What are Sacraments?
Lutherans are “sacramental realists,” meaning that we believe that God works in, with, and through tangible, physical realities (viz., water, bread and wine) to offer real transformative grace through the personal presence of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Thus, sacraments are symbols (signs of God’s love) but more than mere symbols, since real gifts are given to the recipient. Lutherans understand the sacraments primarily as “divine promises” from a gracious and benevolent God, who desires nothing other than the restoration, reconciliation, and flourishing of his creatures. Thus, Lutherans affirm the objective quality of the Sacraments, meaning that God is present regardless of the personal disposition of the recipient (that is, whether we come to the sacraments in joy or sorrow, anxiety or confidence, or even whether we believe Christ is present). We are called to faith – that is, trust – in God’s free and renewing presence and work within the sacraments.
The Lutheran understanding of Sacraments is described in The Augsburg Confession, written in 1530, as a short summary of the Christian faith:
“So that we may obtain this faith [in the justification of humanity by God’s grace through faith alone], the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effect faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ.”
Article 5, Augsburg Confession
“Concerning the use of sacraments, it is taught [among us] that the sacraments are instituted not only to be signs by which people may recognize Christians outwardly, but also as signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us in order thereby to awaken and strengthen our faith. That is why they also require faith and are rightly used when received in faith for the strengthening of faith”
Article 13, Augsburg Confession
How many Sacraments are there?
Historically, Lutherans did not find it important to fix a particular number of sacraments. In response to some Roman Catholic theologians who insisted on setting the number of sacraments at seven (this number was confirmed later for Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent), Lutherans replied:
“We believe that we have the responsibility not to neglect any of the rites and ceremonies instituted in Scripture, however many there may be. But we do not think it makes much difference if, for the purpose of teaching, different people have different enumerations, as long as they properly preserve the matters handed down in Scripture. After all, even the ancients [i.e., early Church Fathers] did not always number [the sacraments] in the same way” (Article 13, Apology to the Augsburg Confession).
Along with Luther’s Small Catechism, the Augsburg Confession (and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession) mentions three sacraments: Baptism, the Mass/Lord’s Supper, and Absolution/Repentance (see citation above).
The Lutheran tradition (following Luther’s later writings) began to see Confession & Absolution (i.e., Reconciliation) as a return to the promises made to us in the Sacrament of Baptism. Therefore, while the practice of individual, private confession was retained, the Lutheran tradition universally recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.