If I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me what the difference is between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics, I probably could have paid the Pope to get a tattoo of Luther’s seal on his bicep by now. You might think that a Lutheran missionary might really enjoy a question like this. It’d be like a baseball lobbed over the plate and I’m Mike Trout, right?
Well, it pains me to admit this, but there were times during my first couple of months serving as an LCMS missionary in Peru when I secretly hoped nobody would ask. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer, I just didn’t know where to start the conversation. I mean, where do you even begin explaining what we as Lutherans believe, teach and confess in a context where “Lutherans” are assumed to be followers of Martin Luther King Jr. or from a place called “Lutherville” (both real-life examples that illustrate the lack of exposure to the Lutheran faith where I served in Peru).
Worried that I might be totally misunderstood (I was speaking Spanish like a kindergartner at the time) or worse, that I’d be mistaken for an arrogant foreigner there to force his beliefs down everyone else’s throat, I would normally settle for a response something like this…
Well, Lutherans are kind of like Roman Catholics, but sometimes our clergy get married and we don’t pray to Mary or the saints.
Lutherans are kind of like the Evangelicals, but our pastors wear robes and sometimes chant.
Sometimes these sorts of answers would lead to fruitful conversations. More often than not, however, the conversation would end there, leaving me frustrated that I had missed an opportunity to share the Gospel, and most likely confirming my new friend’s assumption that the Lutherans were just one more “tribe” of Christianity.
Eventually I realized that I was making things more complicated than they needed to be. I was a missionary who had been sent to share the love of Jesus that was missing opportunities to talk about Jesus! I was going at it all wrong! In an article entitled, “Having Jesus on the Mission Field: Reflections on Lutheran Missiology Centered on Christ” seasoned LCMS missionary Pastor Daniel Mcmiller provided me with a helpful reminder to go back to the basics.
The question [about what makes the Lutherans different from the rest] might surprise you from someone walking alongside you on the street, while visiting a new friend in their home, in the park, the supermarket or during a conversation with a complete stranger. Answering the question took me back time and again to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ.
For Lutherans, answering questions about what we believe, teach, and confess (both when it lines up with others and when it doesn’t) is always an opportunity to go back to the basics. It’s an opportunity to return “time and again” to the doctrine on which the church stands or falls – the doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) on account of Christ alone (solo christus).
The rediscovery of salvation by grace through faith in Christ is nothing short of the rediscovery of the Gospel itself! And there’s no better place to start a conversation with someone unfamiliar with the Lutherans than this Good News of God’s grace in Christ!