Sacraments as Means of Justification

As Christians we believe the words of St. Paul when he says that sinners are justified by faith, and as Protestants we recognize that the added “sola fide” of the Reformation was not a novel invention meant to remove the human element in salvation, but a traditional way of adding emphasis to a word (see the line in Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” – “Sola fides sufficit“), and in this case adding emphasis to the filial trust that believers have in the word of God who declares sinners to be “righteous” apart from their merits.

When God declares something about a sinner, he always uses inanimate and animate instruments to conveys that message. He used a burning bush to get his message across to Moses, and he used Moses to point Israel to that guiding flame and cloud, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. And, it was through that divine fire and cloud that all of Israel were “baptized into Moses,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:2 – εἰς τὸν Μωϋσῆν ἐβαπτίσθησαν ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ). All of these visible elements (the fire, the cloud, the sea, and Moses) were divine instruments and signs of Israel’s redemption. And, as St. Paul tells us, these signs correspond to the Christian sacraments, especially baptism. The sacraments are visible words spoken by God himself in sign language concerning the status of his people, saying, “I am their God, and they are my people.”

There really is no conflict between God’s objective sign language to us and our subjective seeing and hearing – faith comes through hearing. And so, there is no conflict in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Rather than detract from individual faith, the sacraments are actually given for the sake of bringing about faith (or in faithful adults, bringing about more faith), faith in God’s gracious declaration about us sinners, namely, that despite our sin we are righteous in Christ. There is a sense in which everyone who is baptized is justified, not through faith, plus sacraments, but because of their profession of faith in God’s word revealed through the sacraments. This is why they are called “means of grace.” Though this may come as a surprise to many, this is a Reformed view of baptismal efficacy. Jerome Zanchi says (in his Miscellanies) we are to believe that in baptism infants are washed with the very blood of Christ:

When the minister baptizes, I ponder and I believe, with the eyes of my mind lifted up to heaven, that Christ, as if with his own hand sent down from heaven, sprinkles my son with his own blood for the remission of his sins, through the hand of this man, who I see sprinkling the head of the infant with water.

We cannot talk about the remission of sins without talking about justification, since the very declaration included in God’s act of justifying sinners is his declaration that their sins are remitted. And, sins are remitted because we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit that we receive in baptism. This applies to baptized infants as well, even though they are not capable of believing with their mind as adults do.

And therefore the infants of faithful [parents] receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of regeneration, the Spirit of faith & charity, as well as the remission of sins & the right to eternal life, since they become members of Christ when they are in the covenant. For it is not true that because they cannot believe due to the defect of their age, so they are destitute of the Spirit of faith, through whom they are regenerated. Just as it does not follow that because they cannot yet use reason, they lack a mind and reason (Zanchi, Commentary on Ephesians, 298).

Zanchi also affirms the appropriateness of attributing a power to the minister for regenerating and remitting sins, and justifying sinners through the sacraments:

Can the ministers of baptism also be said to truly baptize, that is, to wash away sins and to regenerate? I respond, yes in every way … But it should always be understood, that ministers do this sacramentally, that is, as they administer the sacraments, through whom Christ himself cleanses, regenerates, as through an instrument. And in the same sense it is said ministers are able to show forth not mere bread, but also the true body of Christ itself. For as it were, all who receive baptism, although hypocrites without true purification from sins, are said despite this to be cleansed from sins and justified because they have taken hold of the sacrament of these things. And so in the super of the Lord hypocrites, when they accept the bread of the Lord, can be said to also take up the body of Christ itself, namely sacramentally. Likewise ministers are also said to administer the things themselves, because they administer the sacraments of the things themselves. Therefore they justify and regenerate because they are ministers of these things and they serve the interests of Christ for the sake of regenerating humanity (Commentary on Ephesians, 305).

Zanchi’s qualifications here are very important. In every sacrament there is a mystical (or sacramental) union between the signum and res, between God’s sign language and the spiritual reality hidden behind the sign. In the crossing of the Red Sea God’s sign language (cloud, sea, and Moses) conveyed the hidden reality of Israel’s actual spiritual redemption and adoption into the family of God. And, in the same way, the sacraments act as God’s declarations to us today that he is our God and we are his people, that we are truly washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with his righteousness, and justified (declared “righteous”) in him. But, the sacraments do not work magically or automatically, otherwise they would not be sacraments (i.e., they require a real distinction between sign and thing signified). We know from experience (e.g., Judas) that the reality is not always given with the sign to everyone automatically and indiscriminately. Some, for example, “eat and drink to their own damnation”, while others participate in the full reality of blessed union with Christ, but all receive the sacrament, i.e., the sign mystically united to Christ himself.

