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.
The Law commands and requires of us what we should do; it is concerned only with our activity; it consists of demands, for through the Law God says, “Do this, don’t do that, this other I require of thee.” The Gospel, on the other, does not tell us what we should do or leave undone, nor does it require anything of us; but it turns this right about and does the opposite; for it does not tell us to do this or that, but bids us stretch out our hands to receive, saying, “Behold, dear fellow, this has God done for thee: He gave his Son to become flesh for thee, for thy sake allowed Him to be slain…
Show Me the Money
It is the usual attitude of the world today to treat the particular teachings and rituals of religions to be essentially a very nice “ornament” or layering over and above the moral core which constitutes the true “essence” of religion. People don’t really care whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed, or whether you believe that baptism saves or whether Christ is present in the Eucharist or in Apostolic Succession. These things are fine and good, if, and what a big if! If it leads you to good and moral behaviour. In short, I don’t care what creed you profess, as long as it leads to good deeds.
Under this scheme, religion is essentially like a convenient ornament, a rather aesthetically pleasing and “beautiful” way of describing or understanding some more substantive and fundamental non-religious common moral core, common to all mankind regardless of their religious profession or beliefs. Thus, the value of religious rituals and creeds are wholly derivative from its ability to foster or aid this “moral core” which all mankind share in. If a creed or ritual doesn’t lead to moral behaviour, then it is useless and meaningless, if it does, then well and good, just make sure you get the “true” core meaning of a religious creed or ritual.
It is rather curious the way Evangelicals would pretty much adopt the same attitude towards the sacraments and the ministry of absolution and preaching itself. That is, they tend to be rather fuzzy and ecumenical about sacraments and the liturgy, and they are pleased to entertain a plurality of different doctrines regarding it, as long as it leads you to more godly behaviour and good works. Thus once more, the meaning and value of the sacraments are wholly derivative and dependent upon its value to foster godly behaviour and bring about sanctification. Thus, the sacraments and preaching and absolution are merely a means to an end, they don’t exist for themselves, they exists only to lead to godly behaviour and to inspire good works.
Essentially, the grace of the sacraments and absolution given is like a loan which God lends to us, he pronounces forgiveness upon us, gives us communion, gives us his grace, etc, and then expects a dividend upon his investment and for his loan to be repaid in good works. One might wonder whether grace is still grace, a free gift made out of the goodness of God’s heart, if God expects it to be repaid! Thus, what is supposed to be an occasion of free grace, of a pure granting of salvation, a moment of pure love and promise, becomes instead a burden, a weight, an additional law. Participating in the sacraments and liturgy of the church now simply increases God’s and the world’s judgemental scrunity, who impatiently awaits for us to yield a profit upon their investment; watching us closely, demandingly, growing increasingly irate as we fumble and misuse the “investment” which we have received, just waiting to impose heavy interest rates and even more burdens should we fail to yield the profits they demand. And as we fall again and stretch out our hands for even more “loans”, they grow annoyed and seemingly more grudging with their loans. Eventually we might fear as to when might God finally lose his patience and shout, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!” As the Evangelicals would often put it, the service or the sacraments is when we “recharge” and “refuel” on God’s grace which we then go out to serve God in the world and do God’s work out there. Thus the “in service” recharging and receiving of God’s grace is solely for the purpose of turning it into good works out there, and if we don’t produce the profits, then the grace which God has given in the sacraments means absolutely nothing and is perfectly meaningless.
The Free Giving of Christ
But Christ treatment of the Lord’s Supper is in direct contradiction to this attitude. How does the Words of the Institution begin? … in the same night that he was betrayed. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, knowing full well that they were promptly going to betray and deny him after he has fed them. Under the Evangelical scheme, Christ’s actions here would be completely unintelligible. After all, the grace of the Lord’s Supper offered is for the inspiration and bringing about godliness and good works, but if it does not lead to that but instead betrayal and denial of the Lord, what’s the point of the Lord’s Supper? Why does Christ bother to still feed his disciples if this sacrament is not going to bring about any good works?
It is here where we begin to understand the free gift, the free and liberal grace of Christ, purely out of the goodness and love of which he was the very incarnation. Christ gave them his body, gave them his blood of the New Testament, because he loved them. There is no other reason. It is a free gift, not a loan which he expected some form of repayment or dividend or profit yield in good works or obedience. Christ loved them, because that’s who he is, and he gives the grace of his sacrament, because that’s the will of God the Father, to love his creations, his neighbours, his disciples, and yes, even his enemies who would soon betray, deny and reject him. He gives because he is the Giver and the Gift. He has no other motive, no other interest, no other purpose, then simply to obey the will of his Father, to love and to give.
Here we understand Luther’s strict distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the pure Gospel of Christ. The Gospel, the grace of Christ, the love of Christ, demands nothing of us, asks nothing of us, but it simply gives, it simply commands us to stretch out our hands and receive. It is not a loan but a gift, it’s value does not “depreciate” in relation to how well we subsequently behave after that, but it is good, pure and true, grounded upon love of Christ and his promise. Thus, the sacraments are for themselves, they are not means to the further ends of moral works or good deeds, they are the pure offering of the love of Christ, the life of Christ and the grace of Christ, their only end is to assure us and give us, the grace of God.
But this radical “Lutheran” understanding of the Gospel as a pure act of love and gift from God, with no strings attached, no loan repayment with no other interest, purposes or no expectations beyond itself, was too much even for Karl Barth, the great theologian of radical and sovereign grace, who complained,
According to [the Lutheran conception], which is generally spoken of as the only evangelical conception, revelation must be regarded as a cone with its point turned toward man and containing the intelligence that his sins are forgiven. Thus the point of revelation is identical with the Gospel, the glad tidings. The Law has a place before and after the Gospel- before it in order to terrify the unbelieving sinner, after it in order to guide the believing sinner- and hence it is only for the sake of understanding the Gospel that the Law has any place at all in revelation. Accordingly the real and primary attitude of man toward revelation, according to the Lutheran view, is an attitude of faith which confidently appropriates the divine response to human need. One might go so far as to say that this is an over-emphasis, made with that kind of impetuous willfulness which which is at once the secret and danger of Lutheran teaching in more than one place- an over-emphasis which cannot be substantiated either by the facts or by the Biblical testimony to the facts. The precariousness of this over-emphasis has long since been demonstrated, and, much as one may respect and admire Luther, we would do better not to go along with him in the theological ingenuity which he manifests here.
The Resurrection and Justification without Works
Thus as Barth complained, is such “pure” Gospel and grace any good? Are the Law and Gospel really so distinct? Isn’t the efficacy and meaning of the Gospel tied to our subsequent santification, etc? To our subsequent obedience to the Law?
Indeed, the same doubts may have occurred to the disciples after the death of Christ. Did Christ really give them his grace? When Christ proclaimed that their sins are forgiven, that his Kingdom had come amongst them, was it really true? Was it really good? Was his Gospel promises, his words, void by his death, nullified by our sins? Did he really love them, does he continue to love and forgive them, after they had betrayed, denied, rejected and had him executed? Or indeed was it a loan they had squandered, which shall never again be recovered?
But then He came back from the dead, he stood amongst those who have “squandered” his gift, those who have rejected and betrayed him after he has given his own body and blood, and he proclaimed peace to them, and once more broke bread with them as before. His promises is good. His gift was still good. the love and grace offered in the Last Supper was not in the least nullified, cancelled or diminished one bit by their betrayal, their rejection, their denial or their murder. ” “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32) And this prayer was answered. For Christ is their Justifier, not they themselves or their obedience. When Christ gave them his blood of the New Testament, this Testament was not ratified or made good by their obedience or good works or whatever, it was made good and came into effect when He died. And now Christ has returned back from the grave, from the aftermath of their wickedness and sin, to confirm his Testament, to make good his promises, and ultimately, to justify and establish them in righteousness. Theirs is a righteousness based purely upon faith in the promises of Christ without the works of the law, and Christ rose again, confirming his promises, his words, his love, that their righteousness might be established, and their whole persons justified.
Thus, the Resurrection is our justification, for not even our rejection or murder of the Lord could nullify his promises and love to us, and after having suffered at our wicked hands, he returns and continues to love us, his love and grace undiminished by our sins. Love is it’s own reason, it does not find its reason or justification or foundation in our subsequent moral improvement or good works; it is not we who must justify God’s love, but it is God’s love who shall justify us, for Love is it’s own justification, and God’s love justifies us without our own works.
Conclusion: Cranmer’s “Lutheran” Liturgy
I think one of the most unfortunate subsequent innovations of the Book of Common Prayer is placing the following prayer after the communion,
…And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…
which implication is that of a vulgar commercial transcation; after God has given us his grace in the sacrament, we must give back to him by offering ourselves as a sacrifice to do good and holy works, etc.
But in the first Book of Common Prayer, the 1549 version, Cranmer places this prayer before the communion after the offering of the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The meaning and implications are completely changed. This is the highly Lutheran understanding whereby our greatest, most holy and pleasing work to God, is faith, faith which recognises Christ as Mediator and Saviour, and which desires to receive Christ’s body and blood and salvation. This is the highest work and sanctification which we are capable of, to believe that Christ graciously offers forgiveness and salvation. As Philip Melanchthon argued in his article on Good Works,
… we teach that such virtues as calling on God, loving Him, and the like cannot exist in us unless our hearts are first raised up by faith through the Gospel, since as long as they feel God’s wrath, they do not believe that their prayers are heard, and they do not love God, as it is written [Rom 10:14]: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” Therefore faith must be present– faith by means of which we not only are raised up and recognize that God has been reconciled to us, and whereby, as Paul says [Rom. 8:15], “we cry, Abba, Father”; but by which we finally really call on God and love Him. This very faith is the foremost work and the foremost worship of God, because it recognizes Christ as our Mediator.
Thus, faith which believes that God is gracious and willing to hear our prayers through the mediatorship of Christ, that Christ graciously offers his forgiveness and salvation in the sacrament, this faith is the highest and greatest work which we are called to do, to simply believe that Christ loves us and desires to fellowship and dwell with us.
For this is the sum and entire meaning of the Gospel and the Sacraments: That God’s Love is it’s own Reason, and it is that Love which alone does justify us and ultimately, save us.