Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. —Ecclesiastes 9:7
How should we understand (and practice) the relationship of the sacraments with God’s work of saving grace? We should remember that “saving grace” is not a different kind of grace than “prevenient grace.” Both refer to God’s redemptive work in us but reference different stages in the journey of faith. They are not two different “things” but rather are different ways of speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit. So how do the sacraments connect with God’s gracious work when we come to faith in Christ?
Baptism is the sacrament of initiation. It marks us as followers of Jesus, a part of His community (the Church), recipients of God’s justifying work who are committed to pursuing Christ and His life (holiness). There is distinction between the sacramental celebration itself and the inward work that takes place during baptism. Wesley uses the language of “baptism in water” and “new spiritual birth.” While the sacrament of baptism points to and celebrates being born again, the two are not necessarily conjoined. Baptism is the sign; new birth is the reality that it signifies. Water baptism does not have the inherent power to effect being born again—we are not saved by being baptized.
In the baptismal liturgy, the candidates make confessions and commitments, suggesting that they have experienced “spiritual baptism” or new birth in Christ, prior to the sacramental celebration. It may be the case that some undergo believer’s baptism prematurely, coming to the experience of being born again at a later point. In this instance, baptism functions as a means of prevenient grace, a sign leading to new birth as the realization of saving grace.
This raises the question of re-baptism. If we have been baptized (with water) but experience new birth at a later time, should we be re-baptized? In such (and all) cases, re-baptism is not needed nor technically appropriate. Many choose to be rebaptized and may feel this is an important statement of their faith. However, an alternative service—one that includes public confirmation/affirmation of their personal faith (even utilizing the baptismal liturgy), a prayer of blessing, and anointing (as the sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit)—would allow those who seek re-baptism to publicly affirm/reaffirm their faith in a personally meaningful way without running the risk of confusing or trivializing the sacrament of baptism. If I had been re-baptized every time I needed to reaffirm my faith, I would have been in the water regularly!
Baptism and Children of the Church
Baptism is particularly important in helping young believers confirm their faith and commitment to follow Christ. This is especially true for children who have grown up in the church, often attending Sunday school, children’s church, children’s camp, etc. who have come to a settled faith but lack a clear personal narrative. Perhaps they are clearly committed followers of Jesus but can’t necessarily say, “On this date, in this place, I abandoned my life of sin and gave my heart to Jesus.” This lack may actually be a measure of the success of the spiritually nurturing work with children in communities of faith; children raised in a Christian environment is certainly ideal, though such children may feel confused without a definite moment of faith they can point to. Baptism offers them an opportunity for a public declaration of their faith, an intention to follow Christ, and their identification with the community of faith. Baptism provides public declaration that places an experiential “stake in the ground.”
Celebration of God’s Redeeming Work
It should be noted that, while personal confession and commitment are an integral part of baptism, the primary focus should always be on Christ. He is the ultimate “means of grace.” While our participation is essential, it is the work of God in Christ that makes new birth possible.
God enables us to respond to His offer of forgiveness and restoration that only He can give.
If we turn a baptism celebration into a celebration of personal stories, we risk forgetting that such stories only matter because they are enfolded, by grace, into God’s great story of redemption and restoration.
The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)
In the early church, the non-baptized would be required to leave the worship service prior to celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, even baptized disciples under some form of discipline would also be excluded. While the practice of exclusions fell away fairly quickly, the principle of restriction has persisted. I had a professor who remembered when congregants would need to visit the pastor before a communion service for a spiritual conversation and to receive a token that would be required to receive the sacrament in the service!
Wesley declared that the Supper may serve as a “converting ordinance.” That is, the celebration of communion may serve as an invitation to faith, not just to the faithful. While affirming the traditional role and function of the Lord’s Supper, we may explore creative thinking about its use. Could we intentionally use an invitation to the Lord’s Supper as an “altar invitation?” Wesley certainly seemed to think so.
More broadly, we should understand the celebration of Communion, in every instance, as a proclamation of the gospel, which is the heart and meaning of our faith. Everything must connect back to the central message of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection that offers us salvation.
Sacraments and Saving Grace
The sacraments—both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are rich in meaning and in practice as means of grace. If they are seen as lacking meaning or left to perfunctory practice, it is not the fault of the sacraments. Let us attend to these means of grace and the rich resources they offer to us for the work of saving the lost. Thanks be to God!
Carl M. Leth is former dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Olivet Nazarene University.
Borgen, Ole. John Wesley on the Sacraments. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.
Collins, Kenneth J. The Scripture Way of Salvation. Nashville, Abingdon, 1997.
Jones, Cheslyn; Wainwright, Geoffrey; Yarnold, Edward; and Bradshaw, Paul, editors. The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994.
Smith, Gordon. Beginning Well. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Staples, Rob. Outward Signs and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1991.
Wainwright, Geoffrey. Christian Initiation. Richmond, John Knox Press, 1969.
Wesley, John. John Wesley’s Sermons. Edited by Albert Outler & Richard Heitzenrater. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991.
__________ The Works of John Wesley. Third Edition. XV Volumes. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1978. Volumes VIII & X.
Holiness Today, November/December 2020
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.