Standing on the Promises
Through eternal ages let His praises ring,
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing,
Standing on the promises of God.
Standing on the promises of God my Savior;
I’m standing on the promises of God.
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.
From R. Kelso Carter's "Standing on the Promises of God" (tune and full text here)
With this post I am beginning some selections from what I feel is Luther's perhaps most central, and certainly his most underrated work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (General introduction, with guide to the posts completed so far here). It was written in Latin in 1520, and is available in English translation most conveniently in the volume Three Treatises, along with his 1520 An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and his 1521 A Treatise on Christian Liberty. (Note, the version I am citing from is Muhlenberg Press's 1943 version; this appears to be out of print at present, but Augsburg Fortress has put a new edition of the three treatises into press here).
Before going on to his specific treatment of the sacraments, I wish to first set out how Luther views God's dealings with man, accentuating above all that all our saving dealings with Him come in the form of Him making a promise and us believing:
For God does not deal, nor has He ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise, as I have said; again, we cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the word of His promise. [Obviously, "deal" here means savingly, for God certainly gives us laws, but such laws do not and cannot establish a saving and loving connection with us.] He does not desire works, nor has He need of them; we deal with men and with ourselves on the basis of works. But He has need of this -- that we deem Him true to His promises, wait patiently for Him, and thus worship Him with faith, hope, and love. Thus He obtains His glory among us, since it is not of ourselves who run, but of Him who showeth mercy, promiseth, and giveth, that we have and hold every blessing. [Note the allusion to Romans 9:16 -- "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" -- and Luther's characteristic use of it, not as a proof text for predestination, but as speaking of faith over works.] That is the true worship and service of God which we must perform in the mass. But if the words of promise are not proclaimed, what exercise of faith can there be? And without faith, who can have hope or love? Without faith, hope, and love, what service can there be? . . .
For anyone can easily see that these two -- the promise and faith -- must go together. For without the promise there is nothing to believe, while without faith the promise remains without effect; for it is established and fulfilled through faith (pp. 150-151).
Earlier he had said,
For where there is the word of God who makes the promise, there must be the faith of man who takes it. It is plain, therefore, that the first step in our salvation is faith, which clings to the word of the promise made by God who without any effort on our part, in free and unmerited mercy, makes a beginning and offers us the word of His promise. For He sent His Word, and by it healed them [i.e. those who met Jesus in Israel]. He did not accept our work and thus heal us. God's work is the beginning of all; on it follows faith, and on faith charity; then charity works every good work for it worketh no ill, nay it is the fulfilling of the law. In no other way can man come to God and deal with Him than through faith; that is, not man, by any work of his, but God, by His promise, is the author of salvation, so that all things depend on the word of His power, and are upheld and preserved by it. with which word He begat us, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures (p. 147).
Note promise and faith is opposed to the other main model proposed of God's dealings with man, that of command and obedience, as well as to the idea of ritual transformation; that is, by simply participating in a ritual, we are transformed in our nature. Whatever the sacraments are, they must be, if they genuinely link God to man, neither a command to be obeyed in hope of reward, or a ritual to be undergone in hope of infused transformation, but rather a promise to be believed.
I have noted before Hermann Sasse's opinion that treating baptism and communion as two sacraments and then attempting to deduce their nature from this general category is a bad business, and the font of many errors. In the format of the Babylonian Captivity, which handles all seven of the sacraments recognized in the Roman Catholic church, one might think that Luther has surrendered to this mistaken methodology -- or perhaps that Sasse is being "more Lutheran than Luther."
But note that with this fundamental principle, sacrament as a category has already disappeared, because all of God's dealings with men are thus the same as a sacrament: being a promise received by faith. Luther starts off not asking "what is a sacrament?" and then trying to find how sacraments differ from preaching or the Bible; but rather starts off by considering first that baptism, the Lord's Supper, preaching, and the Bible, and so on are God's dealings with men. In that case, he asks what is the nature of God's dealings with men, confident that the sacraments, being such, will be found only as a special version of this general nature of God's dealings with man.
It is not often noted that promise vs. law is the fundamental dynamic in Paul's theology (of which faith vs. law is only an outworking). This we see in Romans 4:13-21 (I have bolded promise, faith, and law):
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect, because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all (as it is written, 'I have made thee a father of many nations') before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, 'So shall thy seed be.' And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
and in Galatians 3:14-22 (again with the three terms bold; note also that the dynamic here of covenant being by promise is closely parallel to how Luther will argue that the Lord's Supper, being Christ's last will and testament, is a promise that cannot be annulled by any law):
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us -- for it is written, 'Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree' -- that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, 'And to seeds,' as of many; but as of one, 'And to thy seed,' which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
But one could argue that promise vs. law is a dynamic solely within Old Testament Israel, in which salvation in Christ was still to come. Perhaps in the new covenant, the promise being fulfilled, God now deals with us by something other than promise. And indeed in some cases, Paul speaks of the promises being already fulfilled in Christ (e.g. in Romans 9:4 when he speaks of "Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises" or 15:8 where he says "Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers").
But promise is also the fundamental characteristic of the born-again in this covenant as well, as we see in many passages. This is so, both because the Gospel is still being proclaimed, as well as because the promised salvation is still not fully granted even to us who believe in Christ crucified. This can be seen in for example: Galatians 4:28: "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise" [note the tense are]; Acts 2:39 "For the promise [of remission of sins through baptism] is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call"; 2 Corinthians 7:1 "Having therefore these promises [of divine adoption], dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God"; and especially Hebrews where those of both the New and Old covenants live by the promise: compare Hebrews 4:1: "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it" and Hebrews 8:16 "But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (note again the link of promise with covenant) and elsewhere to the abundant passages in Hebrews 6, 7, and 11 that speak of the promises of the old covenant. Even the apostle John, who generally does not use the promise language, of course has the concept, as we see in 1 John 2:25 "And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life."
When Luther comes to the meaning of the Mass, it is this issue of "promise" (made in view of a gratuitous covenant or testament God makes with us) vs. "law" which is his fundamental issue. Compared to it transubstantiation, laity receiving the cup, or other issues are all secondary.