Fuller Understandings - Sacraments

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."

No kidding.

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.

How often?
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!


  1. Very interesting. I take it that the congregation you are going to is more in line with these views than where you are now?

    It strikes me that the predominant view in the RCA that the Lord's Supper is merely a remembrance with no special presence of Christ is not really in keeping with the three standards. They very clearly see some sort of real presence of Christ spiritually when the supper is eaten in faith. I believe that is the case, and if Christ is really spiritually present in the Supper, then he is providing grace through it as well.

    I would like to have you expand on your views of Baptism. There was a time when I found the Baptistic view of believer's baptism very appealing. Yet, as time when on, and I explored baptism more, I found myself moving to a covenant baptism perspective, which is where I am now. However, I must say that the Federal Vision understanding seems to go too far. I am currently in the process of studying it more, so I will not say that they do. As I understand it they want to, how shall I say it, work out the implications of a covenant baptism viewpoint more completely. I can see the need for that to be done, but what I have read so far seems to be a little too Romish. So could you expand on the stuff you mentioned (very briefly I must add) on baptism :)

  2. You're right that "they want to, how shall I say it, work out the implications of a covenant baptism viewpoint more completely." That's the motivation.

    I appreciate your willingness to look into it more, rather than write it off as many do, because it sounds too Catholic.

    To flesh it out, there is an objective, tangible covenant we come into: the visible church. When one is baptized, he's automatically in that community, that "covenant." That is NOT the covenant of grace that saves, though the the visible community is meant to be the means into that salvation. In the church, there is real nurture, edification. Another term one could use is (non-saving) grace, that doesn't regenerate but that edifies. There are some baptized, unregenerate people who are attached to the Body of Christ for a time, who enjoy its benefits, who taste of the heavenly gift, but who end up falling away. One thing Federal Vision people are trying to do is deal honestly with that passage (Heb 6:4 and John 15), not explain it away, while remaining 5-point Calvinists. The objective covenant is a way to do that.

    When you get married, you're a husband. If you cheat on your wife, you're still a husband. Marriage is an objective covenant that doesn't disappear if one is unfaithful. If things continue poorly, there may be a divorce - an objective ending of the covenant, which would reflect the inner unfaithfulness.

    Same with our union with Christ. There is an objective dimension - our baptism and ensuing church membership. If we depart from Christ in our hearts, we are still attached to the Body for a time, and the covenant obligations upon us in our baptism still hold. We are unfaithful to our baptism, which still defines us. Eventually, the church can break the objective covenant (excommunicate), which reflects the inward reality.

    The Church's responsibility is to make the invisible Church (inner spiritual realities) visible (church membership, discipline, restoration).

    In what way does this, or something else you've heard, go too far? I am always interested in hearing reservations to these views...

  3. Your explaination is much better than what I have seen previous to this. I can't remember who it was of the FV group who I was reading on this when it seemed so Romish, but it really bothered me at the time. Yet, I see the need to further explore the ramifications of covenant theology as well. What I liked here was your careful qualification of things, that has been lacking in some, a be it not all, of the stuff I have read on the FV from both sides of the debate. It is sort of like my sense of NT Wright. He is brilliant, but there are things I read in his stuff on Paul that seem to go against the very thing the text seems to be seeking to establish, while other things I find are great; but that a whole other discussion. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. One of my daughter's (9) little friends asked her why she drank the (nasty)wine during communion and Shayna's reply was, "Grape juice is for people whose conscience is bound!". Yikes! I think she's been in on too many late theological discussions with company! Still, it was amusing to hear...out of the mouths of babes!

    And Riley's owner is right...I think the biggest problem with the FV guys is that they (seemingly intentionaly) are so hard to understand, you can't nail down their definitions and nuances. And each of the guys believes a little different than the others. In the long run, I don't think they have done the Church much service at all.

  5. Riley: there's more to weed out with NT Wright, than with FV, I'd say! I am often confused at the opposition to the Federal Vision people. Probably mostly because my primary exposure the stream of thought has been through Doug Wilson's "Reformed is Not Enough." One of my illustrations above is directly from that book. So I'm confused when people say they aren't clear. Wilson is one of the clearest modern writers I've read!

    I know there are others who go further, and Auburn Avenue said some vague and out-there things about baptism, with no qualification.

    Is their intention to provoke? Partially. There is a status quo in the Reformed world, which they believe is not following the Reformed confessions fully. They are trying to change that status quo, which requires some provocation. But they would say (me, too, from what I've read) that they aren't teaching something new, but something old - like what Calvin taught!

    I've found people think they are unclear when people can only imagine 2 theological positions, and the FV is arguing for something in between those two.

    Margaret: I can't speak for all of them, but some have done me a great service, helping me move from a rigid and blind adherence to the confessions, to taking all of Scripture into account in a way that still honors the confessions.