“The Balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service.”

by The Rev. James D. Heiser

Salem Lutheran Church
Malone, Texas

“Nothing can be spoken with such care that it can avoid detraction.” (Apology VII & VIII:2)


Addressing the assigned topic is by no means an easy task, for it lends itself toward either a one sentence response, or to several hundred pages. The balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service rests at the very heart of the life of the Church. Therefore, this paper is written with the understanding that anything set forth herein examines but a small part of the entire matter and addresses only a few of the challenges which confront the Church in our age. It is the hope of the author that others will find this work at least a helpful step toward addressing this worthy topic, and will find motivation in it to further expand the examination. It should be noted at the outset that this paper will not devote much time to specific details of the liturgy which reflect the balance between Word and Sacrament, since these will be more ably and appropriately addressed in Fr. Stuckwisch’s paper.

In this study, we will begin by examining what is meant by the expression “balance of Word and Sacrament.” We will then look at several ways in which our present practice may be remedied toward restoring a proper balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service. Our primary resource in this task will be the Lutheran Confessions.

1. What is meant by a “balance” of Word and Sacrament?

The word “balance” is one which can carry a variety of meanings, and so it is important that one understands the sense in which we are using the term. Often “balance” is used to discuss two or more ideas, persons, parties, and so on, which are opposed to one another; a balance must be struck, so that neither side overwhelms the other. Thus, for example, Americans appeal to the notion of “balance” in the media: the goal is that opposing views on an issue or political campaign would be given equal representation. Geopolitical theorists during the Cold War’ often spoke of a “balance of power” between the United States, the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China; again, the idea of “balance” conveyed here was of parity between otherwise mutually exclusive options.

When we are speaking of Word and Sacrament, we are not talking about allowing equal time for things which are in opposition; the Church is not worried that the Word or the Sacrament will some how “gain the upper hand” over the other. Indeed, a church in which either Word or Sacrament appears to dominate the Divine Service to the exclusion of the other is almost certainly a church which rightly confesses and practices neither. In such a situation it is not that Denomination X does a good job of preaching the Gospel, but neglects the Sacraments, while Denomination Y “is right on the Sacraments,” but fails to preach the Gospel. Gospel proclamation without the proclamation and faithful use of the Sacraments—Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper—is a proclamation which eliminates virtually every way in which God’s grace comes to us. After the same fashion, a church which emphasizes the Sacraments while neglecting to proclaim the Gospel, almost certainly utterly misunderstands the Sacraments. Proclamation must not be separated from the Sacraments; rather, hearing the Word leads Christians to faithfully partake of the Sacraments. Addressing the question, “What benefits does Baptism give?,” Luther joins Sacrament and Gospel proclamation as follows: “It [Baptism] works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” The Sacrament conveys these great blessings to us, but we learn of the blessings through the proclamation of the “words and promises of God.” Again, in answer to the question, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?,” Luther responds, “These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” Again, Gospel proclamation—“Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”—is inextricably joined together with the profitable use of the Sacrament. Gospel proclamation leads us to the Sacraments; the Sacraments are received to our benefit because of the Gospel which has been proclaimed to us.

In light of the above, it is easily understood why the Church is not aided when the imbalanced use of the Word and the Sacraments among the sectarian churches is spoken of in almost Hegelian terms. A dialectical structure is attempted when some speak of the Roman Church being a ‘sacramental’ church (the thesis), the Reformed sects being ‘Word, not Sacrament’ churches (the antithesis), while the Lutheran Church is the ‘Word and Sacrament’ church (the synthesis). The means of grace which the Holy Trinity established for our salvation are not opposing theses, principles, ideas or substances. Rather than treating Word and Sacrament as competitors, the Church rightly confesses: “For through the Word and Sacraments as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who worketh faith where and when it pleaseth God in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justified those who believe that they are received into favor for Christ’s sake.” (AC V:2–3) Word and Sacrament are “opposed” in the same way that two hands of one body are opposed, and no one in their right mind is glad to be missing one or the other.

The Lutheran emphasis on the balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service is connected to our understanding of the nature of the Church. This Church is described in a profound manner in the Augsburg Confession: “Also they teach, that One holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” (AC VII:1) The Church, therefore, is found where the pure Word and Sacrament are found; where they are absent, we have no assurance of the presence of the Church because the means through which it is created and sustained are absent. As Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles concerning the opponents of the Gospel: “We do not acknowledge them as the Church, and they are not; we also will not listen to those things which, under the name of Church, they either enjoin or forbid. For, thank God, today a child seven years old knows what the Church is, viz. saints, believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” (Part III, Art. XII:1–2) Again, Luther identifies the location of the Church by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; but those who preach another Gospel: “We do not acknowledge them as the Church, and they are not;...”. This might seem to us a harsh blow, but remember St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians: “but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:7–9) The faithful Christian remembers the words of Augustana V: “That we may obtain this faith, the Office of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who worketh faith where and when it pleaseth God in them that hear the Gospel...” (§1-2) Or as we read in Article IX of the Apology: “Neither indeed does it [the promise of salvation] pertain to those who are outside of Christ’s Church, where there is neither Word nor Sacraments, because the kingdom of Christ exists only with the Word and Sacraments.” (§52) Faith is only created in us through the Word and Sacraments, and these means of grace are found in the Church, given and distributed by Christ through the office of the holy ministry.

Word and Sacrament are both the means which the Holy Ghost uses to create and sustain faith, and they are the identifying marks of the Church. As Melanchthon declares in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but it is in principle a fellowship of faith and the Holy Ghost in hearts; which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, viz. the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ.” (VII & VIII:5) Thus we see that the Church is a visible fellowship, whose location may be determined by the outward marks of pure doctrine and rightly administered Sacraments. By examining a church’s public teaching (both according to its written confession, and the doctrine actually proclaimed in its pulpits) and its sacramental practice, a Christian can determine whether that church is orthodox or heterodox.

Thus, one begins to see the origin and purpose of the balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service. Both will be found in the true Church because they are the means through which the Holy Ghost creates faith; if the means are absent, faith will also be missing. In addition, however, we see that it is precisely in the balance of the pure Gospel and rightly administered Sacraments that we have criteria for evaluating whether a church is part of the Church catholic (AP VII & VIII:10). If a balance of Word and Sacrament is not found—if either appears to be absent, distorted or (worse) perverted—there is an indication that such a church is drifting into heterodoxy, or may even be apostate, depending on the deviation from God’s gift of Word and Sacrament. The Church should remember Luther’s words of warning: “Therefore in regard to this we ought and must constantly maintain that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments, and that whatever without the Word and Sacraments is extolled as spirit is the devil himself.” (SA Part III, Art. X:10)

2. The Necessity of Sacramental Preaching.

At the time of the Reformation, our fathers in the faith could rightly declare:

The people are accustomed to partake of the Sacrament together, if any be fit for it, and this also increases the reverence and devotion of public worship. For none are admitted except they be proved. The people are also advised concerning the dignity and use of the Sacrament, how great consolation it brings anxious consciences, that they may learn to believe God, and to expect and ask of Him all that is good. This worship pleases God; such use of the Sacrament nourishes true devotion toward God. It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries, than among us. (AC XXIV:5–9)

It was a matter of great joy that the Lutheran theologians knew the people of the Evangelical Church were thoroughly instructed concerning the “dignity and use of the Sacrament,” concerning the “great consolation it brings anxious consciences”—truly, those people who so know the blessings of the Sacrament partake of it with great reverence and devotion. Instruction in the Sacrament (and all the articles of the faith) was a matter of great importance, “for none are admitted except they be proved.” This instruction is done primarily through the preaching of the Word; thus, the preaching should regularly be concerned with the benefits and right use of the Sacraments.

“What does this mean?” It means that the pastor proclaims the blessings which we receive through Word and Sacrament as often as he proclaims the Gospel. Pastors should not laud “salvation by grace through faith” without preaching about the role and importance of Baptism, Absolution and the Lord’s Supper; otherwise, there is a definite risk that hearers will believe they may possess faith without the means which create it. In short, what is needed is Sacramental Preaching.

Luther observes that preaching before the Reformation was marked by a similar failure:

For I well remember the time—and it may even now be daily seen—when there were adults and even aged persons so uncultivated as to know nothing of these things, and who, nevertheless, went to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and used everything belonging to Christians, notwithstanding the fact that those who come to the Lord’s Supper ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and new scholars. (Large Catechism, Short Preface, §5)

After setting forth the chief parts of Christian doctrine, Luther warned his hearers to make sure catechumens were required to memorize the chief parts, “For you must not depend upon that which the young people may learn and retain from the sermon alone.” (Large Catechism, Short Preface, §24) Today, the problem is reversed: pastors rely on catechetical instruction regarding the Sacraments to substitute for regular preaching concerning the Sacraments. Preaching about the Sacrament of the Altar on Maundy Thursday and Baptism on Epiphany, and Absolution on Quasimodogeniti is not enough, for it fosters an idea in the hearers that Baptism, Absolution and the Lord’s Supper are occasional ‘add-ons’ to the Word. The preaching which is needed is of the sort found in the fifth part of the Large Catechism: preaching where the goal is filling the heart with a holy desire for the blessed Sacrament. As we confess in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “But with respect to the time, certainly the most of our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lord’s Supper frequently in a year. And those who teach of the worth and fruits of the sacraments, speak in such a manner as to invite the people to use the sacraments frequently.” (XI:60) Such an invitation comes in Sacramental Preaching.

How should the preacher approach the task of Sacramental Preaching? Although time does not allow for an extensive examination of this question, several points can be offered. First, just as a pastor approaches the propers for a particular Sunday looking for the distinctive way in which the Gospel is set forth therein, he should also look at them for points which offer opportunity to remind and instruct his hearers concerning the means of grace. Second, as every sermon must be centered in the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, so every sermon should then proclaim how the benefits of Jesus’ suffering and death for us come to us. The sermon should address how it is that Baptism “now saves us” (1 Pet. 3:21), and what a consolation it is that Jesus declared “He who hears you hears Me” (St. Luke 10:16), and that “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26) Sacramental Preaching is a powerful remedy against the sectarians’ treatment of the Incarnate Lord as if He were ‘locked up’ in heaven; our sin-sick, ravaged world needs to know the blessed Savior who promises, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (St. Matthew 28:20) What joy there is for us, knowing that our risen Redeemer is always with us! What comfort to know that He comes to us with His grace, through Water and the Word, and that it is Christ who baptizes us! What peace that “The words which absolution give are His who died that we might live; The minister whom Christ has sent is but His humble instrument.” (The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn #331, Stanza 5) And what love our God has for us, that He purchased the Church “with His own blood” (Acts 20:28)—Body and Blood which we now receive with the bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar.

3. Proper Preaching is Preaching the Propers.

A fitting subtitle for this section would be a line for a revised litany: “From the endless barrage of ‘free-text’ sermons to push the pastor’s personal agenda, deliver us.” In a generation when it seems as if every Recognized Service Organization in synod wants a special Sunday celebration of their work in the Church (complete with creative worship service and sermon or sermon outline), it is almost as if there is a war being waged against use of the historic propers. Indeed, one Church Growth/contemporary worship advocate declared, “Even the traditional Divine Service may have to see modification or even the burial of the Introit, Gradual, and Prefaces or seek more meaningful worship expressions to replace these liturgical formulations which are increasingly experienced as archaic.” And yet it is the propers (along with a wise choice of hymns to reflect the theme of the week) which are to be the elements of change from one Sunday to the next, while keeping each Sunday in a continuity of teaching. Far from “archaic” (for when can the exposition of Holy Scripture be seen as “archaic?”), the propers provide structure and balance to the preaching of the Church. The propers establish the theme for the Sunday, and thus should determine the sermon for the Sunday.

