Word AND Sacrament

We know from experience how easy it is for people to corrupt important questions by formulating them as ‘either/or’ choices.  Thus a teenager may demand an answer to a question like: “Do you love me OR are you going to make me miss out on a party with my friends.”   In a case like this, a wise parent recognizes that a false distinction is being created, and that’s why the reply may be: “I love you AND that’s why you’re saying home.”

Similarly, there are divine truths that we distort when we try to force them into ‘either/or’ propositions.  We’ve talked previously about how there are important truths about God’s nature that require us to embrace both of two seemingly irreconcilable facts (The Divine ‘And’).   Here, we want to address how humans have sometimes employed a false either/or to speak about how God brings us to salvation and keeps us in His faith.

After Jesus’ resurrection, His instruction to His followers was: “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20).  From this (and many other passages of the Bible) the Church has from the beginning understood that we are brought into God’s family by both the teaching of the Word and the Sacrament of Baptism.  And during Jesus’ last meal with His disciples He instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and commanded it as the sacred meal by which He makes Himself present to His followers (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).   Thus, Jesus left His followers with both Word AND Sacraments (Baptism and Communion) as the Means of Grace by which disciples are brought into and kept in relationship with Him.

Fast-forward now to the time of Martin Luther: the Church now claimed to provide the only access to salvation through its sacraments (which had now expanded to seven) and teaching from the Bible was not only deemphasized, but sometimes even criminalized (see: Two and a Half Martyrs).   In order to restore the teachings of the Apostolic Church, Luther demoted some rites: marriage, confirmation, ordination, and last rites, which, though they may be beneficial to a Christian life, were not instituted with a salvation-promise by Christ.  (Confession is a more complex situation, some Lutherans regarding it as a legitimate third sacrament and others not, but all regarding it as highly beneficial.)  At the same time, Luther reemphasized preaching and teaching of God’s Word and translated the Bible so that all could read and understand it.  Thus, we owe to Luther the reinstatement of God’s Holy Word to the center of Christian belief and worship – a primacy which is thankfully today embraced (with certain qualifications) by all Christian denominations.

But some of Luther’s successors swung to the opposite extreme, emphasizing God’s Word as the sole way in which God draws us to Him and denying His Sacramental means.  According to these folks, salvation is not influenced by the practice of ‘rituals’ – Baptism is merely the rite by which a ‘Bible believing’ Christian confirms that he/she is born again, and Communion is a special meal by which Christians commemorate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus; though both must be practiced, they are simply ‘ordinances’ rather than ‘means of Grace.’  Thus, salvation is considered by many modern Protestants to be solely a matter of making a personal decision for Christ in response to God’s Word, and ‘sacraments’ play no part, other than to confirm that commitment.

Lutheran Christians (along with Catholics and some other Protestants) believe that the Bible is clear that Baptism is more than just a rite of acceptance, but rather an` ‘adoption’ by which we become members of God’s family and receive His Holy Spirit.  Thus, we baptize infants, trusting that God actively plants the seeds of a saving faith through the power of His Spirit.  And in Holy Communion, we are fed by the Body and Blood of Christ present for us to forgive our sins and nourish us for life in Him.   This emphasis on Word AND Sacrament is perhaps the most important aspect of being a Lutheran Christian.  It is precisely because we take seriously God’s Holy Word that we believe that God also uses His Sacraments to convey His Grace – a Grace that adopts us and opens our hearts to His Word, and a Grace that feeds us to salvation with both His Word and His own Body and Blood.

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