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The Sacraments

Antti Paananen | The Voice of Zion June 2018 --

I. What Are the Sacraments?

1. What Does the Word “Sacrament” Mean?

The word “sacrament” rarely appears in common language usage, but whenever it is used it is considered as a holy or important matter. One speaks of the “sacrament” of fellowship when emphasizing how important it is to keep in touch with other believers. What does the word sacrament actually mean? The word comes from Latin and means an oath of loyalty. An oath is known to be a serious and sacred matter. In ecclesiastic language, sacrament means acts that are considered to be particularly important and holy. The Greek Bible uses the word mystírio (mystery), and by it refers to the sacraments. We cannot fully understand the mystery of faith connected to the sacraments.

That is why we consider the sacraments with a child’s timidity and humility. We remember that God himself has ordained them. God has given the sacraments to those helped into faith for support in their endeavor. In the sacraments, God’s Word is connected to a visible, even tangible substance so that we again become convinced of how real God’s grace is to us.

2. Why Only Two Sacraments?

Of the Christian churches both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox have seven sacraments. In the Lutheran Church, Luther left only two of them: baptism and communion. In both of them there is a special command of the Lord and a physical sign. However, the substance does not make a sacrament a sacrament. The Defense of the Augsburg Confession describes it in this way: “Therefore Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments.” Absolution was left out of the grouping of sacraments because in it God’s promise is not connected to a visible substance but to the Holy Spirit.

In the Roman Catholic Church, during the Middle Ages, such a magical idea was developed that sacraments affect by themselves as mechanically-done deeds. A so-called trans-substantiation doctrine was developed there also, which means that when a priest blesses the communion substances, they change into Christ’s real body and blood. From this thought followed the practice of giving only the communion bread to the layman, so that the precious communion wine, transformed into Christ’s blood would in no way spill to the ground. The priests drank the communion wine by themselves and additionally flushed the communion chalice with water after its use.

Also, nowadays, for example in Latvia, in the home of a late preacher Pjotr Petrovitsh, the communion bread was a fresh bun. The priest serving the communion would break a piece of it and give it to the communion guest.

During the time of the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Abraham when he, called by God, had left his home area for the Promised Land. Circumcision was set as the sign of the covenant. It became the sign of God’s people in the Old Testament and at the same time an example of the New Testament grace covenant of baptism.

Eating of the Old Testament Passover lamb is a symbol of the New Testament sacrificial lamb, the Lord Jesus. The Passover lamb was an Old Testament sacrament and a pattern for New Testament communion.

3. Proper Use of the Sacraments

Luther wrote the book, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). With the name of the book he wanted to show how the Catholic Church had fallen into a wrong sacramental doctrine. In speaking of the meaning of the sacrament, that is, its effect, Luther states that there is not a great difference between the sacraments of the Old and the New Testament. In both of them there is first the promise of God, then faith which clings to the promise. Afterwards a sign follows, which supports and strengthens faith. Thus, Luther states that the sacraments are not fulfilled by doing them, but by believing in them.

According to Luther, the sacraments do not benefit unbelievers. The lack of faith is the most pernicious and persistent barrier of grace. Christ indeed says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Thus, he shows that faith is so indispensable in the sacrament that it can save even without the sacrament.

According to the Augsburg Confession, most important is to understand how sacraments are to be used. Paul taught that Abraham was not justified by circumcision, but that circumcision was a sign given for the purpose of practicing faith. Likewise, we also teach that in addition to the correct use of the sacraments faith becomes joined to the promises related to them (the sacraments). Faith receives what has been promised and what is specifically offered in the sacrament. Thus, the sacraments have not been instituted for the receiving of faith but for the strengthening of faith. The proper use of sacraments requires faith.

II. Baptism

1. Jesus Instituted Baptism

Jesus instituted Holy Baptism shortly before His ascension. The most familiar words of institution for baptism are in the gospel of Matthew: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19,20). This is how Jesus sent His disciples into the work of God’s kingdom.

In the Acts of the Apostles’ Luke tells of the effect of Peter’s Sermon: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized:” (Acts 2:41). Baptism became a sacrament and sign for the New Testament people of God, a sacrament for beginning the journey.

From the beginning, the disciples and the early church regarded baptism both necessary and indispensable, but more important than the sacrament was the core of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, which gave birth as a child of God to its recipient. Paul thus wrote to Corinth: “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:14–17). The Apostles baptized believers, born-again people. In the home of Cornelius, Peter said, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” (Acts 10:47).

