What does it mean to be Lutheran? Since this is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, you may find yourself in a situation where someone who is aware of the anniversary – perhaps because they saw the Luther documentary on PBS – may turn that question on you: what does it mean to be Lutheran? There are some standard, stereotypical answers to that question. Being Lutheran means that you can’t have Bible class without coffee and snacks and if you’re going to have a meal, it’s going to be a potluck. Or, Lutherans are those folks who only sing a song if it was written by a German, is at least 100 years old, and can be played on an organ. Maybe Lutherans are known as the teaching church. Now those things may be true – but that’s not really what it means to be Lutheran. What does it mean? Well, if you can remember one word, the word engraved on the cornerstone of this building – the word “sola”– you have a pretty good start in explaining what it means to be Lutheran.
“Sola” means alone. To be Lutheran means to be alone – in a sense, lonely. That concept goes all the way back to Martin Luther’s day. In his commentary on Galatians of 1535 Luther wrote: “Victory over sin and death does not come by the works of the Law or by our will; therefore it comes by Jesus Christ alone. Here we are perfectly willing to have ourselves called “solarii” by our opponents, who do not understand anything of Paul’s argument. You who are to be consolers of consciences that are afflicted, should teach this doctrine diligently, study it continually, and defend it vigorously against the abominations of the papists, Jews, Turks, and all the rest.”  Luther’s opponents meant it to be derogatory to call him an “aloneist.” Luther wore it as a badge of honor. But that’s not why it’s important – not because Luther said it and stood for it. It’s not important because these principles are 500 years old. But because the doctrines of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone are the pillars of salvation revealed by God himself. 500 years later we are still holding onto our Lutheran loneliness because those “sola’s” remain the foundation of our salvation.
I. Sola Scriptura
We find a summary of these principles in the Word of God before us. What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? What matter? If you page back to Romans 3, you see that Paul has been discussing the matter of justification. I know that’s a big theological word that often makes people’s eyes gloss over but it is the central doctrine of Scripture and the Christian faith. To be justified means to be “declared righteous” or “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. So you can feel free to tune out if you want. This is only important if you think you’re ever going to die and have to stand before a righteous God to be judged either “not guilty” of your sins and invited to make your home in heaven or “guilty” and damned to spend eternity paying for your sins in hell. That’s what justification is all about. Does that matter? Nothing matters more than justification before God.
Here’s how the Apostle Paul explained justification in Romans 3: There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) How do guilty sinners find acquittal in the courtroom of a holy God? Paul uses Abraham as his case study. He almost had to. The Jews of his day tended to point to Abraham as proof that people are justified by works. At first glance, they seem to have a point. We know that God asked Abraham to do many hard things in his life. He commanded him to leave his home for an unknown land, and Abraham got up and went. (Genesis 12) After 25 years in that land – 25 years of no children even though God had promised Abraham a son – God gave him a son named Isaac. (Genesis 21) But then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice that son…and Abraham was ready to do it! (Genesis 22) So the Jews thought and taught that if anyone was ever justified by works, it was Abraham.
So Paul asks what shall we say that Abraham discovered in this matter of justification? Pay close attention to how Paul answers this question: what does the Scripture say? Sola scriptura. Paul doesn’t say “well, this is how I feel about it” or “this is what my rabbi told me.” No, Paul asks what does the Scripture say? And this isn’t an anomaly, either. 60 times in the 16 chapters of Romans Paul goes back to the OT and cites the Scriptures as the basis for his teaching. This was Paul’s default policy. Scripture and Scripture alone formed the foundation of Paul’s life and teaching.
