Lutheran and Roman Catholic evangelism: we have sacraments that actually do something...

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[If you're interested in the magazines-for-Christian-intellectuals scene, read on. If the scene makes you yawn, skip the next four paragraphs and start with the paragraph, "Let me call..."]

Before founding First Things, Richard John Neuhaus edited the Rockford Institute's Religion and Society Report and I was a subscriber. Then came the May 1989 nastiness when the Rockford bumpkins booted Neuhaus from his editorial digs in New York City. What became known as the "Rockford Raid" left Neuhaus shaking the dust off his captoes and moving on to found First Things. My favorite quote of the fracas comes from the Rockford side: "A lot of folks in New York aren't used to being judged by the Midwest." Rockford saying "no" to Manhattan was just chutzpah...

I stayed with Religion and Society Report for a time (eventually edited by Joe Brown), but also came in on ground level with First Things. For years I read quite a bit of it, but now not so much. First Things has become precious. Maybe it always was, but through the years my antibodies against all things precious have multiplied. If we're going to be faithful witnesses to the Kingdom of Heaven, we must not waste time talking to ourselves. Mutual admiration societies exist for mutual admiration—not the Kingdom of Heaven and the glory of God.

Normally, men who chose the academy over the church, scholarship over shepherding do so because they don't want to dirty themselves with life. They don't live; they discuss living. They don't fight; they discuss fighting. They don't preach; they teach. If Machen is the exception, Erasmus, Don Carson, Jim Packer, Vern Poythress, and John Frame are the rule. (I've benefited a good bit from, and promoted, the work of three of these five.)

Fighting or defending the faith (Jude 3) is what the father of "Machen's children" is known for. The rest of these men are known for their erudite irenicism. Or maybe their irenic erudition—it's hard to know which to put first. Anyhow, a reference to "Machen's children" today is a popular way for Reformed men to diss someone who follows in Machen's footsteps contending earnestly for the faith. With that warning about First Things (FT) out of the way...

Let me call your attention to this excerpt from a recent FT article titled, "Lutheran Evangelicals: Calvinism is a perennial Evangelical trend. Why not Lutheranism?":

The modal view of the sacraments in Calvinist churches are not actually Calvin’s views, but Zwingli’s views. Baptism is the outward sign of an inward grace; baptism itself does not confer that grace. Indeed, baptism is often understood to be akin to publicly confessing Jesus. It’s something that the baptized person offers to God, not something through which God confers something on the baptized. And the Lord’s Supper confers grace because while one eats the bread and sips the wine—er, I mean the grape juice—one remembers what Jesus did on the cross. One does not actually receive forgiveness and union with Christ by receiving Jesus’ true body and blood in the Supper.

Like their kissing-cousin Roman Catholics, Lutherans place the sacraments front and center in their evangelism. They appeal to other Christians to leave Biblical Christianity behind and become Lutheran, promising "We have sacraments that actually do something." This is the ploy of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other sacramentalists: "You better come on over to our side because our sacraments save you. You do want to be saved, don't you?"

It leaves me wondering whether such sacramentalists are Donatists? Do they believe the sin of those administering the sacraments corrupts the sacraments' ability to do things? Do they hold that sinful doctrine on the part of the pastor baptizing or administering the Lord's Supper trumps the efficacy of baptism and the Lord's Supper?

But let's move on.

Evangelical Reformed churches warn the souls under our care that "unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This is heart religion and heart religion always magnifies dependence on the Holy Spirit. Before, during, and after liturgical formulations, orders of worship, albs, bells, a capella Psalter only, consubstantiation, the washing of water, and wine rather than grape juice, godly shepherds holding to Biblical doctrine never stop emphasizing saving faith.

Now if you were a Christian with a weak conscience, if you had a tendency toward fear and unbelief, which would you choose: a pastor who calls you to repent and believe the promises of God or a priest who tells you his sacraments actually do something?

Lutherans love Rome's old scare tactic: "You better come back to our churches because we're the only ones who give you sacraments powerful enough to save you." It's not enough, though, for them to speak of their sacraments and what they do. They attack the sacraments of Biblical churches, claiming the sacraments of Calvinist churches do nothing. Read again what the Lutheran says: he accuses Calvinist churches of having a "modal view" of the sacraments. Then he places in opposition two doctrines Calvinist churches have always believed at one and the same time—that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace and that baptism confers that grace.

