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Why Lutherans Fight Over Doctrine

One of the complaints that is often leveled against conservative Lutherans is that we are much too polemical. “Polemic” comes from the Greek word “polemos” which means “war.” In plain English the contention is that we Lutherans spend too much time and effort fighting over doctrine when we should be doing other things.

Perhaps you’ve heard that complaint before. Maybe you’ve felt a little that way yourself. Every few years, it seems, a new doctrinal conflict surfaces within the body, one that causes a lot of anguish and has to be battled out. Is this a waste of precious time? Is it a misuse of resources to haggle over points of doctrine until they are settled? It may seem that way — until you remember the real treasure of Lutheranism, the Gospel of free grace.

Free grace means that we are saved, not because of what we have or have not done, but because of what Christ has accomplished for us. In some way, shape, or form every Christian Church claims to teach this. But do they? The Roman Catholic version of “free grace” is actually “infused grace,” which means that God infuses a person with the ability to work his or her way to heaven. Reformed churches teach that God does His part in salvation, but you must also do your part. That part may include making a decision for Christ, fulfilling His commands, or leading a holy life. Only the Lutheran Church teaches that salvation is yours simply as a free gift of God’s grace.

How can these churches use the same Bible that we do, and yet miss this most important teaching of Scripture? In Catholicism, the answer is obvious. Once the word of popes and church councils was elevated to the same level as Scripture, anything went, including the Gospel of free grace. With Reformed churches, the answer is a bit more subtle.

You’ve heard of John Calvin. A contemporary of Luther, Calvin is considered the father of Reformed churches today. Calvin signed the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran document of free grace. But Calvin also taught false doctrine, for he denied the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. He doubted that Jesus could be present in the Sacrament, so he taught that Communion was merely a sign and an ordinance, something Christians did to remember Jesus’ death. That may seem like a small error, a mere technicality, but our Lutheran forefathers thought otherwise. A bitter doctrinal battle ensued and when the dust settled, Calvin was refuted. By 1580, when the Formula of Concord was drafted, the followers of Calvin had lost more than the doctrine of the Real Presence — they had lost the clear Gospel of free grace as well.

This is why Lutherans fight over doctrine. It isn’t that we think we are better than others or are the only people who will be saved. It IS because we see the Gospel of free grace as our greatest Treasure. If we lose one point of doctrine, eventually the Gospel itself becomes clouded with human conditions. “A little leaven,” the Bible warns, “leaveneth the whole lump.” False doctrine, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, will ultimately undermine the Gospel of God’s grace.

Nobody likes to fight over doctrine. Everyone would prefer to have peace within the church. It’s tempting to ignore differences as though they don’t matter. But they do matter. Without a battle over doctrine the devil will have his way and the treasure of the Reformation will be lost, which is precisely why Lutherans must continue to fight over doctrine.

–Pastor James Albrecht

Footnote: The Douay Version (Roman Catholic Bible) is very similar to the KJV. Ephesians 2:8-9 — “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; Not of works, that no man may glory.” The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563 with interruptions of 3 and 10 years) overruled the doctrine of free grace, stating: “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or that this faith alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be damned.”