by Dan Delzell
Jesus didn't shy away from using earthly means to bestow both physical and spiritual blessings. In His first miracle, He changed water into wine. (John 2:1-11) Our Lord would later multiply loaves of bread to feed the people. (Matthew 14:13-21) And He allowed Mary to anoint His feet with oil. (Mark 14:3-9) Those elements have continued to play a prominent role within Christianity ever since our Lord first started using them.
One of the areas in Scripture where Christians differ is on the nature of the sacraments. I believe much of the variance is due to man's unfortunate tendency to separate spiritual matters from all physical realities.
God didn't have to come up with sacramental elements that are vitally connected to physical and spiritual health, but He did it anyway. And for that matter, God could have decided to create man without a physical body but only a soul. Instead, He united body and soul in such a way that it is practically impossible to separate one from the other.
In spite of God's holistic design, man sure seems intent on trying to keep physical realities and spiritual realities in two separate compartments. I'm not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with our desire "to be in control" of our own spirituality.
And yet in the midst of that desire for control, God "invaded our space" not only with His Son, and His cross, but then also with a few particular elements attached to special promises. The holy One gave Himself over to death for our sins, and the gift just keeps on giving when the bodies and souls of believers intersect with the sacraments which Christ instituted.
What are we to make of such an unusual spiritual dynamic? After all, we prefer to think about just one dimension at a time. Our minds naturally tend to go that way. And then God comes along and provides a multidimensional means for believers to interact with their Savior. This New Testament development involves the combination of certain physical and spiritual elements. At first, this unexpected approach doesn't seem to register on our theological radar.
But as we start to come to terms with this unique and divine arrangement, we can't help but notice the way Scripture places such a high value on the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and also on prayers for healing. The elements of water, wine, bread and oil all come into contact with the bodies of God's people. Hmm. What do you suppose the Lord was up to when He instituted such a tangible approach to spiritual and physical health?
In other words, why didn't God just leave it at belief and be done with it? After all, belief in Christ is the essential thing in order to be forgiven of your sins. So why the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and why the use of oil in healing prayer? (see James 5:14,15)
There are plenty of Christians who view the sacraments as merely "symbolic" of God's grace in our lives. And at first blush, the argument sounds fairly convincing. After all, belief in Christ is all we really need, right? Well, yes and no.
We only need faith in Jesus to be forgiven. (see Romans 3:28) And anyone who trusts Christ as Savior receives God's grace and forgiveness. For example, the thief on the cross who trusted Jesus was forgiven of his sins, even though he was not baptized and he never participated in the Lord's Supper. Nevertheless, he is in heaven today. So that proves it, right? All that matters is faith.
Wait just a minute. If the thief had not died, guess what? He would have proceeded to have his body and soul come into contact with the water and the promise connected to Christian baptism, as well as the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. And at some point, he may have been anointed with oil while receiving healing prayer for his body. So while it is true that he is in heaven without having engaged in the sacraments, it is also true that Jesus instituted the sacraments for the well-being of His people.
"Hold on Pastor Dan. You said the 'well-being' of His people. That seems to imply something 'more' than mere symbolism." Correct. It does indeed.
Think of it this way. If water, wine, bread and oil only symbolize something, then why did God go to all the trouble to establish practices involving elements which come into contact with our bodies? Why would God "risk" having us think there is more than symbolism here, unless of course there truly is something more than just symbolism going on? And why would God attach blessings not only to saving faith, but also to a faith-filled participation of the sacraments? Did God want to confuse us concerning the nature and benefits of the sacraments? Obviously not.
I can understand though why we as Christians are prone to jump to the conclusion that these elements are nothing more than symbolic of spiritual blessings. After all, look at those religious leaders who place much emphasis on communion and baptism, but at the same time seem to be very confused concerning the nature of the Gospel. If they don't teach grace correctly, how in the world do their sacraments bless anyone? In truth, the sacraments do not benefit anyone who denies the message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.
But remember. The water, wine, bread and oil do not belong to Rome, or to any religious institution. They belong to Christ and His church. And my strong hunch is that the majority of spiritually reborn individuals do not attend worship services in a congregation that has an emphasis on the sacraments while lacking a proper understanding of the Gospel. After all, "faith comes from hearing the message" of salvation. (Romans 10:17) And if a religious group isn't proclaiming the Gospel consistently, how many people in their midst are even spiritually reborn in the first place?
