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Monday, July 7, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 7 "Baptism and the Lord's Supper" Part 2

"The Lord's Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming."

The Baptist Faith & Message continues to lay out its view of the two "ordinances" of Christ (what other traditions call "sacraments") that the Church is to observe with this single sentence about the Lord's Supper. To be honest, I'm pretty disappointed with this section of the BF&M, because I know that even Baptists who do not self-identify as Reformed or even agree with much of the Reformed tradition's sacramental theology at all could still have said much more than is said here about the nature and significance of the Lord's Table.

Everything affirmed here is true as far as it goes: 1) there is symbolism in the Supper; 2) it is an act of obedience to observe it; 3) members of the church (depending on exactly what one means by this, and leaving aside for now the question of open/closed communion) are the appropriate participants (and since I would include baptized infants and very young children of professing believers in the category "members of the church" I would qualify further, because of 1 Corinthians 11 and the symbolism of the Supper itself by saying that only "members of the church who can intelligibly profess personal faith in Christ" should partake); 4) it consists of partaking of bread and of "fruit of the vine" (c'mon, guys, it's wine, in accord with OT symbolism of New Covenant blessing); 5) it memorializes Christ's death; and 6) it anticipates His return (1 Cor. 11:26).

But even those outside the Reformed tradition could add, as almost all Bible-believing evangelicals believe together: 1) the Supper expresses the unity of the Church in union with Christ and therefore with each other, each individual being a part of the whole body; 2) it has at least something to do with covenant--particularly the New Covenant in Christ's blood (cf. Luke 22:20); 3) it pictures not only Christ's past death but also our present, continuing need of Him for our ongoing spiritual sustenance; 4) "partaking unworthily" of the Supper, whatever precisely one takes that to mean, may result in disciplinary (or worse) judgment for the one partaking.

As a Reformed confessionalist I would not only like to see the above things added to the BF&M, but I would add two basic elements to move toward a full-orbed biblical doctrine of the Lord's Supper: 1) that the elements and their use in the supper are sacramental signs and seals of the benefits of Christ (or His judgment for unworthy partakers, but the accent here is on blessing through faith and faithful partaking); and 2) the presence of and our union with Christ in the Supper.

Here some of my more neo-Zwinglian-leaning evangelical friends may wonder whether I have detached myself too far from biblical texts and have too readily embraced things from a certain tradition that still has a lot of baggage from Roman Catholic theology. Certainly there are some who are of the opinion that paedobaptism is an unfortunate vestige of Roman Catholicism retained by the magisterial reformers, rather than an organic result of biblical exegesis and proper application of a covenantal hermeneutic. I have engaged in that difficult debate elsewhere, but rest assured that I think in the case of the Lord's Supper I can explain the biblical basis for a distinctively Reformed understanding of it without resorting to wild, speculative, Eastern mysticism, Aristo-Thomistic sacramentalism, or anything else funky.

I will also be the first to say that isolated quotes from Calvin on the Lord's Supper are less than helpful here for someone just being introduced to a distinctively Reformed sacramentology. He seems hopelessly contradictory on these matters at some points because he is constantly fencing his audience from misunderstanding him as agreeing with Luther (who believed in a physical, bodily presence of Christ in the elements), or as agreeing with Zwingli (who believed a good distance in the opposite direction, toward mere memorialism, although some historians have debated whether modern evangelical "memorialism" is precisely what Zwingli himself believed). In other words, when you read Calvin on the Supper, he sounds like a Lutheran or even a Roman Catholic when arguing against Zwinglianism, and he sounds like a modern, non-Reformed evangelical Baptist when arguing against the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views.

To give one example, from 'Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord', Calvin writes: "Thirdly, they ought also to hold for certain, that the Lord gives us in the Supper that which he signifies by it, and, consequently, that we truly receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ."

But in the same treatise, he also writes: "... in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements."

Anybody confused yet? Don't despair.

Let's start with the first distinctive I want to add to a biblical conception of the Lord's Supper: its sacramental nature as "covenantal sign and seal." The Westminster Confession of Faith says, in Ch. XXVII.-I. that "Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace." The language of "sign and seal" shows up explicitly in Romans 4, applied to Abraham's circumcision. "Sign" is the idea of "picture," or "symbol," as we might expect. "Seal" is the idea of an official stamp or pledge, made by a king or covenant Lord to testify to His faithfulness to His promises to His vassal people. Paul says circumcision was a "...seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was uncircumcised..." (Rom. 4:11). God declared Abraham righteous by faith when he believed God's promise to make him the father of many nations (Gen. 15:6), and then gave him circumcision as a sign (which we learn a little more about from Col. 2), and as a "seal" or pledge of the fact that he was counted righteous by faith.

