dangers and tensions of openness. By their own admission, they are firmly “closed,” or opposed to forming close ecclesiastical relationships with other denominations.
In Wichita, the LCMS celebrated the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the “Great Emigration.” In 1839, 600 Germans came to Missouri from Saxony to escape a forced union with the Reformed church. A few years later this group became the Missouri Synod. Ever since that time the church has been wary of other Christian groups. This is expressed institutionally in their practice of “closed” Communion and their requirements for “union.”
Communion is closed in that it is generally only offered to Missouri Synod Lutherans who are in good standing with a local church. This is in opposition to the “open” Communion practiced by the ELCA, where all baptized and believing Christians who can affirm the real Presence in the Eucharist are invited to participate.
The LCMS’s doctrine of “unionism” can also be characterized as “closed” since it stipulates that there must be full theological unity with another church body before the two can participate in joint worship or fellowship. “Theological unity” covers most everything, including practice and polity. Thus the LCMS is not in fellowship with any other American church group even though virtually all of the Lutheran bodies in the U.S. share an identical confession of faith (The Book of Concord).
While this stance has allowed the denomination to maintain a remarkable degree of consistency over the years, it has also served to isolate them from other Christian groups. Some of their theologians and spokesmen occasionally participate in evangelical gatherings (the recent Evangelical Affirmations conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, being one example), but this is peripheral to the main work of the church. As David Mahsman, the denomination’s director of news and information, explains it, “We have no official category for recognizing other Christians.”
This closed stance affects how the church plans to carry out its evangelism. In the president’s report to the convention, Bohlmann shared his dreams of what the LCMS would look like in 1995 if the churches carried out “faithfully and effectively” the Great Commission. Implicit in each of the two-and-a-half pages of hopes and wishes was the assumption that doctrinal integrity and faithful Lutheran practice will cause the church to grow. Only one paragraph is devoted to local evangelism, and that is in the form of church planting.
This underscores a weakness and a strength for both Lutheran groups. Neither of the churches has a tradition of evangelism. In the past, the ELCA has depended on unions, immigration, and births for its members, and the LCMS on the latter two. Martin Marty thinks the problem goes all the way back to Martin Luther, “who was horrible at personal evangelism.” But at the same time, both groups are absolutely convinced that they have what the world needs: the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.
Making A Place For Women
Besides strategies for evangelism, the churches also differ markedly when it comes to the prospects for women’s involvement in Christian service. With the growing involvement of women in all levels of secular society, how a church treats women will have a dramatic effect on the constituency to which the church appeals. And the approach of these two churches could be described as celebratory versus suspicious.
For the ELCA, having women pastors is becoming almost commonplace. Of their 17,000 clergy, over 1,000 are women. Plans are under way for celebrating at the next convention the twentieth anniversary of women’s ordination. Currently, there are no women among the 65 ELCA bishops, but many think this will probably change in the near future.
The LCMS sees the ELCA’s ordaining of women as one of the main causes of division between the two bodies. When asked about the worst-case scenario for where the LCMS will be in ten years, New England District President David Mulder immediately pointed to the possibility that the church would be ordaining women. Others voiced the same perspective. Because of recent history, all issues surrounding the role of women within the LCMS have become so politicized that the ordination of women has come to symbolize a capitulation to liberalism and the loss of a commitment to biblical inerrancy.
Mulder went on to explain that besides the debate over the biblical role of the pastor, it is a fear of the “domino effect” that fuels the current debates regarding the role of women within the church. He feels that many in the LCMS think that if you allow a girl to be an acolyte, or if you allow a woman to read Scripture during the service or to help with Communion or to be the president of the congregation, then she will want to be pastor.
But John Johnson, president of LCMS’s Concordia College-Saint Paul, calls this kind of thinking “illogical,” and argues for the exact opposite position. “It’s very important that women have exactly the same rights and privileges of serving the church as a male does except in a position where Scripture itself puts a prohibition on that kind of service. I fear that if Missouri Synod does not take more seriously the gifts and talents that women bring to the church, then we are going to find ourselves out of step with the church and society in the twenty-first century.” President Bohlmann agrees and adds that while he upholds the church’s prohibition of the ordination of women, “part of my leadership will be to help more women have a more active and fulfilling role in the service of the church.”
