by Rev. Mark Bestul

As Luther penned what he thought would be his last statement of confession, he gave high priority to articulating very clearly his condemnation of “The Mass.” His was not a cold, bitter heart toward erring Christians, but a bold, zealous heart for those fellow Christians trapped in a religion defined by such Christ-less hopes. To understand this properly, we must understand that the term could be understood in multiple ways: (1) the standard term of the day for the worship service, (2) a common term for the Lord’s Supper, (3) Rome’s standard term for its worship service, (4) Rome’s standard term for its understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Where the Lutherans used the term with a clear conscience in the Augsburg Confession (see Article XXIV) based on the first two uses, the third and fourth ways of understanding the term were the target of Luther’s aim in the Smalcald Articles and, thus, the way in which this article uses the term “the Mass.”

Luther understood the danger behind the Mass was not simply a smattering of errors in otherwise Christian worship; rather, the Mass was an entire system of a false theology of worship that was an abomination that burdened Christian consciences, led to idolatrous worship practices, and endangered souls because of its Christ-less focus on appeasing an angry God through works. He considered it a direct antithesis to and attack upon the “first and chief article” (SA II, I), namely that salvation rests solely and securely in Jesus Christ’s exclusive and sufficient sacrifice, to be received by faith.

As we study this article, consider Luther’s basic layout: the first major theme is to expose the Mass for the antichristian worship it is; the second major theme is to show how such false theology of worship leads to a whole host of false worship practices.

1. Paragraph 1 explains Luther’s main point: “This sacrifice or work of the Mass is thought to free people from sins, both in this life and also in purgatory.”

How does that belief regarding the Mass make it “the chief and most false” of all “popish idolatries”?

2. Luther lays out the arguments against the Mass with five simple charges (paragraphs 2-7). What are they, and what nuance does each point highlight?

Paragraph 5 was added to the printed version of 1538, a year after the Smalcald Articles’ original version. The paragraph added emphasis that the Mass is a human invention. Luther calls it “dangerous, fabricated, and invented without God’s will and Word.” Considering that historical context:

3. How does that paragraph speak more broadly to our American society regarding the dangers of innovation in worship that seek to ‘justify’ or ‘strengthen faith’ by their own merit, yet point away from Christ’s Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins?

Moving on to paragraph 8: Sometimes, people are burdened in conscience if Lutheran pastors commune themselves in the Divine Service (often seen in congregations with a sole pastor). But remember the context of paragraph 8: in Roman theology, a priest could say the Mass in an empty sanctuary and supposedly ‘earn favor’ for himself or his parishioners. But the Lutheran pastor who communes himself in the Divine Service does so not as private devotion, rather with the right understanding that the steward of the mysteries is accountable for all who commune at the altar – including himself! Considering the context,

4. How is Luther’s intended concern made clear in the final two sentences of the paragraph: “It is not right (even if otherwise done properly) to use the Sacrament that belongs to the community of the Church for one’s own private devotion. It is wrong to toy with the Sacrament without God’s Word and apart from the community of the Church”?

Finally, consider this sentence a summary of the first half of the article: “In this [that is, the Mass as an effort to supplement the merits of Jesus] we remain eternally separated and opposed to one another” (para. 11).

5. Considering that the Mass is fundamental to the Roman Catholic religion, how does this statement show the great chasm that lay between the Papacy and the faith of the Reformation?

This false theology of worship leads to a whole system of works-based errors. Luther says the Mass “has begotten many vermin and a multitude of idolatries.” He names six in the following paragraphs (12-24) and argues that, “They are not only without God’s Word, are unnecessary and not commanded, but are against the chief article” (24). What are these six idolatries, and how do each of these flow from the theology of worship that seeks to earn God’s favor through human efforts and merits?

6. In addition to the efforts of salvation, Luther adjoins the invocation of saints as part of the false theology of worship. How is this notion also “against the chief article”?

It’s no wonder that Luther emphatically concludes, “We cannot tolerate the Mass or anything that proceeds from it or is attached to it. We have to condemn the Mass in order to keep the holy Sacrament pure and certain, according to Christ’s institution, used and received through faith” (29). Note that Luther’s desire (and ours!) is not to speak ill of Christians in the pews of Rome or other church bodies with false theologies of worship. The desire is one of great Christian love – “to keep the holy Sacrament pure and certain” – for the benefit of all Christians, that they would be freed from theologies of worship that burden them with their own merits and efforts;  freed by the true theology of worship in which Jesus freely distributes His Word and Sacrament for their forgiveness – that they, with us, would be loosed from a burdened conscience over sin and rejoice in the chief article – salvation in the merits and suffering of Christ Jesus, “once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

So then, “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:19-23).

The Rev. Mark C. Bestul is pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Elgin, Ill.