What is a Lutheran?
On April 18, 1521, Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) stood before the world's most powerful man in that day, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and declared that he would not recant (i.e., take back) what he was preaching and teaching about God's message of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus, even though it flew in the face of long-held teachings and traditions within the Church of Rome. Luther was not simply being stubborn. This was instead a matter of clear biblical truth and honest Christian faith. His famous response to the emperor ended this way:

"Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen."

In other words, Luther refused simply to accept the Church of Rome's distorted, unfaithful, and manipulative interpretation of the Holy Scriptures which enabled them to teach that God's forgiveness and love is not freely given in Jesus to those who humbly confess their sinfulness and sin. No, according to Rome, we must earn and win God's love and forgiveness by what we do (our good works) rather than simply put our trust in Jesus as the one and only Savior of the world. According to Rome, you could even buy God's forgiveness through the purchase of little slips of paper called indulgences. But through his diligent, careful study of the Bible, Luther had come to understand that Jesus has already completely won and purchased our eternal salvation. Jesus has made a "once for all" sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 9:26) and by his death and resurrection from the dead, Jesus guarantees the forgiveness of sins, a resurrection from our earthly grave, and eternal life in the glories of heaven to all who trust in him as the Savior from sin. The forgiveness of sins and eternal life are freely given in Christ!

Martin Luther became well known in his day for echoing the words of the Apostle Paul, boldly proclaiming that God has freely and willingly justified (declared innocent) sinners who recognize their sin and their need for a Savior. St Paul put it this way: "God made him who had no sin [Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness [perfection] of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Luther understood what the Scriptures clearly teach: that Jesus bore our sin, sorrow, and death, and we receive from him his perfection and eternal life as a gift.

Martin Luther called this God's great exchange. He once preached:

"Is this not a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is completely innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another's sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me (who am nothing but sin) with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants me righteousness, in order that I may live eternally with him in unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can only grasp by faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his life and righteousness as our sin." (Luther's Works 51:316).

When Luther stood by his biblical convictions concerning God's gift of salvation to the world in Christ, the Church of Rome, under the leadership of Pope Leo X, declared him a heretic in 1520. A year later, after Luther refused to change his public teaching, the Holy Roman Emperor declared him an outlaw, wanted dead or alive. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus spared the life of Luther for another 25 years, allowing him to continue his preaching and teaching on the Holy Scriptures.

In time, his Roman opponents began calling those who saw the truth of Luther's teachings "Lutherans" in order to mock them. It wasn't long before Luther's followers began using the term themselves as a badge of honor. Luther disliked the term and preferred that his hearers call themselves "Christians" or "Evangelicals" (evangelical means "one who proclaims the good news of forgiveness"). In time, however, more and more began using the term "Lutheran" to identify themselves with the teachings of Luther, especially after the basic teachings of Scripture were summarized and officially adopted in the six confessions of the Lutheran Church found in the Book of Concord (1580).

Sadly, many in America and around the world who call themselves "Lutherans" today are no longer faithful to the biblical teachings of Martin Luther, nor do they wholeheartedly accept the Lutheran Confessions as a accurate and faithful explanation of what the Bible teaches. In other words, calling youself a Lutheran doesn't necessarily make you one. At Bethany, we are determined to remain faithful to every syllable of God's holy Word and to proclaim with zeal the rich message of God's forgiveness in Christ Jesus. That's what it means to be a Lutheran!

To find out more about what faithful and confessional Lutherans teach, see Our Teachings page.

To find out more about the 500th anniversary celebration of the Lutheran Reformation, click here.