sacraments and assurance
Over on Barb's blog
there's been some discussion in the comments
on one post
in particular, in response to a brief reflection
that had been written by Peter Leithart. This is offered as what I hope is a helpful and clarifying reply and speaking very much from within my own confessional bounds.
It seems to me that there are three fundamental issues at question here with regard to what Scripture teaches as that has been understood in the Reformed tradition. The first is the nature of the sacraments. The second is the kind of assurance of salvation that the sacraments provide. And the third concerns how we are to interpret the experience of those who receive the sacraments, but not unto salvation.
Certainly, Rick Phillips is right that a sacrament in general, and baptism in particular, is "a sign and seal of the covenant of grace." Rick, however, goes on to add that baptism, therefore, is "not something that makes me a saint. I believe that Jesus makes me a saint by the work he accomplished and by the application of that work to me by the Holy Spirit."
Rick seems to be affirming, then, (and correct me if I'm mistaken) that baptism cannot be
"the application of [Christ's] work to me by the Holy Spirit" nor "the application of redemption through the Holy Spirit."
But I fail to see how this follows from the affirmation that sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace, unless we are [a] taking that to be a complete
definition of a sacrament and [b] are understanding sacraments to be signs and seals to the exclusion
of being actions by which God applies redemption through the Holy Spirit.
As a Presbyterian, however, it seems to me that this runs afoul of our subordinate Standards as well as historic Reformed sacramental theology.
According to the Westminster Confession of Faith "sacraments" are not simply
"holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace," but also
, in some manner, include the reality signified and sealed. This is because sacraments, most basically, are not just signs and seals, but actions
by which the covenant of grace is signed and sealed.
This is explicit in both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which define a sacrament as a "holy ordinance
instituted by Christ in his church" (WLC 162; cf. WSC 92). Similarly, the Confession speaks of sacraments "rightly used" and being "administered" and "dispensed" (WCF 27.3, 4). Thus the basic definition of a sacrament is that of an "ordinance" or sacred action, of which one aspect is the sign and seal.
The other aspect of a sacrament is the thing signified. When the Larger Catechism asks "What are the two parts of a sacrament" the answer given is: "The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ's own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified" (WLC 163). Likewise, the Confession states that "there is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified" (WCF 27.2). The sign and thing signified thus are together "in the sacrament" and constitute the sacrament in their union. Thus, "sacrament" encompasses both aspects.
It is this dual aspect of a sacrament that allows our Standards to speak of sacraments as "effectual means of salvation" (WLC 161) by which grace--that is, Christ and benefits of the covenant--are not only "signified," "sealed," and "represented," but also "exhibited," "applied," and "conferred." (see WCF 27.1, 3, 5; WLC 162, 165, 167, etc.; WSC 91, 92). Thus is it Christ himself who is present in his sacraments, by the power of the Spirit, to communicate grace.
This understanding is the common understanding of sacraments among Reformed divines. For instance, Franciscus Junius, the highly regarded late 16th century Reformed scholastic, writes in his Theses Theologicae
:The genus of sacraments is not 'sign,' since invisible grace cannot be included in a sign, yet that is the primary point of a sacrament; rather a sacrament is a sacred action, comprehending the operations of God and of man. An action is either natural or voluntary. The voluntary is either theoretical or practical, and the practical is either ethical or ecclesiastical, and ecclesiastical actions we call 'ceremonies' and we affirm that whatever involves the sacraments is rightly placed under this title." (50.8)
Junius defines baptism, in particular, as "a sacred action of God washing those that are his own, inwardly, with the washing of the Spirit, and, outwardly, with the washing of water." Here we see, together, the two sides of the single action that comprises baptism. Junius states that the water and the Spirit are united as "relatives." He gives the following analogy:...as a man in human actions produces, with his soul and his body, both the inward and the outward action in one and the same operation--in which the soul is said to be the form of the body--so also, in a manner of speaking, his inward action is the form and his external action is the material part of the action. Even so, after the same manner, God performs, by his Spirit and by water, both an internal and an external action in one and the same operation, in which the inward washing by the Spirit is the formal part and the external washing with water is the material part of his action.
I don't wish to belabor the point, so I'll allow these quotations to suffice, which are fairly typical across a wide range of Reformed theology from the period leading up the writing of the Westminster Standards.
Regarding the first point--the nature of the sacraments--I think that Reformed teaching, in its understanding of Scripture, would invite us to look to baptism, inasmuch as it is a sacred action with two aspects, precisely as "the application of redemption through the Holy Spirit" of which the application of water in the Triune name is the representation, sign, and seal. By looking to baptism, we are not looking anywhere but to Christ and the working of the Spirit, because baptism is one of the places in which Christ has promised to be, for baptism "contains...a promise of benefit" (WCF 27.3).
That addresses with the first issue and brings us immediately to the second: the kind of assurance that the sacraments provide.
When Reformed theology speaks of sacraments as "conferring grace" or "applying Christ and the benefits of the new covenant," it always presupposes the context of faith or, with regard to its administration, the profession of faith. There is no "promise of benefit" for those who are not "worthy receivers" (WCF 27.3), which, in this context, means particularly those who receive the sacrament apart from faith. As such, when people receive the sacraments, the intention is "to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces" (WLC 94).
