Lutheran churches, including The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), are creedal churches. We subscribe to creeds (or “confessions”) which state what we understand to be the teachings of the Bible.
The Lutheran church derives its name from Martin Luther (1483–1546), an Augustinian monk whose posting of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 sparked the Reformation. The documents presenting what Lutherans believe, teach and confess as Christians were assembled and published in 1580 in The Book of Concord. We confess the teachings of the Book of Concord because we believe them to be a faithful exposition of what the Bible itself teaches.
Significantly, the very first documents included in The Book of Concord are the three ancient universal creeds compiled during the early, formative years of the Christian era—the Apostles’ Creed (ca. third century AD), the Nicene Creed (fourth century), and the Athanasian Creed (fifth and sixth centuries). Luther and the other writers of these confessions did not want to be doctrinal innovators. They, together with their contemporary descendants, maintain that we believe and teach nothing more and nothing less than what Christians through the ages have always believed.
The Gospel—the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world—is at the core of everything we believe and teach. We Lutherans believe that sinners are justified (declared right) with the Creator God by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), on the basis of Scripture alone (sola scriptura). These three great “Reformation solas” form a handy outline of what Missouri Synod Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.
At the heart of what we believe is the conviction that salvation is the free gift of God’s grace (undeserved mercy) for Christ’s sake alone.
Our fallen, sinful nature makes us rightful objects of God’s wrath. But God loves us and forgives our sins freely out of pure grace, though we cannot do anything ourselves to earn forgiveness.
The basis for the grace of God that alone gives hope to sinners is the perfect life and subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus was both truly God and truly human, able as man to fully identify with all our temptations and tribulations on earth while as God still having the power to lead a perfect life.
God’s plan of grace used the innocent death of Jesus as atonement for the sins of everyone on earth, embracing all people of all times and all places.
We believe that the Scriptures teach that by His suffering and death as the substitute for all people of all time, Jesus purchased and won forgiveness and eternal life for them. However, only those who believe this Gospel have the eternal life that it offers. That God’s universal grace can be appropriated by human beings only through faith in Jesus Christ and His resurrection, apart from any meritorious human actions, is the point where Luther’s decisive break came with the Roman Catholic Church.
The implications of justification “through faith alone” permeate everything we Lutherans believe and teach. One important example of this is that we teach that faith itself is a gift of God and not the result of any human effort or decision to believe. “Through faith alone” also implies that it is only through the proclamation of the good news of God’s salvation in the Gospel that we come to faith. The proclamation of the Gospel Word in public preaching therefore occupies a central position in our Lutheran theology. Missouri Synod Lutheran churches are preaching churches. But we are also sacramental churches, for the sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are the Gospel made visible to us.
Justification is an act, a declaration. It is not a process. Through faith in Christ, and only through faith, sinners are declared to be forgiven and to be perfectly right with God. This declaration is whole and complete, totally independent of any inherent goodness in us sinners. In short, because of God’s act on the cross received through faith, we sinners are declared to be perfect saints in God’s sight.
Because of our emphasis on justification through faith alone, we Lutherans have sometimes been understood to advocate taking sin for granted and ignoring concern for a life of holy living. But such notions are a perversion of what we believe. The Lutheran Confessions bear witness to the Bible’s command that “Love and good works must also follow faith… because God has commanded them and in order to exercise our faith” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV, 74 and 189). In other words, we believe that good works are necessary—but they are not necessary for salvation.
Luther’s insight that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone cannot be divorced from “on the basis of Scripture alone.” For it was directly as a result of his commitment to Scripture that Luther came to rediscover justification by grace alone through faith alone.
Together with his contemporaries, Luther held that the Bible is the Word of God and that it does not mislead or deceive us. But Luther took an important stand that had cultural and political consequences beyond Rome.
Unlike his opponents in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther rejected the notion that an infallible magisterium (teaching authority established and handed down by church leaders) is necessary for the right interpretation of the Bible.
While maintaining a deep appreciation for the church catholic (catholic means “universal”), Missouri Synod Lutherans believe that Scripture alone—not Scripture and tradition, Scripture and the church, Scripture and human reason, or Scripture and experience—stands as the final standard of what the Gospel is. This belief sets us apart from most Christian denominations today, and even sets us apart from the official teachings of many modern Lutherans.
The key to understanding Scripture properly, we believe, is the careful distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The whole Bible can be divided into these two chief teachings. The Law tells what God demands of sinners if they are to be saved. The Gospel reveals what God has already done for our salvation. The chief purpose of the Law is to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. The Gospel offers the free gift of God’s salvation in Christ.
It is in the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that the purity of the Gospel is preserved and the three solas of “grace alone,” “faith alone” and “Scripture alone” are united.
—adapted from An Introduction to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod by Dr. Samuel Nafzger