By Rich Lusk
The thoughts in this paper were largely prompted by a study of Walter E. Krebs, “The Word and the Sacraments,” Mercersburg Review (July, 1867), 366-383. The discussion in this paper presupposes my earlier studies of baptism, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future” and “Calvin on Baptism, Penance, and Absolution,” both of which can be found at http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/cat_sacraments.htm, as well as my “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies” (forthcoming).
This paper is a mixture of thoughts old and new. Some aspects of this paper are a rather tentative exploration of some important questions that have cropped up quite frequently in Reformed theology but have never received adequate answers. Rather than continuing to allow these things to rattle around in my head or sit on my hard drive, I offer them publicly for discussion, improvement, or refutation. Other portions of this paper repeat arguments and ideas I have put forth with certainty and more fullness elsewhere. The propositions here that are new to me and are of a more experimental nature need the context of the more familiar material to be intelligible, so I have intertwined these things into a single essay. By no means do I pretend to have said the last word on these difficult issues; at most, I hope to stir deeper thought, reflection, and discussion.
While the early Reformers maintained a high view of the means of grace, their successors have not always been consistent with their original vision in this area. Blow after blow from the Enlightenment and Revivalism have left the Reformed tradition with a rather anemic sacramental theology and piety. It is likely that many of the magisterial Reformers, particularly Calvin and Bucer, would hardly recognize many twenty-first century Presbyterians as their disciples. The family resemblances have largely eroded away. Calvin and Bucer strongly emphasized that the sacraments were instrumental means of grace, with an objective force. But today, the sacraments, even in ostensibly Calvinistic circles, are viewed as little more than badges of personal profession or subjective reminders of the gospel.
At the same time, while the early Reformers restored preaching to a place of prominence, after long neglect in the medieval church, they knew that preaching was limited. They knew it did not necessarily penetrate the whole person, to the depths of his being. They knew it could not reach the very young or the very old. They knew that worship services were to communicate the Word in a variety of forms, not simply through preaching aimed at the intellect and the affections. They knew that the Word was incomplete without the sacraments. Again, many contemporary Reformed churches have departed from the model of the earlier Reformers. There has been a tendency to totalize preaching, to make it the primary and perhaps even exclusive means through which God grants new life and forgiveness. In this milieu, the sacraments become tacked-on extras, no more than appendages to the salvation received through preaching.
Given the poverty of our theology of the means of grace, a tentative study of some neglected areas of sacramental thought seems worthwhile.
Rethinking the Means of Grace: Ten Proposals
Jesus Christ, as the new head of the human race, completed his mission of saving his people from their sins by dying on the cross and then rising again into a transformed bodily existence on the third day. He then ascended into heaven, and shortly thereafter, poured out his Holy Spirit upon the small band of disciples who had followed him during his earthly ministry. These disciples had already been commissioned to extend his kingdom to every creature on earth. Prior to his ascent into heaven and the descent of the Spirit to earth, Christ instituted the essential means through which his disciples would distribute his redemption to humanity at large in the generations to come.
Christ constituted through his person and work a new kingdom and a new covenant. The chief means through which this covenant would be entered and its blessings enjoyed, as well as the chief means through which this kingdom would grow and develop, are of course the Word and the sacraments. These are the means Christ placed in the hands of his first disciples and these means were clearly intended to be sufficient for the church in every age and place. Through these means, and these means alone, the church would accomplish her mission of discipling the nations.
Thus, Christ’s design is to work through Word and sacraments to communicate himself and his benefits to all the families of the earth, in accordance with God’s covenant promises (Gen. 12; Gal. 3:8). The New Testament, as well as the Reformed confessions, present union with Christ as the ultimate ground and source of all salvific blessings (e.g., Eph. 1:3; WSC 30). If the families of the earth are to enjoy the blessings of redemption, it will only be as they are brought into a living union with this glorified God-man, Jesus Christ. The Word and sacraments must be understood in relation to this union with Christ. But how exactly do these means fulfill their design? How do they form our bond with the Savior? And how do these means of Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper relate to one another? Does each particular means give a unique grace? Or is the same grace received in three forms? How essential is each of these means to salvation?
I offer several propositions in response to these sorts of questions. Please remember several of these are proposals for further discussion, not attempts to give definitive answers.
1. Baptism unites us to Christ.
Scripture is clear: baptism is the means through which the Spirit unites us to Christ. No other means is said have this function; it is the peculiar grace attached to baptism.
This union with Christ as the living head of the new, redeemed humanity is deeply mysterious. We would not pretend to understand all the “mechanics” of it. But at the very least, we may insist that baptism puts the one baptized into a state of salvation. It grafts us into Christ’s body that we may share in his life.
Paul frequently ties baptism to union with Christ (Rom. 6:1ff). For Paul, baptism was a kind of marriage ceremony in which the one baptized is made a member of Christ’s holy spouse, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone (Eph. 5:25-33). Of course, if we are unfaithful to our husband, he may divorce us (cf. Rom. 11:20-22). Or, to use the analogy of Jesus, baptism makes us branches on the vine, full of his life-giving sap. True, fruitlessness will result in getting cut off and being cast away, but the reality and objectivity of the union effected in baptism is indisputable (Jn. 15:1ff).
Paul, of course, can speak of union with Christ without explicitly mentioning baptism. But two things follow from this: 1. When Paul does mention baptism in relation to union with Christ, we should assume he has the watery rite in view, not a mere metaphor. Why mention baptism at all, unless he has the actual sacrament itself in mind? 2. Even when baptism is not mentioned in “union with Christ” contexts, it is presupposed. For Paul, baptism is the foundation of this union. When he uses “in Christ” or “with Christ” language, baptism looms large in the background. Thus, it may appear at first glance that the New Testament has relatively little to say about baptism. But when we employ a “sacramental hermeneutics,” references to baptism become fairly ubiquitous. The New Testament writers are always swimming in the waters of baptismal theology.
Since baptism is the instrumental means of union with Christ, it is sometimes said to be the instrument of forgiveness and regeneration (Acts 2:38, 22:16; Tit. 3:5). These are the chief blessings of union with Christ; they are offered in baptism and received by faith. In other words, baptism is simply the gospel in aqueous form.
Any theology of baptism is incomplete without bringing the church into the orbit of discussion. Unfortunately, many modern Reformed Christians (who, I might add, are more modern in their thinking than classically Reformed) have come to think of the church merely as a religious organization, rather than the living organism of Christ’s body. By drawing various dichotomies — visible vs. invisible, internal vs. external, water baptism vs. Spirit baptism, etc. — the institutional church is degraded to a kind of club. Water baptism, this way of thinking goes, joins one to the visible, external organization of the church, but Spirit baptism is required to join the invisible church. Membership in the institutional church has no organic relation to Christ and no salvific value.
But this is not the view of the New Testament. There is one baptism and one church. While we cannot discern the heart condition of church members, there is no question everyone in the church has received grace and is in some kind of relationship with the Triune God. Paul and other New Testament writers repeatedly address hearers — even those in very precarious spiritual positions — as recipients of salvific blessing. For example, the Corinthian church, for all its problems, is still addressed as a holy community. What Paul calls into question is not their receipt of past grace, but their perseverance by faith into future grace.
Baptism is heavily freighted with implications for day-to-day living. Baptism unites us to Christ as our Head and Husband; therefore we must take our marching orders from him and live as his loyal subjects. Because baptism unites us to Christ, it therefore makes us members of his living, mystical body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is not only the foundation of our relation to Christ, it is also the basis of our covenant bond to one another. In the new family Christ is forming around himself, water is thicker than blood. The water formed family of baptism is our most important community.
2. The Lord’s Supper is communion with Christ and his body.
Baptism has reference to the implanting of new life; the Lord’s Supper has reference to its maintenance and growth. Baptism regenerates; the Supper nourishes. What began at the font continues at the table .
