Local News: October is Racial Reconcilation Month here in Mississippi, and Mission Mississippi is gearing up for its annual Racial Reconciliation Banquet on Thursday, October 25 at the Jackson Convention Center. For more information about the banquet or to make reservations, go to www.missionmississippi.org.
This week, we will be looking at Article 16 of the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, which deals with the sacraments of the church. The article, by far the longest of the 25 thus far, begins by saying:
“Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.”
In other words, sacraments are not only outward symbols of a person’s faith, but they are signs that God uses to demonstrate good will towards people. Through the sacraments, God works in the hearts and lives of people to inspire, as well as to strengthen, our faith in him. Some catechisms, trying to make this point, call the sacraments “means of grace”.
The article goes on to say, “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.”
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains much clearer how God can use physical things, such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to accomplish spiritual purposes:
“This new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion… There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
In saying that the new, spiritual life is spread to us by baptism, is Lewis implying “baptismal regeneration”? In a private letter, Lewis once explained that, to him, the debate about baptism wasn’t one worth having. It all depended on how one was using one’s words. For example, he said a man may say he “became a soldier” the day he enlisted in the military. On other hand, his superior officer may say of the same man, after he’s gone through weeks of training, “We’ve finally made a soldier of him.” Both statements, as far as they go, are true. Similarly, there was no point in debating whether a person is “made a Christian” by baptism.
In the New Testament, it’s simply impossible to disassociate baptism from church membership—it was simply a given that all who professed Christ had been baptized, and in all of his epistles Paul takes it for granted that every member of the congregations to which he was writing had been baptized. This is not to say, though, that it’s impossible for a person to believe in Christ and be saved by him without undergoing baptism. Death bed conversions prove this point. As Lewis explained, “These [baptism, belief, and Holy Communion] are the three ordinary methods. I am not saying there may not be special cases where it is spread without one or more of these… Anyone who professes to teach you Christian doctrine will, in fact, tell you to use all three, and that is enough for our present purpose.”
Article 16 mentions confirmation, penance, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction (or last rites), explaining that these are not to be regarded as sacraments. That’s not to derogate the practices themselves. For the most part, Methodists still practice confirmation (as do Anglicans and Lutherans), but they do not regard it as a sacrament. They regard it as a tradition, good in itself, but one that is of human origin, not something commanded by Christ himself. Anglicans and Lutherans also retained the practice of confessing sins to a pastor and receiving absolution, which is the heart of what penance is about, but they do not regard it as a sacrament.
The same can be said of ordination and last rites—Anglicans still, for the most part, observe these ordinances, but do not put them on par with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Evangelicals generally define sacraments as ordinances instituted by Christ himself, and as marriage pre-dates the Christian church, going all the way back to Adam and Eve, it doesn’t exactly fit the definition. That, of course, is not meant as saying anything against marriage.
Interestingly, even in churches where seven sacraments are generally observed (such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy), baptism and Communion are hailed as the most important two. Hence, lest we walk away thinking Christians are hopelessly divided over the nature of sacraments, we find that there really is tremendous common ground on this issue.
In closing, Article 16 says, “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about; but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation; but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves condemnation, as St. Paul saith.”
What is the article talking about when it says sacraments are not to be “gazed upon or carried about”? This is saying that the bread and wine of communion should be used, but shouldn’t be venerated or adored, as is the custom in some churches. Some who believe Christ is physically present in the elements argue that it is appropriate to worship Christ in the bread. Without yet delving into the debate over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the article rules out venerating the elements on the simple basis that Christ never commanded this to be done.
Earlier, it was said that the sacraments are regarded as “means of grace”. The final sentence explains that only those who come to the Lord’s Supper believing in Christ and trusting in his promise actually experience the intended blessing of the meal. As Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11, those who participate irreverently actually bring upon themselves God’s anger, instead of his favor.
There is no disagreement between Methodists and Presbyterians on the nature of the sacraments. If one cross references the section on the sacraments in the 39 Articles, the 25 Articles, and the Westminster Confession, one finds remarkable similarities. Why? The Westminster Confession, was based on and largely an elaboration of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion; the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, which John Wesley composed for the American Methodists, was also based on the 39 Articles, and was largely an abbreviated version of them. It should, therefore, come as no surprise if the Westminster Confession and the 25 Articles sound strikingly similar at times, since they are based on the same document.