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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

16 November 2007

A Summary of Doctrine and Practices

A student asked several questions as part of a project comparing several different churches. These questions and my responses may help others also to examine their own churches’ teachings and practices.

Q: How do Lutherans understand the relationship between the Church and the kingdom of God preached by Jesus?

Sun, Moon, and StarsA: There is but one God and one kingdom but we understand His kingdom in a threefold manner. The Kingdom of Power is God’s absolute authority over all creation and all people — believers and unbelievers — through time and in eternity: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:19)” The Kingdom of Grace is also a “kingdom of faith” where God rules through His Son over the Church on earth. We normally enter this kingdom through Holy Baptism: “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)” Faith becomes sight in the Kingdom of Glory, the eternal, heavenly communion of all heavenly beings and all who die believing in Christ: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. (2 Timothy 4:18)”

Thus, all people are within the Kingdom of Power. All believers in Christ belong to the Kingdom of Grace, the place where Christ’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacraments are proclaimed and offered. Finally, all who depart earth in faith are secure within the Kingdom of Glory.

Q: How does your tradition arrive at decisions concerning what is to be believed?

A: Lutherans return to Scripture as source and norm of our doctrine. We read and interpret the Scriptures using the “lens” of Christ. Traditions, earlier teachers, and previous writings of the Church are part of our interpretive process, although always subject to Scripture. The major themes of theology are dealt with in the Lutheran Book of Concord of 1580. Those who believe that this book is a correct exposition of Scripture are termed “Confessional” Lutherans. Included in this book are the Creeds, the Small and Large Catechisms, and other doctrinal writings, including the Augsburg Confession. These writings came about through struggles to define the Faith and have set the standard for our doctrinal decision-making since then: What we believe, teach, and confess is Christ-centered, Biblical, and in accord with the ancient church, emphasizing absolute reliance in Christ as our only Savior and Way to heaven (see John 14:6).

Q: What are the essential elements and their purposes in your regular worship service?

A: We follow the basic Western (catholic) liturgy, as also expressed in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. The essentials are not particular items as much as they are doctrines or gifts: A Lutheran service is one of Law (God’s commands and our realization that we have sinned against them) and Gospel (God’s promise and delivery of forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus). A typical service begins with the Invocation of the Triune God, which also reminds us that we bear God’s Triune name through our baptisms. Sometimes, a corporate rite of Confession of Sins follows; the pastor then pronounces the Absolution “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus Christ.

Liturgical hymns and responses may include a Psalmody. These are normally “response” passages, wherein the congregation replies to God because of His goodness and might. We sing the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy,” as a prayer for God’s continual mercies and as a reminder of all that we’ve received from Him. Our Hymn of Praise is normally the Gloria in Excelsis (based upon the angels’ Christmas song). More recently, we’ve added This is the Feast, a celebration of the ascended Christ drawn from Revelation. During the service, we also sing other hymns. These may reflect the sermon theme, the Gospel or another of the Scripture readings, Baptism, Communion, and the like.

Christ CrucifiedScripture readings are normally threefold: Most Sundays include one each from Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. These normally follow seasonal and daily themes. We regularly join in confessing either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. The Sermon is normally based upon one of the regular texts of the day. We believe that a Christian sermon should be designed so as to convict the hearers of their sinfulness and then fully apply the saving Gospel of Christ, that the believers might have their burdens lifted. The Offering and the Prayer of the Church follow, then may come the Lord’s Supper.

Lutherans originally kept the early Church’s practice of communing “every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXIV)” This practice deteriorated in much of American Lutheranism but most of our congregations offer Holy Communion at least twice a month and many are moving back to every-Sunday communion. Following the Supper, final prayers and responses may be offered, then the pastor pronounces the Benediction, “The Lord bless you and keep you.... (Numbers 6:24-26) ”

Q: What is the sermon’s purpose?

A: As I mentioned above, the sermon points to Christ and should clearly proclaim His Gospel. It normally begins with the Law’s condemnations of sin — especially sins referenced in the day’s Scriptures — confronting the listeners’ individual unrighteousness by holding up the mirror of God’s holiness before people still living in a sinful world. A truly Christ-centered sermon then specifically applies the full and free forgiveness to the sins upon which the Law’s proclamation has focused. We encourage our pastors to stop talking before they place other burdens and new laws (often beginning, “Now that you are forgiven, you must...”) upon their hearers.

