My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Sacraments and Forgiveness:
Q: Do the sacraments forgive the sins of everyone who participates in them, or only for those who trust in Jesus for salvation? If someone who is not a Christian receives the Lord’s Supper, do they still receive the Body and Blood of Jesus?
These are questions that have been on the minds of Christians for a very long time. Nearly 500 years ago, during the life of Martin Luther, and during the next generation of Christians, these questions were especially being considered carefully by Christian theologians.
In that era, it was being taught by many religious leaders that the sacraments were effective ex opere operato, which means “by the doing of the action.” Essentially, this teaching meant that the sacraments accomplished their work as long as the action itself was performed properly, regardless of the spiritual state of the person receiving the sacrament. The implication of this would be that if a person was Baptized, Confirmed, received Communion, or any of the other Sacraments, it was taught that they did receive grace and forgiveness, even without possessing true faith in Jesus.
The Lutherans, while they agreed that the Sacraments forgive sins and deliver God’s grace, disagreed that it did so ex opere operato. Instead, they taught that the Lord’s Supper only forgave the sins of those who had faith in Jesus, and that Baptism could no longer be said to save a person who had later departed from faith in Jesus.
The Sacraments are vehicles for delivering the grace of God to humans, but they are only effective in doing so for persons who trust in Jesus as their savior. For all others, the sacraments do not forgive sins.
In the particular case of the Lord’s Supper, the Lutherans did teach that everyone who participated in the Lord’s Supper received the real body and blood of Jesus. However, the Lutherans disagreed with the teaching of others of their time in a significant way.
The Lutherans concluded that, while true Christians receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of their sins, if a non-Christian or a false Christian were to receive the Lord’s Supper, they would be receiving the body and blood of Jesus as condemnation and judgment against them rather than for their forgiveness and salvation.
Because the body and blood of Jesus become present in the Lord’s Supper by the power of God’s Word, the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood is not dependent on the worthiness of the person receiving it, but while the Bible does teach that the sacraments deliver God’s grace and forgive sins, it is also very clear that without trust in Jesus, they do not accomplish the purpose for which they are intended. Therefore the sacraments do not forgive the sins of everyone who receives them, but only of Christians—that is persons who trust in Jesus alone to forgive them and save them.
Christians are not saved by the Sacraments, as if they were a good work which we could do to please God. Instead, Christians are saved and forgiven through the sacraments, as vehicles through which the grace of God, purchased by Jesus in His crucifixion, are delivered.