What is a Lutheran? This question is almost as easy to answer as "What is an American?"
because of the many ways there are to answer it. Though Lutherans are traditionally culturally
connected to Northern Europe and the Christian Reformation led by Martin Luther
The Luther Rose
colleagues in the 16th century, today you will be just as likely to meet a Lutheran from Africa as
you would a Lutheran from Germany, Scandinavian countries, or North America. Yet Lutheran history
is rooted to the life and work of Martin Luther
, and his rediscovery of the
gospel, which Lutherans describe as the free gift of salvation given in Jesus Christ, for you.
Of the three broad categories for most Christians in America (Evangelical/Charismatic,
Roman Catholic, and Mainline Protestant), most Lutherans find themselves among the so-
called "Mainline Protestant Denominations" (e.g., Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.)
which started as immigrant movements from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries reaching their
highest influence and participation levels in post World War II America. In other words, there
are Lutherans in America, because Lutherans from elsewhere (predominately Northern Europe)
came to America and settled, bringing their faith with them. Some Lutherans in America are
highly liturgical, traditional and well ordered, while others are very casual and make heavy use
of technology. Some Lutherans have a high desire to work with other Christians (even when
theology differs) while others keep to themselves. With the many changes to society, technology,
economics and politics in the last several decades, Lutheran Christians, like many other Christian
groups have reacted in various ways. Lutherans vary across the spectrum of liberal and
conservative, between denominations and even within them, but what is common is a desire to
preach God's Word, administer the Sacraments, equip people for faith lived in the world, and a
common heritage centered on Martin Luther
"Salvation is a free gift given by the Christ of the cross to all who hear the promises of God and believe them."
Luther's critique in the 16th century against the sale of indulgences (a letter stating that one had
received forgiveness from God) was that such practices undermined Christ's action on the cross
that forgave sinners as proclaimed in the gospel. He began his famous 95 Theses, "When our
Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Matthew 4:17) he willed the entire life of believers
to be one of repentance" 
Luther was convinced,
by his reading of scripture, particularly his study of Paul's letter to the Romans, that salvation
is a free gift given by the Christ of the cross to all who heard the promises of God and believed
them. Such a view challenged church authority, and triggered the Protestant Reformation.
Luther and his colleagues preached, taught, and confessed that salvation was a free gift from God
given in Jesus Christ (how Lutherans define the term grace), as taught in the scriptures. With
this starting point for the Christian faith, discussion around the church's practices, including: the
sale of indulgences, doing good works as acts of penance, ecclesiastical authority, distinctions
between the "religious" and the rest of society, who had access to the Bible, worship life, care
for the needy, and a host of other issues; were re-interpreted in the light of God's grace.
Lutherans today continue to go about the ministry of the church, a life of faith, and care for the
world, with this central understanding of God's grace as the starting and ending point. "I am not ashamed of the
gospel; because it is the power of salvation of everyone who believes." (Romans 1:16).
"This tension between God's justice and mercy...form the center of Lutheran life."
that justification by faith in Jesus Christ does two things. On the one hand it
demands complete dependence on God, not on our own understanding or efforts to either make
things right or appease an angry God. On the other hand it frees believers to live in love of God
and service to others, since Christ's salvation is a free gift of God, not something we must attain
or figure out for ourselves. This tension between God's justice and mercy, at work through the
proclamation of the Gospel and lives of service, form the center of Lutheran life.
Read more about What Lutherans Believe »
Read more about the History of Lutheranism »
"The Ninety-Nine Theses," Martin Luther's Basic Theological
Writings. ed. Timothy F. Lull. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989], 21.