Q: How do you understand what is happening at the Lord’s Supper? How often do you celebrate it? Why?

A: We believe that we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ as we eat and drink bread and wine. We don’t try to explain this. Instead, we take Christ at His word when He says, “This is my body ... this is my blood (Matthew 26:26-29, et al) ” in the Gospels and as His apostle Paul details the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10 – 11. I’ve already mentioned that novel theologies and human philosophies combined to diminish appreciation of the Sacrament in the minds of many Lutherans. As this happened, weekly communion waned — sometimes to as few as four to six times each year.

Recently we’ve moved toward greater frequency. Most churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice each month. Increasingly, as they relearn Scripture’s teachings concerning the blessings and benefits of Holy Communion, our congregations are restoring the ancient pattern of communion on every Sunday and on the major feast days of the Church. The “why” is easily explained: We commune because Christ calls us to receive forgiveness and new life by eating and drinking His body and blood.

Q: Does the way your tradition worships influence how members of your tradition understand themselves in relation to the Church?

The Lamb TriumphantA: Liturgical worship removes the focus from people and directs us to God, especially as revealed in Christ Jesus. It strips away our vanities by confronting us with our sins while also healing our spiritual wounds by the restorative Gospel of forgiveness in Christ. Our services also remind us of our continuing communion with the saints in glory and with all creatures of the heavenly realms.

Lutherans often use the word “worship.” Yet we understand that God-pleasing worship begins with what He does for us. True Christian worship responds to the Lord’s blessings — it doesn’t initiate them. It begins with Him reaching out to us, not us reaching up to Him.

A German Lutheran term for the Communion service reflects this: Gottesdienst, “God’s work” (or “Divine Service”) in English, reminds us that we first of all gather at God’s gracious invitation to be forgiven and to regularly dine on the body and blood of Christ. For us, worship means heeding the Lord’s invitation, humbling ourselves before Him, listening to His Word, using the sacraments, and praying and singing in thankful response.

Q: How does the worship of your tradition effect the way that its members understand the task of the Christians in the world?

A: The “worship” itself doesn’t do this — however, the Scriptures and their exposition in the sermon certainly direct the members toward Christ-centered, service-oriented life. A truly Lutheran service doesn’t send the saints out with commands but with blessings. The Holy Spirit uses God’s promises of forgiveness, eternal life, and Christ’s abiding presence to spark responses in the believers, who then live out their faith in their daily lives.

This means that what we do on Sunday ends up being only a tiny bit of our worship. Living out our lives (vocation) in the light of God’s love leads us to worship Him throughout the week. Faithfully fulfilling our vocations, loving our neighbors as ourselves, studying the Scriptures, and staying active in prayer make our every waking a thankful response to God’s love — and thus, worship.

Q: How are your central doctrinal beliefs expressed in the way you worship, the worship space that you use, and the function of the minister?

A: Church design and architecture focus upon font (for baptisms and as a reminder of our own baptismal regeneration), altar (for the Lord’s Supper) and pulpit (for preaching of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins). Most Lutheran churches do not put choirs in the front, since the focus in not on them, but upon the message which their singing brings. Pastors stand before the people not to be “the show” but to be clearly seen and heard speak on behalf of God and to deliver His gifts. Therefore, our pastors normally wear special clothing (vestments) in order to show with greater clarity that God has set these men aside to serve Him. Vestment colors and fabrics harmonize with the “clothing” (paraments, banners, and the like) that we use to “dress” our buildings and fixtures.

While the Divine Service involves prayers, offerings, and other elements of response, its primary focus remains the forgiveness of sins and the upbuilding of the saints through Word and Sacrament. The minister is God’s servant sent to God’s people in a particular place. No hireling or employee — he proclaims God’s Words and doesn’t always give the people what they want to hear. This caretaker of souls, called by the Good Shepherd, works under Him to lead people to eternal life. Thus, while counseling and the like may be a part of the pastor’s tasks, his main focus is preaching and teaching God’s pure Word and faithfully administering the Sacraments so that faith is kindled and strengthened, sins are forgiven, and believers eyes are kept “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2)”

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper columns #522 – 523


Blogger Susan said...

I really appreciate this post. There is so much to be cherished within the Lutheran churches. I am thankful to you and could probably get addicted to your blog. :)

28 April, 2008 12:53  

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