What Do Lutherans Believe?
A Faith Founded on Good News
Lutherans are Christians who accept the teachings of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546). Luther was a German theologian who realized that there were significant differences between what he read in the Bible and the practices of the Roman Catholic church at that time. On October 31, 1517, he posted a challenge on the door of Wittenberg University, titled “95 Theses” (to debate 95 theological issues). His hope was that the church would reform its practice and preaching to be more consistent with the Word of God as contained in the Bible.
What started as an academic debate escalated into a distinct separation between the Roman Catholic church of the time and those who accepted Luther’s suggested reforms. "Lutheran" became the name of the group that agreed with Luther’s convictions.
Today, nearly five centuries later, Lutherans still celebrate the Reformation on October 31 and still hold to the basic principles of Luther’s theological teachings, such as Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone. These comprise the very essence of Lutheranism:
Over the years, different Lutheran church bodies have been established and organized to meet the needs of Lutherans in communities and nations all over the world. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran group in North America, founded in 1988 when three North American Lutheran church bodies united: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America.
Lutherans are part of a reforming movement within the whole Christian church; as a part of practicing their faith, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its predecessors have engaged in ecumenical dialogue with other church bodies for decades. In fact, the ELCA has entered into cooperative "full communion" agreements (sharing common convictions about theology, mission and worship) with several other Protestant denominations, including
The ELCA has an ongoing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1999, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This represented a historic consensus on key issues of faith and called for further dialogue and study together.
Lutheranism is a faith tradition that is open to all, regardless of background. The ELCA alone is almost five million members strong, with nearly 10,500 congregations across the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The Luther seal or Luther rose is a widely recognized symbol for Lutheranism. It was the seal that was designed for Martin Luther at the behest of Prince John Frederick, in 1530, while Luther was staying at the Coburg Fortress during the Diet of Augsburg. Lazarus Spengler, to whom Luther wrote his interpretation below, sent Luther a drawing of this seal. Luther saw it as a compendium or expression of his theology and faith, which he used to authorize his correspondence. Luther informed Philipp Melanchthon on September 15, 1530 that the Prince had personally visited him in the Coburg fortress and presented him with a signet ring, presumably displaying the seal.
"Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. For one who believes from the heart will be justified" (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen."