by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
Means of Grace
We affirm the two ordinances or sacraments** instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and believe that they function as signs and seals of God’s grace, expressions of individual faith, and bonds of the church’s covenantal unity in Christ. As such, these ordinances are not empty signs or mere symbols but tangibly demonstrate our union with the risen Christ and with his body, the church. Other Christian practices, such as confession of sin, confirmation in the faith, the ordination of church officers, Christian marriage, and the prayerful anointing of the sick may also frame a life of Christian faithfulness, but should not be considered sacraments.
We begin this post with the note appended to Article IX in the Manifesto:
**The earliest Baptists, among both the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists, used the language of “sacrament” to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, they meant to communicate that these ordinances are means of grace utilized by the risen Christ to strengthen and confirm the faith of believers. They did not mean to convey that the sacraments are automatically effective, that baptism is regenerative, or that the elements of the Lord’s Supper become the physical body and blood of Christ.
We begin here for a couple of reasons. First, we wish to correct any misconceptions that may attend our usage of the term “sacrament.” We will have more to say about our own views on the sacraments in due course, but we would certainly wish to allay any fears that we are somehow abandoning our Protestant or Baptist bona fides by using this particular term. We adamantly reject any ex opere operato conception of the sacraments, as well as any version of baptismal regeneration or the corporeal presence of Christ in the elements of the Supper.
Second, and related, we wish to highlight the fact that the earliest Baptists did indeed use the term “sacrament” and did not always prefer the more common Baptist term “ordinance,” as if the two concepts were mutually exclusive. For example, the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed of 1678 used both terms side by side: “Those two sacraments, viz. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive, sovereign, and holy institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church, to the end of the world.” We should note that this use of “sacrament” comes from the General – i.e. non-Calvinist – Baptists, and so we should not confine the views outlined below to Reformed Baptists. Regarding the latter, while it is true that the Particular Baptists’ Second London Baptist Confession (1677) changed the Westminster Confession’s “sacraments” to “ordinances,” many of its signatories (such as the influential Benjamin Keach) were perfectly comfortable using both terms to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus “ordinance” was chosen not out of any allergy to sacramental language, but simply to highlight that baptism and the Lord’s Supper (along with the Word and prayer) were positively ordained by the Lord Jesus himself. So in using the term “sacrament,” we are not stepping away from our Baptist heritage but in a very real sense recovering it.
With the Protestant Reformers and against the Roman Catholic Church, we recognize only two, not seven, sacraments: the initiating rite of baptism and the ongoing rite of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. As we note in the Manifesto, “Other Christian practices, such as confession of sin, confirmation in the faith, the ordination of church officers, Christian marriage, and the prayerful anointing of the sick may also frame a life of Christian faithfulness, but should not be considered sacraments.” So, for example, Christian marriage is a sacred institution, but it is not sacrament. It does involve material signs and solemn vows, and it does serve as a means of sanctification in the lives of the faithful, but it is not properly speaking a sacrament. It is not one of the two dominical ordinances given by Christ to the church as a whole in order to ratify the promises of the gospel. [One other note: We mention “confirmation in the faith,” not because we believe it to be a biblically sanctioned practice. In our view, baptism is coextensive with the notion of confirmation, because as Baptists we believe that a credible profession of faith is prerequisite to baptism. We simply mention it because we recognize that for paedobaptist traditions, some sort of confirmation before first Communion fills the space left by believers’ baptism in those traditions.]
These two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are, as early Protestants of all stripes affirmed, means of grace. When evangelical Protestants speak of baptism and the Supper (again, alongside the Word and prayer) as means of grace, they do not mean to convey that these practices are somehow means of justifying grace. Faith alone is the instrument of justification, with the righteousness of Christ its sole basis. But we can speak about the sacraments or ordinances as means of sanctifying grace in that these practices do function to strengthen and confirm the faith of believers and as indispensable aids in the perseverance and preservation of the saints during our earthly pilgrimage.
As such, we do not believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper should be regarded as mere signs or symbols. They are not less than deeply symbolic and signatory, but they are more than that, in our view. Baptism is not regenerative and thus is not absolutely necessary for salvation (remember the thief on the cross). But in the New Testament, baptism is spoken of in connection with forgiveness (Acts 2:38), the cleansing of sin (Acts 22:16), and even salvation itself (1 Pet. 3:21). As Robert Stein has argued, baptism is ordinarily an integral part of that complex of events that attends an individual’s conversion to Christ (see Stein’s chapter in this volume). As many early Baptists recognized, baptism is ordinarily the public act of faith that seals of our union with Christ. This perspective should not be confused either with Roman Catholic baptismal regeneration nor with the Restorationist insistence that baptism is necessary for salvation. But neither should it be confused with the very low view of baptism that has come to dominate certain sectors of Baptist life. Very often Baptists take such great pains to explain what baptism is not that they rarely get round to proclaim what it actually is and why it is not simply an optional addendum to Christian faith. Baptism is not optional but is the ordinary first step of obedience when believers profess their faith in Christ. But baptism is not merely a public declaration of individual faith. Again, it is not less than that, but it is more. The individual is not the only or even the primary actor on the stage, as it were, in the drama of baptism. The church as a whole, represented in its ordained ministers, is also present, with its own speaking role, affirming the faith of the baptizand. And most fundamentally God himself is present, joining with the affirmation of the church (Matt. 18:18) and confirming to the believer the assurance of his forgiving and cleansing work.
In the same way, the Lord’s Supper involves a solemn and joyful remembrance of the death of Christ, but it is more than a memory, in our view. It also involves a real communion or participation (koinoinia) in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), a real offering of thanksgiving (eucharistesas) to God (1 Cor. 11:23-24), and a real fellowship with the body of Christ. (Notice that in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul contrasts participation (koinonia) in Christ with participation in demons. That contrast has in mind more than just “remembering” particular idols). Somehow, by the power of the Spirit of God, the Risen Christ is truly present with his people when they gather around his Table, strengthening and confirming their faith by means of material signs. It is a multi-sensory experience of the gospel. It is, as many Christian theologians have put it, a visible Word—indeed, an edible and potable Word! The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith summarizes this reality well:
The supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night wherein he was betrayed, to be observed in his churches, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other….Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
So once again, this view does not entail the erroneous view of some Christian traditions that the body and blood of Christ are physically or corporeally present in the elements of bread and wine. But neither does it reduce the Supper, as Millard Erickson has said in jest, to an experience of the “real absence” of Christ, as if the Supper is the one place in the whole Christian life where Jesus is not present! Thus, we position our own perspective somewhere between corporeal presence views (as in Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism) and a merely symbolic view often termed Zwinglian (though there is good reason to question whether or not Zwingli himself held to such a pared-down view).
Even if not all Baptists will follow us in this spiritual presence understanding of the Supper, we believe that even those of the more Zwinglian persuasion can recover a more robust understanding of the Supper, and by extension of baptism, as a regular and meaningful experience of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper visibly declare the gospel of Jesus Christ, and as such visible words, the Spirit can and does use them to proclaim the good news to sinners, to strengthen the faith of the faithful, and to exhort Christ-followers to obedience. This is what we mean when we say that the ordinances are “means of grace.”