One of the interesting moments of disagreement at the recent Future of Protestantism discussion was when Leithart and Trueman tried to come to terms with each other on the place of sacraments in Christian worship. Leithart spoke movingly of the Lord’s supper as the high point of the weekly Christian liturgy. Trueman insisted that Protestant ministry is essentially word-based, with the proclamation of God’s word as the center of the service. But then Leithart agreed to denounce the sacerdotalist exaggeration of sacramentalism, and Trueman agreed to criticize word-only services, affirming that rightly-administered sacraments are of course one of the marks of the church.
Meanwhile, I decided to stay very quiet for about 10 minutes because it didn’t seem to me that that particular Presbyterian dialogue would be clarified by the addition of my free-church evangelical position on the role of the sacraments. Actually I just reviewed the film and it seems I may have taken a little nap. But not because they were being boring! Just because my baptistic interruption would have distracted.
To the point: Should Christian worship be word based or sacrament-centered? Obviously it could be both; based on one thing and centered on another thing. But I think that’s too cheap a resolution, sidestepping the question about priority by swapping metaphors. If the emphasis or priority needs to fall somewhere, it should fall on the word. What the church does in worship on the Lord’s day is congregate to hear the word of God read, celebrated, explained, and applied. Lots of other things happen at church, and leading up to and following from church, but there’s no higher point than hearing God’s promise of salvation.
A way forward is to follow the lead of classic Protestantism by yoking “word and sacrament” together at all times, or in the longer form, “the word truly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered.” And the reason to do this is that word and sacrament are not saying two different things, but the same thing: God accepts us for the sake of Christ. The Lord’s supper is a special ordinance that stands out from the other things we do at church, but it does not deliver a different grace, a different meaning, a different force, a different content than what is spoken in the proclaimed word.
The sacraments (that is, the two ordinances of baptism and communion) are not saying anything different from what the word says. The water of baptism, the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, agree with the sermon. They say the same thing the Bible says, but they say it in water and in bread and wine. They don’t contradict what the word says. They repeat the promise, but they repeat it physically. They act out the promise. The Lord’s Supper in particular is a promise of salvation from Jesus Christ, whose words are faithful and true.
And in the formula “word and sacrament,” word comes first because word takes priority. You can have a reading of the word of God without the table ritual, but you can’t have an unexplained table ritual. Actual church practice down through the ages and around the world has been diverse; there are all sorts of variations on the chronological sequence of the service, and the method of explaining the sacrament. But “what does this bread mean?” is always answered by the proclamation of the word, because the grammar of bread and cup is too loose to stand alone. This is one of the senses in which the worship service is word-based.
But is there any sense in which Protestant worship services can also be understood as sacrament-centered, or directed toward the celebration of the Lord’s supper as the high point? If word and sacrament agree and word has priority, I can see one safe way of treating the Lord’s supper as the high point: we can understand it as punctuation on the sentence spoken in the word. It could be the final exclamation point, turning “God accepts you in Christ” to “God accepts you in Christ!” Or it could be the underlining, turning “In Christ we are forgiven” to “In Christ we are forgiven.” If the ordinances have a reiterative effect rather than a supplemental effect, then they emphasize what has been communicated rather than adding new content. God means what he says in the word so much that he repeats it in bread and cup. We hear the promise and then we consume it. The words of the gospel say one thing, and the signs of the Lord’s Supper say the same thing. It’s the same word, but the sacraments are, in an old expression, “visible words.”
Perhaps some readers were with me right up until the metaphor of punctuation. The illustration may strike you as evacuating the content of the sacraments, rather than showing that the content of the sacraments is carried, cooperatively, by the word to which they must always be joined. I talked this over with my colleague Matt Jenson, who was more or less on board with me until the exclamation point. He suggested a different illustration: the sacraments repeat the promise of the word, but in a different medium. So the worship service is a multi-media ritual in which the one message of salvation is spoken first in word, and then in bread. The shift to another medium of communication is a big deal; it colors every aspect of the message. In fact, though it’s crucial to distinguish between content and form, you can almost never make a clean break between them. If I speak to you orally and then repeat myself in sign language, I will say something slightly different in each medium. Someone has said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and it may be that the idea of sacraments as genre runs the risk of breading about forgiveness or dunking about regeneration. On the other hand, maybe that’s the right way to put it, especially since we didn’t make up these rituals, but received them from the Lord Jesus, who, you know, generally turns out to be right about these things.