“What is the limitation of God’s action through people?” This question is anything but trivial, and it is precisely the dividing line between sacramental Christianity (not sacramentarianism mind you), and Evangelicalism. Let’s be clear that the way we answer this question touches nerves that we didn’t realize we even had, and actually exposes divisions in places where we once thought we were united. So what is the limitation of God’s action through people? I can hear you saying “well God has no limits, and God can do whatever God wants to do!”
I might say Amen to that, but the truth is that you don’t really believe that, and you need to stop pretending that you do.
For instance, can God forgive you by having me say to you ‘your sins are forgiven’? Or must God have me tack on the words “because of what Christ has done”? Or must God have me tack on “In the name of Christ”. Or does God just do it, and any words I say are mere commentary on what he has done. You see there are limits that you have in place. Can God have me cook bread, ferment wine, speak words of institution over them, feed them to you, and forgive you by those actions of mine? Can He? The question is, can God work that way? Can God have me run to the church tap, fill a pitcher, put it in a font, sprinkle it on a baby in accordance with word, and wash away that child’s original sin? Can God do that? Of course the evangelical reader will astutely point out that I am creating a false dichotomy, or a strawman, and they would say “sure God ‘could’ do that, but that isn’t what God does in accordance with His word.” In other words that is not the way that he has revealed himself to be working.
The question we then ask the evangelical, especially in light of verses in scripture which seem to insinuate forgiveness in the supper, washing away of sin in baptism, confession and absolution, and so on is this; “What is it that makes the typical evangelical balk at a non-symbolic view of word and sacrament”? This is an important question, and one that I ask often.
The evangelical response inevitably sounds something like this; “We are not saved by works, therefore eating the supper, being baptized, being absolved, etc… can only signify what Christ has done. Baptism cannot actually wash away sin, because it is work, communion cannot actually impart forgiveness, because it is a work, absolution cannot actually absolve, because it is a work. To say these things are more than symbolic is to violate the overarching theme of the New Testament which is salvation by faith in Christ, not of works.” Add on the fact that it sounds too Roman Catholic, and all arguments for sacramental Christianity are usually DOA before the normal evangelical will even entertain them.
After debating this ad nauseum with a friend of mine I’ve come to a very simple conclusion. These two systems have different ideas regarding what scripture refers to as a work. When I hear someone say baptism is a work, I just scratch my head. “How is someone putting me in water and saying words over me a work?” My opponent would scratch his head and say “How is someone putting you in water and saying words over you not a work?” Then we just kind of stare at each other like the other person is an idiot.
If you step back the difference is pretty obvious. The sacramental guy is saying a work is anything we do ourselves, and the evangelical is saying a work is anything done by any human effort other than Christ’s. So the literal sacrament view finds it absurd to think baptism is a work because it is done to you, not by you. The supper is not a work because it is given to you, not done by you, absolution is not a work because it is pronounced to you, not by you… and so on. In the evangelical framework all of those things are works because they are done under human volition and they believe it involves the creation of a mediator between God and man, which is strictly denounced by Paul. Which again begs the question “What is the limitation of God’s action through people?” or “Is it possible to say a person doing these things is really God doing them?”
I contend that if we are going to frame a debate between Christians regarding the sacraments the place we need to start is with a working definition of what the scriptures mean when they say we are not saved by works. Debating any other point will inevitably amount to us speaking directly past one another. The other thing we must be aware of, is that belief in real presence, baptismal regeneration, and absolution does not imply Roman Catholicism. I hate to even have to bring that up, but it seems like the assumption of most evangelicals is that there is no third alternative between them and Rome. There are though, some of Anglicanism, Lutheranism, even slivers of Methodism and I am sure some others hold to a literal view regarding the sacraments and their accompanying scriptures.
Without beginning to make the arguments as to why the literal sacramental definition of works is right, and the typical evangelical view is wrong, I want to use the rest of this post to explain some of the downstream differences we see in our churches which are resultant of our differing view of works.
One staple of evangelical Christianity is personal bible study. There is this idea that the private study of God’s word is, if not a mandate on a Christian, at the very least it is one of the healthiest things a Christian can do. For the evangelical one of the signs of a healthy church is bibles in laps of the parishioners following along as the minister preaches. The healthy evangelicals are being Berean and “fact checking” the sermon for lack of a better word. The preacher then is merely supplementing, or guiding their own personal study. Ultimately under what I will call the ‘Berean mandate’ (as understood by evangelicals) it is up to the individual to determine truth. Of course they would say ‘No we are discerning truth’, but take an honest look and you will see that regardless of what any minister would say, personal interpretation of the text is always trump in evangelicalism.
Of course the flip side is the more sacramental church. Nobody has their bible out, or very few do, and they and their minister are perfectly fine with that. Instead they are listening for the words about themselves to be spoken to them. (Faith cometh by hearing). Instead of shuffling through to find the ministers passing reference to Philemon chapter 2 they are waiting to hear the Law and Gospel spoken directly to them ‘sacramentally’ through the minister. Of course the evangelical doesn’t hear any of it, because they were being busy Bereans looking for the second chapter of Philemon.
Oddly enough the evangelical looks at the sacramental folk as sheep just lapping up whatever the minister feels like saying, and the sacramental folk are looking back at the evangelical wondering why they are working so hard at apprehending a sermon.
For the sacramental people church attendance is super important, and a lot of times they don’t even know why, but they think, and rightly so, that showing up and hearing the words of God’s forgiveness, remembering their baptism, and receiving the supper somehow makes them right with God. The evangelicals find that to be absurd. Of course the evangelicals are comfortable missing church as long as they maintain bible study and fellowship in a small group, or some sort of personal devotional practice. Both sides look at each other and say, ‘that sounds like works salvation to me!’
In the evangelical church you might hear a 58 part sermon on Ephesians, because the most important thing is understanding. (58 weeks in Ephesians was not meant to be absurd, seriously you’ll find stuff like that.) The sacramental church might spend 3 or 4 weeks in it depending on the lectionary, because they are less concerned with your knowledge and more concerned with pronouncing (thereby applying) Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to you, and condemning your flesh (literally condemning it, not a symbolic guilt trip) with the Law.
In evangelicalism growth happens primarily by study and service. In sacramental Christianity growth happens primarily by tending to the means of grace.
Of course we could go on and on here. Simply remember that the line of demarcation is in what constitutes a work. For evangelicals a work is anything done by anyone, for the sacramental folk it is anything done by your own volition. Which is why we sacramental folk watch the evangelicals and actually think they teach works salvation, and they look at us and say the same.
Hopefully that was an honest assessment, and before anyone yells at me, I KNOW that I made some sweeping generalizations there, and I apologize if I cast anyone into a role they really do not fill. This is a springboard though which we can start from.
I need to stop for now, but I will continue this in multiple parts.