WHAT IS A LUTHERAN?
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.
—Martin Luther, 1521
What is a Lutheran? The name Lutheran refers to Christians who hold the Bible to be God’s Word in all its parts, that it alone is the source and norm of true Christian doctrine. As a result, Lutherans also believe that Christ made full atonement for the sins of the world through His bitter suffering, death, and resurrection. They confess that salvation is the free gift of God apprehended by faith alone, apart from works.
So, why the name Lutheran? Before getting to the name, we need to review some history. In the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church was brimming with false doctrine. The papists taught Christians to pray to the saints, the Virgin Mary, and buy indulgences. However, the most egregious false teaching was that we must earn salvation through good works.
Martin Luther, a teacher in the church, sincerely believed that. And he was terrified of God because he knew he was too sinful to earn salvation. While he was at the point of despair, he opened the Scriptures once again and read Romans 1:17, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
After reading those words, he said this:
“Finally, God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that sentence: The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now, I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment, the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me. My mind ran through the Scriptures, as far as I was able to recollect them, seeking analogies in other phrases, such as the work of God, by which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. Just as intensely as I had now hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God,’ I now lovingly praised this most pleasant word. This passage from Paul became to me the very gate to Paradise.”
Luther discovered that he didn’t need to look to his own works, obedience, or behavior to earn his salvation or determine his standing before God. Instead, he learned that whoever believes in Christ has the complete righteousness of Christ, who fulfilled the Law and made full satisfaction for all of our sins. Finally, he had peace in his heart, mind, and soul, knowing His salvation was found in Jesus and not himself.
The Roman Catholic Church told Martin Luther to recant and abandon this teaching. However, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther said,
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”
The Pope labeled Martin Luther a heretic for teaching what the Bible so clearly taught. However, even though Luther was excommunicated, many Christians were convinced by the plain words of Scripture alone.
The Roman Catholic Church called everyone “Lutherans” who believed that salvation comes by grace through faith alone. The name “Lutheran” was an insult, a slur against the Christians who believed in the Bible. The papists slanderously accused these Christians of following Luther, like a cult, rather than following God.
The truth is that Luther never wanted to start his own church. He wanted only to reform and correct the false teachings in the church. He never wanted anyone to be called "Lutheran." He said,
"I ask that men make no reference to my name and call themselves not Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? After all, the doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 would not allow Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian" (SL 10, 370f.).
Nevertheless, against his wishes, the name Lutheran stuck. These Christians had to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, and other false teachers of the day. Instead of removing the label given to them as an insult, they owned the name Lutheran because it meant something. It meant they believed and held to every Word of Holy Scripture and, on account of it, trust that they are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.
That’s what a Lutheran is, and that’s what being Lutheran means. Lutherans don’t worship Martin Luther or believe every word he wrote. Lutherans hold to the true doctrine of Holy Scripture. We wear this name with boldness because of what we confess by it. And we will gladly bear whatever label and name just so long as it means that we confess Scripture alone, that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.