“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”1 The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John seem simple enough, but provide a foundation for the Lutheran faith and have been the subject of controversy for hundreds of years. When Martin Luther presented his protest against a “wanton preaching of pardons” and other perceived wrongs practiced by the Catholic Church in his Ninety-Five Thesis in October of 1517, he may have single-handedly begun the Reformation leading to a schism and the large number of Protestant religions practiced in the world today.2 The name “Lutheran” is actually an epithet used during Martin Luther’s time to ridicule those who followed his teachings, and the name stuck, although it has no derisive connotations today.3 In simple terms, the foundation of the Lutheran faith and my own beliefs is that “Jesus Christ is our only Savior from sin, and that we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus,” which directly echo John 14.6.4This differs from other Christian denominations because some believe that good works, indulgences, absolution from a church leader such as the Catholic Pope, and so forth can bring eternal salvation. As Lutherans, we believe that first and foremost comes faith in Jesus Christ; truly good works and eternal salvation can only be achieved once this faith is real. In addition, the Holy Bible is the only valid source of Christian doctrine. The true Word of God, without error, comes only from the Bible and not from human-ordained authorities such as Catholic Cardinals or Popes.
The Lutheran faith still has many things in common with other Christian denominations. For example, like Roman Catholic, Anglican-Episcopal, and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Lutherans are Liturgical.5 This means that we follow a scripted, formal Mass with hymns, sermons, scripture readings, and communion. Also similar to other Christian denominations such as the Roman Catholics, Lutherans believe in “the Triune God,” which is God the Father, God the son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.6
The Lutheran faith I have grown up with places importance in two sacraments, the first of which is Baptism, which absolves people of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve and unites the individual with Christ. The second sacrament we value is Holy Communion, when we partake of bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Sometimes this second sacrament is also referred to as the Eucharist or The Lord’s Supper.7 Confession or Absolution is not a sacrament like it is in the Roman Catholic Church, but it is an essential part of a Lutheran’s spiritual well-being; with the assistance of our Pastor, we receive Absolution, which is “God restoring us to his good graces and a right relationship,” much like the cleansing we receive at our Baptism.8
My Lutheran faith is important to me because it gives me an absolute reference for all my actions in daily life; that reference is Jesus Christ and his scriptures in the Bible. Even though the Bible is my primary guide to the teachings of Christ, when I am troubled, finding a passage in the Bible to guide me can be difficult on my own when I am confused. In times like these, I can turn to my Pastor or Bible study group to help find guidance through God’s Word. For example, during a discussion with some Christian friends who were not Lutheran, they openly questioned and ridiculed my ability to gain salvation because I did not subscribe to the exact tenants of their faith. I had no idea how to respond to their derision and was greatly distressed because I thought my friends could respect our differences as well as appreciate our similarities. Troubled, I turned to my Pastor. Listening to my story, he pointed me toward a section in the New Testament which explains, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious . . . enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions . . . those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”9 He also read further from Galatians, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”10 He suggested that if an argument happened in a discussion again, I could bring up these verses from the Bible; even if the others continued their mockery, I could be sure of my own faith in Jesus and God’s Word, handling the situation with love, patience, and self-control.
Another aspect of the Lutheran faith that offers me comfort and focus on my faith is attending the liturgical Mass. A Baptist friend of mine once asked if he could attend church with me to see what it was like. Afterwards, he said that he found the ritualistic nature of the Mass to be “weird” and “a little bit scary.” I went to his church with him the next weekend and understood why he described the Lutheran Mass that way; to me, the Baptist celebration was almost like a rock concert. It seemed like a chaos of events, with several different bands performing on the stage, testimonials, and people singing and dancing at the top of their lungs. I enjoyed the experience and can easily understand why he likes his church. However, having grown up going to Lutheran Masses, the ceremony and ritual does not feel weird or scary, but reassuring. Pastor Walter Snyder describes it as “an orderly and ancient pattern;” as the Pastors and congregations come together all over the world, the power of our worship together confirms and strengthens our belief in Jesus Christ and our salvation.11 It is an exulting feeling; not one that makes me feel self-righteous, but brings me spiritual peace in knowing I have millions of partners in my belief in Jesus Christ throughout the world and of the goodness that comes from true faith.
Learning about different faith traditions has made me appreciate the foundations of my own faith as well as gain new perspectives on why other faiths believe and practice as they do. Going back to the quote from Galatians that my Pastor advised me with, to approach things with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” I strive to employ those elements while learning about different faith traditions, especially when they are very different from my own.12 For example, after my Baptist friend and I took turns attending each other’s churches, we had a very thought-provoking and exciting debate about the differences and values in each of our faiths. Even though we disagreed at many times, I was pleased to find that he shared the same idea of patience, kindness, and self-control that I value. Many of my illusions about what it means to be a Baptist were swept away, while other things I heard about it proved true. For example, yes, their Sunday celebrations were wild compared to what I was used to, and no, not every Baptist is a militant Bible-thumper who wants to tell me I am going to go to Hell at every opportunity. I concluded that I could not tell him that he was wrong to believe as he does, I only could tell him why I felt I was right.
Learning about the earliest origins of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths was also illuminating. So much of the history is shared, it is fascinating to know in what ways these religions intersect and diverge. The popular media and therefore people in general make many assumptions about Islam, as if every Muslim believes in the same things or are possible terrorists in the making. However, like Christianity, Islam itself is divided into different sects such as the Sunni and Sufi, and even among those groups there is dissent about orthodoxy and beliefs.
It is a disservice to generalize any faith, even my own. It is a challenge to look beyond the known and the comfortable, yet it offers a fascinating view of how and why people are both alike and different. I still feel that the Lutheran path I have grown up with is the correct faith for myself, but understand much better those that I had not encountered before. Gaining an understanding of other religions and the somewhat common origins of those that seem so different from my own is not always a comfortable process, but in the end one that has strengthened my faith.
“Glossary of Terms.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, n.d. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/The-Basics/Glossary-of-Terms.aspx>
“Martin Luther.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, n.d. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/Lutheran-Roots-in-America .aspx#martinluther>
McManners, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
Snyder, Walter. A Comparison of Lutheranism with Other Churches. Xrysostom, 2 Sept. 1997. Web. <http://www.xrysostom.com/compare.html>
“Statements of Belief.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, n.d. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Statements-of-Belief.aspx>
The New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible. Ed. Committee of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. New York: Collins Publishers, 1989. Print.