John Piper is a fair representative of the view that says, “I don’t believe sacraments save us.” Here are his words in Finally Alive:
Whether circumcision in the Old Covenant or baptism in the New Covenant—it is not good things we do, not even sacraments, that cause us to be born again. The kindness of God. The love of God. The absolutely free mercy of God. These explain our new birth. Not circumcision. Not baptism. Not any works done by us in righteousness. New birth comes and brings righteous deeds with it—not the other way around.
This sounds wonderful. Who could be opposed to salvation by “the absolutely free mercy of God”, after all? Surely no one but a Tridentine Roman Catholic. But in reality, Piper is doing exactly what John Williamson Nevin identified in the 19th century as a typical ploy of American sectarianism: running justification by faith out to a false extreme.
Piper’s anti-sacramental soteriology relies upon two more fundamental errors:
1. He pits the love of God against the means that God uses.
2. He treats the sacraments as “works” and twists Paul’s polemic against the Works of the Torah by applying it to Christians performing the sacraments.
I want to deal with these falsehoods one at a time.
GRACE AND MEANS
To illustrate what’s wrong with the first one — pitting the love of God against the means that God uses — consider this alternative history:
God came to Noah and told him, ‘