There Are No Benefits Apart from Faith
I say ad nauseum that truth lies between two ditches. Last week I purposely steered toward one to highlight the objectivity of the Lord's Supper. This week I'm steering toward the other to highlight the subjective side of this Sacrament. There are no benefits here apart from faith.
Ex opere operato means literally "from the work worked". The year 2000 edition of the Book of Concord translates it "'by the mere performance of an act.'" Then it goes on to explain that it is "a formula used since the 13th century to describe the power of the external action in the celebration of sacraments" (Kolb ed, 46, fn. 75). And what's wrong with that? Don't the Words of Institution put the body and blood of Christ on our altar? Even if the pastor is a secret unbeliever or an impenitent sinner Christ gives what He says. Didn't we recite tonight that the words "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" along with the bodily eating and drinking are the main thing, singular, in the Sacrament? And isn't medicine still medicine and poison still poison whether or not anyone believes them to be? Insulin still lowers glucose and poison still pollutes apart from the faith of giver or receiver?
That is true about earthly medicine or poison, but Jesus' body and blood is the medicine of forgiveness, life, and salvation for those who receive them in faith and the poison of weakness, sickness, and death to unbelief. The teaching of ex opere operato denies this, and we reject it specifically saying, we "also condemn those who teach that the sacraments justify ex opere operato and do not teach that faith, which believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the sacraments" (AC, XIII, 3). Rome says anyone who says "that by the said sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred ex opere operato, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for obtaining grace; let him be anathema" (Trent, 7th, Sac. In Gen, Canon VIII).
Of course, you'll go home and Google the term and you will find this: "The phrase is commonly misunderstood to mean that the sacraments work automatically and independently of the faith of the recipient." Check their footnote for this. It's The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, a non-Catholic source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_opere_operato). However, follow their footnote 4. It's a Catholic source and says that Trent condemned the proposition "'That grace is not conferred ex opere operato'" stating that grace is always conferred by virtue of the rite performed. This is important because ex opere operato says what millennials like to say "It's all good." If by virtue of the outer work Communion is always medicine and never poison, then "ya'll come." Communion should be for all like flu shots are.
That's the ditch of objectivity; the ditch of subjectivity is that faith puts the body and blood in Communion; faith is the essence of the Sacrament. The Reformed 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith says "the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet as really, but spiritually present to the faith of believers" (29, 7). The 39 Articles from 1563 confessed by Episcopalians and Anglicans say, "The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper only in a heavenly and spiritual manner. The means by which the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is by faith." (XXVIII).
What gives Communion its essence, makes it what it is, is not the Words spoken by Jesus but the faith in the communicant's heart. No faith, no body and blood is present. No faith and nothing is received there so unbelief can't be harmed by taking Reformed communion. It's medicine for faith but it's not poison for unbelief. What the Reformed have is a Barmecide Feast. In The Arabian Nights a rich Persian offers a beggar an elegantly served meal on gold platters heaped with imaginary food urging him to eat as much as he wants (A Browser's Dictionary, 19). This is the make believe of childhood teas. Fine for children but not Christians.
There are no benefits in Communion apart from faith, but what's the harm in thinking your faith puts the body and blood there or makes the benefits present? Because then you have a Barmecidian Feast. Reformed people long for Christ's body and blood and the their churches say as long as their faith lifts up to heaven where Christ is, they have them. Lutherans who hold this error commune at Reformed altars who do not have and do not want Christ's body and blood in their time and space. They reason, "I know what Communion is." But your faith can't put Christ's body and blood where His Word doesn't put it any more than the beggar's faith could put food on Barmecide's platter.
Ah, but the Reformed say the Words of Institution. Yes, I've heard them in Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ, Non-denom, and Pentecostal churches. I said them as a child over the Welch's grape juice and Ritz crackers my mom gave me to play church with my sisters. What if she had given me bread and wine? If the Reformed have the body and blood, I would've too. But Christ's Words aren't a spell which work no matter who says them. A spell is spoken to a power or force. The Words of Institution aren't spoken to God but proclaimed to those present. They're words of promise to the Church. Just as the words of Baptism are given to the Church and so all Christians use to reject Mormon baptism because though they use water and the Triune name, they reject the reality of the Trinity. Reformed churches reject the reality of Christ's body and blood on their altar or in their mouth. Therefore, Confessional Lutherans since 1577 have denied they have them at all. We say the body and blood of Christ are present "unless they first change God's Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the Sacrament do They, indeed, have only bread and wine" (FC, SD, VII, 32).
Confessional Lutherans say that faith is the only way to receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Lord's Supper put there by Jesus' words "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." These are words of promise. The only way you can get the benefit of a anyone's promise is to believe their words. All the Sacraments work this way. Jesus promises that in Baptism is forgiveness, rescue, and salvation. He promises that Absolution is His forgiveness in the mouth of a man. And He promises here is His body and blood that was given and shed for forgiveness. When your sins sicken you, faith runs to the promise that the body and blood of Christ you eat and drink are the antidote. When your life feels old, long, and weary, faith runs to the promise that the body and blood of Christ are real life and in them you live. When the Devil asserts he owns you, faith runs to the body and blood in you and says: You have no part in Him.
The fact that God's grace, even God Himself, can be objectively present, yet do a person no good is seen in tonight's Passion Reading. If not Pilate, then surely the Sanhedrin and the soldiers beating, whipping, slapping Jesus, got His blood sprayed on them. Think of that: the precious, holy blood of God the Son that John says cleanses us from all sin spattered their hands, faces, and surely some tasted that blood that fills a fountain in "which sinners plunged beneath the flood lose all their guilty stains." Did it do them any good? If the objective blood of Jesus on you is only and always a good thing, then it must have.
The crowd called for the blood of Jesus, that covers the sins of the world, that is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, that appeases the damming wrath of God to be not only on them but on their children too. Well if ex opere operato is true, covered objectively by Christ's blood, they were all good. But 52 days from now they are going to be cut to the heart by Peter preaching, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." They didn't respond, "O that's good we already have His blood on us and our children." No Acts 2 says, "They were cut to heart" and said in a Fancy-like desperation, "Brothers, what shall we do?'"
The objective presence of Christ's body and blood is not automatically good. Simon of Cyrene was forced by the Romans to carry the cross God the Son would be lifted on to complete the redemption of the universe. Surely, Jesus' bloody back torn open again when they ripped the purple robe from Him, left blood on that cross. Surely, the holy sweat of Jesus which is sweet to sinners was on that cross too. But no mention is made of an instant conversion or benefit to Simon from coming in contact with the bloody sweat of the Savior. Then you've got the daughters of Jerusalem wailing for the bleeding, sweating, crying Jesus. You know how frenzied such scenes are. Jesus' blood, sweat, and tears had to have misted them. Voila they came in contact with the holy, forgiving fluids of Jesus so they received forgiveness, life, and salvation, right? So why were they warned of the impending judgment when it would be more blessed to be barren and dry, when men would beg for mountains to fall on them to hide them?
The Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world was objectively there; the suffering, sighing, crying, bleeding, sweating, damning, and dying He is doing in His flesh and blood is redemptive. Faith can say: there is the payment for my sins. There are my sins being carried away for good and forever by the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world. Faith can say though a thousand devils accuse me; though others won't forgive me; though I can't forgive or forget myself, there in Christ's body and blood is the answer to my sin and sinfulness. It is finished.
But where does what happened objectively 2000 years ago become mine subjectively in 2019? On this altar every Communion service the body and blood are here for you to receive the benefits they won. We confess in the Larger Catechism: "For here in the Sacrament you receive from Christ's lips forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God's grace and Spirit with all His gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils" (V, 70). Christ and only Christ puts the benefits here objectively by His Words of promise but only faith can receive them subjectively and beneficially. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Lent V (20190403); Lord's Supper III, Passion Reading 5