Lutheranism was the flagship of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which opened the gates of exodus from the Roman Catholic Church. As millions of people left Catholicism, they embarked on a road away from what they disliked about religion. But not all were so sure where they were going. Some became as legalistic and controlling as Catholicism by prohibiting the use of statues, icons and stained-glass windows because they feared divine status would be given to these images. They proclaimed infant baptism ineffective, claiming true baptism can only occur when a person is old enough to choose Christ as Lord and Savior. Martin Luther wasn't impressed and referred to these people as "radical reformers," saying they had "swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all!"
Today Lutheranism calls this "decision theology" — where the act of deciding for Christ is viewed as a "good work" or "works righteousness." Decision theology puts God's grace under the power of human decision. Luther strongly opposed this position and taught that God is unlimited and always takes the initiative. He saw this most clearly in infant baptism. Luther taught that life in Christ didn't depend on a person's decision but was the result of God's grace. Faith, Luther said, is living daily in the embrace of God, which flows from baptism.
Luther clearly understood the two extremes between Catholicism and the radical reformers. He tried to steer a more rational road down the middle. For Luther in 1540, and for us today, traveling the middle road isn't easy. It takes thoughtful, intelligent effort to avoid going to the extremes.
Our religious landscape isn't much different from Luther's. Catholicism has taken a turn back to works righteousness and the proclamation of itself as Christ's true church.
On the other hand, during the past 50 years in the U.S., the radical reformation has given birth to a new form of religion — the center of which is decision theology. Once human decision has usurped God's grace, other teachings that follow are also misguided. This is especially seen with the popular "gospel of prosperity," which proclaims that God will make his true followers rich (see "Unhappy business," why the prosperity gospel doesn't add up — in good times or bad; August issue). Decision theology gives lip service to God's grace but replaces it with human control and priorities. Making decisions in life is important, but God is not depending upon them.
Perhaps in the ELCA grace can best be compared to sunshine. Some may try to charge for it and others claim to have the ability to control it. But we proclaim that sunshine is free, abundant and given for all. We may avoid the sunshine and live in darkness. But the sun continues to shine. We return to it by seeking the forgiveness of God and one another. During worship we celebrate the freedom of sunshine and bask in its healing rays.
And that's what's so great about the ELCA.
Check out this week's articles:
Back to the basics: (right) Talking face-to-face revitalizes urban church.
Divvying up the days: With the school year upon us, help kids prioritize time.
On the 'yellow brick road': Oz enthusiast and expert celebrates 70 years.
Churchwide Assembly blog:
Most of our staff were at Churchwide Assembly last week. Subscribers
will be able to read about the assembly in the September issue of The
Lutheran, which will be posted online Sept. 1 and will begin arriving
in homes Sept. 4.
In the meantime, you can read Daniel J. Lehmann's (right) recap of the
assembly at our Churchwide Assembly blog.
Tell us: Bible verses that made a difference
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Deadline: Sept. 1
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