As people look for churches and consider which they’d like to visit or join, there are some common questions. While most of these are better answered in person, let me try to answer a few in hopes that you may be led to come and ask more.
Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace?, relates this story: “During a British Conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating the possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s the rumpus about?’ he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.’
“After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”
C.S. Lewis was right. Out of all the religions in the world, only one—true Christianity—understands grace. I would correct one statement by Yancey, though. Christianity does not dare to make God’s love unconditional. God makes His love unconditional. Christians merely proclaim that unconditional love which God has pledged to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Sure, like other religions, we strive to be good, to do what is right, to honor God, to care for His creation and to show kindness to the rest of humanity. That is part of the law written on the heart by our Creator. That is why the standard is so common around the world. But grace, that is a different matter. It is a higher calling. It is something that comes from God and supersedes the “eye for an eye” standard of the law. And understand that grace does not set aside the law; it fulfills it. That is the whole reason Jesus needed to be born, to die and to rise again. Christianity recognizes the law, but appreciates how God delivered us from the curse of the law through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Because grace goes against the natural instinct of every human being, it is not surprising that over the centuries it gets confused and distorted. Martin Luther was a man of conscience. In order to appease his conscience, he tried to do everything in his power to satisfy God but no satisfaction was found. It was not until he was turned to the Word of God, particularly Romans chapter 3, that he began to understand grace. The more he read, the more he understood, and the more he began to question some of the teachings of the church of his day. To make a long, beautiful story short, those who agreed with Martin Luther, that is, those who believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, those whose faith was established on Scripture alone and not the traditions of humans, came to be known as Lutherans.
While the name Lutheran can mean different things to different people, historic confessional Lutheranism means 1) the Bible is the Word of God and is our sole rule for faith and Christian living. 2) We believe in a Triune God: One God who is three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 3) We believe that all people are sinners who deserve God’s condemnation. 4) God, in His grace, sent His Son, Jesus, to satisfy God’s anger and win for us the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
There is much more that I could add, but I would much rather do it in person. We have regular Basic Doctrines classes for that very reason. I’d love to share more with you and answer any questions you might have, whether on this topic or anything else that might be weighing your heart.
If you want to take things further, ask me why we are WELS Lutherans and not ELCA or LC-MS. For some, these letters are merely alphabet soup, but they mean something very important and I’d love to explain it to you.
Rejoicing in the grace of God in Christ Jesus, my Lord!
Pastor Ben Golisch