Lutheranism is a major branch of Protestant Christianity which identifies with the theology of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German friar, ecclesiastical reformer and theologian.
- Spread into northern Europe
- Schmalkaldic War and the Formula of Concord
- Lutheran orthodoxy
- Divine authority
- Law and Gospel
- Lutheran confessions
- Two natures of Christ
- Divine providence
- Good works
- Judgment and eternal life
- Comparison among Protestants
- Church fellowship
- Throughout the world
- Lutheran bodies
Luther's efforts to reform the theology and practice of the Catholic Church launched the Protestant Reformation in the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Beginning with the Ninety-Five Theses, first published in 1517, Luther's writings were disseminated internationally, spreading the early ideas of the Reformation beyond the influence and control of the Roman Curia and the Holy Roman Emperor. The split between the Lutherans and the Catholics was made public and clear with the 1521 Edict of Worms: the edicts of the Diet condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas, subjecting advocates of Lutheranism to forfeiture of all property, half of the seized property to be forfeit to the imperial government and the remaining half forfeit to the party who brought the accusation. The divide centered primarily on two points: the proper source of authority in the church, often called the formal principle of the Reformation, and the doctrine of justification, often called the material principle.
Lutheranism advocates a doctrine of justification "by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone", the doctrine that scripture is the final authority on all matters of faith. This is in contrast to the belief of the Catholic Church, defined at the Council of Trent, concerning authority coming from both the Scriptures and Tradition. In addition, Lutheranism accepts the teachings of the first four ecumenical councils of the undivided Christian Church. The Augsburg Confession, a Lutheran statement of belief contained in the Book of Concord, teaches that "the faith as confessed by Luther and his followers is nothing new, but the true catholic faith, and that their churches represent the true catholic or universal church". When the Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, they believe to have "showed that each article of faith and practice was true first of all to Holy Scripture, and then also to the teaching of the church fathers and the councils".
Unlike Calvinism, Lutherans retain many of the liturgical practices and sacramental teachings of the pre-Reformation Church, with a particular emphasis on the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in Christology, the purpose of God's Law, the divine grace, the concept of perseverance of the saints, and predestination.
Today, Lutheranism is one of the largest denominations of Protestantism. With approximately 80 million adherents, it constitutes the third most common Protestant denomination after historically Pentecostal denominations and Anglicanism. The Lutheran World Federation, the largest communion of Lutheran churches, represents over 72 million people. Other Lutheran organizations include the International Lutheran Council and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, as well as independent churches.
The name Lutheran originated as a derogatory term used against Luther by German Scholastic theologian Dr. Johann Maier von Eck during the Leipzig Debate in July 1519. Eck and other Catholics followed the traditional practice of naming a heresy after its leader, thus labeling all who identified with the theology of Martin Luther as Lutherans.
Martin Luther always disliked the term Lutheran, preferring the term Evangelical, which was derived from euangelion, a Greek word meaning "good news", i.e. "Gospel". The followers of John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and other theologians linked to the Reformed tradition also began to use that term. To distinguish the two evangelical groups, others began to refer to the two groups as Evangelical Lutheran and Evangelical Reformed. As time passed by, the word Evangelical was dropped. Lutherans themselves began to use the term Lutheran in the middle of the 16th century, in order to distinguish themselves from other groups such as the Philippists and Calvinists.
In 1597, theologians in Wittenberg defined the title Lutheran as referring to the true church.
Lutheranism has its roots in the work of Martin Luther, who sought to reform the Western Church to what he considered a more biblical foundation.
Spread into northern Europe
Lutheranism spread through all of Scandinavia during the 16th century, as the monarch of Denmark–Norway (also ruling Iceland and the Faroe Islands) and the monarch of Sweden (also ruling Finland) adopted Lutheranism. Through Baltic-German and Swedish rule, Lutheranism also spread into Estonia and Latvia.
Since 1520, regular Lutheran services have been held in Copenhagen. Under the reign of Frederick I (1523–33), Denmark-Norway remained officially Catholic. Although Frederick initially pledged to persecute Lutherans, he soon adopted a policy of protecting Lutheran preachers and reformers, the most significant being Hans Tausen.
During Frederick's reign, Lutheranism made significant inroads in Denmark. At an open meeting in Copenhagen attended by the king in 1536, the people shouted; "We will stand by the holy Gospel, and do not want such bishops anymore". Frederick's son Christian was openly Lutheran, which prevented his election to the throne upon his father's death. However, following his victory in the civil war that followed, in 1537 he became Christian III and advanced the Reformation in Denmark-Norway.
