“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. I see it as the very power of God working for the salvation of everyone who believes it, both Jew and Greek. I see in it God’s plan for imparting righteousness to men, a process begun and continued by their faith. For, as the Scripture says, The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17; J.B. Phillips).
We are children of the Reformation, heirs of the great gospel breakthrough that swept through the lives of the Reformers, renewed the church and changed the course of history.
Great. What does it mean for us today?
Let us be perfectly clear. Our heritage does not mean a particular variety of hymnal, a predictably sober tone in worship, a prescribed manner of architecture, etc. It is not about holiday foods from Scandinavia or cherished customs from rural Minnesota. We are Lutherans. But our Lutheran identity brings a critical lens to all of these things: they are “adiaphora” – a Reformation word meaning “things indifferent.” Lutherans understand that most of what they do is “indifferent” – neither prohibited by the Bible nor commended. Lutherans hope always to keep “first things first”: to emphasize the Gospel of salvation above all else, and order all else around it. Roland Bainton explained the balance with an image from the garden: “The center about which all the petals [cluster is] the affirmation of the forgiveness of sins through the utterly unmerited grace of God made possible by the cross of Christ … Beyond these cardinal tenets Luther was never to go.” And neither should we.
If we presume to know how one should worship, we presume too much. If we prescribe how a church should organize, or how it should sing, or how it should appear, we have prescribed altogether too much. These things are “petals,” at best. But at the heart of the flower stands Jesus alone.
Of all missionaries, Lutheran missionaries should be especially thrilled that the Scriptures are translated into indigenous languages everywhere, that hymns are sung to the beat of drums, in African cadences and Asian melodies. Think of the possibilities! Our heritage as Lutherans permits us – indeed, impels us – to contextualize the gospel message into “petals,” forms and textures indigenous to the people among whom we serve. We must leave lutefisk and green hymnals at home.
We pray that people meet Jesus because of our lives and service – not America, or the West, or even the Lutheran tradition. After all, the Gospel is “God’s plan for imparting righteousness.” Children of the Reformation will take care that nothing is added, or subtracted, from this wonderful, amazing Good News.