In Colossians 2, circumcision and its New Testament analogue (not mere "replacement"--that's a caricature of Reformed sacramentology that some Reformed writers have admittedly earned for themselves) of baptism come rushing together and find their fullest significance in Christ's person and work, and in the faith of regenerate believers who are united to Him through that faith. While water baptism symbolizes additional things in the New Covenant, it does not signify less than what circumcision did, and so as the New Covenant initiation rite it seems entirely appropriate to conceive of baptism as both a covenant sign and seal of the righteousness (and cleansing, indwelling of the Spirit, regeneration (cf. Titus 3:5), etc. etc.) that believers have through faith-union with the risen Christ.

There is a more direct route to get here, though, really. And it is found in the mere word "remembrance," in all the Last Supper passages in the gospels, as well as in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25. What we modern Westerners must always keep in mind is that Ancient Near Eastern, and particularly Jewish, conceptions of "knowing" and "remembering" went beyond mere cognition or even mere cognition plus sentimental emotion. Such notions were always connected with deep ideas of identity and relationships. So in the context of a meal explicitly said to be related to "covenant" (again, cf. Luke 22:20), and instituted on the night of Passover--a covenant celebration of the ancient Exodus from Egypt--as arguably the new Passover meal in celebration of the "New Exodus" in Christ (this theme is easily detected throughout the NT writings)--the idea of "remembrance" should be understood as covenant remembrance.

So it is remembrance in the sense of being reminded (ideally weekly?) who we Christians are as the people of God, because of what He has done and what He has promised still to do for us in Jesus Christ our saving covenant Lord. The Supper is a special reminder because it involves more of our physical senses in experiencing the proclamation of the gospel in both words and pictures/food. It is, as my pastor put it once, the Holy Spirit "putting His hand on your shoulder in affirmation once again" that you belong to Christ. It is one of the ways God regularly seals to us the truths of the precious gospel in which we put our oft-feeble faith.

What of the presence of Christ in the Supper, or of our union with Him in/through the Supper, or of our really and truly receiving Him and His benefits in a unique way at the Supper? Let me rush through some groundwork here.

The Reformed view of Christ rejects certain conceptions of the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of attributes between the natures of Christ) which posit the divine nature communicating anything essential to deity to the human nature, lest Christ's true human nature be compromised. Roman Catholics and Lutherans have unique responses to this, but this is why sacramental Calvinists reject the idea that Christ's physical body and blood are localized in any way in the elements of bread and wine in the Supper. The incarnate Christ is and forever will be a real human being.

To be sure, the fullness of His divine person cannot be contained within His human nature (resulting in what we call the extra Calvinisticum; sorry, Barth, liberals, Kenoticists, process theologians, et al.). But that doesn't deny the fact that the eternal Son has forever joined to Himself a true human nature, in order to be a fit representative for and to His people in His threefold Messianic office (prophet, priest, king). In order to be a true human being, His human nature cannot be omnipresent or spatially "ubiquitous." Moreover, at an even more basic level, sacramentologies that insist on the idea that we must physically ingest the body and blood of the Messiah really just miss the point of the covenantal language and imagery in Scripture.

So Reformed theologians reject "transubstantiation" (the Roman Catholic view that the substance of the bread and wine fully transforms into the body and blood, though retaining the appearance of bread and wine), as well as "consubstantiation," one way the Lutheran view has been articulated (though some Lutherans prefer other ways of expressing it) which posits the physical presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the elements. We do not physically ingest Christ's physical body or blood.

Instead we believe that in the Supper, we truly experience, in a way unique from everyday Christian life, the covenantal realities of our participation in/fellowship with/union with Christ which results in our spiritual nourishment and blessing through faith. Christ is always present with us (Matt. 28:20). In fact, God is always present everywhere. But He also condescends to be specially and covenantally with His people in unique ways throughout redemptive history and even still today. This is the "Immanuel principle" of Scripture which is ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation of Christ and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit--the Spirit of Christ. Because Christ's finished work and the outpouring of the Spirit have such corporate implications and indeed one may say focuses in the NT, should we be at all taken aback by the idea that when Christ's Church, composed of members who are individually united to Him by faith, meets corporately on a Sunday morning to celebrate the Lord's Supper together, that He would be present with them in a special way at that time?

The classic scriptural foundation for this idea, apart from the overall patterns of redemptive history in God's "coming down" to savingly be with His people and His giving them ceremonies which point to and help them understand His saving acts for them, is 1 Corinthians 10, in which Paul, warning against idolatry, says, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). The word "sharing" here, also translated "participation" or "communion" refers to the idea of "fellowship." So the question of what, if anything, "mystical" happens in the Lord's Supper is better answered in relational categories than metaphysical ones. It is the fact that we are, together with each other, experiencing and expressing our real relationship with Christ, the host of our covenant meal, in a unique way, that makes it appropriate to speak of Christ's presence in the Supper.

