Periodically I am asked to explain the differences between the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church. There are similarities for which we are thankful. In many ways the Lutheran church cannot be classified with the Protestant churches—and especially with those who would throw out 1500 years of church history. But there are substantial differences also. In the following essay I try to boil down the these differences to these two questions: What is the authority of the Christian church? And, How are we saved? All other differences are ultimately related to these two questions. May God grant to both branches of His Holy Church the wisdom of His Holy Spirit so that in the future we might continue to realize the unity of truth and faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
What Denomination Should I Embrace?
St. Paul said, "For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Romans 14.10). At that great moment we will not be asked what denomination we belonged to but whether or not we belong to Christ (Mark 9.41). How can we be certain that we belong to Christ? Who or what shall we turn to in order to have assurance of that?
Jesus said, "If you continue in My word, you are My disciples indeed, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8.31-32). Our assurance must rest on the promises of God’s word. Jesus gave the church the task of making disciples through the teaching of His word and the administration of the sacraments. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (sacraments) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching (word) them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28.20). If I have the choice between one church or another, I need to ask, "Which one best fulfills this command to make disciples?" "Which one teaches Jesus’ truth more clearly?"
Christians should always strive to teach the word of God accurately. St. Paul urged Timothy "But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine" (Titus 2.1). When St. Paul preached in the city of Berea, he was encouraged that the Bereans checked out his teaching to see if it matched up with the Bible. "They received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17.11). People must do the same thing today. They must look for the truth of God in His word and seek those Christian teachers that proclaim the truth according to God’s word. Sometimes this can be frustrating and confusing. But God will bless this effort. "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29.13).
In the following sections of this paper I have tried to analyze the search for truth as one compares the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches. I obviously favor the Lutheran Church. With this in mind, I would encourage you to weigh both sides of this issue by studying the Roman Catholic view of the Lutheran Church. This particular study has three parts: Historical Considerations, Spiritual Considerations, and Resources for Further Study. God bless your inquiries. I’m always happy to answer further questions. Certainly we must all pray for the Holy Spirit to lead us in the truth and to unite the Christian church in the doctrine of the apostles.
Already in the time of the New Testament there were differences between Christians, and there were efforts to mend problems with the teaching of the Gospel. The first conflict was between Jewish and Gentile believers and had to be worked out at the council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. At this council the church leaders looked to God’s word. In that particular instance they determined from God’s word that it was not necessary for Gentile Christians to follow Jewish ceremonial law in order to be Christians.
As time went on the Christian church continued to work through problems by meeting in councils that looked to God’s word for answers (i.e., Council of Nicea, A.D. 325, Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451). These particular councils dealt with different ideas about the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. In A.D. 1054 the Christian church underwent the first major schism. At this time the Eastern bishops (Orthodox churches) and the bishop of Rome (Roman Catholic Church) separated over the question of authority. Previous to this time the bishops considered themselves equals working together. But Rome had become the strongest Christian city, and the bishops there eventually declared themselves to be superior to all the other bishops. See the reference below to the Papal Bull Unam Sanctum.1
In 1517 Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted the 95 Theses protesting the abuses of indulgences. Indulgences started out as donations to the crusades. Eventually they became donations promising forgiveness of sins and were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther called for other reforms in the church and many supported his effort to remove these questionable beliefs and practices that had crept into the church. These catholic Christians were at first call "evangelicals" because they maintained that the heart of Christian theology was the Gospel (Greek: Evangel) of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Later, they were called "Lutherans" by their opponents. This term was definitely derogatory implying that these people were following the teaching of a man and not the teaching of the true church.
However the evangelicals or Lutherans never set out to create a new church. They did not choose the name "Lutheran." They only wanted to correct the errors that had gradually come into the church. Luther, himself was very opposed to the name "Lutheran." His statement concerning this name is memorable and shows his typically colorful style:
I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians whose doctrine we have. The pope's men rightly have a factious name because they are not satisfied with the doctrine and name of Christ and want to be with the pope, who is their master. I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one general teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8. (Against Insurrection, 1522).2
Nevertheless the name "Lutheran" stuck. To this day our branch of the Lutheran church, (The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) debates whether or not to drop the name "Lutheran".3 The only reason it is not dropped is because we don’t really care about our name as much as our theology. The name "Lutheran" still connects people to the Bible based / Christ centered theology that is so important to us. As an aside, it should be noted that Luther was not "anti-Catholic." He was against what he called "papists." He viewed the papists as usurpers who had taken over the Catholic church and corrupted it. There have always been members of the Roman Catholic Church that have questioned papal authority.4 Luther called for a general church council to resolve these differences, but it was not convened until after his death. No evangelicals were invited to this council (Trent), and Luther and all who followed the teachings of the evangelicals were condemned. In 1962 the 2nd Vatican Council lifted the condemnations but did not resolve the theological differences.
