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date: 25 March 2017

Martin Luther’s Sacramental Theology

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther’s emphasis on the sacraments as a visible, tactile means by which the justifying action of God is conveyed to the believer brings the pastoral heart of the Reformation into clear focus. As Luther continued to explore how justification, the “first and chief article” (“Smalcald Articles,” Part 2, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000], 301), was the measuring stick by which all theology is evaluated, he was forced to define and clarify his understanding of the sacraments as a “more than verbal” (Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978], 5) word that proclaims the promises of God and makes those promises a reality. Using this and other, correlated criteria, Luther justifies the reduction in the number of sacraments found in the Roman Catholic Church of his time. The sacramental controversies that arose in the 1520s also force him to shape and clarify the interconnected nature of the sacramental elements, the word, and faith. By 1530, Luther’s sacramental theology had matured and could be defined by the “sacramental unity” between the word, faith, and earthly elements. This sacramental union also provided the foundational basis for his insistence on the efficacy of the sacraments, since this union was intimately connected to God’s promise of the gospel, proclaimed and enacted.

Keywords: Martin Luther, justification, grace, word, faith, promise, sacramental union, forgiveness, sacraments

Luther’s Sacramental Theology

Unlike most others producing confessional and catechetical writings of the period,1 Martin Luther did not spend much time discussing the sacraments in general. As Bernhard Lohse notes, “Luther did not begin with a sacramental doctrine from which to derive the interpretation of each sacrament.”2 This practice has continued among Lutheran theologians to the current day. Lutherans generally prefer to focus on the specific sacraments. Thus, Hans Martin Barth notes, “Luther was not interested in a general concept of sacrament but in the concrete sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and confession.”3 Christ does not become incarnate and act to bring about life and salvation in a theoretical and general way: this incarnation of Christ in the sacraments takes a specific, concrete form.

Luther understands the sacraments as first and foremost actions and events of God, through Christ, of justifying or making sinners righteous in the presence of God. Oswald Bayer has astutely noted that the “reformational teaching about justification is nothing other than the general unfolding of the specific reformational teaching about the sacraments.”4 Through the sacraments God justifies and transforms sinners. This claim was not new to Luther: he was simply echoing Thomas Aquinas, who also recognized the sacraments as divine acts of God, declaring and effecting salvation.5 Any focus, then, on the actions, faith, or piety of the person participating in the sacrament or the indelibly granted power of the one presiding at the sacrament takes away from what God declares and accomplishes in the sacrament.

This justifying action of the sacraments occurs, for Luther, because in them one encounters the crucified and resurrected Christ, who declares a person righteous as they stand before God. Christ becomes incarnate, not just in a physical, human body at his nativity but also in water, bread, wine, and the accompanying word of promise. Thus, Luther insists that it is actually Christ who is in the sacrament, encountering humans in physical ways. In the encounter, Christ grants and distributes forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.6 On the other hand, Luther insists that human actions in the sacrament are irrelevant when it came to salvation. The sacraments are nothing less than Christ acting to bring life: they must not, therefore, be seen as ways or means by which people might show their worthiness or to imitate Christ. Luther here reflects the Augustinian distinction between Christ as the only sacramentum of salvation, even as the neighbor is served by imitating Christ as exemplum.7 Christ is the sacrament who gives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by uniting the believer with Christ. In the process, the believer goes through a death and resurrection with Christ.8 Only after this transformation can a person truly follow Christ as an example.

Defining and Determining a Sacrament

Luther was familiar with the various traditional definitions of the sacraments and incorporated them into his own theological approach. In his early years, he defined “sacrament” primarily as the earthly elements in a rite, but by the late 1520s the entirety of the sacramental events was included.

Luther’s definition of a sacrament was drawn from three different area of study. From the field of biblical studies, he was aware of the nuanced differences of the word implied in the Latin (sacramentum) and the original Greek (mysterion), commenting that Paul describes Christ as the mysterion, or sacramentum, to which the church bears witness (1 Cor. 4:1).9 Luther then turned to the field of patristics as he explored how the early theologians of the church defined a sacrament. Here he relied on Augustine’s famous dictum, “The word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word.”10 As Luther faced various challenges to his developing sacramental theology, he developed this statement by Augustine even further. Robert Jenson observed that Luther takes this idea of a “visible word” and, rather than placing the word and the sacrament in tension with each other, as two distinct entities, expands it by making the sacrament a “more than verbal communication” from God.11 Finally, Luther examined medieval theologians’ definitions of the sacraments, beginning with Peter Lombard’s “Sentences.” As one qualified to teach these “Sentences,” he was very familiar with Lombard’s definition of the sacraments as “an outward sign of inward grace that bears its image and is its cause.”12 However, he would later modify this definition in some significant ways. Luther came to emphasize the connection of the outward sign—the earthly elements—to the proclaimed word of gospel, a grace that was dynamic rather than a static commodity to be possessed inwardly.

Numbering the Sacraments

The Roman Catholic Church did not settle on seven sacraments until after the Council of Union in 1274, and even then the recognition of these seven sacraments as binding for salvation was not imposed until the Council of Trent.13 Prior to that, some lists had as many as thirty sacraments, including such rites as the consecration of Christian kings, the rite of Christian burial, sprinkling of holy water, and the distribution of ashes. Many of these rites eventually became categorized as “pious customs or sacramental”14 once they were no longer considered a sacrament proper.

When Luther turned his attention to the number of sacraments in his 1520 treatise “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he reduced them from the seven recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. However, even within this treatise, he was not consistent in determining a final number. At the beginning of the treatise, he reduced the valid sacraments from seven to three: “baptism, penance, and the bread,” but almost immediately proposed that there is but one sacrament, namely Christ, with three sacramental signs. By the end of the document, however, he settled on two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.15 Nor was Luther alone in being flexible about the number of sacraments. Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon proposed between two and four sacraments, depending on how they were defined. If a sacrament conveyed grace, for example, then Melanchthon would include baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance/absolution.16 He also found a rationale for including ordination, even though it lacked an earthly element. While Luther omitted ordination as a sacrament, he nevertheless insisted that the rite of laying on of hands is not a human tradition but an action of God, who, through this action, “makes and ordains ministers.”17 In the end, Luther most often talked of simply two or three sacraments.

Criteria for Determining a Rite of the Church as a Sacrament

Luther did not definitively settle on the number of sacraments, but he did provide a clear justification for reducing their number. In the early years of the Reformation, he stressed that there were two primary criteria for a sacrament: it had to include God’s word that declared and made real a promise, and it has to incorporate an earthly sign or element. While he only mentioned in passing the need for a sacrament to be commanded and instituted by Christ in 1520, this became explicit after his sacramental debates later in the decade and was clearly expressed in his catechisms of 1529.18

The first criterion for a sacrament was that it had to have God’s word intimately connected to it. Luther stated that this word has two components: it must contain a divine promise, and it must be commanded or instituted by God. With his emphasis on the justifying action of the sacrament, Luther insisted that the word as a divine promise not only proclaims but also makes God’s justifying grace a reality for the one receiving the sacrament. He bluntly stated, “The first thing to be considered about baptism is the divine promise.”19 Likewise, he saw the sacrament of the altar as “the promise of an inheritance.”20 These words of promise were understood in very practical terms. For a sinful humanity condemned to death because of sin—or, as Luther defined it, being curved in on oneself,21 the word of promise is nothing else than the “forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.”22 God deals with people through the word that proclaims and actualizes this promise. Apart from this promise, which is nothing else than proclamation of God’s justifying action, the sacraments would give up their essence, and “the whole gospel and all its comfort”23 would be lost.

After clarifying the nature of God’s word of promise, Luther then justified his decision to reject penance, marriage, extreme unction, confirmation, and ordination as sacraments, at least in the way the Roman Church was practicing them. While he considered penance, or more accurately absolution, as a potential sacrament, changes would first have to be made to the rite. As he stated, “This sacrament, like the other two, consists in the word of divine promise and our faith, and they have undermined both of them.”24 The problem was that the emphasis was shifted from God’s promise of forgiveness to the power and authority of the church. The most obvious example of this was the church’s emphasis on the need for a worthy and sincere contrition in penance rather than on the liberating promises declared and made a reality by God.25 In terms of marriage, Luther felt that God’s word of promise was missing, replaced instead by the promises the couple makes to each other. Without the word of promise from God, the proclamation of God’s grace was absent.26 He was even more blunt in his evaluation of the rite or ordination, declaring that “there is nowhere any promise of grace attached to it.”27

Luther’s insistence that God’s word of promise must be proclaimed and made a reality in the sacraments meant that the rite of extreme unction was disqualified from consideration. To further complicate matters, at least from Luther’s perspective, the purpose of the rite of extreme unction had never been truly clarified by the church. Was it the sacrament of anointing for healing, or was it last rites? If it was about anointing the sick for healing, then he felt that it was a spectacular failure, because God’s word of promise did not appear to be efficacious in a majority of cases. Those anointed were often not healed.28 Equally problematic was that with the emphasis on the need for prayer and the requirement of faith exhibited by the presider in order to make the rite effective, the focus on the actions of God was overlooked. This introduced the Donatist heresy into the conversation, with the piety and faith of the presider determining the validity of the sacrament. He thus pointedly stated: “A sacrament depends solely on the promise and institution of God.”29 It could not be otherwise and still remain a sacrament.

Second, Luther insisted that a valid sacrament must contain an earthly element or “sign”: “It has seemed proper to restrict the name of sacrament to those promises which have signs attached to them.”30 The requirement of an earthly sign prevents the church from spiritualizing the sacraments, just as the necessity that a sacrament be commanded by God prevents the church from creating its own sacraments. If a sacrament requires a physical, earthly element, such as water, bread, and wine, then marriage, ordination, monastic vows, and absolution do not qualify as sacraments.

Third, Luther insisted that the word of promise in the sacrament must be commanded or instituted by Christ. His failure to be precise in his wording on this matter, however, led to some later disputes. For example, in the Small Catechism, he stated that baptism is commanded by Christ, while in the Large Catechism, he stated it is commanded and instituted.31 Yet a baptismal ritual had been practiced long before Christ commanded it. John the Baptist baptized Christ at the beginning of his public ministry, using a Jewish purification washing ritual. But baptism was not commanded by Christ until after the resurrection (Matt. 28:18–20). In an attempt to protect Luther’s claim that baptism was instituted by Christ, later theologians had to carefully distinguish Christ’s institution of baptism from previous baptismal rituals.32 The confusion did not exist for Luther, however, because his focus was not on the institution of baptism as a rite but its divine institution. On this basis, therefore, confirmation could be eliminated as a sacrament, because it was instituted by humans rather than by God.33 He rejected marriage, ordination, and extreme unction as sacraments for the same reason.34 They were not commanded. Even if an apostle were to institute a ritual (Gal. 1–8), the divine institution would still be lacking, and as a result it could not be called a sacrament.

While these three criteria described and applied in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” are paramount in determining a rite’s sacramental status, Luther supplements them with some other significant evaluative tools used to justify why the other sacramental rites in the Roman church were not truly sacraments. One of the pragmatic criteria, that a sacrament has to nourish a person’s faith, reveals his pastoral concerns.35 This nourishment cannot happen, however, if the efficacy of the sacrament is dependent upon the zeal or devotion of those receiving the sacrament.36 The expectation that a person’s faith be nourished by God simply reinforces his insistence that the sacraments are theocentric, focusing on God’s justifying actions proclaimed in God’s word.

A sacrament must also be based on scripture. Since the sacraments need to be instituted or commanded by Christ, Luther concluded that “what is asserted without scripture or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not to be believed.”37 It must be grounded in scripture. Transubstantiation, for example, was rejected on these grounds. Applying this scriptural principle, he eliminated some of the sacraments practiced by the church of his time, not because he did not see the potential helpfulness of these sacraments in nourishing one’s faith but because they lacked a scriptural basis. While discussing confirmation, he stated, “I do not say this because I condemn the seven sacraments, but because I deny that they can be proved from the Scriptures.”38 This same deficiency was found in ordination: “There is not a single word about it in the whole New Testament.”39 With the sacrament of marriage, Luther went a step further: not only does it lack a scriptural command or institution, but it misinterprets scripture. He claimed that Paul’s reference to the relationship between Christ and the church as the great mystery or sacrament (Eph. 5:32) was erroneously applied to marriage—even though Paul is talking about this mystery in the context of marriage. Luther sarcastically suggested that, based on such shoddy misrepresentations of scripture, it was surprising that there were not “a hundred sacraments” in the church.40 Not only do the sacraments have to be grounded in scripture, but they must accurately interpret scripture.

The criteria used to determine the number of sacraments in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” of 1520 also bear remarkable similarities to those used by Luther in the Smalcald Articles of 1537. In this confessional document, five criteria are applied, not only to the sacraments but to specific practices in the church. Practices are condemned whenever they: (1) are contrary to the first and chief article on justification, which is the foundation for all that the church teaches and practices, (2) are not commanded by Christ, (3) lack or contradict God’s word of promise, (4) are unnecessary, and (5) are unwise, uncertain, or even harmful to believers.41 Using these criteria, Luther concluded that these practices in the church should be discontinued, just as certain sacraments should be eliminated. Luther considered them unnecessary and potentially even be harmful to people. Church practices, and not just the sacraments, are to nourish, rather than destroy faith.

Word, Faith, and Sacrament

Luther’s sacramental theology was shaped by his scholastic and biblical training and honed by the sacramental controversies that erupted in the first decade of the reformation movement. His sacramental theology developed and matured as he faced the controversies over the Lord’s Supper from 1525 to 1528, and then in the debates over baptism, and infant baptism in particular, beginning in 1528. The most significant developments are connected to Luther’s view of the relationship between the word, faith, and the sacramental elements.

Word and Sacrament

The relationship between word and sacrament inherited by Luther reflected the Aristotelian concepts of forma and materia (word and the element).42 Besides providing the basis for the doctrine of transubstantiation, these concepts also supported Augustine’s statement that “the word comes to the element, and so there is a sacrament, that is a sort of visible word.”43 What the medieval theologians struggled with, however, was the exact relationship between the forma and materia. Luther struggled with the same thing in the initial years of the Reformation, especially since there was no clarity about what the word (forma) entailed. It was traditionally associated with the specific, literal words of the baptismal formula or the words of institution. The spoken words effected the sacramental promises. Later in the medieval era, however, the focus moved away from the words spoken in the sacramental rite and onto the person that spoke these words.44 For example, in the sacrament of confession, there was a shift away from the emphasis on God’s actions in the simple declaration “You are absolved in the name of the Triune God” to the role of the priest who made the sacrament efficacious by declaring, “I absolve you.” Thomas Aquinas justified this change of focus in his Opusculum de forma absolutionis, and the formula “I baptize you” became the norm and the correct form of the baptismal rite (forma sacramenti) in the 1439 Decree to the Armenians.45 Part of this shift, placing greater emphasis on the priest effecting a change by the words spoken, was connected to the increasing emphasis on the sacrament of ordination, in which a priest was instilled with the power to effect the transubstantiation of the elements or the ontological transformation of the person receiving the sacrament.

Luther reframed the debates regarding the word and the elements in two significant ways. First, he moved the focus away from the priest’s ability, bestowed in ordination, to effect the sacrament by rightly speaking the words. God alone makes a sacrament by intimately joining the word to the elements. Consequently, the efficacy of the sacraments is totally dependent on God’s actions. Second, he expanded the traditional definition of word to include not just the words of institution but, more importantly, the word of promise that Gods speaks, and makes a reality, in the sacrament.

Faith and the Sacraments

Luther consistently recognizes that faith was integral to the sacraments. However, his understanding of faith developed and matured as he was forced to refine and develop his sacramental theology. His lectures on Hebrews in 1517–1518, for example, might be interpreted as placing emphasis on the faith of the recipient of the sacraments: “It is not the sacrament, but faith in the sacrament that justifies.”46 While at this point he understood “sacrament” primarily in terms of a “sign” or earthly element, rather than a means of grace, the point remains that the power of the sacrament was located in the faith, apart from the sign or sacrament. Here he simply echoed Augustine, who argued that the sacrament justifies, not because it is performed but because it is believed, and Peter Lombard, who insisted that God does not bind his power to the sacrament (the earthly element) but to faith.47 Faith was the important active ingredient in the sacraments. However, Luther also realized that his early language about the importance of faith could be misunderstood as a human work, something that a person had to have, and exercise, in order to obtain salvation. Two years later, in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he clarified:

If you would be saved, you must begin with the faith of the sacraments, without any works whatever. The works will follow faith, but do not think too lightly of faith, for it is the most excellent and difficult of all works. Through it alone you will be saved, even if you should be compelled to do without any other works. For faith is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches [Eph. 2:8]. The other works he works through us and with our help, but this one alone he works in us and without our help.48

This definition became crucial in the late 1520s as he battled against the Anabaptist insistence on a believer’s faith (understood as a consenting belief) as a condition for baptism, and again in the early 1530s when Martin Bucer stressed the faith or belief of the person receiving the Lord’s Supper.49

As Luther was engaged in the sacramental controversies of the 1520s, his understanding of the interconnected relationship of faith to the sacraments echoed the increasingly close connection between the word and the sacrament. They cannot be separated from each other. In fact, they form an organic unity. Word, faith, and the sacraments themselves, as a God-event, are intimately intertwined. The word of promise creates faith, and this faith allows the recipient of a sacrament to recognize God’s incarnate present in the sacramental union. Barth notes, “In Luther’s understanding faith arises out of the encounter with the word of God in its verbal and non-verbal forms.”50 We encounter God, and God’s word of promise, in multiple ways in the sacrament—not because the sacraments contain some magical powers but because God gives a person the faith to believe and trust in the promised declaration that is made a reality even as it is spoken. Luther insisted, therefore, that “these two, promise and faith, must necessarily go together. For without the promise there is nothing to be believed; while without faith the promise is useless, since it is established and fulfilled through faith. From this everyone will readily gather that the mass, since it is nothing but promise, can be approached and observed only in faith.”51 The point is clear: this faith, given by God through word and sacrament, cannot be considered a human work. It is a gift from God, allowing a person to trust the promises of God, bestowed through word and sacrament.

Luther was consistent, throughout his writings on the sacraments, in placing his emphasis on the theocentric nature of the sacraments. This theocentric approach was also the way he understood the role of faith and the word in the sacraments. The sacraments are “more than verbal”52 justifying actions of God, and faith is defined in relationship to these justifying actions of God as a gift, not as something a person must possess. Therefore, any claims that one must have the “right faith” in order to make the sacraments efficacious must be rejected. While faith is integral to a sacrament, such faith is a gift of God and not a human action. This faith, created by the proclaimed word, the promise, and the actions of God in the sacrament, opens a person’s eyes to God’s presence in the sacrament.

The Development of Luther’s Sacramental Union

The development of the final form of Luther’s sacramental theology that led to an emphasis on the sacramental union (unio sacramentalis) took place in three distinct stages. At the beginning of his career as a reformer, Luther understood the sacraments as having three distinct components: “the sign, the significance of it, and the faith.”53 Most important, however, was faith. Whoever approached the sacrament had to believe, because it was not the sacrament but rather faith that justified.54 In reaction to the claim in the papal bull that threatened Luther with excommunication (Exsurge Domine), that the sacraments give grace to those who place no obstacles in the way,55 Luther focused instead on faith as trust. Rather than focusing on what a person ought to do to make the sacrament efficacious or on the incipient power within the sacrament itself to bestow grace simply by its performance (ex opera operato), he placed the emphasis on faith. The sacraments are instituted and ordained by God to create and nurture one’s faith, allowing a person to trust that God’s self-giving in the sacraments makes them efficacious.56 Whenever faith was interpreted as something required of a person, however, it became a human work, and the efficacy of the sacraments then depended, to a certain degree, on the quality of one’s faith. While this approach shifted sacrificial efficacy from the doing of the rite itself to the believing faith of the participant, the focus was still on the human activity in the sacrament rather than the action of God.

In the second stage of the development of his sacramental theology, Luther began to talk more about the word of promise as the crucial component in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, as Lohse describes it, at this stage there was a juxtaposition between word and sacrament.57 The word and the sign were separate entities, with the efficacy now totally dependent no longer on one’s faith but on the word. At this stage the sign was still a “tag-along” to the party. The sign, or element, of the sacrament was simply to point to the effective agent in the sacrament, namely, the word. The important thing was the word or testament of Christ, to which the earthly elements, or signs, pointed.58 At this stage Luther also moved the focus away from the faith of the believer to the word of promise, reflecting the theocentric focus so prominent in his understanding of justification. The sacraments are efficacious because of God’s actions, not because of the piety of the recipient.

In the third stage, Luther emphasized a sacramental union. He had discovered that the separation of the word and the sign in his still-developing sacramental theology could be interpreted as a justification for supporting the idea that Christ was only “spiritually present” in the sacraments, a position advocated by Zwingli and others. To counteract this, Luther emphasized the “sacramental union” (unio sacramentalis, or sacramentliche Einickeit) between the elements and the word.59 The concept of a sacramental union incorporated his insistence on the “real presence” of God in the sacraments. God becomes incarnate through grace, not only in the person of Christ but in the sacramental elements themselves.60 The sacraments do more than point to Christ—they embody Christ. Christ is thus incarnate and truly present, not just in the words of promise proclaimed but in the water, bread, and wine. This sacramental union between the elements and the word therefore mirrors the union of the divinity and humanity of Christ. Further, this incarnational understanding of the sacraments is important to Luther because it gave the sacraments their efficacy. The sacramental union between the water, bread, wine, and word of promise makes the sacraments able to deliver and create what they promise: God’s grace.

In reaction to the sacramental enthusiasts (Schwärmerei) Luther again stressed that the efficacy of the sacraments is based on God’s promises connected to the elements, not the piety or faith of the recipient. The very efficacy of the sacraments could be assured because this word of promise comes from outside of (extra nos) a person. This external word provides an assurance that cannot be found by inward testimonies of the Spirit. The inward word is too easily turned in on oneself, which Luther called sin. He hammered home this point in his Confession of 1528, declaring that God comes to us “outwardly through the Gospel, Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar, through which as through three means or methods,” inculcating “the sufferings of Christ for the benefit of our salvation” and “inwardly by means of faith and other spiritual gifts.”61 Even while recognizing the importance of an inward or personal faith, however, Luther continued to focus on the faith and the gifts given by God, rather than on a person’s personal actions or piety. All certain and trustworthy witnesses to God’s grace come from outside of a person, as gifts of proclaimed forgiveness and grace granted.

Luther’s theology of promise, incarnated sacramentally in the elements, was permeated by the extra nos character of the word. He firmly believed that when God speaks, things happen. God speaks a word of promise, “Let there be light,”’ and it happens. That is the power of the Word, in Luther’s thought. This is also true of the sacraments, as a “visible” word: God’s promises spoken in the sacrament accomplish what they declare. Here he agreed with Aquinas, who insisted that the sacraments produced an effect—they “impart the grace that they signify, but … in doing so, they do not violate the claim that a finite, physical cause cannot, of itself, produce a divine, spiritual effect.”62 Word and faith are inseparable, and they cannot help but be efficacious. That is what made the sacraments so important to Luther.

New Avenues of Research on the Sacraments

A cursory examination of Luther’s sacramental theology reveals that there is a paucity of writings on his view of the sacraments in general. He is more interested in the sacraments in particular. Partially, this is due to his need to react to the many sacramental controversies that erupted in the 1520s. Since Luther’s time, however, Luther scholars have generally not deviated from this pattern. Most works exploring Luther’s theology jump right into an exploration of his teachings on particular sacraments, rather than teasing out the sacramental theology that undergirds all of the sacraments. This oversight is interesting, especially given the way Luther embeds his “theology of the word” and justification in each of the sacraments. Thus, research on the foundational principles and patterns of thought found in his sacramental theology, as well as the difference between the sacraments themselves and helpful sacramental practices, may provide some new avenues of insight for Luther studies. In the same vein, further research into his criteria for what constitutes a sacrament can be helpful and viable for Luther studies and for a sacramental church in modern society. Are new criteria needed in an increasingly secular world? A review of many classical Lutheran systematic theology textbooks in the last five hundred years may also reveal possible explanations as to why Luther’s sacramental theology was not developed further, especially in response to the multitude of sacramental controversies since his time.

In his insightful evaluations of Luther’s sacramental theology, Hans-Martin Barth has raised some very interesting questions that point the student of Luther to new and ongoing research. He notes:

Critical questions directed at Luther’s theology of word and sacraments come from many directions: does the Reformer’s thought represent an isolating overvaluation of the word? Is his doctrine of sacraments marked by a “sacramental positivism” inherited from the Middle Ages? What philosophical assumptions and prejudgments no longer shared today have shaped what he says about word and sacrament? Finally: in his interpretation of word and sacrament is the church as a necessary precondition neglected?63

Hans-Martin Barth’s pertinent questions stimulate other questions about the sacraments that also merit further research. For example, Luther focused on the sacraments as a means of grace by which the gospel is given and defined the gospel in terms of the “forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.”64 However, in a world where forgiveness of sins and salvation is increasingly considered quaint or archaic concepts, or simply a part of Luther’s medieval preoccupation or psychological “hang-ups,” do the sacraments today have any relevance if they are only about the forgiveness of sins? Do they provide solutions to a human condition that no one relates to anymore? Questions about the relevance of classical concepts like the forgiveness of sins and salvation thus echo similar concerns about the relevance of justification in modern society.65 In a Western, affluent society, where the need to be justified in the presence of God (coram deo) through forgiveness finds very little footing, the predominant role of the word and the sacraments as means of grace makes their “usefulness” questionable. The same can be said of understanding the sacraments from the perspective of non-European/North American societies and cultures where the concepts of guilt, sin, and grace play quite a different role than what Luther described. Following Paul Tillich, it might be more fruitful to explore how justification and the sacraments can bring meaning to life or give people a new “courage to be” in a new reality,66 rather than continued attempts to relate them to their efficacy in forgiving sin. Contemporary contextual theologians might also provide helpful insights into sacramental understandings that are more integral to society than those delineated by Luther.

Ritual studies provide another avenue of research into Luther’s sacramental theology. One area of research has explored the efficacy of rituals—something crucial to his formulation of the sacraments as an effective means of grace, delivering and creating what they promise. Quack and Töbermann, for example, observe that “efficacy refers only to some effects—whether they are actual or asserted effects. To state that a ritual is efficacious is to relate a particular effect or set of effects to the intentions, expectations and/or perceived functions of the ritual.”67 A ritual’s effectiveness thus relies on correctly identifying an actual or postulated phenomenon exhibiting some form of causality, as well as defining what a ritual in question is supposed to do. They propose challenging questions that should be asked of every statement about ritual efficacy, including “Who or what is held to be efficacious in the ritual?” (efficiens), “What is held to be affected in the ritual?” (efficiendum), and “In what spheres or levels, and by what means, might a ritual be efficacious?”68 These are helpful and intriguing questions, applicable to Luther’s understanding of the sacraments. While the effectiveness of a sacrament may be perceived differently by an observer rather than a practitioner of the sacrament, even then, one could argue with Luther that a sacrament’s efficacy is not dependent on the personal piety, level of “faith,” or morality of the presider or recipient. Moreover, his insistence that the sacraments are efficacious in declaring a person forgiven and making a person righteous pose a challenge today in discovering how and in what way his claims are both viable and measurable. Do the sacraments actually do what Luther claims they do?

A second area of research identified by ritual studies and pertinent to Luther’s approach to the sacraments concerns their role in the formation of moral character by its participants.69 While related to how one measures the efficacy of the sacraments, this area of research also provides interesting explorations of the relationship between “faith” and “works.” Luther assumed that participation in the sacraments would cause a person to be transformed by God, as the Holy Spirit works to make a person holy at the same time as it calls that person to service toward the neighbor. His continued emphasis on the transformative nature of God’s Trinitarian presence in the sacrament for the individual has often overshadowed the communal nature, and impact, of the sacraments in his thought. An examination of the sacramental liturgies that were prepared by Luther70 might draw out some very interesting insights into the role the sacraments play in forming life in community. This research might also provide new avenues of exploration into how an emphasis on his understanding of the communal nature of the sacraments might shift some of the focus away from the emphasis on the gift of the forgiveness of sins and onto a renewed appreciation of the unifying of the community through a common gift of meaning.

Further Reading

Barth, Hans-Martin. The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Chemnitz, Martin. Ministry, Word and Sacraments: An Enchiridion. Edited by Luther Poellet, Jacob Preuss, and Georg Williams. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2007.Find this resource:

Durheim, Benjamin M. Christ’s Gift, Our Response: Martin Luther and Louis-Marie Chauvet on the Connection between Sacraments and Ethics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Gregorsen, Niels Henrick, Bo Holm, Ted Peters, and Peter Widmann, eds. The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.Find this resource:

Jenson, Robert W. Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Mahnke, Jon M. Dealing with the Neglect of Word and Sacraments. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1979.Find this resource:

Peters, Albrecht. “Luther’s Sacramental Witness: Relationship to the Western Tradition and Internal Development,” In Baptism and Lord’s Supper: Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms. Edited by Albrecht Peters, 1–72. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2012.Find this resource:

Roth, Erich. Sakrament nach Luther. Berlin: Töpelmann, 1952.Find this resource:

Schwab, Wolfgang. Entwicklung und Gestalt der Sakramententheologie bei Martin Luther. Frankfurt: P. Lang, 1977.Find this resource:

Thiemann, Ronald F. “Sacramental Realism: Martin Luther at the Dawn of Modernity.” In Lutherrenaissance Past and Present. Edited by Christine Helmer and Bo Kristian Holm. Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte, 106, 156–173. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) For example: Ulrich Zwingli’s Fidei ratio, the Tetrapolitan Confession, the First Confession of Basel, the Bohemian Confession, the First Helvetic Confession, and Calvin’s Catechism, as found in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 1, 1525–1552, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2008).

(2.) Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 299.

(3.) Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 223–224. See also Albrecht Peters, Baptism and Lord’s Supper: Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2012), 51.

(4.) Oswald Bayer, “Die Reformatorische Wende in Luthers Theologie,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Werke 66 (1969): 144.

(5.) Dominic Holtz, “Sacraments,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, ed. Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 454.

(6.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (1520), LW 36:18 (WA 6, 501, 33–38).

(7.) “Commentary on Hebrews” (1517–1518), LW 29:123–124 (WA 57.3, 113.20–114.20). Cf. Augustine, “De Trinitate,” Book 4, ch. 3, para. 6, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st ser., ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), vol. 3, 72–73.

(8.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:67–69 (WA 6, 533, 14–535, 16).

(9.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:93 (WA 6, 551, 6–18).

(10.) Augustine, In Evangelium Iohnnis tractatus, 80.3., in Patrologia Latina, vol. 35, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Garnier Fratres), col. 1845.

(11.) Robert W. Jenson, “Sacraments of the Word,” in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 291.

(12.) Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book 4, On the Doctrine of Signs (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2010), d. 1, n.2.

(13.) Barth, Theology of Martin Luther, 224.

(14.) Michael A. Fahey, “Sacraments,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 270.

(15.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:18; 124 (WA 6, 501, 33–38; 572, 12–14).

(16.) “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” 13, 4, 11, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 301.

(17.) “Commentary on Genesis,” LW 5:249 (WA 43, 600, 25–26).

(18.) “Small Catechism,” 4.1–2; 6.1–2, in Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 359, 362.

(19.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:58 (WA 6, 527, 33).

(20.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:38 (WA 6, 513, 26).

(21.) “Romans Commentary,” LW 25:291 (WA 56, 204, 25–305, 2).

(22.) “Small Catechism,” 6.5–6, 362.

