Sunday, September 2, 2007

Are the sacraments means of grace?

Stick around something other than an Anabaptist-derived church long enough, and you’ll probably hear the phrase that the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or communion)—are “means of grace.” This thought used to trip me up a lot, as good Lutherans and Presbyterians would teach that the waters of Holy Baptism, as a means of grace, somehow miraculously channeled salvation-power to little babies and broke the stranglehold of the sinful nature.

This line of thinking sounds rather ludicrous, if not at least difficult to understand, as long we think of God’s grace as some sort of “justification juice.” But grace is not an ethereal, impersonal substance hiding between the layers of matzo your church uses for the Supper. It is rather the personal favor and benevolence of a holy God upon needy sinners. Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, ID, clarifies this:

But how is it possible to see the sacraments as efficacious, which the Protestant fathers certainly did, but at the same time recognize that they have no magical power in themselves? We must not think of ourselves as empty receptacles and the sacraments as filled decanters, full of spiritual juice, which are then poured into us. Rather than seeing the question of the sacraments as this kind as an ontological and metaphysical question, we have to see it as a covenantal and relational question. We are persons communing with God, who is tri-personal, and we do so in the sacraments. They are therefore performative acts. A man might say the words “I do” a million times during the course of his life, but when he says them in a church in front of witnesses with his bride across from him, the words are a performative act, and they change everything.

Grace is not a fluid that can fill up a reservoir. Grace is a covenantal relationship between two persons. Now the Scriptures do tell us that grace can be both added and multiplied. “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 1:7). But we have to be careful not to fall prey to abstract nouns. If I pray that someone’s marital happiness will increase, I am asking that a relationship between persons will flourish and not that something will happen in their marital “tank,” something that can be checked with a dipstick.[1]

Thus the sacraments are “means of grace” in that by means of them we are offered, free of charge, all that Christ has purchased and accomplished. When we undergo baptism or later on look back upon it, we see God’s favor in including us in his covenant people and promising us remission of sins, holding out Christ’s death and resurrection to us even when we were yet too young to do anything good or bad (Romans 4:5; 5:6-8). We’re like infantile Israel, to whom while still writhing in her placental blood, the Lord said “Live!” (Ezek. 16:6). And when we receive the bread and wine, we eat what Jesus offers to sinners in and through his body and blood, broken and shed for our forgiveness (Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:53-58). Every time we partake of these sacraments, through the eyes of faith we see Christ, and in him see clearly how for us and for sinners the Triune God really is.

We may even do well so as to say that the sacraments aren’t even means of grace, that is, God’s benevolent favor, but rather we might say that they are grace themselves. They are an undeserved gift, because the whole of them bring to us the person and work of Jesus the Son as ordained and offered by the Father and understood and sealed to us by the Spirit, so that we may be brought to faith and nourished in it. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

[1] Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the CovenantMoscow, ID: (Canon, 2002), 91-2.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

so, how does this all fit with, "do this in REMEMBRANCE of me"?

Is that what you mean by "because the whole of them bring to us the person and work of Jesus the Son", that they cause us to remember Him?

Andrew said...

No, I don't mean that the Supper is simply a "remembrance" and nothing more. It is certainly that. But the word can also be translated "representation," that is, "Do this in re-presentation of me."

In Reformation theology, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper serve as "signs and seals" of the new covenant, just as circumcision did with the old (see Romans 4:11). As signs, they signify God's gracious promises, making tangible to our senses a "visual gospel." And as seals, they serve as guarantors of God's promises, i.e., as surely as this bread is real, is offered to you, and gives you life, so too is Christ and the new covenant enacted in his blood and the forgiveness offered through it FOR YOU just as real.

That's why we can say at the same time that "the gospel saves" (Rom 1:16), and "baptism now saves you" (1 Pet 3:21), because they're ways of offering to us the benefits won by Christ to be received in faith. When we receive the Communion elements, we see and taste and eat--what a full remembrance!--the crucified Christ, and we receive confirmation in the object of our faith, believing his words, "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins."

(None of this, of course, requires baptismal regeneration or bodily presence of Christ "in, with, and under" the bread and wine.)

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Just checking -

Ted M. Gossard said...

Andrew, Yes, I'm much more friendly to your view in seeing the sacraments as means of grace than I used to be, having been raised Mennonite, though I left it way back when. But now in some ways returning to my Anabaptist roots, though I don't think in all ways.

I think Reformation understanding is grounded in or better, it emerged from the theology of the Church as well as grounded in some Old Testament study that says much the same about performative acts.

I like to try to express things simply while hopefully not diluting the truth present.

I see baptism and the Lord's supper as sacramental and therefore means of grace only as there is faith involved. For example baptism is said to save us through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and in that context it is the pledge of a good conscience towards God. Whether of the parent(s), the church, or the confessing person.

Probably nothing new to you. Good words and interesting. I was initially surprised by the regeneration language found in Reformers as well as with John Wesley. But I don't think the typical evangelical take on baptism and the Lord's supper entirely does justice to what Scripture says. Without going into the Roman Catholic belief on these, which I believe is mistaken.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I meant good words and interesting, Andrew. Good to try to think through what we believe and why.