Installment 13 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
The Word and the Sacraments
According to Lutheran understanding, the Word and sacraments are instruments of grace and God’s special revelation. The instruments of grace are in this
order, Word and sacraments, because it is God’s Word that makes the water, the bread and the wine into sacraments. God wants to interact with humans
through the Word and sacraments. This means the same as saying that God reveals Himself in Christ. Christ comes to us and into us in the Word and sacraments
– His instruments of grace.
The Bible reveals that in the time of both the Old and New Testaments God has given His Word and confirmed it with visible signs. God promised Noah that He would no longer destroy humanity by flood, and as a sign of this promise He gave the rainbow. The Lord counted Abraham as righteous and gave him circumcision as a sign of the righteousness of faith. The sacrifices of the patriarchs were also, in Luther’s opinion, such visible signs. Thus the main elements of the patriarchs’ worship were, according to Luther, largely the same as today: preaching the name of the Lord (the sermon), calling for help in the name of the Lord (prayer) and the sacrifice (sacrament).
The Lutheran church has two sacraments, baptism and communion. They have been instituted by Christ Himself. Luther adhered to Church Father Augustine’s definition according to which the sacrament consists of the Word and the elements with which the word combines. God’s Word is efficacious in both the audible and visible word.
Sermon of the Word
As important as the Bible was to Luther, he mentioned the proclaimed word as the true church’s most important attribute: “The gospel is a cry of God’s grace that echoes throughout the world.” The Holy Spirit sanctifies the congregation with the Word. The Word is preached, believed and confessed and believers live according to the Word. In the Word, Christ himself comes into a believer’s heart and unites the believer unto himself. He makes a happy exchange with the sinner: He gives the sinner His own righteousness and takes his or her sins on Himself. As Luther noted, “Only in the holy Word of God, the Gospel of Christ can the soul live, be justified and have Christian freedom…let us therefore hold it for certain that the soul can do without everything except the Word of God, without which none at all of its wants are provided for” (On the Freedom of a Christian).
According to Luther, God’s Word and God’s people are inextricably linked: “God’s Word cannot be present without God’s people, and God’s people cannot be without God’s Word. Who would preach or listen to preaching if no people of God were there? And what could or would God’s people believe if God’s Word were not there? This is the thing that does all miracles, sets everything to rights, upholds everything and accomplishes everything” (On the Councils and Churches).
Jesus Himself preached of the approaching of God’s kingdom, repentance and the gospel. He also sent His disciples to preach repentance and the remission of sins (Luke 24:47). God’s Word and the sermon of the Word are both the law and the gospel. Both of them must be preached because there are two kinds of listeners (The Law and the Gospel).
God’s Word must be distributed correctly: there must be a differentiation between the law and the gospel. The true distributor of the actual Word is the Holy Spirit. A minister does not always even know his listeners let alone see into their hearts. But when the Holy Spirit distributes the Word, each person gets precisely that portion that belongs to him or her. Unbelievers receive the threat of the law, in which case they either repent or harden themselves even more. Believers as well as those souls, who the law awakens, who are remorseful and long for grace, receive in the Word the comfort of the gospel unto their salvation. In the hearing of the Word, the differentiation between the law and gospel actually happens in people’s hearts. The Holy Spirit works through the sermon and impresses the Word into one’s heart. He is the One who gives birth to faith by and through the Word.
Baptism is based on Jesus’ Mission Command and Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan (Matt. 3:13–17; 28:19,20; Mark 16:15,16). In the mission Jesus gave, the proclamation of the gospel and baptism were closely tied together. The practice was that they who believed were usually baptized immediately after conversion. Baptism joins with the promise of salvation, which requires faith: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). The sacrament of baptism is received by faith. Faith saves without baptism, if the sacrament is not available. Meanwhile despising baptism is contrary to God’s Word.
The Gift of Baptism
In the sacrament of baptism, God calls everyone by name to be His own. The significance of baptism is not dependent on us, for faith and baptism are God’s work in us. In baptism we are received into the fellowship of Christ and the Christian teachings of His congregation. We also become members of the Christian church.
