You should be especially nice at church: an examination of Galatians 6.10

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6.10)

This verse strikes me as being counter-intuitive. First of all, shouldn’t we do good to everyone equally? Secondly, if we are to do good “especially” to some, shouldn’t they be nonbelievers? The church is a place where people already recognize the goodness of God. I often think that since a person is saved, they are secure in their knowledge of the goodness of God, and there is no pressing need for my actions to serve as a reflection or reminder. On the other hand, I often feel a compelling need to point nonbelievers to God’s goodness by my actions, so that they too can become secure in God’s goodness. I can recall many times in which I have been more inclined to do good to a nonbeliever than a believer, simply because I want to win the nonbeliever over. When we see a world full of hurting, hopeless people, it becomes easy to be apathetic regarding your behavior around Christians and be more concerned with doing good to those who are lost. Yet, this way of thinking and accompanying behavior is not quite right.

To make sense of this command and readjust our way of thinking, we should start by examining the verse more carefully and then considering it in relation to Paul’s other teachings. The beginning of this verse, unfortunately, is easily overlooked. Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”. Paul is not calling us to neglect anyone in our good deeds. Paul is calling us to live with a mindset that leads us to do good to everyone whenever the opportunity arises. This verse is at the end of Galatians – a letter which emphasizes justification by faith and not by works. Paul teaches that we are not saved by good works. It is futile to try to save yourself or another by doing good. The reason we do good is because our Father is good, and we are created in his image. In other words, we ought to do good because we have been created to do so. When God use a good deed to be a reminder or a reflection of his goodness, then it is bonus.

With the proper reason for doing good in mind, let us consider Paul’s teachings on the church in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s letter indicates that church, as a whole, must be the starting place for the expansion of the Kingdom. Throughout the epistle, he discusses of the church’s obligation to share. The church must share in sufferings, forgiveness, and even material wealth.
In the context of sharing material wealth, Paul writes:

>Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. (2 Corinthians 9.14)

This is a tangible example of the sort of good that needs to be done within the church. We “do good” when we provide for our brethren; this could mean bestowing forgiveness, loving-kindness, or tangible goods. Likewise, our brethren ought to “do good” to us as well and provide in the places where we are lacking. When the church family does good to one another there is fairness and fulfillment. If we take Galatians 6.10 seriously, then members of the church should feel complete in forgiveness, love, and strength. Then, we can better serve to be a light in the world. Think of a stone lighthouse, in which the stones are the members and the whole structure is the church. Each stone lends its strength and stability to the others. Together, they make the structure strong, and are able to provide light to those out at sea. It is necessary that each stone is present and lending all of its strength.

As we consider Paul’s command to do good, we must keep in mind the proper reason for doing good. We bear the image of the Highest Good, and our actions should manifest this. However, by the grace of God, our good actions can also serve to transform those around us. This is what Paul is getting at in the latter half of Galatians 6.10. Ultimately, we do good because we can and should. However, when we do good especially to those in the household of faith, we are being used by God to form the beacon of faith that shines out into a world of lost souls.

Living a “Christ-Centered” Life is Nobody’s Job but Your Own

I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”

This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.

This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.

I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.

To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.

So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.

To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.

I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.

The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.

Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.

I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.

Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.

I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.

Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.

I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.

Heretics and Heresy: On the Intellectual Pursuit of a Christian

Historically, one of the greatest sins in the Christian church has been that of heresy. The theologian Origen was excommunicated when his teachings on the nature of man and God were condemned by the Church. The entire Protestant movement was based in the fact that Martin Luther viewed the Roman Catholic church as heretical, and vice versa. The subsequent divisions within the Church have also been a reflection of this—although some are obviously more apparent and necessary than others.

I once heard a pastor tell how he had been dismissed from his previous church because he was no longer convinced of a pre-tribulation Rapture. To make that clear, this pastor was told he could no longer help shepherd the flock of a body of Christians because he disagreed on a very debatable point in what is the most cryptic and incomprehensible book in all of Scripture.

