Lutheranism is a major branch of Western Christianity that identifies with the teachings of the sixteenth-century German reformer Martin Luther. Luther's efforts to reform the theology and practice of the church launched the Protestant Reformation. The reactions of governmental and churchly authorities to the international spread of his writings, beginning with the 95 Theses, divided Christianity.
The split between Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church arose mainly over the doctrine of Justification before God. Lutheranism advocates a doctrine of justification "by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone," which contradicted the Roman view of "faith formed by love", or "faith and works". Unlike the Reformed Churches, Lutherans retain many of the liturgical practices and sacramental teachings of the pre-Reformation Church. Lutheran theology differs considerably from Reformed theology in a variety of ways, including Christology, the purpose of God's Law, divine grace, whether one is "once saved always saved," and predestination.
Lutherans hold the holy Bible of the Old and New testaments to be the only divinely inspired book and the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. Scripture alone is the formal principle of the faith, the final authority for all matters of faith and morals because of its inspiration, authority, clarity, effectiveness, and sufficiency.
Learn more about the Old and New testaments by going to our Bible quiz page.
Orthodox Lutheranism affirms that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is, because of verbal inspiration, the direct, immediate word of God. As Lutherans confess in the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit "spoke through the prophets". The Apology of the Augsburg Confession identifies Holy Scripture with the Word of God and calls the Holy Spirit the author of the Bible. Because of this, Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord, "we receive and embrace with our whole heart the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel." The apocryphal books were not written by the prophets, by inspiration; they contain errors were never included in the Palestinian Canon that Jesus used, and therefore are not a part of Holy Scripture. The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are authentic as written by the prophets and apostles. A correct translation of their writings is God's Word because it has the same meaning as the original Hebrew and Greek. A mistranslation is not God's word, and no human authority can invest it with divine authority.
The Book of Concord, published in 1580, contains ten documents which some Lutherans believe are faithful and authoritative explanations of Holy Scripture. Besides the three Ecumenical Creeds, which date to Roman times, the Book of Concord contains seven credal documents articulating Lutheran theology in the Reformation era.
The doctrinal positions of Lutheran churches are not uniform because the Book of Concord does not hold the same position in all Lutheran churches. For example, the state churches in Scandinavia consider only the Augsburg Confession as a "summary of the faith" in addition to the three ecumenical Creeds. Lutheran pastors, congregations, and church bodies in Germany and the Americas usually agree to teach in harmony with the entire Lutheran Confessions. Some Lutheran church bodies require this pledge to be unconditional because they believe the confessions correctly state what the Bible teaches. Others allow their congregations to do so "insofar as" the Confessions are in agreement with the Bible.
The key doctrine, or material principle, of Lutheranism is the doctrine of justification. Lutherans believe that humans are saved from their sins by God's grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide). Lutherans believe that this grace is granted for the sake of Christ's merit alone (Solus Christus). Orthodox Lutheran theology holds that God made the world, including humanity, perfect, holy and sinless. However, Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, trusting in their own strength, knowledge, and wisdom. Consequently, people are saddled with original sin, born sinful and unable to avoid committing sinful acts. For Lutherans, original sin is the "chief sin, a root and fountainhead of all actual sins."
By God's grace, made known and effective in the person and work of Jesus Christ, a person is forgiven, adopted as a child and heir of God, and given eternal salvation. For this reason, Lutherans teach that salvation is possible only because of the grace of God made manifest in the birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection, and continuing presence by the power of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus Christ. Lutherans believe that individuals receive this gift of salvation through faith alone. Saving faith is the knowledge of, acceptance of , and trust in the promise of the Gospel. Even faith itself is seen as a gift of God, created in the hearts of Christians by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and Baptism. Faith is seen as an instrument that receives the gift of salvation, not something that causes salvation. Thus, Lutherans reject the "decision theology" which is common among modern evangelicals.
Lutherans are Trinitarian; they confess in the Athanasian Creed, "we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal". Lutherans reject the idea that the Father and the Son are merely faces of the same person, stating that both the Old Testament and the New Testament show them to be two distinct persons. Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
Lutherans believe Jesus Christ is both by nature God and by nature man in one person, as they confess in Luther's Small Catechism that he is "true God begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man born of the Virgin Mary".
