(Photo: Dan Delzell)
The season of Lent is once again at hand. It is observed by many Christians and receives special attention in Lutheran and Catholic circles. Traditions can often serve a good purpose in our spiritual lives. At the same time, they can also become entrenched in such a way that we are no longer able to view them objectively. The teaching about the sacraments is a good example of a church practice that can "take on a life of its own" after centuries of tradition. Where do the sacraments fit into the life of a believer? A Christian must be careful to view the sacraments through the lens of Scripture rather than only through the lens of tradition.
Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21) In other words, you will spend a lot of time thinking and talking about whatever it is you have made your treasure. Imagine someone having a treasure chest full of gold coins. What if he spent more time talking about the treasure chest than about the gold itself?
This can happen to any of us, including Lutherans and Catholics when it comes to the sacraments. They can get overly preoccupied with the treasure chest. It is an easy mistake to make. I have seen it firsthand. Some people spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Granted, those are important things which our Lord gave His disciples. They are signs and seals of the treasure. But they pale in comparison to the real treasure, namely, Christ Himself.
Obviously, there are many Lutherans and Catholics who love the Lord and who view the sacraments as a treasure chest rather than the Treasure. Not all of them, however, are able to make that distinction. Some of them have a pastor or priest who talks about the sacraments as much or more than he talks about Christ's death on the cross for our sins. Some religious leaders have been guilty of elevating a treasure chest above the Treasure.
How do you know if someone is thinking more about the treasure or the chest? Just listen to him speak. Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34) When individual congregations decide to form into corporate institutions, they can develop a self interest as an organization to promote the treasure chest at least as much as the gold. After all, they believe they hold the keys to the chest. No keys – no gold. But what actually gives us access to Jesus…is it only the sacraments of the church, or is it faith in Christ in your heart?
Lutherans and Catholics interpret the words of Jesus literally when He said, "Take and eat, this is my body." (Matthew 26:26) That eating and drinking happens only in those brief moments when a Lutheran or Catholic is attending communion. Is there anything in the Bible that shows how a person can enjoy that same treasure all day everyday?
Our Lord actually teaches that every believer eats His flesh and drinks His blood all day long. That truth comes as a surprise to some Catholics and some Lutherans. This eating and drinking happens through faith in Jesus and His death for us. Christ's words in John 6 are about faith and not about the sacraments. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53) Jesus told the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) The thief never attended communion. Therefore, Jesus' words in John 6 are obviously about faith.
Compare these two statements from our Lord in that chapter. "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40) After that Jesus said, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:54) Eating his flesh and drinking his blood happens through faith in Christ. Our Lord has only one body and it is His flesh that a believer "eats" through faith all day long, including the brief moment at communion. This eating does not involve chewing or swallowing, but it does involve faith.
So what is the treasure for a Christian? Is it the sacraments, or the Person of Christ? Many Catholics and Lutherans have not been taught that Jesus comes to live inside of every believer. They have simply been taught about the real presence of Christ when the priest or the pastor administers communion. But is the gold only available in those moments, or all day long for the believer? The truth is that the real presence of Jesus in the heart of the believer is the same real presence of Jesus at the Lord's Supper. If you are a Catholic or a Lutheran, please read that last statement one more time. If you embrace that fact, it can revolutionize your spiritual life.
Does the Bible really teach that Jesus indwells a person who is trusting in Him as Savior? Absolutely. How else could a Christian "eat His flesh" and "drink His blood" through faith? Notice how Scripture uses the word "in" to confirm that Jesus lives inside every Christian.
