We have hit an anniversary here at Thesis Thursday. Walther’s 1st lecture was September 12, 1884, and his 32nd lecture was June 19, 1885. Then apparently the seminary took a summer break, because Lecture 33 wasn’t until September 4, 1885, and Walther spends most of his time bringing a new crop of seminarians up to speed. Nevertheless, he does introduce a new Thesis concerning ex opere operato, and will give it more attention next week.
I have ever considered it my sacred duty, not only to present the pure doctrine in my dogmatic lectures according to the grace which God has given me, but I also deemed it necessary to find an hour at least once a week when I might gather the entire student-body of our beloved Concordia about me and show them the importance, the meaning, and the practical applications of the doctrines that are studied in dogmatics and, above all, cheer their hearts for their difficult calling. We call these Friday evening lectures, which form, as it were, the conclusion of the week’s instruction, “Luther Hours,” chiefly because in these lectures I let our beloved father Luther, the God-appointed Reformer and the common teacher of our Church, speak to you. God has hitherto graciously blessed these lectures; for my beloved students have gladly attended these evening lectures, and many of them have solemnly assured me that they have been benefited by them, that they have not only gained a clearer knowledge of the Christian doctrine, but have also been made more certain of the forgiveness of their sins, of their adoption, by God, as His dear children, and of their future blessedness. I cherish the hope that God will help also the students who just entered our Concordia and whom we welcome tonight to have the same beneficial experiences.
On the basis of twenty-five theses we started last year to discuss the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Five theses still remain to be discussed, and these are by no means unimportant. We must finish these before we take up another subject.
I hope that the students of last year will not consider it tedious if I read all the theses which have already been discussed in order that our new friends may know what the discussion has been about and how important the remaining theses are.
(The first twenty theses were read and briefly commented on.)
In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.
The grave error which is scored by this thesis is held by the papists, who teach men that they will derive some benefit by merely are still unbelievers, provided they are not actually living in mortal sins. That mere act is said to bring them God’s favor or make God gracious to them. They teach the same regarding the Mass and the Lord’s Supper, viz., that grace is obtained by the mere act of attending these rites. This impious and abominable teaching contradicts pointblank the Word of God, in particular, the Gospel, which teaches that aperson is justified before God and saved by grace alone, and that he cannot perform any good work until he has been thus justified.
Rom. 3, 28 Paul writes: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. If I am justified, if I obtain grace by my act of submitting to baptizing or by my act of going to Communion, I am justified by works, and that, altogether paltry works, scarcely worth mentioning. For that is what Baptism and Holy Communion are when viewed as works that we perform. It is a horrible doctrine, wholly contradicting the Bible, that divine grace is obtained if a person at least makes external use of the sacraments. The truth is that Baptism and Holy Commmunion place any person under condemnation who does not approach them with faith in his heart. They are means of grace only for the reason that a divine promise has been attached to an external symbol. Having water poured on me is of no benefit to me. Nor am I benefited by actually receiving the body and blood of the Lord in the Holy Supper. Yea, I am rather harmed by going to Communion without faith, because I become guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. It is of paramount importance that I believe, that I regard, not the water in Baptism, but the promise which Christ has attached to the water. It is this promise that requires the water; for only to it has the promise been attached. The same applies to the Holy Supper; it is impious to imagine that the act of approaching the Lord’s Table, doing something that the Lord wants done, is one more merit that He will have to credit to our account. The Lord says: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.” “Drink ye all of it; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for the remission of sins.” These words open up a heaven full of divine grace to the communicant, and to these words he must direct his faith. The mere act of eating the bread with the body of Christ and of drinking the wine with the bood of Christ produces no good effect in us. Grace does not operate in a chemical or in a mechanical manner, but only by the Word, by virtue of God’s saying continually: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” To this word I must cling by faith. If I do that, I can confidently meet God on the Last Day.
False teachers admit that preaching, unless it is received by faith, does not benefit the hearers, but rather increases their responsibility. However, they claim, the situation is different as regards the Sacraments, since these have, they say, this great advantage over the preached Word, that God operates with His grace through them whenever men merely use them. That is an impious doctrine, because the Sacraments are nothing else than the Word of God attached to a symbol. Augustine beautifully calls them verbum visibile, the visible Word. The Word of God does not benefit a person who does not believe. Even so an unbeliever is not benefited by going through the action of being baptized. When we urge men to believe in their Baptism, the meaning is that they are to believe their heavenly Father, who has attached such a glorious promise to Baptism. The idea that God is highly pleased when a person offers his head to have water sprinkled on it is an abominable misuse of the verbum visibile. As the Word does not benefit a person who does not believe, even so the Sacraments help only those who embrace them by faith.
Therefore the charge of fanatics that Lutherans do not urge conversion is baseless. The charge rests on the assumption that Lutherans teach men to rely on the fact that they have been baptized and received Holy Communion. But that is not at all what we teach. This is our doctrine: There is a certain promise of God attached to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which is to be embraced without doubting. That can be done only by men who have become poor sinners. To say to a person “You must take comfort in your Baptism” and “You must turn to Jesus Christ” is identical. A person may imagine that he is a believer, but a brief affliction will suffice to dissipate that notion. Only the Holy Spirit can give a person true faith.