by Al Maxey

Issue #470 ------- January 6, 2011
Salvation is attained not by subscription
to metaphysical dogmas, but solely by
love of God that fulfills itself in action.

Chasdai Crescas {1340-1412}
(A well-known Jewish philosopher)

Is Baptism A Sacrament?
Reflecting on a Doctrinal Devolution
from Visible Sign to Vital Sacrament

If you should desire to get into an intense theological discussion with someone, one that may quickly deteriorate into quite a heated debate, just bring up the topic of baptism. It will not be boring! Few of us question the fact that the NT writings place some significance upon the place of baptism in our spiritual journey. The nature and extent of that significance, and its relation to our salvation, is where our varying views tend to inflame our passions. Is baptism merely a sign? Is it purely symbolic? Or, is baptism something far more?! An "ordinance" of the church, perhaps, or a "sacrament." Greatly complicating this discussion is the fact that each of these noted theological terms may hold different nuances of meaning for various disciples of Christ. What exactly is an ordinance? A sign or symbol? A sacrament? And just how do we know which, if any, of these truly apply to baptism? This battle has been waged within Christendom from the first century onward, and the whole issue remains just as unsettled in the minds of many today as it has ever been. Various denominational groups wrestle with each other over the place and purpose of baptism, but they also struggle within their own ranks over these matters.

Although we, within the Stone-Campbell Movement, tend to shy away from the term "sacrament," we have nevertheless been frequently accused, and not without some justification, of embracing a sacramental view of baptism! Jay Guin, a dear brother-in-Christ, and a Christian author I admire greatly, quoted the following from the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, "Although the term 'sacrament' is virtually never used in orthodox Church of Christ theology, it is nonetheless clear that there is a sacramental theology! While Catholics have seven sacraments and orthodox Protestants have two, Churches of Christ have only one: baptism" [Jay Guin, Are We Sacramentalists? - Introduction, March 29, 2008]. Jay, in a later article, opines, "It's hard to deny the sacramental character of baptism within the Churches of Christ" [Are We Sacramentalists? - Baptism, March 31, 2008]. Why?! Because "the Churches of Christ have always taught that baptism is the event during which salvation occurs" [ibid]. Thus, we have historically insisted upon "a sacramental understanding" of baptism, "while refusing to use the word 'sacrament'" [ibid], a theological "dance" that has been duly noted, and quite often derided, by our religious neighbors! The Baptists, by way of example, have rather frequently characterized us as "baptismal regenerationists," which is just another way of characterizing us, with regard to our traditional perception and practice of baptism, as rigid sacramentalists.

Before getting too much more deeply into this study, we need to define some terms. First, it needs to be noted that the word "sacrament" never occurs in the English Bible, but comes to us from the Latin Bible, in which the Greek word musterion, from which we get words like "mystery" and "mysterious," was translated with the word "sacramentum." "Although none of these passages" in which this Latin word appears "uses 'mystery' to refer to baptism, Lord's Supper, or any other religious rite, the later church began to make that identification" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1218], and therefore began to ascribe to these select practices of the church a much deeper, somewhat "mysterious," spiritual significance! The history of the rise and evolution of this theology is a fascinating one, but is well beyond the scope of this present study. I have dealt with it briefly, as it pertains to the Lord's Supper, in Reflections #114 -- "The Lord's Supper: A Brief Historical Overview," and then in somewhat more depth in my new book One Bread, One Body. Notice the following excerpt from my article and book, which sentiment could just as easily, and equally, be expressed with regard to baptism:

A "sacrament," as it came to be perceived in greater Roman Catholicism, and by extension in much of Christendom, at least until the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, was a religious rite regarded as "sacred" because its observance was "essential to salvation" and the rite itself was the "means of conferring grace" from God to the participant. The elements of the Lord's Supper, for example, were perceived to have within them the ability to actually confer immortality to the recipient, thus necessitating great caution lest some fall to the floor, be eaten by a mouse, thus bestowing eternal life upon that rodent. "Sacramentalism," then, is the conviction that the sacrament itself is inherently efficacious, and is the means through which God bestows some grace. With this perception in mind, a "sacrament usually refers to a religious ritual which is believed to carry a special healing or saving power" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1217]. Thus, baptism is sacramentally perceived as "a channel of divine grace into the heart and life of the believer" [ibid, p. 1218]. As the very means of salvation, it thereby becomes absolutely essential to salvation in sacramental theology, and those who fail to perform the ritual precisely according to the group's established laws and regulations are eternally damned, regardless of what other redeeming qualities they might possess. This is why in some of the more extremely legalistic and patternistic groups one will actually see men stationed around the baptistery to ensure all the procedures are properly practiced (after all, sacramental imprecision equates to eternal damnation -- God help that poor soul whose toe or finger or elbow breaks the surface before the immersion is completed, or who takes the plunge without the "right formula" of words being pronounced beforehand). If your very salvation depends on and is conferred by water baptism, then it had better be "done right." One tiny flaw in the sacrament and the flow of saving grace is shut off.

As utterly ridiculous as the above thinking sounds to most reasoning disciples of Christ, it is nevertheless quite common within many segments of Christendom, and is especially rampant within the more conservative, fundamentalist denominations. The Churches of Christ, I am embarrassed to admit, have a reputation for being among the worst, although I am very pleased to report this is changing rapidly and dramatically in our fellowship as my brethren are taking off their sectarian blinders and discovering what the Scriptures actually teach on a number of issues in which, previously, divine Truth took a backseat to human Tradition. Equally extreme is the view that the sacrament has saving power in and of itself, even in the absence of personal faith on the part of the participant. Forcing the "heathen" to be baptized as they were surrounded by sword- and spear-bearing "soldiers of Christ" during the Crusades, is just one example. Almost as bad, and just about as "mercenary," are those "crusaders" and "campaigners" today who boast of taking a complete stranger "from doorstep to baptistery in 15 minutes!!" (a claim I myself have actually heard a well-known evangelist in our own fellowship make -- and to my absolute horror)!! Such thinking only minimally, if truly at all, convicts the lost of their need for a deep relationship with and commitment to the Lord, but instead seeks to convict them of the essentiality of "getting to the water" ... and quickly!! After all, THAT is where the power lies to save them (or so they believe).

In time, as more and more Christians gained access to the Scriptures, and as they began studying these writings for themselves, a growing dissatisfaction with the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church arose, and this included the whole sacramental system that had been developed and exploited by the clergy caste. Reformers began to reduce the number of supposed sacraments, with most Protestant groups today embracing only two -- Baptism and the Lord's Supper. They denounced that the efficacious power of the sacraments came "ex opere operato" -- essentially by the very fact of said sacrament being administered. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, openly denied that God worked through the sacraments to impart grace. His thinking has had quite an impact upon that segment of Christendom which has rejected the sacramental view!! Today, "many evangelical Christians shy away from the word 'sacrament' in favor of the word 'ordinance'" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1218]. "Thinking it unscriptural, some early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement avoided the term 'sacrament,' preferring the word 'ordinance,' which they (mistakenly) believed was a scriptural term for baptism and the Lord's Supper" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 663]. Campbell's conviction was "that the immersion of believers (like the Lord's Supper) was a universally binding apostolic injunction basic to the unity of the church" [ibid]. Most people in the Churches of Christ have accepted this view of the Lord's Supper, but a great many struggle with accepting this view of baptism. In their way of thinking it's nothing less than the "precise point of salvation," with salvation being impossible without it. Thus, they regard it as more than an "ordinance" (which view they do accept with respect to the Lord's Supper). Instead, it is regarded as a sacred act by which God conveys His gift of salvation. That makes baptism a sacrament, although "sacramental terminology is still not widely used in churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition" [ibid].

The non-sacramental view of both baptism and the Lord's Supper is that they are "signs of covenant promise" that very closely, in many ways, parallel circumcision and Passover under the old covenant. These new signs, therefore, bear special significance to the Christian believer (whether Jew or Gentile), serving as "historical actualizations of what Jesus accomplished in His life and ministry" [ibid, p. 257]. The bread and wine represent (do not actually become) the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, and our immersion in water is a representation of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As believers participate in both these new covenant acts, they proclaim an enormously powerful and emotionally moving message of faith, hope and love!! St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) characterized baptism and the Lord's Supper as being "visible words." They are thus testimonies in which we personally participate. The apostle Paul touched on this, with respect to the Lord's Supper, when he wrote, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor. 11:26) -- "visible words." It is felt by many believers that this very same principle applies with respect to baptism, which they understand to be a believing disciple's dynamic testimony of faith in the powerful working of God in raising Jesus from the tomb. "They are thus visible words which, as adjuncts and seals of the preached word, confirm and stimulate the faith of participants. ... Taking a more concrete form than the preached word, they make a wider appeal to the senses" [ISBE, vol. 4, p. 257].

