Luther on Baptism and Communion
November 2, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
October 31st was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part seven of a multi-part series.
Up until this point in this series we have considered teachings of Luther that we would mostly celebrate. He championed justification by faith alone by reclaiming a biblical understanding of sin and faith. He championed the central place and power of the Word of God in both the worship gathering of the church and in the individual’s life. Luther helped refocus the church’s reception of the sacraments as means of God’s grace being extended to us. There is good reason to celebrate Luther as we recognize the 500th anniversary of his 95 Theses.
Unfortunately, we cannot commend everything Luther held and taught. His views on the sacraments go beyond what we believe Scripture teaches. And Luther held some nasty perspectives about the Jewish race. This reminds us to be careful not to put humans on pedestals, as if any human can be our champion. We have one champion, Jesus Christ. And I suspect that Luther would resist any celebration of himself, as he also wanted to champion Christ alone.
In light of this, I want to use these next two weeks to examine what Luther said about the sacraments and the Jews and to think about how we respond.
As we saw last week, Luther taught that Christ was offered through the Word and the Sacraments. To receive the sacraments was to receive Christ. This conviction begins to shape what Luther taught about baptism and communion.
Luther taught that in baptism, “God is the agent in the sacrament. That is why it is effective for salvation. God is the one who has made the promise; God is the one who has confirmed that promise in Christ; God is now the one who impresses that promise upon the Christian in baptism. In baptism, God truly engrafts the subject into Christ, truly offers him Christ” (p. 141). Therefore, “he sees baptism as a regenerative act by which the child is made into a Christian” (p. 138).
While we believe Scripture teaches that baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promises of regeneration, we do not believe that baptism is a “regenerative act.” Regeneration is the work of God’s free and special grace by the Holy Spirit where one is quickened and renewed and, thereby, enabled to respond to God’s call to the gospel (cf. WCF X.2). It is not tied to the moment of baptism (cf. WCF XXVIII.6).
Trueman wants to caution our over-reaction to Luther’s teaching by stating: “We should note, however, that despite his great emphasis on the objectivity of the sacrament and the reality of what is offered there, it is faith in the promise that ultimately brings the benefits of baptism to the Christian: ‘Thus it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies. For faith is the submersion of the old man and the emerging of the new’” (p. 141-142).
Regarding communion, Luther contended for the real physical presence of Christ with the bread and wine. In his small catechism, “the body and blood are described as being given ‘under the bread and wine’… Later Lutheranism would describe the presence as being in, with, and under the bread and wine” (p. 152). What Luther was seeking to reconcile was Jesus’ language in the gospels (“This is my body,” “This is my blood”) with his view that in the sacraments Christ is offered to the recipient. He rejected the Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and wine “transubstantiate” into the body and blood of Christ, but he wanted to maintain the real physical presence of Christ with the elements.
Once again, we believe the bread and wine are signs, commemorating the Christ’s one and only sacrifice, and seals of all the benefits of Christ’s death for true believers. Further, we believe that receiving the bread and cup is a “participation” in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16). Therefore our Confession of Faith teaches that worthy receivers, inwardly by faith, spiritually, receive, and feed upon Christ crucified (cf. WCF XXIX.7). It is not Christ’s physical presence, but spiritual presence that we participate in through the sacrament.
While we disagree with Luther on the significance of the sacraments, his emphasis on Word and sacrament as vital components of Christian living is helpful. Trueman summarizes Luther’s conviction: “while acknowledging that every Christian is unique in that every Christian is a specific individual, [he] 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” (p. 158).