Written by Pastor Adam Ruschau
The Lutheran Church traces its theological and organizational heritage to the sixteenth-century Reformation in Germany and the work of Martin Luther. The Lutheran Church sees itself as a reform movement existing for the sake of the entire Christian Church.
Martin Luther was a German monk in Saxony in the early 1500s. Undergoing a crisis of faith and disturbed by the corruption he saw in the Medieval Church, Luther immersed himself in the study of scripture and re-discovered a God who was merciful, loving, and full of grace. In 1517, things came to a head when Luther published his 95 Theses condemning the practice of selling indulgences (certificates promising freedom from the purifying tortures of purgatory after death). As his theology developed, his conflict with Church authorities grew. Eventually he was excommunicated by the pope, but protected by his local prince. His theological writings were an inspiration to many, leading to the formation of a Protestant Church.
With Luther’s 95 Theses against indulgences in 1517, the Reformation began. Luther continued to publish more theology that not only attacked Church abuses, such as selling indulgences, but also emphasized the graciousness of God. Key treatises such as “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and “The Freedom of a Christian,” both spread Luther’s ideas through out Europe and roused the ire of the Medieval Catholic Church. In 1521, when ordered to recant his writings, Luther famously replied “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
While condemned by the church, Luther’s popularity among the populous and among fellow professors prompted Prince Frederick of Saxony to protect him. As Luther’s influence grew, Catholic authority in Saxony diminished and Luther found himself acting as the de facto bishop of the region. Many people of influence, including some German rulers were swayed by Luther’s theology and the reform movement spread across the German states and even into Scandinavia.
In 1530, the Lutheran princes were ordered to present their doctrine to the Holy Roman Emperor to be examined (and refuted). The document they presented, The Augsburg Confession, was written by Philip Melanchthon, a colleague of Luther’s and one of the most brilliant theologians of the new movement. While rejected by the emperor, it remains the key theological document of Lutherans to this day.
Though Catholic forces tried to crush the reform movement and for a time seemed on the verge of success, it became firmly entrenched. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg provided that rulers of states within the Holy Roman Empire could choose whether their region would be Catholic or Lutheran, inaugurating the beginnings of religious toleration.
There are approximately 104 million Lutheran Christians in the world today. Though all Lutherans share a common theological ground, differing Lutheran Church organizations have developed in different countries. Many of these Lutheran Church bodies take part in the Lutheran World Federation (established in 1947), but some do not. In the United States the two largest Lutheran Church bodies are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). While these two churches share much history and theology in common, disagreements over biblical interpretation, ordination of women, and communion practice have kept the ELCA and the LCMS from joining together. Hopefully someday these differences will be overcome.
The Lutheran Church is a confessional Church, meaning that a guiding set of theological principles is at the core of the Lutheran movement. The principle authoritative documents of the Lutheran tradition are found within the Book of Concord (1580). This book includes—the three ecumenical creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed), The Augsburg Confession, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism, A Treatise on the Primacy and Power of the Papacy, and The Formula of Concord. The Lutheran Church sees these documents as “true and faithful witnesses to scripture” and as such they carry theological authority second only to scripture itself.
Justification by Grace Through Faith Apart from Works
Luther called this the central part of faith by which the gospel stands or falls. What this means is that we, humans, have been made right in the sight of God entirely by God’s loving grace, made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is accessed only through faith, which itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Good works, good deeds, are upright and part of God’s desire for all of us, but they do not earn anyone salvation. Salvation is not earnable, it is the free gift of God. Christians do good works, not to appease God or to merit salvation, but merely as a response to God’s saving work accomplished through Jesus Christ. Lutherans are not the only Christian denomination to espouse salvation by grace through faith alone, but no other denomination puts as much emphasis on this theological point. It is the gospel in a nutshell.
The Bible is the authoritative source and norm for all Lutheran and Christian theology and practice. For Lutherans, the authority of the Bible does not come from claims about the book’s origin, nature, or inerrancy; rather the Bible’s authority is based on what it does: it shows forth Christ. In other words, “The Bible is authoritative because it communicates the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Our leap of faith is not to the Bible, or the authority of the Church, but to the person of Christ. In reading the Bible we encounter the living Christ and increase our knowledge and faith in him. It is this that makes the Bible authoritative.
Law and Gospel
In reading the Bible, Lutherans often note two things: the law and the gospel. Simply put, the law is what God demands or requires of us and the gospel is what God does for us in spite of our failure to uphold the law. The Bible is filled with both law and gospel. The law has three functions: it helps us to live in community with each other, it shows us how far we fall short of fulfilling the law and how much we need God’s grace, and it acts as a guide for us to strive to live up to, even though we can never fully live up to it. The law, in other words, drives us to the gospel. Without the law, the gospel would not be good news. We need both law and gospel to fully appreciate the power and graciousness of God.
The Theology of the Cross
Simply put, this is the understanding that we meet God most clearly in the event of the cross, in our sorrow, pain and weakness. We do not find God. God finds us in the dark and lowly places where we least expect it. This theology contrasts with a Theology of Glory which can only see God in triumph and victory. A popular theology of glory today is the “Prosperity Gospel”—the idea that God wants you to be rich and successful in life, thereby insinuating that those who are not rich and successful are somehow less faithful.
The Priesthood of All Believers
Luther often talked about what he called “the priesthood of all believers” which was a radical concept in his day, but is less so now. This does not mean that all people are pastors and that there is no need for ordained clergy. Instead, this phrase simply means that all people can communicate with God without needing a priestly intermediary. In effect this means that all people are equal before God. Clergy and/or rulers do not have some special standing before God that other people do not.
Luther proposed the radical idea (radical in the 16th century at least) that God ruled on earth through two kingdoms: the Church and the government. Luther called these the right and left hand of God. This idea of two kingdoms has often been misinterpreted as either the promotion of a separation between Church and State, or as a demand for Christians to blindly follow the political power in authority. In reality, what Luther was suggesting is that the two kingdoms have equal authority and responsibility to each other. If the Church should stray from God’s will, it is the responsibility of the State to help keep the Church on track. Also, if the State should lead Christians astray, it is the responsibility of the Church to correct the State.
Lutherans practice two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. A sacrament is a church rite, commanded by Jesus, using earthly elements, and carrying the promise of grace through it.
Baptism is the first sacrament any Christian receives. Luther called baptism “the doorway to all of God’s possessions and to the communion of all the saints.” Through baptism Christians become children of God, receive forgiveness, and are offered the promise of salvation. The water used in baptism is not merely water, but water mixed with God’s Word. This means that baptism is not just a symbolic rite, but a real, touchable experience of God. The gifts and promises of baptism are so important that the Lutheran Church practices infant baptism. An individual’s faith is not what makes baptism valid, but rather it is the actions of God through the water and the Word. Baptism is a one time sacrament. Once someone is baptized in the name of the triune God, even if it is not in the Lutheran Church, that baptism remains valid for eternity.
Holy Communion, also known as the Sacrament of the Altar or the Eucharist, is frequently celebrated within Lutheran worship. In this sacrament, all baptized Christians are invited to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ through the earthly elements of bread and wine. For Lutherans, Holy Communion is not a memorial meal, and the presence of Christ in the sacrament is not merely spiritual. We believe Christ is actually present, in, with, and under the bread and wine. Christ is present there, not because a pastor speaks magic words or has special power, but because Christ has promised to be there. As to how Christ is present, this remains a mystery and is relatively unimportant. What is important is the actual presence of Christ. Christ’s presence is not dependent upon an individual’s faith, but is there regardless, and because of this Holy Communion is a powerful sacrament meant only for the baptized. (All who seek forgiveness, the love of God, or that touchable presence of Christ, regardless of their personal devoutness are worthy recipients of Communion. The only unworthy recipient is one who comes to the table with mockery in their heart.) With that touchable presence of Christ, Holy Communion offers us forgiveness, a close personal connection with our Lord and savior, and a fellowship with all the members of the Body of Christ.
Redeemer Lutheran Church
140 E 32nd St
Jasper, IN 47546
Phone: 812 634-1123
Pastor:Rev. Adam Ruschau
Secretary: Kristine Harris
(Holy Communion is typically celebrated at all weekend worship services)
(durring the school year)