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!


Paul Gregory Alms said...

Having been prodded by the good Pr. McCain to say something over here, I will say this about this article

First Pr. Weedon's comments are right on.

Secondly, the Lutheran view on the sacraments manifested in this article and Luther's exposition of them in various places (especially his Genesis commentaries) are sterling gems among all the treasures of our Lutheran confession.

The longer I am a pastor the more I am convinced that the sacraments are the true center of pastoral practice. The article says

"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" ... that is pastoral practice, is it not?

Leading people to see that the use of the sacraments is at the center of their life with God and in the world.

Paul T. McCain said...

Thank you Pastor Alms, and welcome to the blog site. It's good to hear from another one of our contributing authors.

Your comments underscore my continuing overall impression of the Lutheran Confessions: they are powerfully pastoral.

Eric Phillips said...

> Said most simply: Baptism doesn't change
> how God regards you in Christ! Your Baptism
> MANIFESTS how God regards you in Christ.

Baptism does change whether you're in Christ in the first place, though, doesn't it?

danny fallin said...

as a convert to lutheranism after growing up in various baptist and pentecostal traditions, i, after studying luther's writings, truly came to understand that after sll of my struggling trying to live right, it was not up to me. the Father chose me, called me to faith and showers me with his forgiveness, and through the sacraments, by faith i grasp this. i praise god daily that i found the confessional lutheran church!

Paul T. McCain said...

The companion article is found in the Apology, Article XIII "The Number and Use of the Sacraments" and here Melanchthon seems to delight in tweeking the Romanists over their legalisms and numbers of sacraments and what is, or is not, properly called, or appropriate called a "Sacrament." Many among us love to run here to say, "See? Ordination is a sacrament!" or "See? Absolution is a sacrament!" but they fail to notice that by the same methods we can easiliy say, "See? Government is a sacrament. Prayer is a sacrament, etc."

And if you take joy in the German translation of the Apology, which is the official text of Apology in our German Book of Concord you will delight to note that Jonas indicates that God approves the Church's ministry and is present in the ministry that God will preach and work through men and those who have been chosen by men.

William Weedon said...


You bet your sweet bippy it does!

William Weedon said...


On that point, check out this Luther letter I posted on my blog a few days ago:

beautiful words

Indeed, to rest in the sweet peace of the righteousness of Christ brings a joy to the heart that surpasses all other!

Rev. Ryan Fouts said...

The AC is unique among Christian confessions regarding this article. We do not begin our confession of "sacraments" with a "sacramental system" into which the specific sacraments must fit. We simply confess what the Word and Promise give us to confess and only then, for the sake of good teaching (see Apology XIII), do we begin to ponder the definition of a Sacrament.

The Reformed and Romanist confessions alike proceed in the reverse. The Westminster Confession (1646) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1562/1564) start out talking about what a "sacrament" is and how many there are (only two). Only having the system, or "principum" set up, do they begin to make the individual sacraments (Baptism/Lord's Supper) fit. The Canons of the Council of Trent do the same -- only after defining a "Sacrment" and enumerating them do they proceed to discuss what each of them is and how it fits within their definition of "Sacrament."

Only the Augsburg Confession, so far as I'm aware, among Reformation era confessions, begins with confessing each "sacrament" according to the Word, and then setting out to discuss, then, how the word "Sacrament" might be used and how they may or may not be enumerated (which again, is not an issue. In fact, the only two of the Roman "sacramental system" excluded entirely are confirmation and extreme unction since among the seven they are the only two that lack both the Lord's mandate and promise).

William Weedon said...


Right on. It really is one of the most freeing things: the Lord gives His gifts and we live from them and extol them without having definitions they have to conform to.

About the exclusion of extreme unction, though, see Scaer on the anointing in his little book on James. Noting, of course, that the anointing of James bears precious little resemblance to the extreme unction of the medieval West, Scaer is ready to call the anointing a sacrament.

wm cwirla said...

Great comments, all!

I view AC XII - XXI to be "defensive" articles, in the sense that they all address some false charge of Eck and others who sought to lump the Lutheran Reformers with the radicals. In AC XIII, the charge is obviously that the Lutherans have abrogated the Sacraments of the Church.

