What Do Lutherans Believe?
Q: I’ve been studying several religions and am curious about Lutheranism. I understand your history and the story of Martin Luther. I want a breakdown on the actual beliefs of Lutherans. I understand there are two Sacraments — Communion and Baptism — but beside that I am confused. Can you help with an overview of Lutherans versus say Catholics? Thanks for your help.
A: Look closely at the Lutherans and you’ll see resemblances to several other churches. We believe above all else that Jesus Christ is our only Savior from sin, and that we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus. Human works, no matter how good, are seen as the result of salvation, not its cause.
The Lutheran Church is a Biblical church. We hold that the Bible is the only source of Christian teaching. It decides what and how we believe, teach, and confess. In this, you'll see a strong resemblance to other “Bible-believing” churches.
While the Bible is the source and norm of our doctrine, its teachings are spread throughout its books. By consolidating and clearly proclaiming these doctrines, we are also a confessional church. Our Confessions (statements of belief) are drawn from Scripture alone. We believe that these Confessions are true expositions of the Word and that they are valid and normative teachings on many different situations. As does the Bible, so do the Confessions point to Christ as our Savior and justification by grace through faith as the chief doctrine of the Church.
Lutherans are liturgical. We follow an orderly and ancient pattern in our worship. With our hymns, Scripture readings, sermons, and the Lord’s Supper, we also sing songs and chants from the worship of the Old and New Testament churches. On any Sunday, literally millions of Lutherans around the world may, in their own languages, be singing and praying the very same thing. It binds together a wide spread church. The liturgy is not meant to be stiff and stuffy, but it is formal. It speaks of the mystery and the majesty of God. In this area, we most resemble the Roman Catholic, Anglican-Episcopal, and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Lutheranism is a preaching church. We proclaim the Word faithfully. We apply the full force of God’s Law to condemn sin and crush the sinner’s confidence. Even more, we pour out full measure of the healing balm of the Gospel: Sin is forgiven, God and man are reconciled in Christ, and the Lord grants fulfilling life on earth and eternal life in His presence to all who believe.
Lutherans are also sacramental. Sometimes we speak of two sacraments, sometimes three, and we recognize that how we define such an act determines how many sacraments we have. A common thread in our definition is that sacraments are actions performed in the Church which offer and convey Christ’s forgiveness under His command with His promise. We sometimes narrow the definition to include only those actions with visible elements (Baptism and Holy Communion) but our Confessions also allow a broader understanding, which may Confession and Absolution.
We don’t practice Penance, where those who make confession are assigned tasks prior to receiving the fullness of forgiveness and remission of sin’s penalty. We believe that the commission Christ gave His Church to forgive sins is carried out by His pastors among those who confess their sins and profess faith in Jesus, both in corporate worship and in private settings. We teach that the pastor’s word of forgiveness is the valid and certain word of as if Jesus Himself.
We believe in baptismal regeneration, trusting that Christ’s words with water give forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation. We baptize infants, since we know from the words of Scripture that they are born in sin and need of Christ’s forgiveness and the new life He gives in Baptism.
Regarding the Lord’s Supper, we believe that we do not receive only bread and wine to remember Christ’s sacrifice, but that miraculously we receive the very body and blood of Christ. Through eating and drinking this Supper, God forgives sins, strengthens faith, and joins us ever more closely with our Savior. The Sacrament brings us into closer communion with the Father, who is one with Christ. The Supper also creates closer communion with brothers and sisters in the Faith — the Body of Christ, His Church. Since we believe in the unifying effect of the Supper and take seriously the commands and warnings in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, we spend time carefully teaching those who desire to join us at Christ’s altar, that they might discern the body of Christ, know the Christian Faith, and join us in one confession.
Some of the things I’ve previously written about the Lutheran Church include the following web pages:
A Comparison of Lutheranism to Other Churches
A Brief Lutheran History
You can also read previous columns, including:
You can also contact Oshkosh Church Supply at 1-800-236-8724 to order a copy of the book What Do Lutherans Believe? A Study Guide in Christian Teachings for Adults, written by my father and me.
Send email to Ask the Pastor.
Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.