The Law of Worship

Back in the 4th and 5th centuries, early church theologian Prosper of Aquitaine declared, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.”  This statement is often shorted to “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which roughly means, “what is prayed is what is believed.”  He was looking at worship, the primary place of prayer, and how it isn’t just a matter of who we pray to or what we worship, but how we worship.  How we worship says a great deal about what we believe and can have a big impact on those beliefs.

We have to be careful in over-applying this idea, since it can lead to concepts like church traditions holding the same authority as Scripture.  This is what happened in the Catholic Church and Luther came along to push things in the other direction.  Much of his correction was essentially arguing that what we believe affects how we worship.  Still, we acknowledge that Prosper is correct as well.  How we worship can have a profound effect on what we believe.

It may not be immediately apparent, but everything you do in the worship service says something about what you believe. For instance, we pray in worship because we believe God hears and answers prayer. Not only do we pray for ourselves, but we pray for others because we know that is part of our priestly duty before God. We prioritize the reading of Scripture and the use of the sacraments because we believe God continues to be active in the life of the church and continues to grant us His grace. Every time we participate in worship we are making these statements and many more about what we believe. The service is trying to teach you about all of these different aspects of God and gives you the opportunity to publicly declare the grace and mercy of God before the world.

When you start tinkering with the liturgy you’re also changing what the church says about itself and God. If you start dropping sections of the service or swapping parts for others that aren’t usually there, really any change you might make affects the overall message the liturgy is trying to convey. If a pastor understands the function of the liturgy and what it is helping the church to do, those changes can be informed and beneficial. If not, then we remember that sometimes the influence needs to go the other direction, as it did under Luther’s reforms of the Catholic mass. Sometimes we need to bring out Scripture to correct where the liturgy has been allowed to go off track.

This back and forth between our following the liturgy and our study of Scripture is what constitutes the worship life of the church. Each side helps us understand the other. As you spend time in worship, make a point of examining every rite, every hymn, everything the pastor does, and everything the congregation does. What is the church saying by doing this particular thing? What would someone who heard or saw this say about what the congregation believes? Also, pay attention to when changes are made and consider how the church’s statement of faith also changes.

Eternal and Temporal

Going through the Small Catechism with my son has had me reflecting a bit on how we view Baptism and Communion. The common perception of Baptism and Communion as sources of forgiveness, grace, and salvation are helpful. They tell us what God does for us on an eternal scale. The whole history of God’s salvation is distilled into what God does for us in the sacraments. So much of what God does for His people is telling them about their future with Him. The Promised Land of Israel, the holy city of Jerusalem, the Temple built by Solomon all foreshadow our eternity in God’s kingdom. This is our future in the resurrection brought by Christ. This is what we look forward to because of the forgiveness won for us by Christ.

What’s interesting is when we start looking at what Luther says about the sacraments. Regarding Baptism, Luther says, “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Through Baptism, God makes a promise to me regarding what will happen to me when I do. Eternal life is mine for death will not hold me any more than it did Christ. A big part of Christian life is looking to the future and the fulfillment of God’s promises. We recognize we have no permanent home here and we await the arrival of God’s kingdom and everything that goes with it.

When we think about the sacraments, that’s usually the sort of thing we emphasize. The sacraments bring grace and forgiveness which grants us eternal life. It’s all good stuff and the fact that the Bible makes clear the sacraments offer these things also means they are integral to what the sacraments are here for. After all, without God’s grace we’re all lost.

At the same time, we shouldn’t over look the other things the sacraments do. Once Christ returns I won’t really have to worry about Satan at all. The Bible also makes pretty clear what’s going to happen to him. However, right now Satan is a rather big concern. There’s a reason Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We wouldn’t pray for these things if we didn’t need them now. God is not just concerned about our eternal destination but also our present situation in the sinful world.

