A True Encounter with Christ

sac01My understanding of the sacraments is deeply shaped by what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians.  There he will warn the Corinthians not to partake of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner.  To get them ready for that warning he goes back to Israel’s history and uses that history to help them understand what the Lord’s supper is.

He shows that the Old Testament people had sacraments even as we do.  John Calvin calls them the “ancient sacraments” (see his commentary on 1 Cor. 10:4).  I believe Calvin is correct here in saying that these ancient sacraments convey the same benefits as the New Testament sacraments. 

What is interesting is how Paul describes them.  He says, “and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).  “Was” is the operative word.  Like the word “is” that Martin Luther clung to in the words of institution (this is my body), “was” indicates something.  It says Christ was present.  He was present not according to the faith of the recipients but according to God’s purpose.

All this says to me that faith does not make the sacrament but receives it for salvation.  Unfaith receives it for judgment.  This means baptism (as a sacrament) is a true encounter with Christ, according to God’s purpose.  It isn’t primarily about us and our faith.  We receive our baptism.  We live by the power of that encounter, and when we do we’re doing nothing less than putting our trust in Christ and his finished work.  This is sacramental Christianity, which I believe is biblical Christianity.

Stay Objective

The difference between the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments and the Reformed understanding is that the former would emphasize the objective effectiveness of the sacraments, while the latter would interpret the sacraments more as symbolic actions (The Protestant Faith, 230).

ESNAlogoThe words of Lutheran theologian George Forell quoted above would seem to be unfair to many Reformed people, but at the heart of his critique is the separation of the Spirit from the Word and Sacraments made by traditional Reformed theology.  The test of this is baptism.

The Lutheran answer to whether you’ve made contact with Christ is simply this, look at your baptism.  If you’ve been baptized you’ve made contact with Christ.  Accept it.  Believe it.  (In essence, put your faith in the finished work of Christ.  You’ve already made contact with it when you were baptized, and God means it for you.)

Traditional Reformed people bristle at this idea of baptism, revealing their true understanding of sacraments.  Behind this is the Reformed doctrine of predestination and all that follows from it.  With the external word must come a secret, inner call of God that goes only to the elect.  This move empties the word and sacraments of their objective character.  They become empty symbols.  What matters is the secret call.  It is not enough to look to your baptism or to the external word.  You must look for something inside yourself.

Lutheran Juergen Ludwig Neve says it well,

The Lutheran Church cannot agree to such a distinction between the external and the inner Word. It destroys the universality of grace and makes Salvation through Christ uncertain. If that distinction is to be accepted, then the efficient promise of the Gospel is not the foundation of hope for the individual Christian, but that foundation is a secret election (Calvinism), or it is the subjective experience of a revival (Armianism).  (The Lutherans in the Movements for Church Union, 172).

This Lutheran intention is evident in our Evangelical Catechism and even more evident in the words of its primary compiler, Andreas Irion.  About the Lord’s Supper he writes,

When, therefore, the signs and the means are there and the Word of God is added, then they are consecrated and they are offered as the Body and Blood of Christ to those who eat whether these are worthy or unworthy. Both, then, receive the same [emphasis mine] (from Irion’s “Erklaerung”, published in 1897 quoted in Neve.  Irion’s son popularized this work as Evangelical Fundamentals, part 2 which says very much the same thing).

So once more we see what’s Lutheran in our United Lutheran-Reformed catechism, but what’s Reformed?

Left open when it comes to communion is the manner in which we receive the presence of Christ.  The word “manner” is used often in the literature of the German Evangelicals and signifies a break with the purely Lutheran position.  It means simply holding to the words of Scripture and trusting God’s promise that in communion we encounter Christ in his finished work on the cross.  He is truly there for us.  The manner of his presence isn’t essential.

This position would be considered Reformed by Lutherans, and I’m fine with that.  Mine is a United Lutheran-Reformed faith.  I affirm the Lutheran intention of an objectivity to our faith, a looking outside ourselves to God’s word and sacraments, while leaving open how that happens.

In my next post I look at the biblical teaching that influences my understanding of sacraments as objective means of grace.

Where the rubber meets the road

“Jim” had gone down to the altar to receive Christ.  He prayed the sinner’s prayer but was he really a Christian now?  He wasn’t sure.  He didn’t see any bright lights.  His heart wasn’t strangely warmed.  How could he know for sure that he was a Christian?  After all, other people had such profound experiences.  He sincerely doubted that he was born again.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road in these posts on my “predominantly Lutheran with some Reformed influences” faith.  The Lutheran answer to Jim’s question above is simply this, trust the word.  Faith looks away from self to an external word.

The Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulen writes,

If the strength and intensity of religious feelings were made the basis of certainty, it would rest on something human, just as much as is the case when certainty is predicated on man’s moral transformation and his ethical qualifications (The Faith of the Christian Church, 92).

He quotes Martin Luther,

“This is the reason why our theology is certain: because it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside of ourselves, lest we rest upon human strength, conscience, feelings, character, our own works . . .”

Again Aulen writes,

It is just as impossible to depend on “experiences” (sensu, persona) as it is to build on our own works, on “work righteousness.” In contrast to any such argumentation Luther points to the divine revelation, to “the word and promise of God” (Ibid.).

Again the Bible teaches us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, not on an experience.  We must be born again, that’s for certain, but the only born again experience the Bible knows is that we feel our need for Christ and place our trust in him.  If we have done that we are born again.

Of course, there is a difference between saving faith, which is personal trust in Christ, and mere head knowledge, what Luther called historical faith, meaning mere assent to the facts of the history of Christ.  But saving faith doesn’t look to the self and its feelings.  It looks away from itself to Christ.

This objectivity of the word as the basis for our faith is the key to understanding what’s Lutheran in our United Lutheran-Reformed church’s beliefs and practices.

Stay tuned for more to come.  I haven’t yet gotten to what’s Reformed about our United Church faith.

What are you looking at?

“He has borne the sins of the whole world, i. e., of all men of all nations and times as long as the world stands” (Evangelical Belief and Doctrine: The Evangelical Catechism Explained for use in Catechetical Instruction, the Sunday School and the Home, 96).

lutherHow do I know that God meant for me to be united to Christ?  He meant it for the whole world, i.e., all people of all nations.  That includes me. 

Why can I simply trust the promises of the Bible without looking at myself for some sign of being saved?  Because God’s promise is for everyone.  Simply believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). 

Is there not a role for the witness of the Spirit?  Yes, the internal witness of the Spirit is a great blessing, but “in times of trial and suffering the temptation to doubt is strongest, and we need to rely most firmly upon the promises of God’s Word” (Ibid, 39).

Faith rests not on experiences but on God’s word alone.  This belief is what came to separate the Protestants into two camps.  It all came to a head in the differing understandings of the Lord’s supper.  Luther was insistent that Christ is equally present in the supper for all people.  The word makes the sacrament, not our faith. 

The Reformed insisted that Christ is not equally present for those without faith in the way he is present for those who have faith.  This disagreement signified for Luther a great chasm.  He said at one point, “you have a different spirit”.

What’s the difference?  Why the big deal?  We now have 500 years to see how these differing principles have worked themselves out.  The Reformed have spent 500 years looking at themselves to see if they have faith (see especially the writings of the Puritans).  It’s only by discerning whether or not they have faith that they can have assurance that Christ is there for them.  The Lutherans have spent 500 years pointing people to the objective promise of God’s word. 

Now, I am oversimplifying things, but not by much.  Look at the literature of the Reformed.  So many books have been written on how to have the assurance of salvation.  All these books counseling ways of looking at the self for signs of life.  The temptation of the Reformed is constantly towards legalism and Pharisaism because of this inward look.

My “predominantly Lutheran with some Reformed influences” faith sides with the basic intention of the Lutherans.  I concur with what is written about this in the book quoted above.

It seems clear that the attitude of those who receive the sacrament can have no power to change it. It is not man that makes the sacrament, but God (Ibid, 143).

In essence, trust the promise.  It’s not about your faith; it’s about God’s promise.  Don’t look inward (the fatal flaw of Reformed theology), look outward to the word.

The quotes above are from a book explaining our church’s catechism.  As we continue our journey we’ll look more at this union catechism and what the Reformed influences might be.  From what I’ve posted so far it’s easy to see the strong Lutheran bent.

It’s always best to start at the beginning (Glinda, the good witch)

“… she is and remains a part of the Evangelical, that is, the united Lutheran-Reformed Church, as it exists in Germany and has spread to this location” (from Article 1 of our church’s founding constitution, adopted in 1856).

forrellEveryone has a perspective.  That was the argument of my last post.  Eventually we have to leave the hallway of mere Christianity to enter one of the rooms in the house representing the various Christian positions.1  Again, even self-consciously non-denominational churches must do this.  They have beliefs about the things that divide Christians.

