The names “Lutheran” and “Reformed” are commonly found in the names of churches in America and Europe. On the outside, many of the places of worship in these traditions look the same. Moreover, some of what is said and done on the inside of them are similar, too. Yet, their names signify differences in history, beliefs, and practices that many people are curious to know.
Lutheran and Reformed churches belong to the Protestant branch of the Christian faith. Though both traditions are “reformed” in relation to Roman Catholicism, the churches have unique features within Protestantism because they had different leaders and grew in separate places in Europe.
Who founded the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and why? What is the relationship between them? What differences do they have? Are their theological and social worldviews liberal or conservative? How do their beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, and other doctrines compare? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutheran and Episcopalian? to learn more.
What’s the Difference Between Lutheran and Reformed?
There are three main uses of the word “Reformed” in discussions of Christian history and theology. First, context is essential for readers to determine how a speaker or book uses the term.
(1) “Reformed” means not Catholic: Some people use the term “Reformed” to refer to Christian traditions in the West that are distinct from Catholicism. In this use, “Reformed” describes any tradition or denomination born out of the Reformation, like Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anabaptist.
(2) “Reformed” means not Lutheran or Anabaptist: The term “Reformed” in some Protestant contexts refers to traditions born out of the Reformation that is neither Lutheran nor Anabaptist. This use of the term mostly refers to the teachings of French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), which are similar (e.g., predestination) but have differences (e.g., ecclesiology).
(3) “Reformed” means Calvinism: Many people use the term “Reformed” as a synonym for Calvinism. Others use it as a synonym for Presbyterian because of the denomination’s Calvinist theology.
|Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk, priest, theologian, author, and Protestant Reformer.
|Denominations, churches, and Christians following the teachings of pastor, author, and theologian, John Calvin (1509-1564), are called Reformed.
|Luther sought to reform the Catholic church with his insights and convictions regarding salvation being the result of God’s grace through faith in Christ alone. The Catholic church rejected his ideas.
|Luther influenced all reforms, but others had an impact outside Germany. Calvin influenced reforms in France, Scotland, and many other places. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) influenced reforms in Switzerland.
|The terms “Lutheran” and “Lutheranism” refers to the teaching of Luther and the Christians who follow it.
|“Reformed” refers to reforms made in reaction to alleged errs in doctrine and practice in the Catholic church. People also use the term to distinguish between Calvin’s reforms and Lutheran and Anabaptist ones.
|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.
|In addition to Calvin, Zwingli, a Scottish minister, John Knox (1514-1572) significantly influenced the Reformed Church’s early history.
|Significant writing outside the Bible
|Luther’s 95 Theses, his shorter and larger catechism, the Book on Concord, the Augsburg Confession
|Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion; The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646); the Heidelberg Confession of Faith (1563), the Belgic Confession of Faith (1559), and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619)
|Churches exist in synods, i.e., conferences or districts. Some Lutheran denominations have bishops, some don’t. Congregations typically vote on pastors.
|Some Reformed churches are congregational. Presbyterianism rejects a bishop-led rule. Instead, Calvin encouraged a council of clergy to oversee a region and a consistory (or “council”) to oversee a local church.
|The 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.
|Some Reformed traditions follow Calvin more closely than others. The largest Reformed tradition is Presbyterianism, which has seen significant division over theological and social issues in recent decades.
|Theological and social worldview
|It 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.
|It depends on the denomination. For example, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) welcomes liberal views, while the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters.
Also, see What’s the Difference Between Lutheran and Methodism? to learn more.
Lutheran and Reformed Beliefs on God, the Bible, and Jesus
|“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.
|“Reformed,” also called Calvinism or Covenant theology, describes the theological tenets that leaders like Zwingli and Calvin held taught in contrast to Lutheran, Anabaptist, and other branches of Protestantism.
|Conservative 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, the Reformed tradition champions the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Many conservative, orthodox, Reformed believers use terms like “inerrancy” and “infallibility.”
|Historically, Lutherans believe in the Trinity; one God exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.
|Reformed Christians are committed Trinitarians like other Protestant believers because they are convinced that the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine.
|Jesus 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.
|Reformed Christians fully subscribe to the incarnation, virgin birth, and sinless life of Christ. Reformed theology believes in the penal- substitutionary atonement of Christ and his physical resurrection from the dead.
|Lutheranism is neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but “Lutheran.” Conservatives hold to the doctrine of election but don’t define it the same way as Calvinists.
|Reformed theology teaches that God implants faith into the heart of a person so that he or she can respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God unconditionally elects people for salvation and dispenses his grace to sinners, which they cannot resist.
Also, see the Christian Denominations Comparison Chart to learn more.
Lutheran and Reformed Beliefs on the Holy Spirit and the Church
|The 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.
|Reformed Christians have the same core beliefs about the person of the Holy Spirit as Lutherans. Some embrace Pentecostal beliefs and practices.
|The real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup.
|Most Reformed Christians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders.
|Pastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be given (unlike Catholicism).
|Reformed churches practice “paedobaptism” (paedo = “child”), also known as “infant baptism” through sprinkling. Adults can be baptized if they never were as a child.
|Lutheranism 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).
|Most Reformed believers are Amillennial. They believe the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 occurs between Christ’s first and second coming.
Also, see What is the Most Conservative Lutheran Synod? to learn more.
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