The constitution upon which the Danish Norwegian Church, according to the Church Ordinance, should rest was "The pure word of God, which is the Law and the Gospel". It does not mention the Augsburg Confession. The priests had to understand the Holy Scripture well enough to preach and explain the Gospel and the Epistles for their congregations.
The youths were taught from the Small Catechism, available in Danish since 1532. They were taught to expect at the end of life: "forgiving of their sins", "to be counted as just", and "the eternal life". Instruction is still similar.
The first complete Bible in Danish was based on Martin Luther's translation into German. It was published in 1550, with 3,000 copies printed in the first edition; a second edition was published in 1589. Unlike Catholicism, the Lutheran Church does not believe that tradition is a carrier of the "Word of God", or that only the communion of the Bishop of Rome has been entrusted to interpret the "Word of God".
The Reformation in Sweden began with Olaus and Laurentius Petri, brothers who took the Reformation to Sweden after studying in Germany. They led Gustav Vasa, elected king in 1523, to Lutheranism. The pope's refusal to allow the replacement of an archbishop who had supported the invading forces opposing Gustav Vasa during the Stockholm Bloodbath led to the severing of any official connection between Sweden and the papacy in 1523.
Four years later, at the Diet of Västerås, the king succeeded in forcing the diet to accept his dominion over the national church. The king was given possession of all church properties, as well as the church appointments and approval of the clergy. While this effectively granted official sanction to Lutheran ideas, Lutheranism did not become official until 1593. At that time the Uppsala Synod declared Holy Scripture the sole guideline for faith, with four documents accepted as faithful and authoritative explanations of it: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530. Mikael Agricola's translation of the first Finnish New Testament was published in 1548.
Schmalkaldic War and the Formula of Concord
After the death of Martin Luther in 1546, the Schmalkaldic War started out as a conflict between two German Lutheran rulers in 1547. Soon, Holy Roman Imperial forces joined the battle and conquered the members of the Schmalkaldic League, oppressing and exiling many German Lutherans as they enforced the terms of the Augsburg Interim. Religious freedom was secured for Lutherans through the Peace of Passau in 1552, and under the Cuius regio, eius religio and Declaratio Ferdinandei clauses of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.
Religious disputes between the Crypto-Calvinists, Philippists, Sacramentarians, Ubiquitarians and Gnesio-Lutherans raged within Lutheranism during the middle of the 16th century. This finally ended with the resolution of the issues in the Formula of Concord. Large numbers of politically and religiously influential leaders met together, debated, and resolved these topics on the basis of Scripture, resulting in the Formula, which over 8,000 leaders signed. The Book of Concord replaced earlier, incomplete collections of doctrine, unifying all German Lutherans with identical doctrine and beginning the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy.
The historical period of Lutheran Orthodoxy is divided into three sections: Early Orthodoxy (1580–1600), High Orthodoxy (1600–1685), and Late Orthodoxy (1685–1730). Lutheran scholasticism developed gradually especially for the purpose of arguing with the Jesuits, and it was finally established by Johann Gerhard. Abraham Calovius represents the climax of the scholastic paradigm in orthodox Lutheranism. Other orthodox Lutheran theologians include Martin Chemnitz, Aegidius Hunnius, Leonhard Hutter, Nicolaus Hunnius, Jesper Rasmussen Brochmand, Salomo Glassius, Johann Hülsemann, Johann Conrad Dannhauer, Johannes Andreas Quenstedt, Johann Friedrich König and Johann Wilhelm Baier.
Near the end of the Thirty Years' War, the compromising spirit seen in Philip Melanchthon rose up again in Helmstedt School and especially in theology of Georgius Calixtus, causing the syncretistic controversy. Another theological issue that arose was the Crypto-Kenotic controversy.
Late orthodoxy was torn by influences from rationalism, philosophy based on reason, and Pietism, a revival movement in Lutheranism. After a century of vitality, the Pietist theologians Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke warned that orthodoxy had degenerated into meaningless intellectualism and Formalism, while orthodox theologians found the emotional and subjective focuses of Pietism to be vulnerable to Rationalist propaganda.
The last famous orthodox Lutheran theologian before the rationalist Aufklärung, or Enlightenment, was David Hollatz. Late orthodox theologian Valentin Ernst Löscher took part in the controversy against Pietism. Medieval mystical traditions continued in the works of Martin Moller, Johann Arndt, and Joachim Lütkemann. Pietism became a rival of orthodoxy but adopted some orthodox devotional literature; for example, Arndt's, Scriver's and Prätorius' which were all Pietistic literature.
