The Marks of the Church: The Sacrament of the Altar

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people in communion with Christ: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by the Sacrament of the Altar. Wherever it is rightly given, believed, and received according to Christ’s institution, there God’s holy people are. The Sacrament of the Altar is a public mark by which God’s people are made holy through the forgiveness of sins and nourished with the body and blood of Jesus which strengthen faith.

The Sacrament of the Altar is then the seventh and final mark of the holy Christian church. Wherever you see this Sacrament as Christ instituted it, know that the Christian holy people must certainly be there.

As with all the marks of the church, note the qualifying words. Not just any supper is the Lord’s Supper. Not just any supper is a mark of the church. The Supper instituted by Christ and rightly given, believed, and received according to Christ’s institution is a mark of the true church.

For His Supper, Christ did not institute a private mass for one priest to perform on behalf of the dead. Christ did not institute a sacrifice where His body and blood are offered to God over and over by a priest. Christ did not institute a free-for-all with crackers and grape juice that’s open to everyone or Corpus Christi parades where they parade around with the communion elements as if people benefit just from looking at them.

The church in Corinth thought that it was not a big deal to change around the institution of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. This resulted in people eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. It resulted in them being guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment on themselves, and being punished by God with weakness, illness, and death (I Cor. 11:27-30). Why did God deal so harshly with them? So that they would not be condemned with the world (I Cor. 11:32). God was disciplining them so that they would repent and not go to hell.

The Lord’s Supper can be received to great harm. This is because everyone receives the body and blood of Jesus, whether they believe it or not. Our faith does not make the Sacrament what it is. Rather’s Christ’s Word makes the Sacrament. When Christ says, “This is my body, and this is my blood,” that’s what it is whether or not you believe it. If you do not believe it, Scripture teaches, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11:29)

Further, if you are not repentant of your sins, you eat in an unworthy manner and will be guilty concerning the body and blood of Christ (I Cor. 11:27). Those who are not sorry for their sins do not and cannot receive forgiveness of sins. Those who have no desire to change their sinful lives with the help of the Holy Spirit do not and cannot receive forgiveness of sins.

For these reasons, the Christian church has always practiced closed communion. Out of love for those who do not believe Christ’s words or are openly ungodly and unrepentant, the church is not to commune them. It is not loving to give someone something that you know will harm them. It’s not loving to commune someone to his judgment. This is not just a congregational policy or a policy of our synod, but it is God’s command. We follow Christ’s commands concerning His Supper.

The question then is, how can the church practice closed communion, since we cannot examine someone else’s heart? How can we exclude the ungodly, unrepentant man who does not believe Christ’s words in the Sacrament if we cannot see his heart? The answer is by his public confession.

The clearest confession of what a man believes is belonging to a particular church. When someone is a member at a church, he confesses that he believes what is taught at the church. In order for you to believe what is taught at the church, instruction such as confirmation is necessary. Then, the man publicly confesses before the church that this is what he believes, and we take him at his word.

If someone is a member at a church of a different confession, then we must also take him at his word that he believes what that church teaches. If he belongs to a church that rejects some parts of holy Scripture, then we must take him at his word that he also rejects those same parts of Scripture.

Now, it is possible that someone belongs to a church without realizing that his church teaches falsely. Many false teaching churches hide their denial of God’s Word. We should pray for those Christians who belong to such churches, and commend them to God who works through His Word. We pray that they would drink the pure living water of His Word and not become poisoned by the false teaching of their church. But we must assume that their public confession matches the public confession of their church. We can assume that if only they knew the false teaching that they were hearing, they would quickly flee to a church that teaches the pure Word of God. But we must assume that their public confession is the same as their church’s. We cannot judge hearts and minds. We can only determine someone’s faith by his public confession.

