Catholics and Lutherans

I am a practicing Lutheran and have been one all my life. With the death of the Pope I have taken an interest in the history and practices of the Catholic Church. In talking with my neighbor (who is Catholic) and reading as much information that I can on sites such as this, I am having a hard time differentiating some of the more subtle differences. I have been baptized, participate in Communion, and have been confirmed. I understand the reason that the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted were in response to a misuse of power at the time. Were any of the arguments presented by Luther addressed later in Church history?

What else are the major differences?

I am mainly interested in Matthew 16:18 “18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Wouldn’t that mean that most all Christian Religions (at least ones born of the Reformation and Protestant movement) were all based in some shape or form on Peters initial Christianity movement?


I agree that the differences between Lutherans and Catholics can appear subtle, but the differences were significant enough to split the Church.

The liturgy looks very similar. Many times there is only a word or two different in our prayers. Catholics celebrate Mass daily, while in the Lutheran church the frequency of communion services is left up to the individual parish. They typically follow the readings for the church year that is almost exactly like the Catholic church readings. The church calendars are almost identical, with a few significant exceptions.

The number of sacraments is different. Catholics have seven sacraments, while Lutherans only have two. Lutherans believe in the real pressence in the Eucharist, but the theology and terms we use are different. We both baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church also believes that confirmaion, confession, annointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders are sacraments. Lutherans may have those things, but don’t call them sacraments.

Church authority is the main difference. The Catholic Church, as recent events highlight, has the Pope as the earthly authority to guide the Church with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Catholics believe the Christ guaranted protection of the Church’s doctrine when He told Peter, “the gates of hell will not prevail.” (Catholics do not believe that those who separated themselves from Peter’s successors during the Reformationhave that same protectionof their doctrine, and we see multiple conflicting doctrines among the Protestants.)

After Luther left the Catholic church, he set up an organization that looks remarkably like the catholic church without a pope–Lutherans have bishops too. But Lutheran bishops aren’t united with Rome, and many aren’t united with each other. You probably are aware of the various synods who interpret Lutheranism different among themselves. Authority in the Lutheran church depends on what synod you belong to, and in some their church doctrines are voted on in conferences.

We also understand different meanings in the phrase “Communion of Saints” in the Nicene Creed. Catholics believe that the saints in heaven can help us to Jesus. Just like all the good Pope John Paul II did in his life is now showing many people what a Christian life can look like, the saints show us how to follow Jesus. Catholics don’t believe they stop doing that just because of death of the body–their souls are alive with Christ and we believe they can continue to pray to Him for us, just like they did on earth.

On social issues, such as abortion, the Catholic Church and some of the conservative Lutheran synods (i.e. Missouri synod, Wisconsin synod) hold similar positions. More liberal synods (like the ELCA) share some similsr issue with social justice, but not on abortion.

Okay, this is a realy long post. You can probably guess I had ties with the Lutheran church. I used to attend a Lutheran church with my husband. My husband and dad were converts to Catholicm from Lutheranism. I know many wonderful Christians who are Lutheran. But I believe the Cathlic church has the fullness of the faith and the protection promised by Christ to Peter. I once heard a Lutheran pastor say that Luther’s original 95 points have been addressed in the Catholic Church. I invite you to learn more about the Catholic faith.

[quote=seeking_answers]I am a practicing Lutheran and have been one all my life.

ELCA? LCMS? Wisconsin?

[quote=seeking_answers] I understand the reason that the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted were in response to a misuse of power at the time. Were any of the arguments presented by Luther addressed later in Church history?

The Council of Trent, 1545-63, addressed the problem of the selling of indulgences, but the practice of giving indulgences continues to this day. Luther wasn’t just attacking abuses–if he had been, he would not have been condemned. He had developed a theology that questioned the whole theological structure that allowed for indulgences. Initially, in the 95 Theses, he attacked the idea of a “treasury of merit” which could be applied to the temporal punishment due people’s sins (this referred only to sins that had been repented of). This led him to question papal authority, since the “treasury” doctrine had been clearly taught by papal decrees. Luther’s basic criticism, though, was that the late medieval Church had forgotten what the Gospel was all about. In particular, the theology he had been taught held that you could love God with all your heart by an act of free will, without grace. God would then give you grace and accept you as righteous. This was an extreme teaching–not all Catholic theologians taught this, and it certainly wasn’t official dogma. Some Catholic scholars have speculated that Luther might not have reacted so strongly if he’d been taught the theology of Thomas Aquinas–but other theologians of his day, who were Thomists by training, thought he had a valid critique of Catholic theology as a whole, so I’m not sure this is true.

