“Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, or else it’s a mortal sin.”

Dear Robert,

I’m really glad that you reminded me about your question. I have been intending to respond for awhile, but, alas, have not been diligent in getting around to my personal email — a frustrating phenomenon, to be sure. I don’t like how work makes email such a chore, such that when I’m done with work email, the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer. I’m working on being more scheduled about my time on the web so that I have time set aside on a daily basis for non-work-related stuff. In any event, I have time now to write, and I am glad for it. It is always pleasure to write to you.

You asked:

When this Pastor speaks about “that’s what Rome would say” is he referring to the Pope/Roman Catholic Rite?

The simple answer to your question is “yes.” However, let’s refresh our memories about just what it is that he is speaking of (original post here):

Part of our trouble in regard to appreciating the sacraments is that we approach them as law, as things we must do and keep in order to be saved. We tend to approach them as individual moments in time when we either obeyed God by our participation or did not obey Him by not participating in the sacraments. In some sense we can say that, yes, to participate is to obey and to refrain from participating is to not obey. But the participation or lack of it is not the source or nexus of our obedience. Our obedience is not found in doing these things but in the faith that draws us to them. The word of Christ brings about the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). If our obedience were in participating in the sacraments then we wouldn’t need faith, we would need only to participate in the sacraments. That’s what Rome teaches.

I can’t really address the point he’s making head-on, or, rather, it wouldn’t be that helpful for me to do so. What Pr. Lovett is ultimately speaking to is the distinction between the Lutheran and Roman understandings of “faith,” out of which nearly all other distinctions between the two traditions flow. This is something of a point of contention between our traditions — and that’s something of an understatement! It’s pretty much the reason for the Conservative Reformation.

I would be remiss if before I wrote my own little explanatory essay I did not first direct you to the official doctrine of the Lutheran churches on this matter, the unaltered version of which was promulgated as part of the Confessio Augustana (Augsburg Confession) in 1530, and then defended in a much longer disputation known as the Apologia Confessionis Augustanae (Apology of the Augsburg Confession) in 1531. Reading the relevant sections of these will provide an essential frame of reference. I’m not suggesting you should read these works in their entirety right now. While the AC is short enough to read all at once (it would probably take a half-hour), the Apology is close to a hundred pages long.

Here’s Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, “Justification.”

Here’s Article IV of the Apology, also on Justification.

If you can’t read it now (I hope you can at some point), here’s a bit from the Apology, Article IV, Sec. 43-47 that serves as a sort of synecdoche:

But since justification is obtained through the free promise it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise wherefore would there be need to promise? [And why should Paul so highly extol and praise grace?] For since the promise cannot be received except by faith, the Gospel which is properly the promise of the remission of sins and of justification for Christ’s sake, proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the Law does not teach. Nor is this the righteousness of the Law.

For the Law requires of us our works and our perfection. But the Gospel freely offers, for Christ’s sake, to us, who have been vanquished by sin and death, reconciliation which is received not by works, but by faith alone.

This faith brings to God not confidence in one’s own merits, but only confidence in the promise, or the mercy promised in Christ.

This special faith, therefore, by which an individual believes that for Christ’s sake his sins are remitted him, and that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled and propitious, obtains remission of sins and justifies us.

And because in repentance, i.e. in terrors, it comforts and encourages hearts, it regenerates us and brings the Holy Ghost that then we may be able to fulfill God’s Law, namely, to love God, truly to fear God, truly to be confident that God hears prayer, and to obey God in all afflictions; it mortifies concupiscence etc.

Thus, because faith, which freely receives the remission of sins, sets Christ, the Mediator and Propitiator, against God’s wrath, it does not present our merits or our love [which would be tossed aside like a little feather by a hurricane]. This faith is the true knowledge of Christ, and avails itself of the benefits of Christ, and regenerates hearts, and precedes the fulfilling of the Law. And of this faith not a syllable exists in the doctrine of our adversaries. Hence we find fault with the adversaries, equally because they teach only the righteousness of the Law, and because they do not teach the righteousness of the Gospel, which proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ.

And, yes, “they” and the “adversaries” refers to the medieval Church of Rome, which excommunicated Luther for preaching this doctrine. (NB: Luther is not the author of Augsburg Confession or its Apology, however: Phillip Melanchthon authored both. But entire kingdoms subscribed to the “Lutheran” confession — it was by no means an expression of mere personal conviction on the part of Luther.)

The foregoing selection highlights a number of Lutheran “differences”, such as the Law/Gospel distinction and justification through faith alone. These are more or less two sides of the same coin, and together they comprise the beating heart of Lutheran theology…

How’s that for a mixed metaphor? A coin is the beating heart of a theology. Wow. Moving on!

This same understanding of Divine Law, the Gospel, and justification by faith can be found in — indeed, is drawn from — the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (reproduced in full below):

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Sorry — I know that that’s quite a long lead-up.

As for the matter at hand, which is how Lutherans understand the sacraments generally as opposed to how Rome does:

The sacraments are pure Gospel. They are not Law. They are not obligations which we must fulfill. They are God’s gifts of grace to us. And what is this grace? His mercy and favor towards us. The forgiveness of sins, from which flows everything else.

