Then how can they call on one in whom they have not trusted? And how can they trust one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful the feet of those who proclaim the good news!’ -Romans 10:14-15
Dear People of God,
Martin Luther was not a fan of the name Lutheran.
Not only was the name given to him and his allies by their opponents, but Luther worried that the use of his name in this way put too much focus on him and too little focus on Christ. Nevertheless, Luther’s allies and opponents alike referred to this new movement as Lutheran from very early on, despite Luther’s attempts to stop them. In 1522, for example, after spending most of a year in hiding, Luther wrote this:
In the first place, I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone.*
Even though Luther was unsuccessful in his attempt to keep his name off of this movement, his plea still serves as a caution to us Lutherans today. As important as Luther’s contributions are, we are first and foremost Christians and only secondarily Lutherans. Though Luther’s writing and teaching continue to speak to us today, he is not the one in whom we place our hope. Though his importance is hard to overstate, he is nonetheless just one more sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, just one more beggar telling where he’s found bread.
Even so, to simply lump Luther’s teaching, along with the various Roman and Reformation teachings, under the single label of Christian would not do justice to the real and important differences between them. Whether he liked it or not, Luther and his followers needed a way to describe their teaching in particular. Since the heart of Lutheran teaching was found in the proclamation of the Gospel, Luther preferred to call his teaching Evangelical, which is taken from the Greek word meaning “Gospel” or “Good News.” This is confusing for us today, given the rise of the non-Lutheran movement called Evangelicalism in the centuries since, but it is enough to know that when Lutherans say “Evangelical,” we typically mean “centered on the Gospel.”
One of Luther’s central insights was that God’s word, whether written or spoken, comes in two forms: Law and Gospel. Unlike most other Christian teachings of his day, Luther recognized (following Paul in Romans) that these two words of God must be distinguished from one another in order to do the work God intends for them to do.
First is God’s word of Law. The Law deals with what we are supposed to do. Here belong the commandments of both the Old and New Testaments, and they are summed up by Jesus in the dual commands to love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37, 39 NRSV) The good deeds we perform, the virtues we strive for, the morals we extol, even love itself—all of these fall under the category of the Law. Law is what makes the world work, it is the realm in which we live out our daily lives, it is what governs and makes possible our relationships with one another, even the relationships among family members. In short, the Law encompasses the very best of our potential; everything we hope and strive to become.
In his study of scripture, Luther rediscovered a truth that is fundamental to the Christian faith: the Law does not give salvation, and it was never intended to do so. Paul states this clearly: “The Law came in in order to increase the trespass.” (Romans 5:20) While the commandments of God are very useful for life in this world, limiting our sin and guiding our actions, in relation to God they do not improve our situation but make it worse. Commands to obey, examples to follow, virtues to strive for—none of these set us free, but rather they push us even more deeply into our sin. The ultimate lesson of the Law is this: “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10) All of our striving, all of our inspiring messages, all of our calls to be and do better—all of these end not in eternal life, but rather in failure and death.
And it is here, when every mouth has been silenced, that God’s word of Gospel breaks in. This word is not at all concerned with what we are to do, but only with what God does for us. Rather than coming in the form of yet another command, the Gospel takes the form of a promise, an announcement of the good news of what God is freely doing for you. This promise is not like the Law: it comes absolutely freely, with no prerequisites, when and where it pleases God. Like Jesus in the locked room on that first Easter, it shows up, unexpected and unasked for. It shows up for those who have nothing left to offer and it delivers what it promises: forgiveness of sins, abundant life, and everlasting salvation.
In Luther’s view, most Christian teachings do not sufficiently distinguish between these two words, and the result is that the Law loses its power and the Gospel is reduced to a weak form of Law. Because these teachings understand Christianity only according to the Law, they end up being purely Legal (law-based) teachings. These can be blatant, such as the fifth century Pelagians who taught that only those who lived perfectly after baptism could be saved, but more often they are quite subtle.
To use a modern example, American Evangelicalism typically tells the story of Christianity something like this: We humans are sinful, so God sends Jesus in order to atone for our sin. From that point on, God is making an offer of salvation available to anyone who decides to accept it. All you have to do is confess your sin, ask God for forgiveness, choose to believe that Jesus died for you, and strive to do better. God then responds with salvation. This sounds pretty good, and is quite close to the truth, but it has become a Legal teaching by trading the truly free promise of the Gospel for a Law of four small steps. In this story, we are the ones who finally must do something, and God is the one who must wait to see what we choose. God’s Law as revealed in scripture has been replaced with a reduced spiritual Law of deciding for Christ.
In contrast to Legal teachings like these, Luther found in Paul a teaching that was truly Evangelical (gospel-based). In this story of Christianity, it is God who is the most active pursuer of sinners, first pronouncing judgment through the word of the Law and then delivering forgiveness through the promise of the Gospel. This promise of forgiveness creates faith in its hearers, so they can respond to God’s impossible promise with an astonished “Amen! Yes, it is just as you say!” From beginning to end, it is God who is bringing about salvation for us, we simply have the joy of receiving it and living in the freedom it provides.
Once we have a truly Evangelical teaching, evangelism takes on a new meaning. Rather than convincing people to believe a certain set of facts or exhorting people to make their decision, evangelism is proclaiming the good news of what God has done. It is delivering God’s promise of salvation as a gift, asking for nothing in return. It is speaking forgiveness in Jesus’ name to all who are oppressed by their sin. Evangelism ceases to be a burden and starts to be a joy.
Your Brother in Christ,