The Theology of Martin Luther

By Paul Althaus; Robert C. Schultz | Go to book overview
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GOD CONFRONTS us in his word. We receive and accept his word in faith. God deals with men within the context of this correlation between the promise of the gospel and faith. And Luther understands the sacraments within this context1 This determines the evangelical character of his doctrine of the sacraments. We shall demonstrate this first in terms of the sacrament's relationship to the gospel and then in terms of its relationship to faith.


For Luther, a sacrament consists in the combination of the word of promise with a sign, that is, it is a promise accompanied by a sign instituted by God and a sign accompanied by a promise.2 This means, first, that a sign or a symbol by itself is not yet a sacrament. Luther explains that every visible act can naturally mean something and be understood as a picture or an analogy of invisible realities. This is not enough, however, to make a symbolic act into a sacrament.3 The symbolic act must be instituted by God and combined with a promise. Sacramental character ultimately depends on the presence of a divine word of promise.4

1 “For it is not a sacrament unless it is expressly given with the divine prom-
ise which demands faith, since apart from the word which promises and faith
which receives we are not able to enter into any kind of relationship with
God.” WA, Br 1, 595; S-J 1, 264.

2 “But our signs are sacraments as well as those of the fathers, and have
attached to them a word of promise which requires faith and cannot be ful-
filled by any other work.” WA 6, 532; LW 36, 65. WA 6, 572; LW 36, 124.
Luther frequently quotes Augustine's rule: “When the word is added to the
element it becomes a sacrament [Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramen-
,” e.g., WA 30I, 214; BC, 438.

3 “We have said that in every sacrament there is a word of divine promise, to
be believed by whoever receives the sign, and that the sign alone cannot be a
sacrament… but figures or allegories are not sacraments, in the sense in which
we used the term.”WA 6, 550; LW 36, 92.

4 “For to constitute a sacrament there must be above all things else a word
of divine promise, by which faith may be exercised.” WA 6, 550; LW 36, 92.


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