Christians of Reformed heritage, including Arminians as well as Calvinists, obviously differ from Lutherans on sacramentology. More foundationally, to the extent that they maintain their distinctive teachings, they disagree on exactly what gospel (good news) the apostles proclaimed:
Many evangelical Christians tend to think they disagree with each other only on what they consider minor issues such as whether to baptize infants and whether the gift of tongues is for today, but that they agree on how the forgiveness of sins is received: by grace, through faith alone. This illusion is dispelled upon the realization that different evangelical churches mean very different things by the word faith. Here are some of the most common examples:
- Faith really means deciding to accept Jesus as Savior by sincerely saying a sinner’s prayer.
- Faith really means making the decision to accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord.
- Faith really is not just belief in God’s promise that his Son died for our sins and rose from the dead, but includes a benevolent love for God, a pious hatred of sin, covenant faithfulness, an obedient heart, or some other commendable quality.
With all the differences of opinion, can anyone know with certainty what faith means? Does it matter?
Ongoing controversy between even some of the most conservative followers of John Calvin surrounding what has become known as “the new perspective on Paul” dispels the illusion that professing evangelicals, though disagreeing on minor points of doctrine, at least agree on justification by faith alone. Among the more influential denominations involved, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently commended for study a report that explains many of the points of contention, some concerning seemingly harmless definitions of terms. Noting that words in the phrase “justification by faith alone” mean different things to different people, the report criticizes what it calls “the Federal Vision” for redefining faith to include faithfulness, obedience, or other good works. On the other hand, the same document condemns baptismal regeneration as contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That regeneration by baptism as God’s visible word as well as by his spoken word was integral to Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith suggests that those who formulated the confession’s underlying system of doctrine may have, ironically, redefined justification by faith centuries before the Federal Vision.
In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:
Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)
The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.
The privileged few maintain the status quo even at the expense of their integrity, telling the others how they can better themselves. The people long for relief from an administration that levies excessive taxes for wasteful spending programs while enforcing a legal system that favors the wealthy. Many find hope in a man who proclaims freedom through a new regime, a man not afraid to expose the greed and arrogance of the current leaders. He tells them their respectability in the eyes of society is a facade, noting that they take advantage of the most helpless for monetary gain.
But this man does not speak of the highly educated as the only slaves of materialism. Although he does not have his own home, he cryptically warns the hungry that they must stop seeking food as if their life depended on it. He also supports the full payment of taxes to the current government. Equally disappointing, he refuses to resist the authorities he has infuriated, enabling them to arrest him, privately try him, and publicly execute him. So much for the freedom he had promised the oppressed. His closest followers go into hiding, and their most vocal advocate of the poor commits suicide. Continue reading
If Jesus simply meant the bread was in some sense like his body and the wine like his blood, his words were somewhat less clear than under a more literal reading. However, Jesus often used figurative and even cryptic speech in other contexts. While it is improbable that his words of institution were more cryptic than those instituting the original Passover, it’s not impossible. The alternative, that his human flesh and blood were in, with, and under the bread and wine, is simply impossible, for it violates all our thoughts of what it means to be human. Sherlock Holmes observed, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Eliminating the impossible real presence would then leave us with the improbable truth of symbolism to be deciphered.
After all, Jesus was a Rabbi giving a farewell address to his disciples. So perhaps it would be natural to make the words by which he instituted the supper for remembering him more symbolic, as most sects do. In that case, we would expect him to cryptically institute a new Passover meal before expecting him to promise the impossible, the true presence of his human body and blood with the bread and wine to orally eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. A cryptic memorial meal, while initially improbable, sounds very reasonable, very acceptable, very predictable.
The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it. …sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…
—Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation
Agapē motif: Christ as mirror of the paternal heart
Agapē /ah-GAH-pay/ is the Greek word the New Testament uses for the sacrificial love that motivated the Triune God to reconcile selfish humanity to himself and to pardon all who repent and believe this good news. The Agapē motif is Anders Nygren’s term for what Martin Luther recognized in the Apostles’ Creed as the distinctive core of Christianity:
Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men. For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what He has in mind and does, yet has she never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things. But here we have everything in richest measure; for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love. For He has created us for this very object, that He might redeem and sanctify us; and in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself. For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost. These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth.
As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it, “Recognition of original sin is a necessity, nor can we know the magnitude of the grace of Christ unless we acknowledge our faults… Properly speaking, the Gospel is the command to believe that we have a gracious God because of Christ” (Article II, ¶33 and Article IV, ¶345, T. G. Tappert). In the classic Agape and Eros, Anders Nygren documents how this central motif of apostolic Christianity was clearly proclaimed by Irenaeus but later obscured by Plato’s Eros motif in the dark ages until the Agapē motif was recovered by the Lutheran Reformation.
The Eros motif: Humanity yearning upwards out of self-love
Platonic Eros, as opposed to vulgar Eros, is the yearning people have for the impersonal Highest Good. It came into conflict with the heavenly Father’s pity for the world below in its expression in Gnosticism and in Origin. The two types of love differ in their basis, direction, and nature.
The Caritas motif: Desiring God out of baptized self-love
Agape and Eros chronicles the course of the love war through the centuries. Roots of such present-day errors as bridal mysticism and Reformed theology lie in the Caritas motif. The Caritas motif is Augustine’s synthesis between the Eros motif and the Agapē motif. According to Caritas, the Christian is not to repent of self-love but rather is to redirect his self-love to what can really satisfy it: the heavenly Bridegroom and his Father. In Caritas’s pure Augustinian form, that is accomplished in a life of meritorious self-denial and humility via grace infused by the Holy Spirit.
This explanation of the centrality of justification in Luther's theology makes timely contact with atheistic thought.
Some highlights (numbers are approximate Kindle locations):
* Those with God's passive righteousness need not concern themselves with the judgments of others as if they were the final judgment (342).
* The power of God's word can be seen in even the smallest parts of his creation (382).
* God's actions are his words to us (588).
* Believers now have eternal life by promise, not yet by something that is felt (450).
* Make your plans as if God does not exist in order to let him work secretly through the mask of means (484, 487).
* Your justification depends in no way and your success (496).
* "Ethical progress is only possible by returning to Baptism" (779).
* In lament, the believer questions God regarding the apparent contradiction between his promise and the suffering, injustice, and other evil observed in the world (808).
* Judging on the basis of that evil, human reason always comes to the conclusion that either God does not exist or, if he exists, then he is not just (901).
* According to St. Paul's letter to the Romans, if God's righteousness could be judged by the standard of human righteousness, then his righteousness would not really be divine, but merely human (970, 973).