Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Sacramental Efficacy

The Sacraments are one of the contentious issues of the current controversies. Do the Federal Vision men believe sacramentalism, and if so is it outside of the Reformed Norm? I would argue yes to both points. Baptism is a good place to start. The Federal Vision men always raise their voices in protest when they are accused of believing in Baptismal Regeneration or that “baptismal efficacy is affirmed...of every recipient of the sacrament" (lines 42-44 FV section of the MVP report). They always deny it. And here is an example of how they do it. Joel Garver says:

If the report means to say that I believe that all the baptized truly receive Christ and all his benefits as those are offered in the sacrament of baptism, then this is most certainly not the case. I do not believe that every baptized person receives Christ and all his benefits as those are offered by the sacrament of baptism. Receiving the sacrament, for instance, in hypocrisy and unbelief will not benefit the recipient unless he later comes to faith.

If the report, however, means to say that I believe that what is signified and sealed by the sacrament of baptism is truly offered to all in its administration, then I do, in fact, believe that. But, as far as I can see, this is simply classical Reformed doctrine, consistent with the Westminster Standards.

Auburn Ave Church makes this statement:

By baptism one is joined to Christ's body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1ff; WSC #94). This does not, however, grant to the baptised final salvation.

Again Garver gives clarification of AAPC statement:

The AAPC Statement, however, is perfectly consistent with final salvation being "offered" or "given" but not being "received" in such way that would grant final salvation. Otherwise, the statement would be flatly contradictory since "all blessings and benefits" would have to include "final salvation" since surely that is the chief blessing and benefit of Christ's work.

Regarding Saul the AAPC Statement says, "he did not receive the gift of perseverance." But the language here is that of "receiving," not being "given" or "offered."

Thus we see a lot of word parsing being done by the Federal Vision men that is not picked up on in the MVP report or many of the discussions about the subject.

On the contrary the Classical Reformed Position is stated in the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q. 61 Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?
A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God; and I can receive the same in no other way than by faith only.
Q. 72 Is then the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins?
A. No, for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.

Here it is extremely important to note the discussion of how we are righteous immediately proceeds the discussion on sacraments in the Heidelberg. We are righteous by faith, and then the sacraments ‘confirm’ it to us, as the catechism plainly teaches.

Allow me to summarize. The Classic Reformed or Old Reformed Position is that those who receive the sacraments by faith receive the benefits signified by them. Thus our faith is confirmed by the sacraments and salvation and righteousness come only by faith. Without faith the sacraments are of no hope or use to you. The Federal Vision position appears to be those who receive the sacraments receive the benefits of them unless they frustrate the grace by unbelief. Another way to say it is they receive the benefits of the sacrament as they receive it in continuing faith. These two positions are not the same. The Old Reformed position has faith as the instrument and the Federal Vision position has the sacrament as the instrument and faith is just a manner of receiving. The sacrament itself contains grace and offers it to all, and unless it is prevented by unbelief, then it is conveyed or received. The Old Reformed Position states faith is the only way to gain benefit, and constantly reminds us that the sacraments are signs and tokens. They do nothing in and of themselves.

However, it must be admitted that the MVP report is wrong in saying that they believe all who receive baptism are saved because the Federal Vision makes allowances that people can frustrate grace through unbelief, and thus fall out of the covenant with God to which they were joined. The baptized have true union with Christ, but can then later frustrate that union and lose it, through unbelief or a lack of continued faithfulness. This is why I wish the MVP report had taken the time to be detailed. The Federal Vision men rightly have a complaint about the report, but their teaching is still contrary to the Reformed Faith. A clearer report might have helped close the loopholes that the Federal Vision position slips through.


Matt Powell said...

I've enjoyed your posts on the FV and AAPC issues. My own thinking has been clarified, and this latest post has been no exception. Thanks!

Andrew McIntyre said...


Great post. But, isn't some of this, at least, semantics? Faith is the instrument, but we also confess that the sacraments are means of grace. As the Belgic Confession teaches, the sacraments "are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit." So, could we not say that the sacraments are instruments as well? I am not defending the FVs, but I am also not sure this issue is very clear. If the sacraments carry the authority of the Word of God, then they cannot be entirely subjective, can they?

