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Time to Retire Our Name?


This past June a statue of Col. Hans Christian Heq, which had stood in front of the Wisconsin state capitol since 1925, was torn down by protestors and tossed into a nearby lake. It was just one flashpoint in a nationwide wave of protests in which countless statues were removed and put into storage or simply destroyed. In recent months sports teams have “retired” familiar names, mascots, and logos which were deemed offensive. Multi-national corporations have changed the names and packaging of familiar household products for the same reason. At the root of the unrest is disappointment, hurt, and anger toward others for real or perceived failings.
With that in mind, is it time to tear down statues of Martin Luther and “retire” the name Lutheran from our churches and synod? After all, there are few people in history more controversial. Luther himself didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that he was sinful through and through and that there was nothing he could do to change that and make himself righteous before God. His familiar hymn stanza sums it up well: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay, Death brooded darkly o’er me, Sin was my torment night and day, In sin my mother bore me; Yea, deep and deeper still I fell, Life had become a living hell, So firmly sin possessed me.” (TLH 387:2).
In fact, if justice and perfection in one’s words and actions were a prerequisite for being statue-worthy, every
monument dedicated to human beings and their achievements would have to be demolished. “There is none who does good. No, not one.” (Psalm 14:3)
Yet, we are not about to expunge the Lutheran name from all our records or forbid its use in the future. Identifying as a Lutheran has never been about trust in a man who had sinful flaws and missteps which he later regretted, just as we all do. Rather, calling ourselves Lutheran is stating that we stand where Martin Luther stood, solidly on the Word of God as the only source of absolute, eternal truth. That Word alone reveals Jesus Christ as the Savior from sin. He fulfilled all righteousness in the place of sinners. On the bloody cross He suffered the punishment you and I deserve.
Critics at times revel in pointing out expressions and actions of Martin Luther which are crude and offensive to contemporary ears. We too may cringe at some of them. Still, rather than being cause to abandon his name, these incidents reinforce Luther’s steadfast trust in God’s grace alone. He would be the first to admit with St. Paul that he was “the chief of sinners.” But that confession made the Gospel of Christ all the sweeter to his soul.
Perhaps the most famous Luther statue is the Luther Monument unveiled in 1868 in Worms, Germany. It depicts the Reformer with his right foot forward, as though in mid-stride, eyes slightly upturned, and both hands firmly holding a large Bible. That mighty Word of God led Luther to the truth of salvation by grace alone, gave him incredible courage, protected him from the most powerful earthly forces and the demonic schemes of Satan, and was his sure comfort when the Lord called him home.
Instead of retiring the name, may Lutheran recall for us our blessed heritage by which we have received the pure Gospel, and move us to praise the Lord for His grace shown to us. May we search and study the Scriptures with renewed appreciation for the peace and comfort they provide in these turbulent times. Rather than hiding or being ashamed of the name, let’s use it as a way to always be ready to give to everyone who asks us a reason for the hope that is in us.
Michael Eichstadt is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, and president of the Church of the Lutheran Confession.