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Our Views on the Sacraments

Riverwood’s beliefs concerning the sacraments are in many ways nothing new or novel. We affirm without any reservation or qualification what God’s church has confessed about the sacraments for hundreds of years. We believe that our understanding and practice of the sacraments are grounded in the Scriptures and have been most clearly articulated in the church’s confessional statements, statements like the Nicene Creed (circa AD 325), the Heidelberg Catechism (1562) and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1649) to name but a few. Due to the fact that other various beliefs within the predominant stream of American evangelicalism have largely eclipsed these confessional statements regarding the sacraments, a little bit of explanation regarding what these confessions actually teach on the subject is probably in order. We’ll start with some basic and broad definitions and then move to more specific and significant issues.

Our church, along with our denomination, and just about everybody else in the Protestant world affirms that the New Testament teaches that the church is to practice two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. During the 1500’s, many voices began to sound out in the church and criticize what had become the standard teaching in the church regarding the sacraments, namely that there are seven sacraments in the church: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The Reformers, which included men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Heinreich Bullinger, came from various backgrounds and countries within Europe but all agreed that the New Testament explicitly affirms and commands only two sacraments-Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Discussing the two sacraments instituted by Christ in the Scriptures begs the question of what exactly we mean when we use the word “sacrament.” This is an important question and begins to get at the heart of the meaning of both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many Baptist or non-denominational churches today are probably uncomfortable with the word “sacrament” and use another word, “ordinance,” instead. Even though this may seem a bit nit-picky, arguing about what word to use, the meanings behind these two words reflect some pretty major differences that have some important practical effects regarding how God’s church understands and obeys Jesus’ dual command to baptize and practice the Lord’s Supper.

The word “sacrament” comes from an old Latin word that originally referred to the oath of allegiance that a soldier would give to his commanding officer. However, more importantly, this word was used multiple times in the Latin translation of the Bible which transpired a few centuries after the writing of the New Testament. The Latin word for “sacrament,” sacramentum, was used each time to translate the Greek word that our word “mystery” derives from. So for example, in 1 Cor. 15:51, when Paul wrote in Greek regarding the resurrection, “Behold! I will tell you a mystery,” the Latin word for “sacrament” was used. Very early in the life of the church, the practice of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism was regarded as something with spiritual significance and not simply a means to remember Christ’s sacrifice or to proclaim one’s self to be a Christian. As early as the late 1st and early 2nd century, God’s people proclaimed that the administering of the Supper and Baptism actually involved real acts that God performed in the rites themselves. God’ action in the sacraments is at the heart of what our tradition means when it uses the phrase “means of grace,” a phrase that signifies that in the sacraments God acts in order to initiate a relationship, claim one as his own, and strengthen and nourish the faith of weak sinners.

The word “ordinance” however is used by those who are uncomfortable with the idea that God is acting in the rites themselves and instead emphasize that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are primarily about the believer’s obedience to Christ’s command to partake of the Supper and baptize. “Ordinance” theology is essentially about our faithful response to God and the expression of our allegiance to him.

While we certainly would not make one’s views on the sacraments a test to determine the genuineness of a person’s fidelity to the gospel, we nevertheless affirm that one’s beliefs regarding the sacraments are of monumental importance. Our tradition whole-heartedly affirms that our brothers and sisters who espouse an “ordinance” view of the sacraments are not doing justice to the teaching of the Scriptures or the long tradition flowing from those Scriptures which has existed since the earliest days of the church. Some examples: In 1 Cor. 10:16, Paul essentially tells the church that one cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper without also sharing the spiritual things that are being signified in it. He asks rhetorically, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not participation in the blood Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The word that Paul uses here for “participation” is the same word that we get our word “fellowship” from, which provides a powerful point regarding the real spiritual presence that exists in the administration of the Supper. Paul makes similarly striking comments about baptism in Rom. 6. When Paul anticipates the response that some will have, that believing in a gospel of free grace will lead to abundant sinning, it’s interesting to note just what exactly he appeals to in order to prove that this cannot be so. He basically says that God’s people cannot just freely sin without any regard because they have been given a new identity, an identify signified and sealed in baptism. Paul again makes a passionate appeal, using a rhetorical question. He writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.”

We affirm that how one understands and thus subsequently practices the rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is no inconsequential matter. If the church is correct in its declaration that God actually is at work doing profound and vital things in the sacraments, then one cannot assert that the sacraments are merely commands to obey without inflicting real damage upon the spiritual vitality of God’s church. Denying the biblical and historic belief of the church that the sacraments are a means of God’s grace essentially leaves God’s people naked, alone and severely spiritually malnourished. It is only in baptism that we clothed with Christ as Paul puts it in Gal. 3:27. Only in baptism are we united to God’s corporate and covenant people, “baptized into one body…” as Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 12:13. And at the Holy Feast that our Lord has prepared, our spirits are strengthened and nourished by participating in the very body and blood of our Lord. At the table, we experience the truest and deepest meaning of Christ’s words to his people in John 6, that his flesh is true food and his blood true drink.

For further reading: The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition by James Brownson

Early Christian Doctrines by J.N.D. Kelly

Posted by Steven Crawford at 11:38 a.m.
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