"To the contrary" says this Lutheran; "Calvinist churches believe that baptism is an outward sign, and thus they deny baptism confers that grace." Implicit in his argument is that baptism or the Lord's Supper being outward signs precludes baptism and the Lord's Supper from conferring grace.Thus he writes that, in Calvinist churches today (and I quote), "baptism is often understood to be akin to publicly confessing Christ."

Our dear Lutheran brother hedges his statement enough to allow us to drive a Mack truck through. "Often" understood. Not "always" but "often." "Understood." Not "confessed" or "preached" or "taught," but "understood." And "akin to." Not "proclaimed" or "declared," but "akin to." Not the straightforward "is publicly confessing Christ," but the tepid "akin to publicly confessing Christ."

Now stop and ask yourself this question: do these hedge words and phrases indicate our Lutheran brother simply wants to be careful to protect today's Calvinist churches from categorical denunciations? Or, to put it another way, do these hedges simply signal that our Lutheran brother wants to give Calvinists the benefit of the doubt, or do they accomplish something else?

You bet something else. These hedge words are the way our Lutheran brother implies that it is wrong to see baptism as "publicly confessing Christ." Reading what he writes, a member of a Calvinist church is likely to breathe a sigh of relief and think to himself, "Well, that's not how MY Calvinist church understands baptism"

To open the point up, what if I were to write about members of "Lutheran churches today"—that among them "baptism is often understood to be akin to publicly declaring the person being baptized to be saved?" Reading such a statement would lead the normal Lutheran man to think to himself that he doesn't believe baptism saves someone.

Back, then, to the Lutheran brother's words. Consider that Scripture itself indicates baptism is not "akin to publicly confessing Christ." Rather, it is the public confession of Christ. Concerning the public confession part of the construction, when our Lord was baptized, it was a public confession—a very public confession. And here is the way the Other Two Members of the Trinity responded to Jesus' public confession:

After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matthew 3:16, 17)

The Apostle Paul declares this concerning baptism:

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

This declaration is figurative. The man being baptized is not in the cemetery having dirt thrown on him. Rather, his baptism is his public confession of dying with Christ so he may live through Christ.

And what about the Day of Pentecost? Were 3,000 baptized privately?

And what about the Ethiopian Eunuch? He did not hide his faith in his heart, but he confessed it publicly through baptism. And this despite reasons he may have had to avoid this public confession:

Therefore, as (the Ethiopian Eunuch) embraced that willingly which he heard concerning Christ, so now he breaketh out with a godly zeal into the external confession of faith; neither doth he think it sufficient for him to believe inwardly before God, unless he testifieth before men that he is a Christian. There might many things have come into his mind, which might have kept him back from being baptized, lest that he should lay himself open to the hatred and rebukes both of the queen, and also of the whole nation. (Calvin on Acts 8:36)

Did you read that? The "godly zeal" of an "external confession of faith." Calvin says the Eunuch "testifieth before men that he is a Christian."

So if it's necessary and foundational in the baptisms of the Book of Acts, why does our Lutheran brother accuse those of us in Calvinist churches of the thought-crime of understanding "baptism be akin to publicly confessing Christ?"

On this theme of the Zwinglian Calvinist of our time understanding baptism to be a public confession, let's dig a little deeper.

Reformed sacramentology disallows private baptism because privacy precludes baptism serving as an "external confession of faith." It doesn't "testify before men."

As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it:

Question 165: What is Baptism?

Answer: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's.

How does a sacrament whereby the parties baptized "are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's" work when the church isn't present and visible?

But sacramentalists deny the connection between baptism and "publicly confessing Christ." In fact, sacramentalists and other formalists often claim that, in the administration of the Sacrament, the man to whom the sacrament is being administered isn't himself doing anything. This is the reason for this false dichotomy in our Lutheran brother's writing. In "Calvinist churches, 

(Baptism is) something that the baptized person offers to God, not something through which God confers something on the baptized.

You see the excluded middle, don't you? In any administration of the sacrament of baptism in which "the baptized person offers (something) to God," God is precluded from conferring "something on the baptized." Either the baptized man is offering something to God or the priest, standing in the place of God, is conferring something on the man being baptized. "One or the other" our Lutheran brother tells us. The next step is predictable.