Since World War II there have been ongoing efforts to reconcile differences between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches. Unfortunately the Lutheran church has been represented by liberal theologians of other Lutheran churches. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has only been permitted to be an observer at these meetings. The tendency in these reconciliation efforts is to talk past one another or much worse, to find acceptance of each other without actually changing any doctrinal positions of either church. Nevertheless, we applaud all efforts to find reconciliation and unity. We appreciate every and any opportunity to confess the faith in public.
Since the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church has instituted some of the reforms of Luther: Communion with both the Body and the Blood of Christ, the liturgy in the vernacular (language of the people), and relaxation of mandatory external requirements of discipline (fasting, etc.). Other important similarities between the two churches include a high regard for the pastoral office, and reverential worship that focuses on the means of grace (word and sacraments) rather than the emotions and feelings of the worshipers. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Roman Catholic Church have a very special unity in their mutual commitment to the rights of the unborn. This is not always true of other liberal Lutheran churches.
The Lutheran reformation was based on the Bible and the central teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ. Up to this time the Bible had been largely inaccessible to most people. But with Gutenberg’s printing press, many people were able to read the Bible, commentaries, and sermons for themselves. For the most part there was agreement between the leadership of the Roman church and the leaders of the Lutheran reformation on the doctrines of sin, the person of Christ, the Trinity, baptism, the end of the world and a number of others. The major differences had to do with 1. Authority in the church and 2. The way a person is saved.
The Authority of the Church
The Roman Catholic Church believes that the church was founded upon the Apostle Peter because of Jesus’ famous statement to Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church" (Matthew 16.18). They believe that this authority is passed down from Peter to his successors, the bishops of the Church of Rome. The Lutherans, on the other side, believe that Jesus was speaking of Peter’s confession of faith when He used the words, "this rock," since Peter had just made a remarkable statement that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of living God. The Lutherans believe that the context in Matthew 16 and the rest of the New Testament confirms this. For example, Paul says that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2.20). In addition to this there is no place in the New Testament where the church appeals to Peter for ultimate decisions. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, mentioned above, was led by James, the relative of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church draws its teachings both from Scripture and from the traditions of the church as handed down and interpreted by the popes. The Lutheran church, on the other hand, believes that all doctrine must be based solely on the Bible and its central teaching about salvation in Jesus Christ. All churches have traditions. But in the Lutheran church tradition has no authority over the Bible. If something enters into tradition that contradicts the Bible, it will eventually be cut out as it is exposed by the teaching of the Bible. The Lutherans were willing to accept the pope as the human leader of the church. But they still are not able to accept the pope as one who is the final authority in matters of doctrine and the teachings of the Bible.
The practical difference between these two approaches is readily apparent when questions arise such as "Is it a sin to gamble?" Those who believe authority rests in the papacy will usually ask, "What does the church say?" And they will usually take confidence in what the church says without consulting the Scriptures themselves. Those who hold to the Bible as the source of doctrine will tend to ask, "What does the Bible teach?" There are potential weaknesses in both approaches. The weakness of the first is that your assurance rests in man’s authority. You hope the church authorities are looking to the Bible for answers, but how can you be sure if you don’t do some serious looking yourself? The weakness of the second is that any individual is capable of misinterpreting the Scriptures. Can we trust ourselves to understand the Scriptures? The Lutherans would say that we can as long as we search the Scriptures together. In isolation there can always be problems, hence the Bible warns, "No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Peter 1.20). But when we work together as Christians and Christian leaders, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit will lead the church with God’s word. This is the pattern that we find in the Bible for dealing with questions of faith. Over and over Jesus and His apostles urge His people to turn together to the word as the ultimate authority and source of grace and faith. ("As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby. 1 Peter 2.2; "If you continue in My word . . . ." John 8.31-32; "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom." Colossians 3.16). In addition to this the Bible warns us against neglecting it’s teaching: "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it" (Joshua 1.8).
Martin Luther was basically asked to choose between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the pope when church leaders wanted him to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms in 1521. He said,
I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures . . . my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God.5
I believe that the Lord intended the Scriptures to be the central focus of the Christian church. Too often in the Roman Catholic church the Scriptures are only read in the liturgy and given a brief exposition in the sermon. In the Lutheran church the Scriptures are given more emphasis in the sermon. Bible classes are especially emphasized. Children are taught the Scriptures from the earliest age in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Catechism classes, and in Youth Group meetings. Pastors constantly refer to Scripture in their counseling. Christians should not be afraid or unfamiliar with this book. Countless anecdotes could be recounted of my experiences with Roman Catholic Christians who attended Catholic elementary school and high school who said, "I was never taught the Bible."
How are we saved?
There are other issues such as prayers to saints, purgatory, and the sacrifice of the mass that people often consider when comparing these two denominations. But these issues are not nearly as important as the question of authority and the question, How are we saved? Out of these two main issues come all the others.
