Thursday, April 26, 2007

Roundtable 14: The Use of the Sacraments

Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God's will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Therefore, we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith, which believes the promises offered and set forth through the Sacraments, is increased.

Therefore, they condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify simply by the act of doing them. They condemn those who do not teach that faith, which believe that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the Sacraments.

Note the "not only." That means that they ARE also "marks of profession among men." In other words, you can use the Sacraments to locate the Church. That's one of their uses and it is an important use. A Lutheran distinctive is that we locate the Church via the Gospel preached and the Sacraments given; Rome and the East tend to locate the Gospels and the Sacraments via the Church. It's a matter of where your final certainty rests.

But the Confessors, recognizing that's a big thing, know it's not THE biggy about the Sacraments. First and foremost ("even more") they are "signs and testimonies of God's will toward us." I would gloss "will" with "good will." For that is what they surely reveal: God's good and gracious will toward us!

Said most simply: Baptism doesn't change how God regards you in Christ! Your Baptism MANIFESTS how God regards you in Christ. Similarly with the Supper. Or with Absolution.

I think of a man I know who, when he suffered a stroke, said sadly: "I guess God doesn't love me anymore." This man had been a faithful Christian for years and years! But when something came along that shook his world to the core, his faith was shaken too. At such a moment along comes the Sacrament to make firm that shaking faith and say: "NO! You've got it all wrong. God loves you and HERE IS THE PROOF. His body and blood given into death for the sins of the world. His blood mingled in the water of Baptism washing away your sin and telling you how precious indeed you are to God. His servant commanded to speak into your penitent ear over and over again: Your sins are history, man! Forgiven and gone. Your God is FOR you." This is what the Sacraments testify to, and you see how utterly useless they would be to anyone who didn't believe the promises they speak.

Satan is such a rascal. He always tries to get us to doubt the promises of God! And there is no worse way to doubt them than to turn them into a work we do. So that Baptism saves you because YOU choose to do it and receive it. Or the same with Absolution. Or the Supper.

What utter nonsense. The Sacraments - being by their very nature PROMISE - do not save through a mere external use. They save through an external use that is joined to a faith that trusts what God says is there given. No faith, no benefit of the Sacrament! Why, it would be like a person insisting that he could be satisfied by food set in front of him without actually EATING it. Faith is what EATS the promise of God. Devours it. Clings to it and lives from it.

That such faith is not our own doing is the story for another day, but the burden of AC XIII is that BECAUSE the Sacraments testify unfailing to us of God's good will, their very use is faith trusting the promise as it receives the "sign."

And last note on sign. It recalls the "oth" of the Hebrew. The rainbow was such an "oth" and it was indeed something that pointed to God's good will. Similarly the Passover Lamb's blood upon the door. An "oth" a sign, a promise under which one could shelter and find life and not death. So the "sign" is delivered of its platonic straight-jacket and freed to be what God declares it to be: sort of an X marks the spot of my grace. Run and shelter there, trust my promise, and live!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Roundtable 13: Repentance

"Strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven. It comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruit of repentance." --Augsburg Confession Article XII: Repentance. par. 1-6; Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, p. 38.

The Reformation of the Church was sparked in the confessional, as others have noted on this blog. Father Martin Luther, hearing confessions, became enraged when Christians appealed to the indulgence they had purchased as their "get out of jail free card" when it came to a serious repenting from and turning away from evil and putting their trust in the mercies of God in Christ. The Christian life is marked by returning, again and again, to the fount and source of all loving kindness, our Lord Jesus Christ. This article rejects any teaching that implies that our works of satisfaction are part of true repentance. And it also carefully notes that repentance is marked by the fruits of good works, which are "bound to follow" it. The article rejects the Anabaptist assertion that once a person is justified he can never lose the Holy Spirit, or that a person can ever reach such a point of perfection that he can actually not sin. I'm a bit puzzled why the Novatians are mentioned in the article. Others may enlighten on this point. And the article most pointedly rejects Rome's view that faith alone is not sufficient to receive forgiveness, but must be merited by our own works of satisfaction.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Roundtable 12: Confession

"Our churches teach that private absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. For, according to the Psalm, it is impossible. "Who can discern his error?" (Psalm 19:12)." (-- AC Latin; Concordia edition, 36-37).

By the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the practice of private absolution had been in place for well over 1,000 years. The Augsburg Confession is very brief and is intent simply on affirming that Lutherans continue the practice, but rejected any suggestion that all of one's sins must be enumerated. The article's purpose is twofold: to reject the false accusation that the Lutherans had rejected private absolution, to put distance between themselves and who had rejected it, and to reject the abuse of Rome that demanded that the penitent enumerate every sin he possibly could, or else he would not be certain of forgiveness. Sadly, over the course of time in Lutheranism, the practice of private confession and absolution fell out of practice.