By Anastacia Mott Austin
I grew up in Minnesota (read as: I was raised a Norwegian Lutheran). Yeah, sure. You betcha.
The traditions of my childhood faith became intertwined with the customs of my heritage. We ate lutefisk at Christmas, a cruel joke on little Scandinavian children everywhere, if you ask me. That more than makes up for the fact that Lutherans are not required to perform penance like their Catholic cousins.
I didn't know any Catholics growing up. At least, I don't think I did. There was one Catholic church in town - a gigantic, white modern-looking warehouse, but I never went inside (until much later, when my mom got a job there, but that's a different story).
Full disclosure: I was the child of a Lutheran pastor. You would think that'd mean I know everything about Lutheranism. But just like any religion that one is raised with, there is a lot that is just a given, not fully explained.
Notice I did not say that I am the child of a Lutheran pastor. I was. Of my family of origin, two of us are pagans, two converted to Catholicism (which I didn't know anyone even did anymore), and one is an Anglican priest. My father took a detour, or perhaps a sojourn or two, on his way to where he is now. He left the Lutheran Church, then worked in a variety of administrative and human resources positions before becoming an Eastern Orthodox, and after that, an Anglican bishop.
But back to the Lutherans. As I mentioned, it's difficult to separate the place I went to worship with the place where I grew up. Scandinavians are stoic, sturdy folks, not given to wild displays of wailing in church or speaking in tongues. No weeping over the baby Jesus, no railing about sins and hell from the mild-mannered, bespectacled pastor I knew. But the people I knew and went to church with were warm, well-rooted, reliable, and faithful people. I would know them forever. It doesn't surprise me that warm, kind, and stoic people who were accustomed to hardship and cold winters would be drawn to Lutheranism. My childhood faith provided me with the same roots and a deep knowing that God loved me and I was already saved. It was a faith that would outlast my allegiance to the Lutheran church.
When Martin Luther tacked up the '95 Theses' on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in 1517, he didn't know that single act would catalyze the Protestant Reformation.
The 95 Theses was essentially a list of what Luther felt was wrong with the Catholic Church, including the use of penance to earn salvation, the authority of the Pope, the use of indulgences (whereby sinners could buy their salvation), and many other wrongs that he felt that a corrupt Church was committing.
With the advent of the printing press, Luther's opinions and his translation of the Bible helped give strength to the growing dissent within the Catholic Church. The common people were able to read the Bible in their own language, and interpret it in their own ways. A massive reformation took place, with many people breaking from the Church.
The Church responded by calling Luther "the destroyer of the faith of Christ and a seducer of simple Christians," and excommunicated him in 1521.
In simple terms, Luther's primary difference with the Catholic Church was the idea of justification. Luther interpreted the Bible to mean that God alone can offer salvation; that eternal life was a gift given by God through the death of His son, Jesus Christ, and the Church had nothing to do with that gift. The Catholic Church did not appreciate him telling the common folk that they could have a direct line to God and didn't need to negotiate with the church. Luther believed that through faith in God, a person was already saved by His grace.
It is this central tenet that Lutherans today still distinguish their beliefs by. "Justification by grace through faith" is still taught in sermons, catechism classes, and Sunday schools.
Lutherans do not believe in a punitive God. No acts of penance can restore one to the grace of God because as a believer, one is already there. Perhaps the motivation to be a good person, therefore, is in wanting to live up to God's belief in you as a perfect child, as opposed to wanting to prove one's worth to a God who already thinks you're bad.
No wonder Lutherans are so steady and deep-rooted. It's not just the cold winters that make them unflappable, it's that they believe in God's steady, deep-rooted love for them, and the promise that they have already attained salvation.