Are We Sacramentalists? Baptism

BaptismIt’s hard to deny the sacramental character of baptism as taught in the Churches of Christ. Although Zwingli taught “external things are nothing. They avail nothing for salvation,” the Churches of Christ have always taught that baptism is the event during which salvation occurs.

Interestingly, even though the Churches of Christ often cite the European Anabaptists as evidence that the Church of Christ pre-existed Stone and Campbell, Hicks points out that the Anabaptists followed Zwingli’s view. Even though they insisted on adult immersion, they saw a convert’s coming to faith as the moment of salvation.

American Baptists are thus heirs to Zwinglian theology, while the Churches of Christ follow the Catholics, Lutherans, and many others in insisting on a sacramental understanding, while refusing the use the word “sacrament.”

The reason we rejected the word is largely Alexander Campbell’s insistence that “we call Bible things by Bible names.” Campbell taught that by avoiding non-Biblical terms we could eliminate most divisions among Christians. If we refuse to say “sacrament” we never have to argue about whether baptism is a sacrament!

It’s not really true, though. We often have the same argument, just in other terms. We debate with Baptists whether the water saves (we say it doesn’t; they accuse us of saying it does). We deny that baptism works without faith (hence denying infant baptism). But we insist that salvation only comes with baptism, that is, faith must be joined with baptism. Neither works apart from the other. This is a debate about the sacramental character of baptism, made all-the-more difficult by are simultaneous insistence that baptism is not a sacrament.

Now, I’m not all that excited one way or the other whether we use the word. I just think we need to be more self-conscious about what we’re saying. As some use the term, we deny the sacramental nature of baptism. But as most Protestants use the term, we are sacramentalists. And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

In fact, once we realize what we’re really saying — once we admit that the physical act has a spiritual significance, we are freed to explore what else might be sacramental in character. And it’s an interesting study.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Are We Sacramentalists? Baptism

  1. josh says:

    I think the word sacrament has been generally shied away from due to not being consistently defined by all parties. Catholics view sacraments as magic that confers a spiritual grace with or without faith in the recipient. Most Protestants view sacraments as mere signs. Other Protestants view sacraments as means of grace through faith, yet also try to make room somehow for faithless infant baptism. I think that staying away from the term sacrament is useful in preserving a needed distinction, that we view baptism as none of the above. Our view of baptism could be called 'sacramental' but only if we offer our own proprietary definition of the term sacrament. It would be much better and easilier understood and less cause of confusion and debate to call baptism not 'sacramental' but promisorial by which I mean that it is of or related to and deriving all its efficacy from the promise which God has attached to it. He has said 'he that believes and is baptized shall be saved' and 'repent and be baptized all of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost' and this is a promise, even as Peter continues to say in Acts 2:39 'because the promise is for you…as many as the Lord our God shall call."

    The efficacy is in the attached promise (an express promise from God himself) and not in any assumed or arbitray theolical construct. The denominational views of sacraments basically assert that sacraments (the acts themselves, the bare acts usually) do whatever learn-ed theolgians and 'doctors' assert of them because they are learned and 'doctors.' But our view is that God Himself does what he has promised to do in baptism when it is submitted to his way and not man's. In their view the bare act of sprinkling an infant places them in the covenant for thus says 'Doctor' Luther. But our view (and Scriptures') it is not the bare act at all, but God Himself provides remission of sins to the believer whose faith takes hold on the promise, and that God according to the promise gives him the remission of sins while he is being baptized. In this manner we agree with the comment of the famous Anabaptist Menno Simon who said "The believing receive the the remission of sins not through baptism, but in baptism." In other words, it is not the mere act that is efficacious but the fact that we believe the gospel of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection and that no remission sins can be had except through his blood by God's grace, and we by faith apprehend the promise related to baptism (e.g. Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38) and sumbit to it in faith not as a bare act but with a view towards the promise for we hold him faithful in all things who has promised. But the word 'sacrament' seems to me too much to elevate the bare act and to take the promise out of view, which certainly is historically the case. But more to your point and question, may other 'external things' be somewhat like baptism? If they have an express promise of God attached thereto then they are somewhat similar in that such promise will be received in (although not really by) those things. For all the promises of God are received by faith, but in that to which they are expressely connected or attached.

  2. josh says:

    "Interestingly, even though the Churches of Christ often cite the European Anabaptists as evidence that the Church of Christ pre-existed Stone and Campbell, Hicks points out that the Anabaptists followed Zwingli’s view."

    I recently ordered the works of Menno Simon (by far the most famous Anabaptist). He writes against the "Papists," the "Lutherans" and the "English or Zuinglians." His major dissagreements with the Zuinglians so far seem Christological, but he also frequently cautions those who say "what good can water do us?" that they should not mock the promise of God but believe it.

    Now, athough he does assert that regeneration takes place at the point of faith, he has no problem with asserting that baptism is the washing of regeneration and is for the remission of sins, as I quoted above (even though I duplicated the word 'the' by accident before) in commenting on Acts 2:38 he writes "The believing receive the remission of sins not through baptism, but in baptism," followed by the explanation I gave above but in different words, which he follows up by saying that one who claims belief but refuses baptism cannot have the remission of sins nor the Holy Ghost. Then he dwells at length on the evils of infant baptism and answers the oft repeated objection "Christ did not forbid baptizing infants and therefore we can do it" which he answers in many ways, one of which being that no express promise of God is associated with infant baptism which makes it worthless and a vain attempt at human merit or earning salvation. Believer's baptism is viewed by him as efficacious due to God's promise, but infant baptism is idolatry and human merit due to lack of a promise from God.

    He also refutes this argument that "Christ did not forbid baptizing infants and therefore we can do it" by asserting that God did not forbid the Israelites from circumsizing females but that they rightly judged a prohibition from silence. This is an especially foreceful demonstration of what we have been terming the "regulative principle." If baptism is good for believers why not for unbelievers too? and if cicumcision was good for males why not for females? The answer is that God did not command cicumcision of females but of males only and has given baptism for believers only. This is especially pointed in today's Muslim times, since Muslims contrary to all human compassion circumcize females! They find a way to do that which seems impossible. But God did not ever say one word about circumcizing females. Is God's silence then permisive or prohibitive? Next time you are singing to the tune of a piano in the church, please think of all the poor young African girls that Mohammed's followers have mutilated and are mutilating in the name of permissive silence and then press down the next key with a heavy heart and sad countenance pondering whether God's silence is truly permisive or actually prohibitive.

  3. Alan says:


    This is an interesting subject. I'm eager to see what else we view (or should view) as sacramental. It strikes me that, if we come to the position that the Lord's Supper is sacramental (ie, that it has some spiritual effect beyond simple remembrance) then we are in a predicament. Have we been wasting our time in taking communion without understanding the sacramental nature? Does the sacrament have its effect if we don't understand the sacramental effect? The answer has important implications for what churches of Christ have often taught about baptism. Is understanding essential to receiving the benefits? As Jimmy Allen posed the question: What must one know in order to be born again?


    you wrote:

    whether God’s silence is truly permisive or actually prohibitive.

    That is a false dichotomy. There is at least one other possibility: that silence is neither permissive nor prohibitive. Silence says nothing — it is silent. You have to go to other principles to determine whether the thing God did not mention is permissible or not.

  4. Mark says:

    Josh wrote:
    But God did not ever say one word about circumcizing females. Is God’s silence then permisive or prohibitive? Next time you are singing to the tune of a piano in the church, please think of all the poor young African girls that Mohammed’s followers have mutilated and are mutilating in the name of permissive silence and then press down the next key with a heavy heart and sad countenance pondering whether God’s silence is truly permisive or actually prohibitive.

    There are a couple of tribes in Kenya that still practice female circumcision. They are not Muslim, and their practices have nothing to do with a permissive view of the silence of Scripture. They are following long-standing tribal customs to the detriment of their females. Like some of our churches, they blindly follow tradition for the sake of tradition.

    Were you dissed by a piano teacher when you were a kid? I've never encountered anyone with your ability to make almost every discussion about instrumental music in worship. I know some people who are trying to make a difference for Kenyan women. One brave woman who has done enough in the villages to earn a hearing among the tribes speaks to them and challenges them to abandon the senseless custom of female genital mutilation. She speaks with conviction and authority as she defends the defenseless, and then she worships with instruments on Sunday. Oddly enough, God's favor is all over that ministry.

    Quit beating the drum (get it?) about the silence of Scripture concerning instruments in worship. The Scriptures are not silent. God has quite a lot to say about instruments, and his word on the matter is favorable. In fact, the silencing of instruments in the OT and in Revelation is a sign of God's judgment.

    If you want to help the poor, young girls in Africa, instead of complaining about instrumental music, you could make a donation to the ministry I'm talking about. If you are interested, I'll be happy to point you to their website.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    That's an insightful comment. You might make me a Mennonite! I'm a big John Howard Yoder fan, so it could happen.

