The Evangelical Lutheran Church has its roots in the One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church, of which it is its legitimate and direct heir. Its history includes also the period of Church history from the Apostles to the Reformation of the 16th century itself. Martin Luther’s action was not aimed at founding a new Church, but at reforming the existing one. In principle, Martin Luther recognized the historical traditions of the Church as valid, but wanted to abolish those that were in contrast to the Gospel message. Still today, liturgy, theology, constitution and art testify to the rich heritage of the 2000 years of Christian History.
The main message is justification by grace alone through faith. How can we be just before God? What gives our life its highest meaning and value? The answer is that man has no way to overcome his egocentricity and ascend to God. Justice, meaning and value can be bestowed on him only as a gift from God. God himself became man in Jesus Christ and conquered sin and death on the cross so that everyone who believes in him will be saved. God saves man not because of his merit, but because he loves him without asking for anything in return. What can man add to God’s salvific action? Nothing! He can only place his trust in God’s work! Faith unites with Christ he who believes, making him part of his love, justice and eternal life. In short: by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone. Sola gratia. Sola fide. Solus Christus.
The Bible alone has authority in matters of faith: sola scriptura. Luther bases his Reformation on the Bible, which he opposes to papal authority. The human voice cannot stand above the Word of God. However, Luther does not deny that the Bible was written by man, somehow anticipating the historical-critical approach. The Bible is not simply identical to the Word of the living God, the Bible bears witness to the Word of God, proclaims it and makes it actual, thus becoming the Word of God itself. At the heart of the Bible is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which serves as the interpretative key and the full significance of which is found in the distinction between law and Gospel.
All believers participate in universal priesthood. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between man and God, and, through him, every believer has a direct relationship with God. Through Baptism and faith, every Christian takes part in the sacred ministry. There is no significant qualitative difference between pastors and the other members of the Church. The only true difference is functional and representative. For this reason, pastors, men and women, live a “normal” life and can, for example, get married. The other members practice their priesthood by proclaiming the Gospel to family, friends, at the workplace and, sometimes, if the Church appoints them as lay preachers, also in public.
The Church is the assembly of believers. It is not the Clergy that constitutes the Church the faithful may or may not join, as all believers are the body of Christ and the people of God. The outward signs of the Church are the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of sacraments, because through them the Spirit creates faith in Christ, and the believers constitute the Church. These two signs are given by God and indispensable. The organisation of the Church, its offices and rites are human traditions that can change in different times and cultures. In Lutheran Churches there usually are bishops and hierarchies, which are, however, part of a democratic and council process (the Synod).
A believer acts from his faith. Every justified man is free. He is free because he lives under grace and no longer under the law. He is free because he no longer needs to give meaning and justification to his existence and, therefore, can devote himself to his neighbour. The heart of Lutheran ethics is the observance of the first commandment, which is about loving God above all things and obeying his will. This does not mean having to follow a list of rules, but rather conforming one’s whole life to the love of Christ and acting freely and responsibly in favour of one’s neighbour. In his everyday life, whether in church, in the family or at work, a Christian serves God and his neighbour, becoming a collaborator of God in the world.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church is an Ecumenical Church. The division of the Church contrasts with its foundation, that is, Jesus Christ, who is One. The Lutheran Church has always felt called to Ecumenism, which means putting Christ at the centre. The aim of Ecumenism is not the unification of all Churches under one single ecclesiastical institution, but mutual recognition and a council structure, where the characteristics of each individual Church still exist but do not divide. Lutherans have achieved full mutual recognition with Reformed Evangelical Churches. The same applies to the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches and the Anglican Church in England. The common faith of the early centuries unites us with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. Unfortunately, following the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church established many dogmas that separate us, in particular regarding papacy and the role of the Church. These difficulties do not exist in the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, although in this case it is the different tradition and culture that act as an obstacle.