The symbolism of the Supper indicates this. The elements of bread of wine are appropriate emblems of nourishment and strength. Just as food and drink sustain our natural lives, so this spiritual meal sustains our lives in Christ. Moreover, meals throughout Scripture are signs of peace, joy and fellowship that flow back and forth between the participants at the table.
But the Supper is obviously more than a symbol or a subjective reminder. It is not simply another sermon cleverly disguised as a meal. It is a real participation in the glorified life of the God-man. In the Supper, we receive not only Christ’s benefits, but Christ himself. We feed upon his resurrected, new creation life. What baptism initiated, the Supper strengthens and reinforces. Life begins at the font, but it is continued and developed at the table.
Paul emphasizes the participatory nature of the Supper both vertically (with Christ) and horizontally (with one another as members of Christ’s body). We participate not only in Christ’s life, but in one another’s lives. We not only eat Christ; we eat one another, since we are all one loaf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17 emphasize these two axes of unity and fellowship in the Supper: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”
We must insist on the real presence of Christ in the Supper — not in a crassly material way, since the mere particles of a body would do us no good, but in a supernatural way. Calvin’s view, usually referred to as virtualism, emphasized the Holy Spirit as the agent of Christ’s presence. In a mystery, the Spirit joins together believers on earth and Christ in heaven. But note Calvin does not settle for communion with the omnipresent deity of Christ. Rather, we commune with his genuine, yet glorified, flesh and blood. Indeed, it is humanity that gives us access to the deity.
For Calvin, the real, supernatural presence of Christ in the meal was not just a critical component of his sacramental theology. It actually functioned in a soteriological way as well (and herein lies the real genius of Calvin’s whole theological enterprise). For Calvin, we are rescued from wrath not simply because God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us in some extrinsic way. He says that so long as we remain outside of Christ and Christ outside of us, the work of Christ is of no value to us. For Calvin, the heart of the gospel is not imputation (though that is ultimately included), but union with Christ. We are saved because we have been incorporated into Christ, the Saved One, the Elect One, the Righteous One. We are made living members of his Spirit-filled body. We are bound to Christ as a branch to a tree, a wife to a husband, a limb to a body. Only those united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can receive the benefits accruing from Christ’s death and resurrection. In union with the glorified Savior, all he has is ours. We share in his righteous standing before the Father, we participate in his transformed life, and we enjoy his access to the heavenly sanctuary.
To be brief, then, the union with Christ established in baptism is renewed and strengthened in the sacramental meal. We are really and truly given the very body and blood of the resurrected God-man when we partake of the Supper. Anything less would be insufficient for our salvation. Anything less would leave our share in Christ’s salvific resources in question. The real presence of Christ found in the Supper is pure gospel, plain and simple. The Eucharist is the gospel in edible form.
3. Preaching is the very Word of Christ.
The average Christian hears thousands of sermons in his lifetime. Thus, it is easy for us to take the preached Word for granted. But in reality, to have the Scriptures faithfully proclaimed is an incomparable treasure. In the liturgical context of covenant renewal on the Lord’s Day, the proclamation of the Scriptures takes on unique power and efficacy.
What is it that makes the liturgical proclamation of the Word so special? Why give public, liturgical preaching a privileged place over private Bible reading, small group Bible studies, etc.? Certainly God is at work through his Word wherever and whenever it is read and taught and studied, but this activity is intensified in the worshipping community when one of God’s ordained representatives, specially called, prepared and commissioned for the task, undertakes the responsibility of unfolding the Scriptures to the covenant people.
The Reformers articulated what has sometimes been called (quite ironically, given our present day Zwinglianism) a “sacramental” view of preaching. The Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 1) declared that “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God”:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
Calvin  stated this forcefully and repeatedly: “Wherever the gospel is preached, it is as if God came into our midst.” “This ought to add no small reverence to the Gospel since we ought not so much to consider men as speaking to us, as Christ by his own mouth. For he promised to publish God’s name to men, and this he accomplishes by his disciples.” Commenting on Isa. 11:4, he wrote:
When the prophet says ‘by the breath of his lips,’ this must not be limited to the person of Christ; for it refers to the Word which is preached by his ministers. Christ acts by them in such a manner that he wishes their mouth to be reckoned as his mouth and their lips as his lips.
As to the church collectively, the sword now put in our hands is of another kind, that of Word and Spirit, that we may slay for a sacrifice to God those who formerly were enemies, or again deliver them to everlasting destruction unless they repent. For what Isaiah predicted of Christ extends to all who are his members: “He shall smite them with the Word of his mouth and shall slay them with the breath of his lips.”
Obviously these kinds of statements beg for qualification. Christ gives no guarantee that every word spoken by an ordained preacher acting in his official capacity would be preserved from error. Inerrancy and infallibility are properties peculiar to Scripture. Therefore, faithful congregations will test their teachers by the plumb line of God’s written Word as the Bereans did Paul.
But the central affirmation Calvin and the other Reformers made should not be allowed to die the death of a thousand qualifications. Preaching really is God’s voice. The faithful minister really is acting in persona Christi. The Spirit really is present and active in the sound vibrations emanating from the pastor’s mouth.
There is solid biblical warrant for this lofty view of preaching. Since Paul ordinarily thinks of the gospel as something proclaimed, it is quite certain that when he speaks of the gospel as “the power of God to salvation,” the power he has in view is unleashed in preaching. The church will preach her way to worldwide dominion, subduing every enemy of Christ until he returns in glory and splendor. Thus Calvin:
Christ has been appointed by the Father, not to rule after the manner of princes, by the force of arms, by surrounding himself with external defenses, to make himself an object of terror to his people. But his whole authority consists in doctrine, in the preaching of which he wishes to be sought and acknowledged . . .When Christ causes his gospel to be preached in a country, it is as if he said, “I want to rule over you and be your King.”
Christ graciously manifests his power, authority, and rule through the preached Word.
This power is clearly God’s own power. In 2 Cor. 4:5-6, Paul compares the power of the preached Word to the Word through which God spoke the universe into existence. Preaching is the Word of God that brings the new creation into existence.
This Word is spoken by Christ himself, as Paul shows us in Romans 10. Literally translated, Paul says unbelievers must not merely hear of Christ (as some translations have unfortunately put it), but hear Christ himself if they are to be converted (Rom. 10:14-17). Christ himself is the evangelist.
The same point can be inferred from Eph. 2:17. We have no record of Christ taking a missionary trip up to Ephesus during his earthly ministry and yet the Ephesians had heard Christ preach peace! Obviously, Paul is viewing the preaching of Christ’s disciples as Christ’s own voice. In short, Christ preaches through his preachers.
All of this is grounded in Jesus’ own teaching on the nature of the ministry in the gospels. Church officers hold the keys to heaven and hell, in union with Christ (Mt. 16:19; Jn. 20:23; cf. Rev. 1:18). When they open and close the gates of heaven and hell in accord with the Word of God, they may be sure that Christ himself is acting with and through them. Jesus closely identified his ambassadors with himself when he said “he who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Mt. 10:40).
We must also understand the sermon is sacrificial. Borrowing imagery from the Levitical system, the writer of Hebrews says the Word of God cuts us up as sacrificial victims, so that we might be transformed into a gift for God through the fire of the Spirit, and ascend as smoke into his heavenly glory cloud (4:12). Of course, Christ is the Great High Priest who acts through the pastor and the sword of the Word to make us living sacrifices.
A recovery of this understanding of preaching is critical for both preachers and hearers. The practical ramifications are countless. Who can sleep or daydream through a sermon once they recognize Christ’s voice in their preacher’s voice? How careful ought we to be in criticizing pastors (and their sermons) once we learn that they are Christ’s special agents and representatives? How serious is the sin of pastors who treat their preaching task as a trifle, using the pulpit to entertain with jokes and clever illustrations or to push their own political agendas? Richard Baxter described his own calling as a preacher well: He said he preached as a dying man to dying men, as one who might never preach again. Perhaps we should learn to receive sermons in the same way: We must hear the Word as dying men, as those who may never hear it again. That Word is our hope and our anchor. Indeed, that Word is Christ himself. The Word is the gospel in audible form.
