Who Are Lutherans?
By Dr. Martin Marty
Lutherans Are Sinners
... but they are forgiven. Lutherans may identify themselves as students or senators, Texans or Tanzanians, children or senior citizens. But when they consider their religious beliefs, they will confess what you would soon find out: they fall short of God's expectations.
They will go on to tell that this same God, a loving God, forgives them. They believe that it is God acting for and in them, and not their own acts, that brings forgiveness. Lutherans call this "justification by grace through faith." As a result they are new people who are not haunted by guilt or bothered by worry. They trust God who comes to them in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Lutherans Are Evangelical
... and as forgiven people reach out to share the message of God's grace. Evangelical refers to the good news, or gospel, of Jesus Christ. As sinners, Lutherans sometimes get caught up in themselves as much as everyone else does. But they try to look beyond themselves to bring the gospel to community life with people of other faiths and those of no faith. They welcome others to worship and work with them.
Lutherans Are Born Again Christians
... with their own understanding of what it means to be "born again." Lutherans, like other catholic Christians, baptize infants, believing that God works grace in them. In fact, they believe that every day and in every act of serious return to God they are returning to their baptism. They come forth as new people, which means that they are born again --- and again and again.
Lutherans Are Worshippers
... who think of worship not as a pastor's performance but as the people's service. They are sacramental. Along with Baptism they celebrate the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper or Holy Communion) frequently, in many churches weekly. They believe that Jesus Christ is truly present when they gather in faith for this sacred meal.
Theirs is a singing church, and Lutherans have contributed much to Christian music. These songs are not always on the Christian Hit Parade, but it does not take long to learn them and to appreciate the way they focus thoughts on a gracious God. Lutheran worship includes song and prayer from many Christian traditions.
Lutherans place special emphasis on the word of God. Lutheran worship stresses preaching in the form of a sermon that addresses the needs of sinners and announces the loving activity of God. God is present when humans speak the divine word, so Lutherans gather to hear it together.
They believe God speaks to people through the Scriptures, and so Lutherans revere personal Bible reading in addition to personal prayer. They are serious about their devotion to God but do not prescribe special postures or mannerisms.
Lutherans Are Stewards
... which means they believe that all of life and health, all possessions and capabilities are, in a sense, on loan from God the Creator. So they keep on learning --- never rapidly enough, or profoundly enough -- how to return on God's investment in them.
Lutherans Want to Make a Difference
... as people who do well when God works through them. Lutherans take the divine law with utter seriousness, but they are not legalists. They do not think they can please God by following laws nor can they come to perfection. Remember, the first thing to be said about them is that they are sinners who are forgiven. But they believe that they are to make faith active in love. Where there is no love, no generosity, no service to others, they suspect that faith is weak or absent.
Through organized groups and individual action Lutherans are part of public life. They want to work for justice, as biblical prophets and new Testament believers did.
Lutherans also participate in works of mercy and healing, as the name "Lutheran" on so many hospitals, social service agencies, and relief projects makes clear. These efforts involve non-Lutheran partners.
Lutherans Are Churchly
... and learning to be more so. This means they are ecumenical -- they want the church to be as united as Christ prayed it would be. Yet they confess their faith through creeds and statements designed to set forth distinctive Lutheran understanding about a gracious God. As sinners, they do not think of themselves as better than others. As confessors, they do believe all Christians should speak clearly of their understandings of faith.
Lutherans Are Protestants
... who are also catholic. As Protestants, they continue the reformation begun in European churches in the 15th century. Being catholic they believe that Christ's church is universal, and that they are connected with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and other Christians who stress their ties to Christ's church everywhere and through the ages.
Lutheran Protestants would not have chosen the name Lutheran; it was acquired accidentally, often from early enemies. The name refers to Martin Luther, a German monk and Old Testament professor, who came to renewed understanding of the good news almost 500 years ago. Lutherans do not worship Martin Luther, but they do celebrate what God worked through him. Luther's writings called for church reform and led to protests -- now known as the Protestant Reformation. His statement on justification by grace through faith, for example, remains a central, distinct characteristic of Lutheran understanding today.
