The first thing Lutherans probably think of when they hear about “The Reformation” is Dr. Martin Luther. Luther was the monk whose sins plagued his conscience until he learned from the Scriptures that our righteousness before God is not in how live but in what Christ has done for us. Alas, when most people hear the name Martin Luther, their first thought is Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Civil Rights leader who was active in the 1960s. Most people know about “The Catholic Church” because the Pope is a very visible leader in the world. On the other hand, there is no end to the number of non-denominational churches which have sprung up, many with thousands of members, stadium seating and coffee bars. The fact is, most people don’t really know what Lutherans are really all about, where they came from or what they believe. We seem to be stuck, in the world’s eye, between “Catholic Lite” and “Who?” So how about we lay out simply and clearly, an answer for those who ask, “What is a Lutheran?” or “What do Lutherans believe?”
Lutherans are all about one thing: Jesus. And not just any Jesus. The Jesus who is true God and true man, who was born, lived, suffered and died for our sins, rose again, ascended to the right hand of the Father and who will come back some day. But, to distill that down, we’ll just say, “The Jesus who saves sinners.” Lutherans don’t go looking for God anywhere else than where Jesus is. And we don’t go looking for Jesus anywhere other than where He Himself has promised to be, namely, in Baptism, Absolution, the Gospel (written and preached), and the Supper of His body and blood.
When Martin Luther (the monk, not the activist) wrote and taught, he addressed two main problems in the church. The church wasn’t doing a good job of telling people what Jesus did. And the church tended to muddle how it is we receive what Jesus did for us. We could summarize these two parts as “Salvation accomplished” and “Salvation delivered.”
The Bible teaches us that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot overcome the sin and disobedience which separates us from God and which deserves His unending wrath and punishment. So the Bible teaches that God, from the very beginning, promised to save us. And finally, when the time was right, the Son was born of Mary. Jesus lived a perfect life, obeying all the commandments and loving the Father and HIs neighbor. Then He died the death deserved by sinners, paying with His blood the price to redeem us, to buy us back, and bring us back to God. Then He rose again from the dead to demonstrate His victory over sin and death. These enemies have been defeated.
What the teaching at the time of the Lutheran Reformation recalled and emphasized, was that this salvation, this forgiveness, this work of Jesus, is free. Completely. No strings attached. No conditions. No pre-requisites. No cost to sinners. No fine print. No restrictions. His death and resurrection are for sinners. Through His work of accomplishing salvation, Jesus has brought the whole world of sinners back to the Father. There is nothing we can or have to do to make this fact true.
But what good is it if we have never heard of it and don’t know it? This is the second part, the “salvation delivered” part. In order that sinners would know they have been saved, Jesus sent His preachers into the world to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them the Gospel. The Holy Spirit, through Baptism, through the pronouncement of absolution, through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, and through the Sacrament of the Altar, brings sinners to faith and trust in what Jesus has done. In other words, these gifts are the means by which the Spirit creates faith and delivers to sinners the Good News of what Jesus has done. They are the means by which the Spirit brings us into the church and keeps us in that holy faith of Jesus through death and into eternal life.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther battled against those who thought that we had to include our own good works in the equation of being right with God. He also had to contend with those who said you didn’t need anything but Jesus in your heart. No sacraments and all that stuff. Today, this is what makes Lutherans a bit out of place, too among those churches that claim the title “Christian.” On the one hand, we believe that there is nothing we do for our salvation. It is a done deal because of Jesus. On the other hand, we can be certain of what Jesus has done, not because of our feelings or some sort of behavior we have, but because of His promises given by water, Word, body and blood.
So the irony for Lutherans is that Lutherans aren’t about Luther at all but about Jesus. Jesus who did what needed doing to save sinners. Jesus who delivers what He did for us by His gifts. The next time someone says, “What do Lutherans believe?” or “What are Lutherans?” or “How come you’re named after a man and not Christ?” you can just give this simple answer. For Lutherans it is all about Jesus, from start to finish. He saves us. He delivers our salvation to us. We know this because of the promises Jesus Himself makes. Which means that for Lutherans, it’s not about Luther at all, but always, only, and ever about Jesus, the Savior of sinners.