And so, heresy is one of the greatest sins a believer can commit, but it is also one of the gravest impediments to the Christian journey, both in terms of a personal and intellectual relationship with Christ, as well as in evangelization. So often, we are so concerned about proper theology that we forget that we have tiny little minds. Our relationship with the Son of God is replaced with cute dogmas that we repeat over and over—sometimes from birth, if the situation allows—and we never question them. We attach our ideas to God like a label on a bottle of cheap wine: “Grown in the fertile valley of Old Earth Creationism, this God has already mapped out your days, and will indisputably return to carry his Church to Heaven while he leaves the heretic and the sinner to burn in the fires of tribulation and damnation. Enjoy without questioning.”

And while there is certainly room for dissension and disagreement within the Church, to say that our label of God is impeccably correct is to say that our wine is the only wine. And this is where the cry of “Heretic!” can often become heresy.

As Galileo said, the same God that endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect did not intend that we forgo their use. Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross so that we can go to the grave believing—knowing—that Adam and Eve were literal people, and yet folks like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind make a living attacking Christians who would believe otherwise. We line up across the field from each other, load our muskets, and commence to tear and rip at each other like jackals—all in the name of Love.

Can we see the dichotomy here?

To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in Jesus Christ: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is not to set up impediments for others; we can be firm in our convictions while allowing the difference of belief. Just because one prefers the solemnity and depth of old hymns doesn’t give them allowance to judge another for engaging in contemporary worship. Just because a board of elders believes that Christ will return to rapture his people into Heaven before the Tribulation happens doesn’t mean they have to banish one who may feel otherwise.

The danger of this is that it turns the Church—which should be a community of vibrant, thinking individuals—into what effectively amounts to a cult. Even God the Father, the most severe member of the Trinity, allows Job and his friends to spend 30-some chapters questioning His nature. And when He finally shows up on the scene? The only thing He says is “You can’t understand Me. Ask your questions, but stop expecting answers.” The issue isn’t that Job is trying to understand God, it’s that he assumes himself capable of understanding God.

From the beginning, God has rewarded those who seek. If God cannot guide our intellectual pursuit, wherever that may take us, he would not have given us such a vast scope of reason and imagination. And if that seeking starts carrying one toward the mire of true heresy, it is the duty of the Church to help correct the mistake, bearing in mind that the Church is not your local pastor, priest, or two-bit theologian. It is not the Pope, a Patriarch, or yourself. The Church is the cumulation of human history, subject to God the Father and manifested in a traveling rabbi named Jesus Christ, who, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, founded a demographically and intellectually diverse community he calls his Church. This is the standard to judge by; not the opinion of a man who has nothing more than a seminary degree, a couple years behind the pulpit, and the notion that he has come to grasp Yahweh in all His magnitude and mystery. The intellectual pursuit of a Christian should not be defined by a fear of the Church, but by a love of Christ.

Not that there’s anything fatal about being mistaken; even Peter was an unintentional heretic. But the measure you use to judge will be measured to you, and if you’re prepared to anathematize a fellow follower of Christ over petty doctrine, you had better hope that you have a perfect bead on the infinite God of the Ages. Because if you don’t, you are setting up some unnecessary roadblocks to Heaven. If we judge others based on our personal theology, it’s a safe bet to assume that God will judge us on ours.

This Millennial Isn’t Leaving the Church

I, a millennial, am not leaving the church. Recently there has been a small flashflood of articles unearthing possible reasons and remedies for the ongoing exodus of millennials from the Christian church. I read them as a stranger to the departing crowd.

Rachel Held Evans suggested toning down the trendiness and giving a listening ear to the thoughts and passions of a millennial near you. We are actually thinking about the creeds, science and faith, sexuality, and holiness, but we wonder over them in questions, not “predetermined answers.” Her last word is to “encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

 Brett McCracken rebutted, asking millennials to give a listening ear to age and wisdom. Millennials are highly sensitive to nearby flaky self-images and the nearest one is our own. ‘Tis our season to scrabble through liminal self-perceptions toward a strongly rooted identity. So, the church should take a cue from the millennial and become as sensitive to their potential fakeness as they are to hers. McCracken thinks “that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests.”