Lutheran sociologist Alvin Schmidt comments that the church’s stand on women’s ordination may not be as permanent as many think. The LCMS is just as susceptible, he thinks, to the influence of culture as other church bodies, though perhaps at a slower rate. After all, until recently the use of usury, life insurance, participation in the Boy Scouts, and women’s suffrage (allowing women to vote in the congregation) were all thought to be unscriptural and thus prohibited by the LCMS. These practices are all now either allowed or actively endorsed by the church.
The challenge for the LCMS is to articulate its opposition to women’s ordination without sounding misogynist. That is one of the goals of the six-member President’s Commission on Women. These women want to help the church, through forums and reports, to explain the church’s positions in “user-friendly” terms. Their research has found that most LCMS women are very content with their church and do not desire ordination, but at the same time they are frustrated by the limitations to their ability to serve. Says Jean Garton, chair of the commission, “Many of our young women are leaving the Missouri Synod.”
Marching By Grace
There are other differences between the two groups. The ELCA tends to be more vocal in its political advocacy—voting to recommend that the U.S. halt all military aid to Central America, for instance—while the LCMS traditionally remains silent on such matters—with the abortion issue being a notable exception. But despite seeming to go in different directions, the churches share a surprising number of similarities.
Both are robust institutionally, being involved in myriad ministries to the aged, the homeless, those with AIDS, the blind, the deaf, the sick, the poor, the prisoners, and also the lost. Both are active in international missions and plan to increase this emphasis.
While the ELCA holds the reputation of being the more liberal of the two groups, both have weathered time by remaining remarkably faithful to Lutheran traditions and creeds. Compared to the European Lutheran churches, all of America’s Lutherans would be considered theologically conservative.
Also, people at each convention expressed an extreme amount of pride in their church. They both point to their doctrine, the sacraments, the liturgy and worship, the emphasis on Christ and the Bible. In fact, many Lutherans seem perplexed as to why their church has not “caught on” with more people.
And despite different strategies for facing the struggles ahead, both march on optimistically, trusting that the grace that saves them will be the same grace that guides them.
Perhaps one of the best-known Lutherans in the United States is Oswald C.J. Hoffmann. After 52 years in service in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, including 33 as speaker on “The Lutheran Hour” radio program, Hoffmann retired last year. Outside of his own church body, he has held important posts in the United Bible Societies, the American Bible Society, and the Religious Public Relations Council. Hoffmann was asked his thoughts on Lutheranism and evangelicalism for this issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
The Lutheran character
Lutheranism is at its best when it identifies itself with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel takes all the starch out of human pride, that pride of tradition and of organization, where organizational concerns are the main preoccupation. Where such considerations make a difference, people are not acting as true Lutherans. The same is true of a lot of other things that Luther used to call adiaphora (church rites neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s Word). Where people make those a great point of difference, to that extent they lose their character as Lutherans.
Luther’s contributions to Christianity
Some of the Reformers were sidetracked by sideshows, for example, reducing the church to the bare walls. Luther never allowed that to happen. The great issues with him were the issues of life: How does a person get right with God? That’s justification by faith. How does he learn the gospel? By hearing and reading the Scriptures in language he can understand.
Then there is his teaching on the priesthood of all believers. I understand that Bugenhagen, Luther’s pastor, used to demonstrate the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers every now and then by letting a child get up and pronounce the benediction at the close of the service.
I would also point to contributions to music. The whole character of Lutheran hymnody, which was largely doctrinal until the pietistic age came along, was a statement, in emotional form, of the truth of God’s Word.
American evangelicalism today
I think what I’ve said about the nature of the Lutheran movement and its refusal to be sidetracked by trivialities is as true for the evangelical movement in this country. It will become apparent in days to come, too, that those who make the gospel their primary focus are the ones to whom people are going to listen, because the gospel has a power all its own.
The gospel has to be viewed as the creator of faith in Jesus Christ. It is the gospel that creates faith; it is the gospel that sustains faith in Jesus Christ. Everything else can be discussed and people can come to agreement, or even to disagreement, about it. But the gospel is indispensable.
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