SE No. 3 – The Heart of Lutheran Theology

I write this in response to the previous articles of Dr. Manfred K. Bahmann and Pr. Steven Shipman.  (links below)  In the interests of full disclosure, I begin by noting that I am personal friends with them both, though my theological sympathies lie closer to the latter.  I hope that both of them will forgive me if anything I offer here offends them.

In his article, Pr. Shipman says, “a number of scholars have suggested that in our churches we have two competing gospels: a gospel of affirmation and a gospel of transformation.”  In his response, Dr. Bahmann wrote, ”To speak of a ‘gospel of affirmation’ and then of a different ‘gospel of transformation’ makes no sense.  The heart of our faith as Lutherans always is God’s affirmation of us as we are without any distinctions.”  (emphasis mine)

I must humbly offer that the heart of Lutheran theology is neither Dr. Bahmann’s “God’s affirmation of us as we are” nor the “gospel of transformation” identified by Pr. Shipman’s unnamed scholars.  The heart of the gospel as Lutherans have historically understood it is neither transformation nor affirmation, but rather justification.

Justification is a Biblical word that sees little use in modern America, which is perhaps why both affirmation and transformation are more understandable and consequently more appealing to us.  Affirmation would seem to signify God’s approval of us “as we are,” and transformation God’s approval of us as we shall someday be.  Justification by contrast is an ancient legal term that indicates how much God disapproves of (does not affirm) us “as we are,” but provides us a way to salvation.

Affirmation purports to tell us something about ourselves.  For modern Americans, nurtured with the language of self-esteem and weaned into the world of afternoon talk shows and self-improvement literature, this is very attractive.  We like ourselves and would like very much to keep ourselves the focus of our attention.

In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul explains that in the human condition there is very little to affirm, stating “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Though certainly there are aspects of ourselves worthy of high regard (we are after all made in the image of God) ultimately that image has been effaced almost beyond recognition by our sin.  When it comes to the ability to stand in God’s presence at the final judgment, none of us will be able to do so based on our own merits, for each of us has of our own free will added to the pain, hurt, and sin in this world.  If we are honest with ourselves, we indisputably know that a perfectly holy and good God cannot affirm us “as we are.”

Justification forces us to stop paying attention to ourselves, for to see ourselves correctly brings only despair.   Justification teaches us to start paying attention to God, for it tells us something about God, specifically about God’s character.  It tells us the amazing news that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8) That is to say, it is precisely when we were of no worth at all that God in Jesus Christ gave Himself to and for us in an act of sacrifice that opens the way for us to eternal life.  What is affirmed by the Biblical doctrine of justification is not us in our current condition, but rather God in His condition of perfect, self-sacrificing love.

From a Biblical perspective God does indeed love us, but He certainly does not affirm us.  This is precisely why the old hymn Just As I Am, whose lyrics were alluded to by both Pastors Bahmann and Shipman, emphasizes our lack of worth.  According to the song, in the presence of God I as human being am “without one plea … poor, wretched, blind.”  My state is contrasted with God’s “unknown” love that breaks “every barrier down,” that “pardons, cleanses, and relieves,” that offers “sight, riches, and healing of the mind.”  As the song says, all I need in God I find, for while I was yet worthless, it was God whose “blood was shed for me.”

Affirmation leads us to value ourselves.  It displaces God as the center of all our hopes, which is why it truly is an alternative to the historic Christian gospel.  Justification instead leads us to value Christ, which is why it is and has ever been at the heart of a truly Lutheran approach to Christian faith.  This is why the Reformers called it the doctrine “upon which the Church stood or fell.”



Steve Shipman’s Original Article:


Manfred Bahmann’s Response:


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