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Beware the headlines

Mark G. Schroeder

Last fall, you may have seen a headline that caught your attention. Even though it was a story about religion, it appeared in many secular news publications. The headline blared, “U.S. Lutherans Approve Historic Agreement With Catholic Church” (Huffington Post, 8/17/2016). Only by reading the article would you have noticed this very important piece of information: “Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. [emphasis added] has approved a declaration recognizing ‘there are no longer church-dividing issues’ on many points with the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Lutherans who approved the “historic agreement” with the Roman Catholic Church were in fact Lutherans belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). While the ELCA is for the moment the largest Lutheran church body in America, it has gone from a membership of 5.2 million in 1988 to 3.6 million today and has lost more than 1,500 congre-gations. It now represents less than half of the Lutherans in America. A more accurate headline would have been “One Lutheran Group Approves Historic Agreement With Catholic Church.” In other words, a majority of the Lutheran churches in the United States—WELS, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod included—has not reached any such agreement with the Catholic Church. Headlines can be deceiving, and this one is a perfect example of that.

The ELCA has worked very hard to reach this kind of agreement. From its formation in 1988, the ELCA has made it clear that holding to biblical teachings is not exactly one of its priorities. That’s not surprising for a church body that does not believe in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. When a church body no longer believes that the Bible is the Word of God in its entirety, the teachings of God are soon replaced

by the teachings of humans. With no scriptural foundation or moorings, a church like the ELCA will inevitably drift into false teaching and unbiblical practice, as the ELCA has done. It will ignore what God says about the sanctity of human life. It will ignore what God says about the roles of men and women in the church. It will align its views on marriage and sexuality with a corrupt culture. It will reduce the gospel to nothing more than a means to achieve social justice. And, as has happened with the agreement with the Roman Catholic Church, it will view scriptural doctrines and Lutheran teachings not as treasures to be held on to but as obstacles to unity among Christian churches. When biblical teaching no longer matters, agreements such as the one reached between the ELCA and the Catholic Church become possible.

There are still Lutheran church bodies that strive to hold on faithfully to the truths that God has revealed in his Word. By God’s grace alone, ours is one of those. Certainly, we would all agree that unity in the Christian church is a noble goal for which to strive. But that goal should never be sought by setting aside or moving away from the teachings of the Scriptures. True unity among churches is achieved when there is unity of teaching based on the Word of God.

It is sad that as the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation approaches, a church that has Lutheran in its name appears to have thoroughly rejected its Lutheran heritage—a heritage that should lead us to stand with Luther on Scripture alone. We pray that God will continue to move us to stand on that Word and to confess boldly, even when others no longer do.


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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 104, Number 02
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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What it means to be truly Lutheran: Original sin

Original sin

Joel D. Otto

“There’s a little bit of good in everyone.” “Such a cute baby . . . so innocent.” “Everyone’s got the choice to be good or bad. We just have to put people into the right environment so they’ll make the right choices.”

We have all heard such thoughts. It’s the prevailing view today. It is also the view of every non-Christian religion and even many Christian denominations. It’s nothing new. Throughout history, people have believed that they are not that bad, that they can do enough good to earn heaven—or at least make some kind of contribution.

The Bible, however, says the opposite. The Bible teaches that every person who is born of a mother and father inherits a corrupt sinful condition, going all the way back to the first sin of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12; Psalm 51:5). Of all Christian denominations, true Lutherans believe, teach, and confess this more clearly than most. The Augsburg Confession states: “It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God” (II:2).

The Formula of Concord explains in even more precise language. “In spiritual and divine matters, the mind, heart, and will of the unreborn human being can in absolutely no way, on the basis of its own natural powers, understand, believe, accept, consider, will, begin, accomplish, do, effect, or cooperate. Instead, it is completely dead to the good—completely corrupted. This means that in this human nature, after the fall and before rebirth, there is not a spark of spiritual power left or present with which human beings can prepare themselves for the grace of God or accept grace as it is offered” (II:7).

That is a far cry from believing that we enter the world morally neutral or possess some spark of goodness. That is recognizing and confessing that from the moment of conception we are lost and condemned creatures. We are incapable of taking the first steps toward God. We cannot by our own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus.

The problem with denying the totality and severity of original sin is that people imagine they can do something to earn God’s favor. But how could anyone ever be certain they have done enough? When we confess and understand our absolute helplessness and hopelessness, we can see that salvation has to be entirely, from beginning to end, the work of God for us. And it is. Of that we are certain.

Questions to consider

1. Read Ephesians 2:1; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14. How do each of these passages describe our natural spiritual condition?

  • Ephesians 2:1: We are spiritually dead by nature. This means we are incapable of doing anything positive in a spiritual sense (a corpse cannot do anything except be lifeless). We do not have the power, for example, to make a decision for Jesus.
  • Romans 8:7: We are enemies of God, actively hostile to his will. We fight against his will. Not only are we incapable of obeying him; we do not even want to. This is even stronger than the description of spiritual deadness.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: Unbelievers are incapable of understanding what God reveals in his Word. Without the Spirit’s work, the gospel remains foolishness; it makes no sense. It should not surprise us that people reject the good news about Jesus. We should be amazed and rejoice that we (and anyone) believes in Jesus.

2. Why is it so difficult for people to believe the Bible’s teaching about original sin? Why do you think this might be an especially “American” problem?

By nature, people think that they have the capacity to do what God says, at least to the extent that God will be pleased. Or people think they can accept Jesus on their own. No one wants to think that they are spiritually dead, enemies of God, and blind to spiritual truth, which is how the Bible describes them. No one wants to believe that they are as powerless as the Bible says. This is an especially “American” problem because the American dream and mindset is that if you just set your mind to it, you can be anything you want. You can succeed. You can climb the ladder of success. The American mindset thinks that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get things done. This kind of attitude especially makes the biblical teaching of original sin difficult to accept because this teaching leaves no room for human contribution in salvation.

3. Read Psalm 51:1-12. Explain how the teaching about original sin fits into this psalm of repentance. Why is confessing that we are “by nature sinful” so important in our regular confession of sins?

David wrote this psalm after Nathan confronted him about his sins of adultery and murder involving Bathsheba and Uriah. David was brought to repentance and expresses that repentance in this psalm. The first part of repentance is acknowledging our sins and turning from them. David confesses his natural sinful condition. That’s where actual sins begin. This is so important in our regular confession of sins. In our minds, we might be able to minimize and even excuse some of our sinful behavior. But we cannot get around our natural sinful condition. And because this condition is universal and makes us so spiritually powerless, we come to see and appreciate even more the grace and mercy of God in blotting out our transgressions and washing away all our iniquities. This is especially important in the corporate Confession of Sins in worship. Certain sins may not apply to some members of a congregation. But all of us are “by nature sinful.” Therefore, all of us equally need to hear and receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ has earned and which the Word and sacraments proclaim and give.

Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the third article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Dec. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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