Insights into Lutheran Spirituality
It is a difficult challenge to convey the depth of Lutheran spirituality without a shared common appreciation of the heavily theological laden terms of grace, law, gospel, sacrament, cross, humility, service, baptism, Eucharist, and worship. Without a depth of appreciation for these concepts, the conversation is in danger of inadequate comprehension and subsequent benighted disassociation. These terms, however, lie at the heart of a Lutheran understanding of spirituality, where their use within the tradition intentionally conflicts with alternative views that exist as contradictions to a long and established historical and confessional framework.
All Lutheran spirituality exists in the shadow of the cross. It looks to the cross, and accepts that here God is revealed while simultaneously concealed. As Moses only saw God in the passing shadows, so the cross is the posteriora Dei which demands faith that accepts the One crucified is actually God. We find faith in its obscurity, for faith is not about things seen. In the cross, therefore, we find God deeply hidden under an instrument that is contradictory to what we would expect. Only faith can grasp this suffering dimension of a God who reaches out to humanity’s existence as perpetrators and victims of a sinful world. This utter dependence on God resides at the heart of a Lutheran spirituality, and introduces the concept of humility. Humility is not a work or affection, and seeks no reward. Instead, it is a state of being that acknowledges the utter impoverishment of the human condition and responds by clinging in faith to the promises of the cross.
Law and Gospel
Lutheran spirituality exists as a paradox that wrestles with the irreconcilable tension between Law and Gospel. While the law make act as a signpost for our spiritual journey, in its primary sense the Law always reveals our separation from God, and therefore condemns us as sinners. The Gospel comforts with the assurance of justification by faith in the liberating voice of God’s Word. The Word is more than the simple text of the Bible, but the very promises of grace that weave their way through the text. It is these promises that Lutheran spirituality clings to despite the struggle and pain of living in a fallen world. The proclamation of the Word is one that condemns, but simultaneously promises forgiveness and reconciliation with God, and thereby offers words of encouragement and hope to the Christian. This promise exists sacramentally. It entered the Christian’s life at Baptism, and renews every time the Eucharist is celebrated. Neither of these events rely on human involvement, for we are always and only recipients of the promise of the Gospel which unconditionally forgives sin.
Baptism is simultaneously the start point of Lutheran spirituality, while also being the point to which the Christian regularly returns. Baptism makes real the promises of redemption, for through Baptism we become physical participants in the salvation act of the cross (Rm. 6:1-14). Faith, which is a gift from God, finds something real and physical in Baptism to which it may cling. Baptism is not a path to faith, an expression of faith, an affirmation of faith, or some object that is merely symbolic. Baptism is a physical intervention of God into the life of the individual, through which God bestows absolute and definitive unconditional grace. Lutheran spirituality affirms that any actions taken by us cannot affect this complete and final act of God. No matter the despair of our failures, or the depth of our sin, the promise of Baptism is eternal. When doubts arise, the Christian can claim: “But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (LC) Through Baptism, the spiritual journey fundamentally relies on this act of God, and provides the means of hope to which the Christian can return on a daily basis.
Within Lutheran spirituality, this daily act of repentance is consistent with an appreciation of the rite of reconciliation, both on a personal and a corporate level. While not used as widely as it possibly could be, the rite of confession is an sacramental act that reaffirms the promises of the Gospel, received through Baptism and reassured through Eucharist, that the burdens of a sinful life are forgiven in full and without condition by the mercy and grace of God. The penitent and the confessor share a unique spiritual relationship in which the realities of the Law are reconciled with the fulfilled promises of the Gospel. Penitents “receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.” (SC; Mt.18:18)
Eucharist is the third means of Grace through which Lutheran spirituality is renewed and affirmed. There is a mystery within the Lutheran understanding of Eucharist that various misguided philosophical attempts have inadequately explained, and more often missed the point entirely. Lutheran’s do not subscribe to notions of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or any other form of substantiation, but in a true ‘mystical union’. Lutheran’s simply confess the same as they do with the cross, that God exists in contradiction. Hidden within the Eucharist, in the most mundane elements of wine and bread, the crucified Christ is truly present. This presence is full and complete, not in part, or symbolic, or memorial, but real. Faith clings to this as a reassurance that the Gospel is a physical reality proclaimed into the life of the individual and the community. It renews the promises of Baptism, reaffirms the assurances of confession, and extends the presence of Grace as it embraces the sinner and authenticates them once more as saint. More than this, it declares to the world that here we have unity of purpose and identity as the People of God, justified, redeemed, saved, by the very presence of Christ manifest in the community through the absolute and final declaration of the Gospel.
Simul – Saint/Sinner
The paradox of our earthly journey is the constant tension between sinner and saint. This tension is integral to Lutheran spirituality. It reminds us that we are not capable of approaching God on our own merits, but are fully reliant on the God who reaches out to us in Christ, through His Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who “calls [us] by the Gospel, enlightens [us] with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps [us] in the true faith; even as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the entire Christian Church on earth…,” (SC). Lutheran spirituality begins from the absolute impoverishment of the human condition, and reminds us that without God this condition can never change. It affirms that no human activity, regardless of the “faith” of an individual, can draw us close to God or even make us acceptable to God. This causes a total reliance on Christ, and focuses us firmly on the cross. Only through the paradox of the crucified Christ do we find reconciliation with God, and consequently, having been justified, are then sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only through our engagement with the cross, through the power of the Word and the activity of the Sacraments, do we discover that God has indeed made us holy. (Col 1:21) Sanctification, therefore, is not a working out of Justification, or an attempt to create some form of personal holiness, but a journey in partnership with the Spirit who, making us Holy through Baptism, frees us to share God’s grace, in service and humility before God, with the world in which we live. The Spirit gifts us to do this. He creates faith, and sustains faith. He creates hope and sustains hope. He creates love and sustains love. All the gifts and fruits spoken of in Scripture are only possible through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who is physically present whenever the Word is rightly proclaimed (Law and Gospel), and the Sacraments rightly administered (Word and Element). This manifestation of the Spirit does not exist for our benefit, or to make us holy, instead they exist so we may love and serve our neighbour. Good works, therefore, are always a response to the Gospel. They do not create holiness, draw us closer to God, or assure us of our salvation.
The above conversation shapes the Lutheran approach to the various spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, meditation, fasting, silence, service, worship, etc. We do not practice such disciplines to draw close to God. This form of mystical ascent toward God, frequently attached to the spiritual disciplines, is not possible through spiritual practice or discipline within a Lutheran framework of spirituality, which always affirms God’s descent for us. On the contrary, such practices are gifts of the Spirit that affirm and explore God’s divine intervention. The practice of the various spiritual disciplines empowers us to explore the depth of God’s grace, and in doing so, matures us into the image of Christ. This is only possible through the presence of the Holy Spirit, who continually refocuses us to the cross of Christ. They do not create holiness, develop holiness, or sustain holiness. We always exist as beggars before the throne of God, and the only hope we bear is in Christ alone. The practice of spiritual disciplines, from a Lutheran perspective, occurs as God’s gift in the shadow of the cross, realised through the proclamation of Law and Gospel, expressed by the Word, and experienced in the Sacraments.
It is hard to comprehend how spiritual practice, that reflects a distinctly Lutheran approach, is possible in an environment where theological differences prevail. This does not mean that Lutherans do not seek to find points of commonality with other theological traditions. Within a Lutheran theology, a heart for ecumenism exists, and emerges from a Lutheran ecclesiology that is always corporate. This desire does not simply exist to empower the Gospel in the lives of individuals; it also exists to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel in the world. Where points of convergence are plausible, and where the witness to the Gospel is not compromised, Lutherans will seek to share this journey with other traditions. Unity, however, appears in practice as much as it is in confession, for neither is separate within a Lutheran ecclesiological model. When diversity of confession is evident, when the truth of the Gospel may be blurred, or a weak conscience led astray, a Lutheran approach is to refrain from shared and open engagement. A theology of closeness creates an open door for those who share similar understandings, but does not extend to those who confess alternative positions. Lutherans reject any activity that may create a false impression of unity or similarity where such is not true. As Lutheran spirituality is fundamentally a theological practice and witness, it is improbable to see it shared in any context where there is not unity of confession or theological position.
John W. Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, (Concordia Publishing House, July 2008).
Robert Baker, Lutheran Spirituality: Life As God's Child, (Concordia Publishing House, December 2010).
Gene Edward Veith, Spirituality of the Cross, (Concordia Publishing House; 2 ed., February 2010).
Bradley Hanson, A Graceful Life: Lutheran Spirituality for Today, (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, January 2000).
Bradley Hanson, Grace That Frees: The Lutheran Tradition, (Traditions in Christian Spirituality Series), (Orbis Books, November 2004).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (Touchstone; 1 ed., September 1995).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, (HarperOne; 1 Ed., October 1978).
Bo Giertz, Hammer of God, (Augsburg Books; Rev ed., January 2005).