The apostles in their letters emphasized the significance of baptism in addition to faith. Paul noted, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26,27). Peter, in turn, explained, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).
Baptizing unto Death and Resurrection
Baptism signifies death and resurrections: immersion in water signifies death and lifting one from the water signifies life. God joins us in unity with Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, not only into his prophetical teaching office, but also into the high priesthood to sacrifice himself as an innocent sin offering. He was baptized into death, which we deserved (Col. 2:12).
The foundation for our baptism is the baptismal commandment given by Christ (Matt. 28:18–20). For Christians, baptism signifies the daily death of the old person and daily resurrection of the new person. Its significance is not only momentary. We have been baptized once, but we fulfill our baptism every day in our endeavor, in undressing the old person and in preserving a good conscience. This means that God has made a covenant of good conscience with us (1 Pet. 3:21).
The foundation of the baptismal covenant is Christ’s resurrection. Paul explained, “So many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3,4).
Nowadays most baptisms are infant baptisms. The New Testament does not specifically mention infant baptisms, but it does mention that the apostles baptized whole families. As Adam’s heir, even a small child carries original sin and thus is not without sin in and of himself or herself. However, the new Adam’s – Christ’s – redemption work applies to all humankind, even children who are examples of a Christian. Jesus Himself said that children believe in Him (Matt. 18:6).
A child’s faith is not conscious in the same way as an adult’s faith is, but the child does have faith and trust in God. For example, in his Commentary on Genesis, Luther clearly states that he believes that God in His goodness saves infants who die unbaptized. He recalled David’s child, who died before he was circumcised. David said, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23).
Already during the time of the early church, it was taught that the significance of baptism does not depend on the one performing it. Baptism need not and must not be renewed. On God’s part the covenant of baptism is in effect once a person is baptized. Repentance means a return to the covenant of baptism. One who repents need not be baptized again if he or she has already been baptized. The Augsburg Confession instructs: “For those who have fallen after Baptism, there is remission of sins whenever they are converted and…the Church ought to impart absolution to those thus returning to repentance” (Augsburg Confession, Article XII).
Communion is not just any meal in remembrance of Jesus and His disciples, but rather it is the meal in remembrance of His death. In Luther’s opinion, in the Bible the topic of communion is discussed clearly only in the gospel narratives (Matt. 2:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:19–22) and in the first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:20–34).
The Words of Institution Open the Significance of Communion
According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul, Jesus gave the entire sacrament, the bread and wine, to all His disciples: “Take, eat,” and “Drink ye all of it.” Communion is thus intended in both forms for all believers. Christ died on behalf of all and shed His blood for all.
The Communion words of institution became the most important source of Lutheran communion theology. The words differ slightly in different places in the Bible. In Luther’s Small Catechism they are as follows: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He brake it and gave it to His disciples, saying, Take eat; this is My Body, which is given for you; this do, in remembrance of Me. After the same manner also He took the cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to His disciples saying, Drink ye all of it; This cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins: This do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
The Lutheran concept of communion is characterized by the understanding that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine. After the words of institution are read, the bread and wine are still bread and wine; however, they are not solely bread and wine but also Christ’s body and blood. This real presence can be simply believed based on the words of Christ without any philosophical pondering on the essence and characteristics of the bread and wine. According to Luther, the words of Christ are as powerful as the words of creation.
The Small Catechism defines the Sacrament of the Altar. It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.
In the Reformed Church, communion is merely a meal of remembrance. They do not acknowledge the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine, but rather only Christ’s spiritual presence in the whole communion event. Luther opposed Ulrich Zwingli and stood by the words, “This bread is my body.” Thereby the bread does not merely signify the body of Christ but it truly is the body of Christ.
Communion is a mystery (cf. the Greek word mysterion), and it remains as such to carnal mind. But it is intended to strengthen weak faith. For Christians it is nourishment on the journey, and it has great significance in soul care in different situations in life. Christ’s real presence in the communion elements could be described as Christ Himself laying his pierced hands upon us.