But before we go further: what do we mean by “propers”? These are the parts of the liturgy which change from Sunday to Sunday; specifically, the Introit, Collect, Old Testament, Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel. (The Sentences and Proper Prefaces will also change by season or festival, but not, generally, Sunday to Sunday.) Concerning the development of these propers, Luther Reed wrote:

The liturgical propers are an essential and characteristic feature of all Western liturgies. These liturgies, unlike the so-called “worship programs” prepared for a single service, provide complete and varied material for all the services of the ecclesiastical year. There is a fixed, invariable framework which is repeated every service. Into this are fitted variable “propers” pertinent to the particular service or festival.

These propers contribute more than variety, color and interest. Their content focuses attention upon the specific message each Sunday and determines the thought and mood underlying the celebration of the festivals. Taken as a whole they present the entire body of the Church’s teaching during the cycle of the year.

The propers, then, are a great source of stability against pastoral whims and fundraising desires of special interests within synod or district. Even more importantly, however, the propers are intended to guarantee that all of the central articles of the faith are taught to the faithful. Year after year, the cycle of readings and prayers repeats, causing them to be ingrained in the hearts of the people. Each year provides the pastor and people with another opportunity to revisit each element of the cycle, hearing again the truth of our salvation and the heart of Christian doctrine.

The lectionary, especially the historic, one-year lectionary, aids in joining our worship in a continuity with the Church of all ages. The historic lectionary was not the creation of an individual, or even a committee, but was the product of generations of God’s people gathering for Word and Sacrament; occasionally, changes are introduced, but much of the history of the lectionary is one of continuity.

Early Christian worship was very simple. Scripture readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and later the Gospels were at first all lectio continua, that is, continuous readings of entire Books. Weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day and annual commemorations of Good Friday and Easter, and later on of other events in Christ’s life and the life of the Church, led to the development of the Christian year. This has two great divisions—the Half Year of our Lord and the Half Year of the Church. Saints’ days and other minor festivals are distributed throughout both divisions. This system of corporate worship was born not of scientific exactness but of spiritual experience. It developed against a background of historic depth and consciousness with annually repeated commemorations of scriptural facts and persons. The Christian year and the Christian liturgy together constitute an effective and beautiful way of preserving and presenting the whole body of fundamental Christian truths in devotional form. Together they embrace the whole Gospel, “the things most surely believed among us,” the way of salvation, the rule of life. This regular and universal review of Christian essentials is theologically adequate, devotionally inspiring, and pedagogically sound. It also protects ministers and people against the intrusion of social and secular themes and personal preferences or prejudices into the services of worship.

Just as the Small Catechism does not become of less use even though we read it and study it again and again, year after year, so it is with the lectionary. The constant swirl of “special Sundays” should terrify us as much as would an annual version of the Catechism and its explanation printed in missal form. The yearly cycle of the lectionary—indeed of all the propers—serves a purpose connected to that of the Catechism: that the people may be taught. The heart of the faith, the history of our Lord’s life, suffering, death and resurrection, His continued blessings to His Church, are all matters which deserve annual repetition. Thus, preaching from the propers is an aid in retaining the proclamation of the Word in our midst, for it keeps the pastor from constantly becoming caught up in “contemporary issues” or preaching whatever suits his fancy on a given Sunday. It is far too easy to only preach about the topics in which we have a particular interest. Diligently studying the interconnections between the propers for the Sunday, laboring to choose hymns which match the theme, and for the sermon to give an exposition of God’s holy Word in keeping with that Sunday, proclaiming Christ Jesus and His atonement for our sins, and His grace toward us given through Word and Sacrament—this is properly preaching the propers.

4. The Need to Restore the Lord’s Supper to Every Divine Service.

The frequency of communion celebration can easily become an extremely emotional issue within a parish. Any pastor who attempts to move from monthly or bi-weekly celebrations of the Sacrament toward weekly communion quickly finds that he is opposed for a whole host of reasons. Nevertheless, at the time of the Reformation, it was part of our confession that the blessed Sacrament of the Altar was offered at least on Sundays and other festival days. As we read in the Augsburg Confession: “Now forasmuch as the Mass is such a giving of the Sacrament, we hold one communion every holyday, and also other days, when any desire the Sacrament it is given to such as ask for it.” (AC XXIV:34) This pattern of practice is reiterated in the Apology: “In the beginning we must again make the preliminary statement that we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are performed every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments and other like things.” (AP XXIV:1) The Lutherans found themselves under attack from the Roman party because the former had abolished private masses and had, in the process, moved away from Roman practice of the daily celebration of the Sacrament. Interestingly, the Lutherans appealed to the Eastern churches for support: “The fact that we hold only Public or Common Mass is no offense against the Catholic Church. For in the Greek churches even today private masses are not held, but there is only a public mass, and that on the Lord’s day and festivals.” (AP XXIV:6)

Whereas once the Lutherans had to explain celebrating the Sacrament only on Sundays and festival days, now, it would seem, that Lutherans must defend themselves for returning to this confessional standard. The resistance to weekly communion is, I must confess, utterly inexplicable to me. Some ‘concerns,’ such as lengthening service time, seem, frankly, godless: If you are worried the service will run another 15 minutes longer, you may save a whole hour by staying home. The notion that somehow the Sacrament will become “less special” by offering Christ’s Body and Blood weekly seems to utterly misunderstand the gift of the Sacrament; would a Christian refuse weekly general Absolution? Will hearing a sermon every Sunday make preaching “less special”?

The reformers argued that the Lutheran Church received the Sacrament more frequently in true faith than the opponents. As we read in Apology XXIV, “But if the use of the sacrament would be the daily sacrifice, nevertheless we would retain it rather than the adversaries; because with them priests hired for pay use the sacrament. With us the use is more frequent and more sacred. For the people use it, but after having first been instructed and examined.” (§49)

It might be argued that where there is not regular (even weekly) communion, the Church is not fully living up to the balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service. The Church knows there are two parts to the Divine Service, whether one wishes to call them the Mass of the Catechumens and Mass of the Faithful, or Office of the Word and Office of the Blessed Sacrament, or Service of the Word and Service of Holy Communion, as they are called in Lutheran Worship. One portion without the other easily lends itself to upsetting the balance between Word and Sacrament; just as we would, presumably, consider a Divine Service which lacks a sermon to be utterly inadequate, the same should be the case for a Divine Service which lacks the Sacrament of the Altar. Wilhelm Löhe observed:

The arrangement of the parts in the Order for the Chief Service on the Lord’s day may be compared to a twin mountain, one of whose heights is a little lower than the other. The former of these heights, and the lower, is the Sermon; and the other, and the higher, is the Sacrament of the Altar, without the celebration of which no public worship is complete. In public worship the soul is engaged in an ascent, the goal of which is reached at the Table of the Lord, than which there is nothing higher—nothing diviner on earth, only Heaven remains above. In the Holy Supper the deepest longings of the soul are satisfied, as the humble worshiper joyfully declares in the Nunc Dimittis.

Fortunately, the restoration of weekly communion is one area in which there is hope for significant improvement in the near term. Although one should always be dubious of the significance of any synodical or district resolution, it is worth noting that resolution 2-08A of the 1995 LC—MS convention provided a firm endorsement of returning to the historic Lutheran practice of weekly communion. The resolution reads:

WHEREAS, The opportunity to receive the Lord's Supper each Lord's Day was a reality cherished by Luther and set forth clearly with high esteem by our Lutheran Confessions (Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession and of the Apology); and

WHEREAS, Our Synod's 1983 CTCR document on the Lord's Supper (p.28) and our Synod's 1986 translation of Luther's Catechism both remind us that the Scriptures place the Lord's Supper at the center of worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20,33), and not as an appendage or an occasional extra; therefore be it

Resolved, That The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in convention encourage its pastors and congregations to study the scriptural, confessional, and historical witness to every Sunday communion with a view to recovering the opportunity for receiving the Lord's Supper each Lord's Day.