Rationalist philosophers from France and England had an enormous impact during the 18th century, along with the German Rationalists Christian Wolff, Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. Their work led to an increase in rationalist beliefs, "at the expense of faith in God and agreement with the Bible".
In 1709, Valentin Ernst Löscher warned that this new Rationalist view of the world fundamentally changed society by drawing into question every aspect of theology. Instead of considering the authority of divine revelation, he explained, Rationalists relied solely on their personal understanding when searching for truth.
Johann Melchior Goeze (1717–1786), pastor of St. Catherine's Church, Hamburg, wrote apologetical works against Rationalists, including a theological and historical defence against the historical criticism of the Bible.
Dissenting Lutheran pastors were often reprimanded by the government bureaucracy overseeing them, for example, when they tried to correct Rationalist influences in the parish school. As a result of the impact of a local form of rationalism, termed Neology, by the latter half of the 18th century, genuine piety was found almost solely in small Pietist conventicles. However, some of the laity preserved Lutheran orthodoxy from both Pietism and rationalism through reusing old catechisms, hymnbooks, postils, and devotional writings, including those written by Johann Gerhard, Heinrich Müller and Christian Scriver.
A layman, Luther scholar Johann Georg Hamann (1730–88), became famous for countering Rationalism and striving to advance a revival known as the Erweckung, or Awakening. In 1806, Napoleon's invasion of Germany promoted Rationalism and angered German Lutherans, stirring up a desire among the people to preserve Luther's theology from the Rationalist threat. Those associated with this Awakening held that reason was insufficient and pointed out the importance of emotional religious experiences.
Small groups sprang up, often in universities, which devoted themselves to Bible study, reading devotional writings, and revival meetings. Although the beginning of this Awakening tended heavily toward Romanticism, patriotism, and experience, the emphasis of the Awakening shifted around 1830 to restoring the traditional liturgy, doctrine, and confessions of the Lutheran church in the Neo-Lutheran movement.
This Awakening swept through all of Scandinavia except for Iceland. It developed from both German Neo-Lutheranism and Pietism. Danish pastor and philosopher N. F. S. Grundtvig reshaped church life throughout Denmark through a reform movement beginning in 1830. He also wrote about 1,500 hymns, including God's Word Is Our Great Heritage.
In Norway, Hans Nielsen Hauge, a lay street preacher, emphasized spiritual discipline and sparked the Haugean movement. In Norway, the Awakening drove the growth of foreign missions to non-Christians to a new height, which has never been reached since. In Sweden, Lars Levi Læstadius began the Laestadian movement that emphasized moral reform. In Finland, a farmer, Paavo Ruotsalainen, began the Finnish Awakening when he took to preaching about repentance and prayer.
In 1817, Frederick William III of Prussia ordered the Lutheran and Reformed churches in his territory to unite, forming the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union. The unification of the two branches of German Protestantism sparked the Schism of the Old Lutherans. Many Lutherans, called "Old Lutherans", chose to leave the state churches despite imprisonment and military force. Some formed independent church bodies, or "free churches", at home while others left for the United States, Canada and Australia. A similar legislated merger in Silesia prompted thousands to join the Old Lutheran movement. The dispute over ecumenism overshadowed other controversies within German Lutheranism.
Despite political meddling in church life, local and national leaders sought to restore and renew Christianity. Neo-Lutheran Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe and Old Lutheran free church leader Friedrich August Brünn both sent young men overseas to serve as pastors to German Americans, while the Inner Mission focused on renewing the situation home. Johann Gottfried Herder, superintendent at Weimar and part of the Inner Mission movement, joined with the Romantic movement with his quest to preserve human emotion and experience from Rationalism.
Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, though raised Reformed, became convinced of the truth of historic Lutheranism as a young man. He led the Neo-Lutheran Repristination School of theology, which advocated a return to the orthodox theologians of the 17th century and opposed modern Bible scholarship. As editor of the periodical Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, he developed it into a major support of Neo-Lutheran revival and used it to attack all forms of theological liberalism and rationalism. Although he received a large amount of slander and ridicule during his forty years at the head of revival, he never gave up his positions.
The theological faculty at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria became another force for reform. There, professor Adolf von Harless, though previously an adherent of rationalism and German idealism, made Erlangen a magnet for revival oriented theologians. Termed the Erlangen School of theology, they developed a new version of the Incarnation, which they felt emphasized the humanity of Jesus better than the ecumenical creeds. As theologians, they used both modern historical critical and Hegelian philosophical methods instead of attempting to revive the orthodoxy of the 17th century.