Perhaps the major question that has been studied and debated down through the centuries by Christians everywhere, and which is studied and debated to this very day, is "whether the divine grace is conveyed simply by a correct performance of the rite, or whether the recipient must have an active faith and make a personal response to the power of God's Spirit" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1218]. The rigid sacramentalist will insist that the power to save resides within the sacrament of baptism itself, where God works through baptism to confer this grace of life. On the other side of the theological spectrum are those who say one is saved entirely by faith alone, and thus baptism is not really necessary. Somewhere in the middle are those who view baptism as an "ordinance" of the church -- i.e., it is necessary to be baptized in obedience to the Lord's command, but it's not necessary to the acquiring of salvation itself, which is "by grace through faith." Scattered along the spectrum one will then discover countless variations on these three. Further, any disciple who declares the placement of his own theological stand on this spectrum will immediately open himself up to attack by those to his right and left. Such is the passionate nature of this issue.

I was raised in a faith-heritage that primarily taught a sacramental view of baptism. Although many are now moving away from such a theology, I fear a great many of those within this heritage are still bound by this thinking. When I first moved to my present location in NM from Hawaii, about 13 years ago, an elderly brother in the congregation filled in for me one Sunday morning when I was gone (I believe I might have been on vacation). Later, when I returned, I was informed that he had stated in his sermon that if a person confessed his faith in Jesus, repented of his sins, and was standing in the baptistery, but died suddenly one second before being baptized, that person would go straight to hell. I was horrified. That is making baptism a sacrament. Salvation is NOT by grace through faith, but is at the point one's nose breaks the surface of the water in the baptistery, according to this teaching, which I believe to be nothing other than an evil, hideous false doctrine!! Brethren, we are either saved by grace through faith, or we are not. If we are not, but are saved by precise performance of sacraments, then we had better get a complete list of these sacraments and we had better learn the countless laws and regulations associated with each. If our salvation depends on knowledge and performance, we'd better get both absolutely right, for a failure in any specific of any sacrament will stop the flow of grace, and that will result in our damnation.

I am going to be very open with you, brethren, which will likely inspire some and infuriate others. I refuse to subscribe to the sacramentalist view of baptism! After much study and reflection, I believe this doctrine to be contrary to the teachings of God's Word. I do not believe that we can dogmatically affirm that one's baptism is the precise point in time when God imparts eternal salvation to a believing, penitent disciple of Christ, although I DO firmly believe that God has ordained water baptism as a visible manifestation and proclamation of one's faith, and thus He expects us to submit to His expectation in this matter. It is my conviction that genuine faith WILL evidence itself in baptism, as well as in repentance, confession, loving others, observing the Lord's Supper, etc. A willful refusal of one to submit to any of these commands of our Lord reflects, in my view, an absence of saving faith. Saving faith shows itself (James 2). If you SAY you have faith, God expects you to SHOW it -- and baptism is one such evidentiary act of faith. My position is stated quite well by the Holman Bible Dictionary: "When Paul wrote of being 'buried with Christ' in baptism, he certainly meant that this visible rite demonstrates our spiritual union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection! It is not, however, an automatic or mechanical transmission of divine grace. It depends upon the inward faith and spiritual response of the believer" [p. 1218].

If baptism is a sacrament through which God imparts the gift of His saving acceptance, then the Cornelius account in Acts 10-11 makes no sense whatsoever!! In this historical narrative we find God pouring out His Spirit upon this man and his household, thus demonstrating powerfully for all to see His divine acceptance of them, just as He had accepted the upper room disciples in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Just like their brethren in Jerusalem, these were "speaking in tongues and exalting God" (Acts 10:46). Peter then says, "Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" (vs. 47). Yes, Cornelius and his household were all expected to comply with this command of God the Father, just as believing disciples have for the past two millennia. Did they comply in order to receive God's acceptance? No! They had already received that by grace through faith. But, as a visible expression of that faith, our God has ordained baptism. No disciple with genuine faith will refuse it, and Cornelius and his household most certainly did not. The message they proclaimed in those "visible words" (baptism) was then taken back to Jerusalem and shared. We today "proclaim" the Lord's death, burial and resurrection, as well as our expectation of His return, in baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Are there actual blessings associated with both of these symbolic representations in which we, as true believers, participate? Absolutely! They each imprint upon our hearts and minds, far better than mere words, the powerful realities of our Lord's atoning work. As one is buried in the "watery grave," and then is "resurrected" from that tomb, one cannot help but be personally impacted for life by the experience; it is one that the participant will never forget, nor will those who witness this powerful declaration of faith, hope and love. As one breaks the loaf and takes the cup, consuming these physical elements, one also proclaims a powerful message, not only to his/her own heart and mind, but to those around him/her. God gives us these memorials of faith to keep ever before us who we are and Whose we are. Let's not make more of these spiritually significant events than we should, but let's be careful that we don't make less of them than was intended. In so doing, we live within His purpose for our lives as a devoted people of faith.

Special CDs for 2010
A number of very special CD offers are now
available for purchase, including some never
before offered!! Just click on the link above
for additional information on how to order.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution and Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)

Readers' Reflections

New Book Just Released --- Dr. Dallas Burdette, a good friend, and a loyal supporter of my Reflections ministry, as well as the man who wrote the Foreword to my own new book -- One Bread, One Body -- has just released his latest work: Biblical Preaching and Teaching -- Volume 3. This is a 732 page hardback book dealing with an important topic, and it is the 3rd volume in this series by Dr. Burdette. Dallas honored me by asking me to write the Foreword for this book, which I was more than pleased to do. It has been published by Xulon Press. I strongly urge you to acquire a copy for your library (as well as the first two volumes of this series). You will not be disappointed.

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Dear Brother Al, I recently heard a preacher make the very same misapplication of Colossians 2:12 that you pointed out in your Reflections article titled "Faith in the Working of God." When I pointed out to him that he had missed the point of what Paul was saying, he became very agitated and unreasonable. He then tried to parallel this passage with John 6:28.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, I just wanted to thank you for your comments recently in the online dialogue section following your latest article in the most recent edition of Wineskins magazine. I do not agree with many of the ideals which you express, but you may be interested to know that there is much that you write in your weekly Reflections that makes a great deal of sense to me. Although we do not, and likely will not, see eye-to-eye on many issues (yes, I'm a "legalist" -- in fact, to this day I can't bring myself to drink grape juice outside of the worship service), the simple fact that we do not agree does not frighten me, nor is it a sticking point that means we cannot engage in dialogue with one another. The reason what you write is of some interest to me is that I spend much time considering the "Why?" of what I believe, as well as the method I use in interpreting the Scriptures, which, from your writings, appears to be a passion of yours as well. May the Lord bless and keep you, brother.

From an Elder in Texas:

Brother Al, I just read your featured article -- A Time of New Beginnings: Emerging From Chaos to Community -- in the January 2011 issue of "These Three Remain," which is the publication of One Body Ministries International. This was a very inspiring piece, and I intend to recommend it to as many disciples as I can. What you have written needs to be heard by ALL of God's people! God bless you for your courage, Al, and I pray that He will protect you from all those who would love to silence you.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, Your Reflections article today ("Faith in the Working of God") is powerful. Just before reading it, I had read in this morning's newspaper about former President George Bush, and his wife Laura Bush, attending a function here yesterday with Billy Graham, at the Billy Graham Library, for a book signing (an event attended by over a thousand people). The paper declared that even in office, President Bush never hid his faith, a fact not lost on admirers. So, today, I have heard from both President Bush and Al Maxey how faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ changes the heart of the believer!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Thank you for your good work in explaining and sharing God's love and grace! Your article "Faith in the Working of God" was excellent, as always! Have a wonderful Christmas, and may the next year be even better than the last.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, Ten million "Amens" to your study: "Faith in the Working of God." I wish everyone in our faith-heritage would read this and carefully contemplate what you wrote. I agree with you, brother -- God help us if we miss this truth by propagating a tradition that focuses on our working, rather than His working!!

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I loved your latest Reflections. Thanks, Al, for your valuable insights into that wonderful journey of faith that creates children of God.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, I just finished reading "Faith in the Working of God." What a blessing it was!! Baptism is one of the most controversial issues, not only in Churches of Christ, but among all the other denominations too. It bothers me greatly that I lived much of my life, and taught others in Bible classes and from pulpits, that saving power existed in the act of baptism. God forgive me for being so blinded to His grace!! Thank you for this article, brother, and for helping me to see what the Bible clearly teaches on this wonderful subject. Also, I have just begun reading your new book One Bread, One Body. Happy New Year, brother! Keep the faith, and may God continue to bless you and Shelly, and may He lead you through 2011 as you minister to your congregation there in New Mexico, and also as you minister to the many thousands of readers who think so dearly of you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Al, Enclosed find a check for your 2010 Reflections CD (volume 8). Thank you so much for all your Reflections, and for the influence you continue to have on my life! You will never know!!

