The phrase, “Word and Sacrament” is a very important concept for Lutherans, corresponding with another important phase: “the Means of Grace.” Both speak to God’s grace or unconditional love for sinners in Jesus Christ and how that love is given through faith.
To begin to understand the importance of all of this, one must begin from a position of faith; otherwise it all will be looked upon as a lot of foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, when the unbelieving mind considers the Church and the things of the Church, it must conclude that what believers partake of in the Church is nothing but superstitious nonsense.
The believing mind that is ruled by reason will also look upon certain aspects of life in the Church as untenable because they cannot be explained in a reasonable and rational way. These things transcend human understanding for the very reason that they are supernatural, that is, they are “things of God.” Sinful man, ruled by reason, will always be much more willing to trust in the “things of man,” than “the things of God.” In Mark 8:33, our Lord Jesus very strongly chastises Simon Peter for this sort of worldly centered thinking.
The apostle Paul refers to the supernatural things of God in the Church as “the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). The English word “mystery” is derived from the Greek mysterion, and is translated into Latin as sacramentum. This is the origin of the word, sacrament.
Now because the term sacrament has been defined by those in the Church over the centuries in a number of different ways, there is some disagreement as to what are, exactly, the sacraments of the Church. Those of the Reformed tradition consider a sacrament to be a symbol or sign of God’s grace. Thus, John Calvin considered a rainbow to be a sacrament because, after the Flood, it was a sign of God’s grace. Roman Catholics believe that there are seven sacraments which are sacred rites of the Church that cause the grace of God to be given ex opere operato (Latin for “in the doing of the deed”) apart from faith.
Lutherans believe that faith is the means by which the blessings and benefits of God’s grace are received, and that faith is given and received through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Lutherans also believe that the primary gift given by the grace of God, from which all other blessings flow, is the forgiveness of sins. Thus, for Lutherans, the bottom line of the nature of a sacrament is that it delivers the forgiveness of sins to sinners that Christ earned on the cross with His innocent suffering and death. Lutherans do not say how many sacraments there are, for to do so would be to place limits on the grace of God. However, Lutherans will identify Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Absolution as sacraments (and possibly also Holy Ordination, insofar as it pertains to the preaching of the Gospel) because Scripture clearly teaches that these holy things were instituted by Christ for His Church to give the forgiveness of sins.
The Word of God is also joined together with the sacraments as a Means of Grace, that is, a way in which God has promised to give the forgiveness of sins to believing hearts. As with the sacraments of the Church, the Word is a divine mystery in how it works to accomplish what it does. Human reason cannot fathom it out. Human reason will look upon the Word of God as merely being writing on a page, given by God for the purpose of instruction. Lutherans view the Word of God as being the living voice of God that does what it says and that, while instruction is an important aspect of what God accomplishes through His Word, the primary thing that God does through His Word is to announce His grace to believing ears and proclaim to them the forgiveness of their sins. This proclamation of forgiveness is not just the assurance of sins being forgiven in Christ, but the actual giving of this great and wonderful gift of God’s grace. When God says your sins are forgiven, they are forgiven!
Of course, the forgiveness of sins is the mission of the Church; it is the reason why (or should be) believers go to church. For without the forgiveness of sins given by God and received by sinners to cleanse them of all their sins, faith in Christ is placed in jeopardy and, therefore, so also is one’s eternal salvation. Make no mistake about it, sin is the destroyer of faith; it is what separates us from the love of God in Christ. This is the very reason why our Lord Jesus instituted the sacraments and called men to preach the Word—because sinners need to be forgiven or they will die forever. And we are all sinners in need of the grace of God. This is why He sent His Son to die for us and why the Christian Church exists.