As the resolution noted, the new explanation of the Small Catechism teaches: “In the New Testament, the Sacrament was a regular and major feature of congregational worship, not an occasional extra (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33). In Reformation times our churches celebrated the Sacrament ‘every Sunday and on other festivals’ (Apology XXIV 1).” Thus, every pastor is given opportunity to catechize his confirmands regarding the weekly communion.

In all of this, it must be stressed that while the Sacrament should be offered weekly, no one should feel compelled to receive it weekly. Rather, one should listen to Luther’s advice on this point, “It is to be feared that he who does not desire to receive the Lord’s Supper at least three or four times during the year despises the Sacrament and is no Christian. So, too, he is no Christian who neither believes nor obeys the Gospel; for Christ did not say, ‘Omit or despise this,’ but, ‘This do ye, as oft as ye drink it,’ etc. He commands that this should be done, and by no means to be neglected or despised.” (SC Preface, §22) The Lutheran pastor should have confidence that where there is faithful Sacramental Preaching and a weekly celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar, there Luther’s observation will be found to be correct: “Let it simply be your aim to set forth distinctly the advantages and losses, the wants and the benefits, the dangers and the blessings, which are to be considered in connection with the Sacrament; the people will, doubtless, then seek it without urgent demands on your part.” (SC Preface, §24)

5. Returning the Third Sacrament—Holy Absolution—to Parish Life.

Mention a “third Sacrament” and the reaction of most Missouri Synod Lutherans is somewhere between shock and anger. Even though our Confessions declare, “no prudent man will strive greatly concerning a number or term [of sacraments], if the objects still be retained which have God’s command and promises,” (AP XIII:17) many Lutherans have fallen into an absolutism placing the ‘count’ of Sacraments at two with a rigidity which is as dogmatic as the Roman enumeration of seven Sacraments. Although the 1991 explanation of the Small Catechism alleviated the situation somewhat with the “note” to question 237—“Sometimes Holy Absolution is counted as a third sacrament, even though it has no divinely instituted visible element (Large Catechism IV 74; Apology XIII 4)”—the third Sacrament is the most woefully, inexcusably ignored means of grace in our synod today.

One definition of the term “Sacrament” which is common in our circles today is as follows: “A Sacrament is a sacred act: A. instituted by God, B. in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element, C. and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ.” However, it is wise to begin by noting that this definition cannot be found in Scripture. Instead, it is based, roughly, in the Large Catechism, where Luther wrote, “Hence also it derives its character as a sacrament, as St. Augustine also taught: ‘Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.’ That is, when the Word is joined to the element or natural substance it becomes a sacrament, that is, something holy and divine, and a holy and divine sign.” (LC IV:18) We may just as appropriately use the equally Lutheran definition provided by the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “If we call the sacraments, ‘rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added,’ it is easy to decide what are properly sacraments.” (AP XIII:3) The elegance of this definition of a Sacrament is easily seen from the words which follow:

For rites instituted by men will not in this way be sacraments properly so called. For it does not belong to human authority to promise grace. Wherefore signs instituted without God’s command, are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps instruct the rude, or admonish as to something. Therefore Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Absolution, which is the sacrament of repentance, are truly sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament. For when we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, they ought certainly to assure us that God truly forgives us for Christ’s sake. (AP XIII:3–4)

The definition of a Sacrament which has become so common today leaves Absolution—which we confess has “God’s command and the promise of grace”—in a ‘limbo’ between Word and Sacrament. The Apology’s definition, placing Absolution firmly within the category of ‘Sacrament’ is more fitting, given the placement of Absolution between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the Small Catechism.

