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Sacraments - Part I

The Eucharist


The word “sacrament” is derived from the Latin sacramentum which had two general uses: (1) It referred to the sum of money deposited by contending parties involved in a court proceeding. The amount subsequently forfeited by the loser was often applied to sacred purposes. The verb sacrare meant to dedicate or allot something to a god. (2) It was also used in military circles for the obligation of a soldier to his leader or country and later for the oath by which he solemnly pledged obedience to them. From the 3rd century on it was used to describe religious rites and ceremonies. This is evidently its link with the Greek musterion (“mystery”), a secret or something into the knowledge of which one must be initiated. Broadly speaking it came to designate any sign which possessed a hidden meaning. Virtually all religious ceremonies were at one time called sacraments.


Why do we call baptism and the eucharist “sacraments”? What do they share in common that other religious ceremonies or activities don’t?


·      They were instituted directly by Christ (the eucharist on the night of his betrayal and baptism on the eve of his ascension; Mt. 26:26-29; 28:19; Mark 14:22-25; 16:16; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-29)


·      They were designed to be perpetual, observed until Christ returns (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:26).


·      They are rites in which material, tangible elements are used (water, bread and wine).


·      They are signs or representations of spiritual blessing (baptism represents or signifies spiritual purification; the eucharist represents or signifies spiritual nourishment or sustenance).


·      They are seals which serve to strengthen and confirm faith. As seals they not only remind us of invisible things but also authenticate them to our religious consciousness; they serve to strengthen and apply the inward grace which is wrought in our hearts by the HS. They are not merely cognitive indicators but function as means of grace insofar as they are used by the HS to enhance within us the spiritual life which has been implanted by the Word through faith.


How, then, should we define a “sacrament” or “ordinance”? A sacrament is an act of worship instituted by Jesus to be observed until he returns wherein by tangible signs the grace of Christ and the benefits of his redemptive work are communicated to believers.


How many sacraments or ordinances are there? Protestants recognize two (the Lord’s Supper and water baptism), to which Roman Catholics add five (marriage, ordination, penance, confirmation, and extreme unction).


Thomas Aquinas argued for an analogy between physical and spiritual life in mankind. We are born, strengthened, nourished, need recovery from illness, propagate the species, need the guidance of legitimate authority, and depart this world. The sacraments provide for each of these in the spiritual realm: we are born (again) in baptism, strengthened by confirmation, nourished by the eucharist, recover from spiritual illness by penance, propagate the species by marriage, are under the authority of the ordained clergy, and prepare for death by extreme unction.


In what sense are the sacraments of the eucharist and water baptism “means of grace”? Whereas the HS often operates immediately in our lives, he also mediates his ministry and the grace of Christ through the use of certain instruments.


The Word of God as a means of grace – The Spirit uses the Word, however it may be communicated, to sanctify the human soul. Through Scripture we are enlightened, convicted, empowered, drawn closer to Christ, moved to obedience, etc. (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).


The Lord’s Supper and Baptism as means of grace – By “grace” I do not mean justification or salvation in its initiatory phase. By “grace” I mean the sanctifying influence of the HS. Baptism is unique and experienced but once, wherein the Spirit confirms and signifies new life in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is repeated throughout the Christian life, wherein the HS continually nourishes and intensifies that faith to which baptism could but once for all point.


Note well: this is not to say that God cannot mediate his sanctifying grace and love and power through other means. It only means that these two sacraments have been ordained of Christ as special duties of the church.


A.        The Efficacy of the Ordinances


Wherein lies the efficacy (power or effectiveness) of the ordinances?


1)         It does not reside in the elements themselves. There is no supernatural quality inherent within the water, wine, or bread.


2)         It does not reside in the action of the ordinance or the distribution of the elements or in any "blessing" that might be uttered over them.


3)         It does not reside in the person who administers the ordinance. The power of the ordinance to accomplish what God desires is not dependent on the faith or righteousness of the person who administers them.


Rather, the efficacy of an ordinance comes from the operation of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the faith of the person who is participating or receiving.


In the patristic age there were two rival theories on the efficacy of the sacraments that focused on the role of the priest or bishop or pastor who administered them:


(1)       Sacraments work ex opere operantis, or “through the work of the one who works.” On this view the efficacy of the sacrament is dependent on the moral and spiritual character of the person who administers them. The believer will profit spiritually from the sacrament only if the one who administers it is himself faithful and righteous. This was the view of the Donatists.


(2)       Sacraments work ex opere operato, or “through the work that is worked.” On this view (championed by Augustine) the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent on the one who administers it but on the inherent quality of the sacrament itself (see below). “The ultimate grounds of sacramental efficacy lie in Christ, whose person and benefits are conveyed by the sacraments, not in the priest himself. An immoral priest can thus be permitted to celebrate the sacraments, as the grounds of their validity do not rest in him” (McGrath, Reformation Thought, 176).


On this latter view, the sacraments contain the grace they signify. This intrinsic power of the sacrament to convey grace is analogous to the power of fire to burn. Fire burns because it is ordained by God and imbued with power to that end. Likewise, the sacraments confer grace because they possess grace-imparting efficacy as ordained by God. Such is the nature of a sacrament that when duly administered it produces a given effect. One need not look beyond the sacrament itself to account for its power. All things being equal, a burning ember will scorch the human hand. The effect follows as a matter of course. Similarly, the adminstration of the sacramental element is sufficient in itself to achieve the effect for which God has ordained it.


B.        The Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper


1)         The RCC affirms the doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine are literally transformed or converted into the literal/physical body and blood of Christ. This "miracle" occurs when the priest speaks the words of blessing or consecration: "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body"). Drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, Rome distinguishes between the “substance” of a thing, i.e., its essence, and the “accidents” or external, physical features and appearance. The latter remains as bread and wine while the former is miraculously transformed into another substance.


2)         The Lutheran tradition affirms the doctrine of consubstantiation. Whereas they insist that there is no change in the elements of bread and wine (Luther called transubstantiation “a monk’s dream”), the literal/physical body and blood of Christ do appear "under, with, and in" the elements. The natural elements of bread and wine become united (unio sacramentalis) with the body and blood of Christ by a supernatural work of God. They are not identical but they are inseparable and indistinguishable. Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper put it thus:


“In the Lord’s Supper we therefore receive with our mouth no more and no less than Christ’s body and blood, the body with the bread, and the blood with the wine” (Christian Dogmatics, III:356; emphasis mine).


A few comments are in order concerning both of the preceding views. First, both the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines are based on the ubiquity (omnipresence) of the physical body of the resurrected Christ. Scriptural support for this notion is lacking. Second, in the words of Ronald S. Wallace (quoting Calvin): “The logic of the angels is incontrovertible. ‘He is not here,’ they said. ‘He is risen.’ The assigning of one place is the denial of any other. His body cannot be present in two places at once. When Christ said, Me ye have not always, He spoke of His bodily presence. It is true that He also said, Lo I am with you always, but these latter words refer to His divinity and majesty, and not to His humanity or flesh. With regard to that which was born of a virgin, apprehended by the Jews and nailed to the cross, wrapped in linen clothes, laid in the tomb and manifested in the resurrection, the final word is Me ye have not always. The body of Christ which is the ‘substance’ of the sacrament is in heaven, remains there throughout the sacramental action, and will remain there till the end of the world” (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 204). Third, if the words, “This is my body,” are indeed literal, the Lutheran doctrine is incomplete. The latter view would demand something like, “This accompanies my body.” If “this”, the bread, truly “is” the body of Christ, it ceases to be bread. The RC view, though false, is at least more consistent on this point. Fourth, what of the statement, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”? Will the RC maintain that the “cup” is transubstantiated into a covenant (whatever that means)? Will the Lutherans say that the new covenant is in, under, and with the cup? It would seem that both RCs and Lutherans must concede that Jesus employs figurative language, the very thing for which they so harshly criticize others.


