To Mess with the Sacraments is to Mess with the Gospel
TO MESS WITH THE SACRAMENTS IS TO MESS WITH THE GOSPEL
By Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
In contrast to American Evangelicalism and Reformed theology one will notice very quickly that Lutheranism is all about pastoral care. Pastoral care looks very different in Lutheranism when compared to other Christian denominations. Contrary to stereotypical assumptions Lutheranism is not “academic,” but pastoral through and through. It was birthed from Luther's struggles with assurance, particularly battling issues such as assurance he was of the elect, or God’s chosen for salvation.
One of the chief means of grace God gives us for assurance of salvation is the Sacraments. These Sacraments are connected to the universal grace of God in Christ, who died for the sins of all who have ever lived. God wants us to know that He loves us and that Christ died for us. He wants us to know that His intention for the world is one of grace and mercy. This Gospel message, the Good News, is one that is for you. Without the for you, the Gospel is truncated and perverted. And God gives the Sacraments for you so you can know His kind and merciful saving intention toward you.
How does “messing” with the Sacraments take away the for you of the Gospel? To “mess” with the Sacraments is to “mess” with the Gospel itself.
PASTORAL CARE IN EVANGELICALISM/NON-DENOMINATIONALISM
Most evangelical Christians will admit that Christ died for all. Often this is meant in a vague sense of "died for all so it can be appropriated when we believe." American Evangelicalism does not believe that Christ objectively reconciled and justified the whole world. Faith is seen as the work that applies salvation to the believer. The choice to “be saved” is operational.
This way of looking at the atonement inevitably leads a person to ask, "do I have faith?" "Have I appropriated Christ?" This is why many evangelicals end up getting “rebaptized,” walking forward, or "rededicating" their lives to God many, many times. (Indeed, I was raised this way and did this at almost all the summer Christian camps I attended.) Baptism becomes something that they do for God, rather than something that God graciously does for us. Instead of baptism being a means of God’s grace that effects regeneration and salvation, it becomes an act of obedience or an "ordinance" commanded by God to show that one already believes. This turns a person toward their own faith instead of toward God who gives faith.
Because of this, when doubts creep in, one must inevitably be turned back to “their” faith, hence rededication, rebaptism, etc. This theology produces doubt, if one has faith or not, or if one has “enough fruit.” The evangelical/non-denominational pastor, therefore, has no objective means to turn a doubting person to, other than to ask them "do you have faith in Christ?" The poor soul is already doubting if they have faith, or if they have true fruit or enough fruit. To turn the doubter back to their fruit or to their faith many times just makes things worse.
PASTORAL CARE IN REFORMED THEOLOGY/CALVINISM
Although Reformed theology does talk about the sacraments as efficacious, they mean it in a completely different sense than Lutherans do. Lutherans, believe as the church fathers taught beforehand that the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper objectively work salvation and give the Spirit because of God's universal saving intention. However, under traditional Reformed theology, Christ made atonement only for the sins of the elect, that is those chosen for salvation. The Spirit's intention in the sacraments under Reformed theology is only to be present for the elect, and only to be present for those who have faith. Ironically, then, the doubter is once again turned toward their faith.
Some branches of Reformed theology, such as some of the continental Reformed brethren, will indeed tell a person to look to the sacraments. Nonetheless they confess and believe that the Spirit may not necessarily be present there, except only for the elect. How does one know they are of the elect? How can they look to the sacraments if God's saving intention is only particular, and not universal? Further, the Reformed confess that it is possible that one may have false faith, even though they may have all the fruit that appears to be of "true faith." How, then, can one know? Ironically, just like the Arminian who denies the sacraments but confesses universal grace, the Reformed end up turning a person back toward their own faith.
So, we see that both universal grace and objective sacraments are necessary for assurance.
PASTORAL CARE IN LUTHERANISM
Mankind wants to know that we have a gracious God. Other sacramental forms of Christianity, such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, although they share with us objective Sacraments, they nonetheless do not keep the doctrine of justification and the forgiveness of sins as primary. For Rome, the sacraments are simply things we do for God to achieve merit before Him. For the East, the sacraments are simply vehicles to aid mankind in theosis (becoming like God) and progress in sanctification. Unwittingly, then, they simply become aids or works. They become law. This turns a person back to their efforts.
In Lutheranism, the Sacraments are all about the forgiveness of sins, humankind's greatest need. In Holy Baptism, God washes away all our sin, both original and actual, past, present, and future. Holy Absolution, therefore, is a return to our Baptism. In this life, man cannot get past his need for forgiveness of sins. One do not always "feel" forgiven. So God gives these wonderful means of mercy and kindness for our assurance. These Sacraments are for us beggars. In the Holy Supper, Christ gives us His very Body and Blood to enjoy, to become one with us and with each other, for us, for the forgiveness of all of our sins. Our relationship to God, coram Deo, is always passive, completely righteous before Him because of what Christ has done, and because of His objective Gifts of grace and mercy given in the Sacraments. The Sacraments do *not* depend upon our faith. The Sacraments are objectively gracious because of God's universal grace. A Christian cannot get past justification. We are passive beggars who receive Gifts from God in Word and Sacrament. Because of this, we relate to humankind actively out of thankfulness to God.
So the Lutheran pastor counsels the doubter by pointing them to the objective universal grace, atonement, and justification given to them and for them on the Cross and in the Sacraments. The Lutheran pastor never turns a person back to his or her faith. God gives the Sacraments to offset our speculative tendencies, to correct our doubting, to prove God is objectively gracious. As one of my Lutheran pastors rightly once said to those who doubt, "The Sacraments say 'Shut up.' The Sacraments say 'Open up.'" With the Sacraments a Christian therefore has the Gospel, pure and simple.