Luther's Idea of Church


Luther's Idea of Church


In His wisdom, Luther believed, God had decreed the church to be the means of grace, without which no one could be saved.


Darius W. Jankiewicz

The Christian doctrines of soteriology (salvation) and ecclesiology (the Christian Church) are both firmly grounded in the teaching of the New Testament. All who accept God’s gift of salvation naturally become a part of God’s family, His church. The apostolic witness contained in Scripture presents a fine-tuned interconnection between these two aspects of Christian proclamation. Although intricately related, they are never confused in Scripture; however, this equilibrium did not survive beyond the early post-apostolic era. Motivated by an ardent desire to maintain the unity of the church and to protect it from heresy and schism, the fathers of the second century laid the groundwork for the fusion of these two doctrines.

The first signs of this fusion surfaced at the beginning of the second century in the writings of Ignatius, and later in Irenaeus and Tertullian. In the third century, Cyprian gave it its mature expression when he boldly proclaimed,“There is no salvation out of the church,”1 a catchphrase later reiterated by popes and affirmed by church councils. It was not until the Second Vatican Council, some 50-plus years ago, that the exclusive interpretation of the phrase was revised in favor of a more inclusive model of Catholic Christianity, which allowed the possibility of salvation outside of the church.

Though the original intent of the “no salvation outside of the church” doctrine was to defend the church against heresy and schism, as well as to protect its unity, it eventually became a tool of ecclesiastical control and was exercised by the church with considerable success. An oft-cited example of this was pardoning of Henry IV by Gregory VII in A.D. 1077.

As the Middle Ages progressed, it became evident that this belief was also at the root of various ecclesiastical abuses. By the end of the Middle Ages, these abuses resulted in a growing dissatisfaction with the church, eventually culminating in the rebellion known today as the Protestant Reformation. This “rebellion,” motivated by a desire to return to the biblical understanding of salvation, proved to be a powerful reaction to Catholic institutional soterio-ecclesiology. Beginning with Martin Luther, its champions asserted that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. It is He alone who dispenses salvation, which is appropriated by believers through the means of personal faith, without the mediation of the church. This belief is clearly and uniquely expressed in the five Protestant solas: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria

Without diminishing Luther’s achievements, however, one must inquire if the Reformer was entirely successful in challenging the medieval fusion between soteriology and ecclesiology, as would his slogan sola fide—by faith alone and not by mediation of the church—suggest.

Despite initiating the Reformation of the 16th century and boldly proclaiming sola gratia et fides—the very purpose of which was to theologically disentangle soteriology and ecclesiology—Luther ended up endorsing the traditional Catholic position that there is no salvation outside the church. This “church” was now, of course, Luther’s own denomination. Luther’s embrace of this traditional Catholic catchphrase should not be surprising, as it was the logical outgrowth of problematic assumptions that influenced his understanding of justification by faith.


Lingering Questions

In the years leading up to the posting of his 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg Castle, Luther clearly perceived the dangers of the Catholic soterio-ecclesiological fusion. This is precisely why he initiated the debate on October 31, 1517. His bold proclamation, sola gratia et fides, salvation by grace through faith alone, struck directly at the central tenet of Catholicism, which claimed that believers must accept the church’s mediation to receive God’s grace. Luther’s singular action of nailing the theses opened the floodgates of dissatisfaction with the church and the way it functioned. The monumental shift that had been brewing for centuries—from a corporate to an individual understanding of salvation—was finally actualized.

At the same time, however, Luther’s embrace of individual responsibility before God, encompassed in his sola fide slogan, left some lingering questions: If justification was really by grace and faith alone, then what was the role of the church in the process of salvation? Did believers need to attend church and participate in its rites? Could not that time be spent on individual worship of God? As it will become evident, Luther offered a unique answer to such questions, although not in a systematic manner.

This exploration of Luther’s ecclesiology begins with the most familiar to his readers difference between Luther’s and Catholic approach to ecclesiology, namely, the distinction between the visible and invisible church. By making this distinction, Luther attempted—but ultimately failed—to draw a sharp contrast between Catholic and Lutheran approaches to the visibility of the church. 


The Visibility Versus Invisibility of the Church

By the time of the Reformation, the fusion of soteriology and ecclesiology had found its most obvious expression in the medieval overemphasis on the visibility of the church. The medieval Catholic Church was more often than not conceived primarily in terms of a visible, hierarchically structured organization with the episcopal office at its apex. The chief end of the church, of course, was to serve as the means of grace to individual members. The most important aspect of this mediation was the presence of the episcopal-ordained priesthood, which, through apostolic succession, was historically linked with the New Testament Church. Apostolic succession was considered to be of central importance to the continuity of Christian faith and the safeguarding of the church’s existence. Through the ministry of ruling and teaching, the bishops assured the continuity of the Christian faith and the protection of the church. Through the administration of the sacraments, they functioned as the means of grace for believers. In this way, the episcopal office became indispensable, not only for the continuity and protection of the Christian faith, but also for the salvation of all baptized Christians.

Luther challenged the Catholic preoccupation with the visibility of the church in 1520 in one of his earliest works, On the Papacy in Rome. In this work, he brought forth the well-known distinction between the “two Christendoms.” “The first, which is natural, basic, essential, real and true, we shall call ‘spiritual, internal Christendom.’ The second, which is man-made and external, we shall call ‘physical, external Christendom.’”2 The true, or “essential,” Christendom was not visible to the human eye because only God knew who belonged to Him. The institutional church of his day could not possibly be identified with the kingdom of God or “give a correct view of the reality of Christ’s Church”3 because it was too corrupt. “There is not a single letter in Holy Scripture,” Luther charged, “saying that such a church . . . is instituted by God.”4 

By clearly distinguishing the visible church from the invisible, and in concert with his sola fide principle, Luther intended to highlight his belief that Christians needed to find a more secure foundation for their salvation than mere trust in and submission to an earthly institution that was obviously fallible and imperfect. It was precisely this overemphasis on the incorrect “reality of Christ’s Church,”5 the fusion of soteriology and ecclesiology, that was the root cause of much medieval ecclesiastical abuse. This same incorrect “reality of Christ’s Church”6 ultimately led to Luther’s excommunication. 

Despite his criticism of the 16th-century institutional church and his emphasis on the invisible church, Luther nevertheless insisted that God’s church must also have a visible form.7 Yet having argued that the true visible church of God was not found in the ecclesiastical structures of his day, Luther was ultimately forced to define it for himself and affirm its existence somewhere outside medieval Catholicism. Therefore, what was “church” according to Luther, and how did he believe the true church could be identified?


Definition of the Church

An appropriate definition of the church on earth needed to fit with the rest of Luther’s theology, especially his doctrine of sola fide, i.e., justification by faith alone, which challenged the idea of institutional mediation of grace. Thus, rather than defining the church in institutional terms, Luther tended to refer to the true church of God as the “congregation,” “spiritual assembly,” “assembly,” “communion of saints,” “holy community,” or simply as “the people of God.”8 By using these terms, Luther attempted to emphasize that the church was a fellowship of people who had already been blessed and justified by God apart from the mediation of the church. In the 16th century, such thinking was revolutionary and persisted as one of the major differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism until the middle of the 20th century. But how was such an assembly to be found and recognized?


How Can the True Visible Church Be Found?

Finding himself increasingly alienated from the Catholic Church, Luther needed to determine where the true church of God could be found. In one of his earliest works as a Reformer, On the Papacy in Rome (1520), he stated that the true church of God could be recognized by the following marks: the preaching of the gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.9 These, he argued, “are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally.”10 In two of his late treatises, On the Councils and the Church (1539) and Against Hanswurst (1541), Luther expanded on the notion of marks of the church found throughout his earlier writings. Once again, he asserted the primacy of the Word of God: “First, the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word [sic] of God. . . . Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, ‘a Christian holy people,’ must be there, even though their number is very small.”11 The true church, thus, is recognized by giving special primacy to the Scripture “for since the church owes its birth to the Word, [and] is nourished, aided and strengthened by it, it is obvious that it cannot be without the Word.”12 For Luther, this emphasis on the primacy of the Scripture was clearly identified with the proclamation of the gospel in its purity, which he understood as sola gratia et fides. This was no longer true of Catholicism because the primacy of Scripture had been supplanted by human traditions, thus compromising the purity of the gospel. This first mark of the church, together with Luther’s emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers, forms the backbone of his Protestant theology. It is Luther’s exposition of the other marks of the church, however, that take his ecclesiology in a more problematic direction.

According to Luther, the second and third marks of God’s church were the presence of baptism “wherever it is taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance,”13 and the presence of “the holy sacrament of the altar [the Lord’s Supper], wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution.”14 To these three marks Luther added two more: (1) “God’s people or holy Christians are recognized by the office of the keys exercised publicly”15—“the office of the keys” refers to the power of the church, by which he meant the congregation of believers, to exercise church discipline and forgive those who repented, while excommunicating those who did not; and (2) the presence of ordained ministry, charged with leading the church, preaching the gospel, exercising the office of the keys, and administering the sacraments.16 

It should certainly be expected for a Christian church to follow Christ’s example in practicing the rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As noted above, however, Luther went beyond just practice and insisted on the “right,” “proper,” and “correct”—all his words—administration of these sacraments.17 These words, as well as Luther’s insistence on infant baptism, provide a hint that, in his ecclesiology, the sacraments were more than symbolic, which was the position of Zwingli and the Anabaptists. A “proper” or “right” observance of these two sacraments also meant that only ordained ministers could administer them. Thus, the church could not properly exist without the ordained ministry and the sacraments.

A perusal of Luther’s vast literary output reveals that, in many of his writings, he dealt directly or indirectly with the sacraments, their meaning, objective validity (or efficaciousness), and correct administration. This raises a question: If Luther’s primary message was that salvation was sola gratia et fides, then why such preoccupation with the sacraments, their efficaciousness, and proper observance? A deeper examination of Luther’s ecclesiology, and specifically his sacramental theology, reveals an answer to this question and provides the reader with a troubling sense of déjà vu.


Sacramental Theology and the Necessity of the Church for Salvation

There can be no doubt that Luther championed justification by grace through faith alone. For him, this understanding of justification was “an article of faith upon which the church stands or falls.”18 At the same time, however, a careful review of his sacramental theology reveals a disconcerting reticence to accept the logical outcome of sola gratia et fides, namely, that no human works—including participation in the sacraments—play a role in the process of salvation. Yet, in his writings, Luther repeatedly stressed the necessity of the sacraments in the life of the believers. Why was this so?

Luther believed that the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist represented the promises of God, mediated through material objects of everyday use. Ideally, the Word of God and its promises should come to believers through Jesus Christ, the Scripture, and the preaching of the gospel. Because of human sinfulness, however, preaching of the Word needed to be supplemented by the external signs of God’s favor. The purpose of these external signs of God’s favor, i.e., the sacraments, was to create (in the case of infants), and strengthen faith in God. Thus, while closely related to faith, the sacraments in some way also functioned as a means of salvation. So, while on the one hand, Luther strongly affirmed that salvation was sola gratia et fides and in no way did it depend on human works, on the other hand he still viewed participation in the sacramental rites as necessary for salvation.

Like his Catholic opponents, Luther believed that a person becomes a Christian and enters the church through baptism. Baptism was to be administered only once because it initiated the new birth and regeneration. He wrote: “Truly, good works can only be performed by those who have been born anew, namely, born anew through Baptism, in which the Holy Spirit is active, making new persons of them.”19 For Luther, therefore, baptismal water was not just “simple, common water”20 such as “the cow drinks.”21 When the institutionally approved words were spoken, it became “godly, blessed, fruitful water full of grace.”22 Once “the Holy Spirit is added to it, we have more than mere water. It becomes a veritable bath of rejuvenation, a living bath which washes and purges man of sin and death, which cleanses him of all sin.”23 Baptism, thus, was closely related to salvation. He further wrote: “But we must so consider it as to exercise our faith in it and have no doubt whatever that, once we have been baptized, we are saved.”24 It was not necessary for active faith to precede baptism. According to Luther, God bestowed the gift of faith upon those who were baptized. This is the primary reason that Luther so vigorously opposed the “second” baptism of the Anabaptists. Their insistence on adult baptism on the grounds that the infant did not have faith implied sacramental inefficacy of the “first” baptism and a return to a new form of justification by works.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, Luther strongly rejected the Catholic teaching that considered it a sacrifice. He also rejected the medieval notion of transubstantiation and the doctrine of priestly mediation. At the same time, however, he strongly affirmed the traditional Catholic idea that Christ’s body and blood are physically present in the elements.25 Consequently, he proposed a theory of the simultaneous presence of both the bread and the wine and the body of Christ. A believer who participated in the Eucharist would receive forgiveness of sins and strength to lead a Christian life. He wrote: “For here in the sacrament [the Eucharist] you receive forgiveness of sins from Christ’s own lips. Forgiveness includes and implies God’s favour and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, and power against death, the devil, and every trouble.”26 “For Luther,” noted Charles Hodge, “eating and drinking [were] essential for salvation.”27

Thus, it is evident that Luther, the prophet of sola gratia et fides, also viewed participation in the sacraments as essential for salvation. Through baptism, faith was initiated; through the Eucharist, faith was maintained and strengthened. As Jaroslav Pelikan explained, for Luther “the sacraments were an epitome of the very gospel; without them no one could be a Christian.”28

Thus, it is not surprising to find echoes of Cyprian’s “outside the church there is no salvation” in Luther’s writings. One of the most explicit statements on the matter is found in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, where he exclaimed, “Outside this Christian Church there is no salvation or forgiveness of sins, but everlasting death and damnation.”29 Accordingly, being a part of the true church of God on earth was not optional for a child of God. This is probably why Luther did not hesitate to speak of the “Mother Church [who is] a true housemother and the bride of Christ.”30 Elsewhere, Luther asserted that “he who wants to find Christ, must first find the church. . . . The church is not wood and stone, but the assembly of people who believe in Christ. With this church, one should be connected and see how the people believe, live, and teach. They certainly have Christ in their midst, for outside the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.”31 Such a claim is nothing short of astounding, considering it came from the pen of the same man who nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. 


Why Did Luther Embrace Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus?

It remains to explore why the father of the Protestant Reformation embraced a theology that allowed him to utter the words “outside this Christian Church there is no salvation.” There may be two reasons: theological and sociological.

As outlined above, the answer lies in the problematic assumptions that undergirded Luther’s doctrine of justification. Many Protestants are quick to agree with Luther on the definition of justification: “the doctrine of Justification is this, that we are pronounced righteous and are saved solely by faith in Christ, and without work.”32 This belief is also expressed in the classic Reformation slogan sola gratia et fides, i.e., by grace and faith alone. It is a common assumption that this definition of justification means that God offers His righteousness to all humanity by His grace, and it is the role of those who would believe to grasp God’s offer by faith and to respond affirmatively. Luther, however, did not hold such a view of justification, which is more akin to the synergistic views of Philip Melanchthon and echo, to some degree, the Formula of Concord (1577).

Rather, together with other Magisterial Reformers, Luther embraced the Augustinian teaching of double predestination. He passionately believed that, in His foreknowledge, God elected those who would be saved and those who would be damned. It was his rediscovery of Augustinian predestinarianism, rejected by mainstream medieval Catholicism, that laid the foundation for his soteriological breakthrough and that eventually led to the 95 Theses. It appears that in his desperate search for Christian assurance, Luther found solace in the Augustinian view that in eternity past, God had predestined him for salvation.

In view of Luther’s position on predestination, it is evident that the Protestant slogan sola gratia et fides has different meanings for different believers. For the majority of Protestant Christians today, the slogan means receiving God’s offer of grace through faith, based on a free choice. In theological circles, this is often referred to as “active faith.”33 In contrast, for Luther, conversion could be construed as the “aha” moment in which an elected believer recognized that which had already been accomplished on his or her behalf. In other words, by faith alone (sola fide), the believer recognized an already accomplished fact. “Alone” (sola) meant that that there was no human element in the process of salvation; and “faith” (fide) meant trust in one’s election. This, in turn, is often referred to as “passive faith.”34 For Luther, faith based on free choice would have implied a human element, which in turn would have implied a return to the old ways of medieval Catholicism. This also appears to be the reason that Luther’s favorite definition of faith was “trust in God’s promises.”35 This was all an elected person could do; namely, to trust that God had elected him or her. Thus, for Luther, divine election was the ultimate foundation for Christian assurance of salvation.

How does this relate to Luther’s ecclesiology and the slogan extra ecclesiam nulla salus? It is simply this: In His foreknowledge, God ordained that some would be elected, and others would be damned. For those who were damned, the church was of no use. In contrast, however, those who were elected will be baptized and will become part of God’s church. In His foreknowledge, God determined that baptism would be “a veritable bath of rejuvenation” for the elect, “a living bath which washe[d] and purge[d] man of sin and death, which cleanse[d] him of all sin.”36 Through baptism, the elect were received into the kingdom of God and their faith was initiated. Through the Lord’s Supper, the faith of the elect was strengthened and augmented. But this strengthening and augmenting was available only to the elect.

It was Luther’s understanding of Augustinian predestination that ultimately led him to embrace a sacramental theology that exhibited the characteristics of medieval soteriologico-ecclesiological confusion. Thus, it is not surprising that Luther never ceased to insist on the need for an institutional church, which would mediate individuals’ access to the Word of God and regulate the spiritual and moral lives of believers. Such a view neatly corresponded with his predestinarian theology.

As evidenced above, therefore, while Luther insisted on the Protestant teaching sola gratia et fides, he was unable to break away from the soteriologo-ecclesiological synthesis of the medieval church. This was primarily because of his a priori acceptance of Augustinian unconditional predestination. Embracing the notion that salvation was God’s gift to the elect alone, therefore, enabled Luther to proclaim boldly that there was no salvation outside the church.

A second reason for Luther’s increasingly institutional vision of the church and his embrace of the extra ecclesiam nulla salus position may be sociological rather than theological. Though the early Luther was exuberant and idealistic about the prospects of his movement, the later Luther was sober and more realistic. This attitudinal change was displayed in his letter to his friend George Spalatin (1527), where he admitted that it had been “vain to hope that men could be ruled by the gospel alone.”37 Thus, confronted with the failure of his early idealism, Luther began to stress the need for earthly ecclesiastical institutions to regulate the life of the believer. 



On the one hand, Luther’s Reformation was a watershed in the history of the Christian Church, provoking a massive turn toward a biblical understanding of salvation, thus challenging medieval Catholicism. It also ushered in a new era in biblical studies, eventually leading to a new understanding of the church, including its ordinances and government. Luther’s achievements in these areas must never be underestimated and should always be celebrated. 

On the other hand, however, a careful study of Luther’s writings reveals that, while he repudiated many Catholic ways of understanding and conducting church, and while he attempted to harmonize ecclesiastical structures and sacramental theology with the foundational principles of Protestantism, he was essentially unable to break away from medieval modes of thinking. Notwithstanding his rejection of the Catholic emphasis on the visible church, he struggled to free himself from reliance on institutional structures for salvation. Ultimately, Luther affirmed the necessity of the visible church for salvation. In His wisdom, Luther believed, God had decreed the church to be the means of grace, without which no one could be saved. As a result, while a person could be in the church and unsaved, the option of not being in the church was not open to those who were predestined for salvation by God. Abandoning the church was a sure sign that one had not been among the elect.

While each of the Reformation’s solas represented some form of reaction against medieval Catholic soteriology, the fact that Luther’s soteriology developed within the context of Augustinian monergism resulted only in providing an alternative theological foundation for the Catholic doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Such a vision of the church was congruent with the social and political milieu of early 16th century. While beginning well, Luther’s Reformation ultimately defaulted to its ecclesiastical and cultural surroundings.


Darius W. Jankiewicz, PhD, is Professor of Historical Theology and Chair of the Theology and Christian Philosophy Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.



1. Cyprian, “Epistle LXXII,” Par. 21, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, n.d.), 5:384.
2. Martin Luther, “On the Papacy in Rome.” In Eric W. Gritsch, ed., Luther’s Works: Church and Ministry (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 39:70.
3. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: The Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 37. 
4. Luther, “On the Papacy in Rome,” 70. 
5. Berkouwer, The Church, 202. 
6. Ibid. 
7. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 288.
8. Martin Luther, Luther's Works: The Large Catechism (Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1983), 120–122.
9. __________, “On the Papacy in Rome,” 75. 
10. Ibid.
11. __________, On the Councils and the Church (Around the World, Publ., 2018), 148, 150 (italics in the original).
12. __________, “Concerning the Ministry,” in Conrad Bergendorff, ed., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 40:37. 
13. __________, On the Councils and the Church, 151 (italics added).
14. Ibid., 152 (italics added).
15. Ibid., 153. 
16. Ibid., 154. 
17. __________, Luther's Works: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, 285–289.
18. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 208. 
19. Luther, Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, 286.
20. Ibid., 123.
21. __________, On the Sacraments or the Distinctive Doctrines of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (1853), 14. 
22. __________, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” 92, 119, 123, 229.
23. Ibid., 283. 
24. __________, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 59.
25. __________, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics (1526). In Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 319–325. 
26. __________, Luther's Works: The Large Catechism, 201. 
27. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1946), 3:645. 
28. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 4:178. 
29. Martin Luther, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper.” In Robert H. Fisher, ed., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 37:368.
30. __________, “Commentary on Psalm 68.” In Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 13:14.
31. __________, “The Gospel for the Early Christmas Service.” In Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 52:39, 40 (italics supplied). 
32. __________, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535.” In Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 26:223. 
33. Alberto Melloni, Martin Luther: A Christian Between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017) (Berlin: De Gruyter GmbH, 2017), 842. 
34. Martin Luther, “Commentary on Psalm 51.” In Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works, Selections Psalm 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955), 12:368.
35. Elizabeth Palmer, Faith in a Hidden God: Luther, Kierkegaard, and the Binding of Isaac (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 54. 
36. Luther, Luther's Works: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, 285–289.
37. Eric G. Jay, The Church: Its Changing Image Through Twenty Centuries (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 1:164.