There was a time when Lutherans could boldly confess:

It is well known that we had so elucidated and honored the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys, that many distressed consciences have derived consolation from our doctrine; since they have heard that is it is the command of God, nay rather the uttrance peculiar to the Gospel, that we should believe the absolution, and regard it certain that the remission of sins is freely granted us for Christ’s sake; and that we should believe that, by this faith, we are truly reconciled to God. (Apology XI:59)

The Lutheran Church once knew private confession and absolution to be a great gift which the Triune God gave to the Church. Indeed, so great is the value of this Sacrament that the confessors declared: “For we also retain confession, especially on account of the absolution, which is the Word of God, that, by divine authority, the power of the keys proclaims concerning individuals. Wherefore it would be wicked to remove private absolution from the Church. Neither do they understand what the remission of sins or the power of the keys is, if they despise private absolution.” (AP, Ch. VI, §2–3. Emphasis added.) Instead of treating courageous pastors who work to restore private confession and absolution as if they were some sort of ‘Romanizers’ or ‘odd-balls’, the Church should ask itself why, by its own confession, it has now lapsed into wickedness by removing private absolution from the regular life of the Church. The words of the Apology still stand: if someone despises private absolution, then he does not know what the remission of sins or the power of the keys is.

In Article XI of the Augsburg Confession, we teach, “that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary.” (§1) As long as private Absolution is absent from the vast majority of the Churches of the Augsburg Confession, one may rightly ask whether the Augustana is our confession, for the teaching of Article XI is only so many pious words if the practice is not continued. Times for private Absolution should be posted as faithfully as the time for the Divine Service. Churches which do not yet regularly offer private Absolution should begin to catechize their members regarding the great blessings and comforts of this holy Sacrament, and pastors should be willing to sit alone in the sanctuary waiting for penitents to come. Most importantly, Absolution should be clearly presented to catechumens, and they should be encouraged to partake of this Sacrament throughout their confirmation years. If they are rightly taught, and Confession and Absolution are rightly implemented, you will have many of them coming to you for Absolution for years to come. They will, God-willing, devote far less energy to hiding the ‘real’ parishioner from their pastor, and you will find yourself truly ministering to their hurts and sins and no longer guessing (or at least not as often) about what is really troubling them.

6. Protecting Word and Sacrament by eliminating “Useless, Foolish Spectacles” (FC X).

Much time has been devoted in this paper to what should be added to the Divine Service to strengthen the balance of Word and Sacrament. This final portion of this paper is devoted to something which needs to be removed for the sake of the Gospel. In our time, the term ‘adiaphora’ is used to excuse the inclusion of elements of worship which have no place within the Divine Service of the Lutheran Church. At the time of the Reformation, Lutherans were careful to keep innovation in the order of service at a minimum, retaining as much of the historic liturgical practice as possible. However, that which detracted from the Gospel—the Word and Sacraments—or perverted them, had no place in the Lutheran Mass. We declare in Article XV of the Augsburg Confession:

Of Rites and Usages in the Church, they teach, that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquillity and good order in the Church, as particular holydays, festivals, and the like.

Nevertheless, concerning such things, let men be admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation. They are admonished also that human traditions instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace and to make satisfaction for sins, are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. (§1–3)

Thus the Lutherans retained the propers with only modest modifications and retained the historic Latin rite, only removing portions of the rite which upheld the notion of the sacrifice of the Mass and the invocation of the saints. Thus Lutherans who have attended a traditional Episcopalian or Roman worship service are often struck by the similarities between rites.

The Lutherans understood that the establishment of adiaphoristic rites rests with the authority of the office of the holy ministry. As we read in Augustana XXVIII:

What, then, are we to think of the Sunday and like rites in the house of God? To this we answer, that it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church, not that thereby we should merit grace or make satisfaction for sins, or that consciences be bound to judge them necessary services, and to think that it is a sin to break them without offense to others. ...
It is proper that the churches should keep such ordinances for the sake of charity and tranquillity, so far that one do not offend another, that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion; but so that consciences be not burdened to think that they be necessary to salvation, or to judge that they sin when they break them without offense to others; ...
Of this kind, is the observance of the Lord’s Day, Easter, Pentecost, and like holydays and rites. (§53, 55–56, 57)

A similar line of thought is followed in §31 of Article X of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord: “According to this doctrine the churches will not condemn one another because of dissimilarity of ceremonies when, in Christian liberty, one has less or more of them, provided they otherwise are in unity with one another in doctrine and all its articles, and also in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known saying; ‘Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in the faith.’”

