" . . . only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings--external regulations applying until the time of the new order." Heb. 9:7-10
A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, . . . "what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." Acts 22:12,13a,16b
" . . . and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" 1 Peter 3:21
"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." I Cor. 10:16,17
"For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." 1 Cor. 11:26
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." Luke 22:20
Scriptures are NIV.
What is a sacrament? This study will not discuss the debate on sacrament as 'mystery.' Instead, the focus will be on the main historical issue regarding the word 'sacrament.' It is proposed to be a visible, external means of grace. Most Christians are probably familiar with the controversy about how many sacraments there are. In the Roman Catholic tradition there are seven. Eastern Orthodoxy also proposes a multiple number of sacraments. Luther reduced the number to three (including confession) in his early years of ministry. But we know that the agreed number of sacraments in Protestantism quickly became two: water baptism and the Lord's supper.
This study will not be concerned at all about the number of sacraments. Nor will we focus on the issue of whether Christ's presence in the supper is transubstantial, consubstantial, or spiritual. We must ask the more basic question: does the 'apostles doctrine' (Acts 2:42) enforce any acraments on the conscience of the believer? That is the real issue. As a basis for discussion we will consider only the two proposed sacraments of confessional Protestantism.
Have men attempted to bring sacrament into the New Covenant and bind it upon the conscience of believers? Yes, absolutely! Sacramentalism originated in the second century A.D. by the time of Justin and is very attested to in the writings of Irenaeus. In the formula of Concord, the Lutheran argument for sacramentalism is based on the ancient nature of the doctrine: it is clearly taught by the 'early fathers' of the church.
Sacramentalism arose in part as a reaction to the Gnostic heresy. The demonic teaching of gnosticism first tormented and opposed the true gospel in the doctrine of Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander the metalworker (1 Tim. 1:18-20, 2 Tim. 2:17,18; 4:14,15). These men were the instigators of the first great apostasy away from the apostolic doctrine of Christ and salvation. The apostasy was in full-swing before the death of Paul. As a result, the faith of many professors was proved to be no faith at all. Apostasy of those who 'seemed so immovable' is nothing unique to our era. Anyone who is tempted to minimize the importance of right doctrine should study 1 and 2 Timothy over and over. Many of us were indoctrinated from the cradle up in a false system of religion. But let us not forget that the true gospel of grace is the 'apostles doctrine.' Everything taught by humans must be evaluated in the light of the new and everlasting covenant of Grace. We must stand for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints to the very end.
Sacramentalism moves in the opposite direction of gnosticism. The gnostic heresy teaches a spiritual reality that denies the importance of the material. Hence, Christ appeared in a phantom body simply to communicate with us in the present physical realm. The physical world is of no lasting significance or value. The final eschaton is one of pure spirit. Hence, the only resurrection is spiritual and the final eschatology of pure spirit is entered at the death of the body. There is no final, visible eschaton of a material Christ coming back to resurrect our material bodies, judge the material world, and establish a material new earth. Physical resurrection is scorned and laughed-at, just as the Greek philosophers mocked Paul at Mars Hill. This teaching is so prominent in evangelicalism today (both conservative and liberal) that it has hardly been noticed. The reason: its inherent deception of emphasizing the spiritual reality. Spiritual language can be very deceptive. When will we start evaluating the real content behind the sermons that we hear? Gnostic teaching is rampant in the seminaries of our land. An emphasis on the 'glory' of heaven, 'standing' before God's glory with the angels singing 'holy, holy, holy' for eternity: if this is all that is preached regarding the future of believers, it is pure gnosticism.
The ancient Christian writers were very eloquent in opposing this teaching ('Against Heresies' by Irenaeus, for example). But they erred in drifting the opposite direction. Proposing the physical presence of Christ in the sacraments was an attempt to affirm the value of the material creation: something that is God's gift and the object of redemption. Another anti-Gnostic extreme doctrine of the second century, adapted from rabbinic Judaism, was Chiliasm--or the teaching of a fleshly millennium. Again, the motive was to affirm the redemption of the material creation in such a way that it was impossible to 'spiritualize' away the eschaton. But it departed from the apostolic doctrine by teaching a 'hybrid' of the redeemed and the carnal after Christ's final coming.
