This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions for us these last few months, but there may be no more prominent one than this: Why do we go to church? In some sense, the great fear of many a pastor is that Pandora’s Box has been opened. Once people don’t need to attend worship on a regular basis to hear the Word and receive the sacraments, will they ever come back? If parishioners can comfortably access the worship of the church—indeed, the worship of many different congregations and denominations—through a live (let alone recorded) digital feed, why would they have to attend again? And why would they attend with anything like the consistency they once did? Within Lutheran theology there are a host of ways to respond to this, but one of them in particular can be found in Luther’s own understanding of the sacraments: that through the physical, tangible, visible elements of water and bread and wine, Christ comes to us and speaks his Word and gives us the grace we can find nowhere else but in Him. Luther makes this clear in his magnificent sacramental reform treatise of October 1520, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (LW 36:3-126).
The harsh title of this treatise actually predates Luther, going back to the fourteenth-century humanist Petrarch of Florence, who alleged that the residence of the papacy in Avignon, France—from 1309 to 1377—rather than in Rome signified a “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. But Luther applies Petrarch’s humanist rhetoric to the sacramental theology of the Middle Ages that the early Reformation sought to purify of certain problematic assumptions. It is important first to understand what the medieval practice of the sacraments looked like. Beginning with the twelfth century, both scholastic theology and canon law came to redefine the sacraments as sevenfold: baptism, penance, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction, or last rites. The theological rationale for this held that Christians required grace at all phases of life to enable them to excel morally and ultimately merit eternal life. This in turn meant the sacraments were the literal “means of grace” through which salvation was possible, and thus they needed to drink from those wells continually. It was in this sense that the Latin term “ex opere operato” developed its currency—one need only receive the objective sacrament in order to obtain the grace it offered. At the same time, it created a problem: by objectifying the grace of the sacraments, the necessity of faith receded into the background.
Medieval theology worked with a very different understanding of grace than Luther later did. Grace in scholastic theology took on the character of a substance. In some sense, this dates back to Augustine of Hippo, who taught that grace was “infused” into the Christian almost as if it were a liquid. Medieval theologians adopted this and the church urged the faithful to receive that objective substance called grace, which was infused into them through the sacraments. For Luther, however, grace is not a substance, but a declaration—a declaration of God’s forgiveness made possible through the suffering and death of Christ. It didn’t get infused into you, but was something pronounced to you, and it was pronounced in the oral proclamation of the sermon or absolution, in the tangible reception of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through those “as through means” (Augsburg Confession V), God declared his forgiveness that the sinner might receive it in faith.
When Luther writes his treatise on the comprehensive reform of the sacraments, then, he uses this latter definition of grace to reconcile the doctrine of justification by faith with sacramental theology and practice. It wasn’t enough simply to add justifying faith to the equation: he needed to show how the sacraments were received in faith, and the missing link he supplied to that end was the objective declaration of grace in God’s Word. Luther essentially redefines the sacraments in this treatise to be instruments through which the Word is proclaimed in order to create and sustain faith in the believer. Anything that distracted from or obscured that Word, anything that led one to believe the sacraments were works to be done or superstitious magic to be practiced, anything that detracted from God’s gracious proclamation of forgiveness through Christ had to change, and change quickly.
In Luther’s treatise, he completely reforms the theology of the sacraments in accord with this redefinition. No longer are there seven sacraments through which grace is infused into the believer for the purpose of moral effort and meriting eternal life. On the contrary, there are three sacraments—or, as he puts it, “one single sacrament, but with three sacramental signs” (LW 36:18)—that declare the mercy of God to the sinner: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance, or confession and absolution. Whereas the liturgical ceremonies of confirmation, marriage, ordination, and last rites are all in varying ways useful opportunities to sanctify the life of the Christian through the Word of God and prayer, none promise grace to the believer, none explicitly announce the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s work, and none are truly sacraments, as Luther defines the term.
The Lord’s Supper provides the clearest and most significant example of this reform. Luther decries how Holy Communion has been turned into a supernatural potion or public spectacle. This has taken away from the promise of Christ and the forgiveness the Lord institutes this sacrament to offer. He targets three abuses in particular: the sacrifice of the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the withholding of the cup from the laity. What do all three have in common? They detract from the declaration of grace at the heart of this sacrament. The sacrifice of the mass meant that attention was placed on the priest correctly “performing” the mass rather than on the believer receiving it in faith for the forgiveness of sins. The doctrine of transubstantiation placed the focus on how the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ rather than on what that Christ offered the believer through the sacrament. The withholding of the cup from the laity distorted the words of institution by depriving the believer of one of the elements through which Christ sought to strengthen faith and forgive sins. In every case, the promise of God’s gracious forgiveness delivered in the Word took a backseat to something else. The medieval theology of the Eucharist obscured the Word and promise of Christ. Luther wanted to insure that remained central.
It is safe to say American Lutherans today have little patience for those sixteenth-century debates. We believe that Christ is present in the sacrament. We believe that Christ is present according to his Word. We believe that Christ declares his promise of forgiveness through that Word. We believe that this forgiveness is ours because of our faith in Christ and what he has done for us. We believe that the Sacrament of the Altar delivers this forgiveness to us through the Body and Blood of Christ and that we receive it by faith. In a sense, this has all become so customary for us that we almost take it for granted. What other explanation could there possibly be for us to even countenance the notion that church attendance is optional, voluntary, unnecessary?
But that is exactly the danger that has reared its head in the days of COVID-19 and the transformation of the digital medium as the primary, if not sole, method of worship for many. And if that is the case, then it represents a downright failure on our part to rightly understand and communicate the role of the sacraments in the life of the church. Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, confession and absolution are the Scripturally and divinely appointed means through which the Word of God is at work in our lives. Through them, our gracious Lord physically, tangibly, and visibly impresses upon us his Word, his gracious deliverance from sin, his promise not to hold our sins against us on account of his suffering and death. The reason for attending Christian worship is not only to hear that Word, which admittedly can and does come to us through digital means (albeit without the pastoral care that has always accompanied preaching of the Word, thereby reducing it to the equivalent of 1980s televangelism—and us to 1980s televangelists). We also attend worship in order that Christ might use these physical, tangible, visible instruments of his grace to impress his truth upon the senses he has given us. As Luther says in his Lectures on Genesis, “God in His divine wisdom arranges to manifest Himself to human beings by some definite and visible form which can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, in short, is within the scope of the five senses” (LW 3:109).
We are simply not wired to think that way in America, especially after the dawn of the digital age. Christianity has become a spectator sport. The questions we ask about worship can often have precious little do with what God offers us through his appointed means. Our questions are different. Was the pastor funny? Was he engaging? Did he speak well? How was the music? Did it move me emotionally? Do I like the people there? How early did I have to get up? How far did I have to drive? How long was the service? Did I get out in time for the game? Did it conflict with my social schedule or my vacation schedule or my weekend schedule? If these are the questions people ask, the next logical question can only be: Can I watch it from the comfort of my own home? And that’s a problem. It is a problem because Christian worship has far less to do with how I feel about it and what I get out of it and how it suits me than what Jesus Christ so graciously and concretely offers us there: the forgiveness of sins for which he suffered that bloody, gruesome, sacrificial death upon the cross, the forgiveness of sins that he offers to repentant sinners who receive his Word in faith, the forgiveness of sins he gives to you his people physically, tangibly, and visibly in that sacraments he has instituted for you. You will only find those sacraments in the church Christ has given for you and against which he promises the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18)—let alone COVID-19.