Are baptism and the Lord’s Supper best understood as visible forms of the Word, and thus means by which God’s grace operates in us, or as human responses of faith to the Word that has already been proclaimed? In other words, who is the primary actor in the sacraments/ordinances: God or us?
A brief overview of historical positions on this question will be helpful. Roman Catholic theology clearly sees God as the primary agent in the sacraments, for the sacraments (including five others in addition to baptism and the Eucharist) are the means by which grace is communicated to us, and so we receive a unique benefit in the sacraments that we receive nowhere else, even from the proclaimed Word. In the Roman Catholic model, the sacraments seem to have primacy over the Word as the means of our salvation.
In Lutheran theology, the role of the proclaimed Word is elevated, but it remains inextricably bound to the sacraments. So for Lutherans, baptism continues to be a sacrament that conveys the grace of regeneration, though it is not the water itself that accomplishes this but rather the proclaimed Word that operates through the water. Similarly, in the Lord’s Supper we eat and drink the physical body and blood of Christ (in, with, and under the bread and wine) as he has been held out to us in his Word. The sacraments are, so to speak, simply one other form that the Word of God is proclaimed to us, so that God is the primary agent in them.
Reformed theology moved somewhat further from Roman Catholicism than did Lutheranism on this question. In Reformed theology, the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace, and as such they continue to convey unique blessings to those who receive them. God is considered the primary agent in them, even if the act of baptism does not necessarily regenerate us and we do not consume the physical body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Reformed theology seems very comfortable regarding the sacraments as visible forms of the preached Word, by which God holds out blessings to us if we receive them in faith.
Baptist theology (and the Anabaptist theology before it) has, historically, taken a different approach to the sacraments (often called “ordinances” in this tradition). Baptists have long understood baptism and the Lord’s Supper as primarily human acts. They are not the Word preached to us in another form, summoning us to a response of faith. They themselves are the means by which we respond in faith to the Word. In baptism, we declare publicly our definitive union with Christ. In the Lord’s Supper, we declare publicly our ongoing union with Christ. In Baptist theology, the Word and the ordinances continue to be joined together, but they are not merely variant forms of the same thing. The Word that comes from God is to be met in us with faith responses expressed in the ordinances.
That is not to say that we do not receive blessings from baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Of course, we do. But that does not mean that we should envision them primarily as means of grace through which God as the primary agent works upon us as relatively passive recipients. They are a means of grace in another sense, in the sense in which they invite our active, obedient participation. They are God-ordained, yet nevertheless human acts that constitute public declarations of our identity in Christ. As such, the opportunity to take part in them is, indeed, a very rich blessing.
Next week I will follow up with a biblical argument for the Baptist understanding of the ordinances.