Living in Georgia, Lutherans are somewhat rare. My wife was actually asked the questions in the subject of this post by one of her friends. In the Midwest, Lutherans are as numerous as the sands on the seashore. In the South, though, Lutherans are as rare as a sand-dollar. We tend to be viewed as different, maybe even odd (or, perhaps that’s just me that people consider odd!). So, I put this list together to provide my Christian brethren of other persuasions a quick guide to Lutherans. This is not all-encompassing and I’ll write additional posts to provide additional details about Lutheran beliefs, but I wanted to point out the highlights.
1. Lutherans are sacramental Christians
All this means is that we believe that God acts through His Sacraments in order to give us the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A Sacrament is simply God’s Word, by which He acts, in visible, tangible form. We are visible, tangible people and God gives us His Word in a way the relates to us.
We believe in Baptism that God calls the newly baptized as His child and placed His name upon him; Baptism is God’s act. Similarly, we believe that in the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or the Eucharist as it is sometimes called) Christ is bodily present and gives us Himself. This Sacramental nature of our beliefs ties in with item #2 below.
2. Lutherans believe that God acts in and through His creation
We believe that God uses His creation to bless His creation. He made Adam and Eve and then gave them to each other in marriage to be a blessing to each other. He promised the Old Testament Church, Israel, a land of their own. He dwelt with Israel through the tabernacle and temple. He healed Naaman the Syrian through His Word and the waters of the Jordan River. He sent prophets to proclaim His Word to His people. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, in the flesh to die and rise for our salvation. He sent apostles and continues to send pastors to proclaim what Christ has done for us.
Christ is the true tabernacle and temple, and he continues to dwell with the New Testament Israel, the Church, through Word and Sacrament. The Church is the promised land, with God dwelling among us through His preached Word, His Word in the waters of Baptism, and through the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. When Christ returns on the Last Day, he will bring the new heaven and new earth. We will then live on the new earth forever, which is no longer tainted by sin, death, and evil. Our salvation hopes are the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting in this restored creation.
3. Lutherans believe that God saves us by His grace on account of Christ, and we receive this through faith
We believe that God saves us from our sins purely as a result of His grace and mercy, given to us for the sake of Jesus Christ. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. Christ was perfectly obedient to His Father, fulfilling God’s Law on our behalf. He also died for our failure to be perfect. He also rose from the dead, though, so that we too will rise from the dead. In Baptism, God applies to us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (see how it’s all fitting together). We receive all this through faith, but even faith is a work of God. He brings us to faith through His Word in all its forms: written, spoken, Sacramental. So, everything is God’s doing; He gives and we receive. Thus, even in worship it is God who is acting; He calls us together to give us Christ’s forgiveness and salvation. In all things, God acts first and we simply respond to what He has done for us.
4. Lutherans confess the three Ecumenical Creeds
We hold to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Rather than try to create our own creeds, we hold to these three Creeds which have served the Church well for centuries. This brings up another item about the Church; item #5 below.
5. Lutherans make a distinction between the universal Church and visible manifestations of the Church
We believe that there is one, holy, Catholic Church. That is to say, we believe that Christ’s Church consists of all true believers, of all times and places – living, dead, yet to come.
However, there are also visible manifestations of the Church, such as congregations and denominations. These localized, visible manifestations of the Church may contain non-believers since man can not tell the beliefs and faith of another person. God knows those who are His, though, whom He has incorporated into the universal (or Catholic) Church.
This brings up a question, then: “Why be Lutheran if the Church also consists of non-Lutherans?” See #6 below.
6. Lutherans believe that our confession of the faith is the historic, apostolic faith
Our sole source for doctrine is the Bible, in its entirety. We believe that our Lutheran Confessions (i.e. the Book of Concord adopted in 1580) are a clear, faithful exposition of the Christian faith and the doctrines contained in the Bible. We may take our name from Martin Luther, but we are Lutherans because we believe we are confessing the apostolic faith. We believe we have something to offer other Christians with our Confessions and our Sacramental theology.
7. Lutherans worship with different styles
Given that our identity is bound up with our adherence to the Lutheran Confessions, worship styles and practices are not as important to us as in other denominations. The main criteria for worship styles and practices are that they should reflect our theology as well as get the point across that it is God acting in worship to bless us and that we are responding to what He has first done for us (which is why we call our worship service the “Divine Service” – God is serving us).
You may go to some Lutheran churches with a worship style viewed as “contemporary,” with a more relaxed environment and with the pastor dressed in a suit and tie. You may also go to some Lutheran churches with a more “traditional” style, using the historic liturgy of the Church and with the pastor wearing a clerical collar and with vestments. If you are Catholic, you will find that the traditional Lutheran liturgy is very similar to what you are used to, with the main difference being the Communion liturgy (since we do not view Communion as our sacrifice to God, but rather His gift to us of Christ’s body and blood).
If you come to my congregations, I’ll be wearing a clerical and wearing vestments (an alb and stole) during worship and using the historic liturgy. In the South, some people I encounter in public mistakingly call me “Father,” thinking I’m a catholic priest, rather than a Lutheran pastor. This brings up another point, #8 below.
8. Lutherans believe that all Christians are priests before God
God’s promise to the Israelites at Mount Sinai was that they were to be to Him a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel; he is the High Priest and holy. Through him, the New Testament Church is the continuation of Israel and is composed of priests. To be a priest is to be able to pray to God directly and intercede on behalf of others. Since we have Christ as our High Priest, we are all priests.
To care for His people, though, God instituted the pastoral office. Men are called into the office by God in order to shepherd His people. Thus, pastors occupy an office that God created in order to care for His people. All believers are priests, though, with the power to pray to God directly through Christ and to proclaim His Word to others.
9. Lutherans are free! Lutherans are obligated to everyone!
We believe that we are free from the condemnations of God’s Law, since Christ fulfilled it for us and died for our sins. God has therefore fixed our relationship with Him through Christ.
Since God has already fixed our relationship with Him, we are freed to do good works for the benefit of other people. Thus, Lutherans are free and yet obligated. We don’t have to do anything to be saved, because God has done it for us. Therefore, we can focus on helping other people. We often said that our works flow from our faith.
10. Lutherans are cool!
Ok, I felt like I needed a #10 (who ever heard of a top 9 list?), so I added this one. But, really, where else can you find the historic, apostolic Christian faith? Where else can you encounter the historic liturgy? Where else can you hear the Gospel purely proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered? I’d say that it is in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and in our sister churches throughout the world.