Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mark's thoughts: How should we think about the sacraments?

In the Christianity around us today, it is not hard to find people who deny that God actually does something to forgive sins and bring salvation in the sacraments.  Instead they say that the sacraments are merely symbols by which believers do something.  As we think about the sacraments, and also as we engage in discussion with others, it is important that we understand how the sacraments fit into the biblical perspective about the world and this material creation.

The Christian faith that we believe, teach and confess involves God’s material creation again and again.  As we think about the material creation and the Christian faith, we can summarize the content of our faith under four headings: Creational, Incarnational, Sacramental and Eschatological.  In these headings, and in the progressive relationship between them, we gain greater insight into the manner in which God works.  This can be depicted in the following diagram:

Creational >>> Incarnational  >>> Sacramental >>> Eschatological


                        Eschatological action   >>>>>>>   Eschatological goal

                          ("Now")                                            (End of "Not Yet")


Running through all of God's saving action revealed in Scripture is the fact that he considers the material creation he created to be very good.  His use of water in Holy Baptism and bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar makes perfect sense when considered alongside his act of creation, the incarnation of the Son of God and the final goal towards which all of is work his moving.  


Genesis 1:31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Genesis 2:7 Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

When God made his material creation, he considered it to be very good.  He created human beings as a body and a soul joined together in a unity.  The Bible’s starting point is the goodness of the material creation and we find that God operates on this basis from beginning to end; from Genesis to Revelation; from creation to renewed creation.  It is very critical that we understand this starting point – this presupposition of Biblical thought - if we are to understand correctly all that follows in Scripture.  God’s attitude toward his material creation is that it is very good and he continues to be concerned about it and make use of it.  In one sense this should not be surprising – after all, he made the stuff.  Yet we will see that all too often this basic starting point and its implications have been hidden from view by a way of looking at the world that come from a source other than Scripture. 

A competing worldview: Dualism

The Biblical worldview operates on the assumption that the material creation is very good and that a human being is composed of a body and a soul joined together in a unity.  However, this is not the only worldview and set of assumptions available for reading Scripture.  In Western thought another worldview has exerted a great influence and has had a devastating impact on the Christian faith. 

Beginning in full force with the Greek philosopher Plato, we encounter a trend in Western thought that has been extremely influential in various forms.  We encounter a dualistic  worldview in which the world is divided into two parts.  In the dualistic worldview, the spiritual world is “above” and the physical or material world is “below.”  In this view, the material world is less important than the spiritual, or is in fact evil.  There is a great divide between the spiritual and material, and the two do not mix.  When God’s creation is understood in this way, the spiritual part of a person – the soul – is what is important and the body receives little emphasis or is in fact something to be escaped.

Dualistic worldview                                                  Biblical worldview

Spiritual (good)                                                           Material world is very good.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -                                              

Material (lesser or bad)

Reformed Theology and the Dualistic Worldview

This dualistic worldview has had a great impact upon Christianity.  The Reformed tradition (broadly defined to include groups such as Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and non-denominational evangelicals) reads the Bible using this dualistic worldview.  Their particular Reformation roots have established that they read the Bible with the assumption that the spiritual and the material have nothing to do with each other.  Having already decided this, when they come to statements in Scripture that deal with Holy Baptism or the the Sacrament of the Altar, they conclude that God does not work any spiritual outcome using the material elements of water, and bread and wine.  They conclude that Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper cannot be miracles in which God uses these physical means, but that instead they must only be symbols. 

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Colossians 2:9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.

The ultimate proof that the dualistic worldview is wrong is the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  When sin arrived on the scene in the Fall, both humanity and creation itself were warped and twisted.  However, the God who considered his material creation to be very good did not abandon creation.  Instead as described in Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, God himself entered into that creation in the incarnation as the Word became flesh (John 1:14).  In Jesus Christ - the One who is true God and true man - we find powerful proof that God continues to care about human bodily existence and creation itself.

God dwells in the midst of His people through located means

Exodus 25:8 Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.

Deuteronomy 12:5 But you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.

1 Kings 8:10-11 It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
John 2:18-21 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”  But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 

Although the incarnation of the Son of God was something that was completely new, it reflects the way that God has always worked as he dwells in the midst of his people.  In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to make a tabernacle (a tent structure) to house the Ark of the Covenant.  The glory of God, his holy presence, filled the tabernacle and the tabernacle became the means by which God located himself in the midst of His people.  The same thing happened when the tabernacle’s replacement, the temple, was built in Jerusalem on Mt. Zion and the Ark of the Covenant was moved there.

The temple in Jerusalem was the located means by which God’s saving presence dwelt in the midst of his people.  Because the temple was located on Mt. Zion, all of the Biblical truths about God’s saving presence located in the midst of his people are often summarized in the Old Testament by one word: Zion.  As we encounter Jesus Christ, we meet the One who is the fulfillment of all that is meant by Zion in the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament God located himself in the midst of His people through the means of a building on a mountain in Palestine.  Israel knew that God was present for them there.  In the incarnation, God located himself in the midst of His people through the located means of a human being in Palestine.  God’s people learned that they now meet God in the located means of the body and flesh of Jesus Christ. 