    Mennos holds to an interesting position if he sees regeneration preceding baptism but remission of sins and receipt of the Spirit as occurring at baptism. It's hard to imagine how this might be true — but when I finally post the rest of my Third Way series, where I address baptism, you'll see that it can actually work quite well.

    Female circumcision is not the mark of the covenant because God made male circumcision the mark. But that is hardly the reason the practice is sin. Rather, it's sin because of its cruelty and contempt for women.

    It's a helpful point to note the importance of faith in understanding sacraments. I agree that the Catholic position and the pedobaptist positions are in error. However, there are certain things that we do to which a promise of God's response is attached.

    Calling these actions promisorial makes considerable sense — except "sacrament" does serve well enough. As Wikipedia defines the term —

    In Western Christian belief and practice, a sacrament is a rite, instituted by Christ, that mediates grace, constituting a sacred mystery. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, views the sacraments, what it typically calls the Holy Mysteries, not so much as dispensers of grace, but instead as a means for communing with God, an entering into and participation in heavenly things while nevertheless still on earth in this life, viewing the Church and indeed all of creation sacramentally.

    You'll see that I find myself using the Orthodox interpretation in future articles — which seems quite consistent with what you're saying.

    Very interesting comments. Thanks for adding them to the site.

  6. josh says:

    Jay, I have in the past called baptism a sacrament in discussions with those of various denominations, even as recently perhaps as a a month ago, but I have found it to cause confusion. It is better to go into an in depth explanation of the concept rather than rely on a highly misinterpretable word. Not that it is wrong to use the word, but I find the word increasingly less useful than it once seemed it might be.

    "Have we been wasting our time in taking communion without understanding the sacramental nature? Does the sacrament have its effect if we don’t understand the sacramental effect? The answer has important implications for what churches of Christ have often taught about baptism." (Alan)

    Faith is the principle thing in baptism, not only faith in the gospel but in the promise attached to baptism, so that without it (i.e. being baptized just to obey God but not believing the promise) baptism turns into a work and becomes a failed and worthless soul-condemning attempt at works salvation. In fact, whereas baptism is for those who have faith in the gospel and in the promise attached to baptism, an open profession of faith, to those who are baptized without belief in the promise attached to baptism it is a profession of their lack of faith or their distrust of the Lord. For this reason, infant-baptism, mere-sign-baptism, and obedience-without-belief-in-the-promise-baptism are all equivalent and worthless. Baptism is that wherein (by faith) we apprehend the promise, but you cannot apprehend a promise that you disbelieve!

    Must we believe anything certain about communion to receive its benefits? We must examine ourself and discern the Lord's body. Discerning the Lord's body certainly includes thinking about and meditating on his work on the cross as we commune. But also it appears to be connected to the examination (read verses 28 and 29 of 1 Cor 11 together). What does Paul mean by "But let a man examine himself"? (1 Cor 11:28) The very phrase ought to remind us of 2nd Corinthians 13:5 "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" To discern the Lord's body, then, must not mean merely to view the bread as being the Lord's body in some way, but to view it as a symbol of the church and the piece that you eat as a symbol of your membership in the church. Therefore, before eating that bread, you must examine yourself whether you be in the faith or not, consider your life and faith. Are you really in the body? If you do not so examine yourself, then you eat unworthily not discerning the Lord's body, that is, here, not discerning whether you are really in the Lord's body or no, and thus whether you really have a right to eat that bread, for Paul says in Heb 13:10 "We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle." And then you miss out on the benefit of the 'sacrament' and eat judgement to yourself instead. For Paul says in verse 31 "if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged." We may say, then, that the benefit of the 'sacrament' is to judge ourselves so that we be not judged. Judgment of self is very important to this 'sacrament' and to leave it off is to leave off the whole, so much so that God would actually put someone to sleep for leaving it off. (verse 30) But there is more! Discerning the Lord's body also means to treat our fellow Christians with respect at the Supper. If we place the Supper first in the worship service knowing that Joe Smoe will be late and miss the Supper, have we tarried for one another as Paul goes on to command in verse 33? and in not doing so, in denying the Supper to this man on purpose, have we discerned the body? "Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another." Therefore, tarry for one another–what is the cause of the "therefore"? The cause is that we must discern the Lord's body! Verse 34 "And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation." This verse I throw in for Mark, as it proves that it is not proper to couch the Lord's Supper in a bigger meal. If the Lord's Supper was a big thanksgiving-turkey-supper, why would anyone be hungry when he went home? But and if it is a little piece of bread and small drink of fruit of the vine for each man, then will they still be hungry bodily when they go home, as Paul says. And, he explicitly says that those hungry men turning the Lord's Supper into a giant meal was resulting in their condemnation. To discern the Lord's body, then, also means to give the symbol of his body the principle place and not to couch it in a larger meal. And to fail to properly understand and practice this results in the Supper tending toward our condemnation. Notice that this was ALREADY tending to their condemnation BEFORE he explained it to them, so that here, ignorance is no excuse. It ought to be obvious that such an examination is required before we approach the Lord's Supper and it ought not need to be explicitly explained seeing the matter of the Supper is so high and holy.