Modern baptisms in the Lutheran church have generally omitted the exorcism that used to be a part of the baptismal rite. Thinking about demons and the idea that I or my children might be under the sway of a demon makes us all rather uncomfortable. Yet, there’s a reason this was emphasized, because that’s part of what Baptism does. Through the sacraments, God is already at work healing us in body and soul in this mortal life. In a world full of division and strife, God creates unity and community as He brings brothers and sisters together around His table. All are equal and all are blessed at His table. Certainly these things have eternal significance, but their effects begin and are felt right here. This is why Luther also notes in his questions preparing one for Communion says, “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need [to take Communion] and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? Answer: To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it in Galatians 5 and Romans 7. Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say in John 15-16 and in 1 John 2 and 5. Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within or without, and the Scriptures picture him in John 8 and 16; 1 Peter 5; Ephesians 6; and 2 Timothy 2.”

All of these things are things I need and all are things that affect me now. The blessings of God are all encompassing. My life in eternity isn’t disconnected from my life now. I am already living my eternal life now. Death already has no hold over me. I am already baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. My life begins here and God’s grace is already at work here. Communion is something I continue to need because the work God does in and through it is needed today.

Locating the Sacrament

One of the debates the Lutheran reformers had with the Catholic church back in the days of the Reformation regarded how many sacraments there were. Since the word “sacrament” doesn’t appear in the Bible, the church could more or less define the word however they wanted. The sacraments were always seen as place where God blessed His people with His grace. The problem was that what the word “grace” actually meant began to change as the Catholic church veered further and further off course.

As the Lutheran reformers were going back to Scripture, they saw that the Catholic definition of the word was no longer adequate, because it did not see grace as the free gift of God. When the reformers went back through Scripture with an eye to where God promises forgiveness, then many of the things Catholics thought of as sacraments dropped away. Marriage, for instance, was discarded as a sacrament. The question was never whether God blessed marriage or not. Scripture makes clear marriage is God’s intention for His people and He blesses the marital relationship. Marriage even has a special role to play in outwardly demonstrating the love Christ has for His people. However, that doesn’t mean God forgave people in and through marriage. Since there was no such promise attached to marriage, it was disqualified as a sacrament in the eyes of the Lutheran reformers. The same was true for ordination into the priesthood or last rites for the dying.

When we look through to find the places where God clearly connects His grace to a physical element, the options narrow down to 2 (or arguably 3). In this regard, God works through Baptism, Communion, and Confession and Absolution function just the same as He worked in the Old Testament. Whenever the Israelites wondered where God would be present in mercy, they had only to look at where He promised to be. God’s Word made it happen. For as much as God might approve of all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean He promises to offer His grace through them. Without that promise of grace, there is no assurance. There is no solid foundation to stand on. On the other hand, with God’s promise, we are unshakeable.

The theology of the sacraments is ultimately a theology of God’s Word. This is why Luther rested so confidently on the plain and simple words of Christ, “This is my body.” The question, “How is this possible?” was completely secondary, even irrelevant. Christ promised, and so it was. This is also why Luther, in his baptismal booklet, says not to get overly hung up on all of the peripheral rites that often go along with Baptism. Candles, white gowns, and all of that sort of thing can be very helpful and can add to our understanding of what takes place in Baptism, but they are not, in themselves Baptism. Christ does not promise to work through a candle. He promises we are joined to His death and His resurrection through the water. There, and only there, is His grace found.

Luther’s sacramental theology draws on this over and over. What does God promise? Whatever God said, that’s what the sacrament is doing. There is no need to question or debate it. God is always truthful and reliable. If He said it, then it must be.

Look to God’s Word in all things. Look especially to where He promises to be. Anything extra, nice as it may be, is not what God promises. It is only there in His Word of promise that you find salvation.

The Third Sacrament

Depending on what you’re reading from Luther, you will find him stating at some points that there are two sacraments and sometimes three. The Lutheran reformers wanted to move away from the Catholic definition of the term “sacrament” and bring it more in line with the things God stood behind. That led them to define the sacraments as those rites or acts that can satisfy three requirements: 1. They must be commanded by God. 2. They must confer God’s grace. 3. They must have some physical element.

