Who are Lutherans, anyway?

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

(ESV: Ephesians 2:8-9)

I am often asked who Lutherans are and what we believe. I suppose this is a natural question, as Lutherans are somewhat rare in the South. When you tell someone you’re a Lutheran you are usually met with blank stares as if you had just said you were from another planet.

Lutherans, however, are the direct spiritual and doctrinal descendants of the fathers of the early Christian Church as well as the 16th Century church reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, among others. In Wittenberg, Germany, Luther and Melanchthon sparked what we now term the Protestant Reformation by disputing the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. They sought to return the Christian Church to the historic foundations of the faith and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther developed his own seal, or logo, to signify what he believed were the essential tenets of the faith. This seal is featured on this website and bears the words “Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone.” These three phrases capture what it means to be a Lutheran, and more importantly, what it means to be a Christian.

Lutherans believe that we are justified before God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. God’s grace is manifested by the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross as the propitiation for our sins. Through his death and resurrection he defeated sin and death. By believing God’s promise contained within Christ’s death and resurrection, by having faith in this atoning sacrifice as sufficient for our reconciliation to God, we are saved from death and eternal damnation. God promises us that He will raise us up on the last day to eternal life in glory with Him, just as He raised Christ from the dead. Why does he promise us this? Is it because we are “good people” who have done more good than bad in our life? Is it because we “deserve” to live forever? Far from it! For not only are we sinful by nature, but we can never “earn” our way to heaven or do enough good to redeem ourselves; the taint of sin always remains within us. No, God redeems us from death, which is the result of sin, out of His own divine grace. All we have to do is accept this grace by believing His promise of salvation; in short, by having faith in Him.

As the Psalmist says:

Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.

For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.

Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.

Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts.

Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me.

(ESV: Psalm 49:7-15)

However, not only does God redeem us by His grace, He also provides us the ability to believe in this promise. Since it is impossible to believe in God and have faith in His promises by our own power and abilities, God himself grants us the ability to believe, to have faith. He bestows this faith, this ability to believe, through His Word and Sacraments. His preached Word, His written Word as Scripture, and his incarnate Word as Christ serve to bestow faith within us. His sacraments of Baptism and Communion, likewise bestow upon us the Holy Spirit and the incarnate Christ, respectfully, which serve to save us from our sins and give us the capacity to believe.

So, not only does God out of His own merciful grace grant us the free remission of our sins, but He also grants us the ability to believe this promise of His and have faith in Him. That is why we say that we are saved “by grace through faith.” Grace is the active agent that grants us the forgiveness of our sins, while faith is the passive vessel that accepts this grace. Both aspects of salvation, however, are to due God alone and not due to any ability, merit, or worthiness of our own.

In addition, Lutherans believe that the Holy Scriptures (i.e. the Bible consisting of the Old and New Testaments) are the sole norm and basis of our faith, that they are truly God’s inspired and inerrant Word, and that they are infallible. We also believe that the Lutheran Confessions are an accurate, faithful exposition of the Scriptures (see http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/LCMS/TrigBOC.pdf for the Lutheran Confessions). The Confessions were composed in the 16th Century when the Church reformers found it necessary to defend their faith against the power of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. These writings summarize the doctrinal positions of the Church. Likewise, we hold to the three ecumenical creeds as accurate summaries of the faith: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. So, Lutherans believe that the Bible is the sole source of God’s Word, that the Confessions accurately interpret His Word, and that the Creeds faithfully summarize His plan of salvation. Excluded, then, in Lutheran doctrine are human whims, opinions, and traditions.

As corollaries, Lutherans believe that Baptism is a means of God’s grace and that Christ is bodily present in the bread and wine of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. We believe that God gives and we receive, He speaks and we listen, He promises and we believe through faith. As Saint Paul says to the Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

(ESV: Romans 3:19-28)

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