In the incarnation God used his material creation – he used the body and flesh of Jesus Christ – as the means by which he located himself in the midst of his people and worked salvation when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.  It is not surprising then, that when God wishes to deliver the benefits of the incarnation, he does so using the located means of His material creation – He uses water, and bread and wine.  He acts in a sacramental way (a way that uses the located means of his material creation).  This continuing action by God simply fits with his starting point (the goodness of the material creation) and with the located means by which he has acted to restore humanity and creation (the incarnation of the Son of God).  He uses these located means to deliver a salvation that has been given for the soul and the body.  Indeed, it is water poured on the body, and bread and wine placed in the mouth that gives this salvation to the whole person.

God continues to use located means

Leviticus 4:26 All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven.

Just as the incarnation fits with the manner in which God had used the located means of the tabernacle and temple in order to locate himself in the midst of his people, so also God’s sacramental action in the New Testament reflects the manner in which he had used located means to deliver forgiveness to his people in the Old Testament. The primary example of this are the sacrifices that God gave to Israel in Leviticus. 

The Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to the one, great sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.  At the same time, they were the Old Testament “Means of Grace” that God had given to his people.  All forgiveness of sins finds its source in the cross of Christ, and the Old Testament sacrifices were no different.  The sacrifices were the located means God used to deliver the forgiveness that Christ was going to win on the cross, just as the Means of Grace today deliver the forgiveness of the cross to us.  We need to realize that God’s sacramental action in the New Testament reflects the way He has always worked.


Acts 1:11 They also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven."

Romans 8:19-23 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.  And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

In Greek, the word “eschatos” means “last.”  The word “eschatological” is used to describe everything that has to do with God’s End Time action and the Last Day itself.  All of God’s action moves towards a goal: the restoration of humanity and creation on the Last Day when Jesus Christ returns in glory, raises the dead, pronounces the final judgment and renews creation.  It moves towards the goal of a restored humanity and creation that is once again very good.  We find that the goal of God’s saving work fits perfectly with his creational starting point (he thinks creation is “very good”), and with the incarnational means (that is, the person of Jesus Christ) and sacramental means (namely water, and bread and wine) he has used in order to restore humanity and creation.  

Creational              Incarnational         Sacramental          Eschatological
 Very good              True God and          Water;                     Renewed creation
 Body and soul        true man                 Bread and wine       Resurrection of the 
                                (located means)      (located means)      body          
The now and not yet of the incarnation and the sacraments

Matthew 12:28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

While the eschatological goal is appropriately listed last in the diagram that began this piece, it is necessary to realize that each stage moving towards this goal is in fact eschatological (it is part of God’s End Time action).  This reign of God is both present and future (it is “now and not yet”).  It is already now at work in Christ and his Means of Grace which deliver forgiveness and salvation, and yet it also awaits its final consummation on the Last Day when our Lord returns in glory.  As the diagram indicates, the incarnation and the sacraments are eschatological actions by God that are working out this final goal – they are “the now” that are pointing towards the end of “the not yet.”

The Big Picture regarding Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar

As we examine Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, we find that since the sixteenth century, Christianity has been deeply divided about these Means of Grace.  The biblical, catholic (universal) and Lutheran view has been that God works a miracle as He uses the water of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar to deliver forgiveness and salvation.  This catholic position is the same one held by the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches.  By contrast, the Reformed tradition that operates on the basis of a dualistic worldview denies that God does anything through these means and instead says that they are merely symbols.

In concluding this look at the sacraments it is helpful to realize that four basic arguments support the biblical and catholic position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church:

1. The position fits with the creational, incarnational, sacramental and eschatological nature of God’s activity that we find throughout the Bible.  That is to say, it is based on the biblical worldview instead of the dualistic worldview that comes from Greek philosophy.

2. The position provides the easiest reading of the biblical texts that deal with Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar – “they just say it.”  In Romans 6 Paul says that through Holy Baptism we are buried with Christ into His death.  In the Words of Institution Jesus says that He is giving us His body and blood.  The catholic position does not have to try and explain away what these texts are saying quite clearly.  

3. The position provides the least variety in interpretation.  Because the texts “just say it,” the interpretation is very easy and straightforward, and has been so for the catholic tradition for 2000 years.  By contrast, when the Reformed tradition attempts to explain away the biblical statements, they are unable to agree about what the texts actually mean.  Often they are only able to agree that the biblical texts don’t mean what they seem to be saying.

4. The position is the same one that the catholic (universal) Church has held for 2000 years and has held since the beginning of the Church.  For example, writing in about 105 A.D. (about seventy years after Jesus and about forty years after the apostle Paul), Ignatius the bishop of Antioch wrote about heretics in his area: “They stay away from the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper] and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by His goodness” (To the Smyrnaeans 7.1).  It is a historical fact that prior to the sixteenth century, the Church had always confessed that God works a miracle as He produces a spiritual result through the waters of Holy Baptism and as Christ uses bread and wine to give us His very body and blood.

For a more a more in depth presentation of these ideas see:

"Good Stuff! The Material Creation and the Christian Faith" Concordia Journal 36 (2010): 245-262

Mark's thoughts: Why do they believe the sacraments are only symbols?: Presuppositions in reading Scripture 


1 comment:

  1. The means of grace,subject and object and essence, is the incarnation of the Son of God taking the hight of His creation into the unity of
    His divine person. The "Mother" of God, denied by Nestorius, plainly made the physical person of the Son of God the actual God to be whorsipped. To be literally grasped as the eternal God. The Reformed of Zwingli and Calvin, by denying John six, denied their own salvation by denying that the eating His body and blood was the salvation of their souls. One can only hope they dumped their fanatic teaching at death and simply fell on their saviour for forgiveness.