  7. josh says:

    By the way, Jay, I don't want to knock the definition you have of a sacrament in your last comment, but I always doubt definitions like this one. I've not met an Eastern Orthodox yet who viewed all of creation as a sacrament. I have found myself, however, in my reading of the "church fathers" that the term sacrament is used in different ways in different contexts. When being used of baptism and the Lord's Supper they use them to refer to a physical act that confers a spiritual grace, but when speaking of some Old Testament occurrence they use the word sacrament to refer to a symbol of the cross. For example, Rhab letting the crimson banner flow from the window, they would view the window as having a cross-bar and the crimson as representing Christ's blood and would call this a sacrament. Or again, Moses' holding up his staff at the battle and Joshua (Jesus in Greek) being there to help him hold up the staff, as the view it, in the form of the cross. Or the brazen serpent, the pole, again, interpreted as being a cross.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    "Discerning the body" is not about the symbolism of the bread. It is about the Body of Christ – the assembly. That is why the conclusive command of the passage is, "Wait for each other."

  9. josh says:

    But the bread does symbolize the church or spiritual body as well as the physical body of Christ, as Paul explains in ch. 10.

  10. Zach Price says:

    If you grew up Catholic or Episcopalian, long before confirmation class you are probably taught the traditional definition of sacrament–the outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. No abra cadabra, it's nothing about some crazy ritual, it is the physical manifestation of the holy spirit working in this world.

    Baptism is just one of many things where we can say "hey the holy spirit is working here" and I guess I don't really understand what the big deal with that is.

  11. Zach Price says:

    If it is the faith that is important in Baptism then why does salvation have to be tied to the act. Could someone not just as easily be saved if they were baptized as an infant (physical act) and when they are older as in the Episcopal Church (when anyone is baptized, confirmed and other various times this is always done) make or renew baptismal vows of rejecting satan and accepting jesus as our savior? We constantly make these vows and statements of our faith in Jesus many many times. I am sympathetic to the idea of being baptized just as Jesus, I guess I just don't understand why salvation is neccesarily tied to some sort of ritual as you are saying?

    After all, we are saved from Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, not because he was baptized in the river.
    Nothing we do including baptism saves us. It is just a visible sign of the holy spirit working in us because we have been saved through Jesus and our faith in Him.

  12. Zach Price says:

    I think I found something that seems like an answer to my questions from one of your responses to someone else:


    I think a better analogy would be to ask whether Nixon would have been pardoned had he misspelled his name when he signed the form or if he’d accidentally signed the wrong blank.

    As the signature requirement comes from the requirement that the person being pardoned must accept the pardon, unquestionably the courts would overlook such an error, as his intent would be obvious despite the mistake.

    Just so, an error in baptism where the intent to accept God’s grace and to yield to Jesus’ Lordship is evident hardly voids the baptism. God judges the heart.

    Baptism is not a test; it’s a gift that God wants us to have.


    does that mean that infant baptism and at a latter date agreeing to a baptismal covenant is at least acceptable?

  13. Jay Guin says:


    If by "acceptable" you mean, will God save those who are baptized in this manner, believing they are obedient in so doing — the answer is yes, if they have a genuine faith and penitence. But I think infant baptism, followed by confirmation, is problematic for very practical reasons.

    Consider Latin America and Europe. Nearly everyone is baptized as an infant, and some are later confirmed, and yet very few disciples are being made. Indeed, those denominations that baptize infants are in rapid decline, as many baptized as infants fail to later come to a genuine faith. The Catholics are growing in number, but not in church attendance or in members joining the priesthood. This happens when you count as members those who've only been in a church the day they were baptized.

    This is not to absolve Churches of Christ from guilt. We are known to push kids into premature baptism decisions, acting as though getting a child wet is equivalent to making a disciple. But at least the child has to make a decision, and most of those who decide to come to Jesus through baptism remain in the faith.

    I wouldn't claim that changing baptismal practices would be sufficient to change the church's ability to retain its children. Changing our hearts will do much more. But the Biblical notion of faith is that faith is a decision and a commitment, not an inheritance. Infant baptism inevitably leads to confusion.