No Sacraments, No Protestantism

No Sacraments, No Protestantism December 2, 2014

A few weeks back, I published a brief essay on Protestantism and sacraments on the Patheos site. Some of my friends have clamored for clarifications. Hence this post.

My claim was that Protestantism cannot achieve its pastoral aims without high view of the efficacy of sacraments. I focused on baptism.

Protestantism broke out with promises of assurance: Sinners with tortured consciences could never find peace under the medieval system; but the recovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone enables sinners to be assured of God’s favor to them. Sinners trust Christ and His promises, and they know they’re good forever.

The existential difficulty is that those promises don’t specify that they are addressed to me in particular. God says, Everyone who believes is right with me. How do I know that this promise is directed to me? I pick up the Bible, and I don’t see my name written there. I know God made promises to Abraham, but me? I hear a sermon on forgiveness of sins, but the preacher usually doesn’t single me out of the crowd. I might feel that he’s singling me out; I might experience great assurance. But feelings come and go, and besides, should I get my assurance from feelings in the first place?

Anyone who knows Protestant piety knows that these aren’t imaginary problems.

Here’s the qualifying paragraph: The Word is addressed to me in particular every time I hear or read it. After all, not everyone gets to read a Bible, not everyone steps into a revival meeting. If I did, it’s because God called me there to talk with me. In certain settings, the Word can quite explicitly take the form of a direct address: If I go to a pastor in despair, he might well say to me, “Peter, your sins are forgiven. Believe the gospel.” That’s a personalized promise from a minister of Jesus Christ, which means it’s from Jesus Himself. Because it names me, it arrests my attention and wins my trust.

Still, baptism is different from most ministry of the word. In worship, in most preaching and teaching, even in the absolution, the Word isn’t addressed to me by name. In baptism it is: “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Baptism individualizes and personalizes God’s promise. At the font, there’s no doubt that the promise of forgiveness and justification is directed to me in particular. The difference is somewhat analogous to the difference between an Oscar winner telling the adoring crowd with all sincerity, “I love you all,” and that same Oscar winner saying, in the intimacy of private conversation, “Linda, I love you.”

Assurance comes through both Word and sacrament, through the Word spoken and read and through the word enacted. Protestants are quite happy to stress the power of the written and spoken Word. That’s a given, definitive of Protestantism. I don’t need to exhort Protestants to believe the Word is effective, powerful as a sword.

Many, many Protestants, however, think that they must have a low view of sacramental efficacy to be Protestant. The opposite is true. Without sacraments, Protestant lose the Word. Without the Word enacted, the Word spoken will not bear the Spiritual fruit of boisterous assurance.

Hence, again: No sacraments, no Protestantism.

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