This became somewhat frustrating to me a couple of years ago, specifically when talking with Roman Catholics (of course, the phenomenon happens with members of all denominations). I would hear one thing about one article of their teaching from one person, and another thing about the same article of teaching from another person. But the two, on this issue, could not both be right. So what did I do? I went down to our local used theology/philosophy bookstore (yes, it rocks that we have one of those; www.windowsbooks.com). There I picked up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for a whopping five bucks. I asked how many years I got off purgatory for reading it. The clerk didn't seem impressed.
And then I read it.
And wouldn't you know it, I had my questions and confusion cleared up. It did not mean that I agreed with this particular teaching from the Roman Catholic church. But at least I knew, objectively, what the teaching was, thereby allowing me to take it to the Scriptures to evaluate it.
I know. It seems simple, right? If you want to know what a church or denomination believes, teaches, and confesses, don't just take their members' words for it. Go to their confessional documents and read them. To be sure, this becomes quite difficult when a church or denomination has no such documents. But many do. And yes, it takes time and will probably stretch you a bit. But we always talk about being informed voters, right? Why not informed churchgoers?
The Lutheran confession of faith is contained in a collection of 16th-century documents known as the Book of Concord. There's a copy of the whole thing online here. Or you can buy a hard copy here.
Surprisingly, there are many Lutherans who have never even heard of the Book of Concord, although most are at least familiar with Luther's Small Catechism, one of the documents in the Book of Concord. Even if they have heard of it, most haven't read it.
Now, I'm certainly not going to say that this is wrong or sinful or some such thing. But I will say this:
You're missing out.
If you put in the time to read the Book of Concord, you'll find that it's an extremely edifying and comforting thing. Like anything (including Scripture), there are some parts that are easier to read than others. Some parts are more exciting and insightful than others. But the treasure contained there makes the whole thing worth it.
So, I encourage you to read the Book of Concord, even if you're not a Lutheran—but especially if you are. And here's why:
1. It's Scriptural.
Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I hear against Lutherans is that we place our confessional documents on par with Scripture. And I get it. It can certainly look like that, especially at first glance. We treasure our confessions, after all. We uphold them to be true, which means that any teachings that contradict them are false. We require our pastors to unconditionally subscribe to them without reservation. But this does not mean that we place them on par with Scripture. Rather, we treasure the Lutheran Confessions as we do precisely because they teach what the Scriptures teach. And so Lutherans do have two normative books: the Scriptures and the Book of Concord. But the Book of Concord is only normative for Lutherans because the confessions contained therein are normed by the Scriptures and do not contradict them. Don't take my word for it. Read it.
It has become somewhat of a battle cry these days to say, "Well my church just teaches the Bible." Ironically, this is often spoken by those who refuse to teach the plain words of Scripture when it comes to things like Baptism and the Lord's Supper. No, when it comes to those things, then they don't "just teach the Bible", but they teach the Bible after it has been subjected to their human understanding. So even though 1 Peter 3:21 says "baptism...saves you", it can't mean that baptism actually saves you, so they say. Even though Jesus says, "This is my body", what it actually means is "this is not my body", so they say. You see, everyone has a lens or perspective that they bring to the Scriptures, and it's ignorant to think otherwise. So, Lutherans are unabashedly upfront and honest with their lens. We read the Bible in a certain way and with certain presuppositions—just like everyone else. We don't need to pretend otherwise. The incredible thing, though, is how seriously the Book of Concord takes the text and teaching of Scripture. You can say a lot of things about Lutherans, but what you can't say is that we don't formulate our doctrine from the plain words of Scripture. We are faithful to the Scriptures even to the point of looking quite foolish to many. I think someone wrote something about that once (1 Cor. 1:18). Spend some time with the Book of Concord, and it becomes glaringly evident that it submits itself to the Word of God. But don't take my word for it. Read it.
2. It's comforting.
So what is the lens through which Lutherans read all of Scripture? In a word: Jesus. This is why the Book of Concord is an extremely comforting book. It teaches the student of the Scriptures how to see Jesus on every page of Scripture. And not Jesus as a therapist; not Jesus as a life coach; not Jesus as a grand purpose-giver; not Jesus as moralistic guru; not Jesus as happy-marriage-maker or bank-account-increaser; not Jesus as vending machine of blessings.
But Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord for your forgiveness, without any pathetic contribution on your part.
