The Martin Luther Reformation movement in the 16th century gave birth to the Lutheran church alongside other protestant denominations. Martin Luther had set out to reform the catholic church but when it didn’t work out, the protestant church was born. Years later, leaders of the catholic and protestant churches are now in dialogue to try and reconcile the differences.
So, what exactly are the main differences between Catholics and Lutherans?
There are several differences but the most notable are:
- Authority of scripture
- The doctrine of justification
- The authority of the pope
- The number of sacraments
- The role of Mary and the Saints
Let’s have a look at each of these in more detail.
The authority of scripture
Lutherans believe that any doctrine in the church should be based on scripture and that no person should have the authority to develop doctrine outside what the Bible teaches. On the flip side, Catholics believe that the pope has the authority to develop and determine church doctrine. As such, the pope helps to establish church traditions as well as certain doctrines.
The Doctrine of Justification
The doctrine of justification is arguably one of the most important differences between the Catholics and Lutherans. According to Catholic doctrine, salvation is not an event but a process that begins with the grace of God and continues throughout a person’s life. Catholics recognize that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ but they also believe that the different sacraments (sacraments of initiation, sacraments of healing, and sacraments of service) are necessary for one to be saved. Good works (e.g. the sacraments) are considered to be a necessary ingredient in attaining salvation.
On the contrary, Lutherans believe that salvation only comes by faith in Jesus Christ and one does not need to continue doing more works in order to earn salvation. However, Lutherans recognize the importance of good works in a believer’s life but they do not just consider them as a means to salvation. According to Lutheran doctrine, salvation cannot be earned as it is a gift from God.
The authority of the Pope
The pope is the final human authority in the catholic church. As the overall pastor of the global catholic church, the pope is considered faultless, and Catholics are required to submit to his authority. For Catholics, recognizing the authority of the pope is mandatory for one to be considered a member of the church.
Lutherans do not recognize the authority of the pope as the divine leader of the church. Jesus is considered the head of the church and the believers are encouraged to study the scriptures to know that God wants them to do as opposed to waiting on the pronouncements of the pope as the Catholics often do.
The number of sacraments
The number of sacraments is another important difference between Catholics and Lutherans. Catholics have seven sacraments which can be divided into three categories:
Sacraments of Initiation
There are three sacraments of initiation namely; confirmation, baptism, and Eucharist. The sacrament of baptism signifies the acceptance of Christ for the remission of sins as well as receiving of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament of confirmation is a seal of the life of faith in Christ. This is typically done by the laying on of hands by the Bishop using anointing oil. The sacrament of the Eucharist is administered frequently to nourish the spirit.
Sacraments of Healing
There are two sacraments of healing – penance and reconciliation, and anointing the sick. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is meant to reunite a sick person with Christ’s suffering and also bring them forgiveness of sins. The sacrament of anointing the sick is given for both spiritual and physical healing and it is administered by a priest or Bishop.
Sacraments of Service
There are two sacraments of service namely; holy orders and matrimony. The sacrament of holy orders is for the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. The sacrament of matrimony is given for the union of a man and a woman in marriage as a covenant between them and God.
Unlike Catholics, Lutherans only have two sacraments – baptism and holy communion. The significance of these two sacraments are somewhat similar to Catholics with the main difference being that Lutherans do not believe in observing the Sacraments as a way of earning salvation. To the Lutherans, salvation comes by faith, and the sacraments are just symbols of this faith.
The Role of Mary and the Saints
According to Catholic doctrine, Mary is to be held in high esteem and to be revered since she is the mother of God. Mary is not only the mother of Christ but she is believed to be the mother of the church as well. As the mother of the church, Mary also plays the role of intercessor and Catholics believe that their prayers can reach God quicker due to her intercession. The canonized saints are also considered to be in a position to intercede for the church. The canonization of saints is lengthy and it can even take centuries before a departed Christian is made a saint. This is because saints are considered very important to the catholic and so only those that are deemed worthy are canonized.
The Lutherans do not agree with the catholic doctrine on the role of Mary and saints in the church. Even though Lutherans believe in the virgin birth, they do not believe that Mary should be revered as the mother of God. Lutherans pray directly to God through Jesus and neither Mary nor any saint should be considered as an intermediary. Additionally, Lutherans believe that once one passes away, judgment awaits them and the concept of canonizing saints is not consistent with the teachings of scripture.
Lutherans and Catholics may have many differences but they also have lots of things they agree on. For starters, they both believe in the divinity, eternality as well as the humanity of Jesus Christ. They also in God’s plan for salvation through the virgin birth and consequent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These common grounds may well be the reason why dialogue has been opened between the two denominations because the foundational beliefs between the two are similar even though the doctrines differ.