As you no doubt know, Luther’s central teaching (as his doctrine developed) was justification by faith alone. He believed that our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us on the basis of our faith in Christ’s promise. The sacraments are ways in which God strengthens our faith and thus brings us into closer union with Christ. Good works express our gratitude for God’s grace and our love for the neighbor. Acts of self-denial help mortify the old nature and strengthen the life of God within us, but they are not the basis on which God accepts us.

Ecumenical Catholics today would say that essentially these insights are compatible with Catholicism. Indeed, the Lutheran churches in Germany and representatives of the Catholic Church signed a “Joint Declaration” a few years ago saying that their differences on justification did not need to be church-dividing. (“Confessional” Lutherans like the Missouri Synod in the U.S. rejected this agreement, of course.)

The main parts of Lutheran theology that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine are, as far as I know, the following:

  1. Imputed righteousness. Catholics do not believe that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer. Rather, they believe that God forgives our sins when we repent, and that only mortal sins cut off our relationship with God in the first place. Thus, they do believe in a non-imputation of sin, but not in a positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness becomes ours through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Both Lutherans and Catholics historically deny that mortal sin is compatible with saving faith, but they explain it differently. Lutherans believe that a true believer will either not fall into mortal sin or will repent immediately, while Catholics believe that mortal sin violates charity and thus causes faith to become “unformed” or “dead” faith which cannot save anyone.

  2. Merit. Catholics are willing to speak of our “meriting” final salvation through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, with which we freely cooperate. We cannot merit initial grace, of course. Lutherans historically reject any language of merit. This is one of the points that modern ecumenists are inclined to treat as a matter of semantics–although strict confessionalists on both sides reject this angrily!

  3. Sacramental grace. The differences here are very subtle, as you pointed out. Lutherans insist on the necessity of faith to receive grace in the sacraments, and historically have accused Catholics of denying this. But it’s not clear to me that there’s a real disagreement so much as a concern for different things. Catholics do not believe that an adult can receive grace in the sacraments without faith. And Lutherans of course interpret “faith” in the case of an infant to mean something wholly passive. The main difference, really, is that Lutherans put everything in terms of faith in the promise, seeing the sacraments as means by which the Word is applied to the believer (or to the infant). Both, however, believe that grace is objectively offered in the sacraments and that only the reception of grace depends on the disposition of the receiver (not the presence of grace–or in the case of the Eucharist the presence of Christ). So I don’t think the differences here are huge.

  4. Real Presence. Catholics believe that the substance of bread and wine is transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood, while Lutherans believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine without the bread and wine being changed (at least that’s how I understand the Lutheran position). Again, from where I sit this looks like a subtle difference, since both agree that Christ is truly and objectively present. Catholics also believe that Christ remains present until the “accidents” (the physical appearances) of bread and wine cease to exist (I understand that Lutherans are divided on this point?), and they worship Christ as present in the Sacrament even outside the Liturgy (something Lutherans, as far as I know, do not practice).

  5. Ecclesiology. Catholics believe that the Church is a universal visible institution led by bishops in apostolic succession in communion with the bishop of Rome as successor of Peter (although they believe that other Christians are imperfectly members of the Church through baptism and faith in Christ). They believe that the Church has the authority to determine matters of doctrine infallibly and to issue decrees on matters of discipline that are binding on the conscience of all the faithful.

I’ve taken too long, so I won’t go into more detail. These are the main points of difference, I think. I myself see no. 5 as the real kicker, but that may reflect my rather different perspective (I come from the Wesleyan tradition, which is closer to Catholicism on matters of faith and works, etc.). However, the Joint Declaration indicates that many Lutherans agree with me. Justification has been held up for centuries as the point of difference, but today matters of ecclesiology are the real dividing factors, I think.

In Christ,


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