Category: Inspired People of History

The Lutheran Church is actually many different bodies, all of which base their teachings and practice to some degree on the work of Martin Luther. There is such a wide variance in their particular beliefs that it would be difficult to address them all, but this article will attempt to outline those most commonly held.

Martin Luther was born and raised in Germany and studied philosophy and law as a young man, but soon became discouraged by those studies. He became an Augustinian Monk in 1505, but the isolated lifestyle only led him to further despair as he spent countless hours in meditation and contemplation. In 1507, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and later began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. During his years teaching theology, Luther grew increasingly frustrated at the excesses and abuses which he saw within the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, which was the accepted practice for anyone at the university who wanted to engage in theological debate. The majority of Luther’s theses addressed the lack of biblical knowledge, practice, and accountability among the leaders of the church, and were intended to point them back to Scripture. Martin Luther was not the first to address these issues; in fact, most of them had been pointed out by other men within the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 100 years. Despite the steady stream of critics, the Catholic Church refused to admit error or make any substantial changes.

As with the other Reformers, who were all born, baptized, confirmed and educated in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had no intention of starting a new church, but only wanted to correct what he saw as violations of clear biblical teaching. Part of the problem was a widespread ignorance of the Bible, even among ordained priests. Carlstadt, an older peer of Luther, admitted that he was made a Doctor of Divinity before he had even seen a complete copy of the Bible. One of the driving factors in Luther’s work was the desire to have clear teaching for the common questions of the people, such as, “What must a man do to be saved?” and “How shall a sinner be justified before God and attain peace for his troubled conscience?” After a series of meetings in which Luther refused to recant his views, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521. Many of the common people and German nobility followed Luther’s teaching, and the Lutheran Church began to be organized as a separate body in 1525. In recent years, most Lutheran bodies have made efforts to mend the breach with the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1530, the German lords were requested by the Pope to give an accounting of their beliefs (as well as reconfirm their fidelity to the Holy Roman Empire), and they gave their reply in the Augsburg Confessions. This was the first detailed confession of faith by German Lutherans, and it is still the primary document used by Lutherans to describe and guide their faith. In 1580, the Book of Concord combined 10 documents which were considered authoritative for guiding the Lutheran faith. That book is still used today, but has a different degree of authority within the various Lutheran bodies.

Though there are quite a few organized Lutheran groups around the world, the two main bodies in America are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). The ELCA has roughly 5 million members in 10,500 churches, and the LCMS has roughly 2.3 million members in 6,167 churches. The ELCA was formed in 1988 by a merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. The LCMS was formed in 1847 by Saxon (German) Lutherans who came to America to escape persecution and the detrimental effects of German Rationalism on their faith. Both churches hold to the Augsburg Confession, which teaches that all men are born in sin, and therefore need to be justified through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Along with faith in Christ, baptism is “necessary for salvation” and therefore “children should be baptized, for being offered to God through baptism they are received into his grace” (Art. IX). The church teaches that all men have some measure of freedom of the will—which is ironic considering Luther comes to the opposite conclusion in one of his most famous books, The Bondage of the Will. Lutherans also believe that, without God’s grace and help, given by the Holy Spirit, man is incapable of fearing or believing in God.

Many of the ceremonies and liturgies of the Catholic Church have been carried over into the Lutheran Church, with modifications to reflect their distinct doctrines. Some of the differences between the ELCA and LCMS stem from their divergent views on the Bible. While the LCMS affirms that the Bible is infallible in all areas (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:16), the ELCA states that it is possible for the Bible to be in error concerning some areas, like science or history. In general, all Lutheran churches teach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, but the manner in which that faith is lived out can vary from an empty participation in ceremonies to a very personal relationship with God.

In understanding the history of Protestant Church and the Reformation, it is important to first understand that one of the claims that the Roman Catholic Church makes is that of apostolic succession. This simply means that they claim a unique authority over all other churches and denominations because they claim the line of Roman Catholic Popes back throughout the centuries, all the way to the Apostle Peter. In their view, this gives the Roman Catholic Church a unique authority that supersedes all other denominations or churches. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this apostolic succession is only “found in the Catholic Church” and no “separate Churches have any valid claim to it.”

It is because of this apostolic succession that the Roman Catholic Church claims a unique authority to interpret Scripture and to establish doctrine, as well the claim of having a supreme leader in the Pope who is infallible (without error) when speaking “ex cathedra”—that is, in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians. Therefore, according to the Roman Catholic view, the teaching or traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as they come from the Pope are equally as infallible and authoritative as the Scriptures themselves. This is one of the major differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was one of the foundational reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, the Roman Catholics are not the only ones who try to claim unique authority through apostolic succession or by tracing the roots of their church back to the original apostles. The Eastern Orthodox Church also claims apostolic succession, although their claim is very similar to the Roman Catholic view. The split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism did not occur until the “Great Schism” in A.D. 1054.  There are also some Protestant denominations or groups that will try to establish a “Trail of Blood” that can be traced back through the centuries to the first century church and the apostles themselves. While these Protestants do not hold to apostolic succession in order to establish the authority of a “Pope” as an infallible leader, they still look to that connection to the early church in at least some small degree to establish the authority of their doctrines and practices.

The problem with any of these attempts to trace a line of succession back to the apostles, whether it is Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, is that they all are attempts to derive or support the authority of what they believe and teach from the wrong source, that of some real or perceived connection with the apostles, instead of deriving it from the Word of God. It is important for Christians to realize that direct apostolic succession is not necessary in order for a church or denomination to have authority. God has given and preserved the supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice in His Holy Word, the Bible. Therefore, an individual church’s or denomination’s authority today does not come through some tie to the first century church and the apostles. Instead, it comes only and directly from the written Word of God. A church or denomination’s teachings are authoritative and binding on Christians only if they represent the true meaning and clear teaching of Scripture. This is important in order to understand the connection between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church, and the reason that the Protestant Reformation took place.

In regards to the history of Christianity and the claims of apostolic succession, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of being the one true Church with unique authority, it is important to understand a couple of key points. First, we must realize that even in the days of the apostles and the first century church, false teachers were a significant problem. We know this because warnings against heresies and false teachers are found in all the later New Testament writings. Jesus Himself warned that these false teachers would be like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), and that there would be both “tares and wheat” that would exist together until the day of judgment when He separates the saved from the lost, the true “born again” believer from those that have not truly received Him (Matthew 13:24-30). This is important in understanding church history, because from almost the very beginning false teachers and false teachings have been invading the church and leading people astray. Despite this, there have also been true “born again” believers who held fast to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, throughout all ages, even in the darkest period of the dark ages.

The second thing to realize to correctly understand church history is that the word catholic simply means “universal.” This is important because in the early Christian writings of the first and second centuries, when the term catholic is used, it is referring to the “universal church” or “body of Christ” that is made up of “born again” believers from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). However, like many other words over time, the word catholic began to take on new meaning, or came to be used in a new sense. Over time, the concept of a “universal” or “catholic” church began to evolve into the concept that all churches formed together one church, not just spiritually, but also visibly, extending throughout the world. This misunderstanding of the nature of the visible church (which always has contained both “wheat and tares”) and the invisible church (the body of Christ which is only made up of born again believers) would lead to the concept of a visible Holy Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation. It is out of this misunderstanding of the nature of the universal church that the Roman Catholic Church evolved.

Prior to the Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in A.D. 315, Christians had been persecuted by the Roman government. With his conversion, Christianity became an allowed religion of the Roman Empire (and later became the official religion), and thus the “visible” Church became joined with the power of the Roman government. This marriage of church and state led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, and over time caused the Roman Catholic Church to refine its doctrine and develop its structure in a way that best served the purpose of the Roman government. During this time, opposing the Roman Catholic Church was the same as opposing the Roman government and carried with it severe penalties. If one disagreed with some doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a serious charge that often resulted in excommunication and sometimes even death.

Yet throughout this time of history, there were true “born again” Christians who would rise up and oppose the secularization of the Roman Catholic Church and the perversion of the faith that followed. Through this church-and-state combination, the Roman Catholic Church effectively silenced those who opposed any of its doctrines or practices, and truly became almost a universal church throughout the Roman Empire. There were always pockets of resistance to some of the unbiblical practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, yet they were relatively small and isolated. Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, men such as John Wycliffe in England, John Huss in Czechoslovakia, and John of Wessel in Germany had all given their lives for their opposition to some of the unbiblical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its false teaching came to a head in the sixteenth century, when a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 propositions (or theses) against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s intention was to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church, and in doing so was challenging the authority of the Pope. With the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to heed Luther’s call to reformation and return to biblical doctrines and practices, the Protestant Reformation began.  From this Reformation four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. During this time God raised up godly men in different countries in order to once again restore churches throughout the world to their biblical roots and to biblical doctrines and practices.

Underlying the Protestant Reformation lay four basic doctrines in which the reformers believed the Roman Catholic Church to be in error. These four questions or doctrines are How is a person saved? Where does religious authority lie? What is the church? And what is the essence of Christian living? In answering these questions, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox established what would be known as the “Five Solas” of the Reformation (sola being the Latin word for “alone”). These five points of doctrine were at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and it was for these five essential Biblical doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would take their stand against the Roman Catholic Church, resisting the demands placed on them to recant, even to the point of death. These five essential doctrines of the Protestant Reformation are as follows:

1-“Sola Scriptura,” or Scripture Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that the Bible alone is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. Scripture and Scripture alone is the standard by which all teachings and doctrines of the church must be measured. As Martin Luther so eloquently stated when asked to recant on his teachings, “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 conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

2—“Sola Gratia,” Salvation by Grace Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is by God’s grace alone and that we are rescued from His wrath by His grace alone. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary, but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. This grace is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.

3—“Sola Fide,” Salvation by Faith Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. It is by faith in Christ that His righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.

4—“Solus Christus,” In Christ Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is found in Christ alone and that His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to God the Father. The gospel has not been preached if Christ’s substitutionary work is not declared, and if faith in Christ and His work is not solicited.

5—“Soli Deo Gloria, For the Glory of God Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God for His glory alone. It affirms that as Christians we must glorify Him always, and must live our entire lives before the face of God, under the authority of God, and for His glory alone.

These five important and fundamental doctrines are the reason for the Protestant Reformation. They are at the heart of where the Roman Catholic Church went wrong in its doctrine, and why the Protestant Reformation was necessary to return churches throughout the world to correct doctrine and biblical teaching. They are just as important today in evaluating a church and its teachings as they were then. In many ways, much of Protestant Christianity needs to be challenged to return to these fundamental doctrines of the faith, much like the reformers challenged the Roman Catholic Church to do in the sixteenth century.