Evangelicals are known for being strong and clear on the place of the Word in the Christian life. But can the Reformers' embrace of Baptism and Holy Communion remind us to be clear on the place of the sacraments too? Archbishop Glenn Davies is President of EFAC Australia.
One of the great discoveries of Martin Luther 500 years ago was the recognition of the supremacy and authority of Holy Scripture. It was this that undergirded his nailing of 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, exemplified in Thesis 62: ‘The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.’ By God’s grace, a fire was lit in continental Europe which critiqued the Roman Church of the day by the touchstone of Scripture, and brought the plain teaching of the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians in their own language. Justification by faith alone was reclaimed; the priestcraft of Rome was scrutinised; and the need for human intermediaries between God and his people was refuted. In particular, the seven sacraments of the Roman Church were reduced to two (those established by Christ), namely, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our Anglican heritage, under the godly leadership of Thomas Cranmer, followed this Reformation lead.
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [and women], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.(Article XIX)1
As Evangelicals, we are shaped by the gospel, as the moniker implies. As Anglicans we are also committed to the Reformation principles of our heritage, with the Bible as our authoritative source of doctrine, confessed in the Thirty-nine Articles and given liturgical expression in the Book of Common Prayer.
Yet, whereas ‘word and sacrament’ was a defining feature of the Reformation, it is often the case that many Anglican Evangelicals are more at home with the former than the latter. Perhaps it is my experience of Sydney Diocese that taints my judgment, since many ministers seem to have a less than clear understanding of the importance of the sacraments. For example, Matthew’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ final instructions for the making of new disciples, where administering baptism and teaching Jesus’ commandments are essential ingredients of that commission. Yet if one looks at today’s popular evangelistic tools and gospel outlines, there is no mention of baptism and little mention of keeping Jesus’ commandments. A simple test for us all is, that when we share the gospel with others does it cross our mind to share with them the importance of being baptised or of following Jesus’ commandments? Why is this the case? I fear that we have lost a precious aspect of Jesus’ teaching with regard to evangelism.
It is little appreciated that Jesus’ disciples had been practising water baptism during Jesus’ earthly ministry, which laid the groundwork for the Great Commission. Indeed, the Pharisees heard ‘that Jesus is making and baptising more disciples than John’ (John 4:1). Note the same conjunction of ‘making’ and ‘baptising’ disciples, as we find in Matthew 28. Although the Evangelist is quick to explain that Jesus himself was not the one baptising, as that was undertaken by the Twelve, yet it is incontrovertible that water baptism marked discipleship, as it did for John the Baptist. Hence Peter’s response to the people gathered on the Day of Pentecost makes perfect sense: ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you.’ Luke‘s record of the early church only confirms the importance of baptism as that which distinguished Christ’s followers from the world.
Our catechism defines a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’ The sacraments are a sign, a means and a pledge, each established by Christ himself.
As signs, they need to bear some resemblance to that which they signify. Hence, water is used in baptism, as a sign of washing away of sins; bread and wine are used in holy communion, as a sign of feeding on Christ. They signify a reality, although are not to be confused with the reality. In this regard the Reformers were fond of quoting Augustine’s dictum: ‘if sacraments had not some point of real resemblance to the things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all.’2
As a means, the sacraments are not bare signs, but effectual signs, as Article XXV declares: "effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us, by which he doth work invisibly in us." Philip E. Hughes, my former professor, eloquently expresses it in this way: "But their efficacy is not automatic (ex opere operato); for the external sign by itself is impotent to produce any spiritual effect. Water cannot cleanse, nor bread and wine nourish the soul. The efficacy of the sacrament is indissolubly linked to the word of promise of which it is the sign—not, however, to the word as a mere pronouncement of a formula of consecration, but to the word as a proclamation of the gospel to those who receive the sacrament."3
Thirdly, as a pledge, the Reformers were accustomed not only to speaking of the sacraments as a sign and a means of grace, but also as a pledge of God’s faithfulness. As Article XXV states, the sacraments ‘also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.’ As the engagement ring is a pledge of a man’s fidelity to his fiancée, thus strengthening the relationship, so the sacraments are a pledge of God’s promise to be faithful to his people.
The Reformers’ embrace of the sacraments of baptism and holy communion were the result of a clear understanding of the teaching of Scripture and a reclaiming of the theology of the early church, which had been obscured by the teachings of the Roman Church. The conjoined use of ‘word and sacrament’ was based upon the teaching of Scripture, where the sacraments gave visible expression to the word of God. Bishop Jewel captures this thought in these words:"[F]irst he declareth his mercy by his secret purpose to his Word; then he sealeth it and assureth it by his sacraments. In the Word we have his promises: in the sacraments we see them."4
May God give us grace as Evangelical Anglicans, to follow our Saviour’s instructions and echo the Reformers’ teaching as we proclaim Christ through word and sacrament.
1. Article XX of Cranmer’s 42 Articles (1553)
2. Augustine, Epistle XCVIII to Boniface, cited in Cranmer, Works, I.124.
3. P E Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965), 194.
4. Jewel, Works, II.1099, cited by Hughes, 197