Baptism and Communion both satisfy all three quite handily. They are both commanded by Christ. They both bring grace, and they both have a physical element to which God’s promise of grace is connected. Every so often though, you’ll find Luther referring to a third sacrament: Absolution. We Lutherans don’t talk about a third sacrament very often, because Luther more or less settled on Baptism and Communion. But, Absolution is also worth considering because of its importance to Christian life.

At first it might not look like Absolution fits the bill. Sure, it has God’s command. John 20 tells us how Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the “Keys to the Kingdom,” or the authority to pronounce God’s forgiveness to the repentant and God’s condemnation to the unrepentant. Obviously, absolution conveys God’s grace. The physical element is where Luther wavers. When he calls Absolution a sacrament it is because he considers the pastor to be that physical element.

That fits with the doctrine we call the Office of the Keys, we acknowledges that the pastor is the one who administers those keys publicly on behalf of the church. Every Christian is authorized to speak God’s forgiveness on a personal level, but the pastor speaks for the whole congregation. This, it is him you will up at the front and it is his voice you will hear when you have confessed your sins.

In terms of function, Absolution is every bit as important as the two, more usual sacraments. Each has their own purpose and they all work together to build up the Christian through God’s free gift of grace. In terms of order, Absolution is the one we hear first. It is the distilled Gospel message. “On account of Christ, your sins are forgiven.” Thia is what God says to all who confess their sins to Him and Confession is the first and most basic act of faith. It is on Confession and Absolution that the whole rest of Christian life is based, and that includes both Baptism and Communion.

The next time you are in worship or meeting with your pastor privately, consider why God set up the church the way He did. In His wisdom He has ensured every member of the congregation would have someone to tell them specifically that God forgives them. When your pastor speaks those words of Absolution, He speaks with the full backing of God Himself because he has been authorized to do so. The pastor is the physical assurance that God means that message to go right to you and has sent your pastor to convey it personally.

Thy Strong Word

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.

Baptism as Worship

I talked a while back about how the baptismal font speaks to us just by virtue of what it is.  The construction of the font, what is on it, where it is in the sanctuary, all of that, together with what’s around it, all says something about what the church believes about baptism. All of that holds true with the rite itself too.  How the rite is conducted, where it’s conducted, and everything else done around the rite speaks to what the sacrament is doing.

Martin Luther often describes faith as the first and most fundamental act of worship.  Without faith, one will not desire any of God’s gifts.  That isn’t something Christians will generally debate, but it is a message that we will communicate.  In a number of churches, baptism is a rite that is done right at the beginning, even before the formal service has begun.  This suggests that baptism is not a part of worship.  It suggests that baptism is separate and even unrelated to the rest of the normal worship life of the congregation.

While it’s true that the early church often baptized outside of the worship service and even outside of the church proper, those newly baptized were then brought in into the service where the acknowledgement and celebration of that baptism was made a central feature of the service.

This problem is further compounded by the speed with which we conduct the rite.  When baptism is outside the service, instead of central to it, baptism can feel like an intrusion, as something that disrupts the flow of worship. 

This is all especially unfortunate since God’s Word and sacraments are the basis for the church’s life.  Baptism is one of the most important events in a Christian’s life.  That also makes it one of the most fundamental acts of worship.

Baptism is intended to be a part of worship.  This is in large part because placing it in the service also communicates the place baptism has in Christian life.  As Christians, we hear God’s Word and trust His promises.  Now, with that faith and trust in God He directs us to the next gift He offers: baptism.  Like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, after hearing what God has to say, the eunuch asks to be baptized because it is the natural next step. Placing it in the service following the reading of God’s Word reminds us of baptism’s place in our life as building on our faith, as well as preparing us to meet God face to face in Communion.

Such is the extent baptism impacts our life. There are so many ways in which we can help others draw on what God offers in the sacraments. We should not neglect any opportunity we have to bring God’s grace into life of church.

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