The meaning of the sacraments
I am indebted to the Reformed tradition for my understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Growing up, I only thought about those two ordinances as symbols of your devotion to God. They were both about you saying something to God. I still think that is a part of it, but I also now believe:
- They are about God saying something to us. They are both New Covenant signs, in which God promises things like forgiveness of sins, a heart that wants to follow God, power to live a renewed life, unity within the Church, and life forever in God’s Kingdom (Jer 31, Ezek 36, Matt 28). Taking those signs are acceptances of all those promises. To state the obvious, if you take these New Covenant signs, they assure you that you are no longer under the Old Covenant!
- Tied to that, they are more about God’s faithfulness than ours. It is so easy to think that a person must be “ready” before they are baptized or can come to the Table. We do have to think about who the proper recipients are of these sacraments, but I now have a much more “come as you are” mentality. Every Lord’s Supper, there is usually one or two people that I find out withheld the elements from themselves, that I do not think should have!
- They are actual means of grace. You grow spiritually through these sacraments. It matters whether you actually partake of these signs or not, for your spiritual good (1 Cor 11, 1 Peter 3).
There are probably more, but much of these things I have learned from Presbyterians and those who would claim to descend theologically from the Reformers. It is largely because of these ideas that Presbyterians would see it fitting to baptize their infants, since it is more about God’s faithfulness than the recipient’s. Martin Luther made strong arguments for God’s grace in saving infants being not that different from His grace in saving any dead sinner– both require God to do 100% of the work.
However, in the end, it makes more sense to see these as covenantal signs for believers only. On the Lord’s Supper, we almost all certainly agree. But on baptism, it is a promise from God to forgive you of all your sins. That is why Jesus commands every disciple to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit as soon as the New Covenant age is official (Matthew 28). A promise from God is no promise if it is not a guarantee.
Our friends would probably object: “yes, but in the OT, many were circumcised who did not necessarily receive what was promised. A whole generation of circumcised Israelites did not receive the Promised Land. Yet, God is still faithful. That does not condemn God. Just because we might mess it up is no reason to not do what we are commanded to do, namely, give the covenant sign to our children.”
This probably deserves its own post before moving on to problem passages.