Wednesday, August 09, 2017

A) Sacrament B) Ordinance C) Both D) Neither? (Adapted from old post)

The answer is C. The answer is always C.

When reading this post, keep in mind that I am a Baptist. And I am not a "struggling" Baptist in the sense that I struggle with the Baptist tradition of believer's baptism by immersion. I might be on the fringe with my characterization of the strength of the scriptural support for this position; I think the Bible is fairly ambiguous (or rather, silent) regarding the mode and age of those being baptized--but I would rank the believer's baptism view as somewhat--but not convincingly so--better supported than the padeobaptist view.

My stronger disagreement with some of my Baptist brothers and sisters is over who are the actors during baptism (and communion). I agree that these are ordinances. But I also agree they are sacraments. That makes everyone an actor. It's a veritable full house. And it also results in a tension, for sacraments and ordinances would seem to imply a difference as to who should participate.

Some definitions from

Sacrament: Christianity. A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace, especially:
  1. In the Eastern, Roman Catholic, and some other Western Christian churches, any of the traditional seven rites that were instituted by Jesus and recorded in the New Testament and that confer sanctifying grace.
  2. In most other Western Christian churches, the two rites, Baptism and the Eucharist, that were instituted by Jesus to confer sanctifying grace.
  1. An authoritative command or order.
  2. A custom or practice established by long usage.
  3. A Christian rite, especially the Eucharist.
It is not a minor point that what Reformed tradition called sacraments the Baptist confession refers to as ordinances. In fact, baptism and communion are not one or the other, they are both; what is significant is where the emphasis is placed.

Reformed tradition places the emphasis on the sacramental aspect, whereby sanctifying grace is conferred. God is the actor. God does something. He confers grace (whatever that means), He forgives sins, He renews by the Spirit, and in this sense He effects salvation, not in the "before you were lost, but now you are saved" sense, but in the "work out your salvation" sense--something likened to a gift of (increased) sanctification. A sacrament is promise-driven, the promise being the New Covenant.

Baptism and communion are sacraments.

Baptism and communion are also ordinances. We are, unambiguously, ordered to observe them. But when reduced to merely an ordinance, baptism and communion are no longer about what God does, but what man does. There is nothing supernatural occurring, as if the supernatural realm were off limits to the Creator of the universe. God merely observes as we commemorate His work. An ordinance is actor-centered, and the actor is man.

The initiation rite into observing these "symbolic" rites, practised by much Baptist tradition, imposes a demand beyond what is required by God: the demand of a confirmed faith. A person must provide a credible testimony. For God, an unconfirmed faith is sufficient, and although one ordinarily proceeds to confirming one's faith, many (infants, mentally handicapped) can not.

Of course, something really hard to understand is why something that is merely symbolic must be performed in a precise manner—in some cases to the point where if the correct words are not spoken: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit the baptism doesn’t "count"—even though it’s only symbolic. Go figure.

A question I've never heard an answer to is this: If baptism is purely commemorative, how can it ever not work? How can it not "stick"?

There is a real puzzle here--many who view baptism as purely comparative will go to the greatest lengths to convince themselves that the person seeking baptism is somehow worthy.

At any rate, the epiphany for me was to stop worrying about the mode of baptism, and start concentrating on who is active during its admission—is it God or man or both? If it’s God, does He do something? If He does something, is there any reason to believe that what He does He would never do for infants or the mentally disabled?
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 2:38, 22:16)
Doesn’t sound “symbolic” to me. Something happens. Sins are forgiven. The Spirit is received. Should infants be denied these privileges? Oh, before you say that the person must first repent, I’ll point out that repentance is a gift (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim 2:25) and there is no reason to tell God that He can only give that gift to persons over a certain age.
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21)
Here it is clear that in some manner we are saved through baptism. We can debate what that means, but it means something, and it doesn't mean "God was an observer" during the commemorative baptism.

As I stated at the beginning, I am fine with the Baptist tradition. But I am also somewhat vexed. I am vexed in this sense:
  • If baptism is purely sacramental, then it should not be denied to infants, because it is about God doing something, not the recipient.
  • If baptism is purely commerative, then it should be reserved for actors who have an understanding of what they are commemorating. No infants need apply.
  • If it is, as I think, both, then what?
The best solution I can come up with is what many Reformed Baptist churches do--they practice the ordinance of believer's baptism but teach that it is also a means of grace, i.e. a sacrament.

That feels right, to me,  in the "best solution available" sense. And it works for me for this reason: While I believe that God is pleased to confer grace through the sacraments, I also believe he is neither limited nor constrained by them. In other words, nobody will be denied grace (or receive unintended grace) because of mistakes made by pastors, priests, or elders. We (well, they) can only do the best they can do.

For a scholarly yet accessible exposition of the Lord's Table as a means of grace, from a Reformed Baptist perspective,  I highly recommend:  A Covenant Feast: Reflections on the Lord's Table.

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