Over the past three decades I am often asked what it means to be Lutheran. What do Lutherans believe? What is most important? How does that work out in practice? This is just a brief introduction to those questions.
Despite “popular” views, Lutherans do not follow Martin Luther. Rather, we confess the same Christian faith he did; hence we do not support everything he wrote. Martin Luther appeared at a critical time in church history and had a significant influence on the entire Christian Church, but we do not “follow him,” rather we follow Jesus Christ and him crucified. The name “Lutheran” was originally a derogatory term used by Luther’s enemies. Later, it became a term to distinguish itself from Reformed (Zwingli, Calvin, and later Arminius) as well as from the radical reformation.
Historic Continuity: “The Church has always taught…”
The Lutheran Church sees itself in continuity with the historic Christian Church throughout the ages, not something invented in the 16th century. That is, in most of our official writings (called the Lutheran Confessions), we often use the phrase “As the Church has always taught” to show that what Luther and others publicly were teaching was consistent with the historic church. We frequently use the term “catholic” (meaning “universal”) to denote the true Church throughout the ages, not in reference to the specific church body known as the Roman Catholic Church headed by the pope. This phrase is critical in understanding Lutherans, because while sometimes we look like Roman Catholics, we see the papal church deviating in the Middle Ages and onward from that historic faith.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther and others continued what had been done that was consistent with the Bible and the Church through the ages, but ridded itself of false teachings (especially in worship). In that sense Lutherans were “conservative” keeping that which was solid and discarding other elements. They could and did keep paintings, statures, icons, as aids to help people learn the stories of the Bible. On the other hand, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformed leaders wanted to distance their churches from anything that looked Roman Catholic. For them, in regard to worship, they made significant alterations to the order of service and even destroyed what appeared in churches. The Reformed tended to get rid of paintings, statues, and icons.
Lutherans use the phrase “believe, teach, and confess” to denote those statement which reflect accurately what the Bible teachings. In line with that, Lutherans accept the three Ecumenical Creeds as accurate statements of the Christian faith from the Bible (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). You can find them here.
Chief article of the Christian Faith:
Also they (Lutheran pastors and churches) teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. (Article IV of the Augsburg Confession of 1530)
Everything else that we “believe, teach, and confess” is derived from this starting point of justification. That is, we do not start with a peripheral issue and work back to this central article. Rather, we start here and work out the implications from justification.
We believe that worship also reflects this central teaching, namely justification:
saved by grace (alone) through faith (alone) in Christ (alone).
Since we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), only God can make us alive (give us faith):
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (Ephesians 2:4-5 )
The Tools God Uses (Means of grace)
We believe that God works through “means” or tools to accomplish his saving work. Thus, in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, we see that we make disciples by baptizing and by teaching the Word. So Baptism and the Word are the tools God uses to bring someone to faith, and God uses the Lord’s Supper and the Word to continue to grow someone in the faith (2 Peter 3:18; John 15:5, etc.). These tools bring salvation, forgiveness of sins, and a clear conscience. So, we read in the following passages:
Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
Matthew 26:26-28 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
1 Corinthians 10:16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ?
(In the Lord’s Supper, we believe that we receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, the most important part of the Lord’s Supper is that vertical relationship with Jesus Christ. The secondary aspect is the horizontal relationship with people.)
Worship for Lutherans is centered around the Word (specifically the Gospel, telling us what God has done and is doing and will do for us for our salvation) and the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of our heavenly meal with Christ. Everything in the worship service leads to an emphasis of each of these two peaks. If something detracts from the Word or the Lord’s Supper, then we would avoid that. So, even in the use of hymns/songs, they have to pass that test. Lutherans do not sing songs just because the melody is “nice, pleasant,” etc.; rather we sing them because the words point to the work of Christ for us and our praise of Him. The music enhances our appreciation of the words, not contradict the words. Thus, we can sing ancient hymns and contemporary songs, if they meet that criteria.
Even at the beginning of the service, the words of the invocation are critical. Many years ago it was possible, even without advertising signs, within the first five words to determine whether this was a Lutheran congregation or a general Protestant/Evangelical congregation.
General Protestant/Evangelical: “We make our beginning in the name…”
Lutheran: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
Notice that the focus of Protestant/Evangelical invocation is for the person/people to be the initiators, not God. For Lutherans, God initiates the service, because it is the God who baptized us who is calling us together to worship him (receive from him and give back to him). Worship then involves a back and forth movement and participation between God and His people. We can tell who is the active one by which way the pastor faces. If he faces the congregation, then God is speaking/acting; if the pastor faces the altar, then he joins the congregation in responding to God with prayer, praise, etc.
The Paradoxes of Lutheran Theology
Lutherans also live with the tensions in the Scriptures and our understandings. That is, we go as far as Scripture, but never beyond Scripture. Sometimes that leaves us in tension, with something unresolved. But God does not always explain everything to us. Thus, while Zwingli and Calvin try to resolve the tension, we let Scripture stand.
Lutherans don’t have a “Lutheran philosophy” per se. Rather we live with the tensions presented in Scriptures in terms of paradoxes. That is, what we sometimes see is not matched by the reality as seen from God’s perspective. Here are a few paradoxes:
Law and Gospel Distinctions
Kingdom of the Left (Government/Society) vs. Kingdom of the Right (Church)
Theology of glory vs. Theology of the Cross
Hidden God vs. Revealed God
Now vs. Not Yet
In each case God speaks and acts in ways that seem paradoxical. In Law and Gospel Distinctions, we find Jesus commanding the rich ruler to “keep all the commandments, especially the first” in order to inherit the kingdom (Mark 10:17-22). Yet in Acts 16:25–33, Paul in response an identical question responds with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” So in one place it is Law that is needed and spoken, in the other it is the Gospel that is needed and spoken.
In the Kingdom of the Left, relationships and order are based on the Law (do this, or suffer the consequences). The Law and the power to carry out punishment under the Law belong to the Government (Romans 13:1-7). In the Kingdom of the Right, relationships are established and maintained by the Gospel (what God does for us in and through Jesus Christ). We live in both the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. But what applies to the one side does not equate to applying the same to the other.
You hear and read much about “electing Christians” into Government positions, as if that is the “only Christian” thing to do. Yet, carrying out responsibilities in the Kingdom of the Left is not determined by “Christian laws.” Rather by being a leader of people, following the laws of the land, carrying out justice. Even an atheist can do that. And we most certainly cannot impose the Kingdom of the Right onto the Kingdom of the Left. That would change the Gospel into another Law, trying to coerce people into “being Christian”—without faith in Christ, but rather “following Christian laws.”
The theology of Glory vs. the theology of the Cross can be confusing. All Christians believe in the glory of heaven, that is not the issue here. Rather, the problem comes when someone tries to impose that future glory into the present realm. You will hear statements such as, “It is God’s intention that you be rich.” (Note: from my perspective, that seems fitting in light of my first name!) Such a claim shows the theology of glory has imposed itself into this current life. The reality under the cross is that we should expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Living in this world as Christians means life under the cross of Christ.
[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Matthew 5:10-11
[Jesus said:] “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Notice that these realities have present consequences. And Paul wrote much about the present world in which we live and the suffering and persecution of this life.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. Philippians 1:29-30
Perhaps a challenge is for us to re-read the New Testament and take note of how much is focused on the theology of the cross. I suspect that we will discover in the process how much of the theology of glory is more American independence and individualism and not Biblically sound. In my interactions with Christians from other countries, I have found that this theology of glory stuff does not relate to their experiences and life, but the theology of the cross speaks to the heart. That they know and live with every day.