From a D.Min. in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, Thank you for your thoughtful and probing Reflections. I know you catch a lot of grief from various segments of our fellowship. The only thing I can say is that most folks find it easier to sit on the sidelines and complain than to dig into the wonderful Word of God. May your tribe increase and be blessed.

From a Reader in Ohio:

Brother Al, Just a quick note to say Hello, and to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas. We are looking forward to seeing and hearing you speak again this spring at The Tulsa Workshop. Keep up your usual great work, Al. Again, thanks for all you do!! God has certainly blessed us all by it!!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Brother Al, Thanks for your study on our faith in God's working. God says it again and again; how can anyone miss it? In the same way that the dead cannot make himself alive, and the unconceived cannot cause his own conception, and the creature cannot create itself, and an orphan cannot effect his own adoption, even so an ungodly sinner cannot broker a deal with God based on what he knows or does or promises to do.

From a Reader in Barbados:

Brother Al, "Faith in the Working of God" was as good a summary as I have ever come across! It is the message that must be given to a world that needs Christ as the Savior. Thanks for expounding it in its true biblical context, and in such a way that anyone who recognizes his lost state may, by faith, cross that bridge leading to fulfillment in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come. Thanks also for providing the link to that meaningful Christmas song: "Where's The Line To See Jesus?" A blessed Christmas to you and yours, and may the New Year bring greater vistas, particularly in the ministry to which you have been called.

From a Pastor in South Africa:

Dear Brother Al Maxey, By way of introduction, I pastor a small congregation in South Africa. I am also an environmental and human rights activist who has been fighting against the multinational exploitation of my people in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. I have decided to start an online magazine, and I am currently researching and writing articles ahead of the first three issues (which will come out early in 2011). The first issue will be on "Christian Education -- Sunday Schools in Today's Churches." In the course of doing some research on this topic I came across your article: "Raikes' Ragged Regiment: Reflecting on the Sunday School and Non-Sunday School Movements" -- Reflections #184. I would like to ask your permission to use that article in my first issue, as it addresses the whole history of Sunday Schools in some depth, and also because I'm convinced I will never find a better article on this than what you have already written. Bro. Maxey, I thank God for your life and for His grace upon you. I must confess that I admire your style of writing a lot!! As a young and upcoming writer, I intend to pattern my own style after yours!

From a Minister in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, Your article "Suggesting Another Hermeneutic: Inquiry into an Interpretive Methodology" (Reflections #126) has been extraordinarily helpful to me!! I have adapted your points in that article into four lessons that I would like to use in a class I'm teaching. I have copied a lot of your wording in these lessons, and have given you credit for them, but I first want to have your approval for using this material in my class. I have attached these four lessons in Word documents for you to examine. Thank you for your work -- it is blessing lives!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, My week is never quite complete without your insightful, well-researched articles! You are truly an inspiration to so many of us who have sought the TRUTH about biblical teachings for most of our lives. I am wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, and all the blessings that only God can provide for your New Year.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, When I saw your Reflections come in, I immediately got up and got another cup of coffee! Your work requires as much thoughtful participation by the reader as it does in preparation by its author.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Al, I am your admirer, and greatly appreciate what you are doing. I look forward to reading your Reflections every week. "Faith in the Working of God" is an article that is needed in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. I feel, as do you, that many of our people think that they are saved by their obedience when it comes to baptism.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Bro. Al, Thank you for publishing The Maxey-Broking Debate on the topic of Patternism!! I was a Church of Christ preacher for 10 years, but I resigned from that work 20 years ago (and from the Churches of Christ about 3 years ago) as a result of taking a second look at the very topic of your debate with Darrell Broking.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dearest Brother Al, I know that you know that I was once a member of your church heritage back in the early 70's. I have strong memory and emotional ties to the Churches of Christ, and thus I truly want to see you succeed in your effort to bring your church heritage more into line with Christ's will. I pray for you always!!

From a Pastor in Illinois:

Brother Al, Grace and Peace to you! I just finished reading your excellent article "Sitting in the Seat of Moses" (Reflections #284) and wanted to pause and thank you for your teaching! I can deeply empathize with your struggles with your detractors, as I have a few of my own!! I appreciate your scholarship and fidelity to the Word. Keep up the good work, and don't grow weary in well-doing, for you will indeed reap a quiet harvest of righteousness if you don't ever quit. It's like Chesty Puller said at the Chosin Reservoir -- "We're surrounded. That simplifies things. All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us ... they can't get away this time!!" Go sic 'em, my fellow spiritual warrior!!

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