In addition to one’s membership in a church is the outward living of a man. If a man lives contrary to God’s Word, not through weakness but through a refusal to amend his life according to God’s Word, we must assume that he doesn’t believe God’s word of forgiveness and newness of life. Such a man shows by his refusal to repent that he does not desire the very forgiveness of sins that is offered in the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, we must conclude that he would receive the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. To allow such a man to sin against the body and blood of Christ is far from loving. It is a hateful thing to knowingly give someone poison. Such would be the case if we were to give the Lord’s Supper to one who through his public confession denies God’s Word.

So, do you have to be scared about receiving the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? How can you be certain that you receive it for your good? This is where examining yourself comes in. In preparation to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, examine yourself to see whether you are sorry for your sins and desire with the help of the Holy Spirit to amend your sinful life. Examine yourself whether you believe in our Saviour Jesus Christ and His words in the Sacrament: “This is my body… this is my blood… for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28) He who believes in the Word of God that Christ offers Himself bodily through the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins receives exactly what Christ desires for him. He receives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He receives all the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross.

Christ instituted this meal as His last will and testament as He willingly headed to the cross. In these final moments before His arrest, His thoughts were for His church; for nourishing her and strengthening her through this sacred meal.

Thus, the Sacrament of the Altar is necessarily found in the Christian church. A Christian church is recognized as such because Christ’s Supper is found there as He instituted it. God’s holy people cannot be without the Lord’s Supper because through it Christ gives us His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, for eternal life, and for salvation. You can recognize the true Christian church because they don’t have their own-invented supper, but the Supper of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Marks of the Church: Suffering

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who suffer: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by suffering. Yes, I said suffering. The true church of God is recognized by the fact that she suffers. The other marks of the church are perhaps more understandable. The true church must have God’s Word and the Sacraments instituted by Christ. The church must have men administering Christ’s gifts to His people and people responding in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. But suffering? Is suffering really a mark of the church?

Certainly more popular is the preaching of the theology of glory; that preaching which says that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy; that preaching that says if you have faith, God will give you prosperity and wellness; that preaching which says you can live your dreams now and live your life to the fullest and make it last. After all, Scripture says, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Didn’t Christ suffer for me so that I don’t have to suffer?

It is true that Christ did suffer for you. He suffered for you so that you won’t suffer eternally in hell. But God’s holy people must suffer misfortune, persecution, tribulation, and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh. We suffer so that we would be conformed to Christ, our head.

You have undoubtedly heard and seen in all kinds of places that passage from Philippians which says I can do all thing through Christ. Athletes have it on their shirts. Mountain climbers have it on their gear. It’s on motivational posters in sales offices and other places to try to motivate people to accomplish something. Do you know the context of that passage? Do you know what the Holy Spirit was saying through the Apostle Paul? Saint Paul writes from jail, saying, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

The Apostle is suffering in jail, and the Philippian church is concerned for him. Paul writes that he is content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because he can do it through Christ who strengthens him. He can face suffering because Christ strengthens him for it. Not quite the stuff of motivational posters.

This Scripture passage doesn’t mean that you can become a professional ball player because Christ strengthens you to do it. It doesn’t mean you can scale Mount Kilimanjaro because Christ will strengthen you. It doesn’t mean you will be the top salesman in your office because Christ strengthens you. Christ has never promised these things to you or to anyone else. It means that you can be content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because you can do it through Christ who strengthens you. You can face suffering because Christ strengthens you for it.

Until Christ returns, the church of God will suffer at the hands of the devil, the world, and our flesh.

The devil will not stop harassing and persecuting God’s people. He will not stop prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. He will not stop causing strife and contention. He will not stop twisting God’s Word. He will not stop his temptations. The devil is the sworn enemy of Christ, our head, so he is the sworn enemy of us, the body of Christ.

The world will not stop its persecutions and attacks against the church. The world hates Christ’s holy people because the world hates Christ. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (John 15:18-21) The world will only stop hating us if we conform to the world and cease being God’s holy people.

Our sinful flesh will not stop its attacks and temptations either. Our flesh will not stop wanting things that are opposed to God’s will and commands. Our flesh will not stop its desires to conform to the world so that we would not have to face suffering. Our flesh will not stop desiring to jump headfirst into every temptation the devil and the world dangle before us.

The church suffers in these ways so that we would cling to Christ and the Word of God, and so suffer for Christ’s sake. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt. 5:11) First Peter 4[:14] says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” “Rejoice, insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” (I Peter 4:13)

No, this does not mean that suffering is pleasant, but suffering for the sake of the Gospel is an honour for Christians, who know that our Saviour suffered for us. This suffering tests the genuineness of our faith (I Peter 1:7) and helps kill our sinful flesh so that we might learn patience, humility, meekness, praise, thanksgiving, and gladness. We can rejoice in our suffering because it is momentary and not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

Suffering keeps us ever clinging to the cross of Christ. It pulls us away from worldly desires and gives us a desire to be with our Saviour in heaven. It crushes out idols and leads us to cling to the free forgiveness which Christ has earned for us. Suffering draws us to the Gospel and leads us to cling to the sacraments where Christ has promised to give us the medicine of eternal life.

It is a mark of the true Christian church that she suffers as Christ her Lord suffered. Where the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh are attacking, tempting, and persecuting, there must be the true Christian church; there must be God’s holy people. Where people suffer for the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, there is God’s holy people; there is the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Marks of the Church: Prayer, Praise, and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who pray, praise, and give thanks: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God. God has given the command to pray, and He has given His promise that He will hear the prayers of His people. Thus, the church prays. God has sent His only Son to die for our sins and He gives us eternal life, so the church praises God for His salvation. God has poured out on His church both temporal and eternal blessings, so the church responds in thanksgiving. Therefore, you can recognize the true Christian church by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God.

The church prays. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with lofty words of show. The church prays humbly, but with all boldness and confidence asking our heavenly Father as dear children ask their dear father. We can pray to God with all boldness and confidence because He has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. If even sinful fathers know how to respond to the requests of their children with good gifts, do you think God will do worse? If even sinful fathers won’t give their children things that are harmful, do you think God will give us what is harmful for us? Thus we can pray with all boldness and confidence. God will hear our prayers and answer in the way that is best.

The church praises God. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with empty repetitions of meaningless nonsense. A great problem in Luther’s day was that the church conducted worship in Latin, even though the common people did not know Latin. Even nuns and monks who memorized services never knew what they were saying, so Luther called it droning that is not prayer or praise to God because they could not understand what they were saying and consequently could learn nothing from it.

The church in our day doesn’t have that same problem. Rather, we have everything in our native language, but so much of it is nonsense that it might as well be in a foreign language since we can learn nothing from it. Many congregations have discarded the divine liturgy and replaced it with the weekly whims of a music band. The best hymns that point to Christ and His means of grace have been replaced with empty songs that emphasize feelings and emotions. The best hymns that tell us about what Jesus has done for us have been replaced with songs about us.

We also have not been immune to this, even though we have been working on learning good hymns and weaning ourselves off the empty sentimental stuff, but it is a work in progress. It is an important work in progress, however, because it is important what the church of God sings.

Hymns teach, so it is important what they teach. Our hymns of prayer are prayers to God, and it is important what we pray. Our hymns of praise and thanksgiving are prayers to God, and we need to remind ourselves why we praise God and why we give Him thanks. We need to pay attention to what the hymns teach. Otherwise, with some hymns, we will be tempted to just look at the number of verses and complain that the hymn is too long and it will feel like a chore and burden to sing it.

The church of God prays, praises, and gives thanks. We gather primarily to receive God’s gifts to us in Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar, but we also respond with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. If our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is a response to God’s gifts, it should sound like a response to God’s gifts; it should draw our attention to God’s gifts.

Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is not confined to the Divine Service, however. Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving also take place in the homes of the people of God, in hospital beds, in cars, wherever they are. First Thessalonians says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (5:16-18)

It is not easy to pray without ceasing. John Bunyan said, “Prayer will make a man cease to sin, as sin will make a man cease from prayer.” This is true. Sin is the reason why we don’t pray as much or as often as we should. When we fall into sin, we are hesitant to approach God immediately in prayer because of our guilty conscience. We struggle to pray to God for the removal of sin that our sinful flesh wishes to retain.

However, when we are in a continual spirit of prayer, we are always ready to pray. When good things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When bad things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When temptation comes, our first reaction is to pray. Prayer is critical for our relationship with God because it keeps Him and His will for us in mind, and reminds us that we are His holy people.

Only God’s holy people can pray. Romans 8 says, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” (v.14) How can someone pray to God when they do not know God? They cannot. Prayers to someone out there up high in the sky are not prayers to God. Only God’s children can pray to God.

Prayer is based on God’s promises in Christ Jesus. We can pray to God only through Jesus, because only He has died to forgive us our sins. We cannot pray to God on our own merits. The only reason why God hears our prayers is because our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. God hears our prayers because of Jesus, and only because of Jesus.

Thus, it is a mark of the true Christian church that she prays, praises, and gives thanks to God. These all flow from the forgiveness of sins that God’s holy people have. Because we are forgiven, we pray. Because we are forgiven, we praise God. Because we are forgiven, we give thanks to God.

The Christian holy people is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Where people gather to pray, praise, and give thanks to God according to His Word, there is God’s holy people; there is the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Marks of the Church: Consecrates or Calls Ministers

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people served by Christ through His called ministers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by the fact that she consecrates or calls ministers. Why is this a mark of the church? Because Christ instituted the office of pastor. There must be one who publicly and privately administers, gives, and exercises the Office of the Keys, Holy Baptism, and the preaching of the Word, those marks of the church that we have heard about in previous sermons, as well as the Sacrament of the Altar which we will hear about in Maundy Thursday’s sermon.

The church did not sit down in a council one day and decide that they needed to create an office or position of pastor. Rather, Christ Himself instituted the office of pastor. Ephesians 4 tells us that Christ gave not only the apostles, the prophets, and the evangelists of the past as gifts to His church, but also pastors (Eph. 4:8-11).

Why is a pastor a gift to the church? Because he equips the saints, he does the work of ministry, and he builds up the body of Christ are the reasons given in Ephesians 4 (v. 12). In other words, a pastor is a gift to the church because Christ gives His gifts through the pastor to His church.

Since the office of pastor was instituted by Christ, He is also the one who decides who can fill the position. First Corinthians 14 (vv.33-40) and First Timothy 2 (vv.11-15) exclude women from the office. First Timothy 3 excludes unsuitable men: those who are not above reproach, who are divorced, or who are not sober-minded and self-controlled; those who are not respectable, hospitable, or able to teach; those who are drunkards, violent, quarrelsome, or lovers of money; those who do not manage their household well or keep their children submissive with dignity; and finally, those who are recent converts or those not well thought of by outsiders (vv. 1-7).

While holiness of life is indeed expected of all Christians, there are special requirements for the office of the holy ministry. Christ does not want His sheep hurt or misled by the shepherds that are supposed to take care of them. Pastors who cannot teach God’s Word properly or do not set an example of good works and holy living can lead others into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Pastors are instructed to be an example to their flock in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity (I Peter 5:3; I Tim. 4:12). The church neither shall, nor can, tolerate public vices in her ministers.