And, unless someone might want some evidence for this view from an Anglican theologian, I’ve translated a passage from Samual Ward’s De baptismatis infantilis, British delegate to the Synod of Dort – there was obviously disagreement regarding this language, as Ward’s debate with Thomas Gataker attests. Ward’s language here is less guarded than Zanchi’s, but it is dependent on the same sacramental relationship, namely, the turn of phrase whereby we can refer to the sign as if it were the thing signified (i.e., metonymy):

All baptized infants are without doubt justified.

It is asked at present about the particular effect of baptism on infants [parvuli]; namely, whether it has without doubt this effect on infants, that it is effective for a solution to the guilt of original sin.

[F]irstly we assert it to be certain that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism for an antidote [remedium] for original sin, and for a true solution to the guilt of the same.

Even if “antidote” taken strictly is the antidote of some illness, nevertheless even that can be called an “antidote,” which removes any evil whatsoever; whether it be of guilt, or penalty, or even of an obligation with regard to a penalty, which is called “guilt.” So theologians say that Christ came “for an antidote for sin,” as well for removing guilt through satisfaction on the cross as removing defect [culpam] through healing grace.

According to Ward, therefore, since God remits original sin in the baptism of infants, he also without doubt justified them.

Ward and Zanchi remind us that we ought to have a deep reverence and holy fear about God’s holy sacraments, not attributing too little to them nor too much. Everyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is justified in a sacramental sense, and so God calls them to believe that they truly share in Christ’s righteousness – and the Father’s declaration to Christ, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The mystery of the sacraments is in God’s work. There is no mystery in the evil of man. When someone spurns the gift of justification offered to them in their baptism, they reveal their own evil, not the weakness of God. Their unbelief, that is, does not detract from the mystery of their sacramental justification (to use Zanchi’s language). The sign and the thing are conjoined in God’s declaration and offering, and we should be very cautious in saying otherwise. In fact, that is why the condemnation of a lapsed Christian is greater than the unbeliever who has never been baptized. When it comes to the sacraments it is better to err on the side of mystery than on the side of presumptuousness. Because, as Zanchi says, the ministers of God “administer the sacraments of the things themselves.”

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The Corporate Element in Private Prayer

There really is no such thing as private prayer, if by “private” we mean “cut off from” the corporate body of God’s people in the local church. And yet, our natural inclination as moderns seems to assume that very thing, namely, that my private prayers are just between me and God, perhaps reflecting what Charles Taylor refers to as the ‘punctual self’, whose radical independence makes for a self that is merely a ‘point’ in blank space, an abstraction from community, place, and the other.

The daily offices (morning/evening prayer) of the Prayer Book, even when used as private prayer, are not strictly separable from the corporate gathering of the local parish church. Since the prayers are spiritual offerings to God, even in private these offerings are not merely for the individual or for the individual’s family, friends, and neighbors, but for those with whom one communes at the Lord’s Table on Sundays (way back when these were also one’s neighbors). If the prayers were only for me and in no way concerned my fellow parishioners, then they would be worthless to me. They would not be pleasing to God who has placed me in a local visible part of the body of Christ in the shepherding care of his ministers. And, they would be of little value for me personally, since I don’t want to be alone – “though none go with me, I still will follow” though true, is certainly not the ideal – and I don’t want God to see me as a world to myself, separated from the saints of ages past and present. What good would it do me if God decided one day to only answer my daily private prayers and not those of my fellow parishioners? To pray “O God make speed to save us!” would make no sense at all if that were the case.

As Bishop Anthony Sparrow says in his comments on the Prayer Book (1662):

If a Church may not be had, “THE PRIEST SHALL SAY IT PRIVATELY,” says the same Rubr. 2.  And good reason;  for God’s worship must not be neglected or omitted for want of a circumstance.  It is true, the Church is the most convenient place for it, and adds much to the beauty of holiness. And he that should neglect that decency, and despising the Church should offer up the public worship in private, should sin against that Law of God that says, “Cursed is he that having a better Lamb in his flock, offers up to God a worse”:  For God Almighty must be serv’d with the best we have, otherwise we despise him.  He that can have a Church, and will offer up the holy service in a worse place, let him fear that curse: but if a Church cannot be had, let him not fear or omit to offer up the holy Service in a convenient place in private, having a desire to the Church, looking towards the Temple in prayer, 2 Chron. 6. 28. for it will be accepted, according to that equitable rule of S. Paul, 2 Cor. 8. 12. “If there be a willing mind, God accepts according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.”

[…]

Let every Lay-man say this Morning and Evening Office, his Psalter, leaving out that which is peculiar to the Priest, Absolution, and solemn benediction;  and let him know that when he prays thus alone, he prays with company, because he prays in the Churches communion, the Common prayer and vote of the Church.  But let not the Priest of all others, fail to offer this service of the Congregation.  This public worship, this savour of rest, though by himself in private looking towards the Temple, “Lifting up his hands toward the mercy seat of the holy Temple,” Psal. 84. that is, having in his soul a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord, praying with David, that he may go unto the Altar of God, the God of our joy and gladness, to offer up his service there, and it will be acceptable.

As Bp. Sparrow affirms, private prayers are acceptable to God because they are accompanied with a desire to go to the altar of God in one’s local church. This is because our individual prayers are tinted with the light of holiness reflected in the elect of God. The visible church is the gathering of God’s chosen people and the only church that I know (as a worshiping body) are those with whom I worship at my local parish. In other words, even when my prayers are personal, they are not merely for me but for me-as-part-of-this-parish. Since baptism brings us into a corporate gathering of believers, and Holy Communion unites us more closely with those believers – to whom Christ said, if you have anything against your brother, leave your gift at the altar and go seek reconciliation – then our local identity is a local-corporate identity. Whether I’m praying for the health of my child, my wife, or for a particular sin of my own, God does not see me only. Of course, the primary lens through which God sees me is Christ and all the saints (and angels) in heaven, but he also sees me in union with the local expression of Christ’s body (and the diocese!) where he has placed me, and he is pleased to accept my individual and private prayers as a part of that corporate gathering of believers. This corporate element of private prayer was true of ancient Israel as it is for us today. What happens to one part of the body affects the whole. The prayers of all the saints on earth ascend together as holy incense before the heavenly altar of God.

For this reason, as Bp. Sparrow says, it is more than appropriate for us to pray privately the same prayers that we would pray together in parish worship. For example, as we say in the daily offices:

Minister: O Lord, open thou our lips.

Answer. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Together: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost

Answer. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Minister. Praise ye the Lord.

Answer. The Lord’s Name be praised.

The plural “our” and “we” should be said in private as well, just as Christ tells us to ask for “our daily bread,” in order that we might have a daily reminder that our private prayers are always partly corporate, never absolutely private. The corporate language of our private prayers are the material of our daily sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and like any sacrifice, our prayer is an offering of our whole person (locally sourced!) in a community of sacrificial love. And for that reason, even when the members of the church are apart from one another, we continue to offer up our prayers and our lives for one another. For, as our Blessed Savior has taught us, in words that ring true about our daily sacrifices of prayer, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).

Zanchi: The Logic of Union with Christ

Zanchi argues that we approach Christ’s divine person in a logical order. That is through the mediation of his humanity. In a treatise of his translated into English in 1594 entitled An excellent and learned treatise, of the spirituall mariage betvveene Christ and the church, and every faithfull man, Zanchi explains his justification for this idea. I offer below a brief selection of his argument to emphasize that for Zanchi the preaching of the Holy Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments play a key role in the church’s union with Christ, precisely because of this logical order of cognition. Zanchi is intentionally setting himself apart from the Zwinglians, who he says believe that the faithful are only united to Christ’s divinity, and the Lutherans who he says believe that Christ has an invisible body, which is not capable of nourishing us since it is completely unlike our bodies.

1. A faithfull man is first joyned to the flesh of Christ, and then afterwardes by the flesh, he is joyned to the word it selfe, or to the Godhead.

2. The reason is taken from knowledge. As it is with knowledge and the understanding of the minde, so is it also with voluntarie uniting and coupling. For the will followeth knowledge, and so far forth chooseth, willeth, and embraceth any thing, and uniteth it selfe thereto, as it doth thoroughlie understand and knowe the same. For it alwayes desireth not unknown but known good. But we do first and sooner apprehend & know Christ propounded in the word of God as he is man, then as he is God. Therefore in a certaine order of nature, and of the actions of teh minde and of faith, wee are first united to the flesh of Christ, and by that to his deitie, and so to his whole person.

