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The Necessity of Word and Sacrament

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Posted by Marc Lloyd, 8 Apr 2020

Marc Lloyd considers the distinctions between the necessity of the word and the necessity of the sacraments.

Previous posts in this series: Communion at Home, Coronavirus and Communion.

The difficulties of receiving Holy Communion at the moment might remind us what we mean by the necessity of word and sacrament and provoke us to theological reflection on them.

In what follows, I want to argue that both the word and the sacrament are necessary but in different ways or senses. I hope it will become clear that for the Reformed, we can, if we must, live without the Supper for a while, but the Word of God is far more essential to our life and health.

The ordinary necessity of the sacraments for the health of the church
Almost all Christians have said that the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion are necessary. They are not dispensable and are more than desirable. They are necessary because Jesus commanded them, and he would not command what is not needed. They are ordinarily necessary for us, that is, to the health of the church. (See for example the discussion in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 19th topic, 2nd question, vol 3, p343-345)

But the sacraments are not absolutely necessary to salvation. It is possible to be saved without them, as it would seem the thief on the cross was. Had he known about them, I guess he would have been ready and desirous to be baptised. He certainly had the substance of which the sacrament speaks (union with Christ) but the fact is he was not, it seems safe to assume, actually baptised. It would probably be confusing to think of him as somehow “spiritually” (but not physically) baptised.

The sacraments are ordinarily necessary to our salvation and Christian life. Alongside other means of grace, such as the preaching of the word, Christian fellowship and prayer, God uses them to keep his faithful people and bring them to glory. They are not grounds of our salvation but instruments for it, in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.

But if necessity dictates, we need not fear missing out on salvation because we must either permanently, or for a time, miss out on the sacraments. Christian believers should not think that the salvation of an unbaptised child who dies in infancy is in doubt. And neither should we fear the failure of our walk with Christ if we are unavoidably deprived of the Lord’s Supper. 

The absolute necessity of the word
Of course there are several possible meanings of “the Word of God” in the Bible and in theology. For example:
(1) The Word, the eternal Second person of the Trinity, the self-expression of God who became Incarnate;
(2) The saving word or message of the gospel;
(3) The written word of Scripture, either entirely or in part;
(4) The preached word.

When we think about the Lord’s Supper, other words of God are also involved:
(5) Jesus’s commands to celebrate Communion;
(6) Jesus’s original words of institution of the Lord’s Supper;
(7) Particular words of consecration and/or administration at the Supper;

When we think of these words of God, it is clear that they have different kinds of necessity. They are more necessary that the sacraments because in different ways the sacraments depend on them.

God the Word, the Son, has a different kind of necessity from either the Bible or the sacraments. He is eternal and necessary in his essence. Without him there would be no creation, nothing. He is the indispensable Bread of Life. His people depend on him for all things in a different way from the way in which they depend on their Bibles or their services of Holy Communion. We are always in Christ, in the Spirit by faith, if we are believers, whether or not we have Bibles, preachers or Holy Communion to hand.

The word or message of the gospel has a kind of absolute necessity which even the Bible lacks. Without God speaking this word, without his saving revelation, salvation would be impossible. We cannot reach God by our own unaided effort or on the basis of general or natural revelation alone. God must speak and save.

Although the Bible is sufficient and every word of it is necessary to the health of the people of God, some parts are obviously more necessary than others. John 3:16 is much more necessary than the details of Levitical rituals, although we need those too. A Christian who lacked a Bible, or part of a Bible, would be severely deprived, but if he has heard and believed the good news that Jesus is Lord, he would get to glory. In a sense, that is all we really need. 

The word read and preached has a different kind of necessity to the sacraments. Even those who believe with Calvin in weekly Communion, and that word and sacrament ought to be kept together in the Lord’s Day service, agree that we could have a service without the sacraments, but not without the word. All our worship is rightly a response to the word of God (logically at least). There can be no sacraments without the word, but on occasion there can be word without the sacraments. Properly considered, our speaking to God in praise and prayer is always answering his prior word to us.

The necessity of the word for the sacraments
Article 25 tells us that: “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” The word of Jesus’s direct command is required to make something a dominical sacrament of the gospel. That is one reason why confirmation is not a sacrament: Jesus did not command it, even though it might be defended as a worthy practice.

In addition to The Prayer Book, The Church of England has used Common Worship services of Holy Communion since 2000, which offer a certain amount of variety and flexibility.  David Peterson discusses them from an Evangelical perspective here.

There has been some debate about what is of the essence. For example, it has been increasingly common to think that some form of epiclesis (a prayer to God to “send your Holy Spirit…”) invoking the work of the Holy Spirit either on the people, or the elements, or both is important, although the Prayer Book lacks it. Whilst we should certainly pray for God’s work in us, we are not looking to him to change the substance of the elements, as if we believed in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

It seems to me, theologically speaking, one could have a service of Holy Communion which used a relatively simple form of words, based on say 1 Corinthians 11.

There would be a narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Ros Clarke has discussed the function of the words of institution in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper here.

Even on a Reformed view of the Supper, there should be some words of consecration where the ordinary bread and wine deliberately are set apart for this special use in the Lord’s Service.

In medieval times, the priest would often mumble the words of consecration in Latin which perhaps he, and certainly many of the people, did not really understand. Calvin stressed that the words of consecration are essential not as a spell acting on the elements, but for edification they must be heard and understood by the people:

nothing more preposterous could happen in the Supper than for it to be turned into a silent action, as has happened under the pope’s tyranny…. those promises by which consecration is accomplished are directed not to the elements themselves but to those who receive them…. Here we should not imagine some magic incantation, supposing it enough to have mumbled the words, as if they were to be heard by the elements; but let us understand that these words are living preaching which edifies its hearers, penetrates into their very minds, impresses itself upon their hearts and settles there, and reveals its effectiveness in the fulfilment of what it promises.

(Institutes 4.17.39)

He insists that: “we ought to understand the word not as one whispered without meaning and without faith, a mere noise, like a magic incantation, which has the force to consecrate the element (Institutes 4.14.4).

The Reformers’ great emphasis was on right reception of the Supper. We feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. For this, words of administration and exhortation are needed.

As with the quotation above from Calvin, Reformed theologians have stressed the necessity of the preaching of the word of God to the sacrament. Again, Calvin said: the word “should, when preached, make us understand what the visible word [of the sacrament] means.” (Institutes 4.14.4) “The sacraments take their virtue from the Word, when it is preached intelligibly” (Short Treatise on The Lord’s Supper; Calvin’s Theological Treatises p161)

Conclusion: The necessity of word and sacrament again
Word and sacrament are needed. Of course, above all we need Jesus and the good news about him. We also need every word that God in his wisdom has preserved for us in the Scriptures. And whenever possible, we need the visible word of the sacrament which needs to be combined with clear and intelligible words of consecration and administration, and the Spirit enabled preaching of the gospel. All, in their different ways, are necessary for our health and salvation. Praise God that he graciously gives us more than we need. And, if of necessity, we are deprived for a time of the visible words, let us put our whole trust in the word of the Word which we find in his word!

Marc Lloyd is the Rector of Warbleton, Bodle Street Green & Dallington, and Rural Dean of Dallington.

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