“Concord” is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers’ knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them “with one heart” to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.
The Mass, Part 2
There were a number of abuses of the Mass, that is, abuses of the Sacrament. In the service itself, there were prayers and ceremonies that presented the Sacrament of the Altar as a sacrifice that the priest made to God on behalf of the people. The canon (order) of the Mass turned the gift of God into the work of men. And the words of life, the words with which Christ instituted the Sacrament, were lost in a jumble of works-righteousness. These errors were corrected in Martin Luther’s revision of the Mass, first in 1523 with a revision in Latin, then again in 1526 in the German language. These orders of service preserved what was good and eliminated anything that suggested God’s gift was a sacrifice we offered. Above all, the words of Christ were highlighted as the proclamation of the Gospel, which is received in eating and drinking the Sacrament.
One widespread abuse of the Mass was the practice of private Masses. In a private mass, a priest would conduct an entire communion service by himself in a private chapel. No one would be present to eat or to drink except the priest. These were thought to merit God’s favor on behalf of people simply by the execution of the ceremonies. They didn’t even have to be there. People could even have a priest say a Mass on behalf of someone else (either living or dead!) for a fee. Not only was God’s gift turned into a work of man, but they had put a price on what God gives freely.
The practical changes that the Lutheran reformers made were grounded in theological convictions. They didn’t change worship on a whim, or because it had become stale and outdates. Their revisions of worship were for the sake of the clear proclamation of the Gospel.
“But Christ commands us, Luke 22:19: This do in remembrance of Me; therefore the Mass was instituted that the faith of those who use the Sacrament should remember what benefits it receives through Christ, and cheer and comfort the anxious conscience. For to remember Christ is to remember His benefits, and to realize that they are truly offered unto us. Nor is it enough only to remember the history; for this also the Jews and the ungodly can remember. Wherefore the Mass is to be used to this end, that there the Sacrament [Communion] may be administered to them that have need of consolation; as Ambrose says: Because I always sin, I am always bound to take the medicine. [Therefore this Sacrament requires faith, and is used in vain without faith.]” (Augsburg Confession XXIV.30-33).
The Mass, or the Sacrament of the Altar, was instituted for faith, and so it requires faith to be used properly. The worship of faith isn’t that we offer works to God, but rather that we receive gifts from God. The Sacrament is a gift that bestows the benefits of Christ’s death—forgiveness of sins—which cheer and comfort anxious consciences.
You can read the Book of Concord at https://www.bookofconcord.org
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.