Thus, the sacraments "become effectual means of salvation...only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them
" (WSC 91). So it is in the believing
reception of the sacraments that the Spirit works, Christ is effectually received and applied, grace conferred, and so on. As Charles Hodge writes, God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism..." (Commentary on Ephesians)
Thus baptism and the eucharist are designed by God to be means of assurance since, in the sacraments, by faith, we find Christ. Assurance in Reformed theology is always the "assurance of faith
" (WCF 18.2) and not an assurance to be found outside of or apart from faith, whether in some experience or other piece of information, taken in abstraction from Christ and his promises. After all, saving faith, in its principle acts, is a matter of "accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone" for salvation (WCF 14.2) and assurance is "founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation" (WCF 18.2).
Thus, if Reformed theology tells us that the sacraments are given in order to strengthen and increase faith, it can only be because Christ and his promises are present in his sacraments, as we have already seen. To encourage God's people to draw assurance from baptism is, therefore, decidedly not to encourage them to "rest their assurance on a ritual," but upon Christ himself, who is to be found in the places he promises to be, among them baptism.
It is in this context that we must understand the Larger Catechism's teaching on "improving our baptism" (WLC 167). "Improving our baptism" does not mean adding something of our own to baptism, as if we could somehow, in our own strength and works, improve upon what God has already signified, sealed, and promised to us in it. Rather, it means returning to our baptism in faith and thereby entering more fully into what God has already given us in it. The Catechism suggests that while the improving of our baptisms is something to be pursued "all our life long," it is something that pertains especially to "the time of temptation" and "when we are present at the administration of [baptism] to others."
Among other things, the Catechism teaches us that improving our baptism requires a "serious and thankful consideration of the nature of [baptism], and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby." This remembrance of baptism is one that is done in faith, so that it involves also "growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us" in baptism. Entering more fully into baptism likewise means "drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace."
Thus baptism and its remembrance in faith are importantly instrumental to assurance of salvation, as well as the strenthening, increase, and confirmation of faith. Thus being baptized and improving that baptism must be counted among "the right use of ordinary means" by which assurance is attained (WCF 18.3).
These observations are consonant with the wider Reformed tradition. Calvin, for instance, writes:...we must realize that at whatever time we were baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life. Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may alway be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins. (Institutes, 4.15.3)
He writes again later:Therefore, there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ's blood" (Institutes, 4.15.4)
And Calvin's comments here are echoed by many other Reformed divines and Confessions (e.g., Scots Confessions, 21; Second Helvetic Confession, 20).
We are left, then, with the third topic: how we are to interpret the experience of those who receive the sacraments, but not unto salvation. This is, in large part, the question of how we interpret biblical language in which, for instance, Paul addresses his audience as the "saints" and "faithful," when even some of the baptized might, in the end, prove unholy and faithless. The question is potentially more puzzling (at least from within the parameters of Reformed theology) when Paul addresses his hearers as "elect." It's not clear, however, that what we say to this last observation necessarily stands or falls with the prior ones.
Of course, there may not be single correct way to handle the answer. After all, if some person were to simply stumble off the street into a church that received Paul's letter, we cannot imagine Paul was addressing him among the "saints" and "faithful." What is clear, however, is that Paul uses such terminology interchangably with that of "the church" and addresses himself to the company of the baptized, including, on occasion, even children.
What if someone in his intended audience were to later fall away from the faith? Paul never addresses that question directly. He might say he had been speaking only in general terms of the church as a whole (after all, he never speaks of a "saint" in the singular), as that company of people set apart by God, without drawing conclusions about particular individuals. He might say he had been making a judgment of charity. He might say that even those who later prove unfaithful, were sanctified insofar as they were set apart by God in baptism unto holiness, a holiness they repudiated. In whatever way we answer this question it will be a matter of theological reflection and conclusions from wider Pauline (and biblical) patterns and principles.
We might, then, turn to the question of how the Westminster Standards and the Reformed tradition handle the question of those who recieve the sacraments, or are purported to be "saints," and yet do not believe unto salvation. On the particulars of this matter, our Standards are relatively silent, though much is said by way of suggestion and inference.
The Confession does affirm that there are some who are "called by the ministry of the word" and who have "some common operations of the Spirit," and yet "never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved" (10.4). By "common operations of the Spirit" the Confession means those operations of the Spirit that are common to both [a] those baptized who do believe unto salvation and [b] those baptized who do not believe unto salvation who remain part of the visible church in response to the general call of the Gospel.
The kinds of operations the Confession has in mind might be suggested by the prooftexts appended to it, which refer to the parable of the Sower, in particular the soil which represents those who receive the word "with joy" (Matthew 13:20-21), excerising what the Reformed tradition has called "temporary faith" (see, e.g., the Canons of Dort, 3-4.9). As the Confession frames things, this response, though temporary, is seen as a work of the Spirit. This stands to reason since elsewhere the Spirit is said to be present and working in the visible church (WCF 25.3), and to speak in the Holy Scriptures and in their preaching (WCF 1.10; WLC 159 and 160).
