Lutheran vs. Evangelical: What’s the Difference?

People regularly see Lutheran and evangelical churches in America and Europe, and in recent decades, both traditions have extended their influence worldwide. Many people know that Lutheran and evangelical churches are part of the Christian faith and therefore have certain beliefs and practices in common. Yet, since they are unique traditions, they have differences, too, but many need clarification about what those are.

The Lutheran and evangelical traditions are part of the Protestant branch of Christianity. Lutheranism, named for its founder Martin Luther, the well-known German Reformer, dates to 16th-century Germany. Evangelicalism, as a movement, dates to the early 20th century in America.

What do the names “Lutheran” and “evangelical” mean? What is the origin of each tradition? Are they liberal or conservative theologically and socially? How do their beliefs about the Bible, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the end times compare? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutherans and Episcopalians? to learn more.

Lutheran Christianity
Is Lutheranism liberal or conservative? See below

Lutheran and Evangelical Christianity Compared

The early history of Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation is the same. The protest that Luther wielded eventually spread to countries neighboring Germany, elsewhere in Europe, especially Scandinavia, and eventually to America, where it established strong roots. However, as the Reformation in Europe grew, some churches concluded that Lutheranism didn’t go far enough in its reforms.

Evangelicalism as a movement is a 20th-century branch of Protestant Christianity that arose in America. It’s often contrasted with Fundamentalism, which is similar theologically, but with less emphasis on social engagement, and liberalism, which focuses less on theology.

Evangelicalism shares many beliefs with Lutheranism but moved further away from Roman Catholicism on some issues, especially some related to the organization and functions of the Church.

FounderMartin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk, priest, theologian, author, and Protestant Reformer.Evangelicalism doesn’t have a single founder. Instead, the movement consists of multiple denominations and churches.
OriginLuther sought to reform the Catholic church with his insights and convictions regarding salvation being by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Catholic church rejected his ideas.The modern use of the term originated in the 20th century. It’s distinguished from liberalism and fundamentalist movements. Fundamentalism has similar theology to evangelicalism because both movements have a high view of Scripture.
NameThe terms “Lutheran” and “Lutheranism” refers to the teaching of Luther and the Christians who follow it.The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning “gospel” or “good news.” The term describes a gospel-centered or cross-centered worldview.
Early influencer(s)Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was a systematic theologian and co-laborer with Luther in protesting the shortcomings of Catholicism and reforming the Christian church in Germany.English preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), American preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), Billy Graham (1918-2018), and many others.
Significant writing outside the BibleLuther’s 95 Theses, his shorter and larger catechism, the Book on Concord, the Augsburg ConfessionEvangelicalism values the same writing important to Protestantism, including the numerous works that emphasize a gospel-centered approach to evangelism, missions, biblical interpretation, and more.
OrganizationChurches exist in synods, i.e., conferences or districts. Some Lutheran denominations have bishops, some don’t. Congregations typically vote on pastors.Evangelicalism consists of numerous denominations and even non-denominational churches. Evangelical churches can have congregational, presbyterian, or episcopalian church government.
DivisionsThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the largest Lutheran synod in the U.S., with 4 million people. The largest conservative Lutheran synod is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), with 2 million people.Churches in any denomination can be called “evangelical” if they centralize the gospel and emphasize other markers of the movement, like valuing conversions and applying their faith through social causes like caring for the poor.
Theological and social worldviewIt depends on the synod. The LCMS and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) are conservative. The ELCA is moderate to liberal, depending on the congregation.Historically, evangelical churches are conservative theologically and socially. In recent years, some self-identifying evangelical churches have drifted from conservative theology and adopted modern social values on various issues.

Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutherans and Methodists? to learn more.

Evangelical differences
Do evangelicals speak in tongues? See below

Lutheran and Evangelical Beliefs: God, Jesus, the Bible, and More

In recent decades, the matters that the Lutheran tradition has discussed and debated centered on social issues, not theological ones. Though some rightly argue that social issues are theological at their root, the application of Bible-based teachings such as marriage has caused division. For example, some synods support same-sex marriage, while others only commit to traditional marriage.

Theology“Lutheranism” isn’t just the name of the tradition but the theological system within it. Historically, the Lutheran church is theologically Protestant though some denominations have moved away from those tenets.Evangelicals are Protestant. The movement is largely conservative, but some churches and individuals are adopting liberal views on various issues. The term “evangelical” casts a wide net within Protestantism.
BibleConservative synods affirm the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture; moderate-liberal synods view the Bible as a helpful guide to belief and practice but an imperfect one at best.Historically, all evangelical churches have a high view of Scripture, even if they don’t always use the terms “inerrancy” and “infallibility.”
GodHistorically, Lutherans believe in the Trinity; one God exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.Evangelicals are also committed Trinitarians because they believe the Bible teaches the doctrine.
JesusJesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is God in human flesh. He is 100% God and 100% man. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died as an atonement for sin, and was physically resurrection on the third day.Evangelicals believe that Jesus is God, virgin born, sinless, died as an atonement for sin, and rose from the dead.
AtonementConservative synods affirm the truth of the Gospel and believe that Christ took the place of sinners and paid their penalty on the cross. Moderate-liberal synods see the death of Christ as an example of dying for something you believe.Historically, evangelical churches teach the penal-substitutionary atonement of Christ. This means he took people’s punishment for sin and their place on the cross.
Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit applies the salvation that the Father planned and that the Son earned for sinners. He gives spiritual gifts to believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church.Evangelicals have the same core beliefs as other Protestants about the deity of the Holy Spirit. Some believe and practice Pentecostal theology.
Spiritual giftsMost Lutheran synods and churches are cessationist, meaning they don’t hold to charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity. Some small movements like Lutheran Renewal advocate for continuationism and speaking in tongues.Evangelicals can be cessationist or continuationist. Most Pentecostal traditions are evangelical, including major denominations like the Assemblies of God.

Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutherans and Baptists? to learn more.

Lutheran church
Are Lutherans Calvinists? See below

Lutheran and Evangelical Beliefs: Church, End Times, and More

Lutheran churchesEvangelical
SalvationLutherans are neither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election but don’t define it the same way as Calvinists.Evangelicals can be Arminian, Calvinist, or something else.
OrdinancesThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communionBaptism and the Lord’s Supper
Lord’s SupperThe Lutheran view is called consubstantiation. It holds that the real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup.Evangelical churches have a variety of views on the Lord’s Supper. For example, some believe in the real presence of Christ. Another group believes the bread and cup are memorials.
BaptismPastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be given (unlike Catholicism)Evangelical churches may practice “Believer’s Baptism,” which means they only baptize adults or paedo-baptist (paedo = “child”), which means they baptize children.
End TimesLutheranism is Amillennial, meaning it interprets the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 figuratively and defines it as the time between Christ’s first and second coming (i.e., the Church Age)Evangelical churches may be Premillennial, Amillennial, Post-Millennial, or something else. All evangelicals believe in the Second Coming of Christ.

Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutheran and Non-Denominational Churches? to learn more.

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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