2. Baptism Is a Covenant

Baptism is called the covenant of grace and the covenant of good conscience. It teaches and reminds God’s children that they are joined in death together with Christ and they also will rise from the dead as He did. God’s children endeavor by faith in the grace covenant of baptism. The covenant is firm on God’s behalf. He himself wants to care for and love us in His mercy. Baptism encourages us to put away burden and sin and to wash our innermost with the water of life, the gospel. During the baptism parents, grandparents, godparents and near ones ask that the one being baptized could be preserved in the grace covenant of baptism and would once make it to the destination in heaven.

3. The Promise of Baptism

We should always remember that the newborn child has all that he needs for salvation. This means that if a child dies unbaptized, he is certainly an heir of heaven. But in order to remain in this grace, the child needs to be rooted in the care of God’s congregation. Many have lost faith and a good conscience when they have gone astray into the world. Then one can join the throng of God’s congregation only through repentance. With faith, one can own the righteousness that is acceptable before God. In the sacrament of baptism, God comes to the child and shows all His grace promises through a visible sign. In it, God meets in a hidden but also concrete way the person that He has created, redeemed and pardoned.

When God thus confesses that the child is His own and himself receives the child into His covenant through His established sacrament of baptism, the promise of the righteousness of faith follows the child all his life and the promise is this: a pardoned sinner can walk by faith in the forgiveness of sins in the fellowship of God’s congregation.

4. The Obligation of Baptism

Luther states figuratively that in baptism we are immersed in water so that it covers us completely. These two conditions, sinking under water and rising up from there, figuratively illustrate what happens in baptism and what it affects. That’s exactly where the old man is put to death and after that a new man rises. These two conditions must continue in us throughout our lives. Indeed, Christian life is nothing more than one everyday baptism that has once begun and will always continue. For everything that belongs to the old man must ceaselessly be removed. In its place, one has to get that which belongs to the new life.

Luther, therefore, speaks of everyday baptism and connects penitence and repentance to it. He writes in the Large Catechism: “Therefore the external sign is appointed not only for a powerful effect, but also for a signification. Where, therefore, faith flourishes with its fruits, there it has no empty signification, but the work accompanies it; but where faith is wanting, it remains a mere unfruitful sign.” In the grace covenant of baptism, one can believe himself as evil, yet holy, as a sinner yet righteous. He can walk partaking of the forgiveness of sins. As a fruit of faith, he also battles by the power of the Holy Spirit against sin and wants to keep faith and a good conscience.

Against this background, we understand that the grace of baptism means both the promise and the obligation to endeavor as God’s grace child here on earth.

III. Lord’s Holy Communion

1. Observation of Communion in the Early Church

Communion is the second of the New Testament sacraments. It is a sacrament of the journey. Our Savior instituted it having enjoyed the Passover meal with His disciples for the last time. The New Testament does not give us detailed information about the observation of Communion. Instead, we can read about the institution of Communion from the writings of John the evangelist (John 13). With certainty, it is known that Communion was observed in the homes of believers in the evenings, and that the breaking of the bread mentioned by the New Testament specifically meant the observation of Communion.

At first, the observation of Communion was connected to a meal called the meal of love. To this meal everyone brought their food according to their means. The meal followed the form of the festive Jewish meal and included the remembrance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and, speeches of teaching and exhortation. As the number of members in the congregations grew, disturbances began taking place in connection with the meals of love for example in Corinth. For this reason, Communion was separated into its own meal.

2. Luther’s Teachings on Communion

The purpose of Communion was also discussed at the time of Reformation in Germany. The Swiss Calvin concluded the matter with a rational decision, by teaching that Jesus Christ could not be simultaneously in heaven and on earth in bread and wine. Luther responded to Calvin and other skeptics in this way: “When I cannot from my part understand the way in which the bread is the body of Christ, I imprison my intelligence to obey Christ, I remain simply in his words and I firmly believe, not only that the body of Christ is in bread, but also that the bread is the body of Christ.”

Luther connected the teaching of bread and wine to the teaching of Christ’s two natures. We believe that Christ is both God and man at the same time. Similarly, we can believe that bread and wine connected with God’s Word are at the same time ordinary bread and wine, and at the same time the body and blood of Christ.

3. For Whom Is Communion Intended?

When Jesus instituted the new covenant meal, He was eating the Passover lamb with His disciples. The Passover lamb is a symbol of the new covenant sacrificial lamb. In Jesus, the old covenant examples ceased because Jesus fulfilled the law, and the prophets’ prophecies were fulfilled in Him. The author of Hebrews says, that Jesus has by His own blood and not by the goats and calves gone into the holy and found eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).

This Passover celebration of Jesus with His disciples was indeed a farewell to the Old Testament time. Jesus said to His disciples: “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). He then instituted Communion. All the evangelists also tell of Judas Iscariot on that night. He is a cautionary example. In his unbelief, he improperly enjoyed Holy Communion for his own judgment.

Apostle Paul warned the Corinthian believers of the improper eating of Communion: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).

The Small Catechism answers the question of who is a worthy Communion guest: “But he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins.’ But he who does not believe these words, or who doubts, is unworthy and unfit, for the words, ‘For you,’ require truly believing hearts.” In the Large Catechism, Luther briefly states, “The one who does not believe does not get anything.”

Thus, the point is not at all of making ourselves worthy of Communion, for example, by finding in ourselves some specific devotion. What is in question here is that as pardoned sinners we can meet our Lord and Savior. To the Communion guests, Luther says, “(weak) people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness” (Large Catechism).

Often when preparing for Communion we feel that we are unworthy communion guests. Before God’s holiness, our sinfulness overwhelmingly becomes exposed. The gift of Communion is also in this that it speaks to us strongly and exhorts to correct matters. On the other hand, Communion does not require perfection from us. We are sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. In faith, we can trust in God’s grace and forgiveness. Jesus has done everything on our behalf. The holy meal gives us strength to correct matters. The invitation, “Come, for all has been prepared,” is meant for every believer.

4. We Can Distinguish Seven Different Aspects in Communion

– Meal of Remembrance

When asking about the purpose of Communion one must first ask what the establisher of Communion, Jesus, said of it himself. He said to “do it in remembrance of me.” We thus celebrate Communion in memory of Jesus. What does Communion remind us of about Jesus? Certainly, first to mind comes His sacrificial death for our sins. He is our Passover lamb, sacrificed on our behalf (1 Cor. 5:7).

Secondly, Communion reminds us of Jesus’ life as a human among people.

Thirdly, when we enjoy the Lord’s Holy Communion, we are reminded that just as we now receive bread and wine, Jesus also gave bread and wine to His disciples, and in it His body and blood.

– Meal for Strengthening of Faith

Jesus did not institute Communion when calling His disciples but rather when departing from them. He did not institute Communion to help them into faith but to help them in faith. According to the Bible, faith is born of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, but faith also needs nourishment. We get nourishment from food. The soul receives this food from the gospel, but to nourish the life of faith Jesus also instituted Holy Communion.

– Meal of Unity

Among the Jews, a meal had a strong meaning that emphasized unity. The meal fellowship was quite sacred. For us also, a meal signifies a visible proof of unity. At the communion table, we can feel unity with other children of God. Above all, our connection with the Lord Jesus strengthens when we eat and drink His body and blood. Paul writes: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16,17).

– Meal of Love

At the same time our connection to the Lord Jesus is strengthened, we feel how real, as if tangible His sacrifice for us has been. All this is brought forth by His love toward us. Jesus’ love caused Him to sacrifice himself for us.

In the Early Church, this feeling of love brought about a sacrificial mind also in those coming to Communion. They also, inspired by love, wanted to give of their own. In this way, the food needed for the mutual meal was brought together. Such a powerful message of the all-giving love of Jesus and God is included into Communion.

– Thanksgiving Meal

Communion is also a meal of thanksgiving. All the evangelists tell us that Jesus first gave thanks when He took the bread and wine. Similarly, when all was concluded, they sang a hymn of praise. Our Communion celebration also contains much thanksgiving. It is quite natural that the human heart breaks into praise when experiencing the presence of and unity with the Savior. Apostle Paul exhorts: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7,8).

– Meal of Confessing Faith

The enjoyment of Communion is also connected to the confession of faith. Stepping up to the communion table is by itself an indication that I want to respect our Lord and Savior’s meal and last decree. Apostle Paul writes, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26).

– Meal of Hope

The last aspect of the Communion meal is hope. Jesus himself gives the reason for this in his speech of institution. As He talks about His coming suffering, He opens perspectives of hope. He will no longer eat the fruit of the vine with the disciples, but promises that He will once eat it anew in His Father’s kingdom. These perspectives of hope we can also have in front of our eyes of faith when partaking of Communion. At the same time that we declare the death of the Lord, we also believe in and proclaim the Lord’s resurrection. Tempted, we often eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, sorrowing over our own lacking and inadequacies, but at the same time believing that once the imperfection will cease. Jesus himself strengthens our hope that once we will be able to be at the great communion in heaven.

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