It should be no surprise to anyone who’s spent much time in conservative Lutheranism that we have difficulty talking about the sacraments with other denominations. We get along reasonably well with other denominations that take a “high” view of the sacraments, saying that God is indeed active in and through them. Notably the Catholic and Orthodox Churches will agree with us there. At the same time, we don’t agree with them about what exactly God is doing through those sacraments. We all have slightly different definitions of the word.
Strictly speaking, it’s ok to disagree about the definition of the word, since the word was used as an aid for the church to help it talk about what these acts are. It isn’t a Biblical word, so we are free to use it however we feel best supports the work of the church. However, these different definitions do make it more difficult to have inter-denominational discussions about the sacraments, since we constantly have to go back to our differing definitions to make sure each side understands the other.
Those denominations we have a lot more difficulty talking to are those on the other end of the spectrum. These are the denominations that generally put people in the driver’s seat regarding the sacraments. Many of the Reformed and Anabaptist denominations, as well as the various non-denominational churches around will fall into this category. Whether the sacraments are described as a memorial or a public confession, or as a way to call down the Holy Spirit for one reason or another, they all make the sacraments entirely up to the individuals to do if they so choose. The value in them ends up being very subjective. The church may say these things are important and may encourage you to participate, but in the end it’s up to you and what you get out of it.
As Lutherans, we don’t really like what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches do with the sacraments, but we respect that they treat them with the reverence they deserve. They acknowledge them as the work of God. This commonality gives us a basis for discussion. We have a harder time having this conversation with other denominations since we see the sacraments working so differently.
To some extent, I wonder if the communication problems we have with the Reformed and other like-minded traditions are our own fault. We Lutherans tend to narrow the focus of the sacraments down to a pinpoint. We bring the theological magnifying glass to bear on the most important aspect of the sacraments: God’s act of grace. We, unfortunately, do this almost to the exclusion of all else. That makes conversation difficult.
When you dive deep into the sea of sacramental theology, the richness you find there is almost overwhelming. There are a great many themes and concepts that are woven into both baptism and communion that go above and beyond a surface understanding of forgiveness. It’s about time we own it.
The fact of the matter is that those churches that describe communion as memorial meal are not wrong. When Christ Himself says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it is pretty conclusive what He thinks about it. Those who describe baptism as a public confession are also not wrong. Baptism brings the believer into the Body of Christ. It is an act that is always intended to be public and even when done privately, such as in cases of emergency, the intention is always to announce and affirm that baptism publicly in the midst of the congregation.
Our kneejerk Lutheran tendency is to decry these views as wrong, but they are not wrong. Rather, they are out of order. Baptism is indeed a public confession, but it is a confession that responds to what God does through baptism. God claims me as His own child through the water and the Word and I affirm that I am truly His child. In fact, this public confession is something that is part of my life as a disciple of Christ. The whole intention of the sacrament is that God is setting me a part and making it known to the world who I am and whose I am. Thus, public confession is necessarily a part of the rite.
The same is true of communion as a memorial meal. We eat the bread and wine, the body and blood, in remembrance of God’s promises. It is a memorial to the grace of God. The meal functions similarly to the Ebenezer (the “stone of help) the prophet Samuel sets up in 1 Samuel 7, declaring what God has done for His people. But, again, the memorial meal must necessarily also acknowledge that God has acted and continues to act through the meal. God is not done working through His sacrament. Those called to the Lord’s Table have been renewed by His grace and continue to receive it. Without this grace, there is little to memorialize.
Instead of looking down our noses at our brothers and sisters in Christ and pondering how they could be so terribly misguided, it is time we recognize the breadth of the sacraments. It’s time we acknowledge that our focus on forgiveness often turns into theological tunnel vision. The great contribution of Luther in the Reformation was in putting things in the proper order. Good works are indeed necessary in Christian life, but they come as a response to God’s grace, not as the work that precedes it. I believe this is the place we can truly add to the discussion of the sacraments with those around us. Put the emphasis on God’s grace, yes, but then look at everything that comes from that grace and how much of that we are privileged to participate in.