WHAT IS A LUTHERAN?
What is a Lutheran?
At some point your life, you may have heard people define Lutheran in the following way: A Lutheran is someone who follows the teachings of Martin Luther, a sixteenth century German monk who split from the Roman Catholic Church.
While this definition is common, it’s not especially helpful. It is, of course true, that Lutherans have a high regard for Martin Luther. But we don’t quite follow the teachings of Luther, at least not in the way that you might say Muslims follow the teachings of Muhammad or that Mormons follow the teachings of Joseph Smith. We don’t see Luther as a prophet or a religious leader with unique insights into the mind of God. In fact, we never chose the name Lutheran for ourselves. The moniker started out as an insult.
Rather, we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. We confess Him to be the Son of God who “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification,” (Romans 4:25). We believe the Holy Scriptures teach us who Christ is and how He has given us eternal life. And, as for Luther, we gladly continue to take his name as our own because we believe that many of his writings are a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture. This brings us to the Lutheran Confessions.
After Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, he and other theologians wrote a series of documents detailing what they believed. Those documents are:
The Augsburg Confession: a document presented to the Holy Roman Emperor in order to explain both what the Lutheran theologians were teaching and what they were not teaching.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession: a detailed defense of the Augsburg Confession, written in response to The Confutation, the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Augsburg Confession. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession took great care to show that what the Lutheran theologians were teaching was not new and that all of their claims could be found in both the Scriptures in the Church Fathers.
Martin Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms: books for families intended to teach the essentials of the Christian faith.
The Smalcald Articles and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope: writings refuting Roman Catholic claims about the papacy. These documents explain why we believe the pope is not the head of Christ’s church by divine right and why Christians do not need to be subject to him in order to be saved.
The Formula of Concord: a document written by second generation Lutheran theologians distinguishing their theology from the Reformed theology that had infiltrated Lutheran circles.
Together, these documents, in addition to the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, make up what we call the Lutheran Confessions or the Book of Concord.
So, then, what is a Lutheran? Quite simply, a Lutheran is someone who believes what is taught in the Book of Concord. A Lutheran is someone who agrees that the Lutheran Confessions echo what the Bible teaches. Likewise, what makes congregations "Lutheran" is not merely a historic connection to Lutheran church bodies, but their subscription to the the Lutheran Confessions. Prince of Peace is one such congregation, which is why we belong to our church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
What are the core beliefs of the Lutheran Confessions?
For Lutherans, the central teaching of the Bible and therefore the Christian faith is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In order to understand this, let’s quickly define some terms.
To justify is to declare righteous or innocent. When God judges us to be innocent of sin and declares that we possess the righteousness necessary to inherit eternal life, God has justified us.
Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It’s what happens when God gives us what we don’t deserve, namely forgiveness and eternal life.
Faith is belief in Christ and His salvation. To have faith in Christ is to trust that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, forgave your sins with His death on the cross and won eternal life for you with His resurrection.
What does it mean, then, when we say that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone? Let’s break it up into sections.
By saying we are justified by grace alone, we mean that God has justified us for no other reason than His grace. God hasn’t declared us righteous because we earned that declaration by keeping the Ten Commandments. We most certainly have not. Rather, God has declared us righteous because His grace moved Him to treat us as we didn’t deserve by sending Christ to forgive our sins and give us His perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments. So when God accomplished our salvation in the cross and the empty tomb, He did it by grace alone.
Likewise, when we say that we are justified through faith alone, we mean that the way we come to possess God’s saving grace is through believing and not because of our works. God is not like a jailer who says, “out of my own grace, I made a key that will unlock your jail cell and set you free, but now you have to earn the right for me to place the key into your hands.” Rather, He’s the One who unlocks the cell and carries you out. Just as God accomplishes our salvation without our good works, so He gives that salvation to us apart from our works. The saving God grace of is received through faith. It becomes our own possession when we believe, something the Scriptures teach in Romans 3-5 and Ephesians 2, among other places.
Likewise, Lutherans also believe that the faith through which we are saved is not something of our own doing, but rather is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). We do not create faith in our own hearts but the Holy Spirit creates faith in us, which means that both aspects of justification, by grace and through faith, are accomplished entirely by God Himself.
The Means of Grace
Another important aspect of Lutheran theology is our understanding of the means of grace. Just as God was not content to remain far away mankind prior to the incarnation, but came to earth in the flesh of Jesus Christ, so God is not content to remain far away from us now that Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Desiring to dwell on earth with His elect, Christ comes to us with His saving grace through the means of grace, the things that the Holy Spirit uses to create and/or sustain our faith, those things being the Word of Absolution, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
By the Word of Absolution, we simply mean the message of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. When the Scriptures tell us that our sins have been forgiven by the blood of Christ, and when we hear this teaching of the Scriptures proclaimed to us, the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts, giving us the saving grace of God.
Likewise, we believe that Holy Baptism is a means through which the Holy Spirit creates faith in our heart, and therefore gives us salvation. It is true, of course, that our works do not save us. It is also true that Scriptures teaches baptism is not our work for God, but God’s work in us, whereby He ties us to the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:1-11). The Scriptures likewise teach that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21) and regenerates us (Titus 3:4-7). This is why we take comfort in this great gift and gladly give it to our children and infants.
With regard to the Lord’s Supper, we believe that this meal is precisely what Jesus said it was on the night He was betrayed—His body and blood. Those who feast on this meal with repentant and trusting hearts will receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. While seemingly humble in appearance, we see the Lord’s Supper as the greatest meal a Christian could ever consume, because through a finite amount of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ feed us with the infinite love and favor of God.
Law and Gospel
Lutherans believe that the Bible speaks to us in two different ways—God’s word of Law and His word of Gospel. The Law is what God requires of us, how we are to love God and how we are to love our neighbor. The Gospel is what God has done for us, how He’s given us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
When God speaks the Law to us, He does so to show us how we have failed to love Him and our neighbor, how we haven’t kept the Ten Commandments, how we’ve earned death and condemnation because of our sins.
When God speaks the Gospel to us, He does this to show us that He has taken away the condemnation we earned by condemning Christ in our place on the cross. The Gospel tells that we are now worthy of eternal life because Christ took away our sins and gave us His perfect obedience to the Law in His death, and conquered sin, death, and the devil in His resurrection.
Both the Law and the Gospel are God’s word. Both are good. However, God didn’t give us the Law as an end to itself, but to show us our need for Christ. Therefore the ultimate goal and purpose of the Scriptures is to proclaim to us the forgiveness and salvation we have in Jesus. As St. John says in his Gospel, “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” Likewise, because we believe this is the chief purpose of the Scriptures, we strive to make it the chief purpose of our congregational life, in our preaching, our teaching, and our worship. For more information on our worship services, click here.