An Abundant Enough
Paul Koch

Satis est, it is enough, means “it is enough”…. This is not rocket science.

—Steven Paulson, preaching at a memorial service for James Kittleson


We read in Galatians that when Peter came to Antioch, Paul confronted him. Peter had been a regular table companion with unclean Gentiles until the circumcision party arrived and found such mingling uncouth. Paul had to remind Peter that persons, be they circumcised or not, were justified by faith in Christ, not by keeping the law.

Peter ought to have understood matters of salvation by faith alone. As the disciple who denied Jesus and was told later to feed his sheep, certainly he was aware of God’s mercy. As the recipient of a vision featuring beasts, reptiles, and birds all lowered to earth on a blanket, the point of which was God’s acceptance of the uncircumcised, certainly he must have remembered that salvation had gone out to the Gentiles; how could one forget such a vision?

One can only assume that had Peter been pressed at Antioch on the efficacy of the gospel, he would have answered in the affirmative: “Yes, we are saved by God’s grace through faith.” And yet he was adding an “and” to the gospel—gospel and works, faith and circumcision. He was acting as though grace and faith were powerful but not enough: saving, yes, but not without some help from the law. Given his druthers, he’d take the circumcised over believing Gentiles. 

It is telling that Paul mentions this incident in his letter to the Galatians, the epistle which Luther affectionately called his “Katie von Bora.” In Galatians, Paul makes his case in strong terms that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by works of the law. Luther had to defend his use of the word alone in his translation of Romans 3:28—we are saved by faith alone—a word not literally in the Greek text but necessary when rendering Greek into German. The phrase faith alone did not make it into his translation of Galatians, though it belongs there just as much. The Galatians thought something had to be added to faith in the gospel, namely works of the law, and so Paul had to rebuke and remind them that they were saved not by works but by faith, and not faith plus a little bit of works, nor faith and some love to give it content or perfect it, but faith alone.

Luther’s theological heirs have always loved this word alone. Its Latin equivalent, sola, has attached itself to a handful of words—scripture, faith, grace, and Christ—as a rallying cry of the Reformation. It is not the gospel and something else. No and is required. The gospel is sufficient. The trouble with adding an and to the gospel is that the and always comes to dominate. If we are saved by faith plus something else, then we end up hanging our hopes on that something else. If it is faith plus circumcision, then it is safer not to dine with Gentiles.

This insistence on the gospel’s sufficiency has given Lutherans a bad reputation on several fronts. There is something lean about Lutheran theology, even freeing—the gospel alone really saves, nothing else is required—and yet that leanness and freedom have been misinterpreted as impoverishment and bondage. Lutherans have been criticized, both from outside and within their own ranks, for being impoverished in matters of ethics, ecclesiology, liturgy, and, more recently, evangelical missions. Lutheranism’s detractors—or its supposed rescuers—have assumed that Luther did not give adequate attention to these things or that his successors have misconstrued him with beggarly results.

Such criticisms become evident quickly in conversations about ethics. Those who teach and preach the most about justification by faith alone are accused of hampering ethical discourse. For example, some of those dissatisfied by the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly and its decisions about sexuality have laid the blame for the church’s ethical confusion at the feet of a late theologian, Gerhard Forde. (For a sampling of the conversation, visit www.lutheranspersisting.wordpress.com)

Forde’s enduring legacy is the centrality of justification by faith alone, combined with a down-to-earth realization that justified Christians find themselves inhabiting this world, using their present lives to serve their neighbors. Forde had no trouble expounding the law, and he did so masterfully in Free to Be (1975), the confirmation curriculum he wrote with fellow professor Jim Nestingen, in which the demands of the law are shown with far-reaching yet everyday implications.

Nevertheless, Forde also trusted in the power of the gospel to create anew, meaning that the believer truly lived a new life, like a healthy tree that cannot help but produce good fruit, not because it was told to do so but because that is simply what healthy trees do. He acknowledged that a forensic understanding of justification has limitations, but only if its proponents forget the real death and resurrection that believers undergo already on this side of the grave. In his book Justification: A Matter of Death and Life, he argued that the forensic declaration of righteousness truly kills and makes alive. The Christian who hears and believes Christ’s word of forgiveness is a new creation whose life spills over in good works.

