For the first time ever, in the history of this blog, I have a contributor. Willison, has been involved in some of the discussions on this blog post in the past, and motivated by the current discussion happening on the post titled, Anonymous Challenges Salvation, where we have talked more about Sacraments and specifically the Sacrament of Baptism, he offered to contribute this blog post. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Thanks Willison...
Let’s cut to the chase: What is a sacrament?
If a sacrament DOES something, than it becomes a lot more important than if it only SYMBOLIZES something. It’s awful hard to argue that something “symbolic” is “necessary”. It might be helpful, therefore, to consider sacraments generally, to better understand the sacrament of baptism specifically.
Jesus taught us to call God “Father” not just so we would feel close and cuddly to God, but so we could better understand why he does some of the things he does. Anyone who has been a parent of a 3 year old has dealt with those never ending “why” questions. The answers to “why does it rain?” or “why do things die?” or “why do we use money?” are very complicated issues that a 3 year old couldn’t understand even if he wanted to. Yet, a growing mind with a question deserves an answer. So a good Dad boils it down. He starts using words the kid will understand and draws on experiences the kid can relate to. That’s what we do – the sinful flawed version of a parent. God – the perfect version of a parent – who is infinitely more advanced compared to us than a human adult compared to a human child – would do no less. Thus, he made sacraments.
As far as we know, humans are unique in all of creation. We are physical beings – formed out of the dust of the earth – with a spiritual soul – breathed into us by God himself. Angels are only spirit. Animals are only physical matter. Humans are both. In fact, the Church teaches that BOTH body and soul are ESSENTIAL to be “human.” (That is why we believe in the resurrection of the body. Our physical form is not a “soul transportation device.” It is – and always will be – half of what God created us to be. Humans do not become angels in Heaven.)
So let’s say that God – the perfect parent – wants to transmit his grace to a human. Two issues come up: First, he chose to design humans with this dual nature, so undoubtedly he would want to impart his grace to the whole creature, not half of it. Second, like a parent, he wants us to understand what is happening - and he knows that our physical experiences are more familiar to us than the purely spiritual ones.
Consider Matthew 21:24-25. Jesus was being questioned about his authority to act as he was. In classic Jewish style of debate, he answered a question with a question, “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from Heaven or from men?” Of course, the chief priests and elders were trapped and couldn’t answer that without shooting themselves in the foot. It seems to me, that is still what we are talking about. Clearly I think Jesus was saying it came from God, as did his authority. And the Priests thought it was John gone wild, just like they thought Jesus was doing, but they couldn’t say that because the people would disagree. Notwithstanding the Priests, Jesus’ question all but says Baptism is an institution ordained by God.
But more than that, the questions to Jesus were, “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?” His response was to bring up his baptism! Now sure you can argue that they are two unrelated issues that happen to have the same answer, but Jesus rarely did that when he taught. I believe he brought up his baptism and the Baptist, because they were the answers. By what authority? Through the grace of God received in my baptism. Who gave it to you? God Himself, through John the Baptist. But instead of saying that, Jesus tried to get the priests to realize it for themselves by asking, “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from Heaven or from men?” When they responded with “we don’t know”, he basically said, “then I’m not telling.” But I believe the answer is there nonetheless.
This “symbol-only” view of baptism doesn’t seem in line with something created and given by Heaven. Did God give us a ceremony simply as a public display of what he already did? If true, this symbol would be intended to glorify God, but glorifying Him is something from us to Him (From men to Heaven). Jesus implied baptism was from God to men. So consider two things: If baptism was designed by God to be the method by which he chooses to give us His grace, wouldn’t that clearly be “from Heaven” and not from men? And secondly, does God, anywhere in the Bible, create any institution (other than holidays and activities to remember his great acts like Passover) where humans are supposed to do certain things simply to symbolize a passing of grace which they have already received? Let me save you some time: no.
