The evangelical hinge is not whether sacraments accomplish the blessings they speak of. The issue is whether they accomplish every blessing they speak of.
The sacraments, like the Scriptures, like the gospel itself, like the very existence of the Church, are eschatological. The words of baptism are future-oriented — from that moment forward, the baptized person is to be reckoned my brother or sister. The words of institution at the Supper are future words. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). We baptize and we commune leaning forward. Every Lord’s Day we break bread toward the end of the world.
In the meantime, the Church is God’s salvation community in the world, and there are two ways to come into this community. The first is real conversion. When someone is truly converted, and he comes into the Church, he receives all that the Church contains, or ever will contain (which is to say, Christ). Faith — and only faith — enables a person to inherit this complete future. Listen to Paul talking about this very thing when speaking of the riches of a true heir — “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:22–23, ESV).
If I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, then everything is mine. That includes — in Paul’s express words — the future. This means that if my future is not salvation future, then at some foundational level, my present is not salvation present. From this simple reality, all evangelical theology flows.
The second way to come in is by the various shifts of false conversion. Now a person with temporary faith may in some sense be “saved,” but scare quotes were invented for just such a circumstance as this. Temporary salvation is something to be terrified of. I should rather have my fingernails pulled out than to be any part of God’s salvation “for a time.”
“For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Pet. 2:20–21).
Someone who was “saved” or delivered for a time is in far worse shape than someone who had never heard of Jesus Christ. The good news is that for someone who is truly converted, truly born again, such a wreck at the end is an impossibility. God has guaranteed against it.
Present salvation is not the only kind of salvation we can know, because every true form of present salvation is consumed with the future. Things present and things to come are a package. So for someone to come into the Church, and rest content with being saved “for the present” is to dangerously miss the way the new covenant community thinks and speaks.
“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).
For the true saints of God, the future is always in their hearts and in their mouths. We need to exhort one another against sin’s deceitfulness, constantly, because the only thing that matters is being found in Him at the last day (Phil. 3:9). If I am not found in Him at the last day, then my temporary salvation can go straight to Hell. Right along with me.
We run, not to make sure each foot lands in its proper left/right/left/right order, but rather we run to attain the prize. But running to attain the prize is a “bottom line” approach, and it is a future-oriented approach that the Bible positively requires of us.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39, ESV).
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
God, whose word cannot be broken,
formed thee for his own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
thou mayst smile at all thy foes.