The non-alcoholic wine debate still rears its ugly head from time to time, centering on the question whether non-alcoholic wine or any other substitutes could be permitted for use in the Sacrament. At times I have found myself engaged in a exchanges in which I found it necessary to defend things which ought to be beyond question among Lutherans.
One such exchange took place in a little tete-a-tete I once had with a proponent for the use of grape juice. It was at an open hearing of a floor committee for a district convention of the LCMS. The meeting room was far too small, as the floor committee saw a great multitude in attendance. The walls were not visible for the flesh that lined them, and the summer heat was no ally to that flesh. I arrived about ten minutes after the hearing began, so with a number of others had no place to sit. By this default I ended up standing in a highly visible place right behind the chairman's seat, and listened as the arguments for and against non-alcoholic wine were heard. On the one side of the debate were those of confessional acumen and concerns who pleaded for the maintenance of right administration of the Sacrament in accordance with Augustana VII, on the other side were those who contended for what they called the need for love and understanding in dealing with difficult situations with alcoholics and the like.
In the midst of all this there was a certain layman among the latter, who gave a long, passionate speech about his days in the service in the Korean War and World War II. He spoke with feeling about the 9,000 soldiers who lost their lives fighting beside him at Omaha Beach. Before they went to their final battle, these men all received "communion" from the chaplain, who, due to scarcity of resources, did not have enough wine. But he did have grape juice (why this is so, no one asked). So grape juice they all received, and went on into battle, and lost their lives. At this point the man asked for a pastoral reply to the question he posed: "Do you mean to say that those men did not receive the forgiveness of sins?"
It was then that I opened my mouth, and gave my reply which raised and rankled more than a few eyebrows and feathers respectively. I said but one word, which all in the room clearly heard, and which for its piercing simplicity shook the very foundations of that chamber: Yes.
That was my pastoral reply.
At once another man lunged at me, crying out angrily, "Lawyer! Pharisee!" The committee members, thankfully, were livid against this name-calling, insisting that it stop.
Debate continued in that crowded room until finally there remained time for one more speaker, and the chair yielded to me.
"I must tell you," I began my defense, "that it was I who got this whole mess started, for I am the author of the resolution in its original form. I wrote it against non-alcoholic wine; but I certainly never expected such a brouhaha to result, and I cannot even recount for you all the names I have been called since I brought it up.
"It has occurred to me, however, that the reason there is such passion over all this, is possibly a failure to remember a crucial distinction, which Martin Luther so clearly made in his Galatians commentary. I know it by heart, for it is very important to me. Luther carefully distinguishes there between faith and love, and warns against forgetting the distinction. Love, says Luther, always gives in, always lets others have their way, always gives place. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But not faith. Faith will not stand for anything. When it comes to faith (says Luther) I want to be stubborn, and to be known as someone who is stubborn. Faith will not yield the least little bit. Here is where I side with Luther, then, and say the same, that I too wish to be known as someone who is stubborn about the faith.
"For this matter runs to the heart of the Gospel. Certainly those 9,000 servicemen who died were either saved or not, depending alone on their faith in the Gospel. But at that moment, when that chaplain gave them that grape juice, they were not receiving that forgiveness. This is why this matter is so critical. This is not lovelessness or legalism. It's the very opposite; for this has to do with Christ. Those servicemen needed one thing there on that battlefield, for their confidence and comfort in time of trouble, and no amount of good intentions (with which the road to hell is paved) could give them what they needed. They needed Christ whom they believed, but the chaplain did not give Christ to them.
"It's really very simple, and I plead with you to listen to me now: If you change the elements of the Sacrament, you don't have the Sacrament, and if you don't have the Sacrament, you don't have Christ."
So ran my reply.
On the same day there were some who expressed concerns with that original retort of mine, that “yes”; not, that is, with its substance (though indeed many were quite opposed to that as well), but with its fittingness in that time and place, the simplicity of it. No, I was told, that turned people off, made them unnecessarily angry, and could have been expressed otherwise. I was at that moment too harsh, some said, and that was wrong.
Now I admit to having thought about this long and hard myself. Was that “yes” too much? Should I have let the rhetoric pass unanswered? Could I perhaps have done more through a more winsome approach, something less barbed? Was that answer less than pastoral? Now clearly it would be easy for me simply to say that it was, and admit a lapse of self control there. Strangely, however, my conscience, which is so often a noisy gong in my ears, was quite silent and at peace.
The reason I could admit error there is that I came to the conclusion not only that I did not err, but also that very much more is at stake in this matter than any admission of my personal wretchedness, of which I am always well aware. Certainly (because of that wretchedness) I am one who can easily fall to the desire for vainglory, and certainly also from this to self-aggrandizement in the eyes of my peers. But here I must divide and distinguish sin from faith; for though I sin, yet do I believe, and further believe that in that assembly “yes” was absolutely required, notwithstanding any sin which may have attended it. It is when I consider the alternatives carefully that this becomes most clear.
To have said nothing would not have been the way of faith; this is not to say it was necessary that I be the one to answer, merely to say that faith must answer this question; somebody had to answer, lest through silent acquiescence on the part of all the gainsayers make disciples and, as it were, Goliath taunts the armies of God unanswered. What figures more importantly in the rejection of this option, however, is faith's simple necessity of making confession.
There are times when a clear confession is called for, times when men of faith must say, "I believed, therefore have I spoken." Such speech comes not from reasoned considerations of effectiveness, nor cautious regard for winsomeness. Indeed the word sprang from my lips before I gave a single thought to the effectiveness it might have. I simply knew it needed saying, at once, before the opportunity for saying it passed by.
But one might as well say this was not the time for such confession, that this was not the place for true theological discussion, for the room was too hot and crowded, and passions ran high, etc. To this I would reply that these kinds of circumstances are not in themselves prohibitive of confession. If they were, then not only would every man who spoke well that day have been out of place (and there were a great many who spoke well for the faith on that day and in that place), but even Luther's famous confession before the Diet of Worms would have been out of place. For Luther's confession was likewise in a small upper room which was so full of officials that crowd control became necessary; indeed emotions and tensions ran so high that pandemonium broke loose there following Luther's confession (see Schwiebert, The Life and Times of Martin Luther, 501-505). When tempers or passions are inflamed, certainly it is more difficult to make reasoned judgments, but the increase of difficulty in itself cannot justify the shutting of confessional mouths.
Moreover, and most importantly, if this was not the time for such confession, when is the time for it? The Church is not of the world, but she is in the world, and she is required to make her confession before men, as our Lord Himself declares. Reason, whom Luther was wont to call the devil's greatest whore, cannot be trusted to determine the circumstances most fit for such confession. This must be left to faith, and faith must be left to itself to make such judgments. Faith, molded and led by the Word, employs that Word in confession when and where it wills, and is alone fit to determine when to speak, especially in the heat of battle. Faith employs reason in this regard, to be sure, but reason cannot question faith, for faith knows more than reason can fathom.
Thus I conclude that it was fitting and meet for faith to speak there and then. But what would faith say?
The question itself wanted a simple yes or no answer. Did those 9,000 receive forgiveness at Omaha beach? Here we must consider the enemy's treachery. How perilous is the ground of this battle, where the enemy vies for the hearts of the careful hearers witness to that debate.
What if I had said “no”? What would it have meant? Here the enemy could have taunted the people of God. Aha, aha, he could then well have sneered, your insistence on right administration cannot stand here! See, you answer “no” to my question, so you must admit that I am right, for if those 9,000 received forgiveness there, then why have you made such an issue of this matter? How can you make such a big thing out of such a small thing as this? For they died with forgiveness, the one thing needful.
But did they? One could (with the sophists) determine that even though they did not receive forgiveness with the cup, yet they did with the host, which was bread, and hence also the body of Christ. But this skirts the true question, which in the first place was not asked concerning the host but the cup, and in the second place was in substance asking whether changing the elements affects the giving of forgiveness through them.
But what about the Word? Could we not say that they certainly did receive forgiveness with the words of the Gospel spoken then and there over the elements? Is it splitting hairs to say that forgiveness was not received in the cup as well as with the cup?
Here we have come to the very heart of the matter. For if forgiveness was thus received, the very Sacrament has been robbed of its essence. The words of the Gospel tied to the Sacrament are these: This is my blood . . . shed for you. It is true that Christ's blood was "shed for you", and that that is itself the Gospel; yet these words now come in a declaration that makes this, namely this cup, meaning by circumlocution the wine in this cup, His blood, "shed for you." Thus in the Sacrament we say that this cup is that blood, and recognize that the Gospel itself is placed nowhere else than in this cup. Therefore to alter what is in the cup is to remove the Gospel from it, and hence also forgiveness.
But surely, one might still protest, you do not mean to say those 9,000 servicemen died in their sins. To this I reply with Luther and Augustine that certainly faith's desire for the Sacrament is in itself sufficient: "only believe," they both declare, "and you have already received the Sacrament."
But what did they believe? That the blood of Christ was under the grape juice? Here I must sincerely hope not, for this is not the substance of faith! Faith has no word of Christ here upon which to rely for a conviction that the blood of Christ was under the grape juice, for Christ gave no promise regarding grape juice. Such faith is a sham and folly. My pastoral heart most sincerely desires with God that no one be condemned, least of all 9,000 servicemen who lost their lives in valiant service to their country, and I can share with Francis Pieper the fervent hope and expectation that through a felicitous inconsistency they retained a saving faith while at the same time holding externally to this demon's doctrine regarding grape juice.
Nonetheless in the answer to the question posed very much is now quite clearly at stake.
But how cleverly was the question posed. For one who answers “yes” opens himself to some very clear perceptions of lovelessness against those poor 9,000. So the devil taunts: See, I have shut your mouths! You cannot reply, your tongues are shackled!
(Yet I believe it was also divine providence that saw the question posed the way it was, in order that the truth may be affirmed with a “yes” rather than with a “no” which more than any other word would make one sound negative!)
Thus did almighty God in His mercy loose my tongue; thus did He open my lips, that my mouth might shew forth His praise. “Yes!” did I cry; and would again cry, nine thousand times, yes. Yes, for it is not lovelessness which insists here, as many may falsely suppose (many are my persecutors and mine enemies); rather, it is the knowledge that the enemy was at work here, stealing by treachery the Church's most precious and sacred Treasure. Yes, without the Sacrament you are without Christ. Yes, you may not have Him according to your whims and wishes, no matter how fiercely you desire Him on your own terms. Yes, He comes on His own terms and none other. Yes, though all the world should rail against His Word and Testament, yet will I affirm and insist that He alone is true and every man a liar. Yes, where His Testament is kept whole and intact, there and nowhere else, is His forgiveness and mercy distributed to poor and needy sinners. Yes, you must take Christ as He gives Himself and in no other way, for otherwise you shall not have Him at all, as the doctrines of demons quickly invade and snatch you away. With my yes and amen do I therefore affirm this truth.
But for this I did indeed open myself to false accusations, which quickly flew, and wounded me. But an angel of God woke me from restless sleep that night and ministered to me, as I recalled in faith words sweeter than honey to my taste, the words of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
So I rejoice in this faith and confidence, and in the knowledge that the greatness of reward shall be inversely proportionate to the worthiness of His servant.
Material taken from a column published in 1994.