In this post, I will explore the differences (and similarities) between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. It is a subject that takes us back to the heart of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther penned 95 articles (or theses) of contention against the Roman Catholic Church’s practices and beliefs.
In the years that followed a great rift formed as many followed the teachings of Luther, while others remained under the authority of the Pope.
The Protestant Reformation was born, as was Lutheranism. How does Lutheranism compare with Catholicism? That is what this post will answer.
What is Catholicism?
Catholics are people who profess and follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, led by the Pope, the bishop of Rome. The word “catholic” means universal, and Catholics believe that they are exclusively the true Church. Romans Catholics reject the Protestant view that the actual catholic church is the invisible church, comprised of believers everywhere and from many gospel-believing denominations.
What is Lutheranism?
Lutheranism is a branch of Protestant denominations which trace their heritage to the reformer Martin Luther. Most Lutherans follow The Book of Concord and share similar beliefs within the broader tradition of historical Lutheranism. Today, there are many distinct Lutheran denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, etc. Lutherans hold to many distinctives, such as the “3 Solas of Lutheranism” (sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide).
Are Lutherans Catholic?
Lutherans are not “big ‘C’ Catholics. Since Martin Luther, Lutherans have explicitly rejected many tenets of Catholicism, such as the papacy, the authority of tradition, Catholic priesthood, the magisterium of the church, and so on. Below we will note in greater detail many such differences.
But first, some similarities. Both Lutherans and Catholics are Trinitarians, meaning that they both affirm that God is triune – he is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Both Lutherans and Catholics revere the Scriptures, though they differ in many ways on how they revere it and even what constitutes the Scriptures. Both Catholics and Lutherans affirm the divinity and eternality, as well as the humanity of Jesus Christ.
The morals and values of both Catholicism and Lutheranism are nearly identical.
Traditionally, Lutherans are “High Church” especially compared with many other Protestant Denominations. Like Catholics, Lutherans utilize a liturgy in worship. A Catholic and a Lutheran service would both be very formal. Both Lutherans and Catholics call themselves Christians.
Both Lutheranism and Catholicism hold to a high view of sacraments, and hold similar beliefs on many of the sacraments (with many important exceptions).
While they share some similarities, Catholics and Lutherans differ in many significant ways. And to those difference we now turn.
The Doctrine of Justification
Catholics believe that there are two phases of justification. For initial justification, one demonstrates faith in Christ plus meritorious works such as adherence to the sacraments and good works. Following this initial justification, the Catholic is required to continue cooperating with God’s grace and progress in good works. At death, this process is complete and then the person will know whether he or she was finally justified.
Lutherans, on the other hand, believe that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. Works do not merit justification, but rather are a result of it. Justification is a divine declaration, formally declaring the believer to be justified before God and establishing a new relationship with God.
What do they teach on baptism?
Lutherans believe that baptism is necessary, though not “absolutely necessary” for salvation. At baptism, they receive the assurance of God’s salvation. They baptize by sprinkling or pouring, depending on the specific tradition. If one refuses baptism, they are not saved according to traditional Lutheranism. However, if one has faith but does not, before death, have the opportunity for baptism, then they are not condemned. So necessary, though not absolutely necessary.
Catholics invest a greater salvific significance into baptism. At baptism, Catholics teach that original sin – the sin into which all people are born – is cleansed, and a person is made a part of the Catholic church.
The role of the church
One of the biggest differences between Catholics and Lutherans is their view of the church. For Catholics, the church has divine authority. The Catholic church alone is the “mystical body of Christ”, and to be apart from Roman Catholic Church, or excommunicated by the church, is to be condemned.
Lutherans believe that where ever God’s Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered the one Holy church exists. They also affirm that the church is the body of Christ, though they would not use the word mystical. The primary role of the church is to bear witness of Jesus Christ through preaching God’s Word and properly administer the sacraments.
One major difference between Catholicism and Lutheranism is that local Lutheran churches are autonomous, whereas the Catholic church is hierarchical, with the head of the church being the Pope.
