Did Luther Understand the Sacraments Better than We Do?

July 01, 2016

by Carl Trueman

Luther’s high sacramentalism is likely the most alien and perhaps even most confusing area of his positive theological thought to modern evangelical Protestants. Their church world is not a sacramental world. That is indeed one of the great ironies: Luther, the great Protestant hero, would probably not recognize most Protestants today as Christian. That is not in line with the spirit of our age, in which a desire for evangelical unity often focuses on a handful of distinctives, such as scriptural authority, the exclusivity of the gospel, and justification by faith, while marginalizing or ignoring other areas of difference, such as baptism. That Luther would rupture Protestantism over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper seems an act of perverse pedantry to the denizens of this present age.

In fact, however, Luther’s stand is quite comprehensible within the context of his theology as a whole. In answer to that basic theological/existential question, where can I find a gracious God?, Luther directs us to the incarnate Christ, offered to us by God in Word and sacrament. Salvation comes from the outside. Salvation has objectivity. Luther was surely as preoccupied with his own religious experience as anyone; yet his theology was remarkably objective, and the answer to the crises of his experience was always an external one—Christ—grasped by faith.

Can non-Lutheran Protestants profit from Luther’s high sacramentalism? I would argue strongly in the affirmative. First, Luther’s sacramentalism actually points to his confidence in the power of the gospel. For him, confidence does not come from a religious experience; it comes from the fact that God has given himself to be gracious to sinful humanity in the flesh of Christ. Christ is God’s great act of salvation and Luther roots his confidence in that act and nothing else. The sacraments, like the Word, are the means whereby the story of Christ penetrates the story of individual Christians. Thus, when tempted, Luther thinks of his baptism. When fearing death, Luther takes the bread and wine in the Mass. These are the moments when, to use popular parlance, the Christian’s story is taken up in Christ’s—and thus God’s—story. That foundation of assurance in the action of God in Christ is something all Christians need to understand.

Second, while Luther is often decried as an individualist (particularly when understood through a Bultmannian lens), his sacramentalism points toward the fundamental importance of the church in his understanding of the Christian life. The externality of the sacraments, as of the Word, demands that the Christian be part of an institution where these things can come to him from the outside. Baptism is a corporate rite, as is the Mass. The great saving acts of God in Christ are personalized and individualized in a context where Christians are gathered together and where the priest ministers to them as a congregation. Protestantism started as a corporate, churchly movement, founded on churchly actions.

The answer is always Christ crucified for me, and that Christ is found in Word and sacrament.

This points to a further implication of Luther’s sacramentalism: the nature of ministry. Ministry is a ministry of the Word, and God acts through the Word read and proclaimed in the church. To this we must add that the ministry is also one of sacraments. As the minister preaches each week, so he also administers baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is important to understand that in all this, Luther regards God as the agent. The popular phrase of “doing church” is thus entirely inappropriate within a Lutheran framework: Christians do not “do” church in any ultimate or definitive way. God “does” church. The minister—preaching, baptizing, and officiating at communion—is merely an instrument by which God achieves what he intends.

This is surely an antidote to the evangelical church’s perennial obsession with the big, the spectacular, the extraordinary, and the impressive. The question of the next big thing that allows the church to ride the cultural wave, or the technical silver bullet that makes outreach and discipleship so much more effective, would be entirely alien to Luther’s way of thinking. Preach the Word and administer the sacraments: that is the minister’s calling; these are the tools of his trade and the means by which he is to address pastoral problems. That they seem weak and ineffective from a technical perspective is irrelevant: their power and effectiveness come from the agent, God himself.

If the definition of ministry is set by Word and sacrament, so is the substance of the Christian’s life. Luther’s emphasis on Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper should surely point believers toward how they should understand their lives: the church service is fundamental to Christian discipleship. The answer to spiritual weariness, fear, and those dreaded Anfechtungen (temptations) that afflict the Christian is found not in anything special or extraordinary as the world understands it. That is what the theologian of glory desires. Further, every theologian of glory probably thinks of himself as unique and thus as having special problems that require special solutions. The theologian of the cross, however, while acknowledging that every Christian is unique in that every Christian is a specific individual, also understands that the answer to every unique Christian’s problem is actually very general, and the means are very ordinary. The answer is always Christ crucified for me, and that Christ is found in Word and sacrament.

This piece is adapted from Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 156–58. Used with permission of the publisher.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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