In our first passage above, the writer of Hebrews is describing the sacramental nature of the 'old order' when he refers to the external food, drink, and water regulations of that covenant. It is not that these things were a means of eternal salvation. But they were required means of continuing to receive the blessings promised in that era. All of this system of external observances failed to bring peace to the consciences of those participating. It was impossible to completely follow all the rules of washing when contaminated, avoiding contact with everything and everyone until the required time had elapsed, eating only kosher food, drinking only kosher wine, etc. The complete failure of that system led the way into a new and superior order of things in the gospel.
The Greek word for 'washings' is baptismos and should really be translated 'baptisms.' There is no validity to the submersionist argument that 'baptismos' should be removed from the 'baptizo' family of words--simply because this particular derivative is used only once or twice in the New Testament! What a strained interpretation. The NT concept of ceremonial application of water (baptism) includes modes other than submersion. Holy Spirit baptism is a 'pouring out upon' and not a submersion. The word baptizo would not be used to describe the action of the Spirit if the only meaning is 'to submerse.' A believer is not dipped in and out of the Holy Spirit, rather, the Spirit descends upon the believer and remains with him forever.
Some may ask what this has to do with sacramentalism? Plenty. To establish a sacrament, one must place great emphasis on the correctness of a particular mode of observance. The confessional stream of Protestantism has only two common modes of water application: dipping or dabbing the head. 99% of all water baptisms are one practice or the other. Nothing else will do. To request something else is considered hair-splitting and 'disturbing the peace and order of the church.' A few Mennonite or nonconformist ceremonies are about the only exception. If one is tempted to think this is ridiculous, try requesting to have a bucket of water poured over the head outside of the baptistry or font in the 'Lord's house' and check the response!
We should despise every tradition that challenges the liberty of the gospel, including this one.
The notion of water washing away sin, if that is what Ananias was affirming (this is a debated issue), was rooted in his 'devout observance of the law' and respect among the Jews. Peter also preached baptism 'unto the remission of sins' (Acts 2:38). If he was referring to water and meant 'for' instead of 'with a view to' remission of sin (another debated issue), it only illustrates the Judaistic nature of his early zeal. He also asked Jesus whether the kingdom was going to be restored to Israel at that time (Acts 1:6). In his epistles, he never mentions the notion of Jewish restoration at all (study the eschatology of 2 Peter 3). He also refers to Holy Spirit baptism into the resurrection of Christ, instead of water that cleanses the body, as that which initiates salvation (see the passage above). Paul also declares that he was sent not to baptize but to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17). That is very strange language if water baptism is a sacrament required for salvation: one that communicates grace!
What about the Lord's supper? It was originally established by Christ as a remembrance of his death and the sign of the New Covenant. Among early believers, it was practiced frequently and was not viewed as 'magic' or a sacred mystery. It was a participation in and communion with the body of Christ (the fellowship of Jesus himself and all of his people). The 'breaking of bread' in the New Testament was not a mere meal. It was a fellowship of communion in Christ's body. As to the significance of the wine (cup), that will be covered in the final study of this series.
When the focus of the communion lost its orientation around Christ's body and became sacramental, it underwent a metamorphosis into an individualistic ceremony. The concept of true koinonia (communion of believers with each other in Christ) was lost. Instead, the emphasis became a mysterious communication of grace in the elements to each participant. The Lord's supper ceased to be a meal of celebration and remembrance of Christ's death. Instead, it became a 'snippet and sip' ritual of awesome fear and trembling! This has continued to this day, both in Roman Catholic and Protestant congregations.
When humanity attempts to bring sacrament into the New Covenant, the gospel is diminished as severely as it is with any of the other perversions that we have considered in the other studies. Instead of running after magic water and a passion to 'eat Jesus,' let us consider what the faith and teaching of the apostles truly was and be zealous to return to it! The gospel of grace was the motivation in all that they believed and practiced.