What it means to be truly Lutheran: The means of grace

Joel D. Otto

As Martin Luther carried out his reformation, there were other reform movements at work throughout Europe (Anabaptists, Zwinglians, Calvinists). He was often critical of these other movement. He opposed them for their lack of trust in the power of the Word and sacraments to give and sustain faith. He used a term to describe them: Schwärmer. Literally, the word means “one who buzzes about.” In English, the word is usually translated as enthusiast. These were people and groups who “buzzed around” looking for the Spirit in their own feelings or thinking. They denied the power of the gospel, especially in the sacraments.

Luther recognized that God is very clear how he works to create and strengthen faith in the hearts of people. Faith comes from hearing the good news about Jesus (Romans 10:17). This gospel gives salvation by bringing people to believe in Jesus (Romans 1:16). The gospel message is in the form of both the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15,16) and the sacraments (Ephesians 5:26). Through these tools, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith in Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:13,14; Titus 3:4-7). The gospel is the means through which the Spirit pours out God’s grace on individuals.

Luther trusted that the means of grace has the power to work the needed change in people’s hearts. He once preached: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (Luther’s Works Vol. 51, p. 77).

True Lutherans continue to trust in the power of the means of grace. We don’t look for the Spirit to somehow zap faith into people’s hearts without the gospel. We don’t try to force people into “deciding for Christ” or attempt to argue people into heaven. We trust that the Holy Spirit “calls me by the gospel” (Small Catechism). The Augsburg Confession states: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (Article V).

For true Lutherans, the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is at the heart of the Christian’s life and the church’s work because the means of grace is how the Spirit changes hearts.

Questions to consider

1. List at least five examples from Bible history that demonstrate the power of the means of grace to give faith or strengthen faith.

Countless examples can be mentioned. Here are a few:

● Adam and Eve responding in faith to God’s promise spoken to them (Genesis 3:15).

● Abraham believing God’s promises after they were proclaimed to him (Genesis 12:1-8; Genesis 15:1-6).

● David repenting and believing God’s promise of forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-25; Psalm 51).

● The people of Nineveh (Jonah 3).

● Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

● The calling of some of Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-51).

● The conversion of the crowds at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41).

● The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38).

● The conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-19).

● The jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:16-34).

2. Since true Lutherans believe that the Spirit works through the gospel in Word and sacraments, how will this affect the following areas?

a. Worship

The proclamation of the Word, especially the good news of Jesus, and the administration of the sacraments will be what worship is all about. Everything—from preaching to liturgy, from hymns and music to architecture and art—will be focused on the Word and sacraments so that the Holy Spirit will do what he has promised through the gospel.

b. Christian education

Christian education is a priority in the ministry plan of a truly Lutheran church. Because the Spirit works through the Word, we want to have the Word taught to children. The faith created in Baptism is nurtured through the Christian education that goes on in the both the home and the church. And Christian education doesn’t end at confirmation. Christian education is a lifelong endeavor. So a truly Lutheran church will emphasize adult Bible study as well.

c. Mission work/evangelism

The focus of mission work and evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. Humanitarian aid and social programs are not an end of themselves when it comes to mission work and evangelism. They serve to open the door for the proclamation of the gospel. That alone is how the Spirit brings people into his family of believers. That is the goal of mission work.

d. A Christian’s daily life

Devotional Bible reading will be a priority in a Christian’s daily life. Only through the gospel does the Spirit continue to strengthen faith to face the challenges of everyday life as a Christian in a world hostile to the gospel. In addition, worship and Bible study will be priorities in the weekly schedule of a Christian.

3. Read Isaiah 55:10,11 and John 3:8. How do these passages give us confidence as we carry out the mission of the church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus?

First, we have God’s promise that when the gospel is proclaimed God is at work to accomplish his purposes. While it is true that people can reject the Word, that does not diminish the fact that the Spirit is working when the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered. Our task is simply to proclaim the Word and to administer the sacraments faithfully. We can do so with the confidence that the Spirit is working.

Second, we don’t have to worry that the results hinge on us. The Spirit does his work “where and when it pleases him in those who hear the gospel” (Augsburg Confession V). The Spirit has his own timetable. Again, this gives us the confidence to go about the task of proclaiming the gospel—diligently, faithfully, making the best use of our time and abilities—without worrying that our mistakes or frailties will result in someone not coming to faith. That doesn’t mean we are to be lazy or not give our best effort. Rather, we rejoice that God uses us in his glorious work of bringing people to faith in Christ and giving them the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.


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


This is the sixth 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 March 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

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