3)         Protestants outside the Lutheran tradition understand the words of Jesus ("This is my body . . . This is my blood") to be a metaphor (in a simile one thing is said to be “like” or “to resemble” another; a metaphor boldly declares that one thing is another). There are literally hundreds of metaphors in the Bible: "All flesh is grass" (Isa. 40:6); "The Lord is my shepherd" (Ps. 23:1); "You are the salt of the earth" (Mt. 5:13); "You are the light of the world" (Mt. 5:14); "I am the bread of life" (Jn. 6:35); “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20); “the seven heads are seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9); see also Mt. 13:38; John 8:12; 10:9; 1 Cor. 10:4. I. H. Marshall explains:


“The word ‘is’ . . . can mean ‘signify’ as well as ‘be identical with,’ and there can be little doubt whatever that at the Last Supper the word was used with the former meaning. The saying was uttered by Jesus while he was bodily present with the disciples, and they could see that his body and the bread were two separate things. One might compare how a person showing a photograph of himself to a group of friends could say, as he points to it, ‘This is me.’ In any case, Jesus had done nothing to the bread which could have changed its character; all that he had done was to give thanks to God for it, not to bless or consecrate it in any way” (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 85-6).


Within Protestantism, however, there are two variations:


a.         A strictly symbolic view, in which the sacrament is nothing more than a visible symbol or tangible representation of the body and blood of Christ; partaking is but an act of remembrance or symbolic declaration. There is a sense in which we may thus speak of transsignification or a change in the meaning of the elements. Prior to their use in the eucharist the bread and wine are merely bread and wine. When acknowledged and blessed as the elements of the eucharist they take on new meaning (although their substance remains unchanged). We might also refer to transfinalization (McGrath, Christian Theology, 441) insofar as the consecration of the elements changes their purpose or the end for which they exist. McGrath explains:


“Just as a man, on setting off on a long journey from home, might give his wife his ring to remember him by until his return, so Christ leaves his church a token to remember him by until the day on which he should return in glory” (442).


b.         Other protestants, following Calvin, insist that whereas there is no literal physical presence of Christ in the elements, there is a spiritual or moral presence. The elements thus become truly a means or instrument or channel by which the sanctifying or nourishing or sustaining grace of Jesus become operative in our lives. There is truly a presence of Christ in the elements beyond the omnipresence that is always true. Thus, in saying that the words of Jesus are metaphorical, I don't deny that in some sense he was providing a pledge of his personal presence with his people that is to be recalled and experienced whenever they break bread together. William Lane explains:


"As certainly as the disciples eat the bread which Jesus hands to them, so certainly will he be present with them when they gather for table fellowship. Jesus' first gift to the disciples was the pledge of his abiding presence with them in spite of this betrayal and death” (Mark, 506).


The implication is that in spite of Christ's death and departure from the earth, the bread and wine of the Supper in some sense serve to mediate his abiding presence with those who know and love him. The elements not only point to and recall his death, they also awaken us to the fact that Christ in his saving and sanctifying power is forever in our midst. Two texts should be noted:


1 Cor. 10:16-21 - We read in v. 16, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" To partake of the elements of the Lord's table is to come under his influence and power (cf. v. 20); it is to commune and share with his abiding presence; it is to experience in a special way all those saving benefits and blessings that Christ's body and blood obtained for us.


1 Cor. 10:17 also points to the horizontal dimension of this ordinance. We not only experience communion with Christ, but also with one another! It was the custom of the early church to observe the supper by using one loaf of bread, from which each believer would take a piece. Paul draws the conclusion from this practice that those who share the one loaf broken into many pieces are thereby joined together in the unity symbolized by the original loaf.


C.        Insights from 1 Corinthians 11:23-34


1)         The Lord's Supper is primarily designed to elicit or to stimulate in our hearts remembrance of the person and work of Jesus.


2)         This remembrance is commanded. Participation at the Lord's table is not an option.


3)         This remembrance entails the use of tangible elements. It isn't enough simply to say, "Remember!" The elements of bread and wine are given to stir our minds and hearts.


4)         It is a personal remembrance. We are to remember Jesus. The focus isn't any longer on the Jewish passover or the night of his betrayal or anything else. The focus is Jesus.


5)         In this remembering there is also confession. In partaking of the elements we declare: "Christ gave his body and blood for me. He died for me."


