Do I have true faith? Thoughts on Announcing For Communion, Self-Examination, and Infant Communion

Yeah, yeah, I know; you told me I wasn’t the fairest of them all 30 years ago when I was confirmed. But since I stopped looking at you I feel much prettier!

A couple of different American Lutheran groups have put out a “Beichtspiegel”–“confessional mirror.”  These apparently were fairly common in Lutheran Germany, at least at one time.  They are generally questions applying the ten commandments to one’s life which a person can use in examining himself before going to confession and Holy Communion.

At one time you generally didn’t go to communion, if you were a Lutheran, without first going to private confession and absolution.  Even in America we still had the custom into the 1970’s or so where a person would “announce” before going to communion.  Originally, at least as I understand LCMS practice, that is started out not necessarily as “private confession” per se, but when you came into the pastor’s office and said, “I want to commune,” he would ask you a variety of questions to ensure and assure that you were ready to receive Christ’s body and blood.  By the time they phased it out it had essentially devolved into a phone call to the pastor on Saturday night.

At seminary they advocated the attempt to restore practices that American Lutherans had lost–weekly communion, individual absolution, chasubles…but I never heard a single professor suggest that we might want to bring announcement back.  I found an article about the practice of “announcement” in an old German “Lehre und Wehre” and I kind of think it would be an interesting topic to research.

If we were able to reinstate announcement in a non-legalistic way, I think it ultimately could be very consoling to people, and it would help to assuage people’s concern that if we have the sacrament too often people will abuse it.  This complaint does have a certain validity.  What does the Augustana say?  “No one is admitted to [Sacrament of the Altar] unless they have first been examined and absolved.”  Luther says the same type of thing either in the Smalcald Articles or one of the Catechisms…we don’t intend to give the Sacrament to people who can’t tell you what it is or why they want to receive it.  Well, that would also help us with teaching people what the ministry really is–namely an office set apart to represent Christ in preaching His Word, absolving, baptizing, giving the sacrament, exhorting, rebuking, etc.

Originally I started this post because I translated part of the old LCMS “Gebets-Schatz” Beichtspiegel, except it’s not called that in the Gebets-Schatz.  They’re called Pruefungsfragen, rougly translated “self-examination questions” or “proving questions.”

Sometimes I think if I had had access to questions like these in response to my anxiety about salvation when I was confirmation age, and if I had had a pastor with whom I could have talked and who could have examined me in this way, I would never have fallen away.

Sometimes Lutheran laymen get very passionate about how private confession is unlutheran and they’re free in Christ not to do it.  I think the reason I’m so passionate about it in the other direction is that I think in part that I fell away from Christ because although I knew private confession existed for Lutherans, I just thought that to go to it meant you were somehow failing as a Christian.

As a final point…I remember debating with about three men at seminary who were smarter than me about infant communion.  As on most things at seminary, I gave sort of the standard dead orthodox Missourian Lutheran response: well, don’t people need to examine themselves before communion?  To which one guy (who, along with the other guy, is a pastor in the LCMS) said, “They’ve already examined themselves and desire it!”  I left the discussion feeling stupid and angry because I was silenced in the argument.

Later, I asked Prof. John Pless about it and he said, “Paul is clearly talking about a noetic self-examination in 1 Corinthians.”  I liked that answer because saying, “Noetic” has a way of making people circumspect about arguing further.

I don’t know who reads this blog.  But if anyone from my church read it, I would feel bad now if I used words or arguments that made them feel stupid, as though you have to be a genius to come to the right answer in theological questions.  Prof. Pless wasn’t doing that because he was talking to a seminary student and not to a congregation.  But, it might be a good thing for seminarians to practice as they argue theology–not only learning theology by debating, but also how to discuss it with someone who disagrees with you without trying to make them feel stupid, since that is a completely destructive tendency when you actually start shepherding souls.

Actually this debate is fairly easy to understand.  The guy who told me that “babies have already examined themselves and desire the sacrament” was referring to Lutheran baptismal theology.  We don’t say that babies are baptized in their parents’ faith, or the sponsors’ faith, or the church’s faith.  We believe that they have their own faith…either before Baptism or after receiving it.  This is why one of the prayers in the LCMS alternate rite for Baptism (I’m pretty sure from Luther) says something like: “we bring this child to you, desiring the forgiveness of sins.  Open to him knocks, grant that he who seeks finds…etc.”

(This is also connected to the paragraphs from Bugenhagen I translated a few weeks ago about what happens to babies who are not baptized because they die before they can be…)

So, my colleague was saying, “Babies have living faith in Christ…they are baptized into Christ.  Therefore” [I think this was his argument], “since they have real faith in Christ, they also examine themselves and desire all of Christ’s gifts, including the Lord’s Supper.”

On the other hand, Prof. Pless was saying that when Paul talks about self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11 and elsewhere, he is talking about a conscious self-examination.

I think the passages from Paul become nonsensical if they aren’t interpreted the way Prof. Pless does.  Also, it’s simply impossible to square a different reading with the Lutheran Confessions.

Luther’s theology about right reception of the Lord’s Supper is this:  What makes you worthy is:  1.  believing that it

Luther communing John the Steadfast.

Luther communing John the Steadfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

is Jesus’ body and blood.  2.  hunger and thirst for the benefits conferred in the Lord’s Supper, namely forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  3.  This presupposes contrition–i.e. fear of God’s wrath.  It presupposes also the desire for the forgiveness of sins and comfort and faith that Jesus gives or will give me what I desire in the Lord’s Supper.  4.  Finally, Luther teaches that Christians should examine themselves to see whether or not they will receive the supper worthily.  Even more he insists that people need to be examined by the pastor to see whether they are ready.

I frankly believe that our present practice of examining people once, at confirmation, is a bad practice, out of step with our theology.  There are many members of our congregation who come to church regularly enough not to get dropped from membership.  Yet they come so seldom that one is forced to conclude that they are either extremely ignorant about the nature of saving faith, or else they simply despise God’s gifts.  Yet they are never examined, because people have come to think that reception at the Lord’s table is a right conferred forever by virtue of your confirmation.  People tend to think this even after they or their children have left the church and become Baptist.  But if they’re still on the books at an LCMS congregation, people don’t think anymore question should be raised.

I guess the conclusion is this, and then I’ll post the examination questions (it may have to be later this evening now.)  If there are still high church confessional Lutherans who sympathize with infant communion, this should not be coddled by LCMS confessionals simply because they’re our type of guys and they agree on the liturgy.

Infant communion is an attack on the article of justification, and therefore an assault on the pure Gospel and the heart of the Lutheran Church.  If I’m goring your ox, I probably don’t know who you are, so I don’t say this with anger against you, but out of concern that Satan doesn’t play little games in the backyard of those who want to see the pure Gospel alone confessed in the Missouri Synod.

It’s an attack on the article of justification because while faith can be living and can justify while a person is not conscious of it, and while it is true that true faith in Christ believes against the feelings and perceptions of the old Adam, it is also true that we are able to “test ourselves” to see whether we are in the faith.

The tendency that leads toward infant communion–it seems to me–teaches falsely about the nature of saving faith.  While faith that saves is not “faith in faith,” and while saving faith can exist in those who aren’t aware of it (people who are sleeping; people in a coma; people with Alzheimer’s; babies), we are also commanded in scripture to “test ourselves” and “to make our calling and election sure.”  It is certainly not the case that Christians are being presumptuous when they are assured of their salvation or of being in a state of grace.

This assurance is not always felt; the assurance is found in God’s promises.

Yet experience plays a role in this.  Does it matter if my heart doesn’t feel love for God, doesn’t feel like praying, doesn’t really care whether it receives the Sacrament?  Of course it does!  It’s sin that I don’t desire the sacrament very much, or don’t feel like praying, or would rather watch TV than hear God’s Word.

That awareness of the sin that lives in me is the very thing that should direct me to my need for Christ and what He gives me in the Holy Supper–his true body and blood.  And if I feel that I am not sufficiently repentant or hungry, then I should mourn over that and go to communion asking God to renew my sick heart.  But I shouldn’t say, “Oh well, it isn’t necessary to feel anything to be a good Christian.  After all, babies have faith even though they don’t act like it.  Our spirit prays even when our lips and minds are doing something else.”

No, instead I should go mourning the ungodliness of my flesh, that it despises God even after all that He’s done for me.  But with assurance I should go to the altar with the horrible wickedness of my heart, because Jesus receives sinners there and gives them His body and blood.

All around in Lutheranism, among laity and pastors, you see this idea that we can be Christians and agnostics at the same time.  It is true that we doubt.  My life is a big billboard of that.  Christians doubt and are weak in faith. That’s because sin still lives in us.   And yet Christianity is marked by certainty, assurance, because the Spirit works in us by the Word.  I think in Pieper I remember reading that faith “IS assurance.”  or “The assurance of

English: Franz August Otto Pieper

English: Franz August Otto Pieper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

salvation is faith.”  I didn’t like that at the time, because I didn’t understand it.

When I get out of the pulpit, how do I know that I preached God’s Word and not my own?  Should I just say, “Ah, whatever…it could be I preached God’s word, it could be I just poisoned everyone who heard me–whatevs”?

How do I know that when I am judged God will receive me?  I know because His Word tells me.  How do you know that You rightly interpret His Word?  I know because the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture unfolds it, and He has revealed it to me.  It’s not that I always feel it or that I don’t doubt.

But like the hymn says:

God’s Word is all-sufficient

It makes divinely sure

And trusting in its wisdom

My faith shall rest secure.   Erdmann Neumeister, “I Know My Faith is Founded.”

Or like my favorite hymn says:

And to this our soul’s salvation

Witnesses Your Spirit, Lord,

In Your Sacraments and Word. 

There He sends true consolation,

Giving us the gift of faith

That we fear not hell nor death.  Johann Olearius “Oh, How Great is Your Compassion”

How is it that people who want to be confessional Lutherans could get this confused?  In our efforts to avoid the subjectivism of the evangelicals, some of what is called “Confessional Lutheranism” sounds an awful lot like removing faith from the article of justification.

Where did this come from?

Again, to reiterate: faith can exist where someone is unconscious of it.  But the person who’s worried about whether or not he is really a Christian doesn’t need to hear, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s not necessary that you feel anything.” Instead they need God’s law and gospel applied to them.  If they are really troubled  because they are willfully sinning, then they need to hear that repentance does not include hanging on to sin but wanting to be free of it.  (Then proclaim the Gospel).  If they are troubled because of their ongoing struggle with sin and lack of sanctification, they need to be told that is the reason why the Lord’s Supper was instituted–not for those who have already overcome sin, but for those who are burdened by it and fear that they will be damned because of it.

That kind of certainty would be more common, I think, if instead of the protestant “every man his own priest”, we recovered the Lutheran understanding of the Church as the “communion of saints” and the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” as a means of grace.  I think assurance of salvation is tied to confession of sins before men–whether or not that is done formally.  When church people don’t deal with one another as lost sinners who need the other members of the body…and when we hide our sins from each other, it causes the whole church to lose the joy of salvation.

“Restore to me [and all Lutheran congregations] the joy of Your salvation, and grant [us] a willing spirit…”


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