Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Disembodied Gospel: Ordinances vs. Sacraments

Here's another way that evangelicals have disembodied the gospel.

Jesus left us various rituals, like baptism and the Lord's supper, that have a relationship to the gospel.

Most evangelicals, though not all, believe that these rituals are ordinances - that these are memorials, human celebrations that God has commanded us to observe to remember the gospel. God affects our salvation spiritually only; the physical acts are just ways of remembering it, and are not themselves a part of the process.

The Catholic Church holds the historically Christian view and teaches that these rituals, along with 5 others*, are actually sacraments. sacrament is a sign and instrument of God's grace. When a person receives the physical action of a sacrament with the proper interior disposition, the sacrament actually does somethingGod effects salvation for us in a manner that is both spiritual and physical.

Let us use baptism as an example.
For most evangelicals, baptism is merely an outward sign of something that has already happened, in this case, the forgiveness of sins. Baptism doesn't wash your sins away, they're already gone with the mental act of belief. In the physical act of baptism, nothing happens. The main event of having your sins washed away occurs in the believer's mind when they believe. The physical action is separate from the spiritual, and, for most evangelicals, is not necessary for salvation (though they believe it should be observed out of obedience).

The Catholic Church teaches that when a person with interior faith is baptized, the act of baptizing them actually communicates the grace of forgivenessNot only is there the outward symbol of the person's sins being washed away with the water; the person's sins are actually washed away. The physical and the spiritual match up.

So why does this matter? Because humans are spiritual and physical beings. The sacramental understanding takes this fully into account. At best, the ordinance understanding believes that the spiritual is what's important, and that the physical, while being non-essential, is a nice thing to acknowledge after the fact.

The 13th century Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way in his Summa Theologica:
"[I]t belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments." (ST III.61.1)

Sacraments treat us humans as what we are, spiritual and physical beings. Ordinances do not adequately account for the physical dimension of humans, and thus further disembody the gospel.

*Note: The seven sacraments left to us by our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Catholic Church are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), Reconciliation (Confession/Penance), Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders (Priesthood). The first three are the sacraments of initation into the Church, the next two are sacraments of healing, and the last two are sacraments of vocation.


  1. Brantly,
    I found your blog about 2 months ago. We are kindred spirits.

    Best of luck to you at school. I have a blog patrickvandapool .com. I purposefully don't ask for money, I'll probably be "giving" money away as scholarships (not to grad students) by next year.

    I'll put a blurb on there mentioning that if someone wants to donate to me, then to actually click on over here to donate to you.

    It seems that you and I are both trying to present the same material--that iss the "culture" of Catholicism vs. Protestantism. You, however, have figured out how to do it in a more loving way than me. Thank you for the lesson.


  2. I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Lutherans are right there with you with sacraments(though not with all 7, obviously with us having married pastors and all) with regards to baptism and the eucharist.

    I do have one question-- in your view, is it necessary to receive communion and be baptized in order to be saved? I guess what I'm asking you is: do you believe baptism and communion are the only means of saving grace? What about confirmation? My question is geared towards what I think is the fundamental difference between baptism/communion and confirmation/all other Catholic sacraments. Namely, baptism and confirmation seem to bestow saving grace, while the other sacraments do not.

    While confirmation is important, I don't think it is scriptural to say that apart from confirmation, there is no salvation. Rather, we see baptism as the method by which individuals are welcomed into the Church (Acts 9:18, Acts 11:47, and many others), and communion as an affirmation of the grace (well, actually grace itself) found in the death and resurrection. I'm truly interested in why Catholics place confirmation (and other sacraments) in the same category as baptism and communion.
    As always, thanks for making me think!

  3. "God effects salvation for us in a manner that is both spiritual and physical." Yes, we are, after all, creatures which are comprised of a body and soul.

    I tell my catechism class that any saints (cloud of witnesses) attending a Baptism can actually see the sin washed away by the water, as their vision is no longer clouded by sin and 'see clearly.'

  4. Brantly,

    This is essentially what I wrote my final paper for the Media, Reformation, and Modernity on... how modernity (bred through ideas promulgated at the Reformation) views a dichotomy between the mind and body and the mind takes precedence. Because of this, those Christ came to reach--the child, the impoverished, the illiterate, anyone lacking a fully developed mind--have no place in the worship of the Church, because "worship" only extends to the believers' brains. But thanks be to God that He HAS provided us the sacraments, not only so that we who might tend to raise the mind above the body may be introduced to the truth of who we are, but also so that those who are not comfortable with their minds can understand the Gospel!

    Thanks for writing.

    ps--my sister said she'd been reading some of your blog. Which is a big deal. She was thankful for your posts on what Evangelicals can teach us; said it was very ecumenical. :-)


  5. Hey guys,

    Sorry I didn't respond sooner. I didn't forget about your comments over here.

    That's very very kind of you. Thanks!

    This post was only directed toward evangelicals.
    Yes, Lutherans do not have an ordinance view. Whether most Lutherans would qualify as (or would even want to be considered to be) evangelicals (in the American sense, not the Reformation sense) is up for discussion. I know that you, though Lutheran, seem to identify as evangelical.

    Those are great questions regarding Catholic sacraments. But I think it would require a lot more than what I could give in a comment to be adequate. I would recommend looking up the sacraments in the Catechism, which can be found at

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I hope all is well!