Already / Not Yet
External / Internal
Visible / Invisible
The One / The Many
Baptism / Communion
When Jesus came, His ministry on earth provided the foundation of the church, a visible, earthly, external, existing-in-the-present organization. He told His disciples to spread that organization throughout the world, making disciples by baptizing and teaching them all that He had commanded (Matthew 28:18). He gave them government, procedures and ceremonies. One of the things He had commanded them was to partake of the Lord’s Supper, in remembrance of Him, looking forward to the time when He would come again (Luke 14:20). In all of the accounts of the Supper, Jesus emphasizes that He will not eat of the bread or the fruit of the vine again until everything is fulfilled- it has an intensely forward-looking focus.
That means that in this present age, we have an important dual focus and expectation. The dichotomies listed above all express different aspects of this dual reality, which is created by the fact of the age of transition we are currently in. The church is a present reality which is transforming the world, but the full reality of the kingdom is not here and will not be here until He comes again (already / not yet). Membership in that visible church and participation in its fellowship is therefore vital, but what that membership and participation calls us to is true internal faith in Christ and repentance from sin (external / internal). That visible institution is therefore important, and cannot be despised or set aside with impunity; yet simply being an outward member is not only not of itself saving, it ultimately brings a greater judgment on those who are members of the outward body but lack true faith and repentance. Membership in the invisible church is the goal (visible / invisible). Therefore, the one universal church is of great importance, but so are our individual contributions to that, our personal faith, our individual relationship with God (the one / the many).
This truth lies at the heart of Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians. In particular, in chapter 10, he warns them to consider the example of Israel. By outward signs and experiences they were all part of the body; they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea. That “baptism” made them a nation. Yet many of them did not possess true repentance and faith, and thus perished. They failed to draw the lesson from the eating of sacrifices that they should have, that their outward membership in the body would ultimately be damning if not also accompanied with true faith and repentance. So too, the Corinthians were warned. The story of Israel is an example to us, he says. The Corinthians were struggling with antinomianism, libertinism, the belief that they could live as they pleased and still consider themselves united to Christ. But the message of the bread and wine of the communion was the communion with Christ they were to have, and how could they have that fellowship with Christ and fellowship with demons at the same time? By participating in sinful idolatrous activities, they were fellowshipping with demons, and those two fellowships were incompatible.
So we are a temple to God, built of living stones. The temple is important, and so are the stones. We are saved as members of God’s people, His holy nation, but it is our own faith that determines whether we are truly part of that nation.
Thus we see that the two sacraments testify to us of these same two dichotomies. Baptism focuses on our status as members of God’s covenant community, the external body of God’s people. It is the sign that initiates us into the covenant people. It calls us to faith, a living active union with Christ which can only be had by faith, a truth which the Lord’s Supper testifies to us. Christ gave us two sacraments for a reason; baptism looks back at our cleansing by the blood of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving us new life, just as passing through the Red Sea gave birth to Israel as a nation. The Lord’s Supper involves our active participation and fellowship in that union, looking intensely forward to the consummation of the kingdom, when He comes again, just as the Passover symbolized their deliverance from Egypt and their journey across the wilderness to the promised land; the unleavened bread that they ate reminded them of the journey, and the feast of Tabernacles called to their mind God’s preservation of them along the way. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, “we do show the Lord’s death, till he comes.”
It is therefore most appropriate that children born into the church be marked with the sign of baptism. They are “holy”, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14. The promise is to them, as Peter says in Acts 2:39. Of such is the kingdom of God.
But many are called, and only a few chosen. The evangelist Matthew quotes Jesus using that expression twice (Matthew 20:16; Matthew 22:14), both as conclusions to parables about workmen of a master, workmen who ultimately fall short of what is required and therefore come under judgment. Just being a member of the house isn’t sufficient. One must be a true son. One must truly feed on Christ’s body and drink of His blood. Thus, those who partake are called to examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28), that they truly discern the body of Christ, understanding what it means that He died on our behalf and rose again. False members will eat and drink judgment to themselves.
Many emphasize really only one aspect of this dual truth. On the one hand is the Anabaptist tradition which tends to put all the weight on the future, the individual, the invisible. The church to them is a body of regenerate believers; only those who truly have faith, that can be proven or discerned, can be regarded as actual members of the church. To them, the question, “Is someone a Christian?” means, are they truly saved, will they pass judgment when they die, are they true believers? They will only baptize those that are old enough to make what they consider to be a believable profession of faith. People in this branch of the church often seem somewhat ambivalent about the visible church, or even neglect it entirely, believing that their own private mediations on the things of God are sufficient. The question of what is or is not a true church is often not an important one. Sacraments are generally neglected or downplayed, tradition is ignored and the authority of the individual believer is supreme. Their focus tends to be on the “not yet”- what will happen when Jesus returns. This branch of the church is very influential in the non-Roman Catholic part of American Chrstianity.
On the other hand are the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths and their related branches, which emphasize mostly or entirely the external. Membership in the true church is everything, and that true church is discerned by external marks; in the case of the Roman Catholic, it is fellowship with the bishop of Rome, and in the Eastern Orthodox, it is the apostolic succession of the bishops and acceptance of the ecumenical creeds. Individual faith is not as emphasized by many on this side of the divide- the more important thing is membership and participation in the outward life of the body. Sacraments are intensely important, often seen by those on this side of the divide as mediating grace of themselves in some way. Tradition is crucial. To those in this group, the question, “Am I a Christian” is answered simply by saying, “Are you baptized? Are you in good standing with the church?” That is the only relevant answer to the question. On this side, baptism of babies is routine, and infant or very early communion is also common (the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox practice infant communion, and Roman Catholics usually celebrate “First Communion” at age seven or eight, with a requirement to basically articulate what the Mass is.) Their focus is often on the “now”- on the impact of the church on culture and nations, and their duties in the present age.
Both sides have their strengths as well. The Anabaptist side is strong in emphasizing the personal and the importance of one’s own knowledge and walk with the Lord. The Roman Catholic / Orthodox side is strong at recognizing the means that God has used in history to bring about the salvation of His people, and the importance of being part of God’s historical project.
Our salvation is always and only in Jesus, and Jesus has instituted means of accomplishing that salvation. On the one hand, if we neglect the means that God has appointed and put in the church, focusing entirely on the internal, spiritual relationship, then the Savior will easily become a projection of our own sinful imaginations. On the other hand, if we focus entirely on the means, we run the risk of failing to see the Savior that those means are there to point us to, the Savior in whom the means call us to have faith. We will put our faith in those means, rather than in Christ.
This is a matter of degrees, of course. On both sides of the external / internal divide, some err more than others. Counterexamples and exceptions can be of course cited, because people are complex and faith traditions are very complex. Yet I think overall, the broad tendencies are there. The solution must be a balance between the two, for we are in the last days. The church is established; the king has come; the Spirit has been poured out. But the world is still full of tares. The battle rages on. Our hope lies in the future, not in the present. For our Lord is coming again, and with Him the consummation of the kingdom. Present / future; now / not yet; visible / invisible.
I believe the Reformed faith at its best gets this right. And it is not as simple as the sacraments, but the sacraments are, I believe, the canary in the coalmine. The sacraments do not of themselves determine the state of the church, but they can show us the state of the church.
In the Reformed faith, we baptize babies, recognizing the reality of the visible church and the outward means. Our infants are part of that church; they have the status as members of the true Israel, and just as those babies in Israel were circumcised demonstrating that they were part of the covenant, so too should the church, the assembly of the firstborn, the Israel of God, recognize the membership of its infants.
But mere outward membership is not everything; without faith, that membership will be a judgment and not a blessing. Thus, the Reformed faith withholds communion until the child is able to express his own individual faith in a mature way, calling that child to recognize the importance of discerning the body and committing to that true, internal fellowship, and the ongoing repeated observance of that Supper continues to call all of us not to rest in our status, but to be continually called to repentance, to renew our vows, to turn from sin and to God every day of our lives. That Supper calls us to be what we are. The Reformed faith also recognizes and practices discipline, fencing that table from those that would partake unworthily, either from ignorance or rejection of the truths the church teaches.
Thus, the means of grace are respected; the visible church is affirmed; the present Lordship of Jesus Christ is celebrated. At the same time, the future salvation is anticipated; the indispensable importance of personal and vital faith is emphasized; and the necessity of the individual, internal, spiritual relationship with the Savior is taught.
Our Lord gave us two sacraments for a reason. One initiates us into the covenant, happens once, and belongs to all those who are part of the covenant community, whether by birth or by conversion. The other ratifies our personal interest in the covenant, happens repeatedly and often, and belongs to all those who truly belong by personal faith to that savior, who truly discern His broken body and shed blood, who truly participate in that spiritual fellowship.