Luther on the Christian Life (6)

Continuing with our review of Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life, we pick up with the sixth chapter. Chapter six focuses more closely on Luther’s high view of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For Luther the Christian life was “saturated” with the Sacraments, that is, it is marked by the regular use of the Sacraments for the purpose of strengthening the Christian’s faith. Both Baptism and Communion present the believer with the promises of God, and by the believer’s use of the Sacraments God actually imparts to the Christian the Christ signified in them. In other words, the Christian participates in Christ and His benefits by means of the Sacraments. For this reason, Luther considered the Sacraments to be one of the greatest gifts that God has given to His people. We readily agree!

Trueman shows that there is much we can learn by reading Luther’s writings about Baptism, not the least of which is that he reminds us of the significance of our own Baptisms. We have been baptized into Christ! What a wonder!  Luther taught that Baptism was a powerful tool in the hands of God through which sin was put to death and new life imparted. In Baptism, the Christian dies to self and rises again with Christ. By means of the Sacrament, the baptized child is incorporated into the church. Baptism, therefore, has objective force. It is not a bare symbolic action. Many Evangelicals (especially those with a Baptistic bent) who have an impoverished view of Baptism, may find Luther’s viewpoint disturbing. Luther correctly insisted that infants ought to be baptized and that baptism is a genuine means of grace to the infant. Although Luther did at times attribute too much to the Sacrament, he did not think that Baptism worked automatically. Baptism is only effective because God is the one who uses it. Baptism is a means of grace. Just as a tool is useless unless in the hand of a skilled workman, so too Baptism is of no benefit to the Christian unless God uses it to communicate His blessings. The Reformed tradition is in basic agreement with Luther. Although we reject that the sprinkling of water has any cleansing power inherent in itself, we maintain with Luther that God uses the Sacrament as a means to accomplish the very thing which Baptism signifies: the washing away of our sins in the blood of Christ.

Baptism is a Sacrament with lasting benefit for the Christian life. Luther did not consider Baptism to be a “one time” event with little lasting impact on the life of the believer. Even though most Christians, baptized as infants, cannot remember their baptism, baptism nevertheless is a wellspring of blessings that Christians enjoy throughout the whole of life. God gives each of His elect people a promise at their baptism—the promise that He will wash away their sins, forgive them, and grant them the immortal life of His own dear Son Jesus Christ. The sure promise of God is the substance of the Sacrament. This sure promise, made visible in the Sacrament of Baptism, afford the believer great comfort. And it is that comfort that makes Baptism so significant for the Christian life. Where does the Christian find comfort in this difficult life? Not by looking back to some extraordinary conversion experience. Most Christians, who have been believers since childhood, do not have such experiences (and it is very wrong to insist that every Christian has to have one!). Rather, the Christian finds comfort in his or her Baptism. The Christian says “I am baptized into Christ! I have the promise of God that my sins are washed and I am forgiven! I shall never be confounded, not now, not in the future, and never into eternity!” The Sacrament of Baptism bids us to look outside ourselves for comfort. It bids us to find assurance in the objective work that God has done for us, not in personal religious experiences.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion holds a place of prominence in Luther’s thinking and is one of the most important activities of the Christian life, second only to hearing the preaching of the Word. The Lord’s Supper is food for the Christian’s faith, food that nourishes and strengthens faith and enables the believer to fight effectively against his sinful flesh, the devil, and the world. Thus Luther insisted that the Christian should partake of the Sacrament frequently. It is a tremendous aid to his or her Christian walk!

Truman points out that one of the chief things that must be recognized when approaching Luther’s understanding of the Holy Supper is that the Sacrament cannot be divorced from the Word. The Supper and the Word are wed. As Trueman says, for Luther the Lord’s Supper is “first and foremost a linguistic event, constituted by the Words of Institution.” Like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper is a powerful means of grace, and its power comes from the Word as it is understood by faith. It is not simply a memorial feast that stimulates the Christian to contemplate Christ’s passion and reflect upon the forgiveness of sins he has obtained through Christ’s death. The Words of Institution set God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins before the Christian’s eyes of faith and makes that promise real and present to the believer. The Christian who partakes of the Sacrament believes the Words of Institution and by faith lays hold of the promise exhibited by the bread and wine. By faith the Christian partakes of Christ as he partakes of the bread and wine. It is here that Luther went too far, asserting that Christ is physically present in the elements of the Supper. The Reformed have maintained that Christ is truly present in Sacrament, but that His presence is spiritual not physical. Despite this difference, the heart of Luther’s teaching on the Sacraments and their importance is in accord with the Reformed tradition. The Supper is a real means of grace. By use of it, the believer truly partakes of Jesus Christ and is built up in in faith, hope, and love.

Trueman also notes Luther’s emphasis on the role that the Lord’s Supper plays in the Christian’s assurance of salvation. This was a very important benefit of the Sacrament in Luther’s estimation. Like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper is a great comfort to the Christian. The Holy Supper bears witness to the Christian that Christ did indeed die for him to pay for his sins and that therefore his sins are indeed forgiven. The believer should not be afraid to approach the Lord’s Table and partake of Communion. God gave this Sacrament to sinners as an aid to their lives of faith. The Christian does not come to the table because he is righteous in himself, but because he needs strengthening from outside himself. For this reason, Luther directs the Christian who is burdened with fear, despair, and the cares of this life to run to the Table and to find comfort in Christ’s crucified body and shed blood. The Lord’s Supper is no small help, as Luther himself said: “the immeasurable grace and mercy of God are given us in this Sacrament to the end that we might put from us all misery and tribulation…”

The take away is this: do not be afraid to come to the Lord’s Table because you see your sin! The Lord’s Supper is instituted not for the perfect, who are nowhere to be found. The Supper is instituted for weak sinners who struggle to live the Christian life. The Supper is given to help us in our walk.

Justin Smidstra

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