Therefore, a great deal of responsibility and authority rests with bishops and pastors regarding the rite, since it is entrusted to their care, and there have been many in our age who have abused this authority to borrow heavily from the practices of other confessions. However, Article X of the Formula of Concord is of profound significance over against the intrusion of enthusiastic Protestant elements into the Divine Service. Because the primary focus of Article X is on the adaptation of alien rites in times of persecution, little attention is paid to the overall article. The specific historical setting of the article (compromises with the Roman Church under the Augsburg and Leipzig Interims) is perhaps thought to limit the applicability of the article to those times when the Church faces open persecution. In a case of persecution, it is true that adiaphora do not, of themselves, conflict with the Word and Sacrament, but, every Christian, but especially the ministers of the Word, as the presidents of the congregation of God, are bound, according to God’s Word, to confess the doctrine, and what belongs to the whole of religion, freely and openly, not only in words, but also in works and with deeds; and that then, in this case, even in such adiaphora, they must not yield to the adversaries, or permit these adiaphora to be forced upon them by their enemies, whether by violence or cunning, to the detriment of the true worship of God and the introduction and sanction of idolatry. (§9)

In other words, worship practices which are not, in and of themselves, offensive to the orthodox doctrine, become an offense when they are instituted because of pressure by heterodox (false-teaching) churches; in such a case, it is sinful to choose to adopt new practices for the purpose of appearing to be in agreement with the false teachers.

However, Article X does not only address cases of persecution. Indeed, §7 in the Solid Declaration tells us: “Likewise, when there are useless, foolish spectacles, that are profitable neither for good order, nor Christian discipline, nor evangelical propriety in the Church, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference.” This sentence is of vital importance for our present topic. “Useless, foolish spectacles” are not adiaphoristic; unlike true adiaphora, they are not compatible with balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service. While the majority of Article X deals with the matter of those rites which are, in a time of tranquillity for the Church, truly adiaphora and may be retained by the Lutherans as long as they are not introduced because of persecution, “useless, foolish spectacles” are never adiaphoristic. Because of limitations on time, it is not possible to go into great detail on this point, but I believe the ban on “useless, foolish spectacles” is of great importance in evaluating some of the outside influences which are undermining the historic Lutheran rites.

According to the Apology, man-made ceremonies serve two purposes: “Since ceremonies, however, ought to be observed both to teach men Scripture, and that those, admonished by the Word, may conceive faith and fear, and thus that they also may pray (for these are the designs of ceremonies);...” (XXIV.3). The ceremonies are to teach the Word of God to the people of God. The power is in the Word itself, as the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring about faith in the hearts of hearers. Where ceremonies struggle against such emphasis on the means of grace, they we need to wonder whether we are dealing with a useless and foolish spectacle.

There is no place for the useless and foolish before God’s high altar—by definition they are at odds with the Word and Sacrament; they are not adiaphoristic. Here let our rule be to never permit anything within the Church with which we would not feel comfortable at the foot of the cross. Conclusion.

In seeking to understand the balance of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service, our concern is not with counting the number of words in the liturgy or using a stopwatch to track the time. That having been said, reducing access to the means of grace by denying God’s people private Absolution and the weekly opportunity to receive the Lord’s Supper, risks undermining the balance of Word and Sacrament. The balance is an expression of wholeness and unity, with everything, in Löhe’s words, leading us to the mountain peaks of the sermon and the Sacrament of the Altar. In the presence of such precious gold, there is no place for the dross of “useless, foolish spectacles” which will be burned up. Sacramental Preaching, in combination with preaching the propers, goes a long way toward ensuring the preaching of the central articles of the faith and preparing the Christian to receive his Savior as He comes to us with His body and blood in the bread and wine. Pastors must be willing to take—and laymen must be willing to give—the time to teach and preach regarding the blessings of the Sacrament, so that Christians will compel their pastors to offer the means of grace to them. As our Savior comes to us through Word and Sacrament, we receive that which Christ promised: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

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