What is a Lutheran?

Jesus at the center

So many incorrect ideas have distorted the importance of Jesus over the course of time. They still do for many reasons. But just as any of us struggles to maintain a focus on what is essential, Lutherans struggle to keep the focus on Jesus. If we lose our focus, we become distracted and begin concentrating on what will not help. The whole of Lutheran thinking and faith centers on Jesus. Like Christians throughout history, we believe that Jesus was a real historical figure. He entered human history at a specific place and time. Jesus is the Christ, the chosen one sent by God. He came with a specific mission—to rescue the world from sin and death. We confess that Jesus became human because he had to substitute himself for all humanity and suffer the consequences of humanity’s sin. He did that when he was beaten and crucified and died. His sacrifice was enough not only because Jesus was an innocent victim. He was also God’s Son. Because Jesus was more than just a man, his substitution is for all humanity, not for just one person or not just for one group of people. Jesus died for all people.

That’s a fact—a historical reality. Most do not seriously question the reality of Jesus’ death. Some do. Most objections challenge the effect of his death. But the Bible is clear about that. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (7:27). When John the Baptist identified Jesus, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). God’s love included all people of all time, and the sacrifice of Jesus is for all humanity. And there is even more. Jesus was perfect in every way. He kept the Ten Commandments without one fault or misstep. His perfect obedience to God’s will was not for himself but for humanity. One had to die to pay for the sins of humanity, and one had to keep the commandments of God also for all humanity. Because Jesus was the substitute for humanity, his perfect obedience is credited to every sinner— to all humans.

Lutherans confess that the sacrifice and perfect obedience of Jesus was done by grace. In other words, it is an undeserved gift of God to unworthy humans. The efforts of Jesus for the sinners of the world did not depend on any of our human activity, emotion, or thought. It was totally God’s doing in every detail. And it’s done for all time. It’s as if God prepared a priceless gift we could not purchase ourselves, wrapped it up in the best box and colored paper we could ever imagine, and then handed it to humanity. God didn’t ask if we wanted it. He didn’t look to see if we deserved it or would deserve it by some future act of kindness. He just did it; he gave. That is what John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”

Excerpt from Positively Lutheran: A Simple Statement of What Lutherans Believe by John A. Braun, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

The three solas

Lutherans confess that they believe in Jesus. They believe the ancient truths God’s people have always believed. During the long 2,000 years since Jesus came, believers have confronted many false ideas that threatened God’s truth and their commitment to Jesus. Those challenges have refined the Christian faith.

As Lutherans, we often use a little shorthand to express our Reformation faith: by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone. Sometimes it is expressed in Latin: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura.
Simply it means that we believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone. God’s grace is his undeserved love for sinners that sent Jesus to accomplish our rescue from sin and death. Humans do not contribute in any way to their own salvation. God accepts sinners by grace, not because they have performed some act to earn his acceptance.

We believe that we receive this undeserved grace and all that it has accomplished for us by faith alone. Faith is only the hand that receives God’s grace. Even faith is not a human emotion or thought that makes God love us more than others. It’s simple trust in God’s loving promises.

Finally, all these things are based on the record of those who were there with Jesus, that is, on Scripture alone. The Old and New Testaments are not the product of some ecstatic and emotional trance. Nor are they the wishful dreams of desperate and hopeless humans. The writers, especially those of the New Testament, were there. They saw. They heard. They wrote down what they knew from their own observations so that generations, like us, that came after they were gone would know what they saw. The whole Bible was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

We also believe that our purpose as a church is to share the message of God’s love in Christ with everyone. Our greatest desire is that all may know the deep love Jesus has for all sinners. We proclaim the gospel so that others may join us to proclaim that message and finally join all the believers of all time in heaven to sing the praises of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.

Excerpt from Positively Lutheran: A Simple Statement of What Lutherans Believe by John A. Braun, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

God’s decree

Because Jesus suffered for the sins of the world and because his life was perfect and holy for us, God issued a decree. He declared the entire world holy and free of sin. The death of Jesus was enough to pay the penalty that all the sins of the world incurred. His perfect life stood for the perfect lives all of us should live.

Jesus is at the center of all God’s action. God stands behind this decree; no higher authority exists. The decree stands for all time for all people—once for all. It’s a declaration that is based on the historical events of Christ’s life and death. That’s what God tells us when he says that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

This declaration or decree means that the entire world is acquitted of sin. God announced to the world that whoever has the gift he has freely prepared will be considered innocent and will enter paradise. God’s Word, the Bible, tells us, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Jesus not only occupies the center of all God’s actions; he is also the keystone of everything for us. The little word in means “connected to.” All who are connected to Jesus or as the Bible says, “in Christ Jesus” have all that God offers to the world. God promised forgiveness and eternal life in connection with Jesus. The Bible also wrote, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

How does one get to be in Christ Jesus or connected to Christ Jesus? The Bible answers that question too. These blessings come “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). Those who trust God when he says Jesus paid for the sins of the world receive God’s great gifts. Each individual in this world’s sea of humanity who trusts in Jesus and what God gives in connection with Jesus has God’s forgiveness and eternal life. When anyone trusts that God meant this gift for him or her personally, faith receives it, unwraps it, and makes it a personal possession. Faith simply is the hand that receives the gift of God. Faith takes hold of God’s blessings for the individual.

Excerpt from Positively Lutheran: A Simple Statement of What Lutherans Believe by John A. Braun, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.