Lutherans hold that Baptism is a saving work of God, mandated and instituted by Jesus Christ. Baptism is a "means of grace" through which God creates and strengthens "saving faith" as the "washing of regeneration" in which infants and adults are reborn. Since the creation of faith is exclusively God's work, it does not depend on the actions of the one baptized, whether infant or adult. Even though baptized infants cannot articulate that faith, Lutherans believe that it is present all the same. Because it is faith alone that receives these divine gifts, Lutherans confess that baptism "works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare." Therefore, Lutherans administer Baptism to both infants and adults. In the special section on infant baptism in his Large Catechism, Luther argues that infant baptism is God-pleasing because persons so baptized were reborn and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Lutherans hold that within Holy Communion, also referred to as the Sacrament of the Altar or the Lord's Supper, the consecrated elements of bread and wine are the true body and blood of Christ "in, with, and under the form" of bread and wine for all those who eat and drink it, a doctrine that the Formula of Concord calls the sacramental union. Some Lutherans use the term Eucharist to refer to Communion, noting its use in the Book of Concord; however, others reject the term on the basis that the word Eucharist ("thanksgiving") puts the emphasis on the human response to the sacrament, which is contrary to the Lutheran emphasis on God's omnipotence and human powerlessness. They note that in almost every case, the use of the term in the Book of Concord refers to doctrinal statements that are part of the Roman Catholic tradition.
Good works are the fruit of saving faith, and always and in every instance spring spontaneously from true faith. Any true good works have their true origin in God, not in the fallen human heart or in human striving; their absence would demonstrate that faith, too, is absent.
The Athanasian Creed teaches that unless one holds the faith "whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."
Lutherans do not believe in any sort of earthly millennial kingdom of Christ either before or after his second coming on the last day. Lutherans teach that, at death, the souls of Christians are immediately taken into the presence of Jesus, where they await the second coming of Jesus on the last day. On the last day, all the dead will be resurrected. Their souls will then be reunited with the same bodies they had before dying. The bodies will then be changed, those of the wicked to a state of everlasting shame and torment, those of the righteous to an everlasting state of celestial glory. After the resurrection of all the dead, and the change of those still living, all nations shall be gathered before Christ, and he will separate the righteous from the wicked. Christ will publicly judge all people by the testimony of their deeds, the good works of the righteous in evidence of their faith, and the evil works of the wicked in evidence of their unbelief. He will judge in righteousness in the presence of all people and angels, and his final judgment will be just damnation to everlasting punishment for the wicked and a gracious gift of life everlasting to the righteous.
Many Lutherans place great emphasis on a liturgical approach to worship services; although there have always been substantial non-liturgical minorities, for example, the Hauge Lutherans from Norway. Music forms a large part of Lutheran services. Lutheran hymns are sometimes known as chorales. Lutheran hymnody is reputed for its doctrinal, didactic, and musical richness. Many Lutheran churches are active musically with choirs, handbell choirs, children's choirs, and occasionally carillon groups that ring bells in a bell tower. Johann Sebastian Bach, a devout Lutheran, composed music for the Lutheran church.
Many Lutherans also preserve a liturgical approach to the celebration of Communion (or the Lord's Supper), emphasizing the sacrament as the central act of Christian worship. Lutherans believe that the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ are present in, with and under the bread and the wine. This belief is called Real Presence or Sacramental Union and is different from consubstantiation and transubstantiation. Additionally Lutherans reject the idea that communion is a mere symbol or memorial.
Besides the Divine Service, congregations also hold offices, which are worship services without communion. They may include Matins, Vespers, Compline, and Easter Vigil. Private or family offices include the Morning and Evening Prayers from Luther's Small Catechism. Meals are blessed with the Common Table Prayer, Psalm 145:15-16, or other prayers, and after eating the Lord is thanked, for example, with Psalm 136:1. In addition, Lutherans use devotional books, from small daily devotionals, for example, Portals of Prayer, to large breviaries, including the Breviarium Lipsiensae and Treasury of Daily Prayer.