Take away the necessity of the man's public confession of Jesus Christ and we're left with both Roman Catholics and Lutherans allowing, and often encouraging, private baptisms. Explaining their doctrine of baptism, this Lutheran web site states, "Baptisms were normally private matters 50 years ago in Lutheran congregations." Around the world Lutheran baptisms are still often private because Lutherans don't think "baptism akin to publicly confessing Christ."1

You see, it's not the man confessing anything. Rather, it's the priest, his church, and his water conferring that special "something" on the man. And let me tell you, his water isn't like the water of Calvinist churches. His water actually does something! His water confers something.

Years ago, I was talking with a professor of theology from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He had just converted to Roman Catholicism and was explaining the process of his conversion. While teaching at Reformed, he'd started attending Mass, he said, and "One day when the priest rang the (Sanctus) bells, I realized it actually WAS the body and blood of Christ." 

With that he stopped talking. Clearly he'd said all that needed to be said.

I waited for some addition or explanation, but he was done. There you had it, and now he was a Roman Catholic.

Whether they're Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed Episcopal, Lutheran, Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, or Federal Vision, this is the sacramentalist. The focus of his faith is earth rather than Heaven. He wants sacraments that are powerful, sacraments that actually do something. He's into himself and the magic tricks he tells you Scripture promises through his administration of the sacraments.

Concerning Simon Magus's baptism and the subsequent revelation of his hypocrisy recorded in Acts 8, John Calvin warns against those who "attribute unto the sacraments magical force":

It appeareth plainly, by this example of Simon that all men have not that grace given them in baptism, which grace is there figured. The opinion of the Papists is this, That unless mortal sin be the cause of it, all men receive the truth and effect with the signs. So that they attribute unto the sacraments magical force, as if they did profit without faith. ...the receiving of baptism did profit (Simon) nothing... (Calvin on Acts 8:13)

Does this mean Reformed sacraments don't do anything?

Well, I'm tempted to direct you to ask our Lutheran brother whether he thinks the sacraments of Calvinist churches actually do something? Or maybe we should ask him what spiritual efficacy the sacraments have in churches where the priest is not sinning theologically in his sacramentology that is lacking in Calvinist churches where the pastor is sinning theologically in his sacramentology?

Actually, though, there's a more direct method of getting at the question whether Calvinist churches believe sacraments actually do something. First, a couple stories.

We had a young man in our congregation several years ago who availed himself of little to nothing in our church's ministries. We were at lunch one day and he told me he was studying Rome's Baltimore Catechism. I wasn't particularly surprised since this man was proud and unteachable. To me, it was all of a fabric and pride was the key.

Probing a little, it became clear he did not want intimacy that involved any discussion of his own or others' sins with other believers. He was the perfect candidate for the proud man's formalism, so after trying to give him a pastoral warning, I watched over the coming months as he narrowed his choices to Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. It ended up Lutheranism and he left his church, announcing to his wife's friends that "they" wanted "a church where the sacraments actually DO SOMETHING."

Another story.

A PCA pastor told me of a friend of his who left a PCA church for Lutheranism. The man was an academic whose wife was not a believer and my friend commented that this man converted to Lutheranism because he feared for the souls of his children and Lutheran sacramentalism reassured him concerning their eternal destiny in a way that Reformed sacramentology didn't reassure him.

The Roman Catholic and Lutheran teaching and practice of the Lord's Supper are superior to that of Calvinist churches because, when Roman Catholic and Lutheran priests do their thing, their bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus. And you see, this is what you need to be saved. This is what your children need to be saved. This is what federal vision Covenant children need to be saved.

Jonathan Edwards's maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, believed the Lord's Supper was a saving ordinance, and thus he extended the rest of New England's Halfway Covenant concerning the sacrament of baptism to the Lord's Supper, also.

Although he accepted this practice of sacramentalism under his watch for a number of years, the day came when Edwards's conscience could no longer tolerate it. In time, his reversal caused him to lose his call. He worked to reform the Northampton church according to Biblical and historic Reformed doctrine.

So what's the truth about the historic Reformed doctrine of the sacraments? Do we believe Baptism and the Lord's Supper actually do something?

Yes, of course we do. Start with what the Westminster Standards actually say. We actually believe what the Westminster Standards actually say the sacraments actually do.

If that's not enough, go to Scripture and see that Baptism and the Lord's Supper actually place souls under judgment. Sacraments never leave a man alone. They bless or they curse. Sacraments are means of grace or they're means of condemnation and judgment. Thus this warning from the Holy Spirit in 1Corinthians 11:

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. (1Corinthians 11:27-29)

We could spend more time opening up what all true Calvinists have always believed the sacraments do, positively, but once we've read the above warning concerning what they actually do negatively, it's hard to imagine anyone of good conscience trying to smear Calvinists with the false accusation that we don't believe the sacraments actually do something.

Regardless of tribal affiliation, all formalistic religionists have at the center of their appeal their superior administration of the sacraments. They tell fearful souls that the principal reason they should switch to the Roman Catholic, Anglican-Catholic, Reformed Episcopal, Lutheran, Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, or Federal Vision church is their sacraments actually do something. Such arguments work wonders with the superstitious.

Lutheranism has always traded on its sacramentalism to distinguish itself from the rest of the Reformation, but the past thirty years have seen a shift in the willingness of Calvinist pastors to expose Lutheran sacramentalism. Reading straw men arguments like the one above printed by First Things, Calvinists jump all over themselves trying to win Lutherans' approval, hoping once their approval is won, they'll stop smearing us with the canard that we don't believe the sacraments actually do something.

Today's Lutherans work to suck in those who want sacraments that actually DO something, but aren't quite ready to give up their putative claim to having remained Protestant. Such marks find formalistic sacramentalism very enticing, but they want very much to stop just short of the Pope, Mariolatry, legalism, infusion, works of supererogation, the treasury of merit, and all Rome's anathemas against justification by faith alone.

My dear friend Pastor Nate Harlan puts the finest of points on it, asking Reformed sacramentalists to describe what is that something that baptism actually does and what is that something that Jesus actually did, on the Cross?

Sacramentalists won't answer his question. They try to escape the horns of their dilemma by trotting out  the language of "mystery." But Nate isn't bashful. He declares that, on His Cross, Jesus definitively and completely and irrevocably finished the work of redemption for all those souls His Father had given Him.

Which is to say, either the substitutionary atonement did it all, or the substitutionary atonement did most of it and what remains to be done will be accomplished through baptism and the Lord's Supper. Either God's decrees trump man's administration of the sacraments, or man's administration of the sacraments trumps God's decrees.

However, Scripture is clear. Within the household of God, circumcised foreskins never trump circumsised hearts. If a grazed woodlot is neither good woodlot nor good grazing, the halfway covenant is neither good covenant nor good halfway. The Lutheran priest who promises his baptism or Lord's Supper actually does something, and that something is eternal salvation, is lying through his teeth. Wise souls will run for their lives!

Let's end with Calvin:

For, as we distinguish the sign from His Truth, so it is good to distinguish the minister from the Author, lest mortal man challenge that which is proper to God. Man hath the sign in his hand; it is Christ alone who waters and regenerates.

* * *

But if any man trusting to this testimony do make baptism a cold spectacle, and void of all grace of the Spirit, he shall be also greatly deceived. For the Holy Scripture useth to speak two manner of ways of the sacraments. For because Christ is not unfaithful in his promises, he doth not suffer that to be vain which he doth institute; but when as the Scripture doth attribute to baptism strength to wash and regenerate, it ascribeth all this to Christ, and doth only teach what he worketh by his Spirit by the hand of man and the visible sign. Where Christ is thus joined with the minister, and the efficacy of the Spirit with the sign, there is so much attributed to the sacraments as is needful, but that conjunction must not be so confused, but that men’s minds, being drawn from mortal and frail things, and things like to themselves, and from the elements of the world, they must learn to seek for salvation at Christ’s hand, and to look unto the power of his Spirit alone; because he misseth the mark of faith, whosoever turneth aside even but a little from the Spirit unto the signs; and he is a sacrilegious person who taketh even but an inch of Christ’s praise, that be may deck man therewith. (Calvin on Acts 11:16)

Dear soul, don't turn aside from the Spirit of God to the signs. To do so is sacrilege.

  • 1. At this point, Calvin would answer the natural objections of anabaptists that, if public confession is central to baptism's meaning, no one should baptize infants. All through his works Calvin answers this objection, so instead of spending time answering it here, I'll leave readers to check out Calvin's answers on their own time.
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!