And yet, within 1500 years, this foundation had been swept aside and replaced in the Roman Catholic Church. What did they replace it with? The traditions of the church fathers, the decisions of councils and the decrees of popes. All took precedence over the Word of God. That’s what made Luther so upset. That’s why he posted the 95 theses. And that’s why, when he was commanded to recant, to take back his writings on threat of death Luther said “unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures…I cannot and will not take back anything. Here I stand. God help me.” What does Scripture say is the only question that matters! And yet, once again, we live in a time where people are not ready and willing to ask that question. Instead, many stake their lives and eternities on questions like: “what do I feel?” or “what is popular and politically correct?” or “what can I do to be saved?” And, if people can be led to even consider Scripture, the question is often not “what does the Scripture say?” but “what does Scripture say to you?” As if the Word of God is a piece of clay that we are free to mold however you want; as if the almighty, all-powerful God needs our brilliance to give his Word meaning. And that’s why so many people are leaving the church today. “The church says that Scripture is open to many different interpretations and the most important thing is that you feel good and follow your heart. What do I need the church for? I’m just going to stay home, listen to my heart and follow where it leads.” There is no worse place to go for comfort and certainty. The prophet Jeremiah wrote: the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9) Or, others say “Scripture is a good place to start, but it’s not enough.” You need to go to the latest and greatest self-appointed prophet who has had a vision directly from God. Do you know what God’s true prophet, Isaiah, said about those people? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. (Isaiah 8:20) Isaiah and Paul agree: What does the Scripture say?
And this is not just important for me as a pastor or the WELS as a church body – Scripture alone is of vital importance for you in your daily life. Why? Because you know how life goes. Some days you wake up and you feel pretty good about yourself and imagine that God must be impressed with you and that you don’t really need Jesus or his blood and righteousness. What does the Scripture say? There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Don’t you dare stand there with the Pharisee and say God I thank you I am not like other [people] (Luke 18:11) because you are! You are a sinner in God’s sight. And then there are other days on the roller coaster of life when you wake up and can’t even look at yourself in the mirror. When you think “What a worthless creature I am, for the filthy thoughts that have floated through my mind, for the loveless words and actions I have done to the people I should love most. There is no way that God could love me.” Those too are the times when we need to reject our feelings and instead ask what does the Scripture say? And when you do, you find a gracious God who says come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
What does the Scripture say? It’s not, what does the Supreme Court or Hollywood say? What does the latest survey say? What does the WELS or Luther say? The only question that matters is: what does the Scripture say? Sola Scriptura. That’s what it means to be Lutheran.
II. Sola Gratia
So, what does the Scripture say? What did Abraham learn about being justified before God? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. We could stop right there, couldn’t we? How was Abraham justified? God simply gave it to him by grace alone. There he was, a decrepit old man with a decrepit old wife who had no reasonable hope of ever having children. But God showed him the stars in the sky and said so shall your offspring be. (Genesis 15:5) And so Abraham did the unreasonable, the illogical thing: he believed God’s promise.
What did Abraham believe? He believed that among that blanket of stars was not only the son God would give Abraham, there was another son, God’s only begotten Son. The one God had promised already to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden who would come and crush the power of Satan and free those who had been held in slavery by the fear of sin and death. Abraham believed. And that faith is always a gift of God’s grace. Oh, there are always people who claim that we are born into this world with free will. That the decision to believe is within our power. It’s not. Why not? What does the Scripture say? The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8) We do not have free will in spiritual matters. We are slaves of sin and Satan. By nature, we are not God’s friends, we are his enemies. The fact that we believe is only and always the result of God’s grace, his undeserved love, as Paul told the Ephesians: 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)
Again, we could stop there. Being Lutheran means being saved by God’s grace alone. But Paul has more to say about the glory and mystery of God’s grace. To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Did you hear what kind of God we have? One who justifies, who declares not guilty – not the good, not those who try their best – but the wicked. Now we would say that’s not fair. If that were to happen in a court of law in our country there would be mobs in the streets protesting. But the justification of the wicked is exactly what happens in God’s courtroom. How? How can a just God acquit the guilty? Because Jesus Christ died for the sins of the wicked. Remember Paul’s definition of justification: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) That’s how we, we who were born into this world without true fear of God and true faith in God in our hearts. Who hated God’s law and despised his Gospel as foolishness are justified. It’s by grace. Justification comes from God, not from us. And that doesn’t end – even after we’ve come to faith. Because there is still an unbeliever living inside of us – who hates God and his will. We still sin daily with our hands and lips and hearts. We are still wicked; but God still justifies the wicked. That’s why we always begin with the confession of sins and absolution – so that we can leave here every single Sunday like that tax collector – justified before God. From beginning to end, from first breath to last, justification is only and always by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
This is important not just because Luther rediscovered it 500 years ago. This is important not just for me as a pastor and the WELS as a church body. This is vitally important for you. Because we are, once again, living in a time that despises God’s grace. People are still determined to please God by their own works like that Pharisee in the temple. Doubt that? Open up the obituary section in the newspaper. Listen to a funeral eulogy or sermon. “Oh, this was the greatest guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He worked hard and loved his family. And now he’s in heaven because that’s what good guys like him deserve.” But what does the Scripture say? All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10-11) Only by the grace of God, only by throwing ourselves down before God’s throne and begging for his mercy – mercy he has gladly shown by sending Jesus to suffer our punishment and purchase our freedom is anyone saved. Saved by grace alone – that’s what it means to be Lutheran.