4. Preaching makes us desire what God offers in the sacraments.
Heretofore, our proposals have been grounded firmly in the Reformed confessional tradition and the church’s exegetical heritage. As we turn to the relationship of preaching to the sacraments, we must offer our thoughts more tentatively.
Perhaps the book of Acts gives us the clearest insight into the relationship of preaching as a means of grace to the sacraments as means of grace.
Consider Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. Peter preaches the gospel to those gathered for the feast. His preaching retells the narrative of Christ’s redeeming work. The sermon produces a deep anxiety over guilt – his listeners suddenly realize that they are under sin’s dominion and in need of salvation. And so, grief stricken, they ask, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (2:37).
At this point, the Word has done its work. The hearers have been aroused and convicted. But apparently, they still aren’t saved. Preaching alone is insufficient to make them participants in Christ’s work of redemption. Thus, Peter tells them what they must do: “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). They must respond to the preached word with repentance and be baptized to enter into the way of salvation. Baptism, not preaching per se, is linked with forgiveness and the reception of the Spirit. Clearly, Peter believes God will give them something in baptism that they have not received through preaching alone. Baptism will consummate the process of regeneration begun by the Word preached.
The same pattern holds true throughout Acts, though with qualifications. In the book of Acts, the variations in the ordo salutis, involving preaching, baptism, the apostolic laying on of hands, and speaking in tongues, are due to the eschatological, trans-epochal nature of that period of history. They are not necessarily to be elevated to timeless norms for all Christians. The historia salutis always has precedence over the ordo salutis in Acts. But certain principles do emerge that have abiding relevance.
Look carefully at Acts 8:26ff. Phillip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch comes to desire the salvation that is found only in Christ. He may have been a Gentile God-fearer previously, but now he longs to enter the new creation inaugurated by the Messiah. He wants to share in the glorious vision of redemption described by the prophet Isaiah. And so he asks: “What hinders me from being baptized?” Just as in Acts 2, preaching once again aroused a desire for the blessings that are actually handed over to believers in the waters of baptism. By submitting to baptismal sprinkling, he will enter into the promised messianic age (cf. Isa. 52:15, in close proximity to the Isaianic passage the eunuch was reading).
Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 reveals the same structure. As he was traveling on the road to Damascus, he is confronted with the risen Christ. He hears a sermon straight from the lips of the glorified Redeemer. He asks, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” He is told, “Arise, go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” When arrives in town, Ananias tells him, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16). Note carefully: even hearing a sermon from heaven did not grant forgiveness! Only when Paul received the washing of baptism did he find remission. The restoration of his sight, of course, shows that he is being made new and whole as he enters Christ’s new creation. Confrontation with the Word of Christ began his conversion process, but it was not complete until he received the sacrament of initiation.
In the case of the Samaritans and Cornelius, things happen a bit differently. The Samaritans (8:4-8, 14-17) did not speak in tongues when they heard preaching or when they were baptized; instead, this miraculous gift was bestowed when the apostles laid hands on them. This happened in order to demonstrate to the apostles themselves that the blessings of the new age did indeed include Gentiles qua Gentiles. It was not normative, but was instructive about the way the new age would work.
In the case of Cornelius, he and his family receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues during Peter’s sermon. And yet Peter does not conclude from this that baptism would be superfluous, or that Cornelius’s household would receive a different sort of baptism than the disciples had earlier in Acts. Instead Peter says, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47). In Peter’s mind, there is no significant difference in the way the household of Cornelius received the Spirit and the way the disciples had earlier in Acts 2. The minor differences are due to the transitions associated with the in-breaking of a new age in redemptive history. Cornelius was already a Gentile God fearer; the gift of tongues was a sign that God was including Gentiles in the newly established kingdom. Cornelius and his family must not be hindered from entering the new creation via baptism, since the blessings of the new age clearly belonged to them. If anything, the variations in this story from the others are more for the sake of Peter than anything else. His Judaizing prejudices had to be overcome.
To sum up the picture drawn in Acts: Preaching awakens its hearers to their need for new creation life and forgiveness. These blessings are described in preaching and offered in baptism. Thus the Word preached and baptism are part of a complex whole, a conglomerate of spiritual events, through which a person is taken out of the old Adamic world and placed into the new Christic world. When this basic pattern is deviated from in Acts, it is due to the unique redemptive historical situation that obtained from 30-70 A.D., during which the old Judaic covenant grew old until it finally disappeared in the smoke and rubble of the Jewish War (Heb. 8:13), and during which the foundation of the new world order was laid throughout the Greco-Roman ouikomene (Mt. 24:14; Eph. 2:20) .
5. Preaching communicates truth, the sacraments communicate life.
We are now in a better position to see the unique role each means of grace plays in Christ’s new economy of redemption. Christianity is both doctrine and life, and so both Word and sacraments are needed. Krebs gives a succinct summary:
From what has now been said, it will be seen that the Word, on the one hand, and the Sacraments on the other, have their appropriate sphere of action, but stand at the same level as regards their relative importance and necessity. All this may be exhibited, as the general result which we have reached, in the following way: — The Word has to do with truth, the Sacraments with life. The one operates upon the intellect and the affections, the other upon the center of the being. By the Word, men are brought mentally and morally into contact with Christ; by the Sacraments, into actual life-contact. The Word draws men to the threshold, Baptism is the door by which they go in; the Word makes men hunger and thirst, the Lord’s Supper furnishes [bread and wine]. The Word, without the Sacraments, would be without an object without a purpose, without an aim; the Sacraments, without the Word, would be magical, unnatural, impossible. In short, the one is the subjective means of penitence and faith; the other, the objective means of life and power .
The Word and the sacraments work together. They must never be opposed. Indeed, there is a kind of equal ultimacy between these means. Christ designed Word and Sacrament to work together, not to stand alone, in the application of redemption. However we construct our ordo salutis, each means of grace must be given its full due. We need truth and life, instruction and renewal, and so both preaching and the sacraments are essential to a biblically shaped Christian life.
This is a crucial point in our day. In the twentieth century, as the fundamentalist / modernist controversy raged, sometimes conservatives tended to reduce biblical faith to an ideology to protect themselves from liberal influence. Like the ancient Greeks, they held to the primacy of the intellect. All their eggs were put in the systematic theology basket, with little if any remainder.
Liberals, on the other hand, countered the conservative emphasis on intellectual theology with the famous slogan: “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” While the anti-doctrinal tendencies of the liberals must be condemned, the truth is, they had the right slogan. Christian faith is more than a bundle of propositions. It certainly includes truth, but also includes a way and a life. It is not just teaching, it is also praxis. It is not just contemplation, it is also action.
Not surprisingly, fundamentalists were often extreme pietists, concerned only with their personal salvation. They made little effort to bring biblical norms to bear on cultural and public life. Of course, we are now living with the ugly results of their having ceded over all public space to the secularly minded. Recovering a public, communal, life-oriented faith will not happen apart from a restoration of the sacraments to their proper place in the Christian economy. Homiletical ideas are insufficient; sacramental actions are also needed. Our minds need reprogramming, but our bodily habits also need retraining. Just as the military inculturates new recruits holistically with both teaching and ritual, so God’s plan of ecclesial discipleship involves both word (teaching) and sacrament (ritual).
6. The sacraments constitute the people of God in a way that mere preaching cannot.
Some Reformed theologians have argued that preaching holds a privileged place among the means of grace since Paul said “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). The suggestion is that Paul was thankful to be primarily a preacher rather than a baptizer since baptism was secondary to preaching.
