—By Fredrik Sidenvall
Translated by Bror Erickson
Martin Chemnitz, like Martin Luther, has at the heart of his doctrine the discovery of the certainty of salvation. Torbjörn Johannsson explains in his insightful and inspiring doctoral dissertation how Martin Chemnitz in his great work “Examen concilii tridentinii” criticizes the Council of Trent for its decision that says that no one, “with the certainty of faith that cannot be mistaken is able to know that he receives the Grace of God.” The decision of Council of Trent will have the effect that “when men hear that even he who holds to Christ’s promise must remain in uncertainty they will begin to gather together all their works. Not content with the deeds that God orders in his commandments, they will instead turn to others like the invocation of the saints, supererogation, trading in indulgences, masses and merits. When these works still don’t give comfort during temptation, one has purgatory. Chemnitz calls the uncertainty taught by Trent a ‘horrible slaughter of conscience.’”
If we then turn to what Chemnitz expressly writes about the sacrament in his theological handbook, “enchiridion,” we see plainly where he puts the emphasis. This book is formatted like a catechism with questions and answers. Question 215 asks, “What is the essential thing that must be shared for it to be a sacrament of the New Testament?” Chemnitz’s response reads “Two things. First an external visible element or sign in a certain external ceremony or act, established and instituted by Christ through a special word and express command and which is bestowed upon the whole church with the purpose that it should be used to the end of the age. The second thing needed is a word or promise of grace united with the element in this act, namely (the word which says) that the sacrament was instituted by Christ with the purpose and benefit that through them with exterior means and visible witnesses he will hold forth, apply, bestow, confirm and personally seals to those using them in faith the promise of grace that is otherwise proclaimed and offered in the gospel to everyone in general.” Then he continues to describe the sacraments as weapons against spiritual terror in his answer to the question, “For what reason does Christ establish the sacrament of the word?” Answer: “So that our weak faith would be maintained and preserved in this manner, because our senses cannot so easily hold to the bare and naked word and firmly trust in it. For even if one does not mistrust the gospel’s universal promise when one listens to them, so it is yet so with a conscience that is disturbed plagued by temptations, that it usually falls into doubt as to whether the general promises also belong to and encompass him, and if he can and ought to apply them to himself. Therefore Christ who is rich in mercy has instituted external and visible sacraments to help our damage in this area; through these sacraments as such open and conspicuous testimony, he would deal with us and in this way as through such a highly secure seal and declaration testify that he certainly applies, confirms, and seals the gospel promises individually for those who use the sacrament in true faith.”
To this I will add that Christ has given us the sacraments even as weapons against the type of spiritual terror that is exerted by the spirit of lawlessness, he who wants to lull a man into a false security. At the entrance into God’s kingdom and to the Sacrament Christ’s word remains clear: repent and believe in the gospel, Mark 1:15. In Baptism the bubble of false security is burst when a sinner is crucified with Christ and the old man is killed and buried. To be dead is really a very good reason to not work in the service of sin. When our old employer calls us to work, a Christian can calmly answer: I am sorry I can’t work today, you understand I am dead, so I have to stay home with my Savior. In connection with the Sacrament of the Altar the apostles admonish us: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world”(1 Corinthians 11:28-32 ESV). Through self-examination and confession the enemies first strategy is fought, and the conditions of false security are broken in repentance.
Naturally, this should not be understood and applied in such a way that souls believe that degrees of their repentance are a prerequisite for the effect of the Sacraments or for the right to apply the gospel to themselves. It should destroy all. The mere desire to flee God’s wrath and receive God’s blessing instead, the desire receive life instead of death, is indeed sufficient incentive to accept the gospel. Tom Hardt helps us understand this when he writes:
“When the fathers of the Lutheran Confessions want to summarize the difference in the faith that had arisen, they said, ‘Leo X’s bull had condemned a very important teaching that all Christians ought to hold fast to and believe, namely that we shall trust that we have been released, not on the basis of our repentance, but upon the basis of Christ’s word:’ “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). Here in this bull, which in fact is the Roman Institution’s condemnation of the Lutheran congregations as heretical, a chasm opens that separates faith from unbelief according to the Lutheran Confessions. Here the Roman teaching lays emphasis on human effectiveness in confession, namely the good works (penance) while for the Lutheran all emphasis is laid upon faith in the sacrament being instituted by Christ, he who gave the authority of the keys to the apostles . . . This Roman instruction that points to preparation must consequently also teach that because no one knows his own position, all forgiveness is also uncertain . . . What Rome never understood, and still doesn’t understand, is that the gospel (in all its forms) is God’s power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). In the perfect sacrifice that the gospel proclaims there is an eternal righteousness won once and for all, and when the Gospel comes to us in the Sacrament or in any other means of grace it requires faith and nothing but faith . . . This directs attention to the word that the pastor takes in his mouth and the sacrifice that he holds in his hand, and frees a person from all thoughts of effective preparation, the depth of repentance and a successful communion. The thought of successful communion, successful confession that always leave the individual floating between hope and despair, is replaced by the rock solid word, a sure release and the superabundant atoning sacrifice.” (Reference)
Here we see plainly that the point with the means of grace is certainty of salvation and victory over the monster of uncertainty, the worst of all terrorists. Against this background we can see the importance of first understanding communion in a sacramental manner as God’s perfect gift to us and not primarily in a sacrificial manner as our imperfect gift to God. It also stands clear that truth of Christ’s body and blood actually present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper can never be emphasized enough, because it has a direct existential impact on the souls, namely this blessed certainty of participation in Christ’s eternal and perfect sacrifice.
The basis for Luther’s boldness in the area of conscience through faith in grace and the means of grace is his boldness in the area of truth. The boldness in the area of truth has its basis in that scriptures are true and clear. Luther writes: “All the points of Christian doctrine must be such that they are not only fully certain in and of themselves but also confirmed by such clear scriptures that they stop the mouths of all.”
Contrary to many who have argued that Luther was estranged from dogmatic teaching and the authority of scripture, Luther says: I will hold fast for all eternity to what I have taught up to now, and say that whoever teaches otherwise or condemns me, he condemns God himself and must remain a child of hell. For I know that my teaching is not my teaching.” When Martin Luther stepped before the Diet of Worms with the whole world against him and spoke the powerful words “Here I stand, and I can do no other so help me God,” that was the church speaking with boldness.
This boldness is grounded in the clarity of Scripture, in a pure and clear gospel and objectively effective means of grace.
As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy