What really is a Lutheran? This is a question which has not only perplexed non-Lutherans who have observed Lutherans in our country and all over the world split into a confusing plethora of territorial churches and synods; but the question is asked, and very sincerely, by more and more Lutherans who are distressed over the disunity so apparent the world over. It is surely a valid question, and vital for millions who studied and believe Luther's Small Catechism and wish to remain faithful to its teachings and to their confirmation vow. And it is a question, ironically, which is really quite simple to answer.
This is a question that is of importance for Lutheran lay people and anyone else who is interested in understanding better what, exactly, a Lutheran is.
The answer is simple because we Lutherans for over 400 years have been guided in our belief and teaching and preaching by a number of Confessions which are collected together in one volume called the Book of Concord.
This Book of Concord contains a quite divergent assortment of creeds and formal confessions which have one thing in common, a doctrinal unity, a united commitment to the teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this book are the ecumenical creeds, developed and written from the second to the sixth century, long before the Reformation. Included also are Luther's Small Catechism and his Large Catechism (1529),which were not originally intended to be confessions at all in the usual sense, but were written for children and ordinary adults to summarize the Christian faith and the way of salvation for them. Perhaps the most important confession included in our Book of Concord is the Augsburg Confession (1530), written by Philip Melanchthon and presented on behalf of the Lutheran princes of the day at a very important meeting with the emperor to testify to the world exactly what the Protestant churches in their lands taught about the Christian religion and the Gospel. A year later (1531), Melanchthon wrote a defense of this great confession called the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, a very lengthy treatise in which he defends the theology of the Augsburg Confession, especially on such crucial issues of the Reformation as justification by faith, the importance of good works, the work of Christ, repentance, and the like.
In 1537, Luther was asked to write a confession for a church council the pope suggested he might hold but which never came about. It was written at a little town called Smalcald and is called the Smalcald Articles. It is a bold and militant document, but at the same time exhibits Luther's great heart and concern for the Gospel and for the church, and it wins the reader by its sincerity and conviction. Later in the same year Melanchthon wrote a short Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope because Luther had seemingly not said enough about this in his Smalcald Articles. This too was included in our Book of Concord.
After Luther died in 1546, all kinds of controversies and misunderstandings broke out among the Lutherans in Germany. After years of debate and monumental attempts at settling the doctrinal issues the Formula of Concord was written in 1577. This was a joint undertaking of a great many Lutheran theologians who wanted only to settle the disputes and remain faithful to their Lutheran heritage. They were eminently successful. The Formula of Concord was signed by thousands of Lutheran pastors in the German empire; at a later date the Lutheran Church in Sweden and in Hungary also signed this document. Now peace (concordia) was established. The Reformation and the cause of the Gospel went on, uninhibited by doctrinal controversy.
In 1580 all these creeds and confessions were incorporated into the Book of Concord, which Lutheran pastors subscribe and pledge themselves today because they are a pure exposition of the Word of God. Although the Book of Concord contains documents written over 400 years ago, what is taught in these documents is precisely, or ought to be, what is believed and taught and confessed by every Lutheran pastor, and layman today.
No collection of books or statement has so adequately, so accurately, so comfortingly reflected and exhibited the Biblical Gospel as do the Lutheran Confessions.
Soli Deo gloria: to God alone the glory!