Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just as Christ also loved the church

Last Friday night I was at a cafe with my friends Sara and Sarah, and we got on to talking about baptism. I was asked, "What exactly does baptism do?" I spent probably half an hour trying to explain the manifold things that happen to us at our baptism, but the question itself was never directly answered: What does baptism do?

Despite my fuddled attempts at answering her question, it turns out the question was never the right one to begin with: baptism doesn't do anything for us. Rather, it is God who acts for us graciously therein. Part of even my own confusion is the thinking of the sacraments as a "means of grace," as if grace were some sort of impersonal substance channeled through water or wine. No, grace is a personal attribute of God himself, a way he acts to us in undeserved love, mercy, and faithfulness at the font and table.

In his recent book God of Promise*, Michael Horton explains why we can rightly view the sacraments as something more than just an empty sign alone in which we merely remember a previous act of God or recommit our own faith. "In the [Lord's] supper we have to do with the signs and the things they signify. The ring in a wedding does not merely symbolize a union. At least according to the traditional language, we say, 'With this ring I thee wed.' If this is true in a humanly devised ritual, how much more so in a covenant ceremony in which God's promise has a seal of his own authority attached to it" (p. 168).

Granted, his a fortiori (from the lesser to the greater) logic fails somewhat here, but what a beautiful picture indeed! Just as the ring -- which remains a ring but no longer only a ring -- is an action of the groom to actually wed his bride and promise to her his everlasting love and commitment, so too does God in our baptismal waters and in the meal himself pledge to us his everlasting love and fidelity to his covenant of grace. We can choose either to ignore the ring or take it off in the car before going to work or to the night club, or we can look at it as a most precious gift and know the wondrous reality that a union exists and our Groom will forever be faithful.

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water [almost undeniably a reference to baptism] with the word. . . . 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is great [Can we see here a hint at our baptismal faith-union to Christ? - cf. Romans 6:3-7 and Galatians 3:27]; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church" (see Ephesians 5:22-33).

*Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducting Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006).

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