Monday, February 10, 2014

Word and Sacraments--Mike Horton

Word and Sacraments

After several weeks of working together in adjoining cubicles, Jeff and Sharon picked up hints that they were both Christians. One day, Jeff asked his coworker, “Are you saved?” Sharon replied, “I think I am,” not because she wasn’t sure that she belonged to Christ but because she was unfamiliar with this way of putting it. Jeff asked Sharon how she came to know Christ — to give her personal testimony, and she said that she was baptized, grew up hearing sermons and participating in the public service, was catechized, and was eventually confirmed. After making a public profession of faith before the elders and then the whole congregation, she received her first Communion and was still a communicant member at her church. “Yes,” Jeff pressed, “but do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” “What do you mean by that?” Sharon wondered. “I mean, you’ve talked a lot about ‘churchy’ stuff, but when were you born again?” Sharon was stumped. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I guess I’ve always been a Christian.” With genuine concern, Jeff began to talk to Sharon as someone who didn’t really know Christ in a saving way.

For many Christians, especially evangelicals, the public  means of grace  (preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper) are “churchy,” different from — if not antithetical to — one’s private, personal, and unmediated relationship  with Christ. For many of us, it’s counterintuitive to speak of the Spirit’s work  through creaturely means. The assumption quite often is that the Spirit’s canvas is noncreaturely — a divine spirit or soul within each individual — and that he paints with secret strokes of invisible oils. Perhaps when we think of the Father, creation of the material world comes to mind. When we think of the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the  incarnate  God is in view. However, when we think of the Holy Spirit, we see him working directly, immediately, spontaneously, and inwardly in our hearts — in the realm of the invisible. For Jeff, mention of the Holy Spirit does not ordinarily provoke thoughts about preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, except perhaps as a way of contrasting genuine rebirth and external rituals.


Many of us were raised with the assumption that people who talk about sacraments trust in rituals rather than in Christ. Belonging to Christ and belonging to the visible church were seen as two different things. Often in this environment, preaching is simply teaching: instruction and exhortation. It can be done as effectively in small group settings or in personal devotions as in formal church services, and a teacher need only be ordained from within, by the Holy Spirit, not outwardly by the visible church. In Jeff’s thinking, ordinary sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not God’s means of grace, but our means of obedience. The purpose of preaching is to teach us what to believe and to do, in baptism we testify to our commitment to follow Christ, and in the Lord’s Supper we strengthen our love for and commitment to Jesus by remembering his death for us. The  emphasis throughout falls on  getting us to do something: to learn and follow (in preaching), to commit (in baptism) and to recommit (in the Lord’s Supper). For Jeff, these activities may be resources he can use in his personal relationship with Jesus, but he doesn’t think of them as the means that the Spirit uses to bring about and confirm this relationship.

At the other extreme, however, many Christians have tended toward an almost superstitious attachment to rituals, leading to a barren formalism. It may in fact be the case that Sharon was trusting in her churchly socialization, rather than in Christ. Perhaps, for her, being a Christian was like being a Republican or a Democrat. Who knows whether Christ was actually proclaimed to her each week or whether her public profession of faith was genuine? She may think of baptism or first Communion as a rite of passage to adulthood, like countless rituals that mark coming-of-age in different societies and religions. According to surveys, most young people raised in the church (across the whole spectrum) cannot tell you what their church teaches concerning the Lord’s Supper. So perhaps her church experience is nothing but an empty ritual that Sharon goes through, mumbling the prayers along with everyone else, while she’s thinking about meeting up with her friends after the service. Yes, people can indeed trust in rituals rather than in Christ. In fact, this happens in evangelical contexts, too, where the “Are you saved?” question is answered by referring not to their baptism, which Christ did ordain, but to the altar call or the sinner’s prayer, which he did not.

In contrast to both cold, ecclesiastical formalism and warm, enthusiastic individualism, Scripture provides us with a completely different paradigm for thinking about the relationship between the Spirit, the church, and the means of grace. We shouldn’t let ourselves be pressed into a false choice between trusting in external forms that have power  in themselves  to save and believing that the Spirit ordinarily works  apart from  these forms. As we have seen, created matter has been the medium of the Spirit’s artistry in creation, providence, the history of Israel, and the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The same is true in his application of Christ’s work to us here and now.

Key Distinction: means of grace/means of gratitude.
Means of grace are creaturely media through which the Spirit delivers Christ and all of his benefits. We are effectually called into union with Christ by the preaching of the gospel. Through this ministry of the word the Spirit gives us faith in Christ. He further ratifies his gracious promise by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the signs and seals of the covenant of grace.Means of gratitude are our appropriate response to the gift that is given to us through the means of grace. Chief among these is prayer, as well as witness, mutual instruction and admonition (including through singing, Col 3:16), church discipline, meditation on God’s word, and service to others (our families, fellow saints, and neighbors).

Excerpted from Chapter 15 of Pilgrim Theology by Michael Horton.