What it means to be truly Lutheran: Scripture alone

Scripture alone

Joel D. Otto

What was the Lutheran Reformation all about? Was it merely that we Lutherans don’t pray to Mary and our clergy can get married? What does it mean to be truly Lutheran? Is it all about having a German or Scandinavian background and enjoying potlucks?

While the Reformation changed the way most people view the church, Luther was not interested in starting something new. He only wanted to bring the church back to its origins. Yes, we certainly may enjoy our potluck suppers, but that’s not what it means to be truly Lutheran. What made the Lutheran Reformation different from many other efforts to reform the church and what distinguishes true Lutherans today is doctrine—what we believe, teach, and confess.

It starts with the source of what we believe, teach, and confess. Unlike Roman Catholicism and other churches which rely on the Bible and tradition, other writings, or the decisions of church leaders, true Lutherans look to Scripture alone where God reveals what we are to know, believe, and do.

The introduction to the Formula of Concord, one of the Lutheran Confessions, states:

We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone, as it is written, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps. 119[:105]), and Saint Paul: ‘If . . . an angel from heaven should proclaim to you something contrary, . . . let that one be accursed!’ (Gal. 1[:8]).

Unlike many churches that try to adjust the Bible to human thinking, true Lutherans accept what God reveals in his Word, even if it doesn’t make logical or reasonable sense. The Formula of Concord also states: “Although these answers are contrary to reason and philosophy in all their arrogance, nonetheless, we know that ‘the wisdom of this ‘perverted’ world is only foolishness in God’s sight’ [cf. 1 Cor. 3:19] and that only on the basis of God’s Word can judgments on articles of faith be made” (Article II:8).

This is comforting for us. In Scripture alone God himself reveals to us what he wants us to believe and proclaim. We are not at the whim of changing interpretations or newly discovered traditions. The Word of God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:25). It is the truth (John 17:17). God does not, cannot, and would not lie to us (Numbers 23:19). Therefore, we subject our faulty human reason to the Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:5; Colossians 2:2-8). And we confidently trust that what we believe, teach and confess is divine and powerful truth (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Timothy 3:15,16).


Questions to consider

1. Read 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16. Define “verbal inspiration.” What are the implications of this doctrine?

Verbal inspiration means that the Holy Spirit gave (literally: “breathed into”) the human authors the words he wanted them to write down in the Bible. We do not know exactly how the Holy Spirit did this in every case. In some way, he guided those human authors so that what they wrote is what the Spirit wanted them to write.

Implications of this doctrine include:

● The Bible is God’s Word, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

● Since God cannot and does not lie, the Bible is absolutely true in everything. It does not contain any errors.

● Every promise of the Bible has been or will be fulfilled.

● We should not add to, subtract from, or change the meaning of the Bible’s clear words; this is God’s Word.

2. List at least five scriptural teachings that defy human logic. Why is it comforting that many of the Bible’s teachings cannot be completely comprehended by human reason?

Below are just some of the teachings that defy human logic:

● Trinity

● Creation

● The person of Christ (God and man in one person)

● The incarnation (how God became man)

● All of Jesus’ miracles

● Jesus’ resurrection

● The real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper

● Salvation by grace alone

● The conversion of anyone to faith in Christ

The fact that so many doctrines cannot be completely comprehended by human reason just demonstrates how big God is. God and the way he deals with us cannot fit into our little human box. It means that God can and does do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20,21). That is comforting when we are at a loss as to what we need or even what to pray for.

3. What are the inherent dangers when tradition or the “living voice of the church” becomes a source of a church’s teaching? What examples do you see in various churches today?

When something in addition to the Bible becomes a source of a church’s teaching, the Bible takes second place and a church is open to the introduction of new teachings. One can interpret “tradition” to say whatever you want it to say. “The living voice of the church” allows one to compromise with whatever culture or society is saying. The Bible basically becomes irrelevant. Or it is relegated to a “museum piece,” a nice artifact of history that does not really have much to say to us today.

This is evident in Roman Catholicism as one hears Pope Francis hedge on different biblical teachings. It is clearly evident in both the Anglican/Episcopal church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with those churches’ views on sexual issues. Any number of other examples could be given regarding many churches’ views of creation and the miracles in the Bible.


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

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


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

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