The last two months we have been discussing the question “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” We’ve answered that question so far with the words “evangelical” and “catholic.” This month the word is “sacramental.”
Being “sacramental” means that Lutherans believe that God uses certain physical means whereby he offers and delivers forgiveness and favor in Christ. He attaches his word of promise to these means, such as the water in Holy Baptism and the bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar. Certainly, God requires faith in order for a person to receive the blessings and benefits from the Sacraments. But even faith is something that God gives to people who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) through the preaching of the Gospel. And God’s Gospel gifts are given to us in the sacraments. Through water and the Word in Baptism (John 3:5), God gives and strengthens faith as he incorporates us into the Body of Christ, uniting us to our Lord’s death and resurrection (Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 6:3-4). Through bread and wine in Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:26-28). As we hear the Words of Institution in the Divine Service and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, once again God gives and strengthens faith in our weak, sinful hearts.
Sometimes Holy Absolution is also referred to as a “sacrament” (see Q. 237 in “An Explanation of the Small Catechism”), although there is no physical element associated with it. But Absolution can be considered sacramental because God’s Word is given in Absolution to announce the forgiveness of sins and assure the penitent believer that they are at peace with God. That, too, is most definitely faith-strengthening.
Other Protestant Christians have a hard time with this. They have a little phrase which in Latin is finitum non capax infiniti. In English, it’s “the finite is incapable of containing the infinite.” But for God to use the “stuff” of this world to come to us in a personal way should not be too hard for us to believe. After all, what are we getting ready to celebrate at the end of this month? The moment when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was born into this world. The infinite Son of God took on finite human flesh. He took on the “stuff” of this world in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The finite IS capable of containing the infinite. Why, then, should we doubt whether Christ’s body and blood are present in the Sacrament of the Altar?
The Incarnation of our Lord is, if I can put it this way, “sacramental.” Jesus is the “means” whereby our salvation was gained, as he lived a sinless life in our place and bore our sins at the cross. Now, he personally delivers that salvation to us in the “stuff” of this world ... the preached word of the Gospel, water, and bread and wine.
Lutherans are “sacramental.” We don’t have to go around wondering, “Where do I find God? Where can I go for forgiveness? How can I be sure that forgiveness is for me?” Instead, we know God is for us in Christ, and we can be sure and certain of his great love and forgiveness for us in those objective means of grace: Word and Sacrament.
In Christ’s service and yours,