So, can THE BIBLE, prove for us that this is how God works? Of course! The Bible is filled with references to actions God requires humans to do BY WHICH he chooses to confer his grace. This is not an exhaustive list, but consider the following examples:
1- Circumcision – In Gen. 17 God told Abraham circumcision was a sign of the covenant, but went on to say if a man is not circumcised he is not part of it. In other words, your part of the covenant when you become circumcised. The surgery does something. If you argue it is ONLY a sign of the covenant, you must overcome the fact that without the sign, you don’t get the covenant. He said to the Jews if you’re 9 days old and not circumcised, you’re not part of the covenant. The moment you become circumcised, you’re part of it.
2- Priests – In Exodus 28:40-42 God says to anoint and ordain certain men as priests. Then later in Leviticus 8 He describes how it should be done and it gets VERY relevant to our discussion. 1st the man had to be washed, but it is not until oil is poured on him that he becomes the consecrated priest of God. The oil does something, the ritual washing doesn’t. In fact, this sacred oil to make things Holy is so special God himself specifies the recipe and limits both its use and the people who can use it in Exodus 30:22-33.
3- In Exodus 17, when the Israelites were thirsty, God said go on ahead and you’ll see a rock. Strike the rock, and I’ll make water come out of it. He didn’t say, up ahead I placed a well. Or there’s a rock with water coming out of it up ahead. He made Moses strike the rock, with a particular stick, to get the water. A physical act THROUGH which he chose to give his blessing. In fact later, Moses struck a rock too many times and God was so mad he didn’t let Moses go to the Promised Land.
4- When Israel decided they wanted a king, Samuel anointed Saul in private (1 Sam 10:1) and from that moment on he was King. Not when he accepted. Not when Samuel recognized him. But when the oil hit him. We know this wasn’t symbolic because later, in the public ceremony, he was not re-anointed as a symbol of his submission to God for the people. He was simply presented as their king. Then later when David had a chance to kill Saul, he refused – not because he was king – but because he had been anointed. (1 Sam 24:10) In the same way, the Bible says David got God’s power after his anointing (1 Sam 16:12-14).
5- In 2 Kings 5 God cured a King with leprosy. Elisha told the king to be healed he would have to wash 7 times in the Jordan River. He didn’t cure him and command he go through the traditional washings commanded in Mosaic Law. In fact the king was mad that Elisha didn’t just pray over him. He couldn’t understand why the Jordan River when he had perfectly good rivers close by. But to be healed, he had to do it God’s way. The 7th washing actually cured him.
6- In Mark 6:12-13 the Apostles anointed the sick with oil and healed them. The anointing with oil is how God chose to heal them. In the same way, James tells us at James 5:14-15 that sick people should have elders of the church (not just any believer) pray over them and anoint them to get better. Certain people, doing certain things, to receive God’s blessing.
7- In 2 Cor. 1:20-22 Paul explained that by anointing us, God put His spirit in our hearts, and His seal of ownership on us. He doesn’t specifically mention baptism, but I can’t think of what else he would be referring to. Because of our anointing, through our anointing, by our anointing, God put His spirit in our hearts.
I believe the Bible is pretty clear. God often chooses to bless us through physical actions and tangible things. Of course, sometimes He also blesses without a physical act. But I have never seen where he blessed someone in the quiet of their hearts and then required, or even suggested, they go perform some physical act to symbolize the blessing. (No, not lepers Jesus healed presenting themselves to priests. The presentment was a legal procedure so they could rejoin the community.) That is why the Church teaches the baptism Jesus and the apostles keep talking about is not symbolic, but a transference of grace. If you are not baptized, you are not part of the kingdom of God. You have not received his grace. At the moment you are baptized, you receive the grace.
Now does God NEED sacraments to produce his grace and power? No. He is almighty. He can do it whatever way he wants. However, he has created us and knows we are physical creatures in addition to our spiritual nature. Therefore, it was out of His kindness and understanding of human nature that he has chosen to use physical things that we can witness to pass His grace on to us. Now because He has chosen to do that, He also requires us to utilize it. I believe God is not the type of God who institutes something and makes it optional. That’s why I believe it is required, and actually causes us to receive His grace and be cleansed of original sin.