"But if Christ is IN you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness." (Romans 8:10)
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives IN me." (Galatians 2:20)
"….so that Christ may dwell IN your hearts through faith." (Ephesians 3:17)
"To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ IN you, the hope of glory." (Col. 1:27)
"Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is IN you-unless, of course, you fail the test?" (2 Cor. 13:5)
Am I in the faith? Is Christ living inside of me? Well….am I relying upon the Law to save me, or Christ alone? Do I trust in my works to save me, or the blood and righteousness of Christ? Here is a statement I shared in a sermon recently which deals with both faith and works. "For the Christian, your works are never even partly meritorious toward your salvation; your works, however, are part of the proof that you are a child of God." I was preaching on I John where we are told: "Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." (1 John 3:10)
Seeing "Christ for us" on the cross comes before having "Christ in us." When I sincerely turn away from sin in repentance and believe that Jesus died for me, Christ comes to dwell inside of me personally. The Holy Spirit leads the way as He too comes inside of me and makes my body God's temple. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" (1 Cor. 6:19)
Catholics and Lutherans take the words "is" and "body" seriously where Jesus said, "This is my body." (Matthew 26:26) As soon as a person takes our Lord's words about His flesh and blood in John 6 just as seriously, his eyes are opened to a Treasure that is not kept under lock and key by the church. The chest is actually opened the moment a person receives Jesus as Savior. "Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:12)
If "is" means "is" in Matthew 26:26, then "in" means "in" as seen in the aforementioned passages. (Roman 8:10, Gal. 2:20, Eph. 3:17, Col. 1:27, & 2 Cor. 13:5) You can't have it as literal in one place but not in another just to suit a denominational interpretation. Either Christ is present all the time for the believer, or never. This biblical truth concerning Christ's real presence is actually the key which unlocks the 24-hour a day Treasure for Catholics and Lutherans.
There are some leaders in certain religious institutions who have not yet discovered this key themselves. Even when hearing about it, some leaders seem to prefer that their members do not use this key. They seem afraid it will weaken a person's commitment to their particular institution and to their sacraments. In actuality, it strengthens churches rather than weakening them when people are taught the truth about the Treasure. It is liberating to know that Jesus is not locked up in a man-made treasure chest. That institutional approach acts as if the Treasure can only be accessed through the ministry of a pastor or a priest.
When the Christian doctrine of Christ's real presence is correctly understood as existing beyond just the sacraments, a church is moving in a biblical direction. A personal relationship with Jesus is a 24/7 reality. The sacraments were not given to provide institutional power and control to a religious organization. When that happens within an organization, a religious denomination is tempted to claim to be the only church that offers God's sacraments in the correct way. Do you know of a religious institution that claims to be the only Christian group that celebrates the Lord's Supper in the correct manner? Beware of such a claim. It is highly misinformed, and many have been seduced by this "elitist" attitude and teaching. Remember…it is the "Lord's" Supper, and it belongs to no one religious organization.
Some religious institutions turn Jesus into the treasure chest that carries the treasure of the sacraments. Those organizations perceive themselves as "the one true church on earth." Their followers are told that people in other Christian churches are not following Christ as purely as they are in their group. The truth is that millions of Christians around the world are celebrating the Lord's Supper in a God-pleasing manner. Jesus is dwelling in the midst of such gatherings and within the hearts of those who love others the way Christ first loved us.
Recently I discovered a wonderful statement of faith on the website for "The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland." Notice their belief that Jesus Himself comes to "dwell in our hearts." It reads, "We can receive the salvation that Jesus prepared by believing that He suffered the punishment for our sins. The faith by which the salvation is obtained is a gift of God. When we are convinced of God's grace and love, Jesus Himself comes to dwell in our hearts. Martin Luther taught that Christ is present in faith itself. So faith provides us with the salvation God has prepared." That is a terrific explanation of the truth. The reason Martin Luther taught it is because the Bible teaches it.
Every Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest would be wise to take the words of John 6 just as literally as they take the words of our Lord when he said, "Take and eat; This is my body." (Matthew 26:26) By doing so, they certainly run of risk of leading people to focus more on the Person of Jesus than on the sacraments of the church. That may lessen an allegiance to the institution, but it would bolster the faith and strengthen the commitment of Christians to their Lord and Savior in their everyday life. In other words, it would help them celebrate the gold 24 hours a day rather than focusing so many of their thoughts on the treasure chest.
Is it possible to have both a fervent love for Christ, as well as a deep appreciation for the treasure chest which our Lord gave His church as a sign and seal of the Treasure? Of course. There are Catholics and Lutherans who have both of those things. But what we have seen for centuries is that some Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors seem to talk a lot more about the treasure chest than about the constant indwelling of the Treasure Himself through faith. It is a matter of emphasis and a question of, "Where is the gold?" It all comes back to the words of our Lord: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)
Is it possible to honor a "doctrine of the sacraments" more than you honor the Lord Himself? Yes. When the sacraments are elevated to the highest position and when the church members are led to believe that all other Christians are misled when it comes to the sacraments. From childhood young people in these organizations are taught that people in all other Christian churches are not following what the Bible says about the sacraments. Unity in "sacramental doctrine" is placed as the highest goal. It is elevated even above unity in the Spirit which all Christians have through their mutual faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is one way the organization attempts to keep their members from leaving their institution.