And therein lies the comfort. The Lutheran confessions remind us over and again what the Scriptures teach: that we are born dead in our trespasses and sin (Gen. 3; Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 3:9-19); that we are enemies of God (Rom. 5:10); that there's nothing we can do to free ourselves from our sinful condition (we're dead, after all); and that Christ didn't wait around for us to get our act together, but died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). There's nothing we can do to choose him for ourselves but he, in love, chooses us (John 15:16). There's no work of ours that's good enough to please God (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:10-14), and there's also no sin that't too great for our Lord's shed blood (John 3:16-17; Rom. 3:25; 5:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:13; Col. 1:20; Heb. 9:11-14, 22).
It's comforting because it robs you of your good works and knocks you off of the rat wheel of trying to keep God happy with you. But don't take my word for it. Read it.
3. It gives you ears to hear.
In an American church culture that increasingly seems to be becoming apostate, this one is a biggy. There's this fact that many Christians seem to have forgotten, but which is just good, common sense: don't believe everything a person tells you. Just because a pastor gets up into a pulpit or takes a stage; just because he has a captive audience; just because he's got charisma and can speak with utmost eloquence; just because he said, "God told me..." or even, "The Bible says...", does not mean you should believe a lick of what he says. It's not like he has some extra revelation of the Scriptures that no one else has (although he may want you to believe that). No, he has the same Scriptures that the entire Church has, clergy and laity alike. And so you know exactly what pastors should be teaching. Which means you also know when they're teaching wrongly. The Book of Concord helps to give you these ears. Not only is it a lens that focuses your reading of the Scriptures, but it's also a hearing aid that helps you listen to the Scriptures when they are proclaimed, so that you will not have the wool pulled over your eyes (which always results in removing the comfort of #2 above).
As I said earlier, every Lutheran pastor, at least in my own church body, the LCMS (I'm somewhat ignorant of the confessional subscription of other Lutheran bodies), has publicly promised that the entire Book of Concord is his own confession. Next time you see your pastor, ask him when the last time was that he studied the Book of Concord. On the day of his ordination, he was asked if he confesses what the Book of Concord teaches. He stood before God and the Church and made this promise with his own lips: "Yes, I make these Confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God."
This act is for the sake of the whole body of Christ. This protects the laity from the hobby horses, soap boxes, and false teaching of unfaithful pastors. It's no secret what this man confesses. He has told you with his own lips what his confession is, and you are able to pick it up off of the shelf and read it. Then when you hear him preach and teach, you can evaluate whether or not he is preaching and teaching rightly. If he's not, you have something objective to point to: the Scriptures and the Book of Concord, which he himself said was his own confession. It seems so simple, but sadly this helpful fact has been lost in our life together. If you're Lutheran, you have every resource available to you to find out what your own pastor believes, teaches and confesses. But don't take my word for it. Read it.
4. You can tell your friends what Lutherans (really) believe.
When you become familiar with the confessions of the Lutheran church, you are actually given tools to talk about it with others, and you aren't simply relying on hearsay or your own opinions, thoughts, feelings, or whims. This becomes helpful for clearing up confusion among your friends, especially when two different church bodies who bear the name 'Lutheran' may come out with two very different confessions about something (for example, the LCMS and the ELCA). There's actually an objective way of determining which position is the historic, orthodox, Lutheran, Scriptural position. No matter what a church may put on their sign, if they aren't believing, teaching, and confessing the teaching of the Book of Concord week in and week out, they aren't Lutheran, no matter how much they print it in their bulletin or plaster it on their website. And that's not mean or pejorative. It's just true. No one would call me Presbyterian, for example, because I don't believe, teach, or confess what the Presbyterian church confesses. That's not mean. It's just true.
5. It points you to Jesus. Alone. For you. Period.
For people whose natural, sinful condition is to justify ourselves before God, thinking that we have made him proud with our feeble effort, the most comforting part about the Book of Concord is its incessant focus upon Christ alone, crucified and risen for you. And no matter who you are, you can't get enough of that.
For that reason, the Book of Concord is a treasure trove of comfort. It is a road map to the Scriptures. It is discussion fodder for the dinner table. It is guidance for your pastor's proclamation and instructive for your hearing. It is truly a remarkable confession. And it is all of those things because Christ is at the very center.
But don't take my word for it. Read it.