Presbyterians vs Lutherans: What’s the Difference?


The Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions have been two of the most influential branches of Protestant Christianity for over 500 years. The denominations, churches, and people in these two prominent traditions have many similarities, yet they have differences, too.

German Reformer Martin Luther founded Lutheranism and French Reformer John Calvin founded Presbyterianism. The traditions agree on doctrines like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They disagree on doctrines like predestination and the Lord’s Supper.

Lutherans and Presbyterians have more in common than not relative to Roman Catholicism and other Protestant traditions like Baptist, Methodist, and Assemblies of God. See the comparison charts below to learn more about these highly respected Protestant movements.

Presbyterian church
“for we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 (ESV)

Presbyterianism and Lutheranism: Overview

Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have similar origins in Europe. Luther and Calvin shared the conviction that the abuses evident in the Catholic church were unbiblical and must be reformed. (Also see Presbyterian vs Catholic: What’s the Difference?)

They were both teachers, writers, and deeply passionate about Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther and Calvin also acquired followers that helped shape the traditions they started. (Also see What Bible Translation Do Presbyterian Read?)

In the 21st century, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have many similarities. Segments of people within each tradition have wrestled with maintaining their historic convictions and adopting new ideas that are favored in society. Denominations and churches have divided over what should change and what should remain the same.

Lutheran traditionPresbyterian tradition
OriginMartin Luther (1483-1546), 16th century GermanyJohn Calvin (1509-1564), 16th century France
Meaning of the nameThe term “Lutheranism” is based on the last name of Martin LutherThe term “Presbyterian” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning “elder.” In New Testament context, the word refers to a form of church government that is elder led.
Early influencerPhilip Melanchthon 1497-1560), 16th century GermanyJohn Knox (1514-1572), 16th century Scotland
Significant writing outside the BibleLuther’s shorter and large catechism, the Book on Concord, the Augsburg ConfessionThe Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647
OrganizationChurches exist in “synods,” i.e. conferences or districts; some denominations have bishops, some don’t; congregations typically vote on pastorsCalvin taught that there are elders who preach and teach and others elders who help rule over the church. Elders in a local church comprise a session. Elders in the same geographical location form a presbytery. Groups of presbyteries form a synod.
What are the largest denominations in the tradition today?Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)
see charts below
The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA); the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
see charts below
Theological and social worldviewIt depends on the synod; the LCMS is conservative; the ELCA is moderate to liberal depending on the congregation
see charts below
It depends on the denomination; the PCUSA welcomes liberal and progressive theological positions and social causes; the PCA maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters
see charts below

Something a lot of people wonder about Christianity is Do All Denominations Go to Heaven? Follow the link to learn the answer to this important question.

St Andrews Presbyterian Church
“the righteous shall live by his faith.” Habakkuk 2:4 (ESV)

Presbyterianism vs Lutheranism: Theological Comparison

As Protestant Christians, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have similar beliefs about the core teachings of the Bible. Their areas of disagreement may not concern primary matters, but they are nevertheless important to each tradition. Presbyterianism has always recognized Lutheranism as Christians and vice versa. Their differences are significant enough, however, that members choose to worship in different churches.

Lutheran traditionPresbyterian tradition
View of the 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.Presbyterians believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Many conservatives accept and defend the terms “inerrancy” (i.e. Scripture has no errors) and “infallibility” (i.e. Scripture can’t lead astray in belief or practice). Moderate-liberal denominations read and teach Scripture selectively.
View of GodLutherans believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.Presbyterians believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.
View of ChristJesus 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 physically resurrection on the third day.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 physically resurrection on the third day.
View of salvationNeither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election, but don’t define it the same way as CalvinistsJesus Christ is the only way to be saved. As Calvinists, Presbyterians believe in predestination, holding that God has selected some, but not others, to salvation.
View of the 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 bestows spiritual gifts on believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church. Lutherans are historically cessationist.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 bestows spiritual gifts on believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church. Presbyterians are historically cessationist.
View of the OrdinancesThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey graceThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace
View of the Lord’s SupperThe real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup; this view is often called “consubstantiation”Presbyterians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders.
View of the BaptismPastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be conveyed (unlike Catholicism)Presbyterians practice infant baptism (and adult baptism) by means of sprinkling. Baptism signifies inclusion into the Covenant community.
View of the 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)Presbyterianism is also amillennial.

Predestination in Lutheranism and Presbyterianism

The Lutheran concept of predestination doesn’t comfortably fit the Presbyterian (i.e. Calvinist, Reformed) or Arminian understanding of the doctrine. Lutheranism doesn’t believe in predestination the same way Presbyterian Christians or Arminian Christians do. Lutheranism represents a third way of understanding predestination.

TraditionElection
LutheranismGod unconditionally elects people to salvation. Election isn’t based on God’s foresight of who would choose Him. Lutheranism doesn’t believe in reprobation (i.e double predestination); meaning, God doesn’t choose not to save certain people.
CalvinismGod unconditionally elects people to salvation and passes over others. Election isn’t based on God’s foresight of who would choose Him. Calvinism believes reprobation; meaning, God chooses not to save certain people.*

Because Lutheranism’s beliefs about predestination represent a third way, some people see it as the rope in a tug-of-war between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Depending on what aspect of predestination is assessed, some argue the Lutheran view leans Reformed, while others hold it leans Arminian. Many Lutherans would argue that their view doesn’t lean toward either; it stands alone.

Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations

Presbyterian DenominationsMembership
Presbyterian Church (USA)1.7 million
Presbyterian Church in America370,000
Evangelical Presbyterian Church150,000

Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?

Lutheran SynodsMembership
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America4.2 million
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod2.2 million
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod385,000

References:
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[2] Source
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