Friedrich Julius Stahl led the High Church Lutherans. Though raised a Jew, he was baptized as a Christian at the age of 19 through the influence of the Lutheran school he attended. As the leader of a neofeudal Prussian political party, he campaigned for the divine right of kings, the power of the nobility, and episcopal polity for the church. Along with Kliefoth and Vilmar, he promoted agreement with the Catholic Church with regard to the authority of the institutional church, ex opere operato effectiveness of the sacraments, and the divine authority of clergy. Unlike Catholics, however, they also urged complete agreement with the Book of Concord.
The Neo-Lutheran movement managed to slow secularism and counter atheistic Marxism, but it did not fully succeed in Europe. It partly succeeded in continuing the Pietist movement's drive to right social wrongs and focus on individual conversion. The Neo-Lutheran call to renewal failed to achieve widespread popular acceptance because it both began and continued with a lofty, idealistic Romanticism that did not connect with an increasingly industrialized and secularized Europe. At best, the work of local leaders resulted in specific areas with vibrant spiritual renewal, but people in Lutheran areas overall continued to become increasingly distant from church life. By 1969, Manfried Kober complained that "unbelief is rampant" even within German Lutheran parishes.
Traditionally, Lutherans hold the Bible of the Old and New Testaments to be the only divinely inspired book, the only source of divinely revealed knowledge, and the only norm for Christian teaching. 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, efficacy, and sufficiency.
The authority of the Scriptures has been challenged during the history of Lutheranism. Martin Luther taught that the Bible was the written Word of God, and the only reliable guide for faith and practice. He held that every passage of Scripture has one straightforward meaning, the literal sense as interpreted by other Scripture. These teachings were accepted during the orthodox Lutheranism of the 17th century. During the 18th century, Rationalism advocated reason rather than the authority of the Bible as the final source of knowledge, but most of the laity did not accept this Rationalist position. In the 19th century, a confessional revival re-emphasized the authority of the Bible and agreement with the Lutheran Confessions.
Today, Lutherans disagree about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Theological conservatives use the historical-grammatical method of Biblical interpretation, while theological liberals use the higher critical method. The 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,926 adults in the United States that self-identified as Lutheran. The study found that 30% believed that the Bible was the Word of God and was to be taken literally word for word. 40% held that the Bible was the Word of God, but was not literally true word for word or were unsure if it was literally true word for word. 23% said the Bible was written by men and not the Word of God. 7% did not know, were not sure, or had other positions.
Although many Lutherans today hold less specific views of inspiration, historically, Lutherans affirm that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is, because of plenary, verbal inspiration, the direct, immediate word of God. 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 nor by inspiration; they contain errorsand were never included in the Judean Canon that Jesus used; therefore they 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.
Historically, Lutherans maintain that Holy Scripture, the Word of God, carries the full authority of God. For conservative confessional Lutherans, every single statement of the Bible calls for instant and unqualified acceptance. For confessional Lutherans who are more aligned with mainline Protestantism, a basic claim is made that the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life. This allows for historical-critical methods for interpretation.
Historically, Lutherans understand the Bible to present all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly. God's Word is freely accessible to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring any special education. Of course, one must understand the language God's Word is presented in, and not be so preoccupied by contrary thoughts so as to prevent understanding. As a result of this, no one needs to wait for any clergy, pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of any part of the Bible.
Lutherans confess that Scripture is united with the power of the Holy Spirit and with it, not only demands, but also creates the acceptance of its teaching. This teaching produces faith and obedience. Holy Scripture is not a dead letter, but rather, the power of the Holy Spirit is inherent in it. Scripture does not compel a mere intellectual assent to its doctrine, resting on logical argumentation, but rather it creates the living agreement of faith. As the Smalcald Articles affirm, "in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word."
Lutherans are confident that the Bible contains everything that one needs to know in order to obtain salvation and to live a Christian life. There are no deficiencies in Scripture that need to be filled with by tradition, pronouncements of the Pope, new revelations, or present-day development of doctrine.
Law and Gospel
Lutherans understand the Bible as containing two distinct types of content, termed Law and Gospel (or Law and Promises). Properly distinguishing between Law and Gospel prevents the obscuring of the Gospel teaching of justification by grace through faith alone.
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), on the basis of Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura). 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."
Lutherans teach that sinners, while capable of doing works that are outwardly "good", are not capable of doing works that satisfy God's justice. Every human thought and deed is infected with sin and sinful motives. Because of this, all humanity deserves eternal damnation in hell. God in eternity has turned His Fatherly heart to this world and planned for its redemption because he loves all people and does not want anyone to be eternally damned.