But we need to look more closely at this verse in its context in 1 Corinthians. Why was Paul glad that he only baptized a few during his preaching tour in Corinth? Not because baptism is secondary but because it is (in some sense at least) primary! His great fear is that some might say they were baptized into Paul’s own name (1:14) and thus form a “Pauline sect.” Krebs explains:
The very fact, that he conceives a party might with some show have been called after his name, if he had baptized many of them, and never for a moment supposes that anyone would think of making such a Pauline party by his simply having preached to them, shows rather that both he and the Corinthians regarded the grace of Baptism more fundamental than that of the preached Word .
Clearly, in Paul’s mind it is baptism that forms individual believers into a community. Baptism marks out the church in a way that preaching cannot. It sets the church apart as a distinct culture within the cultures of the world. Preaching alone, apart from the ritual of initiation, cannot create this kind of communal body. Simply having Christian ideas floating around in one’s head does not make one a Christian; it is submission to baptism that actually joins one to the body of Christ.
This explains the danger Paul feared: if he baptized those who responded to his preaching, they may be tempted to think of themselves as disciples of Paul, rather than of Jesus Christ. Obviously, this would be disastrous. Paul was thankful he only baptized a few so that this temptation could be largely avoided. But the shared presupposition among Paul and the Corinthians is clear: baptism forms a community of disciples.
Jesus also made this point in Mt. 28:18-20. The nations are made disciples precisely by baptism into the Triune name. Having been baptized, they are to be taught God’s whole counsel.
If baptism in Christ’s name forms the Christian community, then the Lord’s Supper sustains it. Again, anyone, believer or unbeliever, can listen to preaching. But only fellow members of the body of Christ can enjoy the covenant meal together. In fact, when Christians gathered together for covenant renewal on the Lord’s Day in the apostolic era, their stated purpose was to “break bread” (Acts 20:7). They heard a sermon, of course, as Luke records for us, but the real climax of the gathering was the shared meal. In fact, preaching within the gathered community may be regarded as “table talk” — preparation for the Eucharistic feast itself. Participation in this heavenly banquet identifies, bonds, and nurtures the Christian community.
None of this should be understood in a way that relegates preaching to second class status as a means of grace. After all, the community has to be instructed in how to practice love and faithfulness towards God and one another. Krebs explains that the Word is every bit as essential as baptism, though in its own way:
[A] new life mysteriously imparted through the appointed means, it is absolutely necessary that the subjects of such great grace should be brought to a consciousness of their high position, and be directed into the proper way of living and acting. The new life, though in itself real and active, must yet be directed, as to its manifestations, into the proper channel Though the union between Christ and them is mysterious and incomprehensible, yet must they come more and more to realize, every day, the intimate and endearing relation they sustain, in virtue of it, to their divine Head and Master. They must know His will, in order that they may do only those things which are pleasing in His sight, in gratitude for what He has done for them. If in these things they fail, the Lord will surely have a right to complain as He once did, and often does now: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Nor has he left them without the necessary means for attaining to this knowledge and obedience. That means is the preaching of the Gospel. This is the means which, through the outward ear, truth reaches the mind and heart, and moves the will. It unfolds to the Christian, who alone can understand and appreciate them, all the beauties and depths of redemption. It brings out of its treasury new and old. It teaches him how to walk in the ways of the Lord. It is the means of increasing his faith, encouraging his hopes, deepening his love .
So faithful preaching is a distinctive trait of the Christian community, and hence proper employment of Word and sacrament have always been regarded as fundamental, non-negotiable marks of a true church in the Reformed tradition.
Krebs further explains the dangers of emphasizing sacraments over the Word, or the Word over the sacraments:
The manner in which we administer the means of grace depends very much on the views we entertain with regard to their specific nature, and their relation to each other. If, on the one hand, our theory leads us to subordinate the Word to the Sacraments, it may bring us to a dependence on outward ceremonies, and a denial of saving faith, and give us no rest at last until we find it in the unbloody sacrifice of the Roman mass. If, on the other hand, our theory leads us to subordinate the Sacraments to the Word, it may lead us away from the truth and the life as they are in Christ Jesus, to a religion that exists in our own feelings and fancies, hurry us on to religious extravagance and fanaticism, and land us in downright rationalism in the end. The latter is the tendency and danger of the times; the former occurs mostly in the way of reaction . . . To avoid the Scylla and Charybdis on either hand, it is only necessary to maintain and carry out the view that neither one is subordinate to the other; that the Word has its grace, and the Sacraments their grace; that both are indispensable; that one is subjective or experiental grace, the other objective and sacramental . . . This theory will lead us to baptize all infants of Christian parents, and all adults who desire the salvation of Christ, to preach them the Gospel, that they may be directed in the path of penitence, and faith, and of good living, and administer to them from time to time the most comfortable Sacrament of the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ .
The three means of grace are not in competition with one another. Rather, they complement and complete one another.
7. Each means of grace is unique and indispensable, though not absolutely necessary for salvation.
Are the three means of grace different means to the same end or complementary means to different ends? Ultimately, the grace received in the Word and in the sacraments must be identical – it is Christ himself, who is the way, the truth, and the life. So in that sense, the various means all offer a singular grace because they all offer Christ.
But the variety of the means should not be downplayed. When a husband tells his wife “I love you” he does not make a hug or a dinner date superfluous. It is the same love being communicated in each act, and yet each act has its own part to play in developing and growing the relationship.
Certain blessings are more closely associated with each means God has instituted. Baptism is, as we have seen, most closely associated with the formation of our union with Christ. The Spirit joins us to Christ and his people in the washing of baptism. We are inserted into the new humanity and made heirs of God. As the sacrament of initiation into the covenant, baptism is not to be repeated.
The Lord’s Supper, as we have seen, is the means of strengthening and deepening our union with Christ. Through participation at the table, union with Christ gives rise to sweet communion with him. Only here, do we feed upon the very humanity of the glorified Christ. So the Supper has a unique blessing, communion with the flesh of Christ, not found in the Word or baptism, at least not in the same form . Puritan divine John Owen affirmed this uniqueness:
This is the greatest mystery of all the practicals of our Christian religion, a way of receiving Christ by eating and drinking, by something peculiar . . . that is not in the hearing of the word, nor in any other part of divine worship whatsoever: a peculiar participation in Christ, a peculiar acting of faith toward Christ .
As the sacrament of covenant renewal, the Supper is to be enjoyed frequently.
The Word provides the overall environment, the milieu, the atmosphere, in which the sacraments take their effect. Every other covenant ordinance in one way or another derives its warrant and meaning from the Word. The Word prepares us for baptism and the table. The Word then shows us how to live as baptized, communing disciples. The Word plays the role of mid-wife in our new birth at the font and guides us into maturity as we feast at the table. At every step along the way in our spiritual growth, the Word has a critical function to perform.
Thus, it would be mistaken to think of God as parceling out his grace to us bit by bit, a portion here in this means, a portion there through that means. Each sacrament offers the whole Christ, and all his benefits. But each means offers Christ in a peculiar way. This one-and-manyness, or unity-in-diversity, is a basic feature of the Christianity’s Trinitarian worldview.
Calvin focused particularly on the assuring function of the sacraments. The sacraments testify that God’s promises, contained in his Word, belong to us and to our children. Just as a government seal authenticates a document, or just as a kiss reinforces a verbal pledge of love, so the sacraments seal to us the blessings promised in the Word. Calvin referred to the sacraments as the “clearest promises of God.” While acknowledging that God’s Word, technically, needed no sacramental props, God has graciously condescended to meet us in our weakness.
While Calvin’s explanation of the sacraments’ assuring function is not totally satisfying , there is no question the sacraments do play a role in fostering and fortifying assurance. We know we belong to Christ because have received his badge — baptism. We know God loves us because he tangibly feeds us from his table week by week.