Not quite. Evans got timid with her final plea and left it vague. McCracken is being unfair, inserting this scenario when nothing in Evans’ statement gestures to it. Picture this specimen Millennial in a coffee shop with this specimen church-goer/deacon/die-hard. Never mind who asked whom.

There should be mutual listening. If either person actually thought they were coming to give a monologue, they could have found a pulpit or a stage. This is a conversation. Each speaker shuts up every few sentences. Granted, when people are ignored outright, intervention is advisable. But opening the dialogue by staking out one party’s right to be heard over another doesn’t allow for much traction down the road. If we all concede that good listening is lacking but key and then promise to stop tuning out our counselors’ or therapists’ practical tips to improve active listening, real conversations are just around the corner.

Where Evans and McCracken solidly agree, I ask for a significant nuance. In McCracken’s words, “Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived.” I could easily interpret that two different ways: either he means ‘obsessed with first impressions’ or ‘obsessed with the self-image.’ If the latter, then of course we are obsessed with how we are perceived. Christianity nurtures concern for self-image. What begins as a shallow itch for approval is just the shadow of our deep human longing to be seen. We are created: we are created beautiful as well as functional: we are art. As art invites an audience, so we long to be displayed to each other. For Christ to completely restore us to what makes us truly human, we may only expect Him to increase our hunger for more and more attention.

But if in fact we are obsessed with making first impressions, no wonder we are frustrated. First impressions are one or a series of quick insights about a person based on visual (or other sensory) impressions. I don’t say judgments because the word connotes a distasteful opinion that we’ll probably end up dismissing as incorrect. Perceptions could be entirely correct. They just aren’t going to be deep. What we need in addition to first impressions is a certain space to be seen, where those impressions will purposefully become contemplation.

There’s no way to be a functioning human for long in a gallery space. We’re best displayed elsewhere in the space of shared experiences, alongside creations like ourselves. There, seeing and being seen are real possibilities.

Maybe we look to family, friends and professional circles or artistic communities for shared experiences. Yet, in proportion to human history, these are young, recent communities. Additionally, they may be more transient than permanent. They are less-than-guaranteed spaces for shared experience. The church is human history’s longest living community. It offers an extensive architecture of shared experiences (cf. its calendar, reformations and revivals, plus contributions to art). It is a certain space to be seen.

And so I remain a millennial church-goer. While my voice matters, I don’t stay on the condition that I am heard. Although my elders’ wisdom is a far better gift, I’ll persist to give as well as receive. Many, many concerns prick me every time I go to worship—I notice her lack of good discourse on human sexuality, feel her tight rein on artistic honesty, and wonder when her missionaries will feel called to America.  These concerns are powerful enough to activate me toward change and confrontation within the church, but will never rise to become conditions for remaining in the church. I pray to love the church as I hope to be loved: unconditionally. And similarly, I affirm that both the church and millennials have responsibility toward each other—to heed or challenge concerns, not as terms and conditions, but as doorways to unconditional love.

When Church Becomes Class and Fails to be Family

College students move, a lot. You will never find them in the same place for a long, time unless they need to stay in the library for an all-nighter. Whether it’s moving to different dorm rooms each year, returning home for a semester, or changing colleges completely, it is acceptable for a college student to have no real ties that root them to one place in particular.

In this struggle to find some permanence during the inconsistency of a college experience, many Christian college students turn to the church. Ideally, this is a great way to create a family away from home and remain in a good community.

Church is meant to function as an intergenerational community, much like a family. The older generation validating the younger generation in a way that brings about care and love. These intergenerational relationships are the foundation for a healthy Christian community, ushering in the youth and respecting the passing of the old.

In my own church experience, this has been the case: my parents brought me to church as a child and were able to bring me to important relationships within my church. It was by my parents that I was given relationship with others in the church; my own family somehow gave me validity within my larger church family. Today at my home church I still have that relation with my parents and other members who are a generation older and now relationships with those younger than me. I am connected to the church by all of these generations and so feel connected.