3. I easily proove [this]…from the holy Scriptures. For, when God in the beginning of the world did promise a Redeemer, he promised and propounded him immediatly, as the seede of the woman, that is, as man, Gen. 3. “Her seede…shall bruise thy head.” So promised he also to Abraham: “In thy seede shall the nations be blessed.”

[…]

20. As therefore it was [in the Old Testament] the peoples dutie to come to the visible arke and there to wait and looke for the grace of God: so let no man hope for the grace of God, except he come to Christ visible man, and eate his visible flesh, and doe incorporate the same into himselfe by faith.

21. Wherefore it is clearer then the day light that a man cannot be united to the Godhead of Christ, except he be joyned to his humanitie, and to his flesh. For the flesh of Christ is the instrument of the Godhead, but it is this instrument onely, beeing taken and joyned inseparably into the unitie of the person.

22. This whole doctrine is very lively to be seene in the Sacraments, as it were in most cleere looking glasses.

23. There are two things in every sacrament: the visible signe, and the invisible grace: the earthly thing, and the heavenly. He that bringeth faith receiveth both.

24. But in what order? Even in the same, as they are propounded of God: by the signe we receive the thing signified: and by the earthly thing, we receive the heavenly thing: for God by the one doth offer the other.

[…]

And therefore that Chrsit doth still retaine his natural flesh, and doth imprint the virtue & efficacie, & as it were the image thereof, into our flesh, by communicating his holinesse with us, whereby we are made flesh of his flesh, and bones of his bones: also that he doth by the holy Ghost ingraffe our flesh into his flesh, & so quickneth our flesh by his flesh: and again, that the father doth communicate unto us nothing concerning salvation, but by the flesh of Christ truely and really communicated with us; and this they [i.e,. the church fathers] have prooved especially by the mysterie of the Supper of the Lord.

For as the bread is really and truly united unto us eating the same: so also is the flesh of Christ truly and in very deede united unto us who eate the same.

[…]

Because this union is made at the preaching of the Gospell in Baptisme, and in the Supper of the Lorde, therefore there are divers answeres made to this question [i.e,. the manner of how the union is made]. All confesse, that it is made at the preaching of the Gospell by faith alone: I say, an effectuall faith: neither is there any great controversie of the manner how it is made in baptisme: but there is no man ignorant how great contention there is even among those that professe Christ, of the manner how we are united to the flesh of Christ, and the flesh of Christ is united to us in the Supper of the Lord.

[…]

[We say] by faith also [Christ] is received of us into our harts, and we are united to him. Iohn 6. “Hee that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, abideth in me and I in him.” But hee is eaten and drunken by faith, as Christ in the same place expoundeth it, saying: “He that beleeveth in me shall never thirst.” Wee are therefore united to Christ by faith.

Wherefore, whether he be propounded to us in the Word, or in Baptisme, or in the Supper, Christ is alwaies united to us, and we unto him by his Spirit and by our faith… By the vertue & power of the same holy Spirit, we drinke in the supper, the blood of Christ, and growe together into one with him, and are quickened by his Spirit

Nicholas of Cusa on Faith & Holy Communion

There are many statements in Nicholas of Cusa’s sermons that emphasize the importance of faith in those who receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. This is likely due to his early education among the Brethren of the Common Life, but it also relates to his peculiar brand of Platonism.

Therefore, this faith is best signified by means of the visible form of bodily food, which expels weakness and furnishes strength—as do, basically, the wheaten bread and the wine. Hence, take cognizance of the fact that in the power of the bread and the wine—[a power] that expels the weakness of the flesh’s ravenous hunger and that brings strength, or renews strength, (things which happen with respect to the outer man)—faith sees the power of the Word working similar things in the inner man. And that which nature ministers to the outer man by means of visible food, faith by means of invisible Food (which is the Word of God) obtains in the inner man (which is invisible),  (Sermon CLXXXIII).

Ames on the Frequency of Communion

Add William Ames to the list of those early modern reformed theologians who believed that Holy Communion should be celebrated every Sunday. In his Cases of Conscience he writes:

Chap. XXVIII.   Of the Supper of the Lord

Quest. I. Whether the frequent use of the Lord’s Supper be necessary?

I. A. I. All godly persons ought to endeavour that as often as they can conveniently, they make a religious use of the Sacrament.

First, because that Precept of an indeterminate time, ‘Doe this’ admits no other limitation but a want of an opportunity,  or some just impediment.

