O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
— Robert Burns (“To a Louse“)

Some people have spiritual “aha! moments” at retreats or in the presence of God at the seashore or on a mountaintop. And some of us, I guess, are fated to have our moments of clarity while typing out a blast email.

So yesterday I was getting ready to send out the Zoom link for an online book study group that Debi and I co-facilitate for our Lutheran parish church. (It meets Sundays at 6 p.m., and we call it — what else? — Sundays@6.) I like to add a little something extra to the email messages, perhaps highlighting something of particular interest to our group, and this time I especially wanted to. Here’s why:

Our book is called Christianity’s Family Tree; it’s a review of different Christian faith traditions by a United Methodist minister, and this week’s chapter is on the Lutherans. In the leaders’ guide that goes with the book, I learned John Wesley had an aha! moment of his own when he heard a commentary of Martin Luther’s on the letters of St. Paul read aloud one night in London. It was about faith and trust, issues I’ve been wrestling with lately, and I decided to highlight it in the email.

“It’s not trying to get God to love you by doing enough good stuff,” says the author, the Rev. Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, in a passage quoted in the leader’s guide. “It is trusting in his love and living your life in response.”

That’s as succinct a paraphrase as I’ve seen of Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith, so I put it in the email. I’ve read a fair amount of Luther, and I feel like I’m familiar with the idea. But as I thought about it while I was finishing the email message, it occurred to me I hadn’t thought of it in terms of trusting God’s love in quite the same way.

And as I finished the email and clicked “send,” I had a little aha! moment of my own.

Not that the idea of God’s love is new to me. Growing up southern Appalachia, I’d see “God is Love” spray-painted on rock faces above the highway on old U.S. 25-70 between Knoxville and Asheville, N.C. (along with “Jesus Saves” and “Prepare to Meet God,” which is exactly what would happen if you took your eyes off that mountain road). But, perhaps because of my early exposure to Bible Belt pop theology by osmosis, I tended to think of the gospel message in terms of hellfire and damnation instead of God’s lovingkindness.

And Lutheran theology, especially in its early, formative stages, was heavily into sulfurous matters like substitutionary atonement and forensic justification, defined by Wikipedia (summarizing the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and Luther’s Smalcald Articles of 1537) as a “divine verdict of acquittal pronounced on the believing sinner.” So we aren’t exactly immune to a dour, guilt-ridden pietism, either. If we were, there wouldn’t be a market for T-shirts and hoodies like THIS one (not a product endorsement, by the way); it says “You might be a Lutheran if you feel guilty about not feeling guilty.”

But there’s a joyful side to Luther, too. “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it,” says Luther in the commentary on Romans that Adam Hamilton quoted. Trust. There’s that word again.

“Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace,” adds Luther, “makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”

Hey, I could do that, too.

All too often I think of our Lutheran heritage in terms of in-jokes about lutefisk, cream of mushroom soup and church basement potlucks where they “serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color for the season.” And, of course, that zip-front hoodie. But isn’t Luther saying here what the gospel is all about? We receive grace, and we extend grace in return. To God and all God’s creatures. And, by a marvelous example of interfaith relations at work, a Methodist minister’s story of what John Wesley got from Luther’s commentary on Romans reminded me of that.

Here’s a lightly edited copy of my blast email:


Hi everyone!

Our next Sundays@6 meeting will be Sunday, Oct. 2, at 6 p.m. We’ll be discussing Chapter 3 of “Christianity’s Family Tree” by Adam Hamilton, on the Lutherans! A participant handout is attached, and here’s the Zoom link from our announcement in News You Can Use [the parish newsletter]:


(If this one doesn’t work, you can go to Friday’s NYCU and click on the one there; and our phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx if there are glitches.)

In a way, Sunday’s chapter is a little bit different. Hamilton, a Kansas City-area United Methodist minister, says he wrote it “[…] not to critique the Lutheran faith tradition but to learn from it so that our own faith might be enriched.” So in a way, it’s about us! What can we learn about our tradition — and Hamilton’s — from studying the chapter?

In the Leaders’ Guide that goes with the book, Hamilton quotes from Methodist founder John Wesley’s Journal for May 24, 1738, a significant date in his spiritual journey and in the history of the Methodist movement (Wikipedia has the details on its “Aldersgate Day” page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldersgate_Day). It’s significant for us because Wesley dated his conversion from hearing Luther’s introduction to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans read aloud in a Moravian meeting in London. He wrote:  

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Hamilton quotes from a relevant passage in Luther’s introduction the Romans:

Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13) It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith […] Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. 

The Leader Guide also pulls out a “notable quote” from Hamilton, summarizing both Luther and Wesley in his own words, that’s worth repeating here: 

God loves you. God is proud of you. God affirms you. And that’s the starting point of your faith. It’s not trying to get God to love you by doing enough good stuff. It is trusting in his love and living your life in response.

John Wesley had an interesting history with the Moravians, whose theology was different from ours but who had a close relationship with Lutherans back in Germany. (Pete loves the story of how Wesley admired their faith when he heard them singing hymns during a storm at sea.) He had just returned from an unsuccessful mission to preach to American Indians in Georgia, and he was discouraged, so it was a key moment when his faith was renewed by the Moravians’ — and Luther’s — faith in God.  

Anyway, that’s what Adam Hamilton takes away from his study of Lutheranism. How’d he do? What do we have to offer other faith traditions? What do they have to offer us?

Looking forward to seeing everybody Sunday at 6. We’ll sign on at 5:45 to chat and work out tech glitches, and start the video, featuring the bishop of ELCA’s Kansas City-area synod, at 6 p.m.

[Revised and uplinked Oct. 1, 2022]

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