The Characteristics of the Lutheran Church

Whenever we talk about the Lutheran faith, we always stress the adherence to the various confessional articles of the Book of the Concord of 1580. These include: Luther’s Large, Small catechisms and the Concordia, the three confessional creeds, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession, and the Smalcald Articles. Times have changed, the church now teaches mainly the Luther’s Small Catechism to the new believers who desire to become members of the church. Besides this, the believers do not know anything about the other confessional articles. The teaching of the Book of Concord has become only one of the subjects in the Lutheran theological education.

On the other hand, according to my observation, compared to the past, the Lutheran churches have increased contacts, cooperation and fellowship with the other denominations. It is a good thing to share the resources and to complete the Lord’s Great Commission with other churches. At the same time, in order to not forgetting who we are while we fellowship with others, and losing the characteristics of our church, we must have a clear understanding of the Lutheran faith. Therefore, it is necessary to teach the characteristics of the Lutheran faith to the Lutherans. In light of this, it is the hope of this article to list the characteristics of the Lutheran faith in a simple and easy-to-understand manner.

  • Doctrines
  • Sacraments
  • Creeds & Confessions
  • Teachings
  • Holy Communion
  • Righteous Acts
  • Law and Gospel
  • Sinner and Saint at the same time
  • Baptism is the starting point; it is neither the end nor the half way point
  • Infant baptism
  • Confirmation
  • The Bible and the meaning of words of the Bible
  • Christ-centered preaching style
  • Emphasis on confession and absolution (application of the Office of the Key)
  • Ceremonial denomination
  • The features of the Lutheran Church worship and the inclusiveness within the worship
  • The assurance of salvation
  • Works are testimonies; it is unrelated to being saved
  • Pastors and Elders are male posts
  • We do not have the concept of millennium
  • Commonly used phrases in Lutherans
  • Lutheran’s view of the Holy Spirit
Christianity is a religion where people are saved. In order to use a simple way to get to know the basic doctrine of the Lutheran Church, the following four points are used:
  • Grace alone, we are saved totally through God’s grace
  • Faith alone, we are saved only through faith
  • Scripture alone, we can understand the saving truth only through the Word of God – inspiration from the Bible
  • Christ alone, we can reconcile with God totally based on the work of Jesus Christ
Lutherans value the Sacraments, comprehended as the Visible Word and God’s means of grace. The two sacraments of the church include Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which God has instituted through Jesus Christ to be used in the church, so that believers are able to reconcile with God (the function of the Holy Baptism) and continue to strengthen those who believe Him (the function of the Holy Sacrament). Another reason the Lutherans value the sacraments is that they forgive our sins and build faith in the believers.
The Lutherans use the Bible as the foundation, at the same time the creeds are valued. Besides the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the other confessionals were drafted during the time of church reformation. Initially it was used to differentiate the Roman Catholics and the Christianity, it was later became the content and the foundation of Lutheranism (Luther's Large and Small Catechism, the Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession, and the three Creeds). The creeds cannot replace the bible; they can only be viewed as abbreviated versions of the bible. In order to satisfy the principle of “scripture only”, the creeds are to be discarded whenever they are differed from the Bible.
Lutheran churches will emphasize on nurturing and the teaching of the basic doctrines of the new believers. There are six basic doctrines: The Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, the Holy Baptism, the Holy Communion, the Office of the Keys, and the Lord’s Prayer. Almost all the basic doctrines are being used in the worship liturgy.
Although the Lutherans also claim to remember the Lord in Holy Communion, but the Lutherans value the union with Christ in Holy Communion, to partake in His body and blood together with the wine and the bread. Therefore, the Lutheran churches emphasize on the four means in Holy Communion. The bread and the wine are the visible elements while the body and the blood are the invisible elements. During the Communion, we remember our Lord, proclaim His death, look forward to His return, and renew our Lord’s covenant. In addition, our sins are forgiven and the hope of our spiritual lives being strengthened and preserved.
The Lutheran churches differentiate 2 types of righteous acts. One is the civic righteousness, the proper obligation we have to the society and people. The other righteousness is one that only Jesus Christ can fulfill. He is God’s righteousness, to fulfill God’s demands to the world. Through this we can be reconciled with God, and to be called righteous. This is completely fulfilled by the Lord’s grace and work.
The Lutheran church emphasizes the discernment of the law and the gospel in the Bible. Through the words of the law, God convicts us of our sin, so that we can see clearly our insufficiency and unworthiness; and through the gracious calling of the Holy Spirit, we are remorseful of our sin and we come to seek the forgiveness of God. God opened our eyes to let us know what He has accomplished through Jesus Christ and has us free in the gospel which includes salvation, forgiveness, and peace. Believers are not to start with the gospel and then go to the law to threaten us to seek God’s pleasure on our own. We rely on the gospel in Jesus and place Christ in the center at all times. We believe He has saved us not because of our righteous acts, but because of Jesus’ righteousness which gave the everlasting assurance and evidence to all believers in Christ.
The Lutheran church constantly reminds believers not to deceive themselves or to boast; we became righteous because God has called us righteous. Although we are God’s children and are given the birthright of righteousness, we still carry this unbreakable sinful nature inside. Because of this sinful nature, we are constantly tempted to sin against God. However, we have the life of rebirth by seeking after God, reading God’s word, relying on the Holy Spirit’s power to renew and to change, we can grow in maturity and become witnessing children of God. When Christians leave this world to meet the Lord and shed their sinful flesh, they will then finally not be bound and victimized by sin.
The Bible says believe and be baptized, you will be saved. The Lutheran Church emphasizes that baptism is the starting point for the believers to enter the kingdom of God and the church; it is neither the end nor the half way point. This means we do not have to become very mature or act good before we can receive baptism. The Lutheran Church carefully differentiate between the born-again Christians and mature Christians. If there is any ambiguity between the two, we will easily fall into the trap of self-centeredness (meaning what can we do to please God) and neglecting Christ-centeredness (meaning what did Christ do for us). Baptism demonstrates that when Christ fulfilled salvation, He used this sacrament to let the believers to receive His blessings. In baptism, believers confess to the Lord and repent before God through faith. Therefore we rely on the salvation of the Lord to start, and then we receive the baptism as the result.
The Lutheran Church’s preservation of infant baptism is believed to begin in the early church. The Bible calls all men to the Lord. Therefore infants and children are included. Infant baptism is rooted from the circumcision of the Old Testament. Henceforth the Lutheran church encourages Christian parents, with their consent, to bring their infants to come and receive baptism, so their sins may be forgiven and sanctified before God. They are to teach them the Word of God from a young age and to rely on God. Therefore, infant baptism and Christian education are mutually related.
The Lutheran Church invites two groups of Christian to receive confirmation. The first group is those who have been baptized when they were infants or young children. They need to study in confirmation class and learn God’s Word in a systematic way. Upon completion of confirmation, they are able to receive Holy Communion. The other group is believers coming from other churches. The confirmation class allows them to understand the Lutheran faith. After confirmation, they can join the Lutheran church, receive Holy Communion and serve in ministries.
The Lutheran Church emphasizes on the knowledge and the comprehension of the Bible. Unless the context and the style of the writing require a metaphoric or symbolic way for comprehension, reading the Bible should constantly emphasize the relationship between the sentences and the meaning conveyed as the standard.
The Lutheran Church’s preaching focuses on the manifest of Christ. Through the Scripture, in addition to the lesson it teaches, it also enable us to know Christ.
The Lutheran Church emphasizes confession and reliance on God’s forgiveness. This is the essence of the Lutheran Church with regard to the Office of the Key. Confession and absolution are placed in the service as part of the worship. Confession is to pour ourselves out before God, confess our wrongs and ask for God’s forgiveness. Absolution is to affirm God’s called servant to proclaim forgiveness to God’s children on the Lord’s behalf, just as though the Lord himself visits the church. Confession is to nurture a Christian’s attitude to live a godly life and confront oneself daily, so that the new life become stronger day by day, seeking after the Lord and glorifying God.
The Lutheran Church is called a ceremonial church. Therefore, the decorations of the altar, the apparel of the pastor, the ceremony and the colors of the worship are chosen according to the traditions and the church calendar of the Lutheran Church.
There are many features of Lutheran Church worship. Mainly there are four important items which include confession and absolution, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and three Scripture lessons. The Lutheran worship is not opposed to change; changes within the worship are still accepted. There are three expressions of Lutheran worship: traditional worship, contemporary music worship, and a mix of the two. On one hand, it preserves the important features of the Lutheran worship; on the other hand it attempts to mix in with the modern culture. Some Lutheran churches may have all three types of worship available during the weekend or Sunday worship to suit individual believer’s preferences.
Although the Lutheran Church is aware of the big temptations from society and how people easily fall into sin, it does not reject the assurance of salvation. The assurance of salvation falls on the believing and reliance on Jesus Christ. Even though there are occasional flaws and imperfections in a Christian’s life, in Christ, there is the assurance of salvation and hope in each Christian.
Sometimes the Lutheran Church is being questioned by people of lacking good testimonies. This is wrong. The testimony of work the Lutheran Church emphasized needs the clear teaching of the Bible; otherwise it would give a Christian the freedom to choose. In addition, we truly believe that only through the continual hearing of the Word and guiding by the Holy Spirit will lives then be changed. This is neither the result of some rules and regulations, nor the imposing of personal moral expression onto others and turning it into legalism.
According to the teaching of the Bible, the Lutheran Church ordains male pastors and installs male elders precisely because of the reason that the husband is the head of a family. However, at the same time, the Lutheran Church continuously explores the roles and contributions of females in the church. Men and women are equally respected and ranked, yet they have different roles.
The Lutheran Church does not accept Millennium in our belief, that is “Jesus Christ on His second coming will first meet with the saints in the sky, then Satan will be imprisoned for one thousand years. During these one thousand years, the saints will be kings on earth.” In other words, the one thousand years in the Book of Revelation is not to be understood as a real number. Lutherans question the explanation of the number one thousand years which does not conform to the style of the Book of Revelation. Besides, the Lutheran Church interprets the Kingdom of God and the heaven in the Bible as the same. The use of words is different, but the meaning is the same. Therefore, Lutherans believe when Jesus comes the second time, the world will end and the new heaven and earth will then arrive.
Lutherans choose their wordings/phrases carefully. The inappropriate use of words may cause confusion while used appropriately will strengthen our faith. The following four commonly-used wordings are used differently from some churches:
  • Receiving/confession of faith, which does not imply decision making because even if a Christian decides to do good, is the result of God and God’s Spirit working within. In addition, the phrase “decision making” can be easily interpreted as total reliance of self and not the free gift of the Lord.
  • Law and gospel, not just talking about one or the other but both at the same time because they exert different goals for the benefit of the believers.
  • Means of grace, that is, to view the Sacraments as tools to give blessing. This is not a symbol or something that is dispensable.
  • Believers belong to the Lord through the rite of baptism and not the rite of immersion. Lutherans do not exclude immersion and will receive those who have received rite of immersion from other churches. However, Lutherans will only use pouring or washing of water; baptism does not depend on how much water used, but rather in whose name and into whom being baptized. In addition, Lutherans believe one baptism is sufficient.
The Lutheran Church does not rule out an individual’s experience of the Holy Spirit; however, in order for it to be a universal teaching, it must have more concrete support from the Bible. For Lutheran believers, the work of the Holy Spirit is obvious, important, and cannot be neglected. However, for those who stress on the Holy Spirit yet neglect the harmony, the rigor and the order of the church, Lutherans will have reservation in this area. Therefore the Lutheran Church is very careful; it neither prohibits nor advocates some of the charismatic experiences that don’t conform to the truth.

By Pastor Shiu Ming Lau, Senior Pastor
Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit

© 2014-2015 Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit
2400 Noriega Street, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
Phone: (415) 661-1120
Fax: (415) 661-1820