What Is Church?

Paul Norris

This is a question I pondered recently when a non-denominational friend of mine and I were discussing contemporary music in church and he asked me if I had ever been to a Third Day concert. I replied to him that I had not, and then he proudly proclaimed to me, "You need to go to a Third Day concert. It's like going to church." Trying not to offend his sensibilities I quietly responded, "Yeah... I don't think that going to a Christian rock concert is going to church." He then asked me, "What is going to church to you?" I quickly responded in standard Lutheran sentiment and fired off, "Word and sacrament." This answer, of course, makes sense to me, but my friend quickly retorted, "Sacraments are things that people do." It became clear to me that there were some deep misunderstandings between us about what "church" is really all about, and what the true nature of the sacraments is.

I think a lot of the disconnect happens because the word "sacrament" is so closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church (RC), and often evangelicals have a knee-jerk reaction against it. While this desire to distance themselves from anything RC is understandable, it's not wholly correct. As it stands right now the RC church has seven sacraments: Communion, Confirmation, Confession, Baptism, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. However, in Lutheran theology, there are only three: Confession and Absolution, Baptism, and Communion.

I would like to address my friend's statement that "Sacraments are things that people do" first before I circle around and return to the initial question of "What is church?" It reminded me of a common criticism of the Lutheran faith—that we are somehow "Catholic-lite" and we "do things" (sacraments) in order to earn our salvation. Absolutely nothing about that statement or mindset could be further from the actual truth about the sacraments. We hold the Holy Scriptures to be God's Word and it clearly says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we cannot earn salvation through works: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." This we firmly believe.

The sacraments are not about what we, the congregation, are doing. Instead it is centered on what God is doing for us. Our only point of participation in the sacraments—whether it be baptism, absolution, or communion—is to receive the sacrament. In the sacraments, God tangibly touches us here on earth. In Holy Baptism we feel the water and, combined with the Word of God, we receive the forgiveness of sins and are made children of God. In confession and absolution, we confess our sin and, combined with God's Word, we hear and receive the absolution for our sins from our Savior Jesus Christ. In the Lord's Supper, with God's Word spoken and in the real presence of Christ in, with and under the bread and wine, we receive the blessings Christ in the elements.

There is a key component to the sacraments that perhaps you already caught onto here: God's Word. Without God's Word, these things—water, absolution, bread and wine—mean nothing. It is only when combined with God's Word that these things become sacraments. It is not anything the pastor is doing, it is nothing that the congregation is doing, but God, and only God working through His Word.

The Holy Spirit works exclusively through the Word and the Word in the Sacraments to give faith and salvation as we see in Romans 10:17 "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."

I think Romans 10:17 is particularly important because it clearly states that faith is not generated by the person, but rather by the Holy Spirit who generates faith from the very words of Christ. Without the words of Christ preached there can be no faith. It is in the Word and Sacraments that the Holy Spirit delivers all the gifts and treasures of our Lord Jesus, His blood, His righteousness, His forgiveness and eternal life, and all of our joy and comfort and peace.

This is why I have a hard time agreeing with the claim that a Christian rock concert is somehow "church." True, Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." It does not say where two or more are gathered in my name they are having church. When I pray with my buddies over a Dallas Stars pre-hockey game meal, we are gathered in Christ presence, but we are not having church.

The preaching of the Word and receiving of God's sacraments is not only an ancient tradition of the church, but an integral part of the Divine Service. The more appropriate translation of the German "Gottesdienst" is "God's Service," to us sinners through His Word and sacraments. The bottom line is that there is no substitute for the rightful preaching of God's Word, and God's Word alone. Nothing is more comforting and satisfying to us wretched wicked, sinful people than being convicted by the law and then set free and redeemed in Christ by the preaching of His Gospel. This continues when we receive God's blessings in the sacraments, through which we are brought everlasting comfort.

Paul Norris worked for ten years as a police officer, and now works as an administrative assistant at Faith Lutheran Church in Plano, Texas.

Created: April 12th, 2016