Mars Hill Church began as a small gathering in Mark Driscoll’s home in 1996 and soon became one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. But the church that was praised just last year as one of the “Top Churches to Watch in America” has been the subject of much controversy lately, stemming primarily from its hyper-masculine, strongly opinionated founding pastor. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently ran an article stating that there are rumors of Mars Hill declaring bankruptcy (the Puget Sound region of Washington was home to several of the church’s locations). Even if such rumors are false, they are indicative of the dramatic decline in both popularity and organizational stability the church has seen in recent months. On January 1st, 2015, Mars Hill Church will officially dissolve. Continue reading What Can We Learn From the Mars Hill Shutdown?
A note from the editor: We’ve been running a little low here at EO, but don’t fear. We’ll be back up to speed at some point in the relatively near future. Apologies to Nick Dalbey, who sent in the below article long enough ago that I had to adjust the first sentence to make it time appropriate. -J.F. Arnold
It’s been well over a month since the Future of Protestantism discussion, and Protestantism is alive and well. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion and the articles that have followed in the wake of the event not because everyone is agreed and divisions healed, but because the posterity of Protestantism is secure so long as these discussions continue.
Despite their obvious disagreements, and the backdrop of what Leithart calls protestant tribalism, the Future of Protestantism event illuminated the best kind of unity protestants can hope for: dialectic community. A dialectic community is framed by discussion, not debate; here, participants are friends, and a vision of the Truth is their only prize.
Unlike a debate, discussions don’t have winners and losers; no one is awarded a prize for the best argument; no one advances to the next round in a tournament bracket. All of the interlocutors in a discussion are friends in pursuit of a common goal: Truth. By means of argument, everyone rallies to whoever strikes a clearer path on the journey towards that goal.
As the pursuit of Truth, a good discussion will also inspire the interlocutors to virtue. Participation in a discussion requires rigorous discipline of the intellect and passions; it also requires that you desire the good for your friends as much as you desire it for yourself. It is by the help of your friends that you’ll discover whether your argument is the path toward Truth; and it is only with friends that you’ll ward off loneliness and the temptation to quit.
Disagreement, then, is essential to a dialectic community because it keeps people honest about what they think and, when done in friendship, spurs them on to virtue and to Truth.
John Calvin himself, in a similar vein, argues for this kind of accountability when inquiring into any area of theology.
In his Institutes, Calvin argues that personal virtue should not be separated from knowledge. Especially in theology where God is the subject of our search, Calvin argues that “…our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence.” Knowledge implies a particular kind of relationship between the knower and the known. In contrast to the popular phrase “knowledge is power”, Calvin suggests the opposite. Fear and reverence are a humble access point by which we can recognize God when we see Him. Similarly, these feelings of fear and reverence will naturally arise, as we better understand our sinfulness in light of God’s holiness.
Later, in the same passage, Calvin takes this thought one step further: “…the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself…It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.”
Piety is the recognition of God as the fountainhead of all goodness, and it is the mark of a pious soul that clings to God out of gratitude and trust. As a result, the reward for the pious mind is not the accolades of winning an argument, or proving itself superior, but the knowledge of God Himself.
Fear, reverence, and piety are the building blocks for the Protestant Church’s way forward in the years to come. Discussions, not debates, I think will be our greatest asset in this endeavor for unity in the midst of disagreements. Arguments will come and go, but for posterity’s sake, it’s not enough to be “right,” we have to be good too. Scripture itself, exhorts us to nothing less:
“Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
In the future, I hope to see Catholic and Orthodox Christians represented in such discussions. Diversity will only serve the dialectic community in its pursuits, and perhaps bring about a glimpse of the kind of unity we will experience in heaven.
Links of FoP Reviews
“And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’” — Luke 1:28
Author and podcaster Michael Hyatt, a former Protestant and current deacon in the Orthodox Church, states in one of his podcasts* that in Protestantism, Mary is “eerily absent.”
“I don’t think I ever heard, as a Protestant, a single sermon about Mary,” he says. Outside of the Christmas narrative, Mary is not talked about much. Having been raised in the Evangelical church, this was certainly true of my experience. If Mary was ever discussed in my Sunday School classes or from the pulpit, it was to emphasize how normal she is — presumably as a way to distance themselves from Catholicism, the churches I grew up in presented Mary as just like the rest of us. That’s the impression I was left with, at least.
It’s true that Mary is not divine like God, and she should not be worshipped or thought of as such. Redemption and salvation come only from Christ. However, that doesn’t mean we cannot benefit spiritually from a proper understanding of his mother. To diminish or even dismiss Mary — also referred to as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, or the Theotokos (Greek for “God-bearer”), among other titles — is to miss out on some deep and incredible theological realities about God, humanity, and womanhood.
Now, there is truth to the sentiment that Mary is just like us: she is a human being in need of a savior just as much as anyone else, a fact she herself acknowledges (Luke 1:47). But she is an example for all Christians because she fully submits to and obeys God. In fact, her humanity makes her actions and responses to her circumstances all the more outstanding and inspiring.
Dn. Michael calls Mary the “prototypic Christian” because her humility and acceptance of God’s will for her life is a model for us all. Her humility, he says, “is a huge shift…from the way we think about ourselves as Americans in the twenty-first century. We think we’re entitled. We deserve better. And even as Christians we sometimes think that…why didn’t I get a different life? Why didn’t I get an easier life?…But not Mary.”
After hearing Gabriel’s announcement that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, Dn. Michael points out that Mary calls herself the maidservant of the Lord, and says, “Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) “She knows who she is and she’s content to obey,” explains Dn. Michael. “And she puts herself fully at the mercy of God’s word.” This is central to Mary’s significance to Christianity; Dn. Michael continues, “To me, whatever else Mary is for us as the Theotokos, she’s also the proto-Christian. The first Christian. The best example of what it means to receive Christ, not just with lipservice, but in our hearts, and to abandon ourselves completely to God.”
Further, we learn from her words in the Magnificat that “[Mary] begins with God…in verse forty-six: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ (Luke 1:46) This is the essential feature of Mary’s life. This is why she is the protoypic Christian. This is why she’s a worthy example for all of us…Mary understands: it’s not about her…it’s about [Christ].” Mary demonstrates the proper Christian posture toward God: one that is marked by humility, acceptance of God’s will, and Christ-centeredness.
Another important reason we should care about Mary is that through her, womanhood, motherhood, and unborn life are redeemed and sanctified.
Christ redeems all of humanity. There seems to be, though, a special redemption given to women through the Mother of God. What does it say about God that the way he chose to redeem humanity was to become human, and the way he chose to become human was to be carried by and born of a human woman? God chose to be born and to have a mother who nursed and nurtured and raised him. This says that God values and esteems unborn life, women, and motherhood.
Through Mary, womanhood was redeemed: as Eve disobeyed, Mary obeyed. Through Mary, childbirth and motherhood were redeemed: as Eve was cursed to bear children in pain and suffering (Genesis 3:16), Mary was blessed to bring forth Christ and to be the vehicle of salvation and life. Christ is the second Adam. Mary has been called the second Eve.
Abortion is, to say the least, a tragedy for the unborn children who lose their lives, but it is also a tragedy for the women who lose or even willfully deny a part of themselves that is, in a way, divine. I am not suggesting that women who don’t bear children have an incomplete or lesser identity, but generally (and biologically) speaking, childbearing and motherhood are uniquely female things, and they therefore are part of the female identity. Because Christ was conceived and born and has a mother, the ability to conceive and bear children and the role of mother will forever be linked with the incarnation. Just as dismissing Mary is to dismiss a rich aspect of Christian theology (of which I’ve really only scratched the surface here), dismissing childbearing and motherhood is to dismiss a deep and sacred aspect of what it means to be a woman as well as what it means to be human.
“And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” — Luke 1:41-42
*quotations are taken from episodes of At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast of Ancient Faith Radio. The episodes quoted here are “Mary — The Prequel,” “Mary — The Annunciation,” and “Mary Meets Elizabeth.”
Your righteousness has nothing to do with you.
1. It does not start with you.
2. It is not facilitated by you.
3. It does not end with you.
Most of us probably do not have issues with the first statement. It is easy to recognize that only Christ’s blood justifies us and sets us on the path of righteous living in the first place. However, the latter two statements tend to be more problematic for the Christian. This calls for constant reminders of the means and ends of righteousness.
We often think that because righteousness is manifested by our actions, the process of becoming righteous is our responsibility. Of course, we acknowledge that God plays a role in this process, and it is common for us to pray and ask for his help. However, if you are anything like me, after you pray for a little while, you return to discipline and self-directed control in order to be obedient to God and grow in righteousness. I tend to think of it as a sort of spiritual conditioning in which forcing myself to desire righteousness and acting on those desires makes me into a righteous person. The problem with this thinking is that both the desire for righteousness and the will power to follow through with righteous actions is only possible by the work of Christ.
16th century theologian, Martin Luther, asserts that righteous actions stem from a primary source of righteousness. This is the righteousness that justifies us, and it is only by faith that we can receive it as a gift. When this happens, Christ becomes ours and our souls are immediately transformed. We are changed and made capable of genuinely desiring and acting on pure things. Hence, success in living righteously is a matter of faith in the transforming power of Christ. This does not mean that we should instead put our efforts into growing in faith so that we can attain righteousness. Rather, it means that we should keep to the faith by which we are justified in the first place. In other words, the faith by which you turned to Christ is the faith that will produce righteous actions. By the grace of God, if you maintain your full dependence on Christ, you will be transformed.
Your righteous lifestyle is for the purpose of bringing others to God. God calls us to live righteously, but it is not for our own gain. Righteous living has everything to do with others.
Love, patience, and peace are qualities of righteousness that affect the way we interact with others. Righteous actions are an extension of God’s goodness from a believer to another person. A prime example of this is Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus lived as a perfectly righteous man and he spent his life healing the sick and comforting the weary. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ righteousness had a greater impact on others than it did on him. Our righteousness is not meant to merely improve our lives but to improve the way we live with others. Also, since this sort of behavior is only possible because of Christ’s transforming power, it can only point back to him. Righteous actions encourage our brethren in the faith and serves as a light to the nonbeliever.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking of righteousness as a progression that ends with you. Rather, think of righteousness as a work of grace in which the Kingdom of God is expanded.
By his grace we can possess a saving faith.
By his grace that same faith will bring about transformation.
By his grace our righteousness will point others to back to him.
Christianity does not exist apart from being expressed in specific people at specific times. There is no version of Christianity so “above” culture that it can be pulled down and plugged into a new setting without adapters. With that, mixing and matching Christian teachings and traditions is very healthy for the life of any given denomination or tradition. Investigating other Christian traditions gives a good idea of the essence of “mere” Christianity, saves theologians from intellectual inbreeding, and restores atrophied parts of a Christian’s own tradition. Continue reading Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine
There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.
In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,
If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.
As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.
Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.
When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.
As I’ve been thinking through Communion and Baptism, I considered the possibility that any action done by a believer in service of someone else is a sacrament. My reasoning was that they are gracious acts, and loving one’s neighbor was commanded by Jesus, so these acts seemed to fit the criteria of a sacrament upon an initial glance. However, I’m not convinced that each of these actions incites a necessary conferral of grace. In sacramental behavior one must be receiving, not acting, and there must be an element of faith in the receiving. Now, while the sacraments are conferred by someone, it is only the person receiving the sacramental symbol in faith that is considered a participant in the sacrament. No one can administer the sacrament to themselves; they must be served by someone else. Thus, not every action by a believer can be considered sacramental.
Upon further research, I discovered that there is a healthy discussion among Protestants concerning whether church can be considered a sacrament. Since this discussion sounded similar to my thoughts concerning Christian service as a sacrament, the fact that the church is legitimately considered as a possible a sacrament in some circles caused me to pause. Let’s consider this concept in more detail.
To begin, a definition is necessary: I say the “church is a sacrament,” the ‘church’ denotes the body of Christ in a corporate context, with emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word and ministry among the members.
The thinking of the church as a sacrament on first blush seems to fit the definition pretty squarely: the church is the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of Christ to the world today. In the words of theologian Eberhard Jungel, “The church is a sacramental sign corresponding to the sacramental being of Jesus Christ.”3 This statement is intriguing because it draws a parallel with the language that is also used for communion, and thereby pushes us towards the idea of the church being a sacrament. Moreover, the ministry of the body one to another moves us further towards such a conclusion. If your ministry to me is caring for me and loving me the way Christ would, then in a sense, you are conferring to me the grace that is given at the cross, thereby fulfilling one of the key elements of a sacrament.
The notion of the church as the body of Christ comes straight from the New Testament, albeit from Paul. If a sacrament must be originally instituted by Christ himself, then we may have already stepped too far. Of course, Christ both preached and ministered to others—so in that sense, he participated in these activities and gave significance to them the same way that he did to Communion and Baptism. He even commanded us to love our brothers, which is similar enough to his command to baptize that it bears closer examination.
One objection ought to be raised here: the contention that the meeting together of the body of Christ and it’s ministry among its members was not instituted by Christ as a means by which grace is conferred sacramentally. While acts of ministry among the members of the body of Christ may be gracious, they were not specific acts instituted as a means to recall our minds to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, nor are they outward acts that confirm our covenant with God in Christ. Thus, we must be leery of the claim of the church being a sacrament.
