Author: Reverend A. Trevor Sutton
Publisher: St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016
Rating: 5/5 stars
CPH Price: $12.99 – $14.99
Being Lutheran is a terrific introduction to understanding the Lutheran faith whether the reader is a beginning Lutheran in catechism class or whether the reader is not Lutheran and simply wants to understand what being Lutheran means. Being Lutheran is not a book that delves deeply into the doctrines of Lutheranism. You can read the Book of Concord for that. Being Lutheran is simply a clarification of what it means, well, to be Lutheran. Of course, the reader will come across Lutheran doctrine in the book since theology cannot be avoided in any Christian book, but doctrine is not its purpose. The book helps to clarify any confusion the beginning Lutheran or non-Lutheran may have about Lutheranism—that “every Lutheran doctrine comes back to Jesus” (xii) and, at the core of it, “Being Lutheran is about following Jesus” (xix). Now, you may say, “But I’m Baptist and I feel that I follow Jesus.” That may well be true, but the core of Lutheranism is that the foundation of every Lutheran doctrine and aspect of our lives is rested in Christ, not any sort of human reason or tradition. You don’t have to be Lutheran in order to be a Christian, but as Pastor Sutton shows, being Lutheran “is about theologically informed practice, biblically based behavior, and godly action. It is about living the faith you have received” (xviii).
Part 1, Being Lutheran: What We Challenge
When I begin a book that has a foreword and/or introduction, I often skip them because I usually feel as if they’re redundant and unnecessary, and also boring. That being said, I recommend you read the foreword and introduction of this book; they set you up for what is to follow throughout the whole book, especially if you don’t understand Lutheranism, and they’re certainly not boring.
The first section follows the theme of challenging certain widely accepted false beliefs in Christianity. The first is being “closed.” Pastor Sutton writes that our inclination is to close ourselves off from others. We close ourselves off from certain ethnicities and cultures that make us uncomfortable—our common ethnocentrism, especially as Americans, prevents us from being open to ethnicities and cultures we are not familiar with. We close ourselves off from other sports teams we despise. We close ourselves off from those who participate in any sort of geek culture because we lack understanding. This is because, he says, we are “closed to God” because our rebellion in sin “destroyed our openness to Him” (5). However, God created us to be open to Him, and it is sin that makes this impossible until Christ reopens this relationship that was closed in sin—what is known as reconciliation. So, Lutheranism challenges the widely accepted idea to close ourselves off from others. On the contrary, because Christ opens us up to God, He desires that we open ourselves up to other people—to all sorts of ethnicities and cultures that do not know Him. We are the means by which God uses to open up Christ to others.
The other idea we challenge is the “lukewarm” state. When it comes to following Jesus, some Christians just say, “Meh.” Lutheranism challenges this lukewarm condition. Pastor Sutton says, “Jesus has invited all people to stop what they are doing, rise, and follow Him (Luke 9:23)” (33). What Jesus is calling to mind in Luke 9:23 is true discipleship. A true disciple of Christ follows Him while even in the midst of persecution. Just as Christ carried His cross to Mt. Calvary in His persecution, so He expects us to do the same for Him. Jesus expects us to follow Him even when we are persecuted and when feel uncomfortable or judged around those who reject Him. If we do not, are we truly His disciples? What Lutheranism challenges is the commonly accepted belief to remain stagnant in our faith, but Christ distinctly calls us to action in our faith. We see this especially in Revelation 3:20, which some Christians erroneously claim is Jesus telling us to “accept” or “choose” Him—what is known as decision theology. This verse is not Jesus calling unbelievers to “choose” or “accept” Him, since while in the state of unbelief no one can choose Him. In the context of this verse, Jesus is calling a stagnant church to repentance—to active faith. This church of Laodicea was stagnant in their faith, and He was calling them to action. This is what Lutheranism challenges—faith as our response to Christ, not as a lazy state. Pastor Sutton puts it perfectly, “Following Jesus does not lead to salvation. Following Jesus comes from salvation” (36). In other words, we don’t follow Jesus in order to attain salvation; we follow Him because of the salvation He’s given us. Again, we respond in active faith, not lukewarm—or lazy—faith.
As Lutherans, we also challenge confusion. At the beginning of this chapter, Pastor Sutton quotes 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.” What does this mean? “Being Lutheran is to know what you believe and why you believe it,” he says (60). Connected to this is Jesus’ authoritative teaching, which has come to our “confused culture” (56). This is why America, and other parts of the world, find Jesus’ teachings repulsive. He teaches with authority in our relativistic, confused cultures. A lot of Christians know what they believe, but they may not understand why they believe it. I was confirmed Lutheran two years ago. One thing I’ve noticed that’s indicative of Lutheran laymen are that they know where a teaching or doctrine is in Scripture and they know how to explain it. Certainly not all Lutherans do, but there are a large number of confessional Lutherans who not only know what they believe but why they believe it according to Scripture. I have not seen such clear edification in any other denomination from my personal experiences. One important thing Pastor Sutton points out is that a good Lutheran pastor does not tell you what you believe, but he tells you what Scripture tells you to believe. “Hey may even tell you what you should believe. Yet, he will not tell you what you believe” (64). For example, Baptists will use circular logic to explain why baptism and the Lord’s Supper are mere symbols while never using Scripture that says they’re symbols (because it doesn’t). They come to this conclusion on human speculation. A Lutheran, however, will show through Scripture how baptism is for salvation (1 Peter 3:21) and how the Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ real body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16) and for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).
Lutherans also challenge laziness. “God did not make human creatures to be lazy. Rather, we became lazy as a result of rebellion against God… Sin alienated us from fruitful labor” (79). The common misconception of work is that it’s bad. Lutherans, however, challenge that work is a good thing. God gave man work in the beginning to care for creation, and it was good. Work is still good, but it is tainted by sin after the Fall. The most important work of all for the Lutheran is the work of Jesus. “God refused to take the easy way out of sin. Instead, His plan of salvation required work. Hard work. God’s redemption of His people took generations of work. His plan of salvation in Christ Jesus required steadfast labor, persistent promise keeping, and incredible sacrifice… Immediately after sin entered into creation, God began the work of salvation” (82). Above all, “Jesus frees us from working to earn salvation. Jesus frees us to work for our neighbor” (85). Luther taught “that the work of Jesus is not license to be lazy. The work of Jesus for our salvation leads us to work hard for the good of others” (87). This is done in our vocations, whether these vocations are relational (e.g. friend, sibling, parent) or professional (e.g. doctor, shoemaker, waitress, government employee).
Lastly, Lutherans challenge being “pastel.” How does a Lutheran differ from a Baptist, or Methodist, or Catholic? The myriad number of denominations can be described as “pastels” of Christianity—different variations and colours. Pastor Sutton argues, “Being pastel risks our confession of faith… Being pastel makes it hard to differentiate one shade from another” (102-103). Lutherans are not satisfied with just being another shade of Christianity. Pastor Sutton points out how easily Jesus stood out from the crowd. “Jesus’ teaching painted a vivid picture of the kingdom of God… Jesus did not live a pastel life. He lived with the vibrant color of truth” (104-105). Therefore, “God calls us to be the color of Jesus” (106). What makes Lutheranism unique? What makes us unique is our striving to be just like Jesus. That is, Lutherans seek to stand out from the crowd just as Jesus did, but not so we may have the spotlight and get all the attention, but so God’s truth may shine. Jesus made it obvious He was different; everybody knew it. As Lutherans, we challenge that as Christians we should all stand out from the rest of the crowd. When people see the Christian, they should know whom we stand for. As Lutherans, we challenge the idea of hiding away and living in private faith, keeping Jesus all to ourselves. Rather, we want Christians to stand out from the rest so that Christ may be glorified.
Part 2, Being Lutheran: What We Cherish
We not only challenge certain common ideas, but we also cherish certain uncommon ideas. We cherish the “new” that Christ brings. Every Christian knows Jesus makes all things new. We look forward to the new heavens and the new earth at Christ’s return. We cherish the fact that Christ makes us new. “God provides new life to all of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus… God gives new life to you individually through faith in Jesus” (135). Lutherans highly cherish the verse, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For the Lutheran, the old Adam has passed away (died, Romans 6:1-4) and the new has come in Christ (alive, Romans 6:11).
Second, Lutherans cherish the “ordinary.” “God uses the most ordinary material to perform the most extraordinary works” (151). God uses ordinary water and performs the extraordinary work of baptising us in the Holy Spirit for salvation. God uses ordinary bread and wine for the extraordinary work of forgiving our sins in Christ’s very body and blood. God uses ordinary words—ordinary human language—in Absolution through the pastor to perform the extraordinary work of forgiveness as if Christ is speaking Himself.
Perhaps most unique of all is that Lutherans challenge the “unresolved” of God, or the mysteries of God. Pastor Sutton quotes Proverbs 25:2 at the beginning of this chapter, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” What makes us most unique, and probably the most odd, is that we cherish the mysteries of God—things we can never know about Him. It is a state of humiliation to accept the things we cannot fathom. We accept that “creatures cannot possibly know the hidden mind of their Creator. Creatures depend on what the Creator chooses to reveal” (180). For example, Calvinists developed the false doctrine of double predestination, which purports not only did God elect His chosen to salvation, but He also destines certain people to Hell. Lutherans do not teach this law-based theology, for Scripture only speaks of predestination in terms of salvation, not damnation. We are incapable of understanding how God is able to elect His chosen to salvation yet does not destine others to Hell. So, to work around this, Calvinists created a logic to explain this in that since God has elected His chosen, this must also mean He destines others to Hell. Yet Scripture never speaks of predestination in this way. So, in our humility, Lutherans cherish this mystery of God that He somehow elects His chosen for salvation while not choosing others for damnation since He desires all to be saved (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Of course, Calvinists supply their passages to support double predestination, but they do this while ignoring the rest of context. When a characteristic of God is not revealed to us in Scripture, instead of trying to explain it through human logic, we Lutherans cherish His mysteriousness and accept that our feeble human minds are incapable of understanding.
Lutherans cherish the purpose we have in Jesus. This is where Pastor Sutton dives more into vocation—God’s calling. “Vocations are the locus of God’s active work in creation” (211). We are the means by which God takes care of His creation—both nature and people. We serve God by serving our neighbour. Luther calls vocations “‘masks of God.’ Although it appears that the farmer works to provide grain, it is actually God working through the farmer to provide daily bread” (212). Likewise, when we are ill or gravely injured, God works through doctors to sustain our lives, whether they are Christian or not. As I said earlier, God gave us work at the beginning to take care of His creation, which includes His people because we are part of His creation. This work still continues after the Fall. God continues to take care of His creation, even people, through multiple vocations, whether that person be a janitor, garbage truck worker, a CEO, or a doctor.
Lastly, being Lutheran means we cherish God’s locality. “Jesus Christ is God thinking globally while acting locally. Born in a specific time and place, Jesus is the local embodiment of the global Creator. God’s global plan for all creation took place on a local scale” (228). In other words, God’s plan for global salvation took place at a specific time and in a specific place. At the same time, Jesus works locally in each of us. Not just in the congregation, but also in each of us as individuals. Christ comes to His people through the Church in Word and Sacrament to bring forgiveness to His people. Christ also works in each of us to be a vehicle of grace to others.
If you liked all or most of what you read in this review, then you’ll love the book. Some of what I discussed may be challenging to you, especially if you’re Calvinist, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book. Pastor Sutton covers a lot more than what I reviewed. If you liked everything I covered, then I’ll ask the question Pastor Sutton asks at the end of his last chapter, “Why aren’t you Lutheran?” This book is merely one of several others that help one to understand Lutheranism and Lutheran doctrine. Others include The Spirituality of the Cross by Dr. Gene Edward Veith and the Book of Concord itself.
For experienced Lutherans, this is a great book for a class on what it means to be Lutherans. Pastors can also use this in catechism class in addition to the Small Catechism. At the end of each chapter, Pastor Sutton has reflection questions for the class to answer (or you can do this in the privacy of your own home if you’re reading it on your own). At the back of the book, he gives general answers for each question. These questions can be answered through paper handouts, but they probably work best in the form of a discussion. Or you can use both. As a teacher, it’s up to you.
Overall, Being Lutheran is a phenomenal book in which it helps Lutherans understand more what it means to be Lutheran, and Pastor Sutton also helps the non-Lutheran understand who Lutherans are without giving an information dump on Lutheran doctrine. While there certainly are several doctrines and theologies involved in the book, they each serve to give a deeper understanding of who Lutherans are, whose identities rest on sola Christo.