To this end, "God sent his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, and to bring us to Himself, and to govern us as a King of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience," as the Large Catechism explains. Because of this, 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. 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. Christ, because he was entirely obedient to the law with respect to both his human and divine natures, "is a perfect satisfaction and reconciliation of the human race," as the Formula of Concord asserts, and proceeds to summarize:
[Christ] submitted to the law for us, bore our sin, and in going to his Father performed complete and perfect obedience for us poor sinners, from his holy birth to his death. Thereby he covered all our disobedience, which is embedded in our nature and in its thoughts, words, and deeds, so that this disobedience is not reckoned to us as condemnation but is pardoned and forgiven by sheer grace, because of Christ alone.
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 receives the gift of salvation rather than causes salvation. Thus, Lutherans reject the "decision theology" which is common among modern evangelicals.
Since the term grace has been defined differently by other Christian church bodies (e.g.) it is important to note that Lutheranism defines grace as entirely limited to God's gifts to us. Justification comes as a pure gift, not something we merit by changed behavior or in which we cooperate. Grace is not about our response to God's gifts, but only His gifts.
Lutherans are Trinitarian. 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. "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."
Two natures of Christ
Lutherans believe Jesus is the Christ, the savior promised in the Old Testament. They believe he 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".
The Augsburg Confession explains:
[T]he Son of God, did assume the human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, so that there are two natures, the divine and the human, inseparably enjoined in one Person, one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, that He might reconcile the Father unto us, and be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution. Whenever they are properly administered by the use of the physical component commanded by God along with the divine words of institution, God is, in a way specific to each sacrament, present with the Word and physical component. He earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. He also works in the recipients to get them to accept these blessings and to increase the assurance of their possession.
Lutherans are not dogmatic about the number of the sacraments. In line with Luther's initial statement in his Large Catechism some speak of only two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion, although later in the same work he calls Confession and Absolution "the third sacrament." The definition of sacrament in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession lists Absolution as one of them. Since Absolution is a return to the forgiveness given in baptism, strictly speaking there are only two sacraments. Private Confession is not practiced among Lutherans as often as in the Catholic Church. Rather, it is expected before receiving the Eucharist for the first time. Some churches also allow for individual absolution on Saturdays before the Eucharistic service. A general confession and absolution (known as the Penitential Rite) is proclaimed in the Eucharistic liturgy. Lutherans do not emphasize "penance" as a retribution of sin but rather the proclamation of God's forgiveness by the "called and ordained" minister of the Holy Gospel.
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." Holding fast to the Scripture cited in 1 Peter 3:21 "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." 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 the Eucharist, also referred to as the Sacrament of the Altar, the Mass, or the Lord's Supper, the true body and blood of Christ are truly present "in, with, and under the forms" of the consecrated bread and wine for all those who eat and drink it, a doctrine that the Formula of Concord calls the sacramental union.
In Lutheranism, conversion or regeneration in the strict sense of the term is the work of divine grace and power by which man, born of the flesh, and void of all power to think, to will, or to do any good thing, and dead in sin is, through the gospel and holy baptism, taken from a state of sin and spiritual death under God's wrath into a state of spiritual life of faith and grace, rendered able to will and to do what is spiritually good and, especially, made to trust in the benefits of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
During conversion, one is moved from impenitence to repentance. The Augsburg Confession divides repentance into two parts: "One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors."
Lutherans adhere to divine monergism, the teaching that salvation is by God's act alone, and therefore reject the idea that humans in their fallen state have a free will concerning spiritual matters. Lutherans believe that although humans have free will concerning civil righteousness, they cannot work spiritual righteousness in the heart without the presence and aid of the Holy Spirit. Lutherans believe Christians are "saved"; that all who trust in Christ alone and his promises can be certain of their salvation.
According to Lutheranism, the central final hope of the Christian is "the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting" as confessed in the Apostles' Creed rather than predestination. Lutherans disagree with those who make predestination—rather than Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection—the source of salvation. Unlike some Calvinists, Lutherans do not believe in a predestination to damnation, usually referencing "God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" as contrary evidence to such a claim. Instead, Lutherans teach eternal damnation is a result of the unbeliever's sins, rejection of the forgiveness of sins, and unbelief.
According to Lutherans, God preserves his creation, cooperates with everything that happens, and guides the universe. While God cooperates with both good and evil deeds, with evil deeds he does so only inasmuch as they are deeds, but not with the evil in them. God concurs with an act's effect, but he does not cooperate in the corruption of an act or the evil of its effect. Lutherans believe everything exists for the sake of the Christian Church, and that God guides everything for its welfare and growth.
