Abiding truth: Part 8

In Baptism and Holy Communion, God gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

David J. Valleskey

Throughout his ministry Martin Luther had to fight a battle on two fronts. On one he fought to reform the church, cleansing it of the gospel-obscuring errors and traditions. While he was doing that, on the second front he opposed those who introduced new errors.

Luther did not hesitate to take on both adversaries. Perhaps nowhere do we see more clearly the double battle Luther was fighting than in his work of restoring to the church a right understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

The first front

Luther reduced the number of sacraments from the seven taught by the Roman Catholic Church to two, since only two—Baptism and Holy Communion—were truly means of grace.

He accepted as scriptural the church’s practice of the baptism of infants. But Luther strongly objected to the teaching that Baptism wasn’t enough. He wrote, “We must . . . beware of those who have reduced the power of baptism to such small and slender dimensions that, while they say grace is indeed inpoured by it, they maintain that afterwards it is poured out again through sin, and that then one must reach heaven by another way, as if baptism had now become entirely useless. . . . Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 36, p. 69).

Luther accepted the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. But that is where his agreement with the Roman Catholic Church ended. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther speaks of three “captivities.” The first was the tradition of withholding the cup from the laity. On the basis of the accounts in the gospels and 1 Corinthians, Luther concludes, “Christ gave the whole sacrament to all his disciples” (LW 36:20). He didn’t need to say more.

The second “captivity” was transubstantiation, the teaching that the priest changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus; the bread and wine are no longer present. Again, simply on the basis of Scripture, Luther turns away from the tradition and maintains that Jesus’ body and blood are truly present and the bread and wine also remain in a sacramental union with the body and blood.

“The third captivity of this sacrament is by far the most wicked abuse of all, . . .” Luther writes, “that the mass [Holy Communion] is a good work and a sacrifice” (LW 36:35). Holy Communion had become an unbloody sacrifice offered to God. Luther objected: “In the mass we give nothing to Christ, but only receive from him” (LW 35:93). Christ offered the one and only sacrifice for sin—himself.

The second front

On the other side were a number of contemporary reformers who went beyond the Scriptures on the sacraments. Some maintained that immersion is the only proper mode of Baptism. Others rejected infant baptism and insisted on re-baptism. Many denied that the body and blood of Jesus are truly present in the sacrament.

Luther may have spent as much or more time and pen and ink on combating the errors of these men as he did in battling with the Roman Church of his day. A major bone of contention was the little word is: “This is my body. This is my blood.” In a meeting at Marburg with Ulrich Zwingli and others who denied the real presence, Luther wrote in chalk on his table, “This is my body.” At the end of the meeting, when accused that he had not proved the real presence from the Scriptures, Luther removed the cloth with which he had covered these words and said, “Here is our Scripture passage. . . . We have no need of another passage” (LW 38:67).

The meeting ended with Luther’s sad comment, “Our spirit is different from yours; . . . for it cannot be the same spirit when in one place the words of Christ are simply believed and in another place the same faith is censured, resisted, [and] regarded as false” (LW 38:70,71).

The most serious error of these reformers was their rejection of the sacraments as the means of grace. Zwingli wrote: “In baptism we receive,” not the forgiveness of sins, but merely “a token that we are to fashion our lives according to the rule of Christ” (LW 37:16, fn 7). And again: “It is clear that the eating of the Eucharist does not take away sins” (LW 37:102, fn 167). This was precisely the opposite of Luther’s scriptural contention that “the best and greatest part of all sacraments . . . is the words and promise of God, without which the sacraments are dead and are nothing at all” (LW 35:91).

In confirmation class, when I ask a question along the lines of, “How does the Holy Spirit work in our hearts?” the answer usually is, “Through the Word.” Invariably, one of my students adds: “Through Word and sacrament,” a reminder that the sacraments also are a means through which God channels into our hearts the gifts of forgiveness, new life, and salvation.

The Lutheran church is a church of Word and sacrament. Martin Luther refused to let either tradition or reason obscure the clear teachings of Scripture. Through him our Lord graciously restored to his church the fullness of the treasure of the sacraments.

David Valleskey, a retired pastor, is currently serving at Beautiful Saviour, Carlsbad, California.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the eighth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.

Luther still speaks

Luther had much to say about the proper use and the rich benefits of the sacraments. In a sermon on John 4:2 he said, “If you omit the Word, Baptism is simple water and the Lord’s Supper is bread; for the Word is the kernel of the Sacrament. The holiness of St. Peter makes no Sacrament, nor do the materials. Only the Word does, as, for instance; I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. When the Word comes to the element, it becomes a Sacrament, and then Baptism is a ‘washing of regeneration’ (Titus 3:5). Otherwise if the Word is not there, bread remains bread and water is water. But when the Word is added—which says: This bread is my body and the cup is my blood, again: This do in remembrance of me—then it is a Sacrament” (What Luther Says Vol. 3, #3946).

Baptism is not just a handful of water nor is the Lord’s Supper just a sliver of bread and a sip of wine. The sacraments are not something we do for God, but something great he does for us. And their power comes not from who performs them, but from God’s gospel promise connected with them.

Through his Word in the sacraments, God applies the gospel to the individual. In my baptism he comes to me, cracks open my heart of unbelief, and wraps me in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. At the Communion table he comes again to me, the individual sinner, and assures me that he gave his body and blood for my sins and that I can go in peace.

With his sacraments, God shows how much he loves me.

Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.



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Author: David J. Valleskey & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

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