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.

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.

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