But that membership has been lost since my move to college and I can’t seem to find it in any other church I attend.

Church for the college student who cannot seem to get plugged in has turned into a culture of church hopping and church shopping, but definitely not one of church staying. We are always moving, when church ought to be a place of rest and consistency.

Looking to my previous experience with church, it is easy to see why we struggle to become involved in a local church. If there is no family unit by which we are brought into a church, then the integration fails.

Some of the churches that my peers attend end up neglecting that intergenerational aspect, and church becomes more like an optional Bible class. The teaching is good, worship is great, and I get to go with my friends…but after the service I just go home and start doing homework again. I do not really stop to meet anyone else that attends the church, and no other attendees stop to say hello to me. It would be just as fulfilling for me to listen to a podcast from the church and get the same teaching.

Treating church as this fun Bible class is not how a college student ought to pursue “membership” within a church—it does not even seem like they are a member of a greater body when no community is formed. Both the college student and the greater church body have failed. They have failed because they have forgotten the foundation upon which a church community is founded: relationship between different generations.

So as a college student far from home with no family in sight, how does one go about actually becoming a member of a local church?

It starts by reaching out.

I would so much more appreciate it if the churches I went church shopping at an older member of the church had stopped to recognize I was a new attendee and said hello. But from my experience, that does not seem to be the case. Sure, maybe the first Sunday I attend a church no one will notice, but by the second or third Sunday I would hope someone might pursue fellowship with me, ask me how I enjoyed the sermon or how I might like to sit by them in the service next Sunday. Forming a relationship where I did not have to be the first person to reach out would show me that I was going to a church that valued its new members and wanted them to keep coming. Something simple that a church can do is notice young and lonely looking members and invite them to sit with a family. I know that this would make me feel at home in a new church.

But sometimes this is not the case, especially in a church with a lot of younger attendees who come alone and few older members who come with a family. In that case it’s time for the college student to just try to reach out to other younger members. It does not create the same intergenerational interactions, but it does begin the process of building relationships within a church and adopts more members into the local church community.

There is now reason to attend each Sunday (outside of teaching, which could be supplemented elsewhere) and people to look forward to seeing. The potential for becoming more involved sky rockets when you know someone who is in the know and can introduce you to others.

In light of this, let us members of Christ take initiative to act more like a church.

Love and Knowledge: Why ditching theology isn’t the answer

“Theology is ok for some people, but for me, I think it’s a lot better just to love people, you know?”

At least, that’s what a growing chunk of evangelicals are saying. But does it hold up? Does it actually work? Does it even make any sense?

This sentiment gets part of it right, at least. The Church is supposed to love people as Christ loves people. That is, we are supposed to desire the good of others and to act for that good, even when that requires sacrifice. To love, in the Christian sense, is to be selflessly committed to the capital-G “Good” of the beloved (which, for the Christian, is everyone).

So far, so good. But here’s where it gets tricky: that desire and commitment for the good of the beloved is actually fairly useless without a corresponding knowledge of both the beloved and the Good. Because while it might be fairly easy to affect happiness in the beloved, Good is often a lot trickier.

This is easiest to see in areas like parenting, where working towards the Good of your children is often uncomfortable and even counter-intuitive. Making your children happy, without caring for any other consequences, is easy: working towards their actual Good is difficult. That’s why it’s possible for parents to genuinely love their children, to genuinely desire their Good, yet spoil them rotten. Some parents believe that the best way to achieve the Good of the child is to make them happy, to give them whatever they want, to appease them at all costs. This kind of “love” takes the form of limitless candy, unending indulgence, and an utter lack of discipline: a course of action sure to produce a happy child. Unfortunately, that child will also likely be insufferable, malnourished, and utterly unprepared for the larger world. In this case, genuinely loving actions on the part of the parents actually work against the Good of the child, due to a lack of knowledge regarding both children and their Good.

Even actions motivated by true, unselfish love can have disastrous consequences, if not based on true knowledge. Love alone is insufficient, because working towards the Good of the beloved requires a real knowledge both of the beloved and the Good. And this especially applies to the Church’s relationship to people.

We are to love people, as Christ loved us. On this the Bible is very clear, and on this, at least, all of the varied claimants to the title of Christians can agree. “God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tells us, and one of Jesus’ last commands to the disciples before his death is “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” That is, indeed, the mark of the Christian, and 1 John emphasizes that God himself is love, and that loving is the mark of a true Christian.

And, to a certain extent, we can love well thanks to common grace and general revelation, gifts given by God to all people. Paul tells us in Romans that the Law, intended to guide humanity towards God, is written on the hearts of men. To some extent, we know what is Good for people. We know that parents should feed and protect their children, we know that some things are good and some things are bad. As far as this knowledge takes us, we can love rightly, we can know what is Good and act towards it.

Again: so far, so good.

Unfortunately, that knowledge of the Good is fundamentally broken and insufficient. Whatever true knowledge we retain, we have lost much more, and we’re even worse off when it comes to acting on it.   Jeremiah 17 states our situation clearly: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick: Who can understand it?” It is actively deceitful, pushing us towards what we know is evil; it is also constantly sick, an utterly insufficient guide. If you rely solely on your heart to make decisions, you’re gonna have a bad time. You might be acting out of love, but you will not be acting for the Good of your beloved.

So where do we get this knowledge? Where are we to find this knowledge of humanity, if our heart is so deceitful? Who will tell us how to love, if we are so desperately sick? For the Church, there is only one answer: God. The one who knows what we are for, because he is the one who made us that way to begin with. True knowledge of humanity, and humanity’s Good,  can only come from true knowledge of God and what he created us for.

And unfortunately for some denominations, it does not work backwards: you cannot look to your own heart and try to find God with that, because you will only end up with an even larger lie, consumed by an even more desperate sickness. We cannot make God in our own image, for our image is already disfigured. Nor can we look to our own selves for the good of humanity, because we are fundamentally broken, barely even human ourselves.

We are left with only one solution: theology. What we as people are, what we were created for, how we best pursue our Good and the Good of others…the ultimate guide to all of that must be God, and God alone.

So no, blog writers and internet commenters that so irritate me, you cannot leave the theology and “just get on with the business of love.” You cannot learn to love well without theology. If you want to love people well, to genuinely work towards their Good, you cannot afford to leave the theology behind. It is theology that tells us about God, and in turn tells us about people. The two go hand-in-hand.

One last thing: I do understand where this desire to step away from theology comes from. There’s also a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have theology that is technically correct, but do not use it to love well (or worse still, use faulty theology as a weapon to harm people). But throwing out theology entirely (or separating it from our day-to-day lives) cannot be the solution.

Evangelical Denominations and Their Chieftains

Who is the chief of the evangelicals? Is it John Piper? Mark Driscoll? Joel Osteen? Rob Bell? All of the above are marked as evangelicals in one place or another. Two are Calvinists and two very clearly are not. In anthropology, we see two different kinds of chiefs, the war chief and the paramount chief: the war chief rules through charisma and persuasion to unite tribes for war, and his authority dissipates when the war is over or he dies; the paramount chief is the chief because of tradition, and his son or relative will inherit his authority when he dies. Denominations have paramount chiefs, but congregations may not know who they are. Evangelicals have war chiefs, but who is the paramount chief? Continue reading Evangelical Denominations and Their Chieftains

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 1)

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.

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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.

When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin

Let’s just call him Pastor Bob. In church, he was Gandalf. Gandalf could do anything! Church cannot go on without him! What do you do when the Sin Balrog takes down Pastor Bob? Whether it was embezzlement, pornography, adultery, child molestation, addictions, or any one of a thousand things, it was big and you know that Pastor Bob the Grey will not be coming back as Pastor Bob the White. Maybe the Sin Balrog went down with Pastor Bob, but orcs and demons abound and you have to run on — without Pastor Bob. Continue reading When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin