Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Sacrament or Ordinance?

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 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 does something. He coveys grace, He forgives sins, He renews by the Spirit, and in this sense He effects salvation. A sacrament is promise-driven, the promise being the New Covenant.

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.

The initiation rite into observing these "symbolic" rites, imposed by 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, although one ordinarily proceeds to confirming ones 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.

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? 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 for 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.

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