The Lutheran Church is a major branch of Western Christianity that identifies with the teaching and reforms of 16th century German monk and theologian, Martin Luther. The theology of the Lutheran Church is expressed by a collection of doctrinal statements called the Book of Concord. These statements are regarded by Lutherans as a true exposition of Scripture that put forth what Lutherans believe as truth and what they reject as being false.
The name “Lutheran” originated as a derogatory term used against Luther and his followers by German Scholastic theologian Dr. Johann Maier von Eck during the Leipzig Debate in July 1519. Eck and other Roman Catholics followed the traditional practice of naming a heresy after its leader, thus labelling all who identified with the theology of Martin Luther as Lutherans. Martin Luther always disliked the term, preferring instead to describe the reform movement with the term “Evangelical”, which was derived from euangelion, a Greek word meaning “good news”, i.e. “Gospel.” The followers of John Calvin also began to call themselves Evangelicals, so to distinguish between the two “evangelical” groups, the followers of Luther were called “Evangelical Lutherans” and the followers of Calvin were called “Evangelical Reformed.” In time the word “Evangelical” came to be dropped.
Many Lutherans look upon October 31st as the birthday of the Lutheran Church, for it was on this day in 1517 that the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This document is called the Ninety-five Theses because it contained ninety-five theses or statements speaking to errors in the teaching and practice of the Church of Rome that Luther was led by God to see from his study of the Word of God. Luther’s intention in posting the document was to initiate discussion and debate that would, hopefully, lead to a return to the truth within the Catholic Church.
The scholarly debate that Luther hoped to initiate within the university town of Wittenberg quickly spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s new invention, the moveable type printing press. By 1521 the sides were drawn in the dispute, and at the Diet of Worms, Emperor Charles V officially condemned Luther. Citizens of the Holy Roman Empire were forbidden to defend or propagate Luther’s teachings, under the penalty of forfeiture of all property.
The chief matter in dispute between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics was the doctrine of Justification. According to Luther, sinful man is made right with God solely by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. The Church of Rome maintained that the good works of man were necessary to bring about man’s salvation and that those who refused to believe this were to be considered anathema and outside the Church.
According to the Roman Church, faith was necessary, but so were good works. And if one did not have enough good works to merit going straight to heaven at the end of this life, he or she would end up spending a great many years in a place called Purgatory. Purgatory was designed to be a sort of spiritual debtor’s prison. Rome sold a certificate signed by the pope, called an indulgence. This granted the purchaser some of the unused good works of saints who had gone straight to heaven. These good works could even be applied to those in Purgatory to get them up to heaven faster. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses identified the sale of indulgences as a false teaching that was opposed to what Scripture said about the true way of salvation. Some maintain that the notion of Purgatory and the selling of indulgences was promoted by the Roman Church mostly as a means for raising funds to pay for the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
In the Lutheran Church, Justification is known as the chief doctrine, for it is the basis of the Christian faith, and that which a believer must hold rightly in order to have eternal life and salvation. Of course, all of the teachings received from God’s Word are important and all are connected to one another and must be maintained, lest everything fall apart into error and unbelief. Thus, for example, to deny the divinity of Christ would result in denying the Bible’s teaching of how we are saved, for only the death of the Son of God would have the power and efficacy to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. While some teachings, such as the truth of the six-day creation account, might not so directly affect the doctrine of Justification, their denial will act to place all of Scripture in question as to its truth. It is for this reason that true Lutherans will not make compromises with what they hold as the truth, even for the sake of joining together with other Christians who hold to a different understanding of Scripture.