6)         In this remembering we also proclaim the Lord's death till he comes. This, then, is not merely an ordinance that looks to the past. It is an ordinance of hope that points to the future.


7)         To partake of the Lord's table in an unworthy manner (v. 27) is to take it without regard to its true worth, not yours. To partake unworthily is to come complacently, light-heartedly, giving no thought to that which the elements signify. I. H. Marshall explains:


"In some Christian circles today the fear of partaking unworthily in the Supper leads to believers of otherwise excellent character refraining from coming to the table of the Lord. When this happens, Paul's warning is being misunderstood. The Lord's Supper is the place where the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and offered to all who would receive it. Paul's warning was not to those who were leading unworthy lives and longed for forgiveness but to those who were making a mockery of that which should have been most sacred and solemn by their behaviour at the meal” (116).


To partake in an "unworthy manner" thus entails three things:


a) calloused disregard for others in the body of Christ (see vv. 20-22);


b) an attempt to combine participation at pagan (demonic) feasts with participation at the Lord's table;


c) flippant disregard for what the elements represent (vv. 23-26).


8)         To be "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27) is to treat as common or profane something which is sacred. The Lord's Supper is not just another meal.


9)         Hence, we are to "examine ourselves" (v. 28). We are to test our motives and attitudes as we approach the table to be certain we are partaking for the right reasons and with the right understanding of what the elements represent.


10)       Failure to do so may lead to divine discipline (vv. 29-34). Such chastisement from the Father is in order that believers may be spared the condemnation that comes to the unbelieving world. Some in Corinth had already suffered the discipline of God ("weak and sick"); some had even died ("sleep").


D.        The Eucharist as a Means of Grace


When I refer to the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace I most certainly do not mean that the bread and wine in any way cease to be bread and wine or that they become something other than the simple physical realities that we know them to be. Furthermore, we are not saved by partaking of this or any other ordinance. We do not receive forgiveness of sins nor are we regenerated in the waters of baptism. The Lord’s Supper does not “atone” for sin in any sense of the word. The ordinances do not impart eternal life to the believer, but they do confirm, strengthen, and heighten our awareness and enjoyment of that life. The bread and wine are means or instruments by which God quickens us to apprehend, understand, visualize, and experience the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit and his unique ministry of shining the light of illumination and glory on Jesus.


The reception and experience of spiritual blessing is often described in Scripture in terms of eating and drinking (see especially Ezek. 47:12, in conjunction with Rev. 22:2; Matt. 4:4; 5:6; 8:11; Luke 14:15; John 4:13; 6:33,35,41,48,50,51; Rev. 2:17; 19:9; 21:6; 22:1,17). Might we not infer, then, that “as our natural food imparts life and strength to our bodies, so this sacrament is one of the divinely appointed means to strengthen the principle of life in the soul of the believer, and to confirm his faith in the promises of the gospel?” (Charles Hodge, III:647).


This can happen in other ways, to be sure, but they are not for that reason “means of grace” in the way that I am using that phrase here. For example, I am often deeply stirred and edified by gazing on the majesty of God’s creation or by watching a young child pray or by reading of the courage of a dying saint. All such experiences may well serve to bring me closer to Christ and to motivate me to service, gratitude, and sacrifice. But they are not, strictly speaking, “means of grace.” I might not be able to specify precisely in what way(s) the influence of the Spirit through the Lord’s Supper differs from his influence through other “natural” phenomena. I’m not even sure I need to. The point is simply that, unlike a multitude of other activities and experiences that may well edify, the Lord’s Supper is ordained by God and required by Scripture to function as a means for mediating the spiritual presence of Jesus in the hearts of God’s people.


I don’t think my experience is unique when I say that I invariably find participation at the table of the Lord to be a profound moment of increased spiritual blessing. It is a means, through prayerful reflection, by which the Lord manifests his glory, love, mercy, and kindness to my religious consciousness. The Spirit works profoundly at the time of communion to awaken in my mind and to impress upon my heart the eternal significance of Christ’s finished work at Calvary and his love, not merely for people in general, but for me in particular.