Lutherans Come From Somewhere
... and would like to be everywhere. Lutherans originated as people who were involved with church reform in Scandinavia and Germany. They moved from northern Europe, which seemed to be a second natural habitat. However, they believe that their message of a God who forgives sinners is for everyone, so Lutherans have moved south from Europe and northern American into all the world.
Most Lutherans believe that the Christian good news knows no racial, ethnic, economic, national, or gender-related boundaries. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is organized to give emphasis to its desire that men and women, white and black, Hispanic and Asian and others, share equally in the benefits and tasks that go with Christian life.
Lutherans Are Congregational
... but do not limit their activities to local or regional arenas. Most of the time their neighbors know Lutherans through the local churches which bear their names. And Lutherans put most of their energies into these local congregations. There they baptize, commune, speak the word of God, reach out with acts of love, become friends, receive challenges, pray for others, and test their responsibilities.
Lutheran congregations are connected by synods and by church bodies like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has over five million members. They pool resources so that together these congregations can better reach out to people in need everywhere.
Together they educate leaders. Lutherans stress learned ministries and cherish skilled professional workers. For this they need jointly supported seminaries and colleges. But their stress on leadership, made possible by the larger church, does not make Lutheranism a priestly movement. Lay Christians, as well as ordained ministers, make up what Martin Luther called "a priesthood of all believers." All are ministers. Lay people, in teamwork with pastors, take initiatives to help see that Christ is represented among them and in their communities.
Lutherans Are Unfinished Products
... though their forgiveness is complete. Aware of human weakness, imperfection, and mixed-up priorities, Lutherans are hopeful people. They respond to God's love by reaching out to others to tell and to demonstrate the good news of Jesus Christ. They believe that with God, anything is possible. They invite others who are not now active in Christian communions to join them in the challenges which a trouble-filled world presents, and to rejoice with them in the promises with which a loving God greets them.
What Do Lutherans Believe?
"Do Lutherans believe theirs is the only true religion?" This question was once put to the late Dr. Elson Ruff, editor of The Lutheran. His answer was, "Yes, but Lutherans don't believe they are the only ones who have it. There are true Christian believers in a vast majority of the churches, perhaps in all."
What is it, then, that Lutherans believe and practice? Here are some brief answers to questions often asked. Before answering the questions, however, it is well to remember that not all Lutherans express their beliefs in exactly the same way. Within Lutheranism there is room for differences in interpretation and understanding, but on issues central to the faith there is, with few exceptions, common accord.
What Do Lutherans Believe About Creation?
Lutherans believe that God is Creator of the universe. Its dimensions of space and time are not something God made once and then left alone. God is, rather, continually creating, calling into being each moment of each day.
Human beings have a unique position in the order of creation. As males and females we are given the capacity and freedom to know and respond to our Creator. Freedom implies that we can choose either positively or negatively to respond to God. Doubtlessly, that is God's most generous gift to humankind.
Where do Lutheran's Stand on the Question of Sin?
Lutherans believe that all people live in a condition which is the result of misused freedom. "Sin" describes not so much individual acts of wrongdoing as a fractured relation between the persons of creation and God. Our every attempt to please God falls short of the mark. By the standard of the Law, of which the Ten Commandments are a classic summary, God expresses his just and loving expectations for his creation. And our failure to live up to those expectations reveals only our need for God's mercy and forgiveness.
Who is Jesus Christ?
Jesus is God's Son, chosen by God to become human like us. In his life and being he broke through the prison of sinfulness and thus restored the relationship of love and trust that God intended to exist between himself and his children.
The man, Jesus of Nazareth, lived and died in Palestine during the governorship of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate; and we believe him to be the Messiah chosen by God to show his love for the world. He is God, yet with all the limitations of being human. His relationship to God, however, was not one of sin but rather of perfect obedience to the Father's will. For the sake of the sinful world, Jesus was condemned to death on the cross.
But death could not contain him. On the third day after his execution, the day Christians observe as Easter, Jesus appeared among his followers as the risen, living Lord. By this great victory, God has declared himself to be the good news of reconciliation. The gap between all that separates us from our Creator has been bridged. Thus, he lives today, wherever there are persons who faithfully believe in him, and wherever the good news of reconciliation is preached and the sacraments administered.
Why Do Lutherans Talk About Justification by Grace Through Faith?
The New Testament clearly affirms that our reconciliation with our Creator can only be thought of as a free gift from God. It is not to be earned, and certainly it is not deserved. God, in love and mercy, offers to everyone a new life, one that begins at baptism and continues beyond death.
This discovery of a gracious God who seeks those who are lost, was the turning point in Martin Luther's understanding of the Christian faith. For him the matter was clear; we cannot climb to God, we cannot even meet him half way. Rather, God comes to us in the person of Jesus, the Lord. We only need in faith to receive God's acceptance of us.
During the Reformation of the sixteenth century this became known as the doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith, an affirmation of most churches. Lutherans recognize the ease with which Christians tend to forget this central affirmation. We persist in trying to justify ourselves by our own good works, by our own accomplishments. Lutheranism as a Christian movement, however, stands or falls with its faith that reconciliation with God is wholly God's act through faith in Christ.
How Do Lutherans Look upon the Bible?
To borrow a phrase from Luther, the Bible is "the manger in which the Word of God is laid." While Lutherans recognize differences in the way the Bible should be studied and interpreted, it is accepted as the primary and authoritative witness to the church's faith. Written and transcribed by many authors over a period of many centuries, the Bible bears remarkable testimony to the mighty acts of God in the lives of people and nations. In the Old Testament is found the vivid account of God's covenant relationship to Israel. In the New Testament is found the story of God's new covenant with all of creation in Jesus.
The New Testament is the first-hand proclamation of those who lived through the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As such, it is the authority for Christian faith and practice. The Bible is thus not a definitive record of history or science. Rather it is the record of the drama of God's saving care for his creation throughout the course of history.
What Is the Church?
The Christian church is made up of those who of been baptized and thus have received Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Lutherans believe that they are a part of a community of faith that began with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God's presence with his people, on the day of Pentecost. The church, regardless of the external form it takes, is the fellowship of those who have been restored to God by Christ. Indeed, to be called into fellowship with Christ is also to be called into fellowship with other believers.
The church is essential to Christian life and growth. Its members are all sinners in need of God's grace. It has no claim on human perfection. The church exists solely for the hearing and doing of God's Word. It can justify its existence only when it proclaims the living Word of Christ, administers the sacraments, and gives itself to one world in deeds of service and love. Most Lutherans recognize a wider fellowship of churches and are eager to work alongside them in ecumenical ministries and projects.
What Sacraments Do Lutherans Accept?
Lutherans accept two sacraments as God-given means for penetrating the lives of people with his grace. Although they are not the only means of God's self-revelation, Baptism and Holy Communion are visible acts of God's love.
In Baptism, and it can be seen more clearly in infant Baptism, God freely offers his grace and lovingly establishes a new community. In Holy Communion - often called the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist - those who come to the table receive in bread and wine the body and blood of their Lord. This gift is itself the real presence of God's forgiveness and mercy, nourishing persons in fellowship with their Lord and with each other.
Do Lutherans Believe in Life After Death?
While there is much we do not and cannot know about life beyond the grave, Lutherans do believe that fellowship with God persists even after death. Judgment is both a present and future reality, and history moves steadily towards God's ultimate fulfillment.
This, of course, is a great mystery and no description of what life may be like in any dimension beyond history is possible. Anxiety for the future is not a mark of faith. Christians should go about their daily tasks, trusting God's grace, and living a life of service in his name.
What Must a Person Do to Become a Lutheran?
To become a Lutheran, only baptism and instruction in the Christian faith is required. If you are already baptized, it will be necessary only to attend a membership class in a Lutheran congregation and thus signify your desire to become a part of its fellowship. Active members of our Lutheran congregations usually need only to transfer their membership.
For more information, call us at (201)-438-0840. We look forward to welcoming you.
Who Needs Church?
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church because of the fellowship...
You may remember how difficult it was to get to the inner circle of your parents' church, but what great fun you have with the Sunday morning golf foursome.
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church because of the inspirational music...
You may remember how the organ always reminds you of a funeral home, but how upbeat your latest compact disc sounds.
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church because of the pastoral care...
Maybe all you can think of are the loud, moralizing TV preachers, but you remember the compassionate nurse who spent time with you in the hospital.
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church because of the nice people there...
You may remember how bad it felt to be "shushed" as a child in church, but how welcomed you feel by the people at the recreation center.
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church because of the great worship...
You may remember how you counted the church rafters during long sermons, but how awestruck and happy you felt after seeing a great movie.
When a friend or neighbor invites you to church...
You might not want to go.
So why do people like your friend still go to church? And what are the other people there like?
Some people go to a church because they want religion or values for their children. Others seek help with life's questions of meaning.
Some are lonely in a new community and hope to find new friends. Others are thrilled at the birth of their first child and wish to learn about baptism for the baby.
Some are in love and want a church wedding. Others have lost their jobs and are terrified of the future.
Some have recently divorced. Other come simply because a friend invited them and they didn't want to say no.
Church members are young and old, single, married, widowed, and divorced. They are rich, poor, and middle-class. They come from every culture and ethnic background.
Most people come to church because they are looking for something. It might be approval from a parent.
Others are looking for guidance to help them raise children. Others wonder about the suffering in their life or the life of someone they care about.
Some people are seeking a deeper life with God. Others are hoping to strengthen business connections.
Everyone is looking for something.
So people are looking for something. What's so special about the church?
The lucky ones find friendship, good music, and caring people in the church. But more important, everyone gets a chance to glimpse God.
It is God who calls people together in the church. God's love, mercy, and kindness are offered and shared in the church.
There, in songs and sermons, Bible readings and prayers, God reminds people that they are the children in whom God delights.
There, people are reminded that God cares deeply for them, just as they are. There, people can experience the love of God through Jesus Christ in the good and the painful times of life. In the church, God works hard to help people catch a glimpse of the passion that God has for all of creation.
Maybe you sense it!
Maybe you want more.
No one is saying that you should! But you might want to go to church to build a deeper and richer relationship with God.
But why should you go to church?
Since Jesus has promised to be wherever two or three people are gathered in his name, you can ask him about the purpose and meaning of your life in Bible study, prayer, and worship at church.
In the church, you can talk with other people who are seeking God's help and healing for their lives. You can ask for help along the way.
It will take some getting used to. Our world seems to run on power, certainly, and control. The church, on the other hand, might seem weak, unclear at times, and often unable to stay away from the worst that the world has to offer.
Yet the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. This simple statement brings the laughter of delight and amazing hope to many of God's people who know Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior.
Behind all the good intentions to offer friendship, inspirational music, care for all people, and uplifting sermons, the people of every congregation know that they sometimes fail miserably at these things.
They know that golf can be more fun, that compact discs can at times provide better music, that friends met through the recreation center may be best friends, and that some health-care workers provide richer care for people.
But they trust God to forgive their shortcomings, to make their hearts sing, to give them joy beyond the happiness that the world can so quickly take away, and to provide care even through the doorway of death.
You see, the people at church are proof that this God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, is not stumped or put off by the failure of people to get it right all the time. This God gathers all kinds of people together in the church to help and to heal them. Then God sends these people into the world to share the love and kindness that they have received.
Who needs the church?
Probably nobody needs the church. But everyone needs God. Maybe now is the time for you to seek God in a new way and place. Maybe now is the time for you to come to church.
Stop by soon.