Question: "What is the Lutheran Church, and what do Lutherans believe?"
Answer: The Lutheran Church is actually many different bodies, all of which base their teachings and practice to some degree on the work of Martin Luther. There is such a wide variance in their particular beliefs that it would be difficult to address them all, but this article will attempt to outline those most commonly held.
Martin Luther was born and raised in Germany and studied philosophy and law as a young man, but soon became discouraged by those studies. He became an Augustinian Monk in 1505, but the isolated lifestyle only led him to further despair as he spent countless hours in meditation and contemplation. In 1507, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and later began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. During his years teaching theology, Luther grew increasingly frustrated at the excesses and abuses which he saw within the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saint's Church in Wittenberg, which was the accepted practice for anyone at the university who wanted to engage in theological debate. The majority of Luther's theses addressed the lack of biblical knowledge, practice, and accountability among the leaders of the church, and were intended to point them back to Scripture. Martin Luther was not the first to address these issues; in fact, most of them had been pointed out by other men within the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 100 years. Despite the steady stream of critics, the Catholic Church refused to admit error or make any substantial changes.
As with the other Reformers, who were all born, baptized, confirmed and educated in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had no intention of starting a new church, but only wanted to correct what he saw as violations of clear biblical teaching. Part of the problem was a widespread ignorance of the Bible, even among ordained priests. Carlstadt, an older peer of Luther, admitted that he was made a Doctor of Divinity before he had even seen a complete copy of the Bible. One of the driving factors in Luther's work was the desire to have clear teaching for the common questions of the people, such as, “What must a man do to be saved?” and “How shall a sinner be justified before God and attain peace for his troubled conscience?” After a series of meetings in which Luther refused to recant his views, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521. Many of the common people and German nobility followed Luther's teaching, and the Lutheran Church began to be organized as a separate body in 1525. In recent years, most Lutheran bodies have made efforts to mend the breach with the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1530, the German lords were requested by the Pope to give an accounting of their beliefs (as well as reconfirm their fidelity to the Holy Roman Empire), and they gave their reply in the Augsburg Confessions. This was the first detailed confession of faith by German Lutherans, and it is still the primary document used by Lutherans to describe and guide their faith. In 1580, the Book of Concord combined 10 documents which were considered authoritative for guiding the Lutheran faith. That book is still used today, but has a different degree of authority within the various Lutheran bodies.
Though there are quite a few organized Lutheran groups around the world, the two main bodies in America are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). The ELCA has roughly 5 million members in 10,500 churches, and the LCMS has roughly 2.3 million members in 6,167 churches. The ELCA was formed in 1988 by a merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. The LCMS was formed in 1847 by Saxon (German) Lutherans who came to America to escape persecution and the detrimental effects of German Rationalism on their faith. Both churches hold to the Augsburg Confession, which teaches that all men are born in sin, and therefore need to be justified through faith in Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Along with faith in Christ, baptism is “necessary for salvation” and therefore “children should be baptized, for being offered to God through baptism they are received into his grace” (Art. IX). [Note: the LCMS qualifies the official position on baptism by saying, “The LCMS does not believe that Baptism is ABSOLUTELY necessary for salvation,” but then goes on to say that baptism is “a powerful means of grace by which God grants faith and the forgiveness of sins” (emphasis in the original, http://www.lcms.org/faqs/doctrine, accessed 11/9/2016).] The Lutheran church teaches that all men have some measure of freedom of the will—which is ironic considering Luther comes to the opposite conclusion in one of his most famous books, The Bondage of the Will. Lutherans also believe that, without God’s grace and help, given by the Holy Spirit, man is incapable of fearing or believing in God.
Many of the ceremonies and liturgies of the Catholic Church have been carried over into the Lutheran Church, with modifications to reflect their distinct doctrines. Some of the differences between the ELCA and LCMS stem from their divergent views on the Bible. While the LCMS affirms that the Bible is infallible in all areas (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:16), the ELCA states that it is possible for the Bible to be in error concerning some areas, like science or history. In general, all Lutheran churches teach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, but the manner in which that faith is lived out can vary from an empty participation in ceremonies to a very personal relationship with God.