CORE VALUES FOR CHRISTIANS: Using the Sacraments Properly, by Rev. Alan J. Wollenburg

Pastor Alan Wollenburg writes a series of articles that have been published in his newsletters on the “Core Values for Christians”. Here is one of them; we may publish others over the next few months.

NOTE: This “blog” is the length that it is because I have limited myself to preparing these posts first for publication in our parish newsletter. It is my sincerest desire that the members of our congregation will learn to rejoice in the Lutheran Confessions, for these confessions truly present a clear confession of the historic Christian faith to our world today. May you also be blessed, dear reader!

The Augsburg Confession
“Chief Articles of Faith”
Article XIII — The Use of the Sacraments

Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Therefore, we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith, which believes the promises offered and set forth through the Sacraments, is increased (2 Thessalonians 1:3).

Therefore, they condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify simply by the act of doing them. They condemn those who do not teach that faith, which believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the Sacraments. +

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ our Lord . . .

Truly, one of the “core values” of the Christian life is that we learn to realize that God’s Sacraments are gifts which He has given to us and which He Himself uses to forgive our sins and thus grow our faith. By these gifts, which are His “visible Gospel,” He grows His holy church. Thus, it behooves us use them as God intended them to be used, for their salutary (the good of our souls) purpose.

+ + + ARTICLE XIII: The Use of the Sacraments

“Pastor has been bugging me to go to Communion, so I guess I’ll go to get him off of my back.”
W R O N G!

“Well, now that we have a kid, i guess we ought to go and get him baptized. Then maybe everyone will quit pestering us about it.”
W R O N G!

If you do not know why those two statements are wrong, please go read Article XIII of the Augsburg Confession at the very beginning of this blog. Please try to read it closely.

+ + + Ever heard of: “Ex opere operato?”

It’s a Latin phrase. Sorry, sometimes I can’t resist using the Latin because that is how it was taught to me. It roughly translates to mean, “Just because you did something it was good for you.” It’s pronounced: “ex oh-per-eh oh-per-ah-toe.” The reformers decried those who attended the Lord’s Supper, for example, in an “ex opere operato” way. Reflect with me on the problems with it, please.

+ + + BAPTISM “ex opere operato”

BAPTISM “ex opere operato” is like when parents bring their child to the church and have the pastor baptize him. They make a big deal about finding some people to be “sponsors.” Then they take a couple of pictures. Then they leave, never to bring that baby back to the Lord’s house ever again; or, they will only return the child to the Lord’s house in such a haphazard way that the child will learn that worshiping God is not something to be valued. They may rationalize their action in a variety of ways; in fact, they usually rationalize their sinful action in a number of different ways.

They say: “He’ll cry and be distracting to others during church so we’ll just leave him at home until he’s ‘older.'” But then, too often, because the child is never taught about how to act in worship, he is a full grown child (or even young adult) before he is brought back to the Lord’s worship. By then, he knows that if he acts up he probably will not have to stay and learn to worship, so . . . you know the rest of that story.

Sometimes parents say that “While he’s a baby I can’t get anything out of church anyhow, so we’ll all just stay home until he’s older.” It’s a tad more self-centered reason, and the result is the same, of course.

Or, what of the person who, at a certain point in his life, decides to get baptized “just to be sure that I’m ‘covered.'” But, after the baptism, there is given no thought for growing up in Christ our Savior, and the person is never to be seen again.

In all of those cases, if nothing changes, are those persons “saved?” We do NOT presume to answer that question since it is God Who alone searches every heart. Nevertheless, we do know that God does NOT want a person to be baptized ex opere operato. Rather, He wants us to teach our children that their baptism means that they are His children and that they are to grow up in Him. He wants us bring children to His house to learn of Him. He wants parents to have family devotion time in their homes. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) links “baptism” and “teaching;” one should not be done without the other.

+ + + THE LORD’S SUPPER “ex opere operato”

Because we are human, and because we are sinners we always want to “turn the tables” on the Lord it seems. Our motive is not necessarily that we want to maliciously attack our Lord; we just tend to do that until we learn to think quite differently (and one of the reasons for going to Church, attending Bible Classes, having daily devotions, and even reading the church newsletter is that we learn to think differently!). We “turn the tables” on the Lord, as it were, by taking His gifts and turning them into things which we must do rather than receiving them as gifts from His hand of grace.

When we begin to think of Holy Communion as something which we must do for the Lord, we stand in grave danger of turning the Lord’s gift of His body and blood given to us poor sinners for the forgiveness of sins into things which we imagine that we ought to do for Him. Sometimes we get this impression when we misunderstand what our pastor says when he says, “You really ought to go to Communion a lot.” The rest of what the pastor should say is “. . . for you and I are poor, miserable sinners who sin every day, lose sight of God’s mercy and love, and start to believe the devil’s and the world’s lies as our faith in Christ our Savior wanes. Jesus has taught us to receive His body and blood ‘often’ because this is one of the ways in which He forgives our sins again and restores faith to our weary hearts.” Or something like that.

Attending Holy Communion ex opere operato would be, as examples: not examining ourselves prior to coming to the Sacrament but just going to Communion with little thought to either our sinfulness or Christ’s forgiveness; going to Communion “because if I don’t, Pastor might come calling on me;” thinking that we ought to have Communion because we have somehow earned or deserved it; and so on. . . .


Answer: like a grateful beggar receives a wonderful meal. In fact, when Dr. Luther was known to remind people of how they/we stand before God when he would say, “Wir sind alle Bettler.” Translated, “We are all beggars.” Frankly, that is a wonderful picture of how we “do” evangelism: we do not try to manipulate others into believing in God; we do not try to trick them into coming to church; rather, we are like one beggar telling another beggar where the free lunch is!

The right way to receive baptism (for you, if you have not been baptized, or for your child if s/he has not been baptized) is simply in faith to receive what God mysteriously gives. Then, gratefully, spend the rest of your life learning what it means that you have been adopted into the family of God.

The right way to receive Holy Communion (if you are reading this and you are not a Christian or a Lutheran Christian or you are a lapsed Lutheran and you wonder if Baptism and Communion are for you and yours, call me up, it’s what I’m here for!) is to simply receive Christ’s own body and blood given and poured out for you for your forgiveness. Don’t let your questions get in the way. Don’t let your sins get in the way (confess them — see me about that, too 🙂 ).

As little children gratefully receive wonderful things from their parents (and even come to expect those gifts!), so the Christian receives Christ’s life-giving gifts, and even comes to learn to expect all good things from the Lord’s hand.


May it be that we will so study Scripture that we learn to receive God’s Sacraments in a right way, for our souls’ good. We want to receive His gifts properly since we know that disdaining His gifts or receiving them in some arrogant way can bring harm to our souls (really — but rather than stay way to prevent that, see me!). May the Lord bless you, in Christ, to receive His gifts properly, for your soul’s good!

In Christ, + Pastor Wollenburg

NOTE: In Concordia The Lutheran Confessions A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, there is this “forward” which is intended to help first time readers of the Augsburg Confession understand the context in which it was written:

“God gives the Sacraments to His people for their forgiveness, life, and salvation, and this happens as they call forth trust and confidence in Christ, the Savior. By the sixteenth century, the Roman Church had developed a complicated sacramental system that had transformed the Sacraments into meritorious works, performed by priests, This was esxpecially evident in the Mass, where priests “sacrificed” Christ again and again on behalf ot he living and the dead. The Bible, however, reveals the key to the Sacraments: the promises of God. God attaches His Word of promise ot the element of the Sacrament — water, wine, or bread — and gives and strengthens the faith of those receiving them. (See also Ap XIII).”

(Source: CONCORDIA The Lutheran Confessions A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. p. 64. © 2005, CPH, St. Louis, MO.)

Originally posted on the Wittenberg Trail.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


CORE VALUES FOR CHRISTIANS: Using the Sacraments Properly, by Rev. Alan J. Wollenburg — 12 Comments

  1. I’m confused about baptism ex opere operato. Your examples concern the parents of the infant, not the infant. The infant cannot be taught about Jesus. But we teach baptism gives the infant faith, forgives its sins, and saves it from hell. That happens regardless of the parents’ beliefs. Even if the parents are atheists and presenting the infant as a ruse, the infant receives faith, does it not?

    When you connect teaching to baptism, you undercut the basis for infant baptism. Baptism is effective without teaching, otherwise, we would not baptize infants. Of course, the infant may grow to reject that faith without teaching, but that is not to say baptism is without effect if the parents do not intend to teach the infant. If we wanted to make sure the person baptized would not later reject the gift of faith, we’d wait until the deathbed and make it a last rite.

  2. Boaz — my reading of it is .. the baptism is effective, there’s no question of that. But the parents are the ones who bring the kid to be baptised, and if they don’t care about it .. if it’s just something “good” they know to do .. and they aren’t going to follow through on the vows they make during the baptism to raise the kid in the church, then the baptism is done for the wrong purpose on the parent’s side.

    The kid gets the effect, and it will follow him/her through life, but without being raised in the church he is missing being introduced to the joy of learning about and worshiping our Lord.

    We all know parents like this .. as well as parents who never show up after the kid is 12 or so, and then the kid doesn’t show up after confirmation.

  3. I’m gonna ask this, knowing what comments will follow, but here goes. Who is to instruct & teach the parents of these kids, so the parents in turn can train a child in the way they should go, so they will not turn from it when they are older? Responsiblity for shortcomings, isn’t all at the feet of the parents now is it? We have classes for just about everything, but baptism? You teach parents, then they can teach their kids, no class, no baptism. Then parents will know what precepts there are. We don’t do that why? We complain why?

  4. Dear Boaz: Thanks for your comment. What you share is indicative of how very easy it is for any of us to become confused about Baptism. Respectfully, when you say that the infant “cannot be taught about Jesus,” you leave much room for error and misunderstanding – it’s VERY easy to do. Teaching is done in all kinds of ways; for a child, most teaching is done by the child simply observing things. S/he is taught of Mom’s and Dad’s love as s/he experiences that love. S/he learns of Jesus as s/he experiences Jesus in the Word of God to which s/he is exposed (privately and publicly).

    It is not permissible for us ever separate baptism from teaching. The reason for that is, simply, because the Lord Himself, when He gives us Baptism, connects the baptismal rite with teaching ¾ in fact, He makes no distinction between the two. There is, in my opinion, far too much (intentional or not) parsing of Matthew 28:18-20 ¾ Jesus plainly says “Go . . . and make disciples . . .” and His modus operandi for making disciples is: “. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (ESV) To separate the rite of baptism from the teaching is to deny our Lord’s own words.

    I do not believe that I am undercutting the basis for infant baptism; I am only repeating the Lord’s command and invitation. The one who separates baptism from teaching is the one who is undercutting baptism. An analogy from nature would be the sad case of the mother of gives birth to her child and then decides that her job is done: she never feeds, clothes, provides hygiene for, or nurtures her child. We would all properly call that child abuse (or abandonment), for that truly is what it would be. Similarly, to baptize without raising the child in the holy faith (no praying with that new, no worship attendance, no reading of the Word) is to make the dreadful mistake of separating the rite of baptism from the teaching. Spiritual abuse? I should think so, though I am not God to judge the heart, of course.

    Does the child receive the Spirit’s gift of faith in baptism? Yes. If the child is not brought to worship, taught God’s Word, etc., at what point does the child lose faith? We do not know. The work of faith is God’s work, not ours, but to refuse to give a child God’s gift of teaching in the Word is all kinds of wrong. It is spiritually most dangerous to teach of a Christian baptism which somehow excludes or excuses teaching, since that is not God’s way of teaching baptism. It sometimes happens that a child is baptized and then is not taught, yes (sadly). Do we desperately cling to God’s promises? Yes. Dare we offer up a false comfort? No. Should we carefully, pastorally, believe Christ’s promise of Mark 16:16 (“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved . . . .”)? Absolutely (most of us know those words from the liturgy). But the church can never teach a baptism which does not include teaching; to do so would be to misrepresent Christ Himself.

    Your final statement above, “If we wanted to make sure the person baptized would not later reject the gift of faith, we’d wait until the deathbed and make it a last rite,” is precisely what was done at some times in the history of Christendom when there were similar misunderstandings about God’s gift of baptism.

    The point of the Reformers in AC, and in my blogpost above, is the same: that we use God’s Sacraments as He intended them to be used. Therefore, the rite of baptism is never to be done in a vacuum where there is no teaching; neither is the Lord’s Supper to be served/received where there is no proper teaching.

    I hope this is helpful.

  5. Ramstein: Your point is spot on. Some pastors do try to offer instruction in baptism (some informally, others quite formally) to parents. It is the experience of this pastor that the parents who will not bring their children back to the Lord’s house largely ignore that teaching (no surprise there, huh). As Luther and others have properly taught from Scripture, the responsibility for instruction of the whole household falls to father — may the Lord make that father able, and may the Lord give him a wife and children who will be glad to learn.

  6. Gotta make this quick here. Pastor W, thanks for the answer. Baptized souls & communing souls look great on paper. Dads, you bet, but again, who teaches us? Flow chart, I have my job, but if those above me don’t do theirs, I can’t do mine. Can I if I don’t hear what I need to? Some pastors do & that’s really small number!- some ain’t all-. I know more than I’m saying here, but it’s the principle. Who is the teacher for us in the church? Divine office is, but that’s just my opinion. Don’t mean to offend just need the info & answers. Thanks again.

  7. Entschuldigen Sie bitte,
    Luther & Walter sprachen & schrieben richtiges Deutsch ja?
    Vielen Dank Pastor W.

  8. Rev. Wollenburg,

    Thank you for this post and for your responses. They have been very helpful. I have another question for you. When we talk about daily remembering our baptism what exactly do we mean?

  9. Ramstein #6, 7, 8 — Ja, Sie habe Recht. 🙂

    Are you suggesting that the real problem lies with us pastors who do not do proper catechesis in our parishes? If so, I fear that you are correct. One of the great problems in the LCMS as in worldwide Christendom in the last 20-30 years now (at least) is the lack of catechesis. The teaching of the catechism has been downplayed in favor of what is deemed to be much more interesting and “productive” (church growth methods, etc.).

    Of course, the other related problem is that there have been faithful pastors who have faithfully taught – only to have parents at home intentionally negate and undercut the pastor’s teaching after he has served father and mother by offering catechetical instruction at church. This, too, is a great spiritual evil, nicht wahr?

  10. To C.S. #9 — Remembering our baptism daily means that we remember who we are and Whose we are. I know that that kind of sounds like a cliche, but it’s true.

    When our children were little, they would sometimes be tempted to say that we did not really love them — our first and immediate response was always to say that we most certainly have loved them and that we will always love them — all the time, no matter what. One of our children is ours via adoption (a different race from me, even). The other is biologically ours. Both are our children. Period. Neither got to decide to be our child. We decided. We loved. We still do. We always will. That’s just how it is. Because they are ours, we taught them what it means to be a part of our family. Spiritually, our baptism means all of that . . . God loves me now, He always has, and He always will. I CAN separate myself from Him by running away but He surely takes no delight in it and seeks to always draw me to Himself. He wants me to continue to grow up in Christ and to continue to learn what it means to be a part of His holy family! I cannot just turn that off when I want to . . . it’s who you and I are!

    “I am baptized” means that I remember all of that: when the devil accuses me of not being good enough for God; when I am tempted to be unfaithful to God; etc.

    It was Luther, I believe, who said, “I AM baptized.” The present tense is important b/c it implies the ongoing relationship v. a rite which lived in history but is too easily forgotten. Similarly, my wife likes me to say that I AM married; she does not much appreciates it if I say (especially to some other woman) “Yes, I was married.” Though both are accurate in some sense, the one is MUCH more accurate, obviously. “I AM baptized.” It’s my identity. It’s my hope and certainty and rest (especially when trouble hits me hard!). It challenges me to live as a member of Christ’s family.

    It did not happen once upon a time. It is my daily reality. Praise to You, O Christ. I hope this is helpful.

  11. Ja, ich weiB, aug Englisch bitte Pastor. Love using German too important to fly over heads who don’t know it.Yes, that’s what I was getting at, 30 yrs, yep, parents negating, only half of equation. Here’s the thing, accountability. Parents, accountable for home & kids, pastors, accountable for…their members. No one falls into a church building. I know what I need to do, I sit opposite the pulpit, others don’t. You know what you need to do on your side, others don’t or won’t. Who suffers,both.

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