God ordinarily works salvation through baptism, Word, and Eucharist together. They are a sort of “package deal” in the church. In ordinary circumstances, these means are necessary for salvation (cf. WSC 85).
But God is not absolutely bound to these means. He can work beyond them and without them, in accordance with his sovereign purposes. If a child of the covenant dies before receiving baptism, the Word of promise is sufficient. If an adult hears the gospel and responds in faith but dies before receiving baptism became a possibility, there is no reason to doubt the person’s salvation. The church historically has said it is not the omission of baptism per se that condemns, but the contempt of baptism. God is merciful and counts the desire for the deed.
8. The efficacy of the means of grace derives from Christ and the Spirit.
This proposition is really more than a tentative proposal since it is securely anchored in the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition. I have argued at length for this high view of the means of grace in other articles, so I will do so only very cursorily here.
The Reformers desired to avoid any magical or superstitious notions of sacramental efficacy. However, they did this not in the way that many modern Presbyterians have – by denying sacramental efficacy altogether, in favor of a crude Zwinglianism – but by stressing the instrumental nature of sacramental efficacy. The force of the sacraments does not reside in the physical elements themselves, which never undergo any kind of substantial change. Nor does the efficacy hinge upon the action or virtue of the presiding priest or pastor. Rather, the sacraments (like the Word) obtain their power from Christ and the Spirit, who promise to work in and through their administration (WSC 89, 91).
Just on the surface of things, even before engaging in deep exegetical study, this should be obvious. Whatever the sacraments accomplish, whatever efficacy they possess, simply must be derived from God himself! As Peter Leithart has reminded us, water does not even exist on its own (cf. Col. 1:17), much less forgive sins! Luther’s question, “How can water do such wonders?” isn’t radical enough. Water cannot even perform its ordinary functions apart from the constant, present, and personal power of God. Its extraordinary powers when used sacramentally are not inherent in the element in any metaphysical or mechanical sense. It is God who makes baptism (and the other means of grace) effectual unto salvation.
Thus, the water of baptism is just water. But as it is applied in the Triune name, the Spirit mystically unites the one baptized to the Savior. In the Lord’s Supper, we eat bread and drink wine, but in the power of the Spirit we receive the glorified life of Christ into our persons, not materially, but supernaturally.
The same pattern is true of preaching. Apart from the Spirit’s work, preaching is just sound waves. The gospel message just bounces off hearts of stone. But as the Spirit acts through the sermon, the Word preached becomes the very Word of Christ – full of life and power (Jn. 6:63). In this way, preaching becomes transformative.
This is important to remember in our day because we face something of a crisis in our understanding of the means of grace. We have negated the efficacy of the sacraments altogether and we have reduced the efficacy of preaching to what theologians in the past called “moral suasion.” Without confidence that the Spirit works and Christ speaks through the Word proclaimed to make it effectual, the preacher himself must make the sermon efficacious. He may try to do so through telling charming stories or screaming at the top of his lungs, but in the end he believes everything hinges on his own gifts, personality, rhetorical abilities, etc. In this context, as Jim Jordan has said, everything comes to hang on a man and that man is not the Lord Jesus. Christianity, without efficacious means of grace, is just Pelagianism.
For the sake of our pastors and parishioners, it is vital that we recover a proper understanding of God’s work in his ordained means. We can rest confidently knowing that God is powerfully and savingly active in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. These means form the core of the church’s ministry and the heart of biblical spirituality.
9. The use of physical means as efficacious instruments of salvation does not in any way detract from God’s exclusive glory in the work of salvation.
This proposition may also be offered as something more than a tentative proposal since it is so well attested by the Reformed tradition, as well as the Scriptures themselves.
Calvin debated with Zwingli and Bullinger over precisely these issues of instrumentality and causality. Zwingli and Bullinger were concerned that nothing detract from the glory of God in the work of salvation. If Word and sacrament were viewed as “secondary causes” of salvation, they would be in competition with God. The credit for salvation would be divided between God and his means. Calvin saw through the fallacy of this sort of argumentation and affirmed that God does indeed work through the means of grace as instruments. In the Institutes he wrote: “God uses means and instruments which he himself sees to be expedient, that all things may serve his glory, since he is Lord and Judge of all.” Calvin claimed God “distributes his blessings to us by these instruments” and “nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments.” He says we must not allow our confidence to “inhere in the sacraments, nor the glory of God be transferred to them.” Instead, we trust in God as he works through these means.
Especially after interacting with Bucer in Strasbourg, Calvin solidified his committment to a strong view of sacramental efficacy. He continued to dialogue with Zwingli and Bullinger, but he never swerved from his basic instrumental stance. Again, in the Institutes, he wrote,
God therefore truly executes whatever he promises and represents in signs; nor do the signs lack their own effect in proving their Author truthful and faithful. The only question here is whether God acts by his own intrinsic power (as they say) or resigns his office to outward symbols. But we contend that whatever instruments he uses, these detract nothing from his original activity.
For Calvin, instrumental efficacy was a matter of God’s own truthfulness and faithfulness. If God was to keep his Word, he must act savingly in the sacraments. Otherwise, his covenant promises were empty lies. Thus, so far from efficacious sacraments stealing glory and credit away from God, efficacious sacraments were necessary to preserve the glory and integrity of God.
In answer to the Lutheran Westphal, Calvin wrote,
But as baptism is a solemn recognition by which God introduces his children into the possession of life, a true and effectual sealing of the promise, a pledge of sacred union with Christ, it is justly said to be the entrance and reception into the Church. And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what He figures.
Here we see Calvin use a formula that became one of his trademarks: in the sacraments God performs what he signifies; he accomplishes what he pictures. For Calvin, the sacraments were not empty symbols, but rich instruments, overflowing with grace, through which salvation was bestowed.
In classic Calvinism, then, sovereign grace does not compete with mediated grace, but makes mediated grace possible. God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation undergirds sacramental efficacy at every point. To say that instrumental sacraments divide the glory would be analogous to claiming that my sandwich at lunch gets some credit for keeping me alive apart the continual work of the Spirit. It is an absurd notion, and therefore a worthless objection to sacramental efficacy.
The modern mind often forces an either/or onto a both/and situation. This wreaks havoc with our theology of the means of grace. When a modern evangelical hears “Baptism saves,” he instinctively coils back in horror, assuming the utter graciousness of the gospel has been threatened. Some physical substance is intruding between me and God! Some human work is being put in place of faith!
Of course, Peter used just this language in his first epistle (3:20). To spell out more fully what Peter means, we could say, “God saves through baptism.” We do not have to choose between the propositions “God saves” and “baptism saves;” properly understood, they are complementary. This is no different than saying we do not have to choose between the claims “God keeps me alive day to day” and “Food, water, and air keep me alive day to day.” Or “God provides my daily bread” and “I work a job to buy my daily bread.” In each of these cases we have God as the Ultimate Cause, as well as creaturely secondary causes (or means). There is no need to pit the Divine and the creaturely levels of reality against each other; in fact, doing so is foolish. The best theologians in church history – the pre-Nicene fathers, the post-Nicene fathers, Augustine, the fathers who met at the Council of Orange, Gregory, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Bucer, Knox, Calvin, the best Westminster divines, Nevin, Sadler, Ridderbos, and so on — have all held to both sovereign grace and instrumental grace without confusion or separation.
10. The “grace” offered and received in the means of grace is relational, not substantial.
A flawed understanding of grace has been the root cause of many bad sacramental theologies in the history of the church. Thomas Torrance’s intriguing work, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, demonstrates the early post-apostolic church went off the rails in several keys areas quite early on. In particular, the patristics traded in a Hebraic, relational understanding of grace for a Hellenistic, substantial understanding of grace. That is to say, instead of viewing grace as a disposition, or attitude, on the part of God towards sinners, grace came to be view as a quasi-physical substance that was “poured into” or “infused into” sinners. Instead of viewing grace in personal terms, as the gift of Christ himself, many of the patristics detached grace from Christ and the covenant.
It should be easy enough to show the problems with viewing grace as a substance. If I say, “I am a gracious father to my son,” I do not mean that I have infused some substance into him. Rather, I mean I take a particular stance of favor towards him. I have described my own personal attitude towards him, an attitude that will characterize our relationship.
By the late medieval period, all kinds of ridiculous views of sacramental grace had cropped up. But all of them had one mistaken assumption in common: grace was a substance infused into the sinner. For example, Hugh of St. Victor compared the sacramental elements to medicine vials, and sacramental grace to the medicine itself. But if this is the case, the vial is superfluous if there is some other way to get the “stuff” infused into us. Peter Leithart has helpfully suggested that rather than seeing four components in any sacramental transaction (God, the sacramental elements, the church, and the substance of grace), we should see just three (the gracious God, the physical elements, and the church). Grace is not something detachable from God; rather grace is precisely God himself in the person of his incarnate Son. God gives grace to us by giving us Christ – that is, by uniting us to the Son through the Holy Spirit.
In Roman Catholic theology, grace as a substance plays a major role. In fact, the Reformation may be considered across the board (as much as anything else) as a reforming of this wrongheaded view of grace. In some Roman Catholic theology, grace is virtually an impersonal force or energy distinct from God. It gets infused into us in a semi-mechanical way in baptism. Mortal sin causes us to “spring a leak,” so to speak, so that grace runs out of us. Penance patches things up so we can hold infused grace once again. While these analogies are crude, the basic point should be clear. Grace as substance was fundamental to Rome’s deeply distorted soteriology, and the Reformers’ major task was revamping the church’s doctrine of grace (as well as making corresponding changes in church praxis).
The Reformers, at their best, scrapped this patristic and medieval view and understood grace strictly in relational, or covenantal, terms . Sacraments were not “channels” through which the substance of grace flowed into us; rather they were personal encounters with the gracious God himself. They were all about union and communion with Christ, rather than some static, impersonal substance.
Again, an illustration may help: When a husband hugs his wife, he doesn’t pour any substance into her, but he does communicate love and build their relationship. So it is with the sacraments. Through these personal symbols, God graciously interacts with us, forming and nurturing his relationship with us. He expresses his love for us. He communicates Christ — his very person, in the form of the God-man — to us.
Thus, the Word and sacraments work in largely the same way inter-personal human relationships work. We relate to one another through various signs — words, gestures, hugs, handshakes, etc. Word and sacrament are simply the inter-personal means through which the divine — human relationship is initiated and maintained. God deals with us through these symbols. The symbols do not “get in the way” of a closer, more immediate relationship with God; in fact, apart from them, there is no relationship with God at all, any more than two humans can get to know each other apart from exchanging signs and symbols. A God without means of grace is a figment of one’s imagination, just as a “girlfriend” one has never spoken to or taken out on a date is a product of overactive daydreaming.
Sometimes Protestants have fallen into the Romish error of treating grace as a substance, rather than a personal attribute of God. While not altogether objectionable, phrases such as “grace is conferred in the sacrament” (cf. WCF 28.5) tend to imply this. Ordinarily, we might speak of a substance being conferred or conveyed, but not a personal attitude or disposition. Perhaps the time has come for Protestants to more strenuously clean up their sacramental language in order to avoid confusion. Salvation is not so much a new infusion or conferral of anything; it is a matter of a new relationship with God. Grace is not a substance, but a dynamic, covenantal friendship and fellowship with God in and through Jesus Christ .
Objections and Reflections: Four Questions
Obviously this analysis raises numerous questions. Some have taken it for granted that in Reformed theology the Word is the primary means of grace and the sacraments hold a secondary, considerably less important, position. This notion, once adopted, has reconfigured everything from our way of writing systematic theologies to our parenting practices. It has even re-shaped our church architecture, making the pulpit visible and central, overshadowing the table and font (if they even have a regular place in the worship space).
We have challenged this notion, not by putting the sacraments in the place of primacy, but by putting the Word and the sacraments side by side in the economy of grace. Word, baptism, and Supper all interpenetrate and indwell one another, analogous to the interpersonal relations within the Trinity. While we cannot deal with every objection raised against what we have outlined above, we should deal at least cursorily with a few unavoidable questions.
1. What about passages that speak of the Word as the agent of the new birth rather than baptism?
We have argued above that preaching draws one towards the new birth, while baptism actually effects it. This seems to square with Peter’s preaching in Acts 2 and numerous Pauline passages that link baptism to union with Christ (e.g., Rom. 6:2ff) and regeneration (Tit. 3:5). But a few passages seem attribute regeneration to the Word:
“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas. 1:18).
“Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Pt. 2:23).
These passages can be dealt with in terms of the paradigm given above in several different ways: 1. It might be that there is a dual instrument of regeneration – that the Word preached and baptism combine together to grant new life. This seems to have been Calvin’s view, since he said (in response to Westphal) men are regenerated in baptism just as they are by the Word. 2, It might be that these passages acknowledge that the Word preached has a role in drawing a person towards new life, even though that new life is formally and officially granted in baptism. This approach views regeneration, or entrance into the new creation, as a complex process, and squares well with evidence from Acts. 3. It might be that the Word in view is the Word of promise and/or the triune formula that accompanies the valid administration of baptism. This view reminds us that the administration of a sacrament always includes some use of the Word. More on this below.
Sadler’s explanation is most satisfying:
It has been argued that St. Peter, and St. James also . . . by omitting to mention the Sacrament, teach us to consider the written word, rather than Baptism, as the instrument of God to bring about regeneration.A moment’s reference to the original will disprove this. Neither in this, nor in any other place of Scripture, are we said to be born of the word of God, but BY the word. We are born OF God; of water and the Spirit; never of the word, but through or by the word.
The Bible (meaning, of course, not simply the book but the truths derived from it and expounded by the teacher or preacher) is as necessary an instrument to produce the New Birth as the Sacrament itself; for if it were not for the word of God, we should know nothing either of God or of His will. When a person hears the word of God, is convinced of sin by it, and comes to be baptized, then he is born again, through the word, of water and Spirit.
The very Baptism with which he is baptized is, as it were, the creature of God’s word; and this word itself is the manifestation of His will. Baptism, I say, is but the creature of God’s word; for it was instituted by the word of God’s Son, and its perpetual efficacy is upheld and assured by the word of His promise. All that is needful to be believed and taught about it is contained in His written word; the whole analogy of which word would lead us to give Baptism to infants, and to believe that by it they are engrafted into Christ.
The word “incorruptible” in the above passage [1 Pt. 1:23] is also ignorantly pressed into the argument. Because the seed is called incorruptible, it is argued that the grace conferred cannot be lost; and because great numbers of the baptized do not persevere, therefore they were never “born again” in Baptism. To which I answer, Is the “seed” mentioned by St. Peter the same as the seed alluded to in our Lord’s parable of the sower? The seed is there said to be “the word of God,” and yet, however incorruptible the seed may be, the plant which springs from it may not be equally so; “because it has no root, it may wither away;” or, as St. Luke has it, “As soon as it sprung up it withered away, because it lacked moisture.” (Lk. 8:6)
The seed has to be retained. It has, in the words of St. John, to abide in the man, and upon this all depends .
We should also keep in mind that “Word” can be used in a variety of senses in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to preaching, but other times it refers more broadly to the living, vibrant, power and energy of God. In these cases, it may be closely linked to preaching but also distinguishable from it (e.g., Gen. 1; 2 Cor. 4:5-6; Heb. 4:12). This seems particularly important in determining the meaning of 1 Pt. 2:22-25. In verse 25, Peter closely connects God’s Word with preaching, but also indicates it is something beyond preaching since it “endures forever.”
2. How does the pattern described above apply to infants?
We have seen from Acts that baptism consummates what preaching begins. Preaching makes men feel a need for the new birth and forgiveness; these blessings are then received in baptism. But what about infants? They cannot understand preaching, so how does this pattern apply to them?
Krebs has an interesting suggestion. He says that preaching removes obstacles and hindrances to salvation, such as ignorance, impenitence, and self-right
The adult is now in the position and state of an infant. There is no impenitence, unbelief, or self-righteousness in their little hearts. It is just here where adult and infant salvation come together. The Savior expressly teaches, that unless we turn and become as little children, we can by no means enter into His kingdom of grace. No obstacles in their case being in the way, they are the regular subjects of baptismal grace, wherever there is an assurance of Christian training, in order that pearls may not be cast before swine. It is from the baptismal font that both adult and infant start out together in the same life of grace, both being from that point on babes in Christ, but looking forward to the stature of perfect manhood in Him.
Krebs’ view, however much we may want to quibble with the details, preserves two important points: 1. Infants and adults receive the same baptism. There is not a different baptism, with a different kind of efficacy, for infants. Scripture teaches that there is one baptism into the New Covenant (cf. Eph. 4:5). 2. All baptism, properly understood, is paedobaptism. We all enter the kingdom as helpless, humble children. Infant baptism is the paradigm for adult baptism, ultimately, not the reverse. This point is shocking to many, since in our baptistic culture even paedobaptists sometimes treat infant baptism as an anomaly. But this simply doesn’t square with the teaching of Jesus about the way in which we enter the kingdom.
So preaching humbles adult sinners, enabling them to pass through the womb of baptism in a new, heavenly birth (Jn. 3:1ff). But just because infants cannot respond to preaching does not make the word irrelevant to them or to their baptisms. As we saw above, sometimes the Word of God has reference not simply to the Bible or to preaching, but to the powerful activity of God. In this sense, the Word of God is infinitely nearer to our children, even in the womb, than we can be. The Word of God is already sustaining them, and thus “speaking” to them in a non-cognitive, but powerful, way. God can communicate and use his word in ways preachers cannot.
But the Word also has reference to infants in another sense as well. They are baptized on the basis of God’s Word of promise (Gen. 17; Acts 2:38). It is that Word that gives the children of even one believing parent the right to receive baptism. In this sense, the Word takes precedence in paedobaptisms every bit as much as in adult baptisms. It is the promise that prompts a parent to bring his child to the font, just as it is the promise that prompts an adult to ask for baptism.
3. Is the Word necessary to a valid administration of the sacraments?
The sacraments are contextualized by the Word. Apart from the Word of promise and the Triune name, there is no baptism, only a little water sprinkled on the head. Apart from the words of institution, there is no Lord’s Supper, just a meal with bread and wine.
Calvin, following Augustine, asserted in the Institutes, “Let the Word be added to the element and it will become a sacrament.” Thus, there is an inseparable bond between Word and sacrament. Reformed sacramental liturgies themselves reveal this. The Reformers insisted, with virtually the entire historic church, that valid baptism required the Triune formula (cf. Mt. 28:18-20) . The Reformers, contrary to the late medieval church, insisted that the Lord’s Supper only be celebrated in the context of a preaching service, and never in isolation. This fits with the pattern Jesus instituted at the Last Supper (note the Upper Room discourse in Jn. 13ff that preceded the Supper itself) and was followed by the apostles (e.g., Acts 20:7ff).
Of course, we need to take care in this area of Word-sacrament relationship, especially as it bears upon our liturgical praxis. For example, long speeches before baptism are often Protestant equivalents of the medieval ritual accretions that virtually hid baptism from the people. They buried baptism under unbiblical ceremonies; we tend to bury baptism under theological discourses. Whatever use of the Word is made around baptism (besides the indispensable Triune formula), it should not cover over the simplicity of the sacrament. Unfortunately, many pastors use the pre-baptismal speech to give an elaborate lecture on the biblical warrant for infant baptism or to explain what baptism does not effect. This sort of liturgical verbosity does not breathe the same spirit as the New Testament, which always places baptism in a rather plain and unadorned context.
The same problem is often evident with the Eucharist. Long winded explanations of the mode of Christ’s presence (or absence, as the case often is!) and long warnings about “unworthy partaking” (usually culled from flawed exegesis of 1 Cor. 11:17ff) have no place. The festivity of the Supper should not be killed by a confession of sin, warnings, or instruction that should have come earlier in the liturgy. Rather the pastor should simply do what Jesus did, reciting the words of institution as he takes the elements, blesses them, and distributes them. Fatherly counsel and encouragement from Scripture may be appropriate, but the table is not the place to sneak in another sermon. Simple prayers of thanksgiving (one before each element!) are sufficient.
4. How does absolution fit into this means of grace scheme?
While absolution was not regarded by the Calvinistic Reformers as a sacrament, it was regarded as a vital aspect of the Word. We have focused thus far on preaching as the form in which the Word comes to us, but what about absolution?
Absolution in the New Testament is clearly tied to the administration of the keys. Just as Christ spoke a Word of cleansing to his followers (cf. Jn. 15:3), so ministers speak Christ’s cleansing Word as well.
But in the Reformation era, discussion of absolution was related primarily to baptism, particularly to postbaptismal sin. All parties agreed that baptism provided a cleansing from original sin and began the renovation of man’s nature. But what about sins committed after baptism? Some in the early church, such as Tertullian, had recommended delaying baptism till one’s deathbed to avert the problem of postbaptismal sin. The better fathers, such as Augustine, opposed this (though ironically, Augustine was not baptized till later in life!).
The Reformers insisted that the cleansing received in baptism covered the whole life if one persevered in faith to the end. There was no need for rebaptism or penance. In the Institutes, Calvin writes,
But we are not to think that baptism was conferred upon us only for past time, so that for newly committed sins into which we fall after baptism we must seek new remedies of expiation in some other sacraments, as if the force of the former one were spent. In early times this error caused some to refuse the initiation by baptism unless in utmost peril of life and at their last gasp, so that thus they might obtain pardon for their whole life. The ancient bishops frequently inveighed in their writings against this preposterous caution. But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life. Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins. For, though baptism, administered only once, seemed to have passed, it is still not destroyed by subsequent sins. For Christ’s purity has been offered us in it; his purity ever flourishes; it is defiled by no spots, but buries and cleanses away our defilements.
The irony in this, often missed by today’s Reformed scholars because of their predisposition to believe in a low sacramental theology, is that Calvin actually held to a higher, stronger view of baptismal efficacy than many patristics and medieval Romanists. For Calvin, baptism’s efficacy did not fade away with each passing day and each new sin committed. Rather, the grace of baptism was ever fresh, ever powerful because that grace was Christ himself.
How then does one go about recalling his baptism? This is where absolution comes into play. Instead of the man-invented “sacrament” of penance, Calvin points to absolution as the renewal of baptismal grace. He says, “Absolution has reference to baptism.” Absolution, like the Word preached, is the Word of God. It is a powerful, forgiving Word that effects cleansing and renewal. Consider some statements (with my emphasis added) about absolution drawn from Calvin’s commentaries and the Institutes:
We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles [and their successors, pastors]. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust.[The forgiveness of sins] is dispensed to us through the ministers and pastors of the church, either by the preaching of the Gospel [including the declaration of absolution] or by the administration of the sacraments; and herein chiefly stands the power of the keys, which the Lord has gifted to the society of believers. Accordingly, let each one of us count it his own duty to seek forgiveness of sins only where the Lord has placed it.
When Christ enjoins the Apostles to ‘forgive sins,’ he does not convey to them what is peculiar to himself. It belongs to him to forgive sins. This honor, so far as it belongs peculiarly to himself, he does not surrender to the Apostles, but enjoins them, in his Name, to declare the forgiveness of sins, that through their instrumentality he may reconcile men to God. In short, properly speaking, it is he alone who forgives sins through his apostles and ministers.