Lee said...

I think that the benefits of the sacrament are indeed subjective. The difference between objective and subjective here is not a question of real benefit, rather, it is a question of how God works. Is God’s work tied to and contained within the bread with a mediated blessing (objective), or does He work directly on the recipient with an immediate blessing (subjective)? The Bible seems to present the work of God as immediate rather than mediated. It is the Holy Spirit who seals us unto salvation, not the sacrament (Eph. 1:13). To partake of the sacrament worthily we are to examine ourselves and discern the meaning of the sacrament (I Cor. 11:27-29). Both of those activities are internal activities done by the subject, thus making the worthy partaking of the sacrament a subjective activity. There is no magic or grace in the physical elements of water and bread. Instead, the benefit is received subjectively by the individual as the Holy Spirit works in his life. Henry Bullinger says it well, “The things signified are called heavenly and invisible, because the fruit of them is heavenly, and because they are discerned with the eyes of the mind or of faith, not of the body.” If the blessing of the sacrament is discerned with the eyes of faith, then the benefit is therefore to be found in the subject and not in the bread, wine, or water.

I think that is also the position of the Heidelberg Catechism, which goes out of its way to deny any objective work in the sacrament itself. Questions 72, 78, and 80 specifically disclaim any objective value in the sacramental elements themselves. The benefit is always by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which is applied subjectively. I believe it is also important that both the Belgic and the Heidelberg speak of the benefit being “by the Holy Spirit.” I believe this is a significant phrase since it seems that most forms of sacramentalism involve Christ being presented to us. In the Romanist and Lutheran models, the elements contain Christ, and as my post reveals, the Federal Vision men believe that Christ is offered and that it is up to us to receive Him with a continuing faith. Sacramentalism denies or limits the role of the Holy Spirit, probably because He acts directly on the subjects rather than being tied to objects.
As an aside, I think the oft-used reference to sacraments as “pledges and tokens” in the Heidelberg is more helpful than the “sign and seal” phrase since the ‘seal’ aspect is so often misunderstood in our day.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I agree with most of what you said, but I am not sure we are communicating. Are the elements of the Lord's Supper simply cognitive triggers to make me think about Christ? If the Holy Spirit is doing something to me in the event of the sacrament, then the sacraments hold objective meaning and significance. Subjectivity implies that it is only my perception of the event that is of importance. I would say rather that it is our faith that lays hold of the objective promises offered in the sacrament, just as it is our faith that lays hold of the objective promises offered in the Bible. The Word of God is never merely subjective whether purely verbal or offered in illustration. It always comes with authority.


Lee said...

I think we agree Andy, and I do think I misunderstood what you were saying. I do believe that in the recent debates Objective Grace and Objective benefits to the sacraments are no longer mean what you are saying. I do believe the Federal Vision men are saying that the benefit is actually in the object, and that is what they mean when they talk about the Objective benefit or Objective Grace. For example Doug Wilson says in Reformed is Not Enough that in the Lord’s Supper we are “eating grace.” (pg. 93). Anything for them that does not hold to a grace by mastication is an imaginary and made up benefit. One thing the church may need to do is carefully define what they mean by objective and subjective, since the words can be used in several different ways. Are we saying that there is an objective promise that is signified and sealed by the sacrament, or are we saying that there is objective grace as in grace in the object itself? There is a world of difference between the two.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I do not understand how grace could be in anything. Grace is not a substance. It cannot be transfered from one place to another. It is the disposition of God toward His people. How can that have location? If that is how "objective" is defined in this debate, not only do I think it is unRefomed, it is nonsense. I believe the Spirit is present with us in the ceremony, in the event of the celebration. His very real benefits, the benefits of the broken body and shed blood of Christ are communicated along with the partaking of the elements. I apologize for not grasping the "objective" position if it is as you say. Thanks for clearing it up. To be sure I do not believe in objectivity in that sense.