His Word + our faith = all the difference
September 18, 2012
If you’re anything like me, you look at the picture above and your knees get weak – not from some kind of heady infatuation – but rather, out of terror and fear. Thankfully for math-challenged people like me (and for ‘Über-geeks’ as well) God has made some equations in life much easier to understand. This does not mean that everything involved is un-complex and without even incomprehensible parts, but that at least the “math-part” of putting all the pieces together is easy enough.
*note: I’ll confess from the outset here that this post is more about exploring an idea than making a point or, to put it another way, the point of this post is actually a question. I’d love for any feedback or push-back you’d care to offer.
When considering the Ordinances (or Sacraments, properly defined) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it occurred to me recently how essential both the Word of God spoken, and our faith applied, are to these means of grace to us. Whatever is used to mean, in its modern usage, it must be stated that Baptism and the Eucharist are not “ex opere operato” which holds the idea that these gifts are efficacious in and of themselves irregardless of any outside influence from either the minster or from the one receiving. John Calvin had said, regarding this idea, that, “Grace resides in Christ, not in the elements, and the efficacy and power emanates from the Holy Spirit.” But this begs the question then, ‘How does Baptism and the Eucharist become effective to us?’ ’What do the Word of God and our faith bring to the Sacraments that would not be there otherwise?’
The short answer is: everything!
The Word of God
Consider first two passages of Scripture. In Hebrews 4:12 we read that the Word of God is both a “living” and an ”active” thing. In Isaiah 55:10,11, God reminds us that His Word is powerful and effective; able to accomplish all that He intends it to do.
The language can be difficult for some, but i believe Augustine expressed well the relationship between God’s powerful, effective Word and the elements used in the Sacraments, when he wrote,
“Let the Word be added to the element, and it will become a Sacrament. For whence can their be so much virtue in water as to touch the body and cleanse the heart, unless by the agency of the Word …”
I think it’s safe to say here that what Augustine had in mind when he spoke of the “Word” being added to the elements was the Word of God, which would surely include both a gospel presentation as well as the words of institution.
We have clear statements in Scripture regarding what faith is (“… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Heb. 11:1) and its purpose as it relates to God (“Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.” Heb. 11:6). But how does our faith then apply to the Sacraments?
Again, John Calvin says of this,
“It is certain, therefore, that the Lord offers us his mercy, and a pledge of his grace, both in his sacred word and in the sacraments; but it is not apprehended save by those who receive the word and sacraments with firm faith” [emphasis mine]. He justifies this fact by reminding us that, “in like manner as Christ, though offered and held forth for salvation to all, is not, however, acknowledged and received by all.” For those who hold to a real, spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Westminster Confession states that Christ is only, “present to the faith of believers in that ordinance.” [emphasis mine]
It is essential to add here that all of these factors combined find their power and efficacy in the Holy Spirit, both in the understanding of the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-14) and in having faith to believe in God in the first place (Eph.2:8).
When i try to place all these things considered together, then, even a common sense understanding begins to emerge. If i’m in a church and, by some accident or purpose, fall into the baptismal tank, neither i, nor anyone else, is going to think that i am somehow now baptized. No (as we’ve said), the words of institution as well as the intention of my heart and application of faith are necessary for this to be said. In the same way, if i break apart a loaf of bread and pour myself a glass of Merlot while sitting in the pew at church, i am not suddenly taking the Lord’s Supper. Again, the elements of the Word and faith and the power of the Spirit are needed to make this so.
What i take this all to mean is that the Word of God spoken/or the words of institution is about the right application of the Sacraments, and our faith is about the right apprehension of them (again, all brought together and empowered by the Holy Spirit).
But at the end of the day, here is the question i’m left with: what if one of these things is not present? (okay, the Holy Spirit part is obvious, but the other two then!)
If my buddy dunks me under the water at a swimming pool without a single word, but i believe in my heart that i am identifying myself with the death and resurrection of Christ, am i then baptized? How about in a church by a minster (again, with no words spoken)? Conversely, what if a minister in the church administers my baptism faithfully but i don’t truly have faith in God’s saving work in my life: am i still baptized then? Further still, if i take the Lord’s Supper, trusting is Christ’s finished work for me on the cross, but the pastor speaks no words, do i still really take it? Or if the minister faithfully presents the elements, but i eat without faith; what then?
If we believe, as we said at the beginning, that the elements themselves are not ex opere operato viz. that they have no efficacy in and of themselves, then the answer to all these questions above is probably, ‘No.’ Or, ‘maybe no’? ‘Maybe yes’? I don’t know!
One last thing to consider: particularly with regard to the faith of the person in taking the Sacraments, i believe it was Calvin who once painted a picture of wine being poured over a jar with its lid sealed. Without opening the lid, the jar receives nothing (except getting wet). To put it another way, imagine bringing a glass of wine to your lips and tipping it up without opening your mouth. In both these cases, it is the opening of the vessel to receive the wine that brings the benefit (however correctly it may be poured) and Calvin argues that this “opening to receive” is the faith by which we truly partake of the Sacraments.
It’s a question worth pondering anyways whether you are a minster or a congregant. What is our role in the application and apprehension of these means of grace given to us?