Invoking the Saints (As a Lutheran)

By Graham Glover

All-Saints

Seriously? Lutherans invoke the saints?

Well, no. At least they shouldn’t. The Lutheran Confessions clearly condemn such a proposition and there is little, if any, historical precedent for this to be a normal practice within Lutheranism.

But I think it’s time we reexamine why Lutherans don’t invoke the saints. I pose this question because I think there is not only room within Lutheran theology for such a practice to be acceptable, but that invoking the saints goes hand in hand with the most sacred Lutheran theological gem of all: the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

Let me say at the outset that I know my proposition has little chance of gaining ground. I’m also not calling for such a practice to be made a theological rule among those who adhere to the Book of Concord (such a call would clearly be hypocritical to its contents). Rather, mine is one of theological inquiry and consideration. So there is no need for my Lutheran peers to think I am ready to swim the Tiber or the Bosphorus.

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Of all the theological differences we Lutherans have with our separated brethren from Rome and the East, the issue of invoking the saints always seems to cause our “reformation” blood to boil the most. In my capacity as an Active Duty Army Chaplain it is one of the first issues my Protestant chaplain colleagues cite in their theological angst against Roman Catholicism. This issue is, and I’m not sure why, one of the most divisive issues that remains between our communions. But why? What is it about this practice that is so theologically offensive, or for that matter, biblically inconsistent? (And let’s be clear, no Christian of any stripe prays TO the saints. The practice has always been one that asks the saints to intercede FOR us to the Lord. It is Christ and Christ alone who answers our prayers.)

I can understand why our Reformation forefathers thought it necessary to take on the cult of the saints. Devotion to the saints of the Church in the 16th century had clearly taken priority over the One on whom our faith rests, Christ Jesus the Lord. The focus of the Church’s practice at this time was not on the One mediator between God and man, but on those sainted figures who lived their lives in fierce devotion to this mediator. For several historical reasons, it’s not surprising that this turn of focus occurred. It is, I think, similar to the abuse concerning the sale of indulgences. And it is why those committed to the reformation cause fought so valiantly to reorient the Church’s focus to the blood of Christ shed on Calvary and not on the merits of the saints. While these merits are certainly worthy of our admiration and likely do indeed continue to work for the advancement of God’s kingdom, they are not that which forgives or redeems us. It is why Christ always comes first. But the fact that Christ is first does not mean that those redeemed by His blood cease to do His will after their life on this earth has ended. And centuries of the Church’s theologians affirm this idea, as do several passages in the Lutheran Confessions, and depending on how you interpret them – the Holy Scriptures.

We Lutherans must remember that our theology is always one of tension. We preach Law and Gospel. We confess that we are sinner and saint.

Such is the same with asking the saints to intercede on our behalf. To do so does not place the saints above our Lord (remember, the Lord alone answers prayers). It does not make the Risen Christ into a Lawgiver, of whom we are incapable of approaching in prayer and devotion. Invoking the saints is simply another means by which the Church can (and does) work for one another. Is there a danger in relying solely on the saints to intercede for us? Of course there is. But there is a danger is relying solely on the Law or the Gospel, or the teaching that we are wretched sinners or glorified saints. These things are always kept in tension with one another. The Christian that is properly catechized knows how to keep this tension properly balanced, and were one to invoke the saints, one should be keen to this tension.

All Saints Day icon

We Lutherans must also remember that our faith is bigger than the here and now. Our faith spans not only from 1517 forward, but includes centuries of faithful believers who regularly sought the intercession of the saints. Is it that difficult to surmise that those who died in the faith are part of those that join us at each celebration of the Holy Sacrament, to include the angels, archangels, and the entire company of heavenly host? We must be careful not to think our faith is bound to one set of confessions, but remember that it is intertwined with a tradition and magisterium that predates the rise of a movement our churches claim as their own.

Above all, among those who place the doctrine of justification by grace through faith at the heart of their church’s teachings, invoking the saints does nothing to violate this. It continues to place Christ at the sole focus of our forgiveness and redemption. It looks to God alone to answer our prayers. Indeed, it takes the onus off of our works and looks to that perfect Bride of Christ, to include His saints, as the source of our salvation. This is most certainly true.

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