(23.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW36:51 (WA 6, 523, 16–19).

(24.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:81–82 (WA 6, 543, 12–15).

(25.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:84 (WA 6, 544, 26–27).

(26.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:92 (WA 6, 550, 25, 32).

(27.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:107–108 (WA 6, 561, 19–33).

(28.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:119–120 (WA 6, 570, 11–21).

(29.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:121 (WA 6, 570, 16).

(30.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:124 (WA 6, 572, 10–14).

(31.) “Small Catechism,” 4.1–2; 6.1–2; “Large Catechism,” 4.6–9; 5.1–9, in Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 359, 362, 457, 467.

(32.) “Baptism,” in The Lutheran Cyclopedia, ed. Henry Eyster Jacobs and John A. W. Haas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 3:38–39.

(33.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:92 (WA 6, 550, 7–13).

(34.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:96; 107; 118 (WA 6, 553, 9–13; 568, 11–14).

(35.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:61 (WA 6, 529, 36).

(36.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:36 (WA 6, 512, 26–35).

(37.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36: 29 (WA 6, 508, 17–20).

(38.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:91 (WA 6, 549, 30–31).

(39.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:107 (WA 6, 560, 21–22).

(40.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:94–95 (WA 6, 552, 12–13).

(41.) “Smalcald Articles,” 2.2.1–24, 301–305.

(42.) Peters, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, 9.

(43.) Augustine, In Evangelium Iohannis tractatus, 80, 3; in Patrologia Latina, vol. 35, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris: Garnier Fratres, 1845), col. 1840.

(44.) Peters, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, 7–11.

(45.) Peters, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, 6–7. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Opusculum de forma absolutionis § 674–719, in Opuscula Theologica, vol. 1, ed. R. A. Verardo (Turin: Marietti, 1952), 169–180.

(46.) “Lectures on Hebrews,” LW 29:172 (WA 57, 170, 2).

(47.) Augustine, In Joannis Evangelium Tractatus, 80, 3; 35:1840; Lombard, Sentences, 4, 5.

(48.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:62 (WA 6, 530, 12–18).

(49.) “Concerning Rebaptism,” LW 40: 239–240 (WA 26, 154, 1–30); “Constance Articles,” WA, Br 12, 166, 49–51. See also Gordon A. Jensen, “Luther and Bucer on the Lord’s Supper,” Lutheran Quarterly 27.2 (2013): 175–176.

(50.) Barth, Theology of Martin Luther, 221. See also Augsburg Confession, 5.1–4, 40–41.

(51.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:42 (WA 6, 517, 8–12).

(52.) Jenson, Visible Words, 5.

(53.) “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism,” LW 35:30 (WA 2, 727, 23–25).

(54.) “Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses,” LW 31:107 (WA 1, 544. 40–41).

(55.) “Defense and Explanation of all the Articles,” LW 31:12; WA 7, 316, 7–8).

(56.) “Treatise on Good Works,” LW 44:30 (WA 6, 209, 24–210, 9).

(57.) Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 299.

(58.) “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” LW 36:44 (WA 6, 518, 10–19).

(59.) “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” LW 37:300 (WA 26:442.23–28).

(60.) “Baptism Sermons,” WA 37, 647, 13; “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” LW 37:306 (WA 26, 447, 14–26).

(61.) “Confessions Concerning Christ’s Supper,” LW 37:366 (WA 26, 507).

(62.) Holtz, “Sacraments,” 452–453. Cf. Aquinas, Super Sent 4, d.1, q.1, a.4, qc.1, co.

(63.) Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther, 257.

(64.) “Small Catechism,” 6.5–6, 362.

(65.) At the 1963 Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Helsinki, for example, delegates were surprised to discover that a common definition of justification that spoke to modern society in a relevant way could not be reached. Jens H. Schjoring, Prasanna Kumari, and Norman A. Hjelm, From Federation to Communion: The History of the Lutheran World Federation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 377–380.

(66.) Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952).

(67.) Johannes Quack and Raul Töbelmann, “Questioning ‘Ritual Efficacy,’” Journal of Ritual Studies 24.1 (2010): 17.

(68.) Quack and Töbelmann, “Questioning ‘Ritual Efficacy,’” 18.

(69.) Mark Allman, “Eucharist, Ritual and Narrative: Formation of Individual and Communal Moral Character,” Journal of Ritual Studies, 14.1 (2000): 60–68.

(70.) For example, “The Baptismal Booklet: Translated into German and New Revised,” in Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 371–375; “The German Mass and Order of Service,” LW 53:51–90 (WA 19, 72–113); “A Short Order of Confession Before the Priest for the Common Man,” LW 53:116–118 (WA 30.1, 343–345).