We believe and teach
– that God has established specific, external means of grace in which we meet Christ Himself and partake of His grace and peace;
– that the Spirit works faith in the Gospel in and through the means of grace;
– that grace is the Gospel word in all its forms, baptism, confession and the Sacrament of the Altar;
– that the Word is above the other means of grace and crucial for their proper use;
– that all means of grace are Gospel and give the same grace and forgiveness, but in various forms;
– that the means of grace retain their power, even if they were administered by the wicked;
– that spiritual blessings of the means of grace can only be received in faith;
– that the Church’s main task in this world is to preach the Gospel to all and administer the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.
A correct understanding of grace is crucial for the Church. The emphasis on the means of grace and a Christendom of the means of grace is a distinctive feature of true Lutheranism. When the Reformation rediscovered in Scripture the Gospel of the justification of sinners by grace, it led also to the means of grace as mediators of justification standing in the centre. The Lutheran Confessions cry out with great force, “that God wants to deal with us humans only through his external Word and sacrament.”
The entire Trinity is unified and active in the means of grace to have mercy upon us, awaken our faith, and surround us with the grace of God. The Father refers us to the Son and says: “Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5). The Holy Spirit brings to us in the means of grace the risen Christ and helps us to apply the beatific Gospel to ourselves and to trust that it is “for me”, which we are unable to do of ourselves.
The means of grace are sacred meeting places, where God and sinners meet. Like Christ during His time on earth met people, forgave them their sins and justified them by grace, so He meets us today with gifts of salvation in the external means of grace. What He won for us in His death and resurrection, he shares out now in the Word and sacraments.
Christ has not promised to meet us for salvation and the bliss of eternal life elsewhere. The Holy Spirit does not work faith other than through the Gospel. Spirit and grace are never separated. Every Christian who wants to meet Christ and have the gift of the Spirit, is therefore recognised by his or her seeking and grasping this through the means of grace.
All the means of grace are Gospel and give the same justification or forgiveness by grace alone for Christ’s sake. That the means of grace are several and given to us in different ways is a sign of God’s abundant love. He is very keen that we by all means believe the gospel and be strengthened and preserved in the faith.
The Word, as the Gospel, in all its forms, written, read, preached, or pondered in the heart, is the primary means of grace. The Word is above the sacraments in the sense that the latter are instituted and have all their effects in the power of the Word. “When word comes to the element, it becomes a sacrament”, said the church father Augustine. He also called a sacrament a verbum visibile, a visible word (Ap XIII, Trigl. p. 309).
The Word is also above the sacraments in the sense that it informs us about the sacraments' actual content and correct use. Preaching and teaching are therefore always linked to the celebration of the sacraments. We must be constantly reminded of what sacraments are and and what they give. Without the Word's light, they soon become obscure ceremonies, open to all sorts of speculation and abuse.
It is important to hold fast to the truth that the means of grace always have the divine power of the Word itself when administered according to Christ's institution. They are not dependent on the minister's personal piety. During the 4th century the Church and Augustine fought a hard battle against the Donatists (named after the aberrant bishop Donatus), who argued that the sacraments were invalid and of no effect in the hands of clergymen who did not believe in their heart and have the Holy Spirit. It is a dangerous idea that makes the Gospel uncertain. For who can know if the priest really, deep down, is a believer? Our personal faith never gives the Gospel or grace its power.
When it comes to receiving a part of the spiritual blessings of the means of grace, however, personal belief is crucial. According to Scripture, no one will be saved but through the heart's faith in the gospel. The forgiveness of sins is to be believed, and God makes no exception to that rule in any single means of grace. The old Roman Catholic view that the sacraments work automatically - just by the performance of the external action (ex opere operato)- giving grace, even if there is no faith, is profoundly unbiblical.
The Church lives by the means of grace. Without them there is no faith, no Christians and no church. The means of grace give us a vivid and strong confidence that we belong to God and give us joy and strength for a new life. If the means of grace are distorted and changed in violation of God's ordinance, so also is the Gospel obscured and perverted, and justification by grace alone is replaced by various forms of works righteousness. The means of grace should never be degraded to be about what we do for God. They deal exclusively with what God is doing for us and what He gives us through Christ.
The Church must always preserve the means of grace. But likewise she may not isolate herself and stay home with them. She must go out into the world with the Gospel, first preaching the Word to all, then with baptism, confession and communion to those who want to join the Church of God.
What the Holy Scriptures say
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10-11)
Sanctify them (the Apostles) by Your truth. Your word is truth. ... I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; (John 17:17, 20)
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:63)
Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. (Rom. 1:16)
So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom. 10:17)
Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Gal. 3:2)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8)
...having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever. (1 Pet. 1:23)
The word of God is not chained. (2 Tim. 2:9)
Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
We will now return to the Gospel, which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich in His grace. First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc. (SA III:IV, Trigl. p. 491)
Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. (SA III:VIII, Trigl. p. 497)
Now, all who wish to be saved ought to hear this preaching [of God’s Word]. For the preaching and hearing of God’s Word are instruments of the Holy Ghost, by, with, and through which He desires to work efficaciously, and to convert men to God, and to work in them both to will and to do. This Word man can externally hear and read, even though he is not yet converted to God and regenerate; for in these external things, as said above, man even since the Fall has to a certain extent a free will, so that he can go to church and hear or not hear the sermon.
Through this means, namely, the preaching and hearing of His Word, God works, and breaks our hearts, and draws man, so that through the preaching of the Law he comes to know his sins and God’s wrath, and experiences in his heart true terrors, contrition, and sorrow, and through the preaching and consideration of the holy Gospel concerning the gracious forgiveness of sins in Christ a spark of faith is kindled in him, which accepts the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and comforts itself with the promise of the Gospel, and thus the Holy Ghost (who works all this) is sent into the heart, Gal. 4:6.
Now, although both, the planting and watering of the preacher, and the running and willing of the hearer, would be in vain, and no conversion would follow it if the power and efficacy of the Holy Ghost were not added thereto, who enlightens and converts the hearts through the Word preached and heard, so that men believe this Word and assent thereto, still, neither preacher nor hearer is to doubt this grace and efficacy of the Holy Ghost, but should be certain that when the Word of God is preached purely and truly, according to the command and will of God, and men listen attentively and earnestly and meditate upon it, God is certainly present with His grace, and grants, as has been said, what otherwise man can neither accept nor give from his own powers. For concerning the presence, operation, and gifts of the Holy Ghost we should not and cannot always judge ex sensu [from feeling], as to how and when they are experienced in the heart; but because they are often covered and occur in great weakness, we should be certain from, and according to, the promise, that the Word of God preached and heard is [truly] an office and work of the Holy Ghost, by which He is certainly efficacious and works in our hearts, 2 Cor. 2:14 ff.; 3:5 ff. (FC SD II, Trigl. p. 901 f.)
Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men. They condemn [our churches] the Donatists, and such like, who denied it to be lawful to use the ministry of evil men in the Church, and who thought the ministry of evil men to be unprofitable and of none effect. (AC VIII, Trigl. p. 47)
Here we condemn the whole crowd of scholastic* doctors, who teach that the Sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, without a good disposition on the part of the one using them, provided he do not place a hindrance in the way. This is absolutely a Jewish opinion, to hold that we are justified by a ceremony, without a good disposition of the heart, i.e., without faith. (Ap VIII, Trigl. p. 313)
* Scholasticism = the medieval school of science which attempted to reconcile church teachings with philosophical thinking.
We warn against
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that the Spirit works without the means of grace, so that one does not have to go to church, read or hear the Word of God and celebrate Holy Communion, likewise that one can meet God in their own way, e.g. outdoors, in the interior, in meditation and so on. (fanaticism, enthusiasm and private religiosity);
– that the means of grace give some other grace other than the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, such as an instilled grace or power in us, which enables us to earn salvation by our works (gratia infusa, Roman delusion);
– that the sacraments are null and void if they are administered by priests without personal faith and piety (Donatism);
– that the means of grace automatically, even without faith, have a blessed effect on us only because the actions are carried out (ex opere operato, Roman delusion);
– that the sacraments are only faith-building symbols or confessional actions from our side (Reformed error);
– that prayer or “wholehearted commitment” to God is a form of the means of grace, which assures us of God's grace.
We praise Thee for Thy living Word,
And for Thy sacraments, O Lord.
Grant us Thy peace in all our strife,
And after death eternal life. Amen.