The Lutheran Difference: The Sacraments

This entry is part 16 of 34 in the series The Lutheran Difference.

If I had to pick one thing that set Lutherans apart from other Christians, it’d probably be our understanding of the Sacraments.

So let’s start with a definition. To Lutherans, a sacrament is a sacred act, instituted by God, in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element, and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ. (I got that definition from my denomination’s notes on the Small Catechism, just FYI). That may seem a little wordy, so let’s break it down. There are three things that go into a true sacrament. I like to talk about it as a kind of recipe. Those three things are:

  1. God says to “do this.” That means that God clearly calls on His people to perform this act.
  2. God says “you will receive forgiveness by doing this.” Now I want to be clear about this: the forgiveness that we receive via the Sacraments is the same forgiveness that is ours through the death and resurrection of Christ. This isn’t “bonus grace” or anything like that.
  3. We use a physical object (for lack of a better term) when we do this. For Lutherans, a true sacrament will be connected to some sort of physical object (or “element”).

So this sets us apart from other denominations, I think, because this gives us a very short list of what is or isn’t a sacrament.

For example, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: baptism, communion, confession, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (also known as “last rites”). But over half of these don’t conform to the Lutheran understanding of what a sacrament is. While marriage is good and God certainly desires for His people to pursue it, it’s not a command for all people, nor does the ritual itself bestow forgiveness on anyone. The same thing is true when it comes to our understanding of ordination. While Lutherans do practice confirmation, we also acknowledge that it’s not commanded anywhere in the Bible, hence it can’t be a sacrament.

So what does that leave us with? Well, two sacraments for sure: Baptism and Holy Communion. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, from a Lutheran perspective, both of these are sacraments.

But there’s an interesting gray area when it comes to the sacraments, namely that of confession and absolution. God definitely directs us to confess our sins and the Bible promises that, if we do, those sins will be forgiven. The hitching point is this: there’s no obvious physical element.

Believe it or not, I’ve known some pastors who get themselves twisted into knots over whether or not confession and absolution is the third Lutheran sacrament. Personally, I just tell people that Lutherans have two sacraments, three if you squint.

Although I once heard someone suggest that James 5:14-16 could be the basis for a potential fourth sacrament, namely anointing with oil. I’ve only heard that once, but it’s an interesting idea, especially since it would seem that James’s instructions has all three parts of the recipe.

But that’s not an official sacrament and, technically, neither is confession and absolution. Instead, we’ll focus on the first of the “official” sacraments next week when talk about what Lutherans believe about baptism.

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