Let us speak further of this idea of "presence," though. Earlier I noted that Reformed theologians reject the idea that Christ's physical body becomes localized in the elements. This is not to say that we only commune with Christ's divine nature in the Supper, since it alone is omnipresent. Like I said before, the person of the Logos is forever now incarnated as the God-man, Jesus Christ. It is only because He has taken on a human nature that we can have a blessed relationship with Him at all! So we must understand that in the Supper, it is not that He physically comes down to us to be in the elements, but rather that through the Holy Spirit who accomplishes our union with Him in the first place (1 Cor. 12:13), we are in a sense spiritually "lifted to heaven" (don't bawk! cf. Eph. 2:6) to dine there with Him in His presence, partaking of created tokens of bread and wine which signify and seal to us His provision for us, and which we use to signify to God our dependence on and trust in this provision.

This same idea of union with Christ helps to explain how Reformed theologians can also say that by partaking of the Lord's Supper in a worthy/appropriate manner (faith and repentance, and recognition of our union with the rest of the body of Christ in the Spirit, in love), we receive once again Christ and all His benefits. The Westminster Confession says in XXVII.-VII. "Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death..." (my emphases).

That's it! This really is some kind of medieval, high sacramentalism that denies salvation by faith. Right?

Not quite. This statement of the Confession used to confuse me because I wondered how it could be, for example, that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone through the hearing and believing of the gospel (which the Confession affirms in the strongest terms), and yet that we receive "all benefits of [Christ's] death" "in this sacrament" also. So which is it?

Again, union with Christ is really the controlling category for all the rest that the NT has to say about salvation in the gospel, and it is in the context of union with Christ that we receive all the benefits of salvation that we experience as Christians: justification, adoption, sanctification, baptism with the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifting, perseverance in faith, ultimate glorification, etc. And it is not as if we are justified through faith-union with Christ on the first day we believe and then this becomes an unimportant artifact of our past Christian experience as we continue to walk with Christ. In fact, although justification is in a sense a punctiliar and permanent event, one may even speak of Christ's intercession as "maintaining" (infallibly) our justification in the face of Satan's and others' continued accusations of us (cf. Rom. 8:33-34 in the work of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.)

The reality is that we need more than a few positional changes and ontological transformations in order to be saved. We need a vital connection to and relationship with the One in whom God is redeeming the world. So God's Spirit unites us to this One, Jesus Christ, and in Him and Him alone gives us everything we need to be saved; and it's a package deal. We must distinguish but never separate, for New Testament believers, regeneration, baptism in the Spirit, justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. The Christ in whom we are justified is the same Christ in whom we receive power to live increasingly holy lives, until the Last Day when His saving work in us is complete.

So I disagree with those who say that justification is by faith alone and therefore has nothing to do with sacraments, and so really all the sacraments help us with is sanctification. If we are speaking of the timeline of a believer's life, I suppose there's a sense in which that's true--consider a person who's never been to church who comes to faith in the gospel by hearing out an evangelist at his door, who then quickly joins a church and begins participating in communion. When was he justified? When he believed. When did he really start accessing some of the greatest means of sanctification God has given His people? When he joined the church and started communing with that body, which happens in a quintessential way at the Table.

But they weren't two different Christs whose saving power He accessed by faith alone and then by faithful participation in communion. In fact, the person began to be sanctified as soon as he believed on Christ, and his justification was still being maintained by Christ's intercession and being sealed to him afresh when he began to enjoy the Lord's Table together with other believers.

In sum, I think the Reformed view takes fuller account of the real, if difficult to understand, mystical realities that Scripture itself points to repeatedly--"mystical" in the sense of our being truly united in some unseen, intangible way to Christ by faith--including and perhaps especially including passages about the Lord's Supper. There's nothing creepy or "magical" going on when we eat the bread and drink the wine; it's just that God condescends so far as to meet us where we are in our feeble faith, to be present with us weekly (?) in this unique way He has appointed, to encourage us, to nourish our faith, to edify us, to remind us of our identity in covenant with Him and with each other through Christ, and--as others affirm--to point us forward to the Day when we will all sit down with Christ in the New Creation to sup with Him, and to experience His presence with physical, resurrected eyes in place of the dim eyes of faith--however aided by tangible signs and seals they may be--which we must use for now.

The BF&M is right to say that the Lord's Supper is a "symbolic act of obedience." But if that's about the amount of information we want to include about the Supper in a statement of faith, I'd prefer it start out with, or just leave it at, "The Lord's Supper is a gracious, divine act of assurance..." Our faith, our worthy partaking, and our memorializing of Christ's death with the elements, are all important. But underlying all these things is that which God does for us in uniting us to Christ, and in indeed giving us Christ again in a unique way every time we observe the Supper.

As with baptism, the Reformed emphasis is God's gracious initiative resulting in our response of faith, repentance, thankfulness, and worship. Not to say Baptists deny these things at all; but I find Reformed sacramentology more consonant with such emphases (an emphasis I find in the NT). I also find it less reminiscent of the rationalism of some modern Western thought than some contemporary evangelical perspectives on the sacraments, however much I'd want to distance myself from the extremes of some Eastern subjectivism and mysticism.