What Makes Something a Sacrament?

Someone has invited you to a new, cutting-edge worship service especially targeting the twenty- and thirty-somethings. Identifying itself as part of the “emergent” network, the group does not identify itself as a church (too many bad associations). It doesn’t look like church either, but more like a large living room, with different stations for various spiritual activities. These stations include perhaps a prayer labyrinth, incense, icons, and a cup and bread set on an end table. Eventually, someone begins speaking, as at least most of the folks find their way to couches and chairs. This is not a sermon (too hierarchical), but a heart-to-heart conversation, trying to “connect” with Christians and non-Christians alike in a way that is “vulnerable” and “authentic” in contrast to the canned pragmatism and hype that they knew in the megachurches (or wannabe megachurches) of their youth.

The setting I am describing can be found in literally hundreds of gatherings each Sunday, many of them non-denominational, but others at least informally connected with just about any denomination you can think of. Burned out on what they regard as inauthentic hype, many of these young people are starved for mystery and transcendence. They want to actually come into contact with God and not just their own “felt needs.” Their Boomer parents liked stage lighting; these folks like candles.

The assumption today often is that because faith is a direct, unmediated relationship with God within our spirit, outward forms don’t really matter. Therefore, we can do whatever we want in worship as long as the doctrine is right. In this setting, we too easily pick and choose our own “means of grace.”


While we can affirm the struggles and many of the impulses of this “emergent” generation, this movement risks becoming simply another verse of the same tired hymn, which we might call “An Ode to New Measures.” The nineteenth-century revivalist Charles G. Finney, a Presbyterian who disliked just about everything that defined Presbyterian faith and practice, sharply rejected the Calvinist teaching that human beings were totally unable to regenerate themselves. According to Finney, we are not saved from God’s just wrath and ingrafted into Christ’s visible church by a supernatural work of God’s Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, that is preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. Rather, since conversion is “not a miracle or dependent on a miracle in any sense, but is the philosophical result of the right use of means” (“new measures,” as he identified them), it is the job of the successful evangelist to find “excitement sufficient to induce repentance.” If salvation is in the sinner’s hands, then the conversion of sinners in the evangelist’s hands.(1)

America is a marketplace of desire, a super-store of consumer craving, and its do-it-yourself religious life is as much a testimony to that fact as any other aspect. In our culture, shopping is therapy. We are not so much Pilgrim making his way with the communion of saints to the Celestial City as individual tourists bouncing from booth to booth at Vanity Fair. As much as the “emergent” movement criticizes religious inauthenticity, it exhibits more than it disproves that thesis. Its most visible leader, Brian McLaren (named recently by TIME magazine among the most significant evangelical leaders), in addition to redefining or challenging core evangelical doctrines, says that he appreciates the “sacramental” world-view of Roman Catholicism. “Once we say there are seven sacraments, we can then begin to see everything as a potential sacrament,” he writes. To be sure, McLaren’s theology is different from Finney’s. Unlike the celebrated revivalist of yesteryear, McLaren eschews “hell-fire and brimstone.” Yet like Finney, he downplays the seriousness of sin as a condition from which nothing short of a substitutionary, vicarious sacrifice of Christ can alone redeem us. The theology may be described as “Finney-lite.” And practice cannot be separated from theory. Like Finney, McLaren and many in the “emergent” movement seem to think that it is up to us to decide what constitutes a “means of grace.”


The Protestant Reformers recognized that if you start with a human-centered “gospel,” you will need human-centered methods. Even the ordained sacraments can become means not of divine grace but of human striving. Just as Finney looked for “excitements sufficient to induce repentance,” Rome offered various strategies for obtaining remission of sins through penance. The Reformers, by contrast, recognized the logic of Paul in Romans, especially chapter 10. In that chapter, Paul says that there are two answers to the question, How can I be reconciled to God? One answer is “the righteousness which is by works,” the other is “the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.” One is founded on our zeal for God, the other on God’s zeal for us and for our salvation.

Paul recognized that the message creates its own methods, as he unfolds the argument in that famous chapter. Works-righteousness looks for ways of climbing up to pull Christ down or descending into the depths to bring him up, while faith-righteousness receives Christ as he has descended already to us and where he promises to be present to us for our salvation. For works-righteousness, faith comes by striving; for gospel-righteousness, faith comes by hearing Christ preached. One need not catch a plane for the latest “revival,” get caught up in the latest crusade or spiritual fad, go on a pilgrimage, fast and pray for it, walk through a labyrinth, bow before an icon, or follow the most recent “principles for victory.” Christ is never closer to us than when he is actually giving himself to us in the preached Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.

Imagine a wealthy benefactor promised you a million dollars for a life-saving operation. He tells you to meet him at a certain spot, where he’ll give you the check. Dropped off by a friend at an inauspicious corner, in a derelict part of town, you locate the appointed coffee shop. This can’t be the place, you think to yourself, as the neon sign hangs precariously with letters missing. Entering, you seat yourself in a rickety booth, noticing that your cup is stained with coffee and smeared with lipstick, the saucer chipped, and the service is appalling. You look around and cannot imagine that anyone vaguely resembling a millionaire might be among the patrons. Just as you are about to leave, a man in shabby clothes saunters over to your table and addresses you by name and as you acknowledge him, he slides in the booth with you and joins you for a meal. Then and there he hands you the check and you celebrate your new-found friendship. Come to find out, this gentleman has frequented this coffee shop for years—it’s his favorite spot.

Like the idolatrous nations, we look for “god” at all the high places but the true God inhabits the low places, when and where he has promised to be present to dispense his gifts over a conversation and a meal. We find this God-for-Us at the cross, bleeding and dying for sinners—hardly the sort of “coronation” that the disciples were looking for in Jerusalem. Furthermore, this same God shows up precisely where we would not expect to find him in our lives here and now. If we’re going to fly up to heaven to bring God down to us, it will require some pretty powerful means, but God comes down to us in weakness. We look for the clever route, the path that makes the most sense—“excitements sufficient to induce repentance,” but God refuses to be found by us on our terms. He finds us on his.

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Source: Michael S Horton