Roman Catholicism vs. Lutheranism: What’s the Difference?

Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, part of the Protestant tradition, are two of the most prominent branches of the Christian religion. Many people find it interesting to compare and contrast Catholicism and Lutheranism, especially because of the storied history that the traditions have with each other.

Catholicism and Lutheranism disagree on the authority of the pope, the role of the Bible, and the importance of Mary in relation to salvation. The traditions generally agree that God is a Trinity, people are born sinful, and Jesus Christ died on the cross for sin and was resurrected three days later.

Does the Catholic Church or Lutheran Church have more members? Is Lutheranism conservative or liberal? How do the traditions’ views on the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Lord’s Supper, and the Holy Spirit compare? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also, see Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Orthodox: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

Lutheran Christian church
Is Catholicism or Lutheranism larger in size? See below

Comparison: Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Christianity

The Protestant Reformation refers to the 16th-century movement, born in Germany, that confronted the abuses and excesses of the Catholic Church.

Reformers like Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546), John Calvin of France (1509-1564), and Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland (1484-1531) argued that the Catholic Church had strayed from Scripture.

Luther didn’t want to start a new denomination or tradition; he wanted to reform the Catholic Church by returning to the Bible in the establishment of its doctrines and practices. To this end, important corrections were necessary.

The two major tenets of the reform movement included: (1) justification was by grace through faith in Christ alone based on Scripture alone; and (2) that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for establishing doctrine and practice.

The five major principles of the Reformation are referred to as the “five solas” (“sola” meaning “alone”):

  • Sola fidei: faith alone; salvation is based on faith alone, not faith and works
  • Sola gratia: grace alone; salvation depends on God’s grace alone and not on good works
  • Sola scriptura: Scripture alone; tradition isn’t unimportant, but the Bible is most important
  • Soli Deo: glory to God alone; neither the Church nor Mary shares in the glory for salvation
  • Solus Christus: Christ alone; Jesus alone saves, as opposed to other biblical or church figures
Roman CatholicismLutheranism
NameThe word “Roman” is derived from the city of Rome, Italy. The word “catholic,” in general use, means “universal.” In the phrase “Roman Catholic,” Catholic refers to the worldwide collection of local churches in the Catholic tradition.The term “Lutheranism” is derived from the name “Martin Luther” (1483-1546), the monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the 16th century. The word “Protestant” comes from the Latin word protestari, meaning “to bear witness,” and the English word “protest.”
FoundingCatholicism teaches that its origins are the origins of the church itself in the first century. The office of the pope, as Vicar of Christ, started with the Apostle Peter.Lutheranism, like other Protestant traditions, also traces their roots to the New Testament church. Luther, as well as other Reformers, argued that the Catholic Church had strayed from its biblical foundation.
Early contributorsIn addition to Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles, the first bishops of Rome, the early church fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch (died 108 AD, according to Eusebius) and Irenaeus (130-202 AD), are considered early influencers.Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was an early contributor to Lutheranism. Augustine (354-430) informed Lutheran doctrine. Luther’s Shorter and Larger Catechism, The Book of Concord, and The Augsburg Confession are important doctrines in the Lutheran tradition.
Roman CatholicismLutheranism
MembershipThe Catholic Church reports a global membership of over 1.3 billion people.The Lutheran World Federation estimates that the global tradition includes 74 million people. Protestantism as a whole includes 900 million to one billion people.
AuthorityRoman Catholicism locates its authority in Scripture and in the historical teachings of its tradition. Catholicism teaches that the pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth.Lutherans, like other Protestants, believe that Scripture alone is authoritative for establishing doctrine and proper Christian practice. The teachings of the Church are important, but not as important as Scripture itself.
Social worldview todayThe Catholic Church is generally considered conservative in the context of the socio-political landscape of the 21st-century Western world.It depends on the synod. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) is conservative. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCS) is moderate to liberal, depending on the congregation.*

*Lutheran denominations, especially in America, have split several times in recent decades. Often, the root of the division is over maintaining the historical teachings of Lutheranism and a high view of Scripture or adopting modern theological and social sensibilities.

Decentralizing Scripture, the definition of marriage, and gender-related issues are at the center of many debates.

Also, see Catholic vs. Christian: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

Roman Catholic Church
Do Lutherans believe in the Eucharist? See below

Roman Catholic and Lutheran Beliefs: Similarities and Differences

The definitions of doctrines and practices in Catholicism are uniform because the Church articulates them for its members.

For example, all orthodox Catholic churches believe the same things about the Trinity, the Eucharist, and Mary, because Church leadership has the authority to explain their meaning and importance.

Because Protestant traditions, including Lutheranism, are much more independent, one Lutheran denomination may not agree with another.

Likewise, one Lutheran church may differ in its beliefs and practices from another. Nevertheless, they are both “Lutheran” because of the history they share.

Today, social issues and politics contribute to many of the differences between Lutheran denominations and churches.

For example, conservative synods affirm the truth of the Gospel and believe that Christ took the place of sinners and paid their penalty on the cross.

Moderate and liberal synods see the death of Christ as an example of dying for something you believe in or something similar.

Conservatives have a high view of Scripture, and others decentralize Scripture to champion other causes.

Roman CatholicismLutheranism
View of the BibleThe Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. The Catholic Bible has the same books Protestant Bibles have but also includes the deutero-canonical literature or Apocrypha.In the Lutheran tradition, conservative synods affirm the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture. Moderate and liberal synods view the Bible as a helpful guide to belief and practice but an imperfect one at best. Lutheran Bibles don’t include the Apocrypha.
View of GodThe Catholic Church teaches that God is Triune. The Father, Son, who is Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, are each fully God.Lutherans are Trinitarian, like all historical branches of the Christian faith are. There is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.
View of ChristThe Catholic Church believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnated second person of the Trinity. He was virgin-born, sinless in life, and died for the sins of humanity. Jesus physically rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.Lutheranism teaches that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is God in human flesh, 100% God and 100% man. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died as an atonement for sin, was physically resurrected on the third day, and ascended into heaven.
View of JustificationIn Catholic theology, justification includes forgiveness, regeneration, and sanctification. Sanctification refers to a person’s progressive growth in holiness and Christ-likeness.In historic Lutheran theology, justification is a declaration, based on the work of Christ on the cross, that sinners are made righteous. Righteousness is transferred to people and isn’t the result of ongoing sanctification. Sanctification doesn’t result in justification; sanctification is the fruit that justification produces.
View of SalvationCatholicism teaches that God imparts grace to people through the sacraments. Catholic teaching reflects Arminian views, though Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was Protestant, so the church doesn’t use the same terminology as other Arminians. The Catholic Church isn’t Calvinist or Lutheran.Lutherans believe salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. Neither baptism, communion, nor church membership are necessary for salvation. Lutherans aren’t Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran” (i.e., “Lutheran” isn’t just the name of the denomination, but also its belief system). Lutherans believe in election but don’t define it the same way as Calvinists.
View of the Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit indwells Christians and gives them spiritual gifts for the edification of the Church. A very small percentage of Catholics speak in tongues.Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity who indwells Christians. The vast majority of Lutherans subscribe to the historic teaching of the denomination that certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, were for the first-century church. A very small percentage, however, advocates for speaking in tongues.
Lutheran church
Lutheran Church
Roman CatholicismLutheranism
The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene CreedAcceptAccept
Ecumenical CouncilsAccepts all 21Accepts the first seven but places more authority on the Bible’s teaching and not necessarily on different councils’ affirmations of it.
Human Leader The Pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the Church on Earth, an office that church teaching traces to the Apostle Peter.Lutheranism doesn’t have a single leader. It rejects the authority of the Catholic pope. Many synods have a president or similar leader. Churches have pastors or ministers.
View of the Ordinances or SacramentsThere are seven sacraments in Catholicism: (1) adult and infant baptism, (2) confirmation, (3) the Eucharist, (4) penance, (5) anointing, (6) ordination, and (7) marriage. These practices are channels of God’s grace, according to Catholic theology.Lutherans believe there are only two ordinances: the Lord’s Supper and water baptism. There are only two because those are the only ones Christ taught. The others were established by the Catholic Church. In Lutheranism, faith is the channel of God’s grace.
View of the Lord’s SupperAccording to the Catholic Church, the “Eucharist,” meaning “to thank,” is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The Eucharist is a memorial in which the bread and cup become the body and blood of Christ. The change in the nature of the elements is called transubstantiation.The real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup. Lutherans interpret Jesus’ words “this is my body” (e.g., Luke 22:19) literally. The Lutheran view is called “consubstantiation” or “the sacramental union.”
View of the BaptismSometimes referred to as “paedobaptism” (paedo = “child”), according to Catholic teaching, children of Christian parents are baptized to cleanse them of original sin and regenerate them.Pastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Catholicism, faith is necessary for grace to be conveyed.
View of the End TimesThe Catholic Church affirms the Second Coming of Christ. The church’s eschatology is Amillennial.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).

Also, see Catholic vs. Protestant: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” (Martin Luther)

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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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