Even as baptized Christians, we are as wounded beggars. Christ is a merciful Lord who would bind up our wounds, heal us, and give us every good thing. Why would we (again, I’m talking about us Christians) not come to Him? He wants to give us Himself in the preaching of His Word and in the blessed Sacraments. Why would we, who are his children, not come and receive Him? There is no other source of life for the Christian: Christ is the vine, we are the branches. And why do we come? Why do we go to Mass to receive the Sacrament? So we can say that we have performed our obligation or fulfilled our duty? No! We go because we are drawn by our deepest need — our need for forgiveness, healing, and the strengthening of our faith. We don’t even go to show our devotion to God — our devotion to God is not what matters here; rather it is God’s devotion to us, evidenced by the continued ministry of the Church which continues to deliver the life-giving Word and Sacraments to us. God is not impressed with or flattered by our piety. Reverence and piety are fitting responses, sure. But they’re not bona fides that we trot in front of God to show him what good Christians we are. We’re not good Christians. That’s why we’re at church.

So the Gospel is not a law. Christ did not bring a new set of regulations for Christians to follow (Lutherans would also demur from Rome’s teaching that the authority of the Bishop of Rome, or that of any presbyter/priest/pastor, to “bind things on earth” implies a power to make laws which carry the force of Divine Law, but that’s a conversation for another day). He came as the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He came to fulfill the Law perfectly in our place, because it is something that we will never be able to do. To this end, He came to suffer and to die, fulfilling the Law in extremis by paying the penalty in full for the sins of the whole world — yours, mine, and everyone’s; past, present, and future — enduring and taking upon Himself the infinite torments of hell. But these He absorbed. These He made finite. Death could not hold Him. God the Father accepted His sacrifice, and raised Him from the dead.

The Sacraments of the Church take this objective truth — what Lutherans call our Objective Justification — and bring it to you. Let’s just take the sentences I put down above. Let’s think of it this way. When you confess your sins and receive absolution, and when you receive on your lips the very Body and Blood of Our Lord, given and shed on the Cross (and to keep this in the context of the original piece) when anyone — adult or infant, for we are all as helpless babes before God — receives baptism, you know that…

Jesus came as the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God Who takes away your sin.

He came to fulfill the Law perfectly in your place, because it is something that you will never be able to do.

He came to suffer and to die, fulfilling the Law in extremis by paying the penalty for you.

He endured and took upon Himself the infinite torments of hell for you.

He rose from the dead for you.

Again, why wouldn’t a Christian want this? I mean…if all of that is true…why on earth, indeed, why the hell, would you not go to receive Christ where He has promised to be — in the Church’s preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments? “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (St. Matthew xi, 28). That’s a far cry from, “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, or else it’s a mortal sin.”

To willfully abstain from corporate worship and the Sacraments indicates a sickness of soul. It may indicate serious and potentially mortal sin, i.e. apostasy. But it is not itself a sin. Again, Pr. Lovett:

[O]ur obedience is an obedience of faith so that as Abraham was so we are: justified by faith. And this faith draws us to the sacraments so that we want to participate in them because of faith. So we can say – and should say – that participation and lack thereof is a good symptom of a person’s faith, but is not proof or disproof of it. Which is why your pastor will visit you (or ought to visit you) should you be a long time in participating in the sacraments.

Again, it all comes down to faith. Faith in the work of Christ is what saves us, not our own works — faith which trusts solely in the mercy of God. Faith which receives God’s Word, and trusts in it. Faith which hears the testimony of Scripture concerning sin and salvation, the full counsel of both the Law and the Gospel, and says, “Amen.” Faith which looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Obviously, if abject and unrepentant sinfulness characterize the life of one who claims to have faith — and if they not only abstain from but actually despise the Sacraments — then we have cause to doubt whether this is truly faith, same as we would regard any heathen person who has never even claimed to have faith. The ministers of the Church have a duty to discipline such erring Christians, to hold them to account, and, if necessary, excommunicate them from fellowship in the Sacraments until they repent.

Just so we’re clear, a Lutheran would reject that faith really means “faithfulness.” This is to make faith a work, and such is clearly not what St. Paul talks about in the foregoing chapter of Romans when he says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Indeed, this is one of two errors which I believe the Church of Rome commits in its understanding of faith: Rome tends to speak of faith as a) assent to the historical facts of the New Testament (as well as assent to whatever the Magisterium promulgates), and b) faithfulness in the sense of covenant-keeping, i.e. “God performed His part of the agreement; I need to hold up my end, or the bargain falls through.” I mean no disrespect by the caricature — in truth, I really don’t think it is a caricature.

For an excellent, well-written, and winsomely-expressed (how could it not be? The author is British) explanation of what a Lutheran really means when he says that we are “justified by faith,” read this piece: “Why Justification by Faith is ‘Not Quite Protestant,” by John Halton. Among other things, it explains how Lutherans are far, far away from generic Protestants.

This letter is now bordering on the absurdly long. Hopefully it wasn’t a waste of time. I do apologize for the length. I hope it’s at least somewhat lucid, and, barring that, at least enjoyable to read. I dunno — I sometimes enjoy reading the ravings of my friends.

Speaking of ravings, I will leave you with a few bits that I composed on this very topic over the past few years. Read them at your leisure. Or, since it’s a part of your tradition, read them as penance.

The Gospel and its discontents

We Call This Friday Good – 2011

My best guess as to why I’m not an Eastern Orthodox Christian (tangentially related)

Know that you are often in my prayers, Robert, weak and infrequent though they may be. Until we meet again, I remain

Sincerely yours,