The Meal of the New Covenant
What does the new covenant that Jesus mentioned mean? The letters to the Romans, Galatians and Hebrews also speak of a new covenant, a new testament. In his writings, Luther equated the testament to a promise. It is a promise that includes the death of the promise-giver.
The testament of Christ is described in all of God’s promises since the beginning of the world. All the previous promises are included in the new promise, which has been fulfilled in Christ. God has made a testament, so He had to die. He could not do that without becoming a human, i.e. without His incarnation. The word testament encompasses both the incarnation and death of God. In the words of institution for communion, there is the same new covenant promise. The body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine are the sign and remembrance of this promise.
Because God’s promise can only be received in faith, communion is also received properly and worthily only in faith. In the Catholic Church, communion is understood as a sacrifice a person gives to God. Christ, however, is not sacrificed again in communion, but rather He has already sacrificed himself once and for all. A person cannot make agreements with or work with God in any way besides believing in Him. Partaking in communion does not give birth to faith. One can, though, partake in communion improperly. This is what happens when one partakes in communion without faith in Christ.
The Power of the Keys
The concept of power of the keys actually means the authority to use the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This is a duty of service because Christ did not appoint powers, rulers or governments in the church, but rather duties of service. The power of the keys is based on the words of Jesus to Peter and all the disciples: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:23).
Luther discussed in detail the use of the keys of loosing and binding in his book A Treatise upon the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, also called more succinctly The Keys. I will examine the subject on the basis of that book. Luther defined the keys: “They are an office, a power or command given by God through Christ to all of Christendom for the retaining and remitting of the sins of men…[The keys’] true significance consists only in binding and loosing from sin. It means to ban and to absolve from the same, to excommunicate and to release from excommunication. For thus Christ speaks of it, and he gives the keys for that purpose” (The Keys). The keys are “a public mark and holy possession, whereby the Holy Ghost imparts holiness anew to fallen sinners. And those who will not be converted nor made holy again are to be cast out of this holy people; that is they are to be bound and excluded by means of the keys” (On the Councils and Churches).
The Power of the Keys and the Sermon of God’s Word
According to Luther, the power of the keys is both public and private. It exists especially for those who have fallen into sin. Luther conceptually separated the power of the keys from the general sermon, the general gospel. It is not, however separate from or superior to the message of the gospel, but rather it is a special way of using the gospel. According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “The power of the keys administers and presents the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the gospel” (Article XII). In absolution, the message of grace and forgiveness is directed at the person individually.
Luther explained, “The office of preaching is to proclaim the opening of the gates of heaven to all. But the keys of St. Peter only apply to some, namely to sinners… We want only the common teaching-key. For those who sin we want to have and keep the true keys that bind or loose…For he who does not sin (but who does not?), or insofar as he does not sin, has the common gospel. But he who does sin also has the keys beside the gospel” (The Keys).
The duty of the key of binding is to show the sinner his or her sins by exhorting him or her to fear God and compelling him or her to penitence. Meanwhile, the key of loosing encourages one to receive grace and mercy; it comforts and promises eternal life and salvation through the forgiveness of sins.
Luther used the Latin name executores for the keys: they are the institutors and executors of the gospel. The keys do not command or exhort to do any works, rather they either remit sins or retain them.
Use of the loosening key brings a penitent sinner into the fellowship of God’s grace: “Rely on the words of Christ and be assured that God has no other way to forgive sins than through the spoken Word, as he has commanded us. If you do not look for forgiveness through the Word, you will gape toward heaven in vain for grace, or (as they say), for a sense of inner forgiveness” (The Keys).
The Keys and the Congregation
The power of the keys is one sign of the Christian congregation. Luther explained: “Now wherever you see the sins of some persons forgiven and of others retained, publicly or privately, know that God’s people is there. For if God’s people is not there, the keys are not there; and if the keys are not there, God’s people is not there” (On the Councils and Churches). So Luther joined the keys to God’s congregation in addition to the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. God functions through His congregation; He remits and retains sins.
