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What Does it Mean to be Lutheran?

For many people today, the Lutheran label may not mean what it ought to mean. Much of Lutheranism, as observed on the world scene, is considerably liberal in its theology. A large number of Lutheran scholars do not accept the foundational premise that Dr. Martin Luther himself took for granted: the Bible is verbally inspired and inerrant in its entirety.

In describing genuine Lutheranism, the following brief summary may be of some help: To be truly Lutheran is to acknowledge justification as the central teaching in Scripture. Luther re-discovered this at the time of the Reformation. We acknowledge that we are by nature sinful and enemies of God and would perish forever in hell without God providing his plan of salvation for us. Yet, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, took upon himself our human flesh without sinning and willingly carried out complete satisfaction for the guilt and punishment of our sins before God. He substituted his life of holiness for ours and also substituted his accursed death for the hell we had deserved. God declared the whole world forgiven through Christ’s death and resurrection. A sinner is now justified (declared “holy”) in the sight of God only and entirely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no room for work-righteousness (i.e., earning salvation by one’s efforts) in Lutheran doctrine. Only God’s grace in Christ saves (Romans 3:20-24, Ephesians 3:8, 9). This grace is received personally by faith as created and sustained through the work of the Holy Spirit.

A true Lutheran also confesses that God brings the forgiveness of sins in Christ to our individual hearts by using certain means: the Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Only through these means does the Holy Spirit work faith in the hearts of sinners. The message of the Gospel is not just a statement of historical fact; it is a powerful, living Word that brings life to the sin-darkened soul. Baptism is not just a symbolical washing; it is a “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s Supper is not just a meal of bread and wine reminding us of Christ’s death; it is the true body and blood of Christ which is offered the recipient for the remission of sins.

Many other things fall under the heading of true Lutheranism. The teachings are listed in the Book of Concord, which contains the Lutheran Confessions (the three universal Creeds, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, and the Formula of Concord). A true Lutheran accepts these Confessions because they are the doctrines found in God’s Word. The Lutheran Confessions especially help a person distinguish between the two important teachings in the Bible: Law and Gospel.

A true Lutheran confesses and teaches only what is clearly taught in Scripture, not going beyond it and not being satisfied with less. Although a teaching from Scripture may not seem logical or reasonable, a Lutheran accepts it as truth because it is God’s truth, and all doctrines in the Bible support the main one: justification by grace through faith in Christ. This is why we often use the three “alones” to describe Lutheranism: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone.

-Rev. John Moldstad, ELS President


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