On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 2)

Protestant, Religion — By on April 25, 2013 at 7:00 am

Part one of this series can be found here.

I was baptized twice. I cringe when I think about it. In brief, I was baptized when I was 8, because it was a public declaration of my decision to follow Jesus 3-4 years before. I was re-baptized at 18 because I had “made my faith my own” and I thought it necessary, since the point of baptism was to publicly declare faith.

I have found that this is a fairly common narrative for Protestants, though the majority decide against a second baptism. The problem is that we don’t understand what the sacraments do for us. Here are a few points we often assume:

1. Baptism is merely a declaration of my decision to follow Christ to the world.

Accompanying this line of thought are a couple of embedded thoughts that enable Christians to think in this direction. First, we believe that baptism is a declaration of a fact, our salvation. Thus it made sense to be re-baptized after one has been “actually” been saved. If baptism is merely a statement of fact with little import in the world, then one can be re-baptized without it having any real effect.

The inherent danger behind this line of thought is the loss of the spiritual aspect of baptism. By not acknowledging the full, rich symbolism of baptism we reduce it to a mere formal external action. While there is great theological richness to be mined from baptism, I will focus on only one aspect for the sake of space. We celebrate baptism largely because Christ was baptized, so this is a fitting place to discover its significance.

Jesus’ baptism is significant for two primary reasons: the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ baptism marks two physical actions that Christians participate in when we are baptized. Since Jesus has already died on the cross, our baptism with the Holy Spirit comes when we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives. Thus when we are physically baptized we point to spiritual reality—the work of Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and the subsequent anointing of believers with the Holy Spirit. The aspect of a declaration of sonship carries with it the language of adoption into the family of God, of being heirs of the kingdom of God, of a change of identity and a number of other resonant theological truths which are harkened back to with submission to baptism.

Reducing the baptismal ceremony to a statement of fact removes the conferral of grace from it entirely. While you are affirming your covenant with God publicly and in community (both important aspects of the sacraments) there is an aspect of intentional remembering that is lost in a mere declaration. Intentional remembering is part of conferral of grace because it presents Christ to our minds, and assists the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (see discussion in first post). Baptism reminds us that behind the external actions there lies a true baptism, the shed blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Further, we must remember that behind the external action there is an inward operation of the Holy Spirit that moves the recipient to faith in Christ’s work and accomplishing regeneration in the life of Faith.1 Without these, baptism–and any sacrament–tends towards meaningless ceremony.

2. Communion is merely a point of remembrance.

Underlying this is the assumption that the sacraments are merely mental exercises, not spiritual conditioning. If this were the case, then re-reading the story of crucifixion or watching the Passion of the Christ might be a better way to remember Christ than eating bread and drinking wine. As we saw yesterday, mere remembrance is not the whole of the Lord’s Supper—conferral of grace is also integral to the process. The point of communion is that it is an external signifier of an internal reality, a sign of what has transpired in a person’s heart. So while its purpose is to remind us of Christ’s work on the cross, it also reminds us that something transpired in our hearts when we committed to Jesus. We accepted the work of the Cross as the covering and forgiveness for our own sins, and we were transferred into sonship with Christ. It is an external reminder that God is keeping his end of the bargain and we are freely accepting the grace that is given at the cross by participating in communion.

In conclusion, the sacraments bring together two spheres of participation, mental and physical and the two united together gives a deeper understanding of the grace that God has bestowed on us. Our tendency is to emphasize one sphere to the exclusion of the other, but both are necessary for full participation in the sacraments. While the sacraments are a mental exercise and a statement of fact, the presentation of them as physical signs and our participation in them as physical elements is also a necessary component. Physical actions reinforce ideas and present ideas to our minds in different ways than words, and thus, we are spiritually conditioned in different ways. Our participation in the sacraments confers grace because it affirms both our spiritual and physical decision to follow Christ, and opens us up to receive mercy for our souls.

In my next post, I want to consider in what sense the church is sacramental, to think through the work of some more recent theologians on the topic, and to reflect on how it is useful in the life of believers.

1The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has a lot of thoughtful discussion of this and is well worth reading.


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