Among the other "common operations" of the Spirit, the Confession's prooftexts include prophesy, exorcism, miracles (Matthew 7:22), enlightenment, tasting of the heavenly gift, partaking of the Holy Spirit, tasting the good word of God and the powers of the world to come (Hebrews 6:4).
It is also important to note in this connection that the Confession teaches that baptism solemnly admits an individual into the visible church (28.1). The visible church, however, is said to enjoy a number of significant privileges. Among these are "being under God's special care and government," "enjoying the communion of the saints," possessing the "ordinary means of salvation," receiving "offers of grace by Christ...in the ministry of the gospel" (WLC 63), being "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God," and being a place in which God is present and at work through his Spirit (WCF 25.2-3).
Thus, while some professing believers may not, in the end, be saved, nor do they "truly" come to Christ, there is also a sense in which they do receive many common benefits (some share of the Spirit, some kind of adoption as members of God's family, etc.) and thus, in some lesser way, do come to Christ (whether we call that "externally" or "sacramentally" or something else). The prooftexts provided by the Westminster Assembly fill out this picture even further.
The Confession's prooftexts on chapter 25.2-3, concerning the visible church, quote 1 Timothy 4:10, which speaks of God as "the Savior of all men, especially those who believe," implying thereby that Christ can be seen as the proffered Savior of all the baptized. The visible church is also compared to Israel which, both faithful and unfaithful, received "adoption...covenants...promises" (Romans 9:4). Likewise, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 is applied to the visible church: "all the members of that body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ...we all are baptized into one body." This suggests that not only does baptism solemnly admit one into the visible church, but that it also brings one into a relationship with Christ (Christus totus
, head and body) which did not obtain before.
The Westminster Standards, therefore, in their explicit teaching and, indirectly, in their prooftexts, assume the widespread position of the Reformed tradition: that grace is "offered" and "presented" to all who hear the Word, and in a special way to those to whom the sacraments are administered. In fact, we already saw this above, since it is a corollary of the "sacramental union" between sign and thing signified. This has generally not been a matter of dispute among Reformed theologians (with the exception of a few, such as our Protestant Reformed brethren who tend to deny the free offer of the Gospel).
Whether or not we can speak of Christ being "given
" to all to whom the sacraments are administered is perhaps a bit more controversial. Yet Calvin can speak of Christ being truly "given" to all who partake of the Supper, even though all do not receive him there, since there is an objectivity to the sacramental presentation of Christ for us.
Calvin writes: "the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men" (Commentary
on 1 Corinthians 11:27). And so, he says, "Christ's body is presented
to the wicked no less than to the good" so that unbelief does nothing to "impair to alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament." In the Institutes
Calvin similarly says that "the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given
to the unworthy than to God's elect believers" but that unbelievers reject the proffered gift (4.17.33).
Along similar lines, the French Reformed divine, Louis Daille, states in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Colossians
(on chapter 2):If we meet with any baptized persons, as these are but too many, in whom the old man is so far from being buried that he lives and reigns with absolute power and the new man has neither life nor action at all, it must not be imputed to Jesus Christ who always accompanies his sacraments with his saving power. Rather, it is the person in his own unbelief who repels the operation of the grace of Christ and deprives it of all the effect...
In a similar vein, in connection with the free offer of the Gospel, the Marrow men (Thomas Boston, et al) distinguished between the giving of Christ in possession
(which involves actually receiving him) and a gift of Christ as warranted men to receive him.
The Reformed scholastics (Turretin, Junius, Forbes, Witsius, etc.) could speak of those who do not believe unto salvation as, nevertheless, being given (and even receiving) grace and gifts "passively," "sacramentally," "extrinsically," "conditionally," "federally," "visibly," and so on. These are in distinction from receiving such grace and gifts "actively," "spiritually," "intrinsically," "absolutely," "intimately," "mystically," and so on. Turretin speaks of those who "by baptism are initiated into Christ...but who adhere to him by continguity of external communion, [rather] than inhere by continuity of internal communion" (Institutes
15.16.29). He goes on to speak of them as "sanctified," though only federally and sacramentally (based on Heb 10:29). Augustine is often quoted by Reformed divines, where he speaks of those "who on account of grace received even temporarily, are called by us sons of God and yet are not such in the sight of God" from the perspective of their final end (Admonition and Grace
Not all of those distinctions are without difficulties of their own, given some of the historically-conditioned assumptions they make about issues of ontology and the like. Nevertheless, it is clear that some such distinctions must be made and can be applied, at least retrospectively, once temporary faith fails.
Some of the current disputes in conservative Reformed circles, however, concern just these matters and how we are to theologically reflect upon them, what language we should use to describe them, the nature of the reality of which we speak, and the implications of all of this for pastoral practice. Moreover, the question here is, in large part, one of the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology. And it's beyond the scope of a blog entry and my abilities to attempt to resolve those difficulties.