The sacraments took center stage in the discussion Luther had with the other reformers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin and Zwingli denied Christ’s presence in Communion in particular and disagreed about the value of the sacraments in general. For Luther, the sacraments were absolutely essential to Christian life and the center of all we do in this world.
The descendants of Calvin and Zwingli, such as the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth, will typically say the sacraments have some value. It’s just that they are not “means of grace” as the Lutheran reformers would say. They are not vehicles for transporting God’s forgiveness to us. Luther vehemently disagreed with the arguments presented by Calvin and Zwingli and, since the sacraments were so central to Luther’s theology, the church fractured further to create all of the Reformed church bodies we have today.
Despite how we Lutherans are sometimes portrayed, we very much like talking with our brothers and sisters from the Reformed traditions. Unfortunately, the sacraments are still one of the major points of disagreement and that isn’t likely to turn around anytime soon. I’ve talked before about how the other traditions’ views of the sacraments have some truth to them and how we Lutherans often have trouble acknowledging that. However, what Luther excelled at throughout his theological work is in going back to the beginning and seeing how everything unfolds and, for Luther, that always meant going back to God’s Word.
“What does God say?” would be at the forefront of his mind from very early on as his posting of the 95 Theses was coming into view. “What does God promise? I’ll stand firmly on that,” would be his constant assurance. Whatever participation we might have in the sacraments, it is the power and promise of God that ultimately makes them worth anything at all. It is God’s promise that drives the sacraments. It is God’s Word that drives everything in creation. Luther would always go back to this idea and look at what God is saying and examine what God is doing through what He says. God creates through His Word. He judges or forgives through His Word. Our relationship with God is both begun in and founded on His Word.
That then means the sacraments are also primarily about His Word and what God is doing through them. “What does God say?” God says, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” If we want to know what God is doing through the sacraments, we must first begin, as Luther did, by looking at what God Himself says about them. What does God actually promise? This is where we, too, must take our stand. The sacraments may have more going on, as our Reformed brothers and sisters often correctly state, but without God’s Word of promise there is no guarantee that God is using anything for our benefit.
For Luther, everything begins with God. That includes even the things we try and offer to Him. Anything that seeks its beginning somewhere else cannot stand.