What Makes Something a Sacrament?
Someone has invited you to a new, cutting-edge worship service especially targeting the twenty- and thirty-somethings. Identifying itself as part of the “emergent” network, the group does not identify itself as a church (too many bad associations). It doesn’t look like church either, but more like a large living room, with different stations for various spiritual activities. These stations include perhaps a prayer labyrinth, incense, icons, and a cup and bread set on an end table. Eventually, someone begins speaking, as at least most of the folks find their way to couches and chairs. This is not a sermon (too hierarchical), but a heart-to-heart conversation, trying to “connect” with Christians and non-Christians alike in a way that is “vulnerable” and “authentic” in contrast to the canned pragmatism and hype that they knew in the megachurches (or wannabe megachurches) of their youth.
The setting I am describing can be found in literally hundreds of gatherings each Sunday, many of them non-denominational, but others at least informally connected with just about any denomination you can think of. Burned out on what they regard as inauthentic hype, many of these young people are starved for mystery and transcendence. They want to actually come into contact with God and not just their own “felt needs.” Their Boomer parents liked stage lighting; these folks like candles.
The assumption today often is that because faith is a direct, unmediated relationship with God within our spirit, outward forms don’t really matter. Therefore, we can do whatever we want in worship as long as the doctrine is right. In this setting, we too easily pick and choose our own “means of grace.”
While we can affirm the struggles and many of the impulses of this “emergent” generation, this movement risks becoming simply another verse of the same tired hymn, which we might call “An Ode to New Measures.” The nineteenth-century revivalist Charles G. Finney, a Presbyterian who disliked just about everything that defined Presbyterian faith and practice, sharply rejected the Calvinist teaching that human beings were totally unable to regenerate themselves. According to Finney, we are not saved from God’s just wrath and ingrafted into Christ’s visible church by a supernatural work of God’s Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, that is preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. Rather, since conversion is “not a miracle or dependent on a miracle in any sense, but is the philosophical result of the right use of means” (“new measures,” as he identified them), it is the job of the successful evangelist to find “excitement sufficient to induce repentance.” If salvation is in the sinner’s hands, then the conversion of sinners in the evangelist’s hands.(1)
America is a marketplace of desire, a super-store of consumer craving, and its do-it-yourself religious life is as much a testimony to that fact as any other aspect. In our culture, shopping is therapy. We are not so much Pilgrim making his way with the communion of saints to the Celestial City as individual tourists bouncing from booth to booth at Vanity Fair. As much as the “emergent” movement criticizes religious inauthenticity, it exhibits more than it disproves that thesis. Its most visible leader, Brian McLaren (named recently by TIME magazine among the most significant evangelical leaders), in addition to redefining or challenging core evangelical doctrines, says that he appreciates the “sacramental” world-view of Roman Catholicism. “Once we say there are seven sacraments, we can then begin to see everything as a potential sacrament,” he writes. To be sure, McLaren’s theology is different from Finney’s. Unlike the celebrated revivalist of yesteryear, McLaren eschews “hell-fire and brimstone.” Yet like Finney, he downplays the seriousness of sin as a condition from which nothing short of a substitutionary, vicarious sacrifice of Christ can alone redeem us. The theology may be described as “Finney-lite.” And practice cannot be separated from theory. Like Finney, McLaren and many in the “emergent” movement seem to think that it is up to us to decide what constitutes a “means of grace.”
Man’s Terms vs. God’s Terms
The Protestant Reformers recognized that if you start with a human-centered “gospel,” you will need human-centered methods. Even the ordained sacraments can become means not of divine grace but of human striving. Just as Finney looked for “excitements sufficient to induce repentance,” Rome offered various strategies for obtaining remission of sins through penance. The Reformers, by contrast, recognized the logic of Paul in Romans, especially chapter 10. In that chapter, Paul says that there are two answers to the question, How can I be reconciled to God? One answer is “the righteousness which is by works,” the other is “the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.” One is founded on our zeal for God, the other on God’s zeal for us and for our salvation.
Paul recognized that the message creates its own methods, as he unfolds the argument in that famous chapter. Works-righteousness looks for ways of climbing up to pull Christ down or descending into the depths to bring him up, while faith-righteousness receives Christ as he has descended already to us and where he promises to be present to us for our salvation. For works-righteousness, faith comes by striving; for gospel-righteousness, faith comes by hearing Christ preached. One need not catch a plane for the latest “revival,” get caught up in the latest crusade or spiritual fad, go on a pilgrimage, fast and pray for it, walk through a labyrinth, bow before an icon, or follow the most recent “principles for victory.” Christ is never closer to us than when he is actually giving himself to us in the preached Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.
Imagine a wealthy benefactor promised you a million dollars for a life-saving operation. He tells you to meet him at a certain spot, where he’ll give you the check. Dropped off by a friend at an inauspicious corner, in a derelict part of town, you locate the appointed coffee shop. This can’t be the place, you think to yourself, as the neon sign hangs precariously with letters missing. Entering, you seat yourself in a rickety booth, noticing that your cup is stained with coffee and smeared with lipstick, the saucer chipped, and the service is appalling. You look around and cannot imagine that anyone vaguely resembling a millionaire might be among the patrons. Just as you are about to leave, a man in shabby clothes saunters over to your table and addresses you by name and as you acknowledge him, he slides in the booth with you and joins you for a meal. Then and there he hands you the check and you celebrate your new-found friendship. Come to find out, this gentleman has frequented this coffee shop for years—it’s his favorite spot.
