Who Are Lutherans?

The Lutheran Church is a Christian denomination that grew out of the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, publicly called upon the Church to reform its practice and preaching to be more consistent with the Word of God as it is found in the Bible. He realized that many of the rules that were being laid on the people were contrary to the Gospel (the “euangelion” that is, good news) of Jesus Christ. It was his great discovery in reading the Bible that we are justified (made right with God) through the grace of Jesus Christ, and not through anything we do – we simply respond in faith by trusting that we are loved and saved by God. This central Lutheran belief is called “justification by grace through faith.”

The Church of Luther’s time was greatly threatened by his call for reform and thus, although he did not want to start a new denomination, he and his followers were forced out. The word “Lutheran” came to mean anyone who adhered to his reforms, believing in the great Lutheran principles of “Grace Alone,” “Faith Alone,” and “Scripture Alone.” To this day, these principles form the very essence of Lutheranism:

  • We are saved by the grace of God alone – not by anything we do.
  • Our salvation is through faith alone – a confident trust in God, who in Christ promises us forgiveness, life and salvation.
  • The Bible is the norm for faith and life – the true standard by which teachings and doctrines are to be judged.

Our modern Lutheran Church is a descendant of the reforms of Martin Luther. We still consider ourselves as a reforming movement within the greater Church catholic (which means “universal”), and we actively engage in dialogue and Christian cooperation with other denominations. Over the years, different Lutheran church bodies have been established and organized to meet the needs of Lutherans in communities and nations all over the world. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran group in North America, founded in 1988 when three North American Lutheran church bodies united: The Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its predecessors have engaged in ecumenical dialogue with other church bodies for decades. In fact, the ELCA has entered into cooperative “full communion” agreements (sharing common convictions about theology, mission and worship) with several other Protestant denominations, including

The ELCA has an ongoing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1999, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This represented a historic consensus on key issues of faith and called for further dialogue and study together. The fruits of this futher dialogue and study were declared in 2015 with The Declaration on the Way, a unique ecumenical text that drew on 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in preparation for the 500th Reformation anniversary in 2017. The heart of the Declaration is the Statement of Agreements, containing 32 consensus statements where Catholics and Lutherans have said there are not church-dividing differences between them.

Lutheranism is a faith tradition that is open to all, regardless of background. The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For more about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), visit the ELCA website, where you can learn more about what it means to be Lutheran in our current context.