What do the Sacraments have to do with my Salvation?
By Richard G. Hutchison
Every week Christian congregations around the world enter into special moments of re-enactment together. Sometimes they are standing on the banks of a river or along some distant seashore with the roaring of waves in the background. In other places the scene may be a neighbor’s swimming pool, a farmer’s pond, or inside a beautiful sanctuary with ornate décor and a built-in baptistry prominently placed in view of the watching congregation. The ministers read from the holy scriptures and invite the participants to make their confession of faith and vows of obedience. Then, with an uplifted hand, the minister declares, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Although modes of baptism vary, this is commonly followed by placing the participant under the water as a re-enactment of their spiritual union with Christ in His death. And they are immediately lifted up out of the water as a re-enactment of their spiritual union with Christ in His resurrected life (Rom. 6:3-4).
THE INSTITUTION OF THE SACRAMENTS BY OUR LORD
The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are to be regularly observed by the church, first and foremost, because they were so ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ. A key part of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples includes the instruction for “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Furthermore, this baptism has historically been the pathway by which believers are publicly joined to the visible church as members of Christ’s body, where they may be further instructed in how to live in obedience to him.
Likewise, local congregations are urged to regularly partake of the Lord’s supper (also known as “communion”) in obedience to the command of Christ himself, who said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The apostle Paul later implied that this was something already in regular practice within the local church, and referred to it as something that he had “received from the Lord” and “delivered unto [them]” (1 Cor. 11:23).
However, there are reasons why Christ has given us these ordinances. He intends them as a means of grace for forming us into his likeness as members of his body, the church.
THE ROLE OF SYMBOLS AND CEREMONIES IN CULTURE AND SOCIETY
Symbols and ceremonies are vital to any group of people. They embody the collective memory of their shared history. They create a common identity around which people can join in unity. Far from being purely about the past, they also point toward a shared destiny, and thus they also give profound meaning to the present realities which people within the group are experiencing.
Now, more than ever, because of the fractured environment of the postmodern world, the sacraments serve to remind the Church of the story and the identity that bonds us together, regardless of our many differences. And, furthermore, it is this identity which then shapes us, in community, forming us into the likeness of Christ who is at the center of both these rituals of the church.
TWO SACRAMENTS – ONE STORY
The outward signs of water baptism and the Lord’s supper serve as two sacraments which signify distinct aspects of the same story.
1. Water Baptism – The Believer is Now in Christ.
“We believe that water baptism serves as a symbol of regeneration or the new birth. It signifies acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ, rejection of one’s former life of sin, and identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. By means of this sacrament, believers declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Baptism is for those who have consciously renounced their sins, accepted Christ as Savior, and are committed to following Him.”The Bible Methodist Discipline (2015, p. 20)
Baptism is an initiatory rite by which the believer declares their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and their intention to follow him as the Lord of their life through the regenerating and cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it symbolizes the working of God’s grace, by the Holy Spirit, who has placed the believer in Christ, and who now indwells the believer, enabling them to live in the newness of life that has already been created for them in union with Christ’s death and resurrection. It serves as a powerful testimony to both the church and the world, while also a means of grace that confirms and strengthens the faith of the new Christian to follow through in living a life of obedience to the Lord as part of the believing community.
2. The Lord’s Supper – Christ is Indwelling the Church through the Holy Spirit.
“We believe that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption through Christ’s death and our hope is in His victorious return, as well as a sign of the love that Christians have for each other. To such as receive it in a worthy manner, with humility and faith, the Lord’s Supper becomes a means through which God communicates grace to the heart.”The Bible Methodist Discipline (2015, pp. 20-21)
As seen above, water baptism is intended to be a one-time initiatory rite for new believers who are joining the body of Christ. The Lord’s supper, on the other hand, takes what has begun through the believer’s union with Christ, and offers the church a means for continuously re-centering their minds and affections on the abiding reality of Christ’s indwelling presence. It is a sign of personal reliance upon the blood of Christ, and the life of Christ which that blood represents. But it also symbolizes the organic unity of Christ’s body. If Christ indwells each believer, and if each believer has been placed in Christ, then this means that all believers are part of one body. This has profound implications for the way in which believers are called to live in holiness and love with one another.
We may think of communion as a testimony service. When we receive the bread and juice with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are first testifying to one another that we are followers of Christ. Second, we are also showing our commitment to one another as joint members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Many are fearful of standing up and giving a verbal testimony to a crowd of people, but they give testimony of their salvation by coming to the Lord’s Table.
3. Two Aspects of One Story
So, while the nature and significance of each sacrament is distinct, they nevertheless bind us together as one people (1 Pet. 2:9-10) who share one identity (1 John 3:1-2) as part of one story (Eph. 4:4-6) – the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
THE ROLE OF THE SACRAMENTS IN SALVATION
“We believe that water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ and ordained as a means of grace when received through faith. They are signs of our profession of faith and of God’s gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us, refreshing, strengthening, and confirming our faith in Him.”Bible Methodist Discipline (2015, p. 20)
As adherents to Protestant Christianity, Bible Methodists do not believe that the sacraments inherently possess salvific merit. In other words, we do not teach that one can be saved merely by being baptized or by receiving the elements of communion, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. And, conversely, we recognize that a person may partake of the sacraments without saving faith. However, we must hasten to add that many Christians have mistakenly used the aforementioned facts as a basis for downplaying the importance of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the life of the believer.
The result has sometimes been a reductionist line of thinking in which some will say, “A person can be saved without being baptized and receiving communion, therefore these sacraments have nothing to do with one’s salvation.” The implications of this error are far more serious than most people realize at first glance.
When the sacraments are reduced to merely a nice aesthetic touch that one may add or leave off with no real consequence, the church becomes vulnerable to a number of theological errors that truncate the gospel, diminish discipleship, and unmoor the community of faith from the grand story that holds them together as one people.
But when the sacraments are regularly and thoughtfully offered to the church as biblical means of receiving grace, they will fortify both personal and corporate faith, and they will draw the saints into ever-deepening levels of living in union with Christ.
1. The sacraments draw us into both the corporate and personal aspects of salvation.
The sacraments were never intended to be received alone. They are to be received in community – with fellow members of the body of Christ. And yet, participation in the sacraments is very personal. The sacraments, when properly administered, should cause each person to reflect upon their significance in ways that touch upon the lived realities of their own life. And so, these means of grace serve as a corrective against the twin errors of individualism (which tends to over-prioritize personal interests) and collectivism (which tends to emphasize the priorities of the group over the needs of individuals).
2. The sacraments remind us that our salvation rests in the incarnate Christ and, thus extends to every aspect of our physical and material existence.
Water baptism and the Lord’s supper engage the physical senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing. They also evoke powerful visual imagery. The significance of these aesthetics goes far beyond just that of an object lesson or illustration of doctrinal truth. They are intended to draw us deeper into the human enjoyment of divine grace. And they teach us that God intends for us to partake of His grace as humans in physical bodies, inhabiting a material world.
The church must constantly battle the tendency to downplay the importance of physical and material things, as if true spirituality requires distancing oneself from all but the ethereal. And so, when a new believer feels the waters of baptism wash over their skin in the presence of the church, their spirit, soul, and body are all drawn into the realm of union with Christ in His death and resurrected life (Rom. 6:1-14). And it is a powerful, unforgettable moment.
Likewise, when the faithful gather and hear the Word of God proclaimed, that Word becomes enfleshed anew within them when the hearing is followed by a physical partaking of the elements of bread and wine. And they are reminded that Christ did not come merely to redeem spirits and souls. He also came to redeem their bodies and the material cosmos in which they live, in the sure hope of resurrection and eternal life.
Thus, Word and sacrament are wed together, proclaiming and embodying the message of full salvation through the sanctifying and renewing work of the Holy Spirit.
3. The sacraments help to keep the church’s understanding of salvation centered in Christ and situated within the framework of the Trinity.
There is a reason why, historically, Word and sacrament have been mentioned together as inseparable with the life of the visible church. The faithful teaching and proclamation of the Word establishes the doctrines of the church and gives meaning to the sacraments. The ministry of the sacraments, on the other hand, helps the church to understand the scriptures in the light of Christ’s redemptive work, for the glory of the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through this symbiotic relationship between Word and sacrament, the church remains centered in Christ and is drawn deeper into the glories of the Holy Trinity. This has profound implications for even the most practical aspects of the church’s teaching and life together.
4. The sacraments are both an ordinance to be obeyed and a gift to be received.
Some theological traditions prefer to describe water baptism and the Lord’s supper primarily as ordinances to be obeyed. Others have emphasized the sacramental value of these traditions. As Bible Methodists, we recognize both.
And so, we encourage every church to faithfully administer and partake of the sacraments, first of all, in obedience to our Lord’s commands to baptize those who desire to follow him (Matt. 28:18-20), and to observe the Lord’s supper often in remembrance of him and his sacrifice. Moreover, we also believe that the sacraments, when received with humility and faith, become a means by which real grace is communicated in real-time to those who partake. We do not teach (as some do) the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (in which a person is supposed to be saved only from the moment of baptism), transubstantiation (in which the elements of communion are believed to actually become the body and blood of the Lord), or other similar teachings with regard to the sacraments. But we do wholeheartedly affirm that Christ is present wherever his people are gathered, and that the Holy Spirit communicates the benefits of Christ’s death, blood, and resurrection to every believer as they partake of these God-ordained means of grace. Therefore, we also offer the sacraments as a gift of grace, to be received with joy and gratitude.
Although we do not believe that the sacraments themselves are the source of salvation, they do, in fact, direct our hearts toward deeper levels of faith in Christ, who is both our Lord and Savior. As our Lord, we obey him in observing the sacraments as he has ordained. As Savior, we come to his table again and again to receive fresh grace as our faith is renewed in response to His redemptive work on our behalf.