If we were so strong and could believe without any doubt that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification and life (Rom. 4:25), no terror or fear would cling to us; for the death of Christ is a sort of sacrament which assures us that our death is nothing. But the weak are affected more by examples than by a sacrament, for because of the greatness of the Person of Christ it does not penetrate hearts so easily and persuade them to despise death.In this passage, Luther uses the word "sacrament" in an unusual way. Nevertheless, he also makes a distinction that has lately been growing in my mind - the distinction between using God's Word as a basis for argument and rhetoric on the one hand, and on the other hand being healed by the efficacious power of the Gospel.
Therefore we cling to examples that are analogous, just as I myself sometimes take more pleasure in the example of Sarah than in that of Christ. The reason is the weakness of my faith. Sarah’s death has greater appeal and more comfort for me, since I know that she was a most saintly woman. Nevertheless, I hear that she dies, is buried, and is forgotten in such a shameful manner, as though she had been snatched from the sight not only of men but also of God and the angels. If this happened to her, I shall not be disturbed, even though the same thing happens to me.
But those who have greater strength of heart and faith cherish this sacrament; and because they believe that the Son of God died for them, they scoff at death and regard Satan and hell as a jest, in accordance with 1 Cor. 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting?” and Col. 2:15: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Himself.” Here Paul is speaking very mockingly and disdainfully about death.
The reason is that for Paul Christ is not only an example but also a sacrament, which is richer and far more sublime than an example. For the sacrament supplies in manifold ways and without limit whatever is lacking in the example. Sarah did not die for me; nor can she bestow life on me. But it is the majesty and importance of the sacrament that it has life-giving power which will restore life to me in the resurrection of the dead.
The example of Sarah is the rhetoric, as it were, which draws, arouses, and persuades us to despise death; but the sacrament brings about and works in my body what was brought about in Abraham and many saints who were raised from the dead.
Therefore examples should not be scorned, since the rhetoric they employ is pleasant; but because the example of Christ is at the same time a sacrament, it is efficacious in us and not only teaches us, as do the examples of the fathers, but accomplishes what it teaches. It gives life, the resurrection, and deliverance from death.
The examples of the saints teach that one has to die, and they persuade us to bear death with composure. Over and above this, however, Christ’s example says: “Arise. Be alive in death. Your putridity will become more radiant and more brilliant than the sun.” For Christ’s example is a sacrament which bears witness and makes us certain; it not only teaches or persuades but proves and demonstrates necessarily that Christ’s death imparts life to us.
In another place, Luther approvingly quotes his protector, Elector Frederick of Saxony, as saying: "Those addresses which are based on the arguments and traditions of men are extremely cold, unconvincing, and weak; for nothing can be adduced that is so keen that it cannot be refuted by other arguments. Only the Sacred Scriptures have such a majestic and powerful tone, even without our effort, that they can meet and dispose of all the debating tricks and compel one to say (John 7:46; Matt. 7:29): 'No man ever spoke like this man! He teaches as one who has authority, not as the scribes and Pharisees!'" (LW 14:283).
God forgive me for all the time I wasted in my youth in trying to convince doubters and deniers of His truth by rhetoric and argument, and help me to check the continuing tendency to do the same! For I now see the truth of what Luther and his Elector are saying here. The Kingdom of Heaven is not founded on syllogism or dialectical persusasion. Rather, the Gospel must be proclaimed, and its efficacy trusted, and the results left in God's hands. To Him be all the glory!