Does your church emphasize the unity that all Christians have with one another, or does it emphasize the "sacramental unity" that only those in your particular group have with one another? There is no such division in the New Testament. The dividing line is between those who are "in Christ" through faith and those who are "outside of Christ" through unbelief. The other divisions are man-made and institutional.
Some religious leaders have been very intent over the centuries to make people afraid of stepping outside of their religious organization. That was never the way Christ or His apostles operated. They built up the kingdom of God rather than man-made institutions. Beware of "company men" in Christ's church who seem to promote their own particular organization above all else. They are serving their own interests more than the interests of Christ. Their treasure chest is not as bountiful as they imagine. Their organization is no better and their disciples no holier than many other Christian denominations and disciples. In some cases, their group is lacking the very essence of spiritual power it claims to possess.
These words in the book of Revelation are helpful to anyone who has focused more on the treasure chest than on the gold. "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see." (Revelation 3:16-18)
Regarding the Catholic "sacrament of penance," the Bible offers liberating wisdom in this area as well. We are told in James 5:16: "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." In other words, the same forgiveness from our Lord is available whether you talk to a pastor or a priest or any Christian for that matter. The quickest approach is actually to go directly to God Himself and confess your sins to Him. You receive the same forgiveness. Confessing your sin to another believer can be helpful when you are having a tough time trusting in God's forgiveness, but it is not a biblical requirement. Any church that requires it is doing so because they want you to believe that they hold the key to your treasure chest. That is not the case.
The chest is already open for the believer. It is not under lock and key. There are some Lutheran pastors and Catholic priests who may prefer that they be the only ones you come to in order to receive forgiveness. That is an institutional promotion but not a biblical teaching. It elevates the treasure chest rather than celebrating God's 24-hour a day Treasure in the heart of each believer. That mentality makes men slaves to a particular religious organization more than it liberates Christians to enjoy and experience God's Treasure 24/7. A daily celebration of the Treasure leads to daily obedience to the Master.
Forgiveness is found in Christ. If Christ is in you, the treasure chest is open right now even though you are not participating in one of the church's sacraments at this very second. Have you been enslaved to a religious "lock and key" mentality, or are you enjoying Jesus and His forgiveness every hour and not only during those moments at church? There is a huge difference between the two approaches. The religious experiences and preferences of your past do not have to determine your future freedom as you enjoy the Treasure which God has provided for the world and personally for you.
The moment we really see Jesus and place all of our confidence in Him and His sacrifice on the cross, we begin to celebrate the gold far more than the chest. It is the difference between having religion and having faith in Christ. One focuses heavily on a religious organization and on what only that organization can supposedly give us. The other focuses upon the Person of Jesus Christ. He transcends any one religious organization and every single religious group.
There are plenty of megachurches today that are at just as much risk of "tunnel vision" as some of the large religious organizations. The danger is everywhere, and especially where things start to get overly structured and organized around the name of one denomination or one congregation. Jesus didn't send His disciples out to build little empires. He sent them out to bring others into His eternal empire. True riches are found in Jesus and not in religious pomp and circumstance. The New Testament was simple in structure and powerful in spirit and love and unity among believers. New Testament Christianity is delivering the gold all over the world today. Are you "cashing in" spiritually on the abundance of Christ?
Do you find yourself thinking and talking more about your Lord and Savior, or more about your particular religious institution? Where have they led you to place your focus? The religious temptation is always to love and adore the treasure chest more than the Treasure Himself. It is a subtle shift in focus, but the outcome of such a shift produces an obsession that is far from subtle. If you feel that the sacramental doctrines of your particular religious organization are above this type of biblical scrutiny, then you are exactly the one I am hoping to influence and persuade.
A few megachurches act as if their pastor is above scrutiny. A few religious institutions act as if their sacramental doctrines are above scrutiny. In both cases, people suffer when they are led to blindly accept everything their leaders are telling them. The apostle Paul never encouraged such blind allegiance. "The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11) Now that's what it means to follow Christ rather than a "celebrity pastor" or a powerful religious denomination.
If you have been misinformed about the treasure chest of the sacraments, you are not alone. It's not too late to come out from under the delusion that your organization is the only one to "get the Lord's Supper right." Imagine how weak God's church would be if your denomination was the only one "getting it right" on earth today?