But we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because some religious leaders promote the sacraments while missing the Gospel doesn't mean we can blame their error on the sacraments. Instead, the problem lies with those religious leaders who are not placing their full confidence for salvation in the finished work of Christ on the cross. They are striving to "shore up" their standing with God through their earnest and devout religious deeds. And when church leaders are not spiritually reborn through total reliance upon Christ's death, the result is that their hearers are often left to starve spiritually no matter how many times they come into contact with the water, wine, bread and oil.
When the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administrated properly in accordance with our Lord's commands, heaven comes down and God meets with His people in a special way. After all, God invented this approach in order to bless His people.
"Are you saying Pastor Dan that there are physical and spiritual blessings associated with the water, wine, bread and oil?" That is exactly what I am saying because that is what God's Word teaches. Where you have God's command and promise connected to the elements and the sacrament, you have the blessing and the grace of God available to the recipients.
And so yes, heaven comes down to those who trust in Christ alone and who then participate in these God-ordained sacraments with humble and repentant hearts of faith. I didn't say that certain "feelings" come down. Something much deeper is going on in the sacraments, whether a person immediately "feels" something or not. And many times, there isn't some mystical feeling. But don't kid yourself. God always keeps His promises based on His faithfulness, regardless of man's emotions in the moment. That's actually quite comforting and reassuring, wouldn't you say?
"But the sacraments and the elements do nothing substantive. They are only symbolic." Are you sure about that? Do you know for a fact that God doesn't bless his people through the elements which are connected to the promise? Well here is a thought. Try taking a step back for a second and honestly ask yourself this question: Could God work through the elements and the promise to strengthen the soul of the recipient, just as He works through food to strengthen the body of the one who eats it?
"No way, you say. God would never attach a spiritual blessing of any kind to a physical element that is connected to a biblical promise." Oh really.
I must ask this question then. Why this insistence on separating the physical from the spiritual? And why this determination to dismiss the physical aspect and claim that only the spiritual part of the sacrament brings any benefit? I sure am glad God didn't approach it that way when He created man. He placed a high value on both the physical and the spiritual. And when the Son of God took on human flesh, the Lord met man at our level in order to save us.
On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper with an emphasis on His body and blood. On Friday, Christ hung on the cross as His body was crucified. And when Christ rose from the grave, it involved a bodily resurrection. Physical and spiritual suffering on the cross, and a physical and spiritual Lord who rose from the grave. True God and true Man.
What if Jesus had only come to earth "in the spirit" but not in the flesh? In that case, how could He have been nailed to a cross for our salvation? The real presence of Jesus involves both his divine nature as well as his human nature.
Have you ever stopped to consider how the incarnation is played out beautifully in the Lord's Supper? Or is the physical presence of Jesus "bound to heaven" and unable to reach our bodies and our souls during these days when we need Him the most? Is that what your theology has taught you about the real presence of Jesus with believers today? Are you limiting God by an insistence that God could never work through physical elements attached to biblical promises? If so, I am curious how often you or your spiritual leaders anoint the sick with oil as you pray for their healing?
God is much bigger than we sometimes want to make Him.
It was this Savior who instituted baptism as a means of grace for those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior. "Hang on Pastor Dan. What do you mean by "a means of grace" for believers? Well, baptism is either a means of grace, or a work of man. And if baptism truly is "man's first work of obedience" as is commonly taught by those who believe the water is only symbolic, then consider what that would mean for Scripture passages such as Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38. In that line of reasoning, he who believes and "does one good work" will be saved. I don't think so. Don't believe it. That line of thought contradicts everything the New Testament teaches about salvation by grace through faith alone.
So then where does baptism "fit" within Christianity? Is is part of justification, or sanctification? Is it part of the "foundation" of the new birth, or part of the "house" of Christian discipleship? Is baptism part of the "washing" process of body and soul, or part of the "doing" of Christian living? Is baptism God's work upon us and within us, or is it only our response to God's love for us in Christ?
The Bible teaches that baptism is God's work from start to finish. Scripture describes the body of a believer being "washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:22) This is why no one in the Bible is instructed to baptize himself. Baptism gets "done to you." There is a reason God set it up that way. And there is also a very important reason Jesus linked belief and baptism when He stated, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved." (Mark 16:16) Jesus would not have connected belief and baptism to salvation if baptism is essentially man's first work of obedience. You only end up with that idea if you force it into the text.
Through belief and baptism, God washes away the sins of the soul and the body. All of man gets washed, cleansed and justified through belief and baptism. And if a person will approach the Bible openly and honestly without any preconceived notions concerning baptism, this obvious interpretation is easily grasped and accepted.
So is baptism magic? Heaven's no. God doesn't operate in magic. It is below Him. Instead, God operates through grace and through His divine power and blessing.
