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This We Believe

A Review of Dr. Martin Luther’s  Smalcald Articles

2. Of The Mass

The faithfulness of an individual’s or a church’s doctrinal confession depends on its foundation. A set of beliefs that begins with false premises and man-made ideas is sure to end up in error.

For this reason Martin Luther clearly established the scriptural foundation of the Christian faith in Article 1, in which he treated the doctrine of justification by faith.

In Article 11 Luther began to use the light of Scripture and the foundational truth of justification by faith to expose the error of the Roman Catholic Church and its teaching which did not flow from “the first and chief article” and therefore was not built on the foundation of Holy Scripture.

When exposing the errors of the church, why did Luther begin with the Mass?

To expose the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther began with the Mass because so much could be traced to this fundamental though erroneous aspect of the church’s worship and teaching.

From outward appearance the Mass may seem to be simply a worship service with Holy Communion, and the casual observer might wonder what all the fuss is about. However, what is taught and believed regarding what is taking place in the Mass reveals that there is much more at work.

The Roman Catholic Mass is celebrated as—and taught to be—an unbloody re-sacrifice of Christ. This not only conflicts with the declaration of Holy Scripture that Christ’s sacrifice was complete once for all (see John 19:30, Hebrews 9:28) but it also ends up making the celebration of the Mass something that a sinner does to earn favor with God! The latter clearly conflicts with the scriptural doctrine of justification and sets the stage for many other religious errors in teaching and practice.

What doctrinal error is Luther specifically addressing?

The essential error in the Mass is work-righteousness. The supposed “sacrifice of the mass” and the “good work” of participating in a Mass are thought to free people from their sins. This work-righteousness in the Mass obscures the blessed truth of the forgiveness of sins offered freely in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Luther goes on to explain that the work-righteousness of the Mass leads to other false teachings, requirements, customs, and practices which supposedly promote forgiveness of sins and salvation by what the sinner does. Among these subsequent errors—which obscure Christ’s once-and-for-all, complete sacrifice for sins!—are the teachings concerning purgatory, spirits, encouraging believers in work-righteousness, pilgrimages, monastic societies, worship of relics, indulgences, and praying to the saints.

What truth does
Luther set forth?

Luther exposes the error of work-righteousness and shows its futility toward salvation. At the same time he affirms and gives glory to the truth of justification (article 1). He also indirectly demonstrates that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9), for the errors of the Mass were not and are not isolated. Rather, as yeast inevitably spreads, even so does that fundamental error of the Mass grow to infiltrate a large and significant part of the church’s teaching!

How does this apply
to us today?

We are reminded of just how important the teaching of justification by faith is to our standing firm in the truth and resisting temptation and error. Luther leads us to consider how easily work-righteousness can grow out of that initial misstep and how, in turn, the simple truth of justification by faith answers so much false teaching.

As we seek to “tell the generations to come” of God’s love and mercy (cf. Psalm 78:4), we are reminded of the importance of firmly setting the scriptural foundation to avoid slipping into work-righteousness.

As we seek to establish and strengthen our faith personally and in our congregations, we dare not lose sight of how easily work-righteousness can creep into the conversation and how it can spread.

In a world full of people whose itching ears lead them to want to “do something” and who become bored with justification by faith, we are able to show how that precious truth stands in sharp contrast to the prevalent ideas of accomplishing one’s own salvation; thus we are able to offer the gospel and life. As Luther put it: “…The merits of Christ are obtained by grace, through faith, without our work or pennies. They are offered to us without our money or merit…by the preaching of God’s Word” (Article 11, #24).

The Book of Concord

The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [Tappert Edition]

Part II, Article II. Of the Mass

• The Mass in the papacy must be regarded as the greatest and most horrible abomination because it runs into direct and violent conflict with this …fundamental article [justification by faith]…. it is held that this sacrifice or work of the Mass (even when offered by an evil scoundrel) delivers men from their sins, both here in this life and yonder in purgatory, although in reality this can and must be done by the Lamb of God alone, as has been stated above. There is to be no concession or compromise in this article either, for the first article does not permit it. (#1)

• The Mass…has brought forth a brood of vermin and the poison of manifold idolatries. (#11)

• The first is purgatory…purgatory, too, is contrary to the fundamental article that Christ alone, and not the work of man, can help souls. Besides, nothing has been commanded or enjoined upon us with reference to the dead….The papists here adduce passages from…some of the Fathers who are said to have written about purgatory….It will not do to make articles of faith out of the holy Fathers’ words or works. Otherwise what they ate, how they dressed, and what kind of houses they lived in would have to become articles of faith—as has happened in the case of relics. This means that the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel. [This last sentence is the setting of our theme verse and a classic quote of the Reformer from the Smalcald Articles—Ed.] (#’s 12-15)

• The second is a consequence of this: evil spirits have introduced the knavery of appearing as spirits of the departed and, with unspeakable lies and cunning, of demanding Masses, vigils, pilgrimages, and other alms. We had to accept all these as articles of faith….Here too there can be no concession or compromise. (#’s 16-17a)

• The third are pilgrimages. Masses, forgiveness of sins, and God’s grace were sought here, too, for Masses dominated everything. (#20)

• The fourth are [monastic orders, which are] utterly unnecessary and without command…. (#21)

• The fifth are relics. In this connection so many manifest lies and so much nonsense has been invented…relics are neither commanded nor commended. They are utterly unnecessary and useless. Worst of all, however, is the claim that relics effect…the forgiveness of sin…. (#’s 22-23)

• The sixth place belongs to the precious indulgences which are granted to the living and the dead (for money) and by which the pope sells the merits of Christ together with the superabundant merits of the saints and the entire church. These are not to be tolerated…they are also contrary to the first article…. (#24)

• The invocation of saints is also one of the abuses… It is in conflict with the first, chief article and undermines knowledge of Christ… Even if the invocation of saints were a precious practice (which it is not), we have everything a thousand-fold better in Christ. (#25)

• In short, we cannot allow but must condemn the Mass, its implications, and its consequences in order that we may retain the holy sacrament in its purity and certainty according to the institution of Christ and may use and receive it in faith. (#29)