Around 390 A.D. a popular teacher came to Rome by the name of Pelegius. He was disturbed by the immorality that he saw in the city and tried to combat it by urging people to make good choices. Pelegius was a moralist. He taught that people were basically good and that they could find salvation by following the Law as much as the Gospel.6 At first the church leadership accepted this teaching. But St. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa, rigorously opposed it stressing that man was fallen and could only be saved by God’s grace. The majority of bishops eventually sided with Augustine and Pelegius was excommunicated. The teaching of the Bible was clear enough: Man cannot save himself by his good works. "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Romans 3.20).
The Pelegian decision explained how we are not saved, that is not by works. However it did not go on to explain exactly how one is saved. That question would fester for another 1100 years. Some taught that we are saved only by grace through faith. For example St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (A.D. 340-397) wrote: "It is ordained of God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved, and he shall have forgiveness of sins, not through works but through faith alone, without merit."7 (The First Epistle to the Corinthians 1.4). Others taught that we are saved by faith and love, that is, a combination of faith and the good works of love. This position eventually prevailed and was explained by St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught that we are saved by "faith fashioned by love."8
On the surface what St. Thomas said sounds good. We know that both faith and love are important to God. There is even one passage in the Bible that says, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love" (Galatians 5.6). But does this mean that we are saved by faith and the good works of love? Not at all. Love is the important outcome of faith. But salvation does not rest on our love or anything we do. Rather, the Bible teaches that it rests on the gift of faith. "By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2.8-9). On judgment day God will not be a paymaster, doling out the rewards we’ve earned because we showed love. He will be the Savior and deliverer of all who trust in Him.
The practical results of these two different modes of salvation is critical. Those who rely on "faith and love" will always have a degree of uncertainty about their salvation. Have I loved enough? This view may lead to ambient doubts that steal the confidence and joy that we should have. In the new Catholic Catechism there are no references telling Christians that they can be sure of their salvation. This is understandable if any part of our salvation depends on something we do. It will always remain a matter of doubt. On the other hand, this same approach to salvation can lead to an unhealthy reliance on the things we do. Worship, offerings, prayers may become obligations rather than the joyful results of faith.
The Lutheran understanding of salvation by faith alone as a gift from God establishes confidence and assurance. Like the thief on the cross who repented, we can be sure of our salvation (Luke 243.43). St. Paul was asked by the Philippian jailer, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul’s answer was simple and confident: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved" (Acts 16.30-31). Could this be a false assurance in some cases? Yes, it certainly might be. Anybody can say "I believe in Jesus." But only God knows the true intent of the heart. No additional proofs for real faith will ever satisfy us. In fact this was one of the very criticisms people raised against the teaching of the Apostles-- which proves that they taught salvation by grace through faith alone. St. Paul said, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (Romans 6.1). The answer of course is "no." Where there is true faith people won’t deliberately continue in sin. But because the apostles taught that people are saved by faith, some thought this would open the door to sin. They thought that some other requirement in addition to faith was needed to save. This is the way all people tend to think. But it is an elusive hope. Nothing that we could do would ever satisfy God’s demand for righteousness. Instead the Bible urges us to rely on God’s righteousness, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3.18).
I hope this helps answer questions some might have about the similarities and differences between the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Personally, if there was anything that would draw me back to the Roman Catholic Church it would be a return to the Scriptures and to a clear and bold emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
As mentioned earlier, there are other issues that need to be discussed. I will try to append answers to other particular questions in the future. I have tried to be as fair as possible in this brief analysis. I sincerely want to avoid the problem of mischaracterizing the Roman Catholic Church, and I continually try to understand their teachings. I pray regularly for a resolution of our differences. Finally I would urge everyone to continue searching for the truth and praying for God’s guidance in all these things.
1 The Papal Bull Unam Sanctum was issued by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 establishing tremendous papal authority. The Bull can be read at: http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Bon08/B8unam.htm. It has been stated that it is often misused by “anti-Catholics.” But I think you should read it and judge for yourself.
3 Something should be said about “other” Lutheran churches. The Lutheran churches are united around the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ. But from there they do move in different doctrinal directions. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, is much more open to teachings such as evolution, and practices such as the ordination of women, abortion, and homosexual rights. The simplest statement of faith of the Lutheran church is Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. It can be found at: http://www.lcms.org/president/aboutlcms/bookofconcord/smallcatechism.asp. One of the best introductions to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod can be found at http://www.lcms.org/introlcms.html.
4 Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis was one who opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council in 1869. This doctrine said that the Roman Pontiffs had “the supreme power of teaching.”
5 Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, (St. Louis, 1950), p. 505.
6 The distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the great teachings of the Bible. The “Law” is that group of Bible passages and teachings that tell us what we are to do or not to do. The “Gospel” is that group of Bible passages and teachings that tell us what God has done for us.
7 The First Epistle to the Corinthians 1.4.
8 Summa theologica, II, 1, q. 113, a.4 ad 1.
Pastor Michael Walther
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois
June 7, 2001