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Word and Sacraments: Outward Acts, Covenants, or Means of Grace?
Lutherans hold the unique view in Christendom that the proclamation of the Word, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are not meritorious acts or ordinances that please God but gracious gifts that God is pleased to give man:
For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.
Augsburg Confession, Article V, Triglotta
Contrary to popular perception, man does not serve God or merit any favor or grace by hearing the gospel or receiving the sacraments. God is pleased to serve man and to save him through word and sacraments when we believe we are received into grace.
Recently, however, our word and sacrament ministry has begun to resemble that of other churches. In fact, based on our public worship, visitors from Roman Catholic, Reform, and Baptist churches might consider our beliefs to be quite similar to their own. Are they right?
I. Proclamation of the Word
The public services of most Lutheran Churches are a radical departure from historic Lutheranism (Augsburg Confession, Art. XIV). Whereas historic Lutheranism specifies that one minister proclaims the Word to the people, recent liturgies and contemporary services permit and even encourage laypeople to speak publicly in the church.
In todayís Lutheran Church, laypeople are encouraged to serve God through worshipful activities. God serving man via the preached word has been replaced by man serving God via lay readings and congregational participation.
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17). But how shall the people hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:13). Through the foolishness of preaching, it pleases God to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). But the visitor to a Lutheran church would never know that. He would conclude that the Holy Ghost comes through a covenant relationship based on our own prayers, preparations, and works rather than through the promise of the gospel spoken by the steward of the mysteries and received by faith alone.
The Christian Worship hymnal is used by many Lutheran congregations in the United States. Contrary to historical Lutheran practice, Christian Worship has omitted the confession of faith by children from the liturgical rite of child Baptism.
Children can have faith as Christ teaches (Matt. 18:6) and as Lutheran Church confesses. And baptism saves children through faith alone (Mark 16:16). But the visitor would never know that. He would conclude that children are saved by the outward act or the covenant of Baptism rather than by their own personal faith in Christ.
The Lutheran Hymnal was published in 1941 and is still used by many Lutheran congregations throughout North America. The Absolution inserted into the traditional liturgy of The Lutheran Hymnal is a radical departure from historic Lutheranism (Augsburg Confession, Art. XII). The Minister confers the forgiveness of sins upon an entire congregation, believers and unbelievers, with no mention of faith apprehending the absolution. All recently published Lutheran hymnals include a similar absolution.
Ministers have been empowered by Christ to grant unconditional remission of sins (John 20:22, 23). But personal forgiveness is received only through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:22). But visitors would never know that. They would conclude that the forgiveness of sins is received through the outward act or covenant of absolution rather than through faith alone.
Until recently, the Lutheran Church insisted that all communicants be instructed, examined, and absolved (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Art. XV). The 1943 Explanation of Lutherís Small Catechism published by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, required all those wishing to commune to tell the pastor in advance so that he might speak to them concerning their spiritual welfare. However, this requirement was eliminated in 1991.
Communicants prepare themselves spiritually by faith alone lest they eat and drink damnation unto themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). Worthy communicants receive the body and blood of Christ, God and man, for the forgiveness of all of their sins (Matt. 26:26-28). Unworthy communicants are guilty of the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:27). But visitors would never know that. They would conclude that our communion is an outward act or covenant meal rather than a true sharing of the body and blood of Christ that can be worthily received only by faith.
In its word and sacramental ministry, the Lutheran Church has come to resemble the very churches that it condemns in its public confessions (i.e., Roman Catholic, Reform, and Baptist). Does God still serve and save us through word and sacrament despite these non-Lutheran practices? Of course. God continues to serve and save us just as He continues to serve and save Roman Catholics, Reform, and Baptists. But God has called the Lutheran Church to the highest standard of faithfulness to His Word.
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