Thursday, February 19, 2009

Roundtable 41: The Means of Grace (Smalcald Articles III.iv-viii)

Sometimes we hear people ask, “Why do we need the Sacraments if we have the Word?” It’s an understandable question. We tend to think, “If God said He forgives us, and Christ died, why do we need Sacraments?” I’ve heard the question answered this way, “How often do you need to tell your wife you love her? Once?” No, of course not. We tell those whom we love how much we love them, often. And God is the same way. He gives His grace and mercy, lavishly.

Luther has a delightful way of putting it in the Smalcald Articles, “God is superabundantly generous in His grace.” The German word here for “superabundantly” is “├╝berschwenglich” and means “effusive” and can mean “gushing.” A paraphrase might be, “God gushes grace!” The Latin translation of the Smalcald Articles says that God is “rich” (dives) and “liberal” (liberalis) in His grace and goodness” (dives et liberalis est gratia and bonitate sua.)

How so? Luther lists four ways: First, through the spoken word (Ger: m├╝ndliche Wort; Lat: verbum vocale), “through which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world.” Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Luther here presents the specific means of grace, which are often referred to as the Word and Sacraments. The “particular office” of the Gospel (Ger: eigentliche Amt des Evngelii) is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, and the Sacramental means of that proclamation are located, by Luther, in Baptism, Lord’s Supper and the Power of the Keys, which Luther explains most specifically in Article VIII: Confession.

But Luther does not end his “laundry list” of the ways in which God is so lavish and generous with His grace. He explains that there is also a communication of God’s grace through the “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” which Luther, in his German text, here uses Latin words to explain: “per mutuum colloquium et consolationem fratrum” and then cites Matthew 18:20, “where two or three are gathered, etc.”

Luther’s point in these articles is twofold: to affirm the variety of ways our good and gracious God provides His lavish treasures of forgiveness, life and salvation to us, and to affirm what God’s Word teaches about Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Keys. The key to understanding these gifts is the recognition that it is not in the act of doing them that grace is given, but that God has given us His word of promise connected to these simple, external means of communicating His grace to use: word, water, bread and wine. Thus Luther says of Baptism, that it is “nothing other than God’s Word in the water, commanded by His institution.” (Art. V.1).

In the article on the Sacrament of the Altar we have the most strikingly realistic assertions of what the Lord’s Supper is: “the bread and wine in the Supper are Christ’s true body and blood.” (Art. VI.1). Luther, with a verbal wave of the hand, dismisses the “high reasoning” and “sophistic cunning” that had developed in the Medieval Church to try to explain how it is that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine His blood, and then a way of justifying not distributing the blood of Christ to the laity. These theories, transubstantiation and concomitance, are speculative human theories which have nothing to do with Christ’s institution.

Here we should caution that often we hear Reformed Christians (heirs of Zwingli and Calvin) claim that they do not deny the Real Presence, but they just don’t try to explain how it happens. This is not the same thing as the Roman Church adopting a philosophical explanation for how the bread is the body of Christ. Reformed Christianity rejects the assertion that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, choosing instead to affirm, in various ways, that the actual body and blood of Christ as as far away from the elements of the Supper as heaven is from earth (this is what Calvin asserts in his writing the Consensus Tigurinus).

The binding and loosing of sins in the Church is not a power and authority that is given to the Pope to distribute as he sees fit, but rather it is “given by Christ to the Church” (Art. VII.1). This article is followed immediately by Luther’s comments about Confession. “Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and consolation for a bad conscience. It is ordained by Christ in the Gospel. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means be abolished in the Church.” (Art. VIII.1). This article really is more about Luther’s desire to assert the strength and power of the means of grace, which is located in the “spoken, outward Word” through which God grace His Spirit or grace “to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word.” (Art. VIII.3).

Luther is very concerned to make these points clear because there were those in his days, as in ours, who were pointing people not toward the external, objective Word and promises of God given to us in Scripture and delivered through the outward preaching and teaching of the Word, but rather pointing people to their feelings, emotions and their perception of the Spirit’s promptings and stirrings. Luther rejects any such interior speculations, be they from radical reformers like Muntzer and others, or from the Papacy itself which Luther says is “sheer enthusiasm” since the Pope finally claims the right to decide and command based on the “shrine in his heart” as evidenced by the Papacy’s directing and teaching things that are “above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.” (Art. VIII.4).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Roundtable 40: Repentance (Smalcald Articles III.iii)

Over the years of the Middle Ages the Gospel was corrupted perhaps most dramatically and visibly in regard to the doctrine of Repentance. Medieval Romanism had developed a view that man is not totally corrupted as a result of the Fall into Sin and as a result there was within man still a spark of spiritual ability that could be aroused and awakened by a "dose" of grace, and following that "dose" of grace, the life of the Christian is marked by man doing what is within him to merit and earn God's continuing grace and favor. The entire Roman Sacramental system had developed around this error. The Smalcald Articles, Article III, Part III, sets forth a proper, Biblical understanding of repentance and grace.

Aside from the important doctrinal content of this section of the Smalcald Articles we have some of the most powerful autobiographical content by Luther in the Book of Concord. He describes his own experience, in the third person:

"As for Confession, the procedure was this: Everyone had to list all his sins (which is impossible). This was a great torment. If anyone had forgotten some sins, he would be absolved on the condition that, if they would occur to him, he must still confess them. So he could never know whether he had made a sufficiently pure confession or if confessing would ever come to an end. Yet he was pointed t his own works. He was comforted like this: The more fully you confess, and the more you humiliate yourself and debase yourself before the priest, the sooner and better you render satisfaction for your sins." (SA III.iii.19).

The Gospel rediscovery on this point is that confession is being moved by the holy will of God, the Law, to see our sin, to confess it and to cling only to Christ for His grace and mercy. This repentance continues until death, throughout our lives, as we wrestle with the sin that remains in us. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us, every day, and Luther asserts that "this daily cleansing sweeps out the remaining sins and works to make a person pure and holy." (SA III.iii.40).