We’ve all been to this church service, and we all know what I’m talking about: It’s time for someone to be baptized or the church to receive the Lord’s Supper, and the pastor stands up and begins telling his congregation all about what the water, bread, and wine are not, what they do not do, and what we should not think about them: “There’s nothing magical about this water, it doesn’t save you.” “This bread and wine don’t turn into anything else. They remain bread and wine,” (or in many sad cases, crackers and grape juice). “This isn’t Jesus’ body and blood, it merely symbolizes His body and blood.” Depending on the denomination and temperament of the minister, this litany of negations can drone on for five minutes or more. In some churches, it becomes even worse: the pastor will open 1 Corinthians 11 and, using the Apostle Paul’s words of institution, begin giving his congregation a mini-sermon on all the reasons why many of them should not partake of the Supper!
Now, there are kernels of truth in all of these warnings and qualifications. It is true (from the perspective of my own confessions, which are Presbyterian and Reformed) that the water of baptism is itself nothing special or capable of saving people. It is true that the bread and wine remain bread and wine before, as, and after we consume them. And it is true that the New Testament warns us to “examine” ourselves, and to “discern the body,” lest we “eat and drink judgment” on ourselves.
But in pecking up these kernels of truth, pastors who regularly tell us what Christian sacraments are not miss the precious chance to tell us what they are. And church members who aren’t being fed good sacramental theology elsewhere may come to believe that their church has no positive idea of what the sacraments actually accomplish, or why Christ instituted them. They may even be tempted to believe that the sacraments aren’t that important.
The unspoken assumption many evangelical ministers appear to make here is that a preponderance of those in their pews are latent Roman Catholics—in other words, people whose natural tendency is to (from a Protestant perspective) over-emphasize the inherent power or mystery of the sacraments at the expense of faith or the preached word. This strikes me as a diametric misreading of the evangelical landscape—a place where most are content munching oyster crackers and downing plastic thimblefuls of Welch’s. Far from flirting with ex opere operato theology, I find the overwhelming majority of worshipers in low-church congregations approach baptism and the Lord’s Supper as peripheral and even trite object lessons—things we could technically do without but which we still do because, well, the Bible says we should.
To put it plainly, I think many pastors are incessantly warning their congregations against the error of which they are least in danger. They’re harping on the perils of the ditch on one side of the road, all while firmly stuck in the ditch on the other. They think their churches are full of Thomists, when they’re really full of Zwinglians.
Now, I realize some evangelicals do believe, historically, that the sacraments are only symbols. Certainly, the Anabaptists embraced this memorial view. But the overwhelming majority report in all traditions that trace their roots to the Reformation is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are real means of grace, and moments when Christ has promised to be present in a special way with His people.Though they had their disagreements—even bitter ones—Lutherans and Calvinists would both affirm with St. Augustine that sacraments are “a visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace.” The credentials of Luther, who famously scrawled “Hoc corpus meum est” (“This is my body”) on the table at Marburg, need no defense. Calvin—the successor of those who couldn’t reach agreement with Luther on the Eucharist—nevertheless compares the sacraments with a “diploma or a public deed,” which derive their efficacy not from the parchment of which they are made, but from the word inscribed on them by their issuer (“Institutes of the Christian Religion,” 4:14:4). Calvin’s “effectual sign” formulation has often been compared with the function of a wedding, in which the minister speaks words that really do make bride and groom one, in the eyes of God and the state. Heavily influenced by this Calvinist doctrine, the 39 Articles of the Church of England describe the sacraments as “effectual signs of grace…by which God works invisibly in us.”
The Belgic Confession, one of the Three Forms of Unity in the Dutch Reformed tradition from which Abraham Kuyper hailed, defines the sacraments as “visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Emphasis mine). The confession goes on to remind us that “they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing,” (Article 33). In baptism, it says, “we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may wholly belong to him whose mark and sign we bear,” (Article 34). And its treatment of the Lord’s Supper, among the most beautiful in Protestant confessions, is worth quoting at length:
“Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood. We say that we should be content with the procedure that Christ and the apostles have taught us and speak of these things as they have spoken of them.”
Even the Second London Baptist Confession, arguably the most influential document in the history of the Baptist tradition, clearly affirms that something more than symbolism is going on in the Lord’s Supper: “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…” (Chapter 30:7).
Even a casual reading of historic Protestant statements of faith—statements more consciously contra-Roman Catholic than any “what we believe” section on an evangelical church website—should be enough to make us question our constant disclaimers about the sacraments. The dominance of the “it’s just a symbol” view in evangelical pulpits is a strikingly recent phenomenon, and one we ought to earnestly rethink if we want to sound more like Jesus and His Apostles, and less like people with something to apologize for.