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.