The entire power [of the keys] rests in the fact that, through those whom the Lord had ordained, the grace of the Gospel is publicly and privately sealed in the hearts of believers.
In other words, God’s voice sounds a whole lot like your pastor’s! God speaks his word of forgiveness through his ordained representative. The same instrumental view we witnessed in surveying Calvin’s view of preaching and the sacraments is found in his teaching on absolution. Absolution stands right at the nexus of the three means of grace. Like preaching, it is an effectual administration of the Word to the community. It is also a renewal of the baptismal covenant we entered into at the beginning of our Christian life. And it is preparation for the Supper, since we must “wash up” by confessing our sin and receving absolution before we eat each Lord’s Day.
Again, we must avoid the mistaken notion that each means forgives some of our sin, with the hope that all taken together will total 100% remission. Each sacrament offers the whole Christ. Salvation is not parceled out in bits and pieces. The same grace comes through various means, even as the same divine substance resides in three distinct personalities in the Godhead. Each means grants grace upon grace, in full measure, until blessing is pressed down, shaken together, and running over. Praise be to God!
In summary, what has been proposed by this paper? How can we draw these matters together into a tidy package? Simply put, we have suggested that preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper all have different though equally important roles to play in the application of salvation. Each means offers us Christ, albeit in varying forms. Each means is instrumentally efficacious and is interrelated to the other two.
In other words, we have the gospel of Christ given to us in liquid form, audible form, and edible form. But there are not three gospels, but one gospel, offered in three means. Nor are there three Christs, but one Christ, present in three modes.
So, the unique function of baptism is to unite us with Christ and his people. But in the case of both infants and adults it is the Word preached that gives the warrant and creates the desire for baptism. The pulpit points to the font.
Baptism makes us disciples of Christ. But discipleship means we must sit under the teaching and preaching of Christ’s Word. Thus, the font leads back to the pulpit.
Baptism is the instrument of regeneration, but the new life granted in the waters of baptism must be instructed through preaching and nourished at the table. Again, baptism points to the other means of grace.
Preaching makes us desire deeper communion with God and one another. The first form this communion takes is the sacramental meal. So the pulpit leads to the table. In the Lord’s Supper, the Word we have just heard preached is sealed to us.
But the table leads us back to the pulpit, as well. We have fed on Christ and each other, but now we desire ever deeper instruction in how to carry out our responsibilities within the covenant body. We need the Word.
And so on. We could explore these interrelationships indefinitely. Hopefully our point has been made.
We believe these (at times, tentative) proposals to be important because the trend in American Protestantism, including the Reformed camp, since the rise of Revivalism and the Enlightenment in the early eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries, has been to maximize the importance of preaching and minimize the sacraments. But the result has not been better preaching. In fact, even the best preaching, without a proper emphasis on the sacraments as covenant seals, simply goes in one ear and out the other. My hope is that this paper will push us towards a more balanced, and indeed more biblical, theology and praxis of the means of grace. May God restore and edify his church!
[The elements of bread and wine] are the dishes wherein Christ is served unto us; that by these the greatest gift is given us, and nourishment conveyed for the maintenance of our spiritual life. The life was given us in Baptism; but in and by these signs is conveyed spiritual nourishment for the continuance and maintenance of it.
God hath appointed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to strengthen and continue that life which we received in baptism, as by spiritual nourishment. In Baptism our stock of life is given to us; by the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist it is confirmed and continued. If a child be born only, and after birth not nourished, there is none but will know what a death such a soul will die. It will quickly perish by famine. So it is here. Unless Christ be pleased to nourish that life which He hath breathed into me in Baptism, and by His ordinance to give me a new supply and addition of grace, I am a dead man, I am gone forever – upon this ground, that I receive not the never-perishing food that endureth (as Christ, who is Himself that meat, teacheth us) unto everlasting life.
Quotations from M. F. Sadler, The Second Adam and the New Birth (London: G Bell and Sons, 1892), 312; cf. 214. This is by far the best book I have ever read in terms of expounding the sacramental and covenantal structure of salvation. Sadler brings together an impressive array of exegetical and historical datum to build his case.
2. A fine discussion of Calvin’s view of preaching, and virtually all of the quotations I have given, may be found in Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997).
3. On the need to read Acts in an eschatological frame, with redemptive-historical categories, see Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979).
4. 374. Sadler (273) echoes this:
It is equally impossible to imagine that the Sacraments are types primarily intended to instruct us. If so, they would be out of place in a system replete with direct instruction by preaching and catechizing. Neither of the two Sacraments teaches directly, for neither tells its own story; both of them imperatively require much direct teaching, in the way of explanation, to enable us to understand any one fact connected with them.
The sacraments are incomplete and insufficient on their own. They are part of a system which includes the teaching of God’s Word.
8. This is why Augustine’s dictum, “Believe and you have eaten,” is not quite right. While the same Christ that is received in the Word and in baptism is received in the Supper, there is a unique blessing in the Supper — namely, feasting on the human life of Christ. We do not receive Christ’s flesh into ourselves in the other means.
9. Quoted in John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist (Philadelphia and Boston: United Church Press, 1966), 181-2.
10. There are several problems with the way Calvin attempts to relate the Word to the sacraments. For example, Adam and Eve in the Garden had no real weakness and no need for extra assurances of God’s love, and yet they had sacraments. Sacraments are not just a condescension to our “bodily natures.” They are integral to the divine-human relationship.
11. “Grace, for Calvin, is simply God’s favor; therefore it is an attitude or a relation God holds toward humanity, rather than being a ‘thing’ or a ‘substance.’ See Calvin’s comment on ‘grace’ at Romans 1:7: ‘Nothing is better pleasing than that we have a well-disposed God; that is designated by “grace.”’” Thomas Davis, Clearest Promises of God (New York: AMS Press, 1995), 140.
12. For more on the nature of grace and the sacraments, see Paul Jones, Christ’s Eucharistic Presence (New York: Peter Lang, 1994). Lang (210, 208) explains how a new, more inter-personal and dynamic, understanding of grace helps refine our sacramental theology:
Undergirded by a mechanistic theology of grace, the sacraments served for centuries as “channels of grace” by which worshippers were freed from their sinfulness and were fortified against future failures . . . Sacraments were essentially conduits for a vertical flow of grace . . .[A new theology of grace] makes it possible to avoid a materialistic interpretation of Christ’s eucharistic presence. Instead of viewing grace as a thing which is the “adornment of the soul,” grace is understood as the action which God has historically taken to disclose Godself to the world. Thus, the history of God’s revelation accomplished in Christ, and continued in the church and her sacramental action, necessarily connects Christology and ecclesiology. As the primordial sacrament, Christ empowers the church to be the fundamental sacrament and, in turn, the church is “anterior” to and the origin of the eucharist. Clarified by this new theology of grace, this proper relationship of Christ, church, and sacraments undergirds a proper reinterpretation of Christ’s eucharistic presence.
13. 200-2. In a footnote, Sadler also quotes several other theologians to the same effect. Cranmer: “First of all, the Holy Ghost provoketh and stireth up men to preach God’s Word. Then he moveth men’s hearts to faith, and calleth them to Baptism; and then, by faith and Baptism, He worketh so that He maketh them as new men again.” Luther: “Moreover, when we speak of the Word of the Gospel, we also include the Sacraments; for they have the promise of the Holy Spirit annexed, as well as of remission of sins.” Alford:
As regards the dogmatical usage some make of this passage (James 1:18), wishing to show that regeneration is brought about by the word as distinguished from the Sacrament of Baptism (Titus 3:5-7), we may remark that seeing the ‘word of truth’ designates the Gospel as a whole, without respect to such distinction, nothing regarding it can be gathered from this passage. The word of the Lord constitutes, we know, the force of the Sacrament . . . And is it meant to be inferred that the readers of this Epistle were not baptized?
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