Lutheran Beliefs and Practices

Learn how Lutherans departed from Roman Catholic teachings

Lutheran Beliefs
Martin Luther Preaches in Wartburg by Hugo Vogel. SuperStock/Getty Images

As one of the oldest Protestant denominations, Lutheranism traces its core beliefs and practices back to the teachings of Martin Luther  (1483-1546), a German friar in the Augustinian order known as the "Father of the Reformation."

Lutheran vs Catholic Beliefs

These four theological differences provide a summary of some of the major differences between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs:

  • Doctrinal Authority: Lutherans believe that only the Holy Scriptures hold authority in determining doctrine; Roman Catholics give doctrinal authority to the Pope, traditions of the church, and the Scriptures. 
  • Justification: Lutherans maintain that salvation comes to humans by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone; Roman Catholics believe that faith must be accompanied by good works for salvation to be achieved.
  • Head of the Chuch: Lutherans affirm that Christ is the head of the church and that the Pope should not have divine authority over believers; Roman Catholics believe Christ granted supreme authority to the Pope.
  • Sacraments: Lutherans practice only two sacraments and believe that they are valid only as aids to faith; Roman Catholics claim seven sacraments. Lutherans also reject many elements of Catholic sacraments such as the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Luther was a Bible scholar and believed strongly that all doctrine must be solidly based on Scripture. He rejected the idea that the teaching of the Pope carried the same weight as the Bible.

Initially, Luther sought only to reform in the Roman Catholic Church, but Rome held that the office of Pope had been established by Jesus Christ and that the Pope served as Christ's vicar, or representative, on earth. Therefore, the Catholic church rejected any attempts to limit the role of the Pope or cardinals. 

Lutheran Beliefs

As Lutheranism evolved, some Roman Catholic customs were retained, such as the wearing of vestments, having an altar, and the use of candles and statues. However, Luther's major departures from Roman Catholic doctrine were based on these beliefs:

Baptism: Although Luther retained that baptism was necessary for spiritual regeneration, no specific form was stipulated. Today Lutherans practice both infant baptism and baptism of believing adults. Baptism is done by sprinkling or pouring water rather than immersion. Most Lutheran branches accept a valid baptism of other Christian denominations when a person converts, making re-baptism unnecessary.

Catechism: Luther wrote two catechisms or guides to the faith. The Small Catechism contains basic explanations of the Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, baptism, confession, communion, and a list of prayers and table of duties. The Large Catechism goes into great detail on these topics.

Church Governance: Luther maintained that individual churches should be governed locally, not by a centralized authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church. Although many Lutheran branches still have bishops, they do not exercise the same type of control over congregations.

Creeds: Today's Lutheran churches use the three Christian creeds: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These ancient professions of faith summarize basic Lutheran beliefs.

Eschatology: Lutherans do not interpret the Rapture as most other Protestant denominations do. Instead, Lutherans believe Christ will return only once, visibly, and will catch up all Christians together with the dead in Christ. The tribulation is the normal suffering all Christians endure until that last day.

Heaven and Hell: Lutherans see heaven and hell as literal places. Heaven is a realm where believers enjoy God forever, free from sin, death, and evil. Hell is a place of punishment where the soul is eternally separated from God.

Individual Access to God: Luther believed each individual has the right to reach God through Scripture with a responsibility to God alone. It is not necessary for a priest to mediate. This "priesthood of all believers" was a radical change from Catholic doctrine.

The Lord's Supper: Luther retained the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which is the central act of worship in the Lutheran denomination. But the doctrine of transubstantiation was rejected. While Lutherans believe in the true presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of bread and wine, the church is not specific in how or when that act occurs. Thus, Lutherans resist the idea that the bread and wine are mere symbols.

Purgatory: Lutherans reject the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, a place of cleansing where believers go after death, before entering heaven. The Lutheran Church teaches that there is no scriptural support for it and that the dead go directly to either heaven or hell.  

Salvation by Grace through Faith: Luther maintained that salvation comes by grace through faith alone; not by works and sacraments. This key doctrine of justification represents the major difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism. Luther held that works such as fasting, pilgrimages, novenas, indulgences, and masses of special intention play no part in salvation.

Salvation for All: Luther believed that salvation is available to all humans through the redeeming work of Christ.

Scripture: Luther believed the Scriptures contained the one necessary guide to truth. In the Lutheran Church, much emphasis is placed on hearing the Word of God. The church teaches that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is inspired or "God-breathed." The Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible. 

Lutheran Worship Practices

Sacraments: Luther believed the sacraments were valid only as aids to faith. The sacraments initiate and feed faith, thus giving grace to those who participate in them. The Catholic Church claims seven sacraments, the Lutheran Church only two: baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Worship: As to the manner of worship, Luther chose to retain altars and vestments and prepare an order of liturgical service, but with the understanding that no church was bound to follow any set order. As a result, there is emphasis today on a liturgical approach to worship services, but no uniform liturgy belonging to all branches of the Lutheran body. An important place is given to preaching, congregational singing, and music, as Luther was a great fan of music.


  • Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Concordia Publishing House
  • Religious Movements Website of the University of Virginia
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Your Citation
Fairchild, Mary. "Lutheran Beliefs and Practices." Learn Religions, May. 5, 2021, Fairchild, Mary. (2021, May 5). Lutheran Beliefs and Practices. Retrieved from Fairchild, Mary. "Lutheran Beliefs and Practices." Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).