Further, a pastor does not decide what to preach or what to teach. He may decide which text to preach on. He may decide which book of the Bible to study for Bible class. But God’s Word is God’s Word and that is what the pastor is to preach and teach. The pastor doesn’t decide what is right and wrong. He doesn’t decide if infants should be baptized or not. He doesn’t decide whose sins should be absolved and whose should be retained. He does not even decide who should commune and who should not commune. All these things have already been decided by God’s Word. The only question is if the pastor is going to be faithful to what God has called him to do as a steward of the mysteries of God (I Cor. 4:1), or if he is going to be faithless and serve his own belly (Rom. 16:17-18).

As it comes to preaching and teaching, Saint Paul instructs the young pastor Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (II Tim. 1:13) Scripture gives us a sound pattern of words. Don’t try to be creative. Preach the Word. Don’t try to be edgy. Preach the Word. Don’t try to entertain. Preach the Word.

Christ also instructs His ministers saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

Christ did not say teach them to observe those things that they want to observe. He didn’t say teach them those things that are socially acceptable and tolerable; those things that people don’t find offensive. Christ did not say teach them to observe what you think they should observe. Christ’s instruction and command is for His ministers to teach people to observe all that He has commanded. There is no picking and choosing.

How can Christ command such a thing? As He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He is the one with the authority. The church is His. The people are His. The pastors are His. Thus, what is taught by His pastors to His people in His church is up to Him, not to anyone else.

Christ gives such clear instructions for pastors to follow because He knows better than pastors. A pastor may have the temptation to let something slide or to avoid dealing with some matter because it is difficult and will cause conflict. “Maybe if I’m just friendly to them and ignore the obvious sin then I can win them over and they’ll repent.” Trust me, every faithful pastor in the history of the church has had the temptation to let things lie. Christ knows better. Christ knows better how to save than we do. Christ has given us His Word which leads to repentance and saves. A pastor’s friendliness will never save anyone, but the Gospel saves. Baptism saves. Christ saves through His means of grace.

Note Christ’s promise which He gives to His ministers and to His church, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Until the end of the age, that is, until the end of time, until the end of the world, Christ will be with His church. Christ will be in His church giving His gifts that He earned on the cross through His called and ordained servants.

Christ speaks His absolution through the mouth of the pastor. Christ baptizes in His name with the hands of the pastor. Christ gives His body and blood to eat and drink from the hands of the pastor.

Thus, it is a mark of the true Christian church that she calls pastors to faithfully preach God’s Word, exercise the Office of the Keys, and administer the sacraments. Where the church consecrates or calls pastors to faithfully give these gifts of Christ, there is the true Christian church. This must be so because Christ Himself gives His gifts through the office that He instituted to care for His people in His church.

Because Christ uses pastors to give His gifts of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, the office of pastor is necessarily found in the Christian church. A Christian church is recognized as such because Christ calls ministers to faithfully serve His people there by giving His gifts. God’s holy people cannot be without faithful pastors and faithful pastors cannot be without God’s people because together they are the church, the holy people of God. That is how you can recognize the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Marks of the Church: Holy Baptism

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear baptized saints: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Wherever Baptism is rightly taught, believed, and used according to Christ’s institution, there God’s holy people are. Baptism is a public mark by which God’s people are made holy and washed clean from sin and death, as we are made clean by the innocent, holy blood of the Lamb of God. Wherever you see the mark of Baptism, know that the Christian holy people must certainly be there.

Is Baptism, then, always certain? A controversy arose in the Early Church about the certainty of Baptism if performed by a bishop or pastor who denied Christ under persecution. A group called the Donatists said that if a pastor denied Christ under persecution then he does not have the Holy Spirit. If he does not have the Holy Spirit, he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to those he baptizes. If he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to those he baptizes, those Baptisms must be invalid. They thus questioned the validity of God’s Word and sacraments if administered by an unfaithful pastor.

This is a relevant matter for us today also. Today is a day of scandal, as we hear news of one pastor after another who has fallen into great shame and vice, even getting entangled in abominations that would make an unbeliever blush. Today is also a day of false teachings, as it seems like every other pastor speaks his own mind rather than the Word of God. A common question then comes up: “That pastor who has fallen into scandal baptized me. Is my Baptism valid? That pastor who now teaches something completely contrary to Scripture baptized me. Does my Baptism count?”

The answer is that you should not be concerned about the person who baptized you. Baptism doesn’t belong to the one baptizing, but to the one baptized. Baptism is given as a gift to the one baptized, not to the one who is baptizing. Baptism was instituted by Christ and has His command and promise, therefore it cannot depend on the one who administers it, as long as it is administered according to Christ’s institution.

If Baptism depended on the one administering it, you could never be certain that your Baptism is valid. You cannot see the heart or faith of the pastor who baptizes. Baptism cannot depend on the faith or piety of the one whose hands God uses to administer His gift. Baptism depends on the institution of Christ and His promises.

Luther writes that this is true even if the Gospel-denying pope baptized you himself. So long as Christ’s institution is followed, that water is used and you are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, it is a valid Baptism.

The Donatists were wrong in saying that if a pastor does not have the Holy Spirit then he cannot pass the Holy Spirit on to the one he baptizes. It is not the pastor who passes the Holy Spirit on to the one baptized. A pastor has no such power. The Holy Spirit is not at the pastor’s beck and call to come and go as the pastor sends Him. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, not the pastor. The Holy Spirit effects faith where and when it pleases God, and God has so decided that Baptism is an instrument through which He gives faith.

Further, you are not baptized in the name of the one who administers Baptism, but in God’s name. To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God Himself. Although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act (LC IV.10).

Baptism is valid if Christ’s institution is followed, regardless of the one who administers the Baptism. Therefore, in cases of emergency, anyone can administer Baptism. The pastor has no special power to make Baptism valid. It is God’s Word that makes it valid.

For proper order and administration, the church calls pastors to baptize, but where there is danger of someone dying without Baptism and a pastor is not immediately available, it falls on every Christian to step in and perform the Baptism. Because Baptism is a public mark of the church, such Baptisms will be reported to the pastor and recognized publicly by the congregation, but such a Baptism is valid and certain because it is God who Baptizes through human hands.

Baptism is therefore a mark of the church. You can recognize a Christian church because you find Baptism there; Baptism through which we are saved.

Scripture says, “Baptism now saves you.” (I Peter 3:21) Baptism saves because it delivers from sin, death, and the devil, and brings the baptized into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with Him forever. Baptism saves because it gives the forgiveness of sins that Christ earned by His death on the cross.

Because Baptism saves, it is necessarily found in the Christian church. A Christian church is recognized as such because the mark of Holy Baptism is found there. God’s holy people cannot be without Baptism and Baptism cannot be without God’s people because Baptism saves and thus creates and brings into being the people of God. So where Baptism is, there God’s people are, and where God’s holy people are, there Baptism is treasured and held like a most precious gift from God. That is how you can recognize the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Marks of the Church: The Possession of the Holy Word of God

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear possessors of the holy Word of God: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The most important mark of the Christian church is that it possesses the holy Word of God. Without God’s Word, there is no Christian church. What would be taught and preached in the church if we didn’t have God’s Word? We have nothing without it: nothing to say, nothing to hear, nothing to believe. God’s holy people cannot be without God’s Word and God’s Word cannot be without God’s people.

Jesus’ parable of the sower tells us that His Word will produce thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and hundredfold (Matt. 13:23). The Holy Spirit tells us through the prophet Isaiah that God’s Word will not return to Him empty or void, but will accomplish God’s purpose and succeed in the thing for which He sent it (Is. 55:11). So where God’s Word is, there the Holy Spirit is working through the Word to create faith; to make people holy.

We also know from Jesus’ parable of the sower that even though God’s Word will produce faith, it will also be rejected. Three quarters of the places where the Word was sown produced nothing. The devil comes and snatches it away. Tribulation and persecution cause some to fall away. The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the Word, and it proves unfruitful.

Fault is not to be found with the Word, however. We know that the Word works. The Word produces faith. The Word produces thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and hundredfold. Where God’s Word is, there His holy people are, even if intermingled among them are those who do not believe. Even if God’s holy people are small in number, where His Word is preached, heard, and believed, there God’s holy people are; there is the Christian church.

What happens if we have God’s Word but we neglect it? What if God has given His Word to us but we take it for granted, it ceases to be preached and heard, and it is not read or studied?

Luther gives a warning concerning this to his countrymen: “Beloved Germans, buy while the market is close at hand! Gather while the sun is shining and while there is good weather! Make use of God’s grace and Word while it is here! For you should know this: God’s Word and grace is a passing downpour, which does not return to where it has already been. It has been with the Jews; but what’s lost is lost, and they now have nothing. Paul brought it to Greece; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the Turks. Rome and Latin-speaking regions have also had it; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the pope. And you Germans dare not think that you will have it forever, for the ingratitude and disdain will not let it remain. Therefore take hold and hang on tightly, while you are able to grab and to hold. Lazy hands are bound to have a hard year” (Letter to the Town-Councilmen, AE:45, 351-352).

Written roughly five hundred years ago, Luther warned and predicted what in fact has happened in Germany. Their ingratitude and contempt for the Word of God has produced a society that is secular and godless. The state church in Germany, although Lutheran in name, has rejected the Word of God and they follow the world, their sinful flesh, and the devil. Like Greece, they also now have the Turk, as Muslims have overrun Germany and increased by 22% over the past couple years with mosques popping up left right and centre.

This warning is also for us here in Canada. We have received the downpour of God’s Word and grace. Will ingratitude and contempt for God’s Word let it remain? The membership in our own church body is dropping significantly every year. We see among us in this congregation the membership dropping as people stop attending, and as we have many funerals every year and almost no Baptisms. Our country is also starting to get overrun with Muslims and their mosques as they come here and have children while we Canadians prefer money, careers, and pets to children, and either have them contracepted or murdered.

Is this a call to take hold of God’s Word and hang on tightly, while we are able to grab and to hold? Yes, it is. Is this a call to repent over our ingratitude and contempt for the Word of God? Yes, it is. Is this a call to panic, fear, and despair? No, it is absolutely not!

We have God’s holy Word, and where His Word is, there His people are. Small in number? Maybe so. Increasing in age? Maybe so. Decreasing in number? Maybe so. But God’s Word cannot be without His people. Where His Word is preached, heard, and believed, there God’s holy people are; there is the Christian church.

God’s Word is so powerful, that even in heterodox church bodies where they do not teach God’s Word in its truth and purity, God can and does still have holy people. Even under the pope, who denies the Gospel and raises himself above the Word of God, even there, wherever God’s Word is believed, God works through His Word and saves people in spite of the pope’s best efforts to lead them to hell.

The Word, the Word, the Word is what has the power to save. The Word has the power to save because in the Word and only in the Word do we know of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. Only in the Word do we hear the Gospel that our sins are remitted for the sake of Christ’s death for us. The Gospel is God’s power to save (Rom. 1:16) and we know the Gospel only from God’s Word.

The Christian church does not exist apart from the Word of God. Faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Those who do not hear cannot believe (Rom. 10:14).

Yet, in those who hear and believe, God’s Word produces thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and hundredfold. The Word of God is so powerful that it has wrenched you away from hell and its prince, the devil. The Word of God has produced faith in your heart so that you know all of your sins are forgiven. The Word of God is so powerful that on the Last Day it will raise you to eternal life as surely as it raised our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from the dead.

The most important mark of the Christian church is that it possesses the holy Word of God. Without God’s Word, there is no Christian church. God’s holy people cannot be without God’s Word and God’s holy Word cannot be without God’s people, so where God’s Word is, there His people are. Where God’s Word is, there is the Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).