First installment of essays describing theological changes that have led us to where we are going. There are no radical departures from Christianity, Protestantism, or Reformed theology here (some would argue the last one). I think it's getting back to what the Reformation was all about.
Tabletalk, the devotional magazine from Ligonier Ministries (RC Sproul), says this today: "The medieval abuses of the church, coupled with the modern tendency toward naturalism, have caused many evangelicals to be wary about the sacraments."
What happens in sacraments?
Protestants still suffer from over-reaction against Roman medieval abuses today. We have an allergic reaction to anything hinting that something real might actually happen in sacraments. No, we say, it's just a picture, a symbol, another way for our minds to get around the Gospel. Neither Calvin, Luther, nor the Westminster writers agreed with this. When God gives signs (to Abraham, Moses, etc.), it actually builds up our faith. There is a middle ground between saying the sacraments do nothing, and saying they save you automatically. Those with true faith in Jesus Christ are truly, really, spiritually nourished by Him through the Spirit when they eat at the Table. And when one is baptized, he is truly, really, spiritually connected to Jesus (John 15:1ff), and His Body the Church, through the Spirit. Gotta be careful there, I know. Can you be connected to Jesus, but not be saved in the end? I think so. Hebrews 6:4-6: "It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back..." Or John 15:2: "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit." So a branch that WAS in Christ is cut off in the end. That falling away, that cutting off, is not from salvation, but from having been a part of the Body, the Root, of Christ. The sacraments, especially baptism, make us a part of that Body/Root. So the sacraments actually DO something, they actually confer a grace (they are called means of grace, after all), but not without true faith and not automatically - only by the Spirit's working. And there are exceptions to this - the thief on the cross wasn't baptized but was saved. God is not confined to use baptism and the Supper to confer grace, but He usually does use these means. One other caveat: this doesn't undermine the perseverance of saints either, as it is not considering them. The tares within the church who are baptized won't persevere. Those with saving faith will have that faith nurtured in the Sacraments, and WILL persevere.
I've come to believe that the Church should commune with Christ at His Table each time she gathers for worship and hears the Word preached. We ought to move in the same church service from hearing God's Word to beginning to obey Him by coming to Him at His Table, each week. Of course, this is an ideal. Calvin wanted it in Geneva, but never got there, if my memory serves. Many fellowships are realizing the importance of the sacraments and moving slowly to monthly, or bi-weekly Communion. This is great. The more often we sit to eat with our Lord, the more often He deals with our sin and feeds our souls in a mysterious but real way. We are not fed spiritually merely by mentally hearing words in a sermon, but also through water, bread and wine.
What to use?
Which brings up another question. What's with the grape juice? Old Testament saints, Jesus, and the Church for 1800 years used wine. Recently we've become aware of the addictive dangers of alcoholism and so are hesitant to stumble a weaker brother. The Temperance movement preached the evils of alcohol itself, sensitive to the social decline that does set in when it is abused. This may be a legitimate reason to have grape juice available for such an addicted person. But we ought not make it the general rule for everyone if Jesus instituted bread and wine for His followers. We neglect God's gifts to us (Ps 104:15; Isa 25:6; many others) if we are overly scrupulous. Like the Pharisees, we build a fence around the law and end up breaking its spirit. To avoid working on Sabbath, they would refrain even from helping their neighbors. We, to avoid stumbling, neglect God's gifts and commands regarding the sacrament. Martin Luther: "Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?" This isn't a big deal in itself - the wine or juice thing - but it points to spiritual problems within ourselves.
This was really condensed for such big and controversial topics. Feel free to ask questions!