Light for our path: Does WELS focus too much on Martin Luther?

“Does our church body focus too much on Martin Luther?”

James F. Pope

It is understandable that Martin Luther is receiving a great deal of attention this year, since 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Then again, there have been questions and accusations in the past that we focus too much on Martin Luther.

As we head toward the second half of this year, when the Reformation anniversary celebration will peak, your question provides a good opportunity to explain how WELS views Martin Luther.

A single foundation

Our church body believes and teaches that the Christian church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The Bible alone is the source of our faith. The writings of Martin Luther are not an additional source of faith for Lutherans. We do not believe anything simply because Martin Luther said so. Scripture alone—sola Scriptura—is the foundation of our faith.

A gifted reformer

Instead of viewing Luther as foundational to our faith, we regard him as a reformer of the faith. There were others who preceded him, pre-Reformers who spoke out against the errors of the church and paid for their testimony with their lives. While Luther voiced similar and other concerns as those men, he did not suffer their fate. He did live the last 25 years of his life with death threats hanging over his head, but he enjoyed God’s protecting hand.

With tireless energy and an abundance of God-given gifts, Luther threw himself headlong into preaching, teaching, writing, and reforming. We recognize Luther as a highly gifted man whom God used at a critical time in history to restore the truths of his word. Restore is the key word. Luther did not create doctrines; he rediscovered biblical truths.

A human name

So, what is Martin Luther’s place in our church body? The writer to the Hebrews offers guidance: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7).

Does remembering Luther mean naming our church body after him? That was not Luther’s idea. The name “Lutheran” came from Luther’s opponents. Luther wrote about the use of his name: “I ask that men make no reference to my name and call themselves, not Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? After all, the doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. . . . How, then, should I, a poor evil-smelling maggot sack have men give to the children of Christ my worthless name? Not so, dear friends. Let us cast out party names and be called Christians after him whose doctrine we have” (What Luther Says; Vol. II, p. 856).

In spite of Luther’s wishes, the label “Lutheran” remains. In and of itself, that is not objectionable. Denominational names can be helpful in providing a profile of a church body’s theological stance. But because there are different branches of Lutheranism, Lutheran church bodies need to articulate their beliefs and practices so people can see that a shared name does not necessarily mean a shared theology.

Do we focus too much on Martin Luther? No. When we give attention to a person through whom God worked his blessings, we ultimately give attention—and praise—to God. “To the only God our Savior be glory” (Jude 25).


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

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