Allow Hebrews 10:22 to sink into your theological mindset. The blood of Jesus cleanses the soul through faith. The water of baptism washes the body with pure water. You can take God's Word for it. If the water of baptism was meant to be only symbolic, there would have been no reason to have the believer's body come into contact with the water.
God could have easily said, "Simply point to some water and use it as an illustration of spiritual cleansing." Instead, the Lord made sure that man's physical body came into contact with the water of Christian baptism. And if you miss the importance of that fact, you will likely underestimate the significance of a Christian having his "body washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:22)
The same thing is true with the Lord's Supper. Why involve the body? And why keep doing it over and over again? We already had an excellent symbol, and that is the cross where the one-time perfect sacrifice took place. But the Lord gave us more than another symbol. He wanted our bodies to participate in a meal that reaches the whole person. This includes both spiritual and physical benefits. Faith is strengthened when the Lord's Supper is celebrated in remembrance of Christ's death.
The Lord could have simply instructed Christians to hold up a cross as we "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." Instead, God's Word tells us to celebrate the Lord's Supper for that purpose. (see 1 Cor. 11:26) And when we celebrate this meal, we receive bread and wine as well as the Lord's body and blood. We receive this sacrament with our body and soul, and there is no other meal like it in all the world. That's why the first Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper every week. (see Acts 20:7 and Acts 2:42)
When the Christians in Corinth abused the Lord's Supper by their lack of love for one another, they were "guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord." (1 Cor. 11:27) That was not a "symbolic sin." It was a real violation of God's will. And the bodies of these believers suffered as a result of their sin. A number of them became weak and sick. And some of those Christians even died and went to heaven. It's true. (see 1 Cor. 11:29,30) That's what happened to them as a result of their real participation in this real sacrament involving the real presence of our Lord's body and blood. God intended to bless them through this meal, but they chose to make a mockery of the sacrament by the way they were dishonoring one another.
The benefits of the Lord's body and blood isn't limited only to those times when believers are celebrating the Lord's Supper. Far from it. Read our Lord's lengthy description in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. (see John 6:25-59) It is incredible to know that a Christian has "spiritual" contact with the flesh and blood of Jesus all day long.
But did you know there is only one place where the Lord's body and blood comes into sacramental contact with the bodies of believers? That only happens in the Lord's Supper. And even though we don't chew Christ's body or swallow His blood, we nevertheless "make contact" with Christ's body and blood in a sacramental way. That's the way God designed it. And that's why it is so beneficial to believers, and why the first Christians participated in this holy meal together every week.
The spiritual eating Jesus talks about in John 6 goes on all day everyday in the life of a believer, and it is not merely a symbolic eating. It is a real spiritual eating. Likewise, the Lord's Supper involves real eating as well. It is a sacramental eating. During that meal of remembrance, there is both the spiritual eating through faith as well as a sacramental eating of Christ's body and blood.
God's Word declares, "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16) The body and soul of the believer receives the body and blood of Jesus for the strengthening of faith and the assurance of forgiveness and salvation.
So how did we get to a point where so many Christians adopt the "symbolic" interpretation of the sacraments? Very simply, I believe it has been largely an overreaction to the religion of Rome. Tragically, many priests still do not lead people to have the assurance of salvation through faith in the death of Jesus on the cross. This huge oversight harms the souls of people who are thirsty for the assurance of salvation and for unconditional forgiveness through Christ alone. Until a group of professing Christians gets the Gospel right, the sacraments they employ will also miss the mark.
If a Christian was just a soul with no body, there would have been no need for Jesus to institute the sacraments. But He did so with a very practical purpose in mind. After all, no one is more practical than God, and only He knows how best to provide His grace and strength to the bodies and souls of His people.
So go ahead. Rest in His love. Bask in His grace. Rejoice in His salvation. Trust in His death. And participate in baptism and the Lord's Supper as you believe His promises and stand on Christ's victory at the cross.
Embrace the water, wine, bread and oil for the strength they bring to believers, and the peace which flows to the one who knows His sins are forgiven on account of Christ's one-time sacrifice on the cross 2000 years ago.
Come to think of it, the life-giving event of Calvary is just as objective as the elements and the promises of the sacraments. And in a world filled with subjective religious experiences where people are tempted to place faith in their feelings, God chose to meet our need in an objective manner. He gave us the unadulterated Word, an all-sufficient Gospel, an atoning sacrifice, and tangible elements to provide physical and spiritual health for His family.
So think of the sacraments as "God's medicine" for His people. What a mighty and loving God we serve, and what a marvelous way the Lord has entered our realm with His holy presence.