Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is the Lord's Table a Means to Grace?

Let me say from the outset that I have a great respect for Michael Horton and have greatly benefited from his book, “Christless Christianity”.  But as a Baptist I have some points of disagreements that are important and since he publically makes statements of his interpretations both on “The White Horse Inn” and the aforementioned book then he invites opposing views in the public venue.  (That is not to say that this little blog is really public since only about 2 people probably even read it!)  Also, this blog is mainly for the people in my church and so I am going to take this as an opportunity to speak on this subject.  In fact, I was with some members when we read these statements in Horton’s book.
In his chapter entitled “Delivering Christ” Michael Horton is making a good point that the church service is not primarily a place that we go to give God something, e. g. praise and worship, but where he gives us Christ as our spiritual food through the preaching of the Word.  But Horton never stops there as you might know if you listen to him on the White Horse Inn.  He is always talking about how God ministers to us in Word and Sacrament and that this is a means to grace.  I won’t spend time on the word sacrament and its obvious Catholic background and I don’t really like the term means of grace because clearly some use this term to teach that saving grace is gotten through our actions such as the Lord’s Table (mass).  It seems to be an oxymoron; if there is something we can do to get grace then grace is no longer grace.
Now I know he and other Covenant Theologians don’t mean saving grace but more of the idea of spiritual blessings.  When my college roommate became Presbyterian he started using this term and when I pressed him on it he admitted he used it in the sense of God blessing us when we eat at the Table.  I said, “Then that is no different then when we do anything in obedience to the Lord such as praying, reading the Bible, church attendance, etc.”  So why don’t they just say that God blesses them when they partake?  Why do they make it a point to say that God gives grace when they eat of the Table?  I think as we read what Horton says about this we see some of the problems with these ideas.
On page 219 he again makes a great point, referring to Romans 10 and the passage that ends with, “faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ” he says that Christ is saying in effect that I gave myself and all my riches in a saving way before in conversion but in the church service under the preaching of my Word, I will come again and again and give of my self for your spiritual well being.  (My wording)  Now this I can understand because the Word teaches me truth and the Holy Spirit causes me to understand and apply it and I am made stronger through it.  But then in the same paragraph Horton says that the same thing is accomplished by partaking of the Lord’s Supper and this is where things start to get confusing, at least for me.
He starts off by quoting 1Cor. 10:16  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  This is the ESV which properly uses the word participation.  He takes this to mean that in some mystical way Christ gives himself at that moment to us as the Bread of Life.  I say mystical because he says that this is done in a way that is beyond our powers to comprehend.  Now this is a big problem to me.  It seems to me that he is saying that through the performance of a ritual we get some sort of special strength, not through learning but by the Holy Spirit just doing it and we don’t understand what we get or for that matter what we are to do with it now that we have it.  In fact, he states in the same paragraph that the Word and Sacrament are “means that convey God’s saving grace” which seems to further confuse the issue because the term “saving grace” must be taken as something is saving us at that moment.  I have little interest in being told that something is happening to me that I cannot understand.  Someone might say, “Well you don’t understand the Trinity or the Incarnation of Christ”, but I would disagree with that comparison.
Clearly we don’t fully understand these things but they are taught to us well enough so that we can grasp the general idea and and see the importance of why they must be so.  I don’t fully grasp how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility work with each other but it is imperative to understand each as the Bible presents them or one will have all sorts of problems trying to make sense of God’s providence in your life.  I understand why I need to study God’s Word but I do not understand how grace is communicated to me by observing the Lord’s Table in some way different than normal obedience to the Lord.  Horton and the Covenant Theologians seem to use the word participate to mean that we are receiving a benefit of grace from Christ’s death or participating in his death by eating at the Table.  But that is awfully strong language to then dismiss as beyond our ability to comprehend especially since it sounds so Catholic and might be and has been confused with their theology.
He seems to further confuse the issue by also stating in the same paragraph that, “We do not simply remember Christ or rededicate ourselves to Christ in this meal; rather, Christ gives himself to us as the Bread of Life”.  I wouldn’t have a real problem with him saying that the Lord’s Table is not only a memorial observance as if there is absolutely nothing else involved but he is actually saying that it isn’t a memorial service at all!  Later, on page 224, he says that the Lord’s Table is not our remembering and rededicating but focuses on God’s promise to give us his Son as our food and drink-certifying and ratifying our inclusion in the covenant of grace.
It is interesting that the one clear statement of Scripture about why we are to observe this ordinance is to do it in remembrance of him.  And yet he says this is one thing that we aren’t doing when we eat of the Table.  He then states what he sees as its purpose which is to certify and ratify our inclusion in the covenant of grace.  Here, then, is where it should be clear that the Covenant Theologian has erred and is holding onto doctrine brought over from Catholicism. 
We are brought under the New Covenant when we are born again and translated into his kingdom at conversion.  Christ blood ratifies it and the Holy Spirit is our Certification that it is ours and can never be lost.  The Holy Spirit is also how we begin to benefit from being under the New Covenant.  Horton is saying that in some way this happens not only at the Lord’s Table but also at our Baptism; which again, is a very Roman sounding statement.   He says, “Baptism is not our act of commitment, based on our decision; it is God’s act of commitment to us, based on his decision”.  If he meant the baptism of the Holy Spirit by which he saves us I would agree, but he is referring to water baptism.  He is saying that God is doing something to us when we are baptized and in the same way God is doing something to us when we partake of the Lord’s Table. 
But the Bible clearly teaches that in both cases we are merely looking back to what has already taken place.  Both of these ordinances teaching in an object lesson fashion of the spiritual reality of having died with Christ and receiving life from him.  Paul says in 1Cor. 11:26  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.  He doesn’t say that you get a little more of Christ until he comes.  Water baptism is our public identity with Christ.  It is in fact something that we do; God does not do it to us and the same can be said of the other ordinance of the Lord’s Table.
A lot more could be said, of course, as to what these ordinances teach and then there is the whole issue of the “covenant community” that the Covenant Theologian teaches, but I hope I have stated what seem to me to be some obvious flaws in this way of referring to baptism and communion.  I really want to know exactly what grace we supposedly receive when we eat and drink the bread and wine.  I just am not comfortable with passing if off as a mystical, not to be understood ritual.  I welcome anyone’s input and if someone thinks I have not accurately stated Michael Horton’s position then please let me know how you see this.  After all, the slogan of the White Horse Inn is: Know what you believe and why you believe it!  Thanks

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