The explanation of the Apostles' Creed given in the Small Catechism declares that everything good that people have is given and preserved by God, either directly or through other people or things. Of the services others provide us through family, government, and work, "we receive these blessings not from them, but, through them, from God." Since God uses everyone's useful tasks for good, people should not look down upon some useful vocations as being less worthy than others. Instead people should honor others, no matter how lowly, as being the means God uses to work in the world.
Lutherans believe that good works are the fruit of faith, always and in every instance. Good works have their origin in God, not in the fallen human heart or in human striving; their absence would demonstrate that faith, too, is absent. Lutherans do not believe that good works are a factor in obtaining salvation; they believe that we are saved by the grace of God—based on the merit of Christ in his suffering and death—and faith in the Triune God. Good works are the natural result of faith, not the cause of salvation. Although Christians are no longer compelled to keep God's law, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors.
Judgment and eternal life
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 bodies of 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.
Comparison among Protestants
Protestant beliefs about salvation vary.
This table summarizes the classical views of three Protestant beliefs about salvation.
Lutherans place great emphasis on a liturgical approach to worship services; although there are substantial non-liturgical minorities, for example, the Haugean Lutherans from Norway. Martin Luther was a great fan of music, and this is why it forms a large part of Lutheran services; in particular, Luther admired the composers Josquin des Prez and Ludwig Senfl and wanted singing in the church to move away from the ars perfecta (Catholic Sacred Music of the late Renaissance) and towards singing as a Gemeinschaft (community). Lutheran hymns are sometimes known as chorales. Lutheran hymnody is well known for its doctrinal, didactic, and musical richness. Most 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.
Lutherans also preserve a liturgical approach to the celebration of the Mass (or the Holy Eucharist/Communion), 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. They confess in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
Besides the Holy Communion (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.
In the 1970s, many Lutheran churches began holding contemporary worship services for the purpose of evangelistic outreach. These services were in a variety of styles, depending on the preferences of the congregation. Often they were held alongside a traditional service in order to cater to those who preferred contemporary worship music. Today, few but some Lutheran congregations have contemporary worship as their sole form of worship. Outreach is no longer given as the primary motivation; rather this form of worship is seen as more in keeping with the desires of individual congregations. In Finland, Lutherans have experimented with the St Thomas Mass or Metal Mass in which traditional hymns are adapted to heavy metal. The Lutheran World Federation, in its Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, recommended every effort be made to bring church services into a more sensitive position with regard to cultural context.
In 2006, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, in cooperation with certain foreign English speaking church bodies within their respective fellowships, released new hymnals: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELCA) and Lutheran Service Book (LCMS). Along with these, the most widely used among English speaking congregations include: Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (1996, ELS), The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978, LC-USA), Lutheran Worship (1982, LCMS), Christian Worship (1993, WELS), and The Lutheran Hymnal (1941, Synodical Conference). In the Lutheran Church of Australia, the official hymnal is the Lutheran Hymnal with Supplement of 1986, which includes a supplement to the Lutheran Hymnal of 1973, itself a replacement for the Australian Lutheran Hymn Book of 1921. Prior to this time, the two Lutheran church bodies in Australia (which merged in 1966) used a bewildering variety of hymnals, usually in the German language.
Spanish-speaking ELCA churches frequently use Libro de Liturgia y Cántico (1998, Augsburg Fortress) for services and hymns.
Sizable Lutheran missions arose for the first time during the 19th century. Early missionary attempts during the century after the Reformation did not succeed. However, European traders brought Lutheranism to Africa beginning in the 17th century as they settled along the coasts. During the first half of the 19th century, missionary activity in Africa expanded, including preaching by missionaries, translation of the Bible, and education.
Lutheranism came to India beginning with the work of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, where a community totaling several thousand developed, complete with their own translation of the Bible, catechism, their own hymnal, and system of Lutheran schools. In the 1840s, this church experienced a revival through the work of the Leipzig Mission, including Karl Graul. After German missionaries were expelled in 1914, Lutherans in India became entirely autonomous, yet preserved their Lutheran character. In recent years India has relaxed its anti-religious conversion laws, allowing a resurgence in missionary work.
In Latin America, missions began to serve European immigrants of Lutheran background, both those who spoke German and those who no longer did. These churches in turn began to evangelize those in their areas who were not of European background, including indigenous peoples.