Praying to the saints
Lutherans are prohibited from praying to the Saints, while Catholics believe that Saints are intercessors in heaven for Christians, and we can pray to them as we would to God, so that they could intercede on our behalf to God.
Lutherans believe that Christ will return at the end of the age and all humanity will be resurrected and judged. The faithful will enjoy eternity in heaven with God, while the unfaithful will be condemned to eternity in hell.
Catholics believe, similarly, that Christ will return and judge all things. Though they would be quick to assert that Christ presently reigns through the church. But they do not deny a final judgment. Prior to that judgement they hold that their will be a final assault upon the church or test for all Christians which will shake the faith of many. But then Christ will come and judge the living and the dead.
Life after death
One of the most significant difference is in what Catholics and Lutherans believe about life after death. Lutherans believe that all those who are Christians go immediately into the presence with the Lord at death. Those outside of Christ go to a temporary place of torment.
Catholics, on the other hand, hold that very few people are able to go directly into the presence of God in heaven following death. Even for those “in friendship with God” there is often a further purification of sin required. For this, they go to place called Purgatory where they are purified through suffering for a time known only to God.
Penance / Confessing sins to a priest
Catholics hold to the sacrament of penance. When a person sins, to be restored into a right relationship with God and obtain forgiveness, one must make confession to a priest. Catholics regularly do this, and the priest has the authority to absolve sins. The priest acts in a mediatorial role between the person and God. Often, the priest will assing and act of penance for complete absolution.
Lutherans believe that Christians have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. They reject the notion that a priest has the authority to absolve sins, and appeal directly to God, trusting in the work of Christ as sufficient to cover the sin of a believer.
Catholics believe that a priest is an intermediary between the believer and God. Only formal clergy such as priests have the authority to administer the sacraments and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Catholics go to a priest in their process of communion with God.
Lutherans hold to the priesthood of all believers, and that Christ is the only mediator between God and man. Christians, therefore, have direct access to God.
View of the Bible & the Catechism
Catholics view the Scriptures very differently than Lutherans (and all Protestant denominations). They do believe that the Scriptures are from God and have authority. But they reject the perspicuity (the clarity or know-ability) of the Scriptures, and insist that to rightly understand the Scriptures an official interpreter – the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church – is required.
Church traditions (such as counsels and formal creeds) carry a weight and authority equal to that of the Scriptures. Further, the Pope, when speaking officially (ex-cathedra) carries the same authority as the Scriptures and as tradition. Thus, for the Catholic there are three sources of infallible, divine truth: the Scriptures, the Church and tradition.
The Lutherans reject the infallibility of both the church (the Pope) and tradition, and insist upon the Scriptures as the final authority for life and practice.
Holy Eucharist / Catholic Mass / Transubstantiation
At the center of Catholic worship is the Mass or the Eucharist. During this ceremony, the actual presence of Christ is manifest mystically in elements. When the elements are blessed they transubstantiate into the actual body and blood of Christ. Thus, the worshipper consumes the actual flesh and blood of Christ, even though the elements remain on the outside the form of bread and wine. This brings the sacrifice of Christ into the present for the worshipper to enjoy afresh. This process has saving affect for the worshipper.
Lutherans reject that the elements become the actual body and blood, though Lutherans do believe in the real presence of Christ during the Eucharist. In the language of Luther, Christ is in, above, behind and beside the elements. Thus, Christians enjoy the presence of Christ without bringing his sacrifice into the presence for renewal. This is not only distinct from Roman Catholicism; this view is also distinct from many Protestant traditions.
Catholics believe that the earthly head of the church is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Pope enjoys an apostolic succession that is traced, supposedly, to the Apostle Peter. The keys of the kingdom are handed down and possessed by the Pope. Thus all Catholics view the Pope as their highest ecclesiastical authority.
Are Lutherans saved?
Since Lutherans traditionally and formally confess faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, many faithful Lutherans are true believers in Christ and are therefore Saved. Some Lutheran denominations have moved away from what Lutherans have traditionally believed and have therefore drifted from the Scriptures. While others have remained true.
Many other Protestant traditions take issue mostly with the Lutheran view of baptism, and its salvific effect.