The use of the keys has great significance in soul care. Christ did not give His keys to His congregation to harm it or burden it, but rather in order to benefit and aid the congregation. Luther stated, “A Christian is often so weak and timid that he or she is not comforted only by the general gospel but needs private absolution.”
Using the key of binding seems harsh, but it also protects the congregation. Luther explained: “There are among Christians some uncouth and rude people with arrogant hearts who would grant to pious persons no rest or peace unless the key which binds is present with its rod...Therefore, the strong key which binds is for the pious Christians a great consolation, protection, defense, and fortress against evil people. Also, it serves as a wholesome medicine and has a beneficial effect on evil persons, although it is terrifying and annoying to the flesh. For this reason we should value dearly from the depth of our heart these two keys as indescribably precious treasures and jewels for our souls” (The Keys).
Binding a sinner into his or her sin seems unloving, but its ultimate purpose is to liberate the sinner so that he or she could be free from sin. That is why the keys are called the keys of the kingdom of heaven and not the keys of perdition. Because it is a question of reaching heaven, the keys must contain within them Christ’s blood, death and resurrection, by which He has opened heaven for us. The office of the keys is a high, divine office that grants souls righteousness through the forgiveness of sins.
Use of the Keys
Instructions for the correct use of the keys is given in a Bible portion called the Church Law of Christ (Matt. 18:15–18). This Christ-given order must be followed. Luther explained, “How then shall we proceed to use the keys rightly so that what is done is valid in God’s eyes? In Matt. 18[:15–17], you have a definite text in which Christ himself describes the office of the keys. You cannot go wrong if you follow his instructions. But if you do not, and instead take a novel and peculiar path of your own, you can be sure that you will err and that you are not in possession of the true keys” (The Keys).
Especially in the case of binding it is important to proceed according to the Christ-given order: “In the biblical passage you hear that we must deal with certain public sins, committed by persons who are known, and with cases where one brother sees another commit sin. Furthermore such sins are supposed to have been punished first in a brotherly manner, and finally established as such by the whole congregation” (The Keys).
Luther strongly criticized the practice whereby the Pope could ban or excommunicate a person with a papal bull (public decree). The congregation must not be bypassed: “I call it a devil’s and not God’s ban, contrary to Christ’s command, when people are cursed with the ban sacrilegiously, before they have been convicted in the presence of the assembled congregation… I am saying all this for the sake of the congregation. In dealing with one of its members who is under the ban it should be sure of the reason it thinks him to be deserving of excommunication as the words of Christ in our text direct. Otherwise the congregation might be deceived in imposing a ban which is false, thereby dealing with a neighbor unjustly” (The Keys).
Luther further illustrated this matter with Paul’s example. Although Paul was an apostle, he did not want to take it upon himself to ban from the congregation a man who lived with his stepmother contrary to God’s Word. Rather, Paul left the matter for the congregation to take care of (The Keys; 1 Cor. 5:1,4).
No individual can bind a Christian who is in the fellowship of the congregation, because said individual may err. Use of the key of binding must proceed according to the Church Law of Christ. The keys are closely connected to God’s Word, so they must be used only in accordance with God’s Word. “Truly where the Word of God is not found the keys do not remain either. The keys want to be where God’s Word and the church are, or else they are no keys” (The Keys).
The prerequisite for binding is that actual sins, sins contrary to God’s Word, have been committed: “The real Keys [the Keys of Christ and His Church] do not concern themselves either with imaginary sins and virtues as do the last two keys [the pope’s keys]” (The Keys).
The effectiveness of the keys is not determined by the sinner’s penitence. Human remorse is always imperfect. The forgiveness of sins is always pure grace of God based on Christ and His work. “You should, indeed, repent. But to make repentance the basis of the forgiveness of your sins and of corroborating the work of the keys, is to abandon faith and deny Christ. By means of the key, he will forgive your sins, not for your own sake but for his own name’s sake, out of pure grace” (The Keys).
General Priesthood and Special Office
Luther rejected the notion that ordination into priesthood was a sacrament. He lamented that this understanding had caused an irreconcilable conflict to separate ordained ministers and lay ministers from one another. According to Luther, all Christians are priests in like manner and the office is given to some only with the consent of others. He referred to Peter’s words stating that all Christians are partakers of the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). “Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. But the priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us, who do all that they do in our name. And the priesthood is nothing but a ministry, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 4:1, ‘Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God’” (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church).
