Eating, Drinking, Washing, and Rubbing Lamps

I have never seen a Disney movie in a theater. I always saw them on VHS (hehe) after they came out. Let me tell you though, as a kid I didn’t care. I must have watched Aladdin on 1,001 different nights (see what I did there?).

Over the past several years, I’ve really started to identify with the theology of the reformation. Slowly but surely, as I read more I am drawn deeper into a more orthodox understanding of the scriptures. It began first with my conversion to understanding salvation as entirely a gift from God to the point that even faith and repentance are gifts of God (more on that topic at a later date). At this stage of being an FE, I realized that I had different beliefs than almost all of the FE’s around me. It’s kind of odd, I believed in divine monergism (the brand I believed is commonly called Calvinistic predestination, or “Calvinism” for short) before I understood and believed in total depravity, yet it is total depravity that gives sense to the rest of the TULIP system (for the record, though I believe in divine monergism, I’m not a Calvinist any more… again, more on this at a later date).

Once I understood total depravity, I could never again return to seeing salvation as having anything at all to do with any decision that I’ve made or haven’t made. Other FE’s I would talk with just couldn’t see it that way. This topic alone is enough to keep FE’s and reformed believers fighting for hours, but it’s only the beginning of the distinctions between the two. The distinction in reformation theology and FE faiths regarding the dispensation of grace is also something where there’s an awful lot of disagreement.

Reformed believers (those who identify with the more Calvinistic branch of the reformation) generally see grace entirely one-sided, meaning God will pour grace into a man’s life when and how He chooses. Typically, this grace is dispensed in an invisible manner and it is received entirely passively. This is true for both justification and sanctification.

Conversely, FE’s generally see grace as being highly cooperative. It is emphasized that we are the deciding factor in our salvation (because God has done all he can already to save us). In church camp when I was growing up, I often heard the illustration of the “salvation process,” that we are each like a man drowning in deep water and we are thrown a life preserver (Christ) but we must “choose to grasp on to that rope!” Even though the life preserver is not owed to us and is thus an unearned favor, it is still emphasized that we must cooperate by grasping the rope (making a “decision for Christ”). This illustration obviously concerns justification (God’s declaration that he considers us blameless), but there is an analogous bit to sanctification (God setting us apart and making us holy throughout life) as well.

Truly, FE’s are all over the map on their views of grace. It’s a bit like attempting to pin Jell-O to the wall, because some branches of FE-ism are affected by a Roman Catholic-like co-mingling of justification and sanctification, and others are much closer to the Reformed believers but still would place an emphasis on the human will in salvation. Additionally, there exist many shades of color between the FE and Reformed spectrum. One example of this is a Baptist preacher named Paul Washer, a man for whom I used to have tremendous theological respect (because many of the things he says are so true!). Paul Washer is as Calvinistic as they come, but he proudly mingles his sovereign view of God’s acting in salvation with the works of man in a method called preparationism. Essentially, it’s the best (or worst?) of both worlds: you do tangible, or visible things in the hope that God will move in an invisible way upon you and one-sidedly save you (but there is no promise of this!).

Yet for all of the disagreement on these issues between FE’s and the Reformed, there’s a lot of agreement in one respect: it is never emphasized that God often distributes his gracious gifts through physical means. The unseen qualities of the supernatural are emphasized far beyond physical, tangible ways that God works to give grace.

Ok, that’s not entirely true. Both FE’s and the Reformed believe that Christ won our salvation in his physical body on a physical cross. Praise God, I’ve never heard this denied a FE church. Yet in both of these traditions, Christ’s work on the cross is considered to be the exception to the rule that God does not confer spiritual benefit through material means. I think this may stem from FE’s embracing a quasi-Nestorian view of Christ in which the divine nature is dominant over the human nature, but I digress. What’s undeniable is that this emphasis on the unseen dispensation of grace affects both the Reformed and FE views of the sacraments.

The Reformed do have room in their view of the sacraments for an actual conferring of grace but it’s just different than how the Bible describes them. In the Reformed view of the sacraments, you end up receiving grace by having your spirit lifted up to God in heaven (the Supper), or are admitted in a covenant community where one day God will hopefully act invisibly upon you to save you (Baptism), both being invisible workings on your soul by God. Indeed, the Reformed are content to give their own definitions of the sacraments where the scriptures are silent.

While I disagree with FE’s on this point (and it’s a primary reason why I’m a Lutheran), I actually have a scholastic respect for their position on the sacraments. FE’s try their hardest to be in line with the scriptures, and it prevents them from inventing sacramental doctrine that simply cannot be found in scripture. It doesn’t prevent them from simply neglecting or misinterpreting scripture on these topics, though.

I’ve spoken to a wide variety of FE’s on the sacraments. The classic Baptist position is that they are mere symbols of God’s grace. They are not sacraments because they do not confer grace, they are instead termed ordinances. Even here, you have to be careful because some consider that grace is conferred by the performance of these ordinances, but not insofar as a sacramental way, but more because God is pleased when we obey him by celebrating these ordinances.

Having communed with and witnessed baptisms of FE’s who do not hold the classic Baptist position, the best summary I can give of this position is “the sacraments mean whatever you want them to mean.” Unseen, mystical (unscriptural) definitions of the sacraments allow for a lot of wiggle room reminiscent of postmodern definitions of truth. If you want to believe that God confers grace through them, that’s great. However, to suggest that the Lord is locally present in the Supper and that Baptism actually effects (note, effects not affects) salvation is unacceptable.

In FE-ism, and to a large degree among the Reformed, all parties have difficulty accepting the simplicity of Biblical truth and the historical faith: God often works his will through physical means.

FE’s are comfortable talking about the invisible ways God confers grace and may even admit there are some instances in the Bible where physical means were used to achieve a divine goal, but in general the physical and the spiritual worlds do not mingle in that manner. To suggest otherwise to an FE is akin to suggesting that they ought to “rub the lamp and make some wishes.” It’s magic. Drink this wine and take this bread and receive the Lord’s body and blood. Take this bath for forgiveness of sins. Magic.

But they’re not magic. They’re promises of God. They’re the Gospel dispensed through physical means. They’re God (The Word, spoken of in John) united with the physical elements. In the same way that Christ’s human (physical) and divine (spiritual) natures communicate attributes to win our salvation, God often ties blessings and curses to physical things. Consider the following:

  1. God attached a curse to fruit in the garden. Through the physical eating of physical fruit, death came to all.
  2. God spoke to Moses from within a bush.
  3. God took the rite of circumcision quite seriously. In the midst of the story of the plagues in Egypt, God was planning to kill Moses for refusal to apply the sign to his son.
  4. God bound his promise to the blood of lambs in the passover.
  5. God bound his promise to a piece of bronze artwork in the wilderness. Interestingly, this is also an example of how not to demonstrate appreciation for the gifts of God.
  6. The Ark of the Covenant brought with it severe penalties as well as blessings.
  7. God attached his promise to Samson’s hair.
  8. At the Battle of Jericho, God miraculously felled the city wall through trumpets and shouting. Not just any trumpets and shouting, but in the manner he promised that He would.
  9. Jesus applied mud made from his own saliva to a blind man’s eyes, and told the man to go wash, and the blind man was given sight. This is contrasted with another account when Christ healed a lame man with mere words.
  10. Jesus healed many people by them touching his garment.
  11. Through specific physical motions and actions, Jesus heals a deaf man.
  12. In Luke 24, two disciples walk with Christ, but it is hidden from them who it is with them. Later in the evening, when Jesus breaks the bread, the disciples’ eyes are opened to see Christ for who he is. Jesus the miraculously vanishes from in front of them.
  13. In Acts, God used cloths to miraculously heal people… cloths that had merely touched St. Paul’s skin.

It is undeniable that God acts in invisible ways, and ways that cannot be understood. This does not necessitate that God does not act through elements in the creation that he’s made. Indeed, the person of Christ is the ultimate expression of this truth. Knowing that God operates in this manner allows us to truly see the harmony in the biblical passages concerning the sacraments. Knowing this allows us to commune with the blood of Christ, and to take God’s name in Baptism.

And that’s a lot better than three wishes from some creature living in and old lamp that’s buried in the desert.


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  1. Pingback: Boastful Sinner | Why Baptize?

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