The Use of the Sacraments

In the Lutheran Church we consider two things to be Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And they are great gifts to us. We treasure them because God promises to create faith, strengthen faith, and forgive sins through them. Many churches today teach that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are merely symbols. They might consider them valuable symbols, but nothing more. This idea is relatively new in Christian history. And by “new,” I mean five hundred years old or less. That might not seem very new, but it means the Church went 1,500 years without this idea. Before this time, Christians understood the Sacraments to be signs or symbols, but not merely signs. They always understood them to be more than symbolic.

The Augsburg Confession was written just as the “merely symbolic” view of the Sacraments was starting to emerge. And the Lutheran reformers rejected it, but they also rejected the Roman Catholic teaching, which denied the necessity of faith. They wrote,

“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 believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the Sacraments” (Augsburg Confession, Article XIII).

The basic question with both Sacraments is, “Are they something I do for God, or something he does for me?” If they are merely symbolic, then they’re something we do for God. But if they are more than symbols, then they are something God does for us. Look up all the Scriptures you can find on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Read them. It will be quite obvious that they are something God does for us. Both Sacraments connect us to the cross, where Christ made atonement for our sins.

But there is a pitfall if we misunderstand this. We might think that the Sacraments provide some benefit apart from faith. Rome committed this error and still does when they offer masses on behalf of people who are not even present, or who may not even be Christians.

Lutherans are often falsely accused of diminishing the importance of faith when we emphasize the Sacraments. But this could not be farther from the truth. I write about this, because I have heard this accusation many times. Perhaps you have too. And we should know how to defend our teaching. Faith is necessary in the use of the Sacraments. If a baptized child grows up to deny the faith of their Baptism, it does them no good. If a person has no faith, but comes to the Lord’s Supper anyway, it does him no good, and probably causes harm.

The reason other Protestants might misunderstand Lutherans is that we think of faith differently, or at least the beginning of it. They often think of faith as something we create or decide upon. But we understand faith to be the work of the Holy Spirit. He creates it through Baptism and the Word. Then he strengthens it through the Word and the Lord’s Supper. So it’s not the Sacraments working apart from faith. Nor is it faith apart from the Sacraments. But it is the Word, the Sacraments, and faith together. The Word and Sacraments create and strengthen faith. Faith receives the gifts promised by the Word and Sacraments. The gifts are forgiveness, life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake. This is why we should treasure them so highly.

The peace of Christ be with you all,

Pastor Dan Antal