Luther's Theology: The Sacraments

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs of union (Rom 6:3-5) and communion (1Cor. 10:16) with Christ. As a result, they signify union (1Cor. 12:13) and communion among believers as members of Christ’s spiritual body (1Cor. 10:17). Yet these symbols of unity have often become points of deep division among Christians. As the broad swath of Protestantism celebrates the 500 anniversary of the Reformation, beginning October 31, 1517 with the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 thesis, we recall Luther as a figure around which confessing evangelicals[1] can rally. Specifically, we celebrate the German monk’s courageous proclamation of the truth that sinners are right with God by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and his strong stance for the Bible as the supreme authority over all. At the same time, we cannot remove from our memories the sad division that arose among evangelicals over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Nor should we.[2] Serious points of disagreement remain with us today. However, in the spirit of this quin-centennial celebration, let me outline some key features of Luther’s doctrine of the two dominical sacraments[3] with which any evangelical will feel at home.

That there are such aspects to Luther’s understanding of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should come as no surprise given his status as a father figure to all Reformation Christians. Nevertheless, disagreement is exaggerated to the degree that it is typically given more attention than points of agreement. So where might you agree with Luther about the sacraments, even if you are not Lutheran? J. V. Fesko – who himself, like me, is not a confessional Lutheran, but a Presbyterian – provides a helpful introduction to Luther’s doctrine of the sacraments in his recent major survey of the Reformed doctrine of Baptism.[4] I’d like to draw from his treatment and interact with it in the space below.

Luther thinks of the sacraments as visible words. Fesko notes that Luther followed the medieval tradition going back to Augustine of defining the sacrament “as a sign of a sacred thing.” However, there’s a distinct timbre to Luther’s sounding of this same old tune, which fits his overarching theology of Sola Fide (faith alone) and Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), that is, his joining Baptism and the Lord’s Supper inseparably to the Word of God. Thus, he calls the sacraments “promises which have signs attached to them.”[5]  In Fesko’s words, this meant a movement from conceiving of the sacraments as communicating grace as “a substance infused” to thinking of them in terms of “a promise declared.” [6]

Since the sacraments are visible words, they must be joined with faith in the believer to benefit us. Grace cannot be conferred in the sacraments as if it were a substance in the kind of automatic way that marked the language of late medieval theology. Instead, the way we benefit from the sacraments is analogous to the way we benefit from the preaching of the Gospel. We hear preaching, we see and hear the sacraments (because the Word of God must always accompany the actions and elements of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and in response to both, we believe God’s Word and are thereby made partakers of Christ and his benefits by faith.[7]

Finally, in contrast to a Roman view of baptismal regeneration, Luther stressed that the benefit of Baptism is not confined to the moment in which water is applied. “Rather, because baptism is the visible Word of God, its effects are supposed to echo throughout a person’s life.”[8] Luther would have us return often to the privileges and responsibilities declared to us in Baptism, a notion compatible with the Westminster Larger Catechism treatment (Q&A 167) of “improving our Baptism,” by which is meant “serious and thankful consideration” of what it signifies. Perhaps it’s as we heed this call, that we will be better prepared both to address persisting doctrinal differences and rejoice in our like precious faith.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.

[1] For an explanation of what I mean by “confessing evangelical”, please see the “About” page for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals at Hereafter I will simply use the term “evangelical”, but mean the same thing.

[3] That is, those sealing ordinances instituted by our Lord Jesus himself and recognized by Protestants as the only valid sacraments.

[4] J. V. Fesko, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010).

[5] Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36.124.

[6] Fesko, 42.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Ibid., 46.


Steven McCarthy