What is Lutheran?

Who was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther by Ky Betts

Martin Luther
© Ky Betts.
Used with permission

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) was a Christian theologian and Augustinian monk. His teachings were an important part of the Protestant Reformation and have had a deep impact on the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions.

As a German Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther devoted himself completely to God and yet found no peace in the monastic life of servitude he had dedicated himself to. Despite fasting, flogging (flagellation), long hours in prayer, pilgrimages, and constant confession, the more he tried to do for God the more aware he became of how completely he failed to live up to God’s expectations.

A superior of Martin’s encouraged him to pursue an academic career. This led Luther into thorough study of the scriptures and the teachings of the early church. The more he studied, the more he became convinced that the teachings of the church in his own time had lost site of some profound and central truths.

At that time the Church taught that the only way people could attain salvation was by: doing good works; punishing themselves physically (mortification of the flesh) and purchasing indulgences. The sale of indulgences promised that a person could use money to earn their way into heaven more quickly. The more money given to the church for an indulgence, the less time one would have to spend in purgatory before being granted access to heaven. One could even purchase indulgences for loved ones who had already died.

Martin Luther, in studying the Holy Scripture, became convinced that salvation is a gift of God. It can not be earned and it can not be bought. It is received by faith; trusting in God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. Since God sent Jesus to die on the cross in our place, the complete price of salvation has already been paid in full – by Christ. Our sins are forgiven through the sheer mercy of God. Salvation was God’s work from beginning to end. Our only duty and responsibility is to accept it – and then live lives befitting the gift we have received.

With joy Luther had finally found peace with God. He wrote 95 theses (statements), outlining problems he saw with indulgence (ie: “#27: There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest!”). His initial aim was reform and clarity not division (ie: #91: “If therefore, indulgences were preached in accordance with the spirit and mind of the pope, all these difficulties would be easily overcome, and indeed, cease to exist”.) This, however, would be the start of a major shake-down within the church that continues to influence us today.

The Pope didn’t care for Martin Luther’s 95 Theses or the challenge to his authority. Within four years Martin Luther had been excommunicated, declared an outlaw, condemned as a heretic and had his writings banned. But the Good News of God’s love for people can not be so easily stopped – the word of salvation through faith in Jesus alone continued to spread. Martin Luther continued to work toward reform, convinced that changes were needed to bring the church back in line with God’s original plan to save all people through Christ alone. Drawing upon scripture he instituted many changes that are still part of current Lutheran church practices today.

What is a “Lutheran”?

A Lutheran is a person who continues to follow the reformation teachings initiated by Martin Luther in the mid-sixteen century. There are over 74 million “Lutherans” worldwide. These reformation teachings include:

  • Emphasizing that Christ is the only intermediary between people and God. Sinners are justified—forgiven and declared right with God – by God’s grace alone, through God’s gift of faith alone, communicated in God’s Word alone.
  • Proclaiming the supremacy of the Scriptures in which the Word of God is received by Faith and revealed as the Holy Gospel;
  • Declaring a universal priesthood of believers in which every Christian has the right and responsibility to preach and study the Word of God, and in which each conscience is answerable only to the Word of God.
  • Celebrating only Two Sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion;
  • Promoting the participation of the laity (ordinary people) in worship and leadership;
  • Permitting both the laity and the clergy to partake of the wine and bread in Communion equally. Holy Communion is to be celebrated reverently, not as a new sacrifice for sin, but for the strengthening of Faith;
  • Allowing pastors to marry;
  • Encouraging a division between Church and State in which the church’s primary mission is the spiritual well-being of its citizens, allowing finance and other matters to be run by the nation’s government. Members are encouraged to participate in government and business, but reminded not to allow secular concerns to confuse or override spiritual matters;