The sacraments of baptism and communion were instituted by Jesus. He calls the church to baptize in the great commission of Matthew 28:16-20 and He also calls the church to the Lord’s Table (i.e. communion) in Matthew 26:26-29 and Luke 22:14-20. We practice baptism and communion because Jesus said to. Simple enough, or not?
In my circles of ministry when the issues of baptism and communion are brought up, a whole host of disputes come forth. Typically two topics emerge from my conversations. The first is the issue of whether or not to delay baptisms and the second is on the perception of Lutherans being legalistic with infant baptisms.
In order to flesh these two topics out a bit further, I would like to pose a question to get us thinking, “Which way is the arrow aimed when it comes to the sacraments?” What? In other words, are the sacraments something that we do toward God as a way of showing our obedience OR are the sacraments the way that God shows His commitment to us and gives grace to us? Are the sacraments things that we observe in response to hearing the Gospel (i.e. fruits of faith) OR are the sacraments ways that God responds to our sinfulness with the Gospel; are they a result of His compassion and pursuit of sinners? Do the sacraments belong in our discussions on man’s obedience OR do the sacraments belong in the discussion of God’s justifying grace? Who does the verb in the sacraments? The difference between these two views are of paramount importance and do impact our interpretation of scriptural chair passages on baptism and communion!
It seems to me that several things can happen when people discern the sacraments from these two different perspectives.
The other day I had a conversation with a veteran pastor and he shared with me the general observation that, “the degree to which we see the sacrament of baptism as God’s actions to us will directly impact the timing of baptism, that is to baptize earlier.” In other words, those who see baptism as an act of obedience tend to delay the age of baptism whereas those who see baptism as an act of God tend to baptize their children at a much earlier age. Makes sense doesn’t it? If baptism is an act of obedience then one would need to wait on baptism until the child can make a decision of baptism towards God. On the other hand, if baptism is an act of God upon us then the age and one’s cognitive obedience abilities are not the main issue but rather God’s, power, promise and faithfulness towards the individual. Let me put this in an easy equation:
Baptism as a Work of God = Generally Baptize Children Younger
Baptism as a Mark of Obedience = Generally Baptize Children Older
Perceiving Sacramental Christians As Legalistic and Weak In Faith?
I have also noticed among non-sacramental brothers and sisters that they many times perceive sacramental Christians as legalistic or having weak faith when it comes to the sacraments. In order to flesh this out let me illustrate through a scenario.
Meet Bob. Bob, sees the sacraments as acts of obedience that testify of the believers commitment towards God.
Meet Susan. Susan, on the other hand, sees the sacraments as acts of grace that testify of God’s commitment towards His church.
Due to Susan’s belief and presuppositions about the sacraments, the sacraments have become a big deal for her! Susan often says to herself,
“Why would anyone want to withhold God’s gifts? We should not delay baptism, nor shy away from communion. We can and should be frantically crowding the Lord’s Table each and every week to receive God’s best, the forgiveness of sin won by Christ!”
For Susan, the sacraments are of utmost importance to her because they are the place where God meets man with the forgiveness of sins accomplished by Christ, thus the reason why Susan is constantly holding to the sacraments.
Now, this is where it gets really interesting. From Bob’s perspective he sees the sacraments as mankind’s act of obedience towards God. He sees them as fruits of faith belonging to the realm of man-centered sanctification. So, when he interacts with Susan what does he perceive of Susan’s insistence and dependence on the sacraments? He sees her as overly focused on performing a ritual work, as being trapped in Legalism or weak in faith. Bob perceives Susan as holding on to the sacraments as a work that she must do in order to acquire salvation. Bob sees Susan holding to a non-primary sacramental layer that consequentially gets between Christ and mankind. Bob perceives that Susan is adding to the Gospel by her insistence on the sacraments. Bob perceives that Susan is mingling fruits of faith/obedience with justification. Bob has separated the sacraments from justification and placed them into the horizontal realm of mankind’s obedience thus creating a host of problems.
Bob’s perception of Lutherans is very typical of non-Lutherans. The problem at hand is that Bob’s perception is not consistent with the reason, motives or the scriptural convictions held by Lutherans. Lutherans don’t see the sacraments as a fruit of faith. Furthermore, we do not see the sacraments belonging to the sphere of mankind but rather belonging to the realm of God, therefore, we are not promoting a man-centered tradition but a salvific gift of God. Finally, when Lutheran’s insist and hold to the primacy of the sacraments we are not insisting on mankind’s upward actions towards God but rather exalting the downward action of God towards sinners.
The sacraments are God’s delivery method, where God descends to mankind to deliver the forgiveness of sins in a personal and intimate way to sinners.
“Take and eat, take and drink, this is my body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of your sins. You my child are baptized, cleansed and marked by my Holy Name; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
In the words of Gerhard Forde, “The sacraments pour Christ into the recipients,” and that is really, really good news.