What it means to be truly Lutheran: The church is believers in Jesus

Joel D. Otto

In Luther’s days, there were differing views about what the church looked like. The Roman Catholic Church considered the one holy church to be the church of Rome. Others, like Anabaptists and even Calvinists, sought a church that was pure in members and ministers. They tried to create a perfect church and community where God’s law reigned supreme and everyone was living holy lives. Both views emphasized the outward nature of the church. 

Luther went back to Scripture. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The one holy church is not a visible organization. Instead, the church is made up of people who believe in Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2). Therefore, God only knows members of the holy Christian church because only God can see faith in a person’s heart (2 Timothy 2:19). We know where the church is because believers gather around the Word and sacraments, but in these visible congregations there will always be hypocrites (Matthew 13:24-30,36-43).  

The church always will be under attack from false teachings and worldly influences (Matthew 7:15; 2 Timothy 3:1-5). But the church will endure because the Word of God will endure (1 Peter 1:23-25). We have God’s promise that when the Word is proclaimed, he is at work to accomplish his purposes (Isaiah 55:10,11). That is why the church gathers around the Word and sacraments and uses the Word and sacraments. Jesus promised his presence when believers gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). The Spirit is at work through the gospel of Jesus, bringing unbelievers to faith and strengthening the faith of believers (Romans 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:13,14; John 3:5,6; Titus 3:5).  

When we see believers and the gospel under attack, we can wonder if God is still at work and if the church will endure. But we find comfort in God’s promise to preserve and bless his little flock (John 10:27-30; Luke 12:32). Instead of getting envious about larger church organizations, we endeavor to faithfully do the work Jesus has given his church to do. Believers simply proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15). 

Luther summarized this well when he confessed in the Smalcald Articles, “We do not concede to them that they are the church, and frankly they are not the church. We do not want to hear what they command or forbid in the name of the church, because, God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’ This is why children pray in this way, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’ . . . Its holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith” (Part III, Article XII). 


Questions to consider 

  1. Read Ephesians 2:19-22. Why does Paul say that we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”? What does it mean that Jesus is “the chief cornerstone” of the church?

The words “the apostles and prophets” refer to the Scriptures. They were the human authors God used to give us his holy, inspired, inerrant Word (2 Peter 1:21). Through his Word, God reveals his saving love for us. Through his Word, God reveals what we are to believe in order to be saved. Our faith rests on the solid foundation of his Word, and his Word is powerful. It is God’s power through which he gives us the faith to believe (2 Timothy 3:15; Romans 1:16; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). 

In ancient times, the cornerstone was laid first. It had to be cut perfectly square because the walls lined up from the cornerstone. If the cornerstone wasn’t perfect, the walls would be crooked and the building would probably collapse. The church (and God’s Word) finds its center in Jesus. Only faith in Jesus saves (e.g. John 3:16). Only faith in Jesus makes us members of his church (1 Corinthians 3:11). All of God’s Word revolves around God’s promise of a Savior and the fulfillment in Christ (John 5:39). All of the teachings of God’s Word are really lined up on Jesus. 

  1. Read Matthew 16:15-18 and 24:14. How do these words of Jesus assure us that the church will endure?What comfort do Jesus’ words provide when we see the gospel and the church under attack? 

First, we have Jesus’ clear promise that the gates of hell will not overcome his church. Satan is our most powerful enemy.  So if we have Jesus’ promise that the devil won’t conquer the church, then nothing else will. Second, we also have Jesus’ promise that the gospel will be proclaimed until he returns. The gospel (in both word and sacraments) is what sustains, strengthens, and grows the church. If the gospel will continue to be proclaimed, the church will continue to endure (Isaiah 55:10,11; 1 Peter 1:23-25). 

These promises are immensely comforting because it can be easy for Christians to get discouraged and lose heart when it seems like false teachings and sinful lifestyles are running rampant in our world. We can feel like God’s church will fade away when we don’t see our church growing like we think it should or desire; we feel like such an outcast minority. We can feel helpless when the government or other forces in society ridicule the truth of God’s Word or it seems like their attempts to silence the gospel will succeed. But we have Jesus’ powerful promises. The church will endure, even against the darkest, most evil forces. The gospel will continue to be proclaimed until the end of the world, even in the face of persecution or false teachings. 


Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  


This is the 13th articles in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through the Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Oct. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

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