So What's a Lutheran, Anyway?
Well, that's a good question. Easy answer is, "someone baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church!" That's not a good answer, though.
A Lutheran is a Christian who believes a certain way, and practices that faith together with other Lutherans in a, well, a Lutheran church.
So, first of all, what does a Lutheran believe? Well, like all Christians, we believe in Jesus Christ.
We confess that belief, along with millions of other Christians, in the words of three ancient 'Ecumenical Creeds,' or 'formulas of faith' that have shaped the Church since maybe the second Century AD. The oldest is the Apostles' Creed, which we recite just about every Sunday. The Second is the Nicene (Constantinople) Creed, which we use on special Sundays like Christmas and Easter. The third is the Athanasian Creed, is unsuitable for worship as it is long and complicated. It came out of a rough time in the Church's history, and bears a bit of that persecuted anger within it still.
We believe in the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, as well. The Bible is the written Word of God, and as such gives to us two holy things: God's Law, and God's Gospel. We beleive EVERYTHING in the Word of God is either one or the other. We believe that Law CANNOT be Gospel, and Gospel CANNOT be Law, and every attempt to blend them together is foolishness at best and rank heresy at worst.
The Law of God tells us what to do, how to do it, and that failing to do it means death. Period.
The Gospel of God tells us that Jesus paid the price of our sin, our failure to live by God's Law, and we are forgiven, made new, and set free.
Both Law and Gospel are present in the Word of God. Both are essential to life, to hope, faith and love. But they are NOT the same thing. The Law, because it is demanding, is ultimately bad news. The Gospel, because it is forgiving and gracious, is always GOOD NEWS.
So, as a test, if you hear or read the Word of God, and it sounds like BAD NEWS, then it's Law, no matter where you read it. Likewise, if you hear it and it sounds like GOOD NEWS, then it's Gospel to you, and you should rejoice. Don't get crazy, or anything, but yeah, rejoice in the Lord!
Oh yeah, and what's up with Evangelical + Lutheran thing on the front? Well, we're both these things. We are Evangelical in that we proclaim the Gospel first and foremost. We're Lutheran because we belong to that tradition: We embrace both the blessings and the blemishes. So yeah, Evangelical + Lutheran.
We Lutherans also use a series of documents from the era of the Reformation called the Lutheran Confessions, gathered together into a Book of Concord, published in 1580. Among the documents you'll find there are the Augsburg Confession, which Philip Melanchthon wrote to define the Reformation movement that Luther spearheaded in Germany in the 1520's. There are other longer documents, and then there are the two catechisms, or enchiridions, for use in schools and homes. The shorter of these is Luther's Small Catechism, which is a work of wonder and brilliance, shot through with beauty and truth.
The Small Catechism is so wonderful because it IS small - five short sections: The Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and Confession and Absolution.
It's so simple that generations of well meaning people have written explanations for it, but there is NOTHING to explain! The catechism IS an explanation! So I'm NOT going to explain it here! I'll answer questions, sure, but I believe Luther can speak for himself, even today.
Now, finally, Lutherans treat these 'Confessions' as a LENS to bring the Bible into focus. The confessions are NOT Holy Scripture - thank God, becuase most of them are really truly dull and boring. But they can help us understand the bible. All people, no matter their denomination, history, culture, or faith; All people read the bible (if at all) through a lens of some sort - their own prejudices, their own world view, their own sense. That's not a problem - but we Lutherans want to be up front about it, and state how we do it, together. That won't make us any holier, mind you, but it will hopefully keep us humble and on the right path.
Speaking of the right path, Lutherans stay on that path by regularly doing two things: Hearing God's word and celebtrating the Sacraments. That's how Luther and Melanchthon described the Church: The place where the Gospel is proclaimed (rightly) and the sacraments are celebrated (rightly). We can quibble about how 'rightly' any congregation does these things, but you DO need a congregation for them to happen. So Lutherans gather. As we said elsewhere, Christianity is a TEAM SPORT. We're all in this together, and no one does it all alone.