In 1892, the first Lutheran missionaries reached Japan. Although work began slowly and a major setback occurred during the hardships of WWII. Lutheranism there has survived and become self-sustaining. After missionaries to China, including those of the Lutheran Church of China, were expelled, they began ministry in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the latter which became a center of Lutheranism in Asia.
The Lutheran Mission in New Guinea, though founded only in 1953, became the largest Lutheran mission in the world in only several decades. Through the work of native lay evangelists, many tribes of diverse languages were reached with the Gospel.
Catechism is considered foundational in most Lutheran churches. Almost all maintain Sunday Schools, and some host or maintain Lutheran schools, at the preschool, elementary, middle, high school, folk high school, or university level. Lifelong study of the catechism is intended for all ages so that the abuses of the pre-Reformation Church will not recur. Lutheran schools have always been a core aspect of Lutheran mission work, starting with Bartholomew Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Putschasu, who began work in India in year 1706.
Pastors almost always have substantial theological educations, including Greek and Hebrew so that they can refer to the Christian scriptures in the original language. Pastors usually teach in the common language of the local congregation. In the U.S., some congregations and synods historically taught in German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, or Swedish, but retention of immigrant languages has been in significant decline since the early and middle 20th century.
Lutherans were divided about the issue of church fellowship for the first thirty years after Luther's death. Philipp Melanchthon and his Philippist party felt that Christians of different beliefs should join in union with each other without completely agreeing on doctrine. Against them stood the Gnesio-Lutherans, led by Matthias Flacius and the faculty at Jena. They condemned the Philippist position for indifferentism, describing it as a "unionistic compromise" of precious Reformation theology. Instead, they held that genuine unity between Christians and real theological peace was only possible with an honest agreement about every subject of doctrinal controversy.
Complete agreement finally came about in 1577, after the death of both Melanchthon and Flacius, when a new generation of theologians resolved the doctrinal controversies on the basis of Scripture in the Formula of Concord of 1577. Although they decried the visible division of Christians on earth, orthodox Lutherans avoided ecumenical fellowship with other churches, believing that Christians should not, for example, join together for the Lord's Supper or exchange pastors if they do not completely agree about what the Bible teaches. In the 17th century, Georgius Calixtus began a rebellion against this practice, sparking the Syncretistic Controversy with Abraham Calovius as his main opponent.
In the 18th century, there was some ecumenical interest between the Church of Sweden and the Church of England. John Robinson, Bishop of London, planned for a union of the English and Swedish churches in 1718. The plan failed because most Swedish bishops rejected the Calvinism of the Church of England, although Swedberg and Gezelius, bishops of Skara, Sweden and Turku, Finland, were in favor. With the encouragement of Swedberg, church fellowship was established between Swedish Lutherans and Anglicans in the Middle Colonies. Over the course of the 1700s and the early 1800s, Swedish Lutherans were absorbed into Anglican churches, with the last original Swedish congregation completing merger into the Episcopal Church in 1846.
In the 19th century, Samuel Simon Schmucker attempted to lead the Evangelical Lutheran General Synod of the United States toward unification with other American Protestants. His attempt to get the synod to reject the Augsburg Confession in favor of his compromising Definite Platform failed. Instead, it sparked a Neo-Lutheran revival, prompting many to form the General Council, including Charles Porterfield Krauth. Their alternative approach was "Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran ministers only, and Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants only."
Beginning in 1867, confessional and liberal minded Lutherans in Germany joined together to form the Common Evangelical Lutheran Conference against the ever looming prospect of a state-mandated union with the Reformed. However, they failed to reach consensus on the degree of shared doctrine necessary for church union. Eventually, the fascist German Christians movement pushed the final national merger of Lutheran, Union, and Reformed church bodies into a single Reich Church in 1933, doing away with the previous umbrella German Evangelical Church Confederation (DEK), refounded in 1945 as the new umbrella Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). In 1948 the Lutheran church bodies within EKD founded their denominational umbrella, despite being named church, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany.
Presently, Lutherans are divided over how to interact with other Christian denominations. Some Lutherans assert that everyone must share the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) in complete unity (1 Cor. 1:10) before pastors can share each other's pulpits, and before communicants commune at each other's altars, a practice termed closed (or close) communion. On the other hand, other Lutherans practice varying degrees of open communion and allow preachers from other Christian denominations in their pulpits.