Like the idolatrous nations, we look for “god” at all the high places but the true God inhabits the low places, when and where he has promised to be present to dispense his gifts over a conversation and a meal. We find this God-for-Us at the cross, bleeding and dying for sinners—hardly the sort of “coronation” that the disciples were looking for in Jerusalem. Furthermore, this same God shows up precisely where we would not expect to find him in our lives here and now. If we’re going to fly up to heaven to bring God down to us, it will require some pretty powerful means, but God comes down to us in weakness. We look for the clever route, the path that makes the most sense—“excitements sufficient to induce repentance,” but God refuses to be found by us on our terms. He finds us on his.
The Corinthian church was immature, always on the lookout for a slick “super-apostle” to deliver something more spectacular than the inauspicious ministry of this weak Apostle to the Gentiles. Yet, Paul demands, “What do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7). In his second letter he writes, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor 4:7). Like the benefactor in my illustration, the power lies in God’s promise to deliver his gifts when and where he pleases.
Not because of any inherent power or cleverness, sacraments are means of grace—and not of grace in general, but of redeeming grace. Reformed theology has long encouraged us to see the whole world as a theater of God’s goodness and providence. A magnificent sunset, a beautiful concert, the smile of a child, a wonderful meal with friends and the marital embrace are signs of God’s general care for all that he has made. Yet this care extends equally to believers and unbelievers alike (Mt 5:45). While general revelation reminds us of God’s power and majesty, the preached gospel communicates God’s saving grace. God is present everywhere, in all that he has made, yet he is only present to save where he has promised to meet us. While the Grand Canyon may fill us with awe, the preaching of Christ fills us with faith. Answering the question, “Where does this faith come from?”, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 65) answers, “The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments.”
While God can create and confirm faith whenever and however he chooses, he has only promised to do so through the means he has appointed. In the sacraments, God unites the signs (water, bread and wine) to the things signified (regeneration, the body and blood of Christ), in order to deliver to us that same gospel promise announced to us through his Word, so that we both hear and see that God is good! God himself condescends to our weakness, attaching the royal seal of his covenant of grace. As Edmund Clowney wrote,
Spreading the sacramental over the whole creation dilutes its force. If everything is sacramental, then bread and wine are already sacraments before their consecration, and the mystery of the Eucharist differs only in degree from the sacramentality of an incarnate creation….The revelation of God in nature does display God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ (Rom. 1:20), making all humankind accountable to him, but God’s special revelation in word and deed provides the signs of his redeeming power (The Church, 270-271).
So should we try to be wiser than God? Do we know better how to receive Christ and all his benefits? When we do set out to scale heaven’s heights, to possess God as he is in all of his majesty rather than simply receive him as he condescends to us, we usually make golden calves. But this is to worship God on our terms rather than on his, to create an “experience” with God that we can manage and control through our own spiritual technology rather than to humbly accept the gift that he promises to give us.
Whatever feeds us with God’s Word and guides us by his law is profitable. Yet these are not, strictly speaking, the means of grace. Many things are required as duties in the Christian life, and many other things not required by God may be useful. Yet these are not, strictly speaking, means of grace but means of discipleship. In other words, they are appropriate means of responding to God, while preaching and sacraments are God’s means of reaching us. The Heidelberg Catechism calls prayer, for example, “the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Q 116). It is indispensable to the Christian life, just as communication is for a fruitful marriage. Nevertheless, prayer is the response of faith, while preaching and sacrament create and confirm faith. As means of grace, sacraments communicate something from God to us, while in all exercises of Christian gratitude and obedience we respond in love to God and neighbor.
While there are many things for a Christian to do, nothing that we do can communicate grace to ourselves. There are, of course, many things that we must do in order to receive God’s Word and sacraments: getting dressed, going to church, spending the day in meditation on God’s riches in Christ. But the communication of these riches is itself entirely God’s act, not ours. The good news is that God has not only found his way to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but in the weekly Sabbath he has carved out of this passing age time for his meeting with us. Indeed, the medium is the message. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 13:28-29).
1 Finney’s “new measures” and the revivalism that followed in his wake led to what historians have called the “burned-over district” in upstate New York, where the acceleration of “excitements” eventually led to spiritual exhaustion, both in the form of hardened unbelief and in the form of radical spiritualities. Many of the mind-science cults were born along the path of these revivals. Like a heroine addict, a victim of “bad religion” often discovers that there are only two options: to break the habit of religion altogether or to go deeper and deeper into cultic binges, trying desperately to satisfy the cravings. But whether the craving is for more immanence (sense of God’s nearness and familiarity) or more transcendence (sense of God’s majesty and mystery), idolatry is a perennial human temptation[back to text].
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First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006)
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.