Forde gets himself into trouble because he insists that the Christian has no need of the law. He is following in Luther’s footsteps, of course, and those who find such a proposal unsettling should read Luther’s fine piece “How Christians Should Regard Moses.” Such a proposal is no less unsettling when one sees it at work in the Book of Acts, where sinners hear about Christ’s forgiveness one moment and are sharing everything they have with each other the next; no command necessary.

It is helpful to recall Luther’s belief that we are simultaneously saint and sinner—articulated in his 1535 Galatians commentary. Even after the death and rebirth of Baptism, the old sinful flesh clings, and the old flesh needs the law. Hence, we continue preaching it to our Christian congregations. But the new self, the one born of water and Spirit, is already beyond the law, though very much stationed in this world, and has no need of Moses. 

In practical terms, the preacher continues speaking words of law and gospel, command and promise, ethics and justification. But the preacher must also admit that the law and ethics have nothing on the power of the gospel and justification actually to create new creatures that live in obedience to their Lord’s commands. The Christian who has heard and believed the gospel does not need the law to give content to the life lived in faith. This is what irks Luther’s critics. He believed that the gospel is enough. Lutheran ethics are not impoverished. They are lean. Indeed, at the right point—the point where faith creates anew—Lutheran ethics don’t even exist.

In similar fashion, the ELCA’s theological crisis has raised concerns over the amount of ecclesiological guidance in the Lutheran tradition. Some of the same voices who worry that Lutherans don’t have the ethical wherewithal to prevent such crises also suspect that our lack of universal church structures has something to do with the mess. Forde got himself into trouble on this point as well, and his reflections on ecclesiology continue to be invoked as the source of ecumenical problems (see the aforementioned website for an example).

In the Lent 2010 newsletter for the Society of the Holy Trinity, an association of Lutheran pastors, Frank Senn proposed a more robust ecclesiology as a way of strengthening any future reconfigurations of Lutheranism in this country. He mentions ecclesiology as a “shortcoming” within Lutheranism and claims that the Reformation “made do with whatever structures could be salvaged from the pre-Reformation Catholic polity.” It is true, the Reformers had a full agenda, and one senses in Luther’s writings a lack of time for leisurely reflection. But it would hardly be fair to suggest that they gave sparse or disorganized attention to matters of ecclesiology.

The Augsburg Confession and its Apology are a far cry from slipshod, and they lay out both the salutary contributions and important limitations of manmade rites. Human traditions may contribute to tranquility in the church, but their use must never be treated as necessary for righteousness before God, nor must any office of ministry claim authority over Christ and his word.

Luther was a busy man, but he and his fellow Reformers had plenty of opportunity to think about ecclesiology. They wrote over and over again that the church exists wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments administered, whether there are bishops or not, popes or not, even buildings or not. Luther knew full well what the ecclesiological options were and he stuck to the sufficiency of the word to create and sustain the church. He did not salvage but rather allowed various church structures so long as they did not confuse the basic order: the church is a creation and servant of the word, not the other way around. 

It is ironic that the most ardent adherents to the Augsburg Confession are labeled as impoverished in ecclesiology and as trouble-makers in ecumenism. During the debates around Called to Common Mission (CCM), the ELCA’s full-communion agreement with the Episcopal Church, CCM’s opponents came out looking like the bad guys of ecumenism—despisers of inter-denominational cooperation—because they argued against this particular pursuit of church unity and its mandate of the historic episcopate. Their argument, however, was that the Augsburg Confession identifies unity wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments administered. Such an argument does not close down ecumenism. It blows it wide open. Churches who preach the gospel and administer the sacraments can recognize each other as partners in the gospel; no manmade rite required. CCM didn’t open the door too widely for inter-denominational cooperation; it didn’t open it far enough. Again, Lutheran theology is lean, and this frees churches to do their Christ-given ministry with one another.

Thirty-six years ago, as the Lutheran Book of Worship was preparing for launch, Oliver Olson wrote a piece in ­­­­­­Lutheran Quarterly addressing several of the proposed hymnal’s problems (26:110–157). He faulted the hymnal, among other things, for its use of eucharistic prayers that turned the Words of Institution (“This is my body, given for you…”) into prayers spoken to God, rather than words from Christ spoken to his sinners. Olson’s proposal to fix this problem was simple: add an Amen between the eucharistic prayer and the Words of Institution to make it clear that the words which followed were no longer being spoken to God, but from God to the congregation.

Toward the end of his article, Olson observed that the majority of his criticisms were negative. He had more to say about what should be deleted from the hymnal than kept. At the same time, he argued that Lutheran liturgies did not need merely to repristinate orders from the sixteenth century, nor did they have to be stripped-down exercises in rationalism. The choice between rationalistic services of the word and lush, ritualistic ceremonies was a false alternative. It is possible, Olson argued, for Lutherans to employ all kinds of liturgical practices, so long as they did not muddle the basic article of justification by faith apart from works of the law. If a eucharistic prayer made the Lord’s Supper appear like something we were offering to God rather than something he was offering to us—our work rather than God’s—then it would have to be rejected. God’s work is sufficient.

Again, we can see how Lutheran theology could be viewed as impoverished. Those who insist on classical eucharistic prayers will be greeted by theologians like Olson with Wite-Out. Liturgically, however, we really are free. We are free to put on albs and chasubles. We are free to light incense. We are free to raise our hands when praying or fold them. We are free to have gospel processions or forego them. What we are not free to do, however, is contradict Christ’s word. If he has commanded something, we do it. If he has forbidden something, we avoid it. Most certainly, if a liturgical practice would confuse or silence his sweet gospel, we denounce it.

Likewise, we do not burden consciences with decrees that are not found in scripture. Liturgical practitioners must speak gently when guiding others in how to worship. Recently I hear people enunciate the word ordo with the same pious inflection they once reserved for God’s own name, and consequently I hear Christians feeling scolded because the ways they’ve been worshiping their entire lives don’t look enough like recently uncovered liturgies of the fourth century.

The sufficiency of the gospel has never meant that Christians only preach sermons. Watch the Christians of the early church as they pray, share their possessions, and feed the hungry. Watch Luther as he prepares worship services both in Latin and German. Watch contemporary Lutherans worship, and you will see them singing the greatest hymns of the church, praying the liturgy, and receiving the sacraments. Their worship services will not all look the same, but their proclamation will have a marked similarity in its direction from a gracious God to the sinners he loves.

In some Lutheran circles, evangelical missions are receiving greater attention. It is predictable that critics find just as much impoverishment in the Lutheran tradition for these matters as well. I recall a seminary professor claiming that early Lutheran Reformers were too busy with other matters to articulate a doctrine of missions (which sounds familiar to concerns over ecclesiology). Likewise, a speaker at a synod assembly was recently heard saying, “We Lutherans get the grace part, but what we don’t understand is that with the grace comes a call to share the gospel.” Anytime someone claims that people get the grace part, sirens should go off. Nobody—whether they’re Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, or otherwise—really gets the grace part. Sinners all, we constantly need someone preaching to us the good news. The assembly speaker was insinuating that grace is the basics, and once we understand the basics, we need to get beyond them or add something to them. But grace is always sufficient. Those who, by God’s grace, do get the grace part, do not need to be reminded to share it. The healthy tree naturally produces good fruit.

Perhaps whenever any subject becomes popular enough for synod assembly speakers to address it, we will hear about an impoverishment in the Lutheran tradition, a gap just waiting to be filled. The Lutheran tradition will always look thin to someone looking to add an and to the gospel.

In the end, complaints about Lutheranism’s impoverishment sound like the child who complains to his parents: “You never let me do anything!” Parents can take their children to the beach, play their favorite games, and buy them lots of treats along the way, but even an indulgent parent has to know when to say no. When the child asks to juggle knives or watch late-night television on a school night, a parent has to draw boundaries.

In the same way, Lutheran theology draws boundaries. Lutherans are indulgent, not only allowing but even enjoying a diversity of thoughts and experiences—we get to claim a share in the formation not only of J. S. Bach but of Ace Frehly as well, guitarist for the heavy-metal band KISS—but when the gospel is threatened, when God’s word is compromised, when Christ’s sufficiency is challenged, then Lutherans say no. At that point, complaints of impoverishment must simply be ignored.

More importantly, though, Lutheran theology recognizes the sufficiency of Christ’s word for salvation, and if this is so, then it compels its confessors to preach it. This is not just a parent telling his child no to something bad but rather a parent insisting on something really good: “Trust me, you’ll love it.” Christ’s word is enough, not the way a morsel of dry bread is enough to satisfy hunger but the way a feast of fat things full of marrow and wines on the lees well refined is enough to last an eternity.


Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.

Copyright © 2016 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy