In spite of claims that the Scripture is so unclear that it needs an outside infallible interpreter, Martin Luther found some of its passages clear enough both to rely on them with complete confidence for eternal life and to shed light on many passages that are otherwise less clear. Although many individual texts lack clarity in themselves, simple trust in the straightforward texts makes the doctrine taught by Scripture, including every article of faith, completely clear. Such texts are so lucid that they need no exegesis in the sense of clarification. No more open to different interpretations than ordinary human language, the clear passages make possible the understanding of many less clear passages, the unity of faith, and the rejection of false teaching. This is what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture: many unclear passages of Scripture are clarified by passages of Scripture that need no clarification, neither from human interpreters, nor even from other Scripture. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand an unclear messianic prophecy without Philip’s interpretation, now recorded as perfectly clear Scripture that interprets the less clear prophecy (Acts 8:30-35). Many of those who deny this doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture claim that divisions among Protestants result from different interpretations of Scripture passages, …
An initial reading of John 6:22-71 leaves the impression that through the living bread discourse, Jesus taught his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Lord’s Supper. This is not only the interpretation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but also that of orthodox theologians immediately following the time of the apostles and by some confessional Lutheran theologians today. (Except when explicitly indicating metaphorical, nonphysical eating and drinking, the words eat and drink will be used in the plain, oral sense, as Jesus meant them when he said, “Take, eat” and “Take, drink.”) This view will be vindicated by establishing these two teachings from the straightforward reading of the passage:
- John 6:51-58 speaks of the eating and drinking commanded in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as opposed to merely metaphorical, non-physical eating and drinking.
- In this passage, the objects of eating and drinking, referred to as “true food” and “true drink,” are the literal body and blood of Jesus, not merely the sacramental symbols or spiritual benefits of his flesh and blood.
On the night of his betrayal, the Lord instituted the Eucharist with the simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body… Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). A multitude of arguments have been employed against taking those words to mean that in the distribution of the bread and wine, he gave his disciples his body to eat and his blood to drink. Jesus could not possibly have done so while remaining truly human, according to Zwingli, Calvin, and a plethora of denominations following them. Other arguments are less philosophically sophisticated. Perhaps the most common seeks to cast doubt on a literal reading of the words of institution by pointing to figures of speech Jesus used, as when he said, “I am the door” and “I am the true vine.” This argument indeed proves that Jesus sometimes spoke metaphorically, as everyone already knows, but falls short of providing any evidence that he did so in his Last Supper. As relevant as such expressions may be to interpreting “I am the true bread” as non-Eucharistic, their structure is not sufficiently close to that of “This is my body” (Pieper 1953, vol. 3, 305-311) to take the argument as more than a rhetorical ploy. In fact, it has more force when reversed: there would be no need to use obviously metaphorical passages to bolster a claim that the words of institution are metaphorical if those words were just as clearly metaphorical. As much as these kinds of arguments are advanced in debate, the real reason for much of the opposition to a more straightforward reading of Christ’s words may lie elsewhere. Among Protestants, a particularly strong motive for taking the words of institution symbolically is the desire to distance themselves from Tridentine Catholicism, especially from its idea of sacrificing Christ in every mass. The doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body in the bread and his blood in the wine is seen as synonymous with the doctrine of the priest’s offering Christ as a sacrifice, even though the former does not imply the latter …
A Puritan heritage
In response to an article maintaining that God made the covenant of grace only with the elect, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently asked how he could attain assurance of election given that “The identity of the elect is one of those hidden things that belong to the Lord. I’ve been working for seventy-five years to make my calling and election sure, but I haven’t arrived yet” (New Horizons, July 2005, p. 21, Letters). Although Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity, it does so in order to strengthen confidence in Christ alone for eternal life. Misuse of these doctrines can have the opposite effect, as when Puritans desperately looked for their own faith, sanctification, or work of the Spirit within as evidence that they had been chosen. For example, 2 Peter 1 is inadvertently wielded against apostolic teaching whenever interpreted to imply that a new convert cannot have full joy in believing the good news until diligently assuring himself of his election by asking questions like, “Have I really added self-control to my knowledge?” or “Have I really added love to my brotherly kindness?” As even Calvin taught (on 1 John 3:19; 4:17), God does not give subjective signs of salvation as the foundation of assurance, which rests on the objective promise of the gospel, but as added confirmation. In Word and Sacrament, the Son of Man sincerely offers the free water of life to all who thirst, longing for them to simply accept his invitation (Matthew 23:37; John 7:37-38; 1 Timothy 2:1-6). He certainly will not turn away anyone who relies on his shed blood for the forgiveness of sins.*
If you have been baptized, you have been baptized into Christ’s death
Even long before the Puritans, it seemed reasonable that confidence of salvation would result from progress in sanctification (Romans 6:1-2). Paul reversed the order: he urged those baptized into Christ to walk in the Spirit by depending on the already accomplished crucifixion of their flesh with its desires (Galatians 3:26-29; 5:16-24). Indeed, to assure the members of the Roman congregation of their identity in Christ, Paul pointed them to their baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The idea is not that baptism saves apart from faith any more than the gospel saves apart from faith, but rather that faith relies on baptism as the Spirit’s work of uniting the believer to Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). Characteristically, Paul argued deductively (Romans 6:1-14):
- We who have received Christian baptism have been united with the death and burial of Christ.
- Since the slaves of sin, who belong to this age, were put to death in baptism, we have been freed from every obligation to serve sin.
- Those united with Christ’s death and burial have already been united with his resurrection, to culminate in the resurrection of the body in age to come.
- Because we are now alive from the dead, we are to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness.
Such dependence on baptism seems strange to those taught to see it as a human work, but Paul presented baptism as God’s gift of grace, as the tool he used to bring freedom from the curse of the law (Romans 6:14). Luther contrasted this objective certainty of baptism with the doubts that arise from probing into the secret things that belong to God:
As far as we are concerned, we now have God’s Word, and so we ought not have any doubt about our salvation. It’s in this way that we should dispute about predestination, for it has already been settled: I have been baptized and I have the Word, and so I have no doubt about my salvation as long as I continue to cling to the Word. When we take our eyes off Christ we come upon predestination and start to dispute. Our Lord God says, ‘Why don’t you believe me? Yet you hear me when I say that you are beloved by me and your sins are forgiven.’ This is our nature, that we are always running away from the Word.**
Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21). Regeneration by water and the Spirit is certain precisely because it rests on the will of the truthful and loving God, not on anything in people (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8). Yes, the hidden things do belong to the Lord alone, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
* A shorter version of this paragraph appeared as a Letter in the October 2005 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists: “… I’m not sure of my calling and election (2 Pet. 1:10). It seems to me that believing and knowing on the basis of God’s Word that Jesus died to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21; John 6:44, 65) is not the same as believing and knowing on the basis of some subjective decision, feeling, or act that he died to save me” (emphasis original). I hope to write more on this soon. [The planned paper was added on October 20, 2005.]
** Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther’s Works, vol. 54: Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 54, Page 57-58). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Emphasis added.
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.
What will I eat? How will I pay the bills? How will I have a happy marriage? How will I have a successful career? Everyone seems to be preoccupied with these kinds of concerns, but Jesus calmed his disciples by giving them a higher purpose. He told them not to worry about their needs in this world, but to instead seek God’s kingdom, having the promise that their heavenly Father would then also meet all those needs: “…do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt 6:31-33, RSV). The parallel account omits “and his righteousness” and adds an assurance: “…seek his kingdom, and all these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31-32). The first step in understanding what it means to seek the kingdom of God is to determine what Jesus meant by “his kingdom.” This is because Jesus used the word translated as kingdom in a way that is very different from the typical usage of kingdom in English as the land or people ruled by a king.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the “kingdom of God” is usually God’s active rule over his creation, especially in saving his people from their sins and the consequences of those sins.