[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
Sacramental theology, in some quarters of American Christianity, needs a reorientation away from an anthropocentric, human-centered, understanding where the sacraments are conceived as mere acts of human obedience to a more theocentric understanding where the sacraments are conceived as divine acts of grace through which God encounters believers to transform them into the divine image by the presence of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Definition of a Sacrament
Sacramentum, the original Latin word, is sometimes translated “pledge” and at other times “mystery” (the Greek Church calls the sacraments the “mysteries”). Both meanings have been applied to sacramental theology, and both are appropriate. However, as Calvin argued in his Institutes (4.14.13), it is the mystery of the sacrament that is primary rather than its pledging function. The sacraments are more than simple “church ordinances.” They are divine mysteries.
When sacrament is viewed primarily or solely as human pledge, it is anthropocentric since it is understood as something we humans do—we pledge allegiance, we testify to God’s grace, we obey, etc. But sacrament as mystery is theocentric because it is something that God does—God acts through the sacraments by the Spirit through faith. Both perspectives are true and helpful but divine action grounds and gives meaning to our human acts in the sacraments. Sacraments are external events (specific moments in space and time) which not only signify the gospel and by which we bear witness to the gospel but also through which God acts by faith to communicate justifying and sanctifying grace to believers through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Sacraments are (1) concrete, material realities that (2) represent the reality of the gospel, that is, they are signs that point beyond themselves to the work of God in Christ. But they do more than point, they are (3) means of grace that participate in the reality to which they point and joined to that reality by the promise of God as they mediate that spiritual reality to those who experience the sacrament. This experience is (4) eschatological as we participate in the future reality of the kingdom of God whether it is the Messianic banquet around the table, resurrection through baptism or the eschatological assembly around the throne through gathering together. The power of this sacramental moment, however, is not contained in the sign itself but (5) is effected by the Spirit who mediates the presence of God through the sacrament as (6) we receive what God gives through faith.
Sacraments are a human witness to the grace of God as well as a human pledge of allegiance to the story of God in Jesus, but they are also divine pledges of assurance and means by which God encounters, communes with and transforms believers into the image of Christ.
God’s sacramental approach to humanity is rooted in creation and revealed throughout redemptive history.
Creation. Since sacraments involve external, created objects (e.g., bread and wine), some have rejected a sacramental understanding on the ground of their physicality. Nothing external or physical, one might argue, can mediate the spiritual. But, ultimately, this is a denial of the goodness of creation. God was present within the creation at the beginning living in communion with the original community. God rested and dwelt in the creation as his presence was mediated through the tree of life, through walking in the Garden, and sharing life together. The good creation was designed as the context in which God would commune with creation and enjoy it.
Israel. While some dismiss the “externals” and “ceremonies” of Israel, they were sacramental occasions for the presence of God within Israel. The temple, for example, was no mere sign of divine presence, but was an authentic location of God’s redeeming and communion presence though the temple—of course—could not contain the fullness of God. Circumcision sealed the promise of God, sacrifices mediated forgiveness and sacrificial meals were occasion for rejoicing in the presence of God, and assemblies were encounters with divine presence. Though these externals and ceremonies were fulfilled and transcended in the “new covenant,” they were authentic experiences of divine presence and power under the “old covenant.”
Christ. The theological root of sacramental theology is the statement that Christ is the Sacrament of God. The incarnation sanctified creation—God became flesh and the flesh truly mediated the presence of God in the world. The grace and truth of God was located within creation in the flesh of Jesus. The fullness of God dwelt in the material and physical body of Jesus. To place a disjunction between materiality and spirituality is to undermine the incarnation. God united the material and spiritual in the person of Jesus. The sacraments draw their meaning, power and efficacy from the union of creation and God in the incarnation. The sacraments are fundamentally Christological rather than ecclesiological.
Church. As the “second incarnation” of Jesus in the world, the church is itself a sacramental reality. The church is the body of Christ and God dwells in the bodies (soma) of believers through the Spirit of God. We—finite, concrete embodied people—are the habitation of God. This is no figure of speech or mere sign. It is real—the Spirit of God dwells in the body of Christ and we are that body, even in our own material somatic existence. We are sacramental beings—we live each moment as the divine dwelling places—sanctified by the Spirit’s indwelling.
Eschaton. While the church is a flawed (by its own sin) but authentic (by the presence of God) sacrament, the eschatological community of God will enjoy entire sanctification in both body and soul. The Spirit of God will transform our bodies—from mortality to immortality, from dishonor to honor. We will live on the new heaven and new earth in Spiritual bodies, that is, material bodies animated by the Spirit of God. We will become like Christ as we are fully transfigured into the image of God and dwell with God in a sanctified new creation. Creation again will be a sacrament, our bodies will be sacramental dwelling places of God’s Spirit, and God will fully rest again in the creation. All creation will be a sacrament as everything will be inscribed with the words “Holy to the Lord.”
High Drama in Community: Assembly, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
“Sacramental” speaks of the mystery of God’s action toward and in us through the external means of water, wine, bread and communal assembly as we experience the story of God (the theodrama) in specific moments. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Assembly are dramatic rehearsals of the story through which God renews communion and empowers transformation. By faith the community participates in this story and rehearses that story together as the church shares the sacramental reality together through water, food and gathering in the power of the Spirit.
Theologically, these gospel “ordinances” (or sacraments) have ordinarily (though with some variation) been construed in this manner: baptism as the means of grace for justification through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the Lord’s Supper as the means of grace for sanctification through remembrance and/or communion with the death of Christ; and the Lord’s Day as the means of grace for communal worship through celebration of his resurrection. In this sense, they are not only gospel ordinances—they bear witness to the gospel, but they are also sacramental means through which believers experience the grace of the gospel in the Spirit. In other words, these gospel symbols mediate the presence of Christ to his community. They are more than signs but are also symbols through which God acts.
They are not substitutes for discipleship or transformation but rather moments of encounter with God through which we are moved along the path of discipleship toward entire sanctification. This kind of sacramentalism is not popular. Evangelicals and the positivistic hermeneutic embedded in the Stone-Campbell Movement have something in common—they ultimately disconnect the sacraments from discipleship and empty all sacramental imagination from these ordinances. Baptism becomes either a mere symbol or a test of loyalty. The Lord’s Supper becomes an anthropocentric form of individualistic piety. Assembly becomes either the ongoing public test of faithfulness (a definition of a “faithful Christian”) which degenerates into a legalism or fundamentally a horizontal occasion for mutual encouragement which is susceptible to pragmatic consumerist ideology.
In Come to the Table I argued that the Lord’s Supper is a means by which we experience the presence of the living Christ and enjoy a renewal of future hope. Indeed, we experience that future anew every time we eat and drink at the Lord’s table. It is an authentic communion with God through Christ in the power of the Spirit. Additionally, in Down in the River to Pray Greg Taylor and I argued that Baptism is a means of grace through which we encounter the saving act of God in Christ through his death and resurrection. We participate in the gospel and are renewed by the Spirit through our burial and resurrection with Christ. Further, in A Gathered People Bobby Valentine, Johnny Melton and I argued that Assembly, wherever and whenever a community of Jesus’ disciples gather to seek God’s face (e.g., to pray), is a moment when we draw near to the Father and Jesus in their eschatological glory by the Spirit. This assembly participates in the eschatological assembly as the Spirit ushers us into the heavenly Jerusalem where we share the future with all the saints gathered around the world and spread throughout time. Assembly, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are moments of communion, participation and encounter.
The sacraments, then, are fundamentally an encounter between God and believers for the sake of transformation and spiritual formation. God is active rather than passive. God is truly present. God is not a spectator but a participant as the Father through the presence of Christ by the power of the Spirit seals, confirms and energizes our faith through communion and encounter in these sacramental events.
The sacraments are an authentic experience of God. The sacraments are not bare (nude) signs but means of divine action. They are divine gifts through which we may experience God as God comes to us in grace and mercy. God is not absent from the creation and only dwelling in the “spirituality” of our consciousness, but God is present through the creation as the Spirit existentially and communally unites us with Christ through bread and wine, through water, and through assembly.
The sacraments serve our faith as moments of assurance which our feeble hearts can grasp through materiality. God’s Word and promise are connected to the signs. Faith is assured that Jesus is ours as surely as our lips sip wine, are bodies are washed and the people of God are gathered. The sacraments are means of assurance for embodied believers.
The sacraments are communal experiences of God. As God created community and redeems a community, so the divine presence comes to us in community as well. Baptism, Lord’s Supper and Assembly are shared experiences through which God is present to bind us together. We were baptized into one body, we eat the one body of Christ together, and we are the body of Christ in assembly united with the church triumphant as well as militant.