While not an issue in the majority of Lutheran church bodies, some of them forbid membership in Freemasonry. Partly, this is because the lodge is viewed as spreading Unitarianism, as the Brief Statement of the LCMS reads, "Hence we warn against Unitarianism, which in our country has to a great extent impenetrated the sects and is being spread particularly also through the influence of the lodges." A 1958 report from the publishing house of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod states that, "Masonry is guilty of idolatry. Its worship and prayers are idol worship. The Masons may not with their hands have made an idol out of gold, silver, wood or stone, but they created one with their own mind and reason out of purely human thoughts and ideas. The latter is an idol no less than the former."
The largest organizations of Lutheran churches around the world are the Lutheran World Federation, the International Lutheran Council, and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. These organizations together include the great majority of Lutheran denominations around the globe. The Lutheran World Federation supports the activities of Lutheran World Relief, a relief and development agency active in more than 50 countries. The LCMS and the LCC are members of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). The WELS and ELS are members of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. Many Lutheran churches are not affiliated with the LWF, the ILC or the CELC: The congregations of the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) are affiliated with their mission organizations in Canada, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and many African nations; and those affiliated with the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, are especially active doing mission work in Africa and East Asia.
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF)-aligned churches do not believe that one church is singularly true in its teachings. According to this belief, Lutheranism is a reform movement rather than a movement into doctrinal correctness. For that reason, a number of doctrinally diverse LWF denominations, now largely separated from state control, are declaring fellowship and joint statements of agreement with other Lutheran and non-Lutheran Christian denominations.
The Lutheran World Federation and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod engaged in a series of official dialogues with the Catholic Church since shortly after the Second Vatican Council. In 1999 the LWF and the Catholic Church jointly issued a statement, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), that stated that the LWF and the Catholic both agreed about certain basics of Justification and lifted certain Catholic anathemas formerly applying to the LWF member churches. The LCMS has participated in most of these talks, though not the one which produced the Joint Declaration and to which they were not invited. While some Lutheran theologians saw the Joint Declaration as a sign that the Catholics were essentially adopting the Lutheran position, other Lutheran theologians disagreed, claiming that, considering the public documentation of the Catholic position, this assertion does not hold up.
By contrast, the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference and International Lutheran Council as well as some unaffiliated denominations such as the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) maintain that the orthodox confessional Lutheran churches are the only churches with completely correct doctrine. They teach that while other Christian churches teach partially orthodox doctrine and have true Christians as members, the doctrines of those churches contain significant errors. More conservative Lutherans strive to maintain historical distinctiveness while emphasizing doctrinal purity alongside Gospel-motivated outreach. They claim that LWF Lutherans are practicing "fake ecumenism" by desiring church fellowship outside of actual unity of teaching.
Although not an "ecumenical" movement in the formal sense, in the 1990s influences from the megachurches of American evangelicalism have become somewhat common. Many of the largest Lutheran congregations in the United States have been heavily influenced by these "progressive Evangelicals." These influences are sharply criticized by some Lutherans as being foreign to orthodox Lutheran beliefs.
The Porvoo Communion is a communion of episcopally led Lutheran and Anglican churches in Europe. Beside its membership in the Porvoo Communion, Church of Sweden also has declared full communion with the Philippine Independent Church and the United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has been involved in ecumenical dialogues with several denominations. Recently, the ELCA has declared full communion with several American Churches: the Moravian Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ.
Throughout the world
Today, millions belong to Lutheran churches, which are present on all populated continents. The Lutheran World Federation estimates the total membership of its churches at approximately 72.3 million. This figure undercounts Lutherans worldwide as not all Lutheran churches belong to this organization. In recent years, Lutheranism saw a slight increase in its fellowship, which continues to the present. Lutheran churches in North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean regions are experiencing decreases and no growth in membership, while those in Africa and Asia continue to grow. Lutheranism is the largest religious group in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Namibia, and North Dakota. Lutheranism is also the dominant form of Christianity in the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache nations. In addition, Lutheranism is a main Protestant denomination in Germany (behind United Protestant churches; Protestants form about 31.7% of the country's total population), Estonia, Poland, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Papua New Guinea, North Sumatra, and Tanzania.
Although Namibia is the only country outside Europe to have a Lutheran majority, there are sizable Lutheran bodies in other African countries. In the following African countries, the total number of Lutherans exceeds 100,000: Nigeria, Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Malawi, Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. In addition, the following nations also have sizable Lutheran populations: Canada, France, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Brazil, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, the Netherlands (within the Protestant Church of the Netherlands), South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, especially in the heavily German and Scandinavian Upper Midwest.
Lutheranism is also a state religion in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. Finland has its Lutheran church established as a national church. Similarly, Sweden also has its national church, which was a state church until 2000.
This map shows the global distribution of Lutheranism based on The LWF 2013 membership data.