There is more about the idea of the church as sacrament that gives it credence: the concept of reception, particularly in the receiving of the Word of God through preaching. The idea of conferral of grace is neatly demonstrated in the idea of the receiving the Word of God in faith. For example, in Communion, we remember the work of the Word of God (Jesus) on the Cross and believe that the salvation given there is presently being applied to our lives; in essence, we receive the Word of God in faith. It is reasonable to assert that the literal receiving of the Word of God in faith from other believers ought to have credence as a sacrament itself. Such an idea has a lot of merit if you have an ecclesiology that advocates for the necessity of the ministry of all believers and regular preaching from more than one individual. These elements are necessary because sacraments cannot be self-administered—and I have doubts about whether a Pastor who is the exclusive preacher and is rarely himself taught can be considered to be receiving teaching and exhortation. If he is not receiving from someone else, then he is not participating in an element of a sacrament, and it seems odd to count something as a sacrament that is not regularly participated in by all believers. Thus, outside of an ecclesiology that embraces the regular preaching of a number of elders on a regular basis, the element of pastoral ministry cannot be considered a sacrament.
The final objection–which I take to be enough to eliminate the suggestion-is that the margin for error in the sacrament is significantly widened in this practice. While you certainly can mishandle Communion and Baptism, there is a pretty large target to hit and it’s almost impossible to stray into error with nearly 2,000 years of tradition and fairly clear lines mapped out for the ceremonies. Preaching and ministry, on the other hand, allows much potential for error and it is easier to harm someone through their malpractice. This is a major problem for the ‘church is a sacrament’ concept because then the definition of when it is efficacious gets squishy fast, and it seems that sacramental definitions is hardly the place where you want a lack of rigidity.
In sum, the idea of the church as a sacrament is one that gives us many reasons to pause. While initially the idea seems to have some merit, upon closer examination, this notion does not stand the test of objections that are tossed at it.
Regardless, I think there are a lot of fruitful attitudes that come from thinking of the church as having sacramental properties, if not a sacrament proper. First, it gives gravitas to a practice that many Christians feel is supplementary and not vital (in a very real sense—see Hebrews 10:19-25). Second, it gives importance to our interactions with other believers. If your reception of my ministry to you is considered similar to, though not actual participation in a sacrament, then a number of interactions now have weight that perhaps we didn’t give them before. Finally, it would cause us to consider carefully how we minister to our brothers, because our ministries are a reflection of Christ. Ultimately, the church may not be a sacrament, but I do think it would do the body of Christ good to reflect on the ways that the church has sacramental elements.
1 Jungel, Eberhard. Theological Essays: The Church as Sacrament? (Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1989), 191.
2 Del Colle, Ralph. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: The Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007), 262.
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.
A Note from the Editor: This is the first in a three-part series on the Sacraments from a distinctly Protestant perspective. Today we’ll cover communion, tomorrow we’ll cover baptism, and Friday we’ll cover the possibility of the Church itself functioning as a Sacrament.
Recently I’ve had a few conversations about the Protestant sacraments, particularly why it’s important to celebrate them. On the one hand, we acknowledge that we partake in the sacraments because Jesus told us to. However, it is also commonly acknowledged that in many people’s understanding, the sacraments seem to do little for the Christian. Catholics and Lutherans seem to offer a more robust approach to the sacraments, but we disagree on transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Protestants are left with the definition that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are merely symbolic and we are supposed to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice when we partake in them. I did some research and realized that there is a lot of thought behind the sacraments that Protestant Christianity doesn’t necessarily focus on. In a three part series, I want to offer some posts working through my own thoughts on the issue. My aim in this and two subsequent posts is to think through a definition of the sacraments, then Baptism and Communion as sacraments, and finally, how participation in the Church body is sacramental, if it is not properly a sacrament itself.
As a place to begin, some definitions are necessary. The sacraments are a visible sign of an inward grace, instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace, and sacraments are participated in communally by Christians as a confirmation of their covenant relationship with the Godhead.
Crucial to a robust understanding of the sacraments is an examination of the words “sign” and “symbol.” A sign is “a superficial or natural reality but with a deeper and supernatural significance, accessible only by faith.”1 In the course of the service of communion, we receive a representation of the sacrificed body of Christ (given by God) to ourselves, and we (in faith) internalize and receive it by eating. Thus, the sacraments are a sign insofar as they are a thing we do outwardly to signify an inward spiritual reality, i.e., a grace that is given by God and received by us.
The term symbol has been somewhat more controversial, because it seems to imply that something is less than real. While there is a fair amount of overlap between signs and symbols, the distinction for symbol is primarily a result of the incarnation. When Christ entered into the world, he united the human and the divine, and this is an important element that the word symbol captures. Thus, baptism is not just a cleansing of the body (as it essentially was in Judaism), but in a real sense it represents the cleansing of the soul from sin through “death, burial and resurrection to new life.” Jesus’ incarnation and participation in baptism intermingles the elements of baptism with the grace imparted by God to believers. To conclude, the initial definition’s use of both sign and symbol is appropriate, because both aspects are very present in the definition. While not all signs may be a symbol, all symbols are signs, and this seems to fit both definitions squarely.
Understanding the phrase “confer grace” is another important component of properly grasping the sacraments. It’s my understanding that “conferral of grace” is the presentation of Christ which fulfills the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This affirms the faith of believers and gives strength and mercy to their souls. While the sacraments do not give salvation, there is an understanding in the church that grace is somehow imparted through participation in the sacraments. John Calvin had this to say on the subject: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible sacrament.”2 Thus, the action of the sacrament points us to the work done by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to recognize the grace that is imparted. I think it is fair to say that the sacraments, as a vehicle of recognition, impart grace, because the recognition and acceptance of grace is the manner by which the sacraments deeply affect the life of the believer.
There have been periods of time in the church when the sacraments were thought to confer grace regardless of the reception by the human participants. However, theological thought has since revised itself in most branches of the church, and now most churches believe that they confer grace only when the participant receives them in faith. Now, does the eating of bread and wine or the dunking of a person in water itself confer grace? No. But we believe that God is actually using the sacrament as a means of grace to the believer.
The manner of God’s use of sacrament in this manner is debated, but some scholars helpfully argue that when Christ became human, he redeemed everything associated with humanity: souls, bodies, and actions. The idea of the first two entities receiving redemption is one that most are comfortable with, so I will not address them. The main thrust of these scholars’ thought concerning actions is that because Christ did things while on the earth, when He died on the Cross, the specific actions that He participated in had the ability to confer grace. This brings up the potential for objection that all of daily life therefore has the ability to confer grace, as they are actions that Christ did. Perhaps, and I will address this later. The immediate answer, though, seems to be that Christ instituted the sacraments as specific actions that He participated in and then instituted for the Church to follow. However, explicitly stated in the definition is the phrase “instituted by Jesus Christ” and thus, most of daily life is eliminated.
One of the last elements of the definition also adeptly addresses the concern over the inclusion of the majority of Christian life: the participation in the sacraments as confirmation of their covenant with God through Christ. Regular affirmation of our covenant with God is necessary, because if there is anything that humanity is famous for, it is its corporate ability to forget. Israel’s inconsistent history with God is the most obvious example of this, and I think we can all probably add commentary from our own lives. Since we are a forgetful people, we need to be reminded of and reaffirm our covenant with God. By participating in a ceremony that regularly helps us recognize the grace given to us, we reaffirm the covenant that we participate in. While we may live our lives in such a way that reflects our covenant relationship with God, daily life is hardly a reaffirmation of our covenant relationship with him.
The final element of the definition that has not been addressed is the communal practice of the sacraments. It is important to note how believers participate in the sacraments. It is the person receiving the sign who is considered a participant in a sacrament, not the one administering the sacrament. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that you can only receive communion or baptism from someone else, you cannot administer it to yourself. The aspect of reception is critical to understanding the sacraments: it suggests that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it’s all grace, all received, all finished. Even in their administration, they remind us of and reinforce the conferral of grace.
In sum, the sacraments are both sign and symbol, received from a fellow believer, that confer grace in the life of the believer, confirming their covenant relationship with God and participating in the actions of Christ that bring about his redeeming grace. In my next post I consider this definition in relation to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, how it helps correct my own misconceptions, and how this fuller definition of the sacraments really impacts one’s understanding of these two practices.
1Fahey, Michael A. Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: Sacraments. (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2007), 271.
2Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 1987), 1081.
I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. Citing the four main sources of a Christian’s theology—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—it describes reality and lays a foundation for Christian leaders to prescribe how Christians should do theology. The Quadrilateral is true to history, what people do with their heads, and what people actually live through while confirming the chief place of Scripture in the making of theology. Although teachers have to be careful when diagramming the Quadrilateral, it is far better than waving around a bald “sola scriptura!” Continue reading Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral