The Sacraments are effective and Apostasy is real
The Sacraments’ efficacy is like the Word’s efficacy.
The reformed tradition has no trouble believing that the word is effective and the people still fall away from the faith. The language which the Bible uses of itself is stronger and more frequent than its language concerning the sacraments. Since we have no trouble believing that the Word is effective and apostasy is real, we should have less trouble believing the sacraments are effective and apostasy is real.
The Bible teaches that in Baptism and the Supper Christ administers grace to His church through them. Scripture also teaches that some who experience this grace finally fall away from the faith. The Bible teaches that Christ administers grace through the written Word and the Word preached but that some who experience these graces still fall away.
In John 6 the crowds depart because Jesus would not make any more bread. When Jesus asks His disciples, “Will you go away also?” They respond, “To whom would we go LORD, You have the words of life?” Just because not all who hear them live, does not mean that they are not the words of life.
Your soul can starve after eating and drinking Jesus Christ, just like it can die after hearing the Word of life.
When we look to the Old Testament concerning the levitical robes, the temple furniture, and the LORD’s portion of the sacrifice, transmitting holiness to the people was not always a safe thing. Uzzah is perhaps the most famous example, where the Lord’s holiness was not a warm, fuzzy, blessing to Uzzah. Also Nadab and Abihu, and Korah’s rebellion. The censers they used were afterward holy to the LORD even though the people had been rebellious and disobedient with their use.
The Sacraments gave Korah’s censers holiness despite his rebellious heart.
The fact that some contact the holiness of the sacraments and then come under judgment [1 Corinthians 11, 2 Peter 2, Jude] or finally fall away from the faith [parable of the sower, Hebrews 10] far from creating conflict about the efficacy of the sacraments, reinforces that Christ is truly active in them. Sometimes in His administration, and for reasons beyond our finding out, He administers judgment. It is His body and blood; a blessing to those who partake worthily and judgment to those who partake unworthily.
Baptists don’t like to view Supper and Baptism as effective, but because human nature longs for sacraments [and their efficacy] the Baptists create sacraments of their own [which God never promised to bless]: saying you believe, the sinner’s prayer, writing your conversion date in your Bible, etc.
Jesus says if we do not understand the parable of the sower, how will we understand all parables. [ Mark 4:13 (ESV) And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?] Therefore, understanding true and false conversions [those who persevere and those who fall away, those who bear fruit and the sterile] is foundational to all of Jesus’ other parables.
The Sacraments and the Sower are the same, but the soil is different.
Rather than establishing human choice and autonomy over against God’s sovereignty, this magnifies God’s sovereignty over human decision. We understand God as the Master architecting not only the seed and different kinds of soil, but also when where and how each seed will contact each kind of soil. In Luke 8.18 Jesus warns us to be careful how we hear, so hearing is part of the secret of perseverance and apostasy. We cannot change which kind of soil God has made us in His sovereignty, but at the human level, we can take care how we hear and are responsible before God for how we do. The conjunction of these two levels is what the Bible describes when it says, “… him who has ears, let him hear. [ Ezekiel 3:27, Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, Mark 4:9, 4:23, Luke 8:8, 14:35, Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22, 13:9 ESV]”.
God demands that all hear Him, and He is so gracious that He has given some ears. Those who have ears but don’t listen are even more liable than those who never had ears. [ John 9:39-41 (ESV) Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.]
The Bible equivocates its own terms.
Furthermore, we do well to understand that this is another occasion when the Bible uses the same word to speak of two different ideas, and we need to pay attention to the context of that word to discover the author’s nuance of meaning. As my friend Dave once said, “We need to pay attention to how the Bible equivocates its terms.” The author of Hebrews compared his readers to the wilderness generation, saying not to be like the unbelieving wilderness generation. [Hebrews 3:19 (ESV) So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.]
Judges described the same group of people as a faithful high point in Israel’s history [ Judges 2:6-11 ESV]. This begs the question of context. The author of Hebrews wants us to remember that grumbling about the manna, worshiping foreign gods through immorality [as at Peor], and refusing to enter and conquer the land were all unfaithful failures compared to the high standard to which God calls us in Christ Jesus. Judges means that for all this generation’s failures and sins, they acknowledged Jehovah, and understood and attempted to practice His law. The generation which came after them in Judges 2 openly followed the Baals.
Therefore, the Bible says the wilderness generation believed, but it didn’t believe.
As another example of the Bible equivocating its terms, Jesus says, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [ John 15:2 (ESV)]” The branches were in Him, at least temporarily.
However, speaking of people in precisely this category He says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ [Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)]” On the surface we face the challenge that these people were “in Christ” and “He never knew them,” but going deeper His point is obvious. These people practiced the Christian religion and experienced at least some of the graces of doing so. They are all the more guilty for having received these extra graces and finally rejecting them.
Effective Sacraments and real apostasy are like Divine Concurrence
The Reformed tradition has no difficulty with the doctrine of Divine concurrence between God’s decree as the primary, supernatural cause, and mediating natural causes. We can simultaneously speak of God keeping the wind and rain in storehouses, summoning them at His command, and of secondary causes such as partial pressures, dew points, relative humidity, wind patterns, and condensation nuclei. However, contemporary Christians in the Reformed faith seem to have difficulty with this concept applied to the sacraments, despite that this explanation is the simplest and most natural explanation of the Bible’s language: “Matthew 26:27-28 (ESV) And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
And again: “1 Peter 3:21 (ESV) Baptism, which corresponds to this [Noah’s flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” God gives the grace; the water, wine, and bread are His ordained, mediating causes, the channels through which He has promised to work. There is grace in the Supper, but that grace is not intrinsic to the bread and wine, but sovereignly poured into them, just as there is grace in me, which is not intrinsic to me, but God has poured it into me.
Building upon and beyond the Westminster Standards
Since I work through the Westminster Catechism in rounds with the children, it has put me in mind of the rigidity of theological labels within the reformed community. Sanctification now refers to growth in grace, while the Bible doesn’t use that label for that idea. Faith is now only saving faith or persevering faith. Regeneration is only the spiritual birth of those who persevere, justification necessarily following it, and it cannot account for “the washing with the water of regeneration.”
The OPC and many other reformed denominations require their ministers [and therefore their theologians] to memorize the Westminster Catechism. I think it a good requirement and a good catechism, but perhaps one side effect is that the stretch of questions: “What is regeneration? What is Justification, What is election? etc” This stretch of questions has come to rigidly control the way reformed pastors and theologians [and through them reformed laity] now read such words in the Bible.
I would contend this was never actually the Divines’ intention. They were creating a guide to direct and shape the minds of children toward truth and away from heresy, not a theological manual for mature believers. Doubtless their use of such words in their other writings is broader, more nuanced, more natural, as we find in the Scripture. While the catechism is an excellent foundation for the developing, but immature minds of children [probably 10 and under was the original audience], we need to step beyond it in maturity to be able to place the several different kinds of faith the Bible mentions [demonic, saving, scorched, choked, etc.] into categories of how God’s Word uses one label for more than one related idea [just as all human language does].
We must see that the Bible associates baptism with
- regeneration [ Titus 3:5 (ESV) he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,]
- and the forgiveness of sins [ Acts 22:16 (ESV) And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’],
- but that justification [and calling, and glorification [ Romans 8:30 (ESV) And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.]] does not always follow regeneration.
What if the sprouts get choked?
Sometimes the sprouts get choked or burned [ Mark 4.1-20 ESV]; sometimes the king rescinds His forgiveness. [ Matthew 18:32-35 (ESV) Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Hebrews 10:26-27 (ESV) For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.] Perhaps categorizing these distinctions is too subtle a work for children, but part of the purpose of catechizing them is preparing them for maturity so they can make such distinctions.
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