How can I find out what Lutherans believe?
The Lutheran Church is a confessional movement, meaning that to be Lutheran is to agree with certain clear, written statements about what God teaches about himself and about us and about our relation to him in the holy Scriptures. The Lutheran Confessions do not stand above or alongside the Bible as a man-made source of new teachings. They reflect a duty to understand what the Scriptures, as the very Word of God, have to say to us, and to explain them clearly as God intended them to be preached and understood. Lutheran pastors and congregations use these documents to state clearly their faith and to judge their own teaching, because they faithfully convey the teaching of holy Scripture, which is the only reliable rule and norm of all teaching in the Christian Church.
Where can I find these Lutheran Confessions?
The confessions of the Lutheran Church are contained in a book called, originally, The Christian Book of Concord, or, today, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, published as a collection in the year 1580 to serve as a clear statement of what the holy Scriptures teach. You can read the Book of Concord online or find out where to purchase a copy for a nominal fee at http://www.bookofconcord.org/. This site also offers a selection of the more famous Reformation documents, like Luther's 1517 Ninety-Five Theses and 1518 Heidelberg Disputation.
That book sounds really old. Is it still relevant to me today?
The Book of Concord is, above all, a practical book. Every page is concerned with what God's holy Word has to say to you, first of all, as a sinful human being, and second, as someone for whom Christ, the eternal Son of God, shed his blood and died, to forgive your sins, to give you life eternal and every good thing before then by grace alone, through faith alone. This is not a lofty, speculative, academic book. No doctrine is presented that is not of the greatest comfort for sinners redeemed by Christ's blood. Nothing is presented that is "specifically Lutheran" or only for academic theologians. It is good reading for any Christian, as it claims to summarize what the Bible says to you. It will change the way you read the Bible, helping you to hear clearly God's Law, which condemns sin, and God's Gospel, the word of grace in Christ Jesus, with the purity and clarity God intends.
To see an edgy and highly caffeinated endorsement of the Book of Concord and its significance today, check out the Rev. Fisk's August 2010 Worldview Everlasting post. Or read Myrtle's story at Just A Note.
Ok, I'm interested. What's in the book?
The Book of Concord has the following components. The place to start reading, for the beginner, is with the Small and Large catechisms. You might then move on to the Augsburg Confession and its Apology.
The Ecumenical Creeds - Lutherans confess the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. These lay out in ancient words (dating from the first four centuries of the Church, and drawn then from the Scriptures) who God is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), who Jesus is (the eternal Son of God made flesh to save us) and what he has done for us, so that we should believe and trust in him. These ancient confessions start the book to indicate that the Lutherans did not intend to start "a new denomination" but to retain what the Church has taught since the time of Jesus and the Apostles.
The Augsburg Confession (AC or CA) - In 1530, Lutherans were called on by the Emperor to explain their beliefs. They did so in twenty-eight articles, covering topics as fundamental as "God, Original Sin, The Son of God, Justification, The Ministry," etc. (Articles I-V), and also articles having to do with current disagreements ("Both kinds in the Sacrament, the Marriage of Priests, The Mass," etc.). The Augsburg Confession is still the basic statement of what it means to be a Lutheran, and is a clear and concise (about 30 pages) statement of the Christian faith.
The Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession (Ap) - Apology here means not "retraction" or "I'm sorry" but "defense." The Roman Catholic Church disagreed with parts of the Augsburg Confession, so the reformers responded in 1531 with a more detailed Scriptural defense of the doctrine put forth in the Augsburg Confession.
The Smalcald Articles - Martin Luther himself wrote these articles for a 1537 meeting of theologians and lay leaders in Smalcald, Germany. They clearly present "the articles that refer to the office and work of Jesus Christ; that is, our redemption" and work out how these ought to be reflected in how the Church worships and what she teaches.
The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope - The same meeting that received Luther's articles in 1537 approved this statement by Philip Melanchthon, another reformer, on the authority of the pope, who claimed to be above all pastors and teachers, to have authority over political rulers, and that one must acknowledge his power to be saved. These three claims are refuted first from the Scriptures and then from the history of the Church. The last part of the document gives the true task of pastors and bishops: "to teach the Gospel (Mt 28:19), to forgive sins (Jn 20:23), to administer the Sacraments, and...to exercise jurisdiction (i.e., the command to excommunicate those whose crimes are known and to absolve those who repent)."
The Small Catechism - Luther's Small Catechism of 1529 is only a few pages long, but packed with Law and Gospel. It addresses six chief parts: The Ten Commandments, The Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Confession and Absolution. It also contains daily prayers and a "table of duties" explaining Christian vocations or callings (responsibilities we have to our nearest neighbors, parents, teachers, pastors, employers, children, students, hearers, employees, etc.). This is the basis of confirmation instruction in the Lutheran Church to this day, and is a great place to refresh yourself on what you may have been taught years ago or a great place to start figuring out what Lutherans teach.
The Large Catechism - Early in the Reformation, Luther listened to pastors preach and was appalled at how poorly they did it! In response, he wrote (also in 1529) the Large Catechism as a basic summary of Scriptural doctrine. Once you've read the Small Catechism, dig in here for a hearty second course!
The Epitome and The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord - Written in 1577 and signed by many laypeople, pastors, rulers, and theologians through 1580, the Formula of Concord deals with several issues that threatened to divide the Lutherans in the years after the Reformation. It deals with topics still disputed (not so much among Lutherans but by Lutherans and other church bodies) today: Original Sin, Free Will, the Righteousness of Faith before God, Good Works, etc. In each, the controversy is presented, with teachings that are affirmed and teachings that are rejected—both on the basis of the Scriptures. The Epitome presents the basic arguments, and the Solid Declaration gives the detailed presentation.
Ok, I still have questions. Or I'm just overwhelmed!
That's understandable! And that's what pastors are for. If you have questions or concerns, or would like to learn more about the Lutheran teaching—even if you've read something here that's rubbed you wrong and you want to complain—please don't hesitate to e-mail Pastor Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be happy to answer any questions, or respond to any concerns, you might have.
A sample of the AC
AC IV: Our churches teach that people cannot be justified by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3:21–26; 4:5).
AC V: So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given (John 20:22). He works faith, where and when it pleases God (John 3:8) in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ's sake. ...