What We Believe

February 25, 2008 Q & A

Differences between Lutheran and Presbyterian


I am a practicing Lutheran, yet I was baptized in the Presbyterian Church as a infant. While younger I gave very little consideration to spiritual matters, and indeed my home was not truly a Christian home. However, several years ago I did have a spiritual awakening and I took confirmation in a Lutheran Church. While reading more deeply in Scripture and in the Augsburg Confessions, I see very little which differs between the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, with the exception of predestination.

Yet, herein lies my personal rub: I am now a Lutheran, but I personally do believe in predestination and agree with the ideas of John Calvin's concepts as defined by the acronym TULIP. So where does this place me? Am I a "Reformed Lutheran"or an "Orthodox Presbyterian"? What truly differentiates traditional Lutherans from the Reformed Church, and can I with a clear heart and soul attend services in a Reformed Church as well a Lutheran Church?


Thank you for your intriguing questions. What are you? By your confession you are obviously one whose name is written in heaven! And until we reach heaven, Christ's church on earth is His "Church Militant." It is through that organized "army" with binding commitment sealed by solemn vows that you find yourself. Moreover, that army is divided among denominations, some more faithful, some less, to the Word of God, our only rule of faith and life.

Above, I mention that there are varying degrees of faithfulness among denominations as to their faithfulness to the Word of God. As a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), I am bound to the Confessions (creeds) of my church. We may differ among ourselves as to small, disputed, points of doctrine, but I vowed to "... adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture," which is our primary standard.

The differences regarding the system of doctrine between Lutherans and consistent Presbyterians are not minuscule. (The word "orthodox" in our name says we strive to be consistent with the doctrines we see taught in the Bible.) The outstanding differences that affect the system of doctrine between Presbyterians and Lutherans have to do with our views on salvation and the sacraments. Let me deal with these in that order.

The Presbyterian view on salvation is that God is sovereign in all aspects of the work of salvation. Your adherence to the "Five Points" indicate that you appreciate that difference.

God's choice in all matters pertaining to man is unqualifiedly predominant over our choices. God chose to create the world. He chose to create man as the crown of His creation by creating mankind in His own image. Moreover, he chose to create our first parents capable of sinning and falling under His just wrath, but also able to resist the temptation to reject His lordship. He chose to save some of His image-bearers freely out of His mere good pleasure, and not at all based upon His foreknowledge as to whether we would freely refuse or accept His offer of salvation (Eph. 1:3-11). And it was He that ordained to send His son into the world to accomplish that redemption "so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).

On the above statement of God's sovereignty, all five of the "Five Points" firmly rest. Our choice of Christ is after the fact of His choice of us.

As Augustinians, Martin Luther and John Calvin generally agreed on the substance of the Five Points, though they were not as "five points" formally adopted until the Dutch churches did so at the Council of Dort in 1618-1619 following the death of both Luther and Calvin. Luther did believe in Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. As to the extent of the atonement, there are moments when he speaks of it as unlimited, though there are others where he speaks of Christ dying for the elect. (And on irresistible grace, he would allow that some who had genuinely received grace might apostatize.)

Philip Melanchthon attempted to move Lutheranism toward something like an Arminian doctrine of salvation. It was the action of the Synod of Dort that answered all the five assertions of Jacob Arminius who taught ministerial students in Holland that man is not totally depraved, that election is conditioned on God's foreknowledge of our acceptance of Christ, that Christ died for the purpose of saving everybody, that saving grace is resistible (e.g. there would have been no Apostle Paul if he had not been willing), and that it's possible to be lost after one is genuinely saved by grace. The Lutheran tradition has rejected Arminianism, but in a different way than Dort.

Moving to the Sacraments: It is Lutheran doctrine that regeneration (the new birth) comes through baptism. They don't go so far as to say that without baptism one cannot be saved. It is the Lutheran view that the grace of baptism can be resisted, resulting in the condemnation of the one baptized. But unless the grace is overtly resisted, the baptized are considered saved. Presbyterians take a slightly different approach. The Westminster Confession also says that "the grace promised" in baptism (which includes regeneration) "is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time." (WCF 28.6) Therefore we would agree that baptism is indeed the outward means that God uses to communicate the grace of regeneration—though we would insist that it is properly received only by faith. And therefore the grace of baptism truly comes only to the elect. Those non-elect who are baptized receive only the "common operations of the Spirit" (WCF 10.4, see Heb. 6:4-6), thereby receiving only temporary and partial benefits.

And the Lutheran view of the Lord's Supper also differs from that of Presbyterians. As you may know, the Roman Catholic doctrine is that the "host" (the bread) becomes the body of Christ when the priest elevates it at the altar saying, "This is my body..." That is called transubstantiation. The very substance is changed. The Lutheran view is sometimes called "consubstantiation," although few Lutherans accept that term, because they wish to avoid Aristotelian discussions about "substance." It would be more accurate to say that the Lutheran view differs from the Reformed view in saying that the body and blood of Christ are locally present at the Lord's Table and are partaken by believer and unbeliever alike. The Reformed view states that the body and blood of Christ are present at the Lord's Table by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit uniting us with Christ, and are partaken of only by believers--unbelievers partaking of the outward sign only. The fundamental difference, then, is over the question of the ubiquity of the body of Christ. Is Christ brought down from heaven to us, or are we raised up to heaven to him?

How did Luther arrive at that place in his thinking? Early in his life he made contact with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. That was before Calvin's conversion. Exploring their areas of agreement in opposition to Rome's idolatry of the Mass, they discussed the Lord's Supper. Zwingli said, "this is my body" means "this [bread] represents my body." Luther strongly opposed Zwingli. "Is" means identity! The bread therefore had to be identified with the very flesh of Jesus Christ despite Jesus' own words, "I am the good Shepherd", or "I am the way, the truth and the life," which are obviously figures of speech (Christ was not literally a shepherd or a road).

Furthermore, Jesus' body was not yet broken during the Last Supper, but the Lutherans have held Luther's view ever since. I have a granddaughter who married a Lutheran. She could not take the vows at the baptism of her own daughter in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. She couldn't even be a member of the church unless she could swear that she believed the Lutheran doctrines here discussed. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has much more laxity on the subject.

The Presbyterian view doesn't deny the "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament. We believe that the true body and blood of Christ is there, not corporally, but by His Word and Spirit.

So what are you? Obviously by your membership you are Lutheran. You took the vows. In doctrine you could be Orthodox Presbyterian as you wondered, but you are not under OPC vows.

Let me say that we don't look on Lutherans as being apostate. The differences in our doctrine are, however, substantial. If, as Luther declared at the Diet of Worms, "My conscience is bound by the Word of God," then you need to struggle with these things.

I'd be glad to answer other questions to help you. Furthermore there is one more difference between the two churches that is also substantial. It is our view of worship. All consistent Reformed and Presbyterian churches profess what is called "regulative principle" concerning the worship of God. That principle is that "Nothing is allowable in worship which is not required in Scripture." The Lutheran position is that what is not forbidden is allowable. "Where God is silent so are we," which allows for greater liturgical liberty than the Reformed view. So a good deal of liturgical practice is governed by this difference. Something to think about.

This has been a long letter. But I hope it highlights the differences you ask about, between your church and ours. May God lead you to glorify Him in your Christian life.



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