Our Faith by Emil Brunner
Emil Brunner is one of the great systematic theologians of the early twentieth century. Our Faith was translated by John W. Rilling, and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1954. This book prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 29: The Sacraments
Even most good Christians do not know what to make of the Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. They are venerable customs which have always been performed by the Church, in which one takes part out of respect, or because they are here and are observed -- or perhaps simply out of habit, or "because it makes things better." In the cities, the neglect of the Lord's Supper is quite general. Often no more than a fourth of the many who throng the church on high festivals remain for the Lord's Supper. Are the Sacraments dying branches on the tree of the Church -- like so much that once was customary, but is now sacrificed to the times?
The Lord surely knew what he was doing when, on that last night, he said to his Disciples, "This do in remembrance of me." Without the Sacraments the Church would long ago have disappeared, and with the passing of the Church would have gone also Christian faith and the Bible. The Sacraments are the divinely given flying buttresses which save the Church from collapse. In how many of the Churches of today do we not find the Sacraments almost the sole biblical footing -- the only biblical element that has been able to withstand the caprices of the gifted minister who lives by his own wisdom rather than from the Scriptures. Even the most audacious minister has not dared to lay hands on the Sacraments. And they are what they are! One may so interpret the words of Scripture that the words speak the opposite of their intent; but the Sacraments, thank God, speak a language independent of the language of the Pastor. They are a part of the message of the Church least affected by theological or other tendencies; and that is their especial blessing.
Yes, the Sacraments have a message for us. God wants to speak to us in them. For once, however, He addresses us through the eye, instead of through the ear as in preaching, through an action instead of through speech. Thus we cannot have the excuse that since the concrete appeals to us more than the abstract we cannot understand the message of the Church.
The Sacraments are God's message for the eye, for the whole body. One eats and drinks, the whole man partakes of the Sacrament. It is, however, not eating and drinking alone, but surely solely and simply permitting God to say what He wants to impart to us, which is just nothing but the Gospel, laid hold upon at its heart in the message of the Cross. To receive and embrace God's Word in the Sacrament, this alone matters. God acts upon us in the Lord's Supper. As the Pastor distributes the bread and wine to you, God distributes His grace. He is present in this action -- whether the Pastor is a believer or not -- God is present therein in such a way as to be able to touch your heart, humbling and exalting you, bringing you to repentance and faith.
Why is it necessary to have this special way of speaking God's Word, if it still says nothing more than the sermon? Because in the Sacrament the Word seeks us in a different mode, and through a different channel, not with many words, but in an intelligible act. Above all, the consideration is important that you can have the spoken Word of God at home, not only in the Bible, since even the sermon is now being "delivered to your own home" as is everything else, by radio. This convenience may have many advantages. But one inherent evil develops almost of necessity; people do not come together to hear God's Word and to thank God for it in prayer and song. One becomes a private Christian, one does not know any more the meaning of Church, or the fellowship of faith. The fellowship of faith is, how- ever, an integral part of faith. It is possible to enjoy a work of art, a concert or a lecture, and be edified by it without the presence of any other person. Enjoyment and edification in these spheres do not require the presence of others. One cannot have faith alone. Indeed the aim of the Word of God is to conquer this solitude by leading us out of our isolation into fellowship with one another. God's Word and fellowship are inseparable. Therefore our Lord instituted the Sacraments that we might not make a private concern of His Word, but come together actually, not simply "in spirit."
The Sacraments bind us to the Church. They are acts requiring the presence of several; acts in which it be- comes clear that one receives God's salvation, yes, truly receives it through the mediation of a man. God wants to give us the highest gifts through men, that we in coming to Him, might also come to men. He wants to draw us out of our isolation and self-satisfaction. He wants to lead us to others in such a way that we perceive our need of them. Christians are men who have felt their need of others. So often it is just the "good" and "able" people who fail to see this. "I can get along by myself." It is just that which is sin, pride, and lovelessness. God did not create us to be able to get along by ourselves, but that we "should bear one another's burdens." The Sacraments are the buttresses which keep the Church from falling asunder because they do not permit a man to receive the salvation of God alone. Only in the congregation, only in confessing "I need the other man" shall you receive God's salvation. Otherwise you remain self-contained -- and unsaved.