Sacraments as Physical Signs of God’s Actions
October 26, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part six of a multi-part series.
Protestant churches all over the world are recognizing or celebrating this week in some manner the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses. For many Protestants, Luther is a champion of Christian faith, especially justification by faith alone. Most Protestants, however, would be astonished to find out that Luther would think very little of their Christian practice, even while they celebrate him. What’s behind this? Divergent views of the sacraments.
Trueman writes: “Luther’s high sacramentalism is likely the most alien and perhaps even most confusing area of his positive theological thought to modern evangelical Protestants. Their church world is not a sacramental world. That is indeed one of the great ironies…Luther, the great Protestant hero, would probably not recognize most Protestants today as Christian” (p. 156).
Can we learn, and even benefit, from Luther’s teaching on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even if we would disagree with his full view? I agree with Trueman in stating that yes, we can benefit greatly from Luther regarding the sacraments. Let’s consider what Luther has to say about baptism and communion these next couple of weeks.
We start with Luther’s theology as a whole, which we have considered these previous weeks. “God [can] only be approached as gracious through the weak and frail humanity of the incarnate Christ” (p. 138). That’s why indulgences and works-righteousness are of no use to a Christian. Christ-crucified is our only means to relate with God.
Where is the incarnate Christ offered? Luther argued that Christ is “offered to us by God in Word and sacrament” (p. 156). We have looked at Luther’s view of the Word the last three weeks. In hearing the Word, Christ is offered to us and we receive him by faith. In the same way, with equal power, Luther believed that Christ is offered to us in the sacraments, which we receive by faith. By emphasizing that Christ is offered in the Word and sacraments, Luther downplays, even eliminates, any subjective action on our part in procuring Christ. “Salvation comes from the outside. Salvation has objectivity” (p. 156). God is the actor in offering salvation to us via Christ by means of Word and sacrament.
Trueman summarizes well the implication of Luther’s view of sacraments:
Luther’s sacramentalism actually points to his confidence in the power of the gospel. For him, confidence does not come from a religious experience; it comes from the fact that God has given himself to be gracious to sinful humanity in the flesh of Christ. Christ is God’s great act of salvation and Luther roots his confidence in that act and nothing else. The sacraments, like the Word, are the means whereby the story of Christ penetrates the story of individual Christians. Thus, when tempted, Luther thinks of his baptism. When fearing death, Luther takes the bread and wine in the Mass. These are the moments when, to use popular parlance, the Christian’s story is taken up in Christ’s—and thus God’s—story. That foundation of assurance in the action of God in Christ is something all Christians need to understand. Page 157
We would do well in learning from Luther that the sacraments point us to what God has done for us through Christ. They do not point out or highlight any of our actions. Our assurance does not rest in our religious activity or experience but solely on God’s salvific and unfailing action in Christ.
We’ll look more closely next week at some of Luther’s specific teaching on baptism and communion.