Avoid Sacramentalism in Ministry

Avoid Sacramentalism in Ministry

The local Moody radio station at one point dropped broadcasts of the Lutheran Hour, a long-time radio ministry.  It was a first-class communication problem.  Lutheran preachers of recent generations tend to emphasize Baptism as key to salvation.  Many Evangelicals reject the notion that sprinkling water on a baby could have anything to do with the individual’s relationship with God.

The communication error was with Lutheran preachers.  Many tend to emphasize Peter’ reference to how Noah and his family were saved through water, and “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you.”  They fail to clarify that it is the Word which saves you.  The water is a way of visualizing the Word.  Actually, it is the Holy Spirit working through the Word that does the saving.  According to the liturgical formula, “Almighty God has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins.”

In my circles I have observed among young pastors a growing tendency toward sacramentalism—treating the sacraments as more important than the Word.  This usually comes with the formula that the pastor’s job is to “preach the Word and administer the sacraments.”  God will take care of the rest.  Such a simplified view of the pastoral ministry!  

A favorite Luther quote in his times of personal turmoil was his exclamation “But I am baptized.”  This can be taken to mean he relied on the act of water baptism for his identity as a believer.  But what he was really saying is that God came to me.  God initiated my relationship with Christ, not I.  I don’t’ have to rely on my personal efforts to satisfy God.  What a relief!  This conviction that God out of his grace comes to me is fundamental to Luther’s whole theology.  This break-through is the theology that launched the Reformation.

The real issue for Evangelicals is the baptism of infants, something done by Christian churches since the beginning.  How can infants be saved without consciously confessing their personal faith?  In their view baptism is for believers only.  Behind this caution is lack of appreciation for the strong sense of church as a fellowship gathered by the Spirit.  

In my administrative days I would occasionally be asked to do a baptism for a colleagues’ baby.  I refused.  The whole theology of infant baptism only makes sense when it is done in a congregation that pledges to raise the child in the faith that has been confessed for it.  Key to understanding the difference between Evangelicals and Lutherans is that their fundamental theology emphasizes Reformed Behavior of individual believers.  Luther’s theology emphasizes Reforming the Church that at his time was in the grip of sacramentalism.

For theologian Walter Sundberg, the heartbeat of Luther’s theology is faith.  While baptism is valid because of God’s Word of promise, it is nevertheless misused if it is not received in faith.  He cites Luther’s position that baptism is worth nothing without faith but is like seals affixed to a letter in which nothing is written.  He who has the signs we call sacraments and has not faith has only seals upon a blank paper.  Sundberg declares we should not mislead people to believe that membership in the church is the automatic result of ritual activity.  

I personally believe Lutherans took a wrong turn in the 1950s when liturgical renewal gained traction among pastors and church leaders.  Significantly, the emphasis was on renewing the forms and rituals of public worship for the purpose of higher quality.  The roots of these rituals go back to the fourth century when the now-official Christian church began adopting the special rituals, robes and parades with incense of pagan worship.  Pagan worship was meant to impress the gods, so they would look favorably on human efforts.  Quality was important for that purpose.  Emphasizing those rituals led to the sacramentalism that forms were more important than the Word of God itself.

Liturgical renewal, I think, was a wrong turn because it emphasized forms instead of relationships.  The need today is to renew individual believers, especially those in traditional churches.  Personal renewal is the work of the Holy Spirit, and he works through relationships with other believers gathered around God’s Word.  Judging by the decline of so many highly liturgical churches, with a few exceptions, the Spirit is not working well through those forms in our times. 

In your church is the Word more important than the sacraments?

Scroll to Top