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Does it Matter Where I Worship?

July 26th, 2007
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How often have we all heard it said: "It doesn’t matter where I worship, or how I worship. All paths lead to the same god." Martin Luther faced this same attitude and here was how he responded to it:

God through Moses had issued a most rigorous prohibition against the impudence of inventing new forms of worship, as when He says: “You shall not offer in every place but at the place which the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation there; thither you shall go, and thither you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices” (cf. Deut. 12:4–6). At that time the place appointed for worship was the temple at Jerusalem. The ark of the covenant was there, and G had promised that He would speak from the mercy seat to draw the people away from the diversity of idols to a united worship of God, to which He wanted to gather all together, if not in bodily presence and external works, at least in heart and prayer, if any were too far away from this place.

But the false prophets used to fight against this viewpoint and say: “God is everywhere; therefore He can be adored and worshiped in every place, both in Bethel as well as on any other mountain.” They did not have regard for the commandment of God. For when God fixes a certain manner and designates a certain place for His worship, it must not be said: “Wherever I will worship God, it will be pleasing to Him if only I do it in a godly and devoted manner,” or, “I shall make offerings to Him wherever it pleases me.” Isaiah, for example, censures this madness very severely, saying (Is. 57:5): “You burn with lust … under every green tree.” The Turks and Jews are accustomed to speak in this manner today, claiming that they are able to serve God outside of the unity of faith and the church of Christ. Mohammed claims that anyone is saved in his own religion if he prays, if he gives alms, if he does other good works. It is not necessary for him to be a Christian or that he should be in the unity of Christ and the church. In the papacy also all corners were occupied with chapels, convents, and idolatry of every kind.

Therefore Hosea cries: “This example of Jacob by no means confirms your idolatry. He did, indeed, struggle with the angel, but you should have remembered that the Lord God of hosts led Israel out of Egypt through the prophet. But where is this God to be [Vol. 6, Page 128] found? Where has He made a memorial for His name? Where is this memorial? Where the ark of the covenant is” (cf. Ex. 20:24).

This is true, indeed, that God is not bound, neither to Jerusalem nor to any other place, and that He is able to save also elsewhere. No one will deny this. But try it and see what you will get! If you invent forms of worship according to your own judgment, you will be in danger of God’s wrath. By His almighty power God could save the human race without Christ, without Baptism, and without the Word of the Gospel. He could have illuminated men’s hearts inwardly through the Holy Spirit and forgiven their sins without the ministry of the Word and of ministers. But it was not His will to do so. And God very strictly prohibited all erring forms of devotion and worship.

When hypocrites say: “Whatever is done with good intention is pleasing to God,” those self-chosen devotions are to be condemned, and men should be reminded that they should direct their eyes where God has revealed Himself. We must not say: “Paul preached at Rome, therefore Christ is there. James is buried at Compostela in Spain, therefore God should be worshiped there by the invocation of Saint James.” By no means! Yet many miracles are performed there? My reply is that God abominates and condemns all erring thoughts outside the one and only revelation made in the Word and sacraments, to which He wished to gather us and in which He wished to include us. For this reason Christ sent His disciples with this command: “Go therefore and teach all nations, 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” (Matt. 28:19–20), and “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). He wants us to be gathered in connection with the Word and Baptism as by a sure and infallible sign because He wants to save us and help us, just as He promised He would listen at the mercy seat among the people of Israel.

If you want to be absolved from your sins in this manner, go to your pastor, or to your brother and neighbor if your pastor cannot hear you; he has the command to absolve you and comfort you. Do not invent a special absolution for yourself. If you want to receive the Lord’s Supper, go to the assembly of the church and the public congregation and receive it there. Do not devise a special administration and use of the sacraments. For God does not want us to go astray in our own self-chosen works or speculations, and so He gathers us together and encloses us within the limits of the Word so that we are not tossed about by every kind of doctrine (cf. Eph. 4:14).

This happened to us under the papacy when we despised Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the remission of sins and made pilgrimages meanwhile to Saint James, Borne, and Jerusalem, as though God were not present in all the churches and congregations which have His Word and sacraments. Finally, there was an infinite variety of sects and orders, each of which had its peculiar, segregated ritual in distinction from the ritual and ordinance of God. Nor could those innumerable forms of fornication, as Holy Scripture calls them, be prevented except by casting off our own works. So God wants all these things to be removed, and He sets forth His Word, which says: “Here you shall adore, worship, and make offerings. In the Word, in the Lord’s Supper, and in Baptism you have the remission of sins. With these you will have to be satisfied if you wish to be saved.”
Martin Luther, vol. 6, Luther’s Works, Vol. 6  : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 6:127 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1970).

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Categories: Martin Luther Quotes
  1. Mike Baker
    July 26th, 2007 at 13:55 | #1

    Wow. Thanks for posting this text, Pastor McCain.

  2. Paul W
    July 26th, 2007 at 16:59 | #2

    Good commentary! BTW…I also enjoyed “One True God,” the study of LC II 66. Christians everywhere should read this document!

  3. Chris Palo
    July 26th, 2007 at 19:43 | #3

    Pr. McCain,
    Did I misread or did you write that absolution from sin before God can be given by laypersons. Isn’t this duty strictly reserved to the priesthood? I’m not speaking of the forgiveness that we ask for one another when we have committed offense against him. Can a layperson say, “ego te absolvo?”
    McCain: Of course they can, and they should. And it was Luther who said this, by the way, not me, but I agree with him. According to our station and calling in life, whenever and wherever the Lord gives us the opportunity we proclaim the Gospel. As we proclaim the Gospel that is absolution. There is never a proclamation of the Gospel that is not absolution. And yes, of course, laypeople can and should forgive one another their sins, not as pastors, not as if they are in that office, but in whatever station or calling they are in: father, mother, wife, husband, etc.
    I’ve had to correct more than a few mistaken Lutherans who think that the way to defend the office of the ministry is actually to suggest that there is ever a time when the Gospel is anything less than Gospel, and if and when you ever run into a situation where a pastor is actually suggesting that laypeople can not, and do not, absolve sins when they speak the Gospel to each other, well, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

  4. July 27th, 2007 at 08:15 | #4

    With all due respect, my view on this issue centers on John 4:21-23: “…the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (ESV)

  5. Michael Zamzow
    July 27th, 2007 at 10:23 | #5

    If memory serves me right, medieval Catholic practice allowed for confession to a layman under extreme circumstances, especially on the battlefield. That would seem to be analogous to the emergency Baptism by a midwife. Just as with Baptism, confession and absolution by laymen is the exception, not the rule. The comfort and assurance of the Gospel and salvation need to be given to those in extreme circumstances. When the exception becomes the rule the dangers of misuse and abuse are multiplied exponentially. The danger Baptism being degraded to superstition is enormous. The danger of confusing Absolution with a license to sin is so great, that even some entrusted with the office of administering Word and Sacrament succumb to trivializing sin and forgiveness. Goethe once said that absolution was a great thing—he gave himself absolution every day. Luther is maintaining the necessity of gathering around Word and Sacrament taught and administered in their truth and purity as the norm. He also took seriously the special circumstances in which the norm is set aside that the comfort of the Gospel might prevail. One sees the same tension in the discussion of closed communion. While administering the Sacrament to someone close to death who may not belong to a church with which a pastor is in fellowship could be justified, it would not therefore follow that “pastoral concern” be used as an excuse for what in practice would be the indifference of open communion.

  6. Mike Baker
    July 27th, 2007 at 13:48 | #6

    John 4:21-23 supports Dr. Luther’s main point. Worship is not centered around a building, a location, or a humanly invented procedure. It is not where people decide they are going to go find God. It is where God reveals Himself to man. It is centered around Christ and His word. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17, NASB)
    Where do we find Christ? Where He promises to be: Word and Sacrament. These are the “places” where our worship is to be centered. All methods which claim to be an alternate or improved way to Christ that are not rooted in what He revealed and instituded should be regarded as nothing more than lip services and empty human traditions. (Is 29:13-14)
    Luther’s point is further supported by John 4:41-42 later in that same chapter:
    “Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.”” (NASB)
    It wasn’t about the woman and what she found. It was about Christ and what He revealed.
    True faith always points to Christ and His work… not to us and our work.
    It’s character is one of repentence and humility… not entertainment and vanity.

  7. July 27th, 2007 at 20:26 | #7

    I also thank you for posting and commenting.
    As we proclaim the Gospel that is absolution. There is never a proclamation of the Gospel that is not absolution. And yes, of course, laypeople can and should forgive one another their sins, not as pastors, not as if they are in that office, but in whatever station or calling they are in: father, mother, wife, husband, etc.
    if and when you ever run into a situation where a pastor is actually suggesting that laypeople can not, and do not, absolve sins when they speak the Gospel to each other, well, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
    I believe this indeed true, a problem is brewing somewhere and sacerdotalism is creeping in, in that case you lose out to Rome, for Rome always and everywhere that it is, have maintained that it is they that have the real Office of the Keys, no one else. If you are going to tie that to your office, you might as well get the right laying on of hands with apostolic succession ie validate your office.
    As to the danger of it being abused, I am not convinced yet, and I wonder about that. It is illogical to me, for why would some one like to be absolved of her/his sins if he/she does not believe it is needed? What is the person saying when he asks for absolution from a believer – is it not an acknowledgement that one is a sinner?
    Peter asked Jesus, how many times should he forgive his brother, and we know how Jesus answered that, as many as required.
    I think there is abuse when one says it is ok for you to sin anyway you can get absolution. A person intent on abusing his liberty (an anti-nomian) will now turn and look at the act of absolution as the payment for his sins and not at the Cross. In effect he looks at absolution as a work he has done. I do not know about others but in my experience, when I *know* I can pay for my sins, the *more* I sin.
    The reason I question the tripidation side of administering absolution is because of what I saw from Revivalist era in USA(historically speaking). I think these revivalists saw these baptized Christians as living like the devil and rather than preaching Law/Gospel to them they preached on “being born again” or regeneration. A look at Jonathan Edwards famous sermons is filled with Law, and virtually nil Gospel.

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