Secondly, because we have continuall need to feed upon Christ, and the good things purchased by him.

Thirdly, because the solemne profession of our Faith, according to Gods Ordinance, is a duty which We ought, most readily upon every just occasion, to performe.

Fourthly, because our infirmitie requireth a frequent renewing of our Covenant, and excitation of our heart and  minde.

Fifthly, because it is apparent, that in the Primitive Church the Sacrament of the Supper was administered every Lord’s Day, neither can there be any other reason given for the more rare ufe of it but the luke-warmeness of Believers, and the multitude of people in some Congregations.

On the Authority of Councils

I’ve been reading through John Davenant’s PRÆLECTIONES DE DUOBUS IN THEOLOGIA CONTROVERSIS (1631) which he wrote against the Jesuits’ claim of infallibility for popes and councils. Given the recent debate over the Trinity and the question of the authority of the ecumenical councils raised by many of its participants, Davenant’s remarks may be helpful. I find what he says about the external authority of councils to be particularly illuminating. He argues, in true Protestant fashion, that only Protestants truly submit themselves to the judgments of the councils (a) because we retain the right of private judgment apart from which no one could truly submit themselves to any authority, and (b) because the Papists remove the authority of the councils by giving it to the Pope – hence, ‘No Pope, no council.’ Protestants, says Davenant, recognize that the ecumenical councils, in their decrees, have the highest authority, so long as what they define and conclude is not contradictory to Scripture. He says, “We consider a general council to be the highest tribunal on earth, even though it is not infallible.” He stresses that this authority is of an external nature, pertaining to good order and the discipline of heresy, not to what must be believed for salvation. Indeed, he argues that ecumenical councils are not necessary for salvation, otherwise we wouldn’t have waited until Constantine to have one(!). I’ve translated a bit here where Davenant juxtaposes the Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the authority of councils. Note the bracketed part is my summary of the contrasted Roman Catholic view from Davenant’s perspective.

1. We therefore recognize supreme judgment, public and external, concerning the doctrines of the faith in the church militant to belong to the ecumenical council. [They say the Pope can retract the judgment of an ecumenical council]
2. We recognize all persons in the church to be subject to the ecumenical council that represents the catholic church. [They say the Pope is not subject to the mother church or ecumenical councils]
3. We say that the bishops gathered in the councils have received the highest power of judgement and the power of imposing censure for the good of the church from Christ himself. [They say only the Pope can give them this right, ergo no Pope, no council.]
4. We say that general councils can err if the fathers, in their definitions, do not follow the instruction of Christ, our highest pontiff, declared in the Scriptures. [They say councils can err if they don’t follow the Pope]

So, for Davenant, we should all be subject to the definitions of the ecumenical councils because of the external authority of these councils. The councils have the authority to determine what is best [bene esse] for the universal church, that is for directing the universal church away from heresy and toward its good in accordance with the Scriptures. This only applies to the first four councils though, and especially not Nicaea II (Davenant says, “Let the Papists have that idolatrous conventicle!”). So, for the sake of the bene esse of the church, says Davenant, the definitions of the ecumenical councils demand the assent of the universal church.

Origen on What it Means to be ‘Spiritual’

For Origen, the spiritual life is life in the Holy Spirit. To be ‘spiritual’ then means nothing short of participation in the activity of the Holy Spirit. It means death and resurrection. And, this occurs primarily through prayer. As he says:

[David says] “to you, O God, have I lifted up my soul” (Ps. 25:1). For the eyes of the mind are lifted up from their preoccupation with earthly things and from their being filled with the impression of material things. And they are so exalted that they peer beyond the created order and arrive at the sheer contemplation of God and at conversing with Him reverently and suitably as He listens. How would things so great fail to profit those eyes that gaze at the glory of the Lord with unveiled face and that are being changed into His likeness from glory to glory (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18)? For then they partake of some divine and intelligible radiance. This is demonstrated by the verse “The light of your countenance, O Lord, has been signed upon us” (Ps. 4:6). And the soul is lifted up and following the Spirit is separated from the body. Not only does it follow the Spirit, it even comes to be in Him. This is demonstrated by the verse “To you have I lifted up my soul,” since it is by putting away its existence that the soul becomes spiritual, (Origen, “On Prayer,” in Origen, Classics of Western Spirituality, Rowan Greer, trans., NJ: Paulist Press, 1979, p. 99).