Luther considered preaching the priest’s most important duty. They are called pastors (shepherds) because they are to shepherd or teach the congregants. The office of the priest is to preach, to serve with the Word. As such, it is a valuable task. The priesthood is serving with the word of the gospel, not with the word of the law. Luther meant by this that the gospel is the main message which the priest must preach; the law is subject to the gospel.
According to Lutheran confessional writings, the office of teaching the gospel and distributing the sacraments is given to the congregation. Each Christian has an equal right to the Word and sacraments, but it is not right for anyone to use this power publicly except as called by the congregation. The entire congregation is thus the spiritual priesthood and it as an entity bears responsibility for spreading the gospel. This is also the basis for installing a servant of the Word. The preacher is chosen, called and sent by the congregation.
Two Meanings of the General Priesthood
The concept of general priesthood appears in Luther’s writings in two different meanings. It first appeared in his criticism of the Catholic doctrine that a mass is a sacrifice and of the Catholic understanding of the priesthood. Luther considered the Catholic notion, according to which the priest’s most important duty was to daily sacrifice Christ as an atonement sacrifice on behalf of the living and dead, an abomination and a mockery of Christ’s already completed sacrifice (The Misuse of the Mass).
The Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament was abolished when Christ fulfilled His atonement work. Christ is the High Priest of the New Testament. According to the New Testament, all Christians are part of Christ’s priesthood. There is no longer a special sacrificial priesthood. Every Christian as a partaker in the royal priesthood has a duty to thank, pray and preach of Christ, who has saved him or her.
At the same time, Luther made it clear that there must be order in the congregation. Men who are capable of the task must be called to serve with the Word and sacraments. The congregation cannot live without God’s Word. If it does not have actual preachers and priests, it can call and install such individuals that are able to serve with the Word of God (Letter to the Bohemian Brethren).
In its other meaning, the concept of general priesthood appears in the understanding that a Christian is a priest in all that he or she does because he or she is by faith a partaker in Christ’s priesthood. The general priesthood is practiced in everyday life, each one in his or her own calling. The Christian considers his or her daily work as a duty given by God, a calling, in which faith praises God and helps one’s neighbor with good works.
A calling is a priestly function in which one brings an offering of thanksgiving to God and an offering of love to one’s neighbor and all this is done voluntarily in faith. All of this service is laborious, but one mustn’t shirk the cross of one’s calling, for the cross is that which makes the calling a true priestly sacrificial worship.
Luther’s view of everyday life has a bright, bold and cheerful tone. In this view, a free person lives his or her everyday life and performs priestly duties in his or her calling, free from the guilt of sin and a bad conscience as well as all attempts to attain salvation through his or her own works. In Christ he or she has received by grace as a gift all that he or she needs to gain eternal life.
- Augsburg Confession.
- Commentary on Genesis. Original work ”In primum librum Mose enarrationes” 1535–.
- Concerning the Ministry. Original work ”De instituendis ministris Ecclesiae” 1523.
- Defense of the Augsburg Confession.
- The Law and the Gospel. Martin Luther’s First Antinomian Disputation. Original work
"Die erste Disputation gegen die Antinomer” 1537.
- The Misuse of the Mass. Original work ”Vom Missbrauch der Messe” 1521.
- On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Original work ”De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium” 1520.
- On the Councils and Churches. Original work ”Von den Konziliis und Kirchen” 1539.
- On the Freedom of a Christian. Original work ”Von Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” 1520.
- Preface to the New Testament. Original work ” Das newe Testament Deutzsch. Vorrede” 1522.
- Small Catechism.
- A Treatise upon the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Original work ”Von den Schlüsseln” 1530.
Prenter Regin. Uskonpuhdistaja Martti Luther. Kirjaneliö 1982.
Wisløff Carl Fr. Tätä Luther opetti. Suomen Raamattuopisto 1985.
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