Question 292 in the Small Catechism asks and subsequently answers, “Why does the catechism include Baptism, Confession and the Office of the Keys, and the Sacrament of the Altar? (A) The Gospel is given to us in God’s written or spoken Word, especially in Absolution. (B) The Gospel Word is also joined to earthly elements in sacred acts that Christ has given—namely, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
As mentioned in a previous column, God likes to work through means, which we first see right at the end of creation. God is perfectly capable of caring for creation Himself, as Jesus makes evident in Matthew 6:25-31. Yet He still placed man in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it, as His means to care for creation. Who knows why God uses means when He could do everything a trillion times better by Himself? Yet in such means we see God’s gracious care and wisdom—He uses corporeal means because His creatures are corporeal beings. Therefore, that God uses the Word and Sacraments as His corporeal Means of Grace to deliver His grace to His people is consistent with His character; for Him not to work through means would be inconsistent, and God is immutable.
I also wrote about the difference between enthusiasm and extra nos in a previous column. Enthusiasts try to find God within themselves, but all they ever find is more sin and corruption, mistaking their emotional highs for divine experience with God. Luther argued that Adam and Eve were the first enthusiasts. Satan convinced Adam and Eve that God’s Word was not the sole source of goodness, but themselves. In other words, they should be enthusiastic about their own ability to discern good from evil, right from wrong, rather than God’s external Word.
All this [finding God in your heart] is the old devil and old serpent [Revelation 12:9], who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts. He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride [Genesis 3:2-5]… In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the papacy and Muhammed. Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself. God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word [Exodus 3:2-15]. No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments <or the spoken Word>.SA III, VIII, 5, 9-11
That “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments” is what we mean by extra nos (outside ourselves), meaning God reveals Himself to us outside ourselves, not within us. As the Lord proclaimed through Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Our emotions are not very reliable; and like every drug, all emotional highs wear off.
This is why we Lutherans emphasise the Word and Sacraments so much, because of our natural disposition to look to ourselves (navel-gazing) rather than God’s Word. Assurance of your forgiveness, life, and salvation is never in what you feel or experience but only and always in the external Word of God—what He says about you. In the beginning, when He spoke, “Let there be light,” there was light, so when the Word of God made flesh says, “You are forgiven” through the corporeal means of Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, you truly are forgiven. When you doubt this forgiveness, your conscience—your emotions—will convinced you you’re not. But the Means of Grace delivered to your ears (Absolution), over your body (Baptism), and into your mouth and stomach (Lord’s Supper) overturns this doubt. Even if doubts should still linger afterward, you can depart from the Lord’s Table knowing these thoughts have no power to undo what Christ has just spoken at the Sacrament of the Altar, or through your pastor, and at your Baptism all those years ago. For if your thoughts cannot undo the creation God spoke into existence, how could they possibly undo the forgiveness, life, and salvation God has just spoken into your very body?
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