I appreciate William's observation that the Sacraments "manifest" or "reveal" God's gracious will to save the sinner in Christ. This is the essence of a "mystery" (mysterion) as that which reveals a hidden thing. It is precisely in this sense that we (though not the Confessions!) can use the term "means of grace" to refer to the Sacraments. They are means (instruments, AC V) by which God reveals His undeserved kindness toward sinner's for Jesus' sake.

Apology XIII bears closer attention than it has received in our circles. It is one of Melanchthon's finest moments. Ryan notes that Melanchthon declines to run "Sacrament" as a category but instead extols each gift for what it is. The enumeration of the sacraments is a non-issue.

We can see how justification is central. Those rites that pertain to justification - Baptism, Absolution, the Lord's Supper - are properly called "sacraments" as signs and testimonies of God's gracious will.

Holy order (the Office) and Ordination are also given "sacramental" status, though in a secondary sense, as providing the ministerial instrument for Baptism, etc.

Marriage is recognized as a gift of creation (1st article) and not pertaining to justification.

Unction and confirmation are recognized as man-made rites receive from the Fathers lacking dominical mandate and institution - not abrogated as such, but placed in their own category as not necessary for salvation.

Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper provide the objective Word of promise to which faith clings and applies the benefits. Melancthon's emphasis on faith challenges the mistaken understanding that the sacraments are beneficial ex opere operato. This is made explicit in the later editio princeps which adds: "Our churches therefore condemn those who teach that the sacraments justify ex opere operato and who do not teach that faith, which believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the sacraments."

wm cwirla said...

"Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper provide the objective Word of promise to which faith clings and applies the benefits."

Change that to "receives the benefits."

Read three times, think twice before you hit send.

dthomas said...

One of the big changes, in coming to the LCMS, having been trained in reformed theology, is that if you ask how the sacraments (if they dare use the word which some do) are "marks and professions among men", there is an incredible difference.

For in my old world, they marked and professed the faithfulness and obedience of men towards God - NOT the trust of man in God's faithfulness.

Baptism was a mark of man's faithful obedience, which resulted (with faith and repentance - also viewed as aspects of man's volition) in the transaction by which man received forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is "baptismal regneration" as the protestant world OUTSIDE of Lutheran theology either proclaims or disdains it.

How precious, how beautifully freeing, are these truths in our confessions. How much more do they show the glory, and honor and praise that is rightfully our God's.

I only regrety it took 10 years of minsitry, and 37 of life, to come across them!

Rev. Ryan Fouts said...

Bill W.,

Right. If I remember, Luther actually says (in the Babylonian Captivity?) that the biggest issue with "Extreme Unction" is that it is "extreme." That is, reserved for the death bed.

It makes me wonder if, historically, "extreme unction" in the west is as much a throw back to the old practice of Penance, with restoration only at the death-bed, as it is an evolution of anointing with oil in the James sense.

Paul T. McCain said...

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Topper's Dad said...

"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. -- AC XIII

History of the Spanish Conquerers in the Americas may be to some a surprising source of insights regarding use of the sacraments according to Rome's practice at the time of the Reformation and the following 200+ years. Although politically motivated, those expeditions were also led by Franciscans, first with Cortes in 1534 to Baja, California, and later Jesuits, then Franciscans again with Dominican priests as backup. Although the accounts are sporadic, it is clear that there was frequent use of involuntary and forced Baptisms as a matter of course. I misplaced the citation to an account I read of Spanish soldiers holding down captured Indians while the priest baptised them. Cortes (or Cortez) was a contemporary of Luther and once met with Charles V. Later reports from the Spanish expeditions mention the defeat of the reformation rebels as inspiration for their "missionary zeal" in the name of Rome as they systematically worked their way north along the California coast from 1760's. Once captured and baptized, they tried to "christianize" the natives by forcing them to stay at the missions like slaves for "training" in christian life and "economics." Of course, in addition to killing off many of the natives with imported diseases, many of the original missions were complete failures. AC condemns Rome's theological abuses in both theory and widespread "antipastoral" practices, including those employed in the missionary crusades to our part of the world. Does anyone know of a good survey/history from a neutral (non-catholic) point of view of the expeditions and their misseology? Anyway, isolationist Lutherans in America today tend to distance themselves from the graphic reality of the same abuses the reformers knew up close and personal. Those abuses and permutations thereof attack the proclamation of the pure Gospel from all sides and in all times. The more we understand the practical/pastoral side of the confessions, the more valuable they become, not to mention "relevant."

John Mark Hopmann, CSL 1980