Article XIII: Of the Use of the Sacraments.

Of the Use of the Sacraments they teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but rather to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Wherefore we must so use the Sacraments that faith be added to believe the promises which are offered and set forth through the Sacraments.

They therefore condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify by the outward act, and who do not teach that, in the use of the Sacraments, faith which believes that sins are forgiven, is required.
(Augsburg Confession, XIII).

 


During the time of Luther a great abuse of the Sacraments was prevalent in the churches.  This was because there was a wrong understanding of the Office of Holy Ministry.  In essence, priests believed themselves to be endowed with special powers and authorities, such that their words and their actions could make things happen.  They believed that their actions and words were “sacrificial”, sort of like the priests of the Old Testament, where they (the priests) had to make sacrifice for the people.  They thought that they possess the power to forgive sins, to make water holy by blessing it, to turn the bread and wine into body and blood, all by a power they possessed by virtue of their priesthood.

As a result, many more sacraments were added — since it was through the priest that these things were accomplished.  Beyond Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Roman Catholics, to this day, include Confirmation, Penance, Marriage, Divine Unction, and Holy Orders, all of which require the priest to stand and speak/act.

Well, Luther and the reformers rightly took issue with this.  First, they corrected the errors regarding the ministry.  Priests, in fact, do not have special powers but they are servants of the Gospel, instruments of God who are to proclaim the Word of the Lord and rightly administer the Sacraments.  In these things, it is not the power of the priest, but the power and promises of God which matter.  For example, it’s not the words of the pastor that mean anything but it is the Word of the Lord which the pastor speaks which has power.  So, when a pastor says “I forgive you all your sins…”, he does so not by his own authority or ability to forgive sins, but by the powerful Word of the Lord which forgives, and by the authority Christ Jesus has given to speak it in a personal way.

Likewise, in Baptism, it’s not the words of the pastor/priest that make the baptism truly salvific, but it is the Word of the Lord, living and active, declaring promises through the water, which makes Baptism truly powerful.  The pastor/priest is doing only what he is told to do, but the Word itself, through water, is doing the saving.

Again, in the Lord’s Supper, it is not the pastor’s words which make this sacrament truly a sacrament.  Instead, it is the Word of the Lord accomplishing what it sets out to do which makes the Sacrament.

Now, regarding the Sacraments, there is something else that is vitally important.  Since the priests believed their own words and powers made the Sacraments effectual, it was also taught that the people receiving the sacraments got the benefits of the sacraments regardless of their spiritual condition.  That a complete pagan would be forgiven of sins simply because the priest said the “magic words”.  That as long as the actions of the priests were rightly done, the benefits of the sacraments were given (ex opera operato).

Well, Luther and the reformers saw this grave flaw and worked to correct it.  First, they affirmed that everyone receiving the Lord’s Supper truly received the Body and Blood of Christ whether they believed it or not.  This is why we continue to practice Closed Communion.  While we want everyone to receive the gifts given in the Sacrament, we also acknowledge that not everyone rightly understands or confesses the Sacrament as Scripture teaches and we don’t want anyone to fall into judgment. Instead we teach and instruct the people so that they, along with all of us, can rightly confess and so commune with us in a unified way.  After all, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t merit salvation because we do it, but as Scripture clearly teaches, it does bring condemnation to anyone who receives it without faith.

Second, it was also corrected that the Sacraments are not acts that the people do in order to merit salvation.  We do not offer Baptism or the Lord’s Supper so that, by you acting and doing them, you merit salvation. Instead, we offer them as God’s means by which you RECEIVE His good and gracious gifts of salvation and forgiveness, and only those who receive them by faith (believing in the words of Christ who institutes them) receive them benefits.

To summarize: It is not the words or actions of the pastor which makes the Sacraments truly sacramental, but the Word of the Lord which does what it says.  Faith is essential, not to make the sacraments, but to receive the benefits of the sacraments, and without faith the sacraments bring judgment and condemnation, because the Word of the Lord is still living and active and never returns void.

So, when you come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper, you need not worry about “how” you look or act or even “feel” when you receive it.  You cannot merit anything from it by your acts or works.  Instead, believe in the Words of Christ!  It IS his true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins!  And receive this gift with joy and gladness knowing that your name is still (and forever) written in God’s book of life in heaven!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Daniel Carlson
Pastor ~ St. Paul’s Lutheran Church