What is a Lutheran?
The central message of the Lutheran church is that God’s love and grace are freely given by God to all people through Jesus Christ.
Beyond that, being Lutheran means a myriad of things. Here are the primary four ways of understanding Lutheranism.
First and foremost, the Lutheran church is defined by our perspective of Christian faith and the Bible. The central message of Lutheran theology is that God’s love and grace are freely given by God to all people through Jesus Christ. No actions or efforts of our own are required to earn forgiveness and to experience the freedom to live lives unlimited by selfishness and sin.
A rich history of theology unfolds from that central tenet, beginning with the writings of Martin Luther, and continuing in the explorations of scholars, pastors, and individuals today. The core themes of Lutheran theology are outlined and explained below.
Lutherans trace the roots of our theology back 500 years, to the work of Martin Luther, a German monk who advocated for reform within the Catholic church of his day. Luther’s theology began the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and also generated reform within the Catholic church. Today, Lutherans stand in close communion with Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline Christian denominations in preaching the good news of God’s love to all people.
Lutheranism originally flourished in Germany and northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. As a result, Lutheranism has a cultural heritage strongly connected those cultures. We value our heritage and traditions, but also Lutheranism is not defined by or limited them. God's love is not limited to a single culture or peoples, so neither can Lutheranism. Lutheranism is open to the expression of all cultures, new worship styles, and new traditions.
As a Lutheran congregation, we are connected to a much larger community of local, regional, nationwide, and global church bodies. We are a member of the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We support and work with organizations like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services. By partnering with Lutheran organizations nearby and worldwide, our efforts to serve our neighbors and seek justice have a much further reach.
8 CORE THEMES OF LUTHERAN THEOLOGY
THE LUTHERAN PERSPECTIVE ON CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THE BIBLE
No judgement. Only grace.
This is the core belief of Lutheran theology: God's love and grace are freely given by God to all people through Jesus Christ. No actions, efforts, or merit of our own are required to earn forgiveness, and to experience the freedom to live lives unlimited by selfishness and sin. We are not judged by God, but rather given this gift unconditionally. And we think that's amazing!
The full theological phrase for this idea is that we are "justified by grace through faith for Christ's sake." It's a mouthful, so it's best to break it down. "Justified" is a theological term for God saying, "We're good." It means God claims you as enough and righteous just the way you are. "Grace" means this is a gift from God to us. Faith is our sense of trust in that promise. And Christ is, in a sense, the deliverer of that gift.
Means of grace.
We believe the word and sacraments are the "means of grace." The word “means” refers to how things actually happen. We refer to different means of communication, means of transportation, etc. By calling word and sacrament means of grace, we are saying: “This is how and where grace happens, here and now.” When the good news is preached, when someone is baptized, when we receive Communion, grace happens.
Faith is at work in our work.
The term “vocation” literally means “calling.” Until Luther’s time it was used primarily to refer to those with a special religious calling to be a priest, monk or nun. Luther expanded the idea to include all Christians.
First, Luther affirmed that all Christians are priests. This “priesthood of all believers” doesn’t mean that we each have an individual pipeline to God but that we all have a responsibility to teach and to pray for others.
Second, Luther affirmed that all human work is a calling from God if done in faith and for the service of neighbor. According to Luther, God doesn’t need our good works, but people do. Christian faith, then, should express itself in how we live in our professions, in our family relationships and as citizens, since these are all arenas for the service of neighbor.
Faith is relational.
For Lutherans, "faith" means God is calling you into a relationship with God and your neighbors, based on openness, love, and understanding. Faith is not how much you know, and how fervently you believe. It is being open to and engaging in these relationships in your own way, and having a sense of trust in God's promise of forgiveness and unconditional love through Christ.
God is with us in our brokenness.
Called the "theology of the cross," this idea refers not just to the events of Good Friday. It refers to a cross-centered approach to theology that stands in opposition to a “theology of glory” focused on the power and majesty of God abstracted from God’s action in history.
A theology of glory looks up and says, “God’s in heaven and all’s well with the world.” A theology of the cross, in contrast, keeps its feet firmly planted on our broken Earth and says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God.”
The incarnation witnesses to a God who puts aside divine characteristics to become human, to suffer and to die. The God who chooses to come down from heaven chooses not to come down from the cross. The theology of the cross is a constant critique of human expectations. While the cross is a scandal to nonbelievers, Christians confess that God’s saving power works precisely through such weakness.
Deliver the goods.
This idea, called "contextual theology," means placing faith in the context of the community and needs around you. The Greek word diakonos, often translated in the New Testament as “minister” or “servant,” can also refer to a waiter. This image reminds us how essential it is for the food to reach the hungry diners at the table. No matter how exquisite the chef or the food, it’s no good if the meal stays in the kitchen. Similarly, the church needs to deliver the goods.
In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther insists that it’s not enough simply to acknowledge that Christ is Christ. Instead, the purpose of preaching is to make the connection, to deliver the goods so Christ may “be Christ for you and me.”
Laws, but also, grace.
Law and Gospel are two different ways the Bible informs us. On one hand, the Bible provides instructive wisdom about human nature, and teaching how we should strive to live. This includes the 10 Commandments and New Testament commandments like the "Golden Rule," love your neighbor as yourself.
The Gospel, on the other hand, is the good news that God already loves, forgives, and reconciles us through Christ. We value the law, and aim to live by it. But we own up to our imperfection, and believe God's forgiveness and love are still freely given to everyone, unconditionally. As Luther puts it: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
We're all saints. And sinners too.
Luther described Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner.” Some religious traditions distinguish between “saints,” who obey God’s will, and “sinners,” who disobey. Lutherans cling to a both/and understanding of Christian identity that redefines the word “saint”: a saint is a forgiven sinner.
Our dual identity as saints and sinners reminds us that our righteousness always depends on God’s grace, never on our own religious behavior. At the same time, our recognition that sin, while forgiven, remains a powerful force in the world and in ourselves gives us a realistic ability to confront cruelty and evil, confident that God will have the last word.