III. Sola Fide
Feeling lonely yet? We’ve come to the third of our solas, Sola Fide. Faith alone. We’ve already covered the fact that faith is always and only a gift of God and not the product of our own will or decision. But Paul has more to say about how salvation comes through faith alone. Abraham believed God, and it was credited it him as righteousness. Remember what Abraham believed. Not only did he believe that God would give him a son, not only did he believe that God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, but he also believed that one of those descendants would be the promised Savior who would do what Abraham couldn’t do, what no one could do – live a perfectly obedient, righteous life. Abraham knew that he couldn’t do that because he hadn’t done that.
We typically think of Abraham as a great hero of faith – and he was, but he was not a hero of obedience. Joshua tells us that before God called Abraham, he worshiped idols. (Joshua 24:2) On two separate occasions, Abraham lied about his wife’s identity – calling her his sister. (Genesis 12:10-20; 20) And in Genesis 16, Abraham colluded with Sarah to speed up God’s timeline by sleeping with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. (Genesis 16) The record of Scripture proves that Abraham was not righteous by his works.
But what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That word, credited, comes from the accounting world. Paul is giving us a glimpse into heaven’s accounting department – God’s record books. The name of every person ever born is there. And there’s a column that reads DEBTS. We owe God perfect obedience, a life completely free from sin. And no one has paid in full listed by their name in that category. Not that people haven’t tried. The Pharisee certainly did. But he didn’t succeed. Jesus says he went home from church just as sinful as he came. Scripture makes it undeniably clear that we cannot achieve the righteousness God demands on our own.
Paul uses an everyday picture to illustrate how faith works: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Abraham looked ahead and trusted that the Savior God promised to send would do what he could not – pay for his sins and live a perfectly obedient life. And God credited Jesus’ perfect righteousness to Abraham’s account – so that next to his name it read paid in full. And that’s how it still works today. When the Holy Spirit leads us to take hold of the message that Jesus died for the sins of the world – and that I’m part of that world; when we can say with Martin Luther “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not”  - by that faith, by claiming Jesus’ righteousness as your own, God writes next to your name too: paid in full. That’s why faith alone saves us. Not because it’s a good work. Not because it’s the one thing we have to do to be saved. But because it clings to Christ and claims his righteousness as our own.
That’s why the doctrine of faith alone is so important. That’s why we demand pure doctrine in our churches and why we emphasize teaching and preaching over socializing and community service; it’s not doctrine for doctrine’s sake, it’s doctrine for salvation’s sake – for the sake of lost, despairing sinners. Faith drives us outside of ourselves and our own feelings: “am I good enough?”, “do I feel like heaven is mine?”, “do I believe strongly enough?” Sola fide says: “It’s not about you. It’s about what Christ has done for you on the cross!” What you feel in your heart will change every day. But what Jesus accomplished on that cross 2000 years ago will never change. It’s claiming Christ’s righteousness as your own through faith – that’s the only way you can be certain that you stand justified, acquitted in God’s courtroom.
So what does it mean to be Lutheran? It’s not about old German hymns or the jello at potlucks. Being Lutheran means being certain that we stand before God justified, not guilty, holy, and righteous just as he demands. How? By being lonely. Sola scriptura. Sola gratia. Sola fide. Hold onto your Lutheran “loneliness”. Here Paul stood. Here Luther stood. Here we stand. God help us. Amen.
 LW 26:138