Following Jesus: The Lutheran Tradition

As a Pietist who now worships within a Lutheran congregation, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this month’s installment of our year-long, ecumenical conversation about Following Jesus. Church historian Mark Ellingsen didn’t disappoint, offering a reflection on what he called Lutheranism’s “Evangelical Catholic” way of following Jesus. At least, that’s how he saw his more “confessional” branch of Lutheranism, by contrast to the “pietistic” Lutheranism of my Swedish ancestors and the more “liberal” branch he sees as currently ascendant in the American branch of that global communion.

Mark wrote about the spirituality of liturgy and sacraments and Lutherans’ relationship to ecumenism, but what stood out most clearly to most of us “conversation partners” was his closing section on sin, grace, and Christian freedom. He drew on both Martin Luther’s writings and neurobiology (!) to explain “why Lutherans claim that there is no need to teach Christians how to follow Jesus. It will just happen spontaneously when you are living with Jesus.” I conceded that the freedom, spontaneity, and even “fun” of this way of following Jesus contrasts favorably with the more legalistic out-workings of Pietism, but I suspected that my group of Luther’s descendants were more playful and free than Mark’s in a different respect…

October’s Tradition: “Lutheranism: An Evangelical Catholic Way to Follow Jesus

“…for Luther you only sin bravely when you do not give into concupiscence, when you boldly live a sacrificial, sin-denying life (live your baptism), but do so with the awareness that even then you are still sinning, that all good done is a function of God working in and through you (Complete Sermons, Vol.4, p.367). This sort of humility about what you can do on your own entails that God must be given all the credit when it comes to our following Jesus.                     

“These commitments lead the first Reformer and his tradition to avoid exhorting the faithful how to live with guidelines, commands, or discipline (though as we have noted especially the Pietist and Lutheran Orthodox segments of the heritage allow for it).  The concern is that if you direct someone how to live you lay more guilt on them, and since we are sinning in all we do you set them up for failure.  Christians are free from the Law (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Romans 7:4ff; 
Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377). No need for it for those who already know their sin, for good works are spontaneous (Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316).”

– Mark Ellingsen

My Response: “The ‘Freedom, Spontaneity, and Fun’ of Following Jesus

“[The] tendency for Pietism’s notion of ‘a new life in Christ’ to decay into legalism left me more than a little sympathetic to the closing section of Ellingsen’s essay. Luther’s Pietist descendants sometimes forget his insight that we remain at once sinner and saint, set free from the demands of the law by the undeserved, transformative mercy of grace. If they don’t fully embrace the perfectionism that Ellingsen finds hinted at in Spener, Pietists can nonetheless fall into the trap of expecting that the truly ‘converted’ or ‘regenerate’ — not just declared justified, but living out an increasingly Christ-like life — will make known their piety through good works that they’re tempted to measure against the yardstick of Ellingsen’s ‘guidelines, commands, or discipline’…

“If Pietists, at their legalistic worst, refuse to ‘sin bravely’ when it comes to Christian practice and experience, they do tend to cherish ‘freedom, spontaneity, and fun’ when it comes to Christian belief. Recentering the Bible as highest authority and decentering creeds and confessions, Pietists may approach the work of theology differently than do our Lutheran cousins whose faith is bound up with the Book of Concord.”

Additional Responses

“Mark describes the Lutheran way of following Jesus as Evangelical Catholic, while Wesleyan Methodists are rooted in the theology of John Wesley that was described by historian Albert Outler as ‘evangelical catholicism’ because it brings together being saved by grace alone through faith with holy living. Ellingsen and Outler may not be using words ‘evangelical’ and ‘catholic’ with exactly the same meaning, but the desire to acknowledge the full scope of what we take into account as we follow Jesus feels similar. We share together the way we understand grace to come before (preveniently) anything we do in response. John Wesley does not seem to have been well acquainted with Luther’s writings, but he certainly embraced justification by grace through faith.”

– Sarah Lancaster, “Another way of Being Evangelical Catholic” (Wesleyan Tradition)

“Members of my faith would generally not speak in terms of the Confessional and the Pietistic facets of the faith in the same way that Mark does about Lutheranism… We do have, however, what I think is a close approximation to those distinctions: the difference between the doctrine (orthodoxy) of the faith and the spirituality or daily practice (orthopraxy) of the people in everyday life….. Latter-day Saints are taught repeatedly of the importance of both sides of the equation. For example, a person can have a profound depth of understanding of the gospel, even be a brilliant biblical scholar or theologian, and yet be a complete jerk, one who is proud, self-seeking, and almost blind to the needs and feelings of others. On the other hand, one can be a marvelous example of Christlike service to everyone within reach, but at the same time know very little about the doctrine of Christ.”

– Robert Millet, “The Lutheran Way: Blending the Confessional and the Pietistic” (Latter-day Saints Tradition)

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