The Lutheran church has its roots in Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk who, in 1517, posted 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, questioning the Roman Catholic church’s teaching concerning indulgences. He desired to reform the teachings of the Roman Catholic church; the Roman Catholics did not share that vision. Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church at the Diet of Worms in 1521, and he left to begin the church now known as the Lutheran church. The Lutheran church holds many of the important Protestant doctrines–grace alone, faith alone, and the Scriptures alone–but also maintains many of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.
Sections on this Page
- General Considerations
- Faith Alone
- Scripture Alone
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Confession and Sin
The Lutheran church is not divided on the main precepts of their faith. There are, however, many variants of Lutheranism; some are based on nationalities, especially in Scandinavia, but most in America are based on a few disagreements concerning the Scriptures and organization beyond the church. In America, the main groups are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Association of Free Lutheran Churches, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Birth: Advent; Christmas
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Death: Ash Wednesday; Lent; Holy Thursday; Good Friday; Easter
Other Observances: Ascension/Pentecost; Epiphany; Annunciation; Days Concerning Saints
The main tenet of the Lutheran faith is the doctrine of “faith alone.” Lutherans believe that God gives the gift of faith to individuals by the Holy Spirit; this leads to salvation1. God does this through the act of baptism, which is considered to be administered by God Himself2. This is justified with 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:83:
Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.
For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Is this what the Scriptures truly teach?
While it is true that the Scriptures make a distinction between believers and unbelievers, indicating that believers can accept and understand spiritual truths while unbelievers do not (Romans 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16), such by no means proves that God gives the gift of faith to believers but not unbelievers. The New Testament makes it clear that these are not “hard and fast” rules: 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10 indicates how the Thessalonians turned from unbelief to belief to serve God, and Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 that the Corinthian brethren themselves are “carnal” or “worldly.” It is not that the Thessalonians could not understand what Paul was saying, and Paul still calls the Corinthians “saints” despite their “carnality” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2). Cornelius in Acts 10:1-48 was considered righteous and one who was God-fearing (Acts 10:1-2), yet he was a Gentile and at the time had not heard the word of God concerning His Son! We will not deny that God can and has led individuals to faith in Him, most notably Saul in Acts 9:1-31, but the agency of faith is never told to be within God: even Saul had to himself believe in the vision that he saw. Instead, Paul reveals that belief (faith) comes by hearing the Word of God in Romans 10:17:
So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
To say that faith is a gift of God in Ephesians 2:8 is a misinterpretation of the Scriptures. In the Greek, the word “that” (“…that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God”) refers to “[being] saved,” not “faith.” The relative pronoun touto (“this”) is in the neuter gender, and therefore cannot refer to the feminine pistis (“faith”), but the salvation that is under discussion. Salvation is indeed offered by grace, but it must be accepted by faith. Faith, therefore, represents the medium by which grace is received (“For by grace you have been saved through faith”), not the gift of God itself. Therefore, it can be conclusively determined that the Scriptures do not teach that faith is a gift of God; instead, faith is the response of the belief in God and the works He has done, seen clearly on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-48. Man still has control over his ability to receive the gifts of God freely given to us.
It should be noted that the one place in the New Testament which speaks of “faith alone,” or even “justification by faith alone,” is James 2:24:
Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.
The only time the concept is even mentioned in the Scriptures, then, is a refutation of the very idea! While many have attempted to dismiss James’ witness because of these matters, it goes to show us that Paul’s messages in Romans cannot be read within a vacuum. Paul’s message of salvation by faith does not negate the need for obedience (cf. Romans 6:1-23); therefore, to take Paul’s arguments establishing that no one can be saved by works of merit and thus earn salvation and to twist them to claim “faith alone” is a manifest abuse of the Scriptures and an over-extension of the Apostle’s argument.
The witness of the Scriptures testifies to the need for believers not to just have faith, but to obey the Lord Jesus (Matthew 7:21-27, Matthew 10:22, Hebrews 11:6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 2:1-6, Revelation 2:10, Revelation 12:11, Revelation 19:8). Let us remember that both those who do not know God and those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ will suffer eternal torment and destruction!
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren? (James 2:20)
The Lutheran church teaches that the Scriptures alone are to be used4. Yet we see in their belief system the usage of three creeds–the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian–along with The Book of Concord as books of religious instruction and training5. Is it not inconsistent to hold to Scripture alone and yet use three creeds and a book of instruction?
It may be said to this that the books are used to supplement the Scriptures and therefore the Scriptures remain the primary authority. We recognize that many resources can aid and assist people in understanding God’s Word, and there is no problem in using such resources. The matter at hand, however, is establishing creeds or books of men as authoritative for teaching: upon whose authority do these books rest? Resources are well and good, but where do we get the idea from the New Testament to vest anything but the Bible with such authority?
The Lord’s Prayer
The Lutheran church, like its predecessors the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox Church along with the Protestant churches that developed later, places a strong emphasis on the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is used as a prayer and as a way of instruction6. Is this in harmony with the Scriptures?
We can see from the Scriptures that Jesus gave it to show the disciples a method by which one could pray. It was a “model prayer,” not the prayer to pray: Jesus tells His disciples to pray like “this” in Matthew 6:9, not to recite it. Our prayers and petitions should surely incorporate many of the aspects of the Lord’s Prayer, yet to bind it as necessary is troublesome, for it could fall under the realm of meaningless repetition, condemned by Jesus in Matthew 6:7-8, right before the Lord’s Prayer:
“And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.”
Therefore, we are not bound to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Confession and Sin
The Lutheran church also accepts Luther’s teaching concerning confession and sin, that a pastor can be the vehicle of the forgiveness of sin, that one is not a Christian if one does not confess their sins in this way, and that the church itself can forgive sin (the Office of the Keys)7. What do the Scriptures teach concerning this?
We have addressed the issue of an individual being able to forgive sins in Roman Catholicism, II: Tradition: Traditions Concerning Sin, and the conclusions there apply here. Luther introduces John 20:22-23 as evidence of the church being able to forgive sins8:
And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
Does this mean that the church can forgive sins? The difficulty with this conclusion is that the church is not mentioned here in John 20:22-23. We see in John 20:19-20 that this is a secret meeting of the risen Jesus and His disciples save Thomas. Therefore, the disciples are the ones receiving this benefit, not the church. This benefit is seen clearly in the acts of Peter concerning Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, when Peter condemned them to death by the witness of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles were given a measure of the Spirit not seen today; therefore, to say that any individual or even the collective church can hold the same powers as the Apostles did would be in direct contradiction with 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.
The charge in John 20:22-23, however, is also much like the ones given to these disciples concerning binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18; it may be observed that the Apostles, and the church after them, had the ability through the preaching of the Gospel to lead men to salvation or to have them condemned in their unbelief. The actions taken by the Apostles (and also by the church) were done in accordance with the will of and by the agency of God, not by any declaration they made on their own. Thus, it is inaccurate to say that the church has the power to remit sins based on the Apostles’ ability to do so. Just as we have seen that no one has the authority to claim the Apostles’ ability to bind and loose, no one can claim their ability to loose or retain sin.
1: Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism, With Explanation, pp. 15, 147
2: Ibid., p. 208 (question 253)
3: Ibid., p. 147 (157)
4: From http://www.lcms.org/introlcms.html
6: Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism, With Explanation, p. 174
7: Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, part VI, paragraphs 15, 28-29; Luther’s Small Catechism, With Explanation, p. 27
8: Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism, With Explanation, p. 27