Anti-Racism and the Lutheran Confessions

What do our sixteenth century Confessions of The Lutheran Church say about anti-racism work within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Like the Bible, these documents are cited in our churchwide, synod, and congregation constitutions as informing our life and our work as communities of believers in God, revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ.


While no such word like racism appears in these 400 plus year-old documents, the way we treat others does. References are especially about our relationships with our neighbor, another human, and the need to do good works towards them. So while they do not speak directly to our work, indirectly we can say they do! They support and inform an anti-racism stance.

Such references to others abound in Luthers’s Small Catechism, the most familiar of all the confessional documents to Lutheran Christians. The Ten Commandments contain many references. About the Fifth Commandment, (You are not to kill), Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” About the Seventh Commandment, (You are not to steal), Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.” With the Eighth Commandment, (You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor), Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” The Ninth and Tenth Commandments, which deal with coveting and desiring, has Luther saying, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not entice, force, or steal away from our neighbors their spouses, household workers, or livestock, but instead urge them to stay and fulfill their responsibilities to our neighbors.”

In Luther’s explanation to the “Lord’s Prayer: Third Petition,” (May your will come about on earth as in heaven,) he says, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us. Whenever God breaks and hinders every evil scheme and will—as are present in the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh—that would not allow us to hallow God’s name and would prevent the coming of his kingdom, and instead whenever God strengthens us and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until the end of our lives. This is his gracious and good will.” For the Sixth Petition (And lead us not into temptation), the following is said, “It is true that God tempts no one, but we ask in this prayer that God would preserve and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice, and that, although we may be attacked by them, we may prevail and gain the victory” Luther suggest it is God’s desire to intersect with our lives and change us.

In the section on “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” Luther says about the significance of our baptism, “It signifies that the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

If one consults the same sections in the Large Catechism, Luther expands on the way we treat others as suggested in his Small Catechism. In the section on “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” he says. “Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth. What is the old creature? It is born in us from Adam, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud—yes—and unbelieving; it is beset with all vices and by nature has nothing good in it. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.”

The Christian life’s acknowledgment of our sinful self and claiming God’s grace in Jesus Christ for our future is realized through confession and forgiveness. In one edition of the Small Catechism, this appears about “Confession,” “Here reflect on your walk of life in light of the Ten Commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted, or injured anything.” What we’ve done to others is important for confession.

In the Augsburg Confession, Article VI. Concerning the New Obedience it says, “It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. For we receive forgiveness of sin and righteousness through faith in Christ, as Christ himself says [Luke 17:10]: “When you have done all [things]…, say ‘We are worthless slaves.’ ” The Fathers also teach the same thing. For Ambrose says: “It is determined by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved and have forgiveness of sins, not through works but through faith alone, without merit.””

Finally, The Formula of Concord Solid Declaration, Article VI: The Third Use of the Law, we read, “However when people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit. Works of this kind are not, properly speaking, works of the law but works and fruits of the Spirit, or, as Paul calls them, “the law of the mind” and “the law of Christ.” For such people are “no longer under the law but under grace,” as St. Paul says in Romans 8 [7:23; 6:14].”

While these references are to the individual, as human and believer, it is us, a people who comprise and maintain an institution, the church, and who also can change it to be more in the image of God revealed in Christ Jesus where all people are included irregardless of skin color, ethnic origin, economic class, language used, age, or sex. The Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the Bible and confessions call us to do no less.

Written by Pastor Paul Bauman, West Bend, WI

All quotes are from The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000.