The quote above from our church’s first constitution uses terms that reflect this reality.  The term “Evangelical” dates back to the decision to part with the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.  This was the preferred term of the first Protestants.  It comes from the Greek word for gospel or good news.  Eventually, this would become the name of a new United Protestant Church (but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

“Lutheran” was first used by Roman Catholic scholar Johann Maier von Eck during a debate with Martin Luther in 1519.  It was Eck’s way of naming what he saw as a heresy, a departure from the true Christian faith.  The term was picked up by Protestants who split with Luther on certain key beliefs.  This group preferred the name “Reformed” to describe their position and referred to the other group as “Lutheran”.  Eventually, those who had been called Lutheran adopted the name for themselves as a way of differentiating themselves from the various Protestant groups that were emerging at the time.

The group labeled “Reformed” emerges soon after the split with Rome.  They saw themselves as continuing the reformation began by Luther.  Soon a powerful influence over this group of Christians would emerge in the person of John Calvin, a Frenchman who would write a very influential explanation of Christian beliefs titled The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The Lutherans were the first to start calling this group of Christians “Calvinists”.

This brings us to the word “Protestant” itself.  This word was first used in 1529.  It was used of both Lutheran and Reformed Christians, and today usually refers to all Christian groups with roots in the reformation movement of the 16th century.  I have chosen to use this name in the title of my blog because it represents what unites Reformation Christians.  The Lutheran theologian George Forell has written an excellent book describing this shared faith.  His book seems to me to be a great statement of the “united Lutheran-Reformed” perspective upon which our church was founded.  (You can read that book for free by accessing it here.)

I hope I’m not boring you with all this.  This may all seem so irrelevant, but I don’t think it is.  Knowing where we came from helps us understand where we’re going.  The more we are aware of the things that influence us the freer we are to choose the direction we’ll take. 

Next, we’ll start unpacking why it is that the Protestants split so quickly into two separate groups, and why it has been so hard to bring these groups together.

1a metaphor used by C.S. Lewis in this book Mere Christianity

My Perspective

evangcatechismAnyone who attends the church I pastor can tell you that I love our church’s catechism.  In most sermons I’ll quote at least some part of its teaching.  I love its brevity, the concise way it summarizes basic Christian beliefs.

The catechism, like any doctrinal statement, has a perspective.  None of us comes to the Christian faith from a wholly neutral position.  Even self-consciously non-denominational churches have beliefs about issues that divide Christians (about baptism for example).

Recently, I came across a phrase that summarizes the perspective of our catechism nicely.  It is actually a statement about the beliefs of the church in which Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, was raised.  It said this church is “predominantly lutheran with some reformed influences”.  That describes our catechism perfectly.

Both Lutheran and Reformed pastors I know concur that our catechism is predominantly Lutheran, and Donald Bloesch, a theologian with deep roots in churches like ours, says the very same thing about those churches in his book, The Church.

It’s not an accident that what can be said about the German Chancellor’s church can be said about ours.  The German settlers who founded Salem were from the same United Church background.  But, what does all this mean?  Why does it matter?

Again, it matters because we can’t not have a perspective when it comes to Christian faith.  We’re all shaped by some view of what the Bible teaches.  The only question is the degree to which we are aware of our perspective.  The more we’re aware the more we’re free to enter more deeply into those beliefs or reject them for some other beliefs we feel are more faithful to what the Bible teaches.

My own journey began years ago in Bible college as I examined the beliefs of various churches.  My wife (whom I was dating at the time) and I would visit various churches all over San Antonio.  I would bring books from various doctrinal perspectives with me wherever I would go.

Finally, in seminary, I heard about the United Churches in Germany.  We were studying Arnold Bittlinger, an early theologian of the ecumenical churches involved in the charismatic renewal.  Bittlinger was from the United Church in Germany.  I remember thinking at the time, “I think that’s where I belong.  That’s where my study is leading me.”

Amazingly, I end up in Evansville (my wife’s hometown) working at a hospital founded by churches with this background and preaching in those very churches.  A call is extended to me by one of those churches, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, in hindsight I see the hand of God and am very grateful.  I’m able to enter into my work at Salem wholeheartedly, and I think it shows.  I’m able to be the pastor I believe God is calling me to be.

In future posts I’d like to talk more about the specifics of this “predominantly Lutheran with some Reformed influences” faith of mine.  For many, this will be very new ground indeed, but I hope all will see that it matters (that the specifics matter).

The specifics of my faith set me off in a certain direction, one not everyone will take, but hopefully everyone will see why I’m going the way I’m going, and they’ll be encouraged to think about why they’re going the way they’re going, because we’re all going somewhere.  We all have a perspective.