The sacraments and Christian maturity
I have a high view of the sacraments when compared with many who call themselves evangelical. So when I read Alan Jacobs reflection on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia I found much with which I agree while still considering myself thoroughly reformed.
Jacobs quotes Francis:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
I’m convinced that the church ought not to lightly deprive anyone of its help in moving toward God in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
How does this relate to the Sacraments, especially to Holy Communion? It means that we have to hold two realities in tension:
- The Eucharist should not be received lightly, flippantly, or without the intention to turn once more from sin and to God in Jesus Christ.
- The Eucharist should be offered to as many as possible (with appropriate warnings), especially those whose lives are difficult or wrestle in particular ways with sin.
My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”
I disagree that we necessarily “die along with Christ” at the moment of baptism. This implies baptismal regeneration, and classic Reformed Orthodoxy has tended to avoid position.
Rather, there are times when the sign (the administration of the water) and the reality signified (death to sin and new life in Christ) correspond. In baptism, most of the time they do not. The sign of water points to a future reality.
When it comes to the Lord’s Supper though, what Jacobs presents fits well with the Westminster Standards. The sacraments *are* means of grace not just *signs* of grace. Grace is conferred in the bread and the wine in the same way that grace is conferred through fellowship with God in prayer and in the Word.
Where I differ is that he seems to view the sacraments are necessary and sufficient to Christian maturity. They’re not. This is one of the errors of the ecumenical movement. Since all Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper the Supper has been placed as our locus of commonality.
Sacraments unify while the Bible divides. We elevate Communion as the source of our unity and downplay preaching and doctrine as the source of our division. As a result, the church is diminished.
What we see in Wesley and in the Reformed Confessions, on the other hand, is that the sacraments are subset of the means of grace more broadly applied.
Christian growth happens through use of the means of grace that Christ has ordained: the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer.
Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 88
The Word (i.e., the Bible) provides the context in which we receive and apprehend the the sacraments and so there is a necessary pairing of preaching/teaching and the administration of the sacraments.
Simply sharing the communion meal in the absence of Biblical teaching leads us to invest the Lord’s Supper with meanings and significance that are foreign to the Bible.
In my own reflection this leads me to conclude that the Word and Sacraments demand equal attention in the life of the church.
Sermons and teaching need to be more doctrinal, more focused on Scripture and less oratorical performances designed to “inspire” the congregation. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated weekly as an acknowledgment of our Lord’s commandment and of its theological and spiritual reality as a means of grace.