Some Theological Background

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I am pleased to introduce a guest post of sorts from my friend, Jack Bradley. He collected some relevant quotes (think: Leithart trial) from Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here they are:

“In ordinary language the two words sign and symbol are used nearly interchangeably. In fact, they have quite different meanings.  A sign, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is a ‘mark or device having some special meaning or import attached to it, or serving to distinguish the thing on which it is put.’ A sign, like a road sign, for example, merely points out the meaning of that to which it points. A symbol is a more complex idea.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it ‘stands for, represents, or denotes something else. . . especially a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial.’ Etymologically, symbol comes from Greek words which mean ‘together’ and ‘throw,’ thus, to bring together.  Symbols do not merely point from one thing to another, they join two things.

. . . Brian Gerrish helps us to understand how Calvin and Zwingli could seem to be talking the same language of religious symbol but each be saying something quite different. For Calvin, God uses sacraments as a means to communicate what they symbolize. He constantly reiterates that God does not deceive us when he offers the sacramental gifts to us. For Zwingli, on the other hand, it was precisely the ‘symbolic’ language of the sacraments that enabled him to use the biblically realistic language without meaning it realistically. Zwingli tells us that no one can speak so grandly of the sacraments as to give him any offense, provided the symbolical language was taken for what it is, and no more. For him symbols were always merely symbolic.  Calvin’s position is exactly the opposite. Because God uses sacraments as symbols, they therefore bestow what they symbolize. ‘More correctly, because sacraments are divinely appointed signs, and God does not lie, therefore the Spirit uses them to confer what they symbolize.’ (Institutes 4.17.3)

. . . When the New Testament writers do speak of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they speak of them in surprisingly powerful and active ways. Baptism often functions as a virtual substitute term for regeneration or salvation.  In Romans 6 for example, Paul confronts the real question that since Christians are freely forgiven by grace in Jesus Christ, might they therefore sin with abandon?  Paul replies, ‘Don’t you know we were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection? . . . In Galatians 3:27-28 Paul makes the remarkable claim that in our baptism we are now ‘clothed with Christ’ and therefore part of a new community. . . Through baptism God redefines us, telling us who we are, and making us who we are.

. . . Historical Christian orthodoxy, going back to the early church fathers, is convinced that in the sacraments God is doing something through these ritual signs.  They are truly means of grace.

. . . Sacraments accompany the word because faith is not strong enough to be sustained by the word alone. Sacraments confirm, convey, and apply the word in ways in which the word by itself cannot do.

. . . in the sacraments we get Christ in a way that is particularly suited to our humanity. We get Christ through water, bread and wine.

. . . God has chosen certain physical objects—in the case of baptism, water—to convey the sign and seal of his grace to us. By God’s word and promise, baptismal water carries with it the blessings of our incorporation into Christ, our regeneration in him, and our forgiveness from sin. The water of baptism is instrumental in effecting these things in the lives of believers and their children.

. . . Water is the sacramental sign, the visible word by which the Holy Spirit, through faith, brings us into union with Christ. Of course, water by itself, even in the setting of the sacrament, has no independent efficacy. In baptism the Holy Spirit uses water to help evoke faith and assurance.

. . . It is everywhere assumed in the New Testament that baptism calls forth faith. Baptism, all by itself, does not confer our incorporation into Christ. Like grace itself, it always acts ‘through faith’ (Eph. 2:8). As important as faith is to baptism, baptism is not merely a reflection of our own faith commitment. The danger of understanding baptism as an expression of our faith is that we are thrown back on our own subjective experiences, actions and decisions. The function of faith is precisely to turn us away from depending on our own resources and toward depending on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But if baptism is an expression of the vitality of our faith, we are only left with our own heart’s motivations, slippery and fickle as they always are.

. . . The New Testament understanding of the relationship of faith and baptism is that we are incorporated into Christ in baptism, and faith responds to it. Baptism is not primarily a response and follow-up to faith; faith is our response to baptism. We believe through and in our baptism.

. . . Because baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the response of faith continues on from the moment of baptism. No matter when it takes place, we spend the rest of our lives believing through our baptism. Just as faith receives the gracious gift of baptism in the first place, so faith returns to baptism over and over, taking new strength through it. . . God has given us this physical sign and seal, this landmark on our journey, precisely so that our faith might cling to it. Of course, we are not depending on baptism itself, but on Christ with whom we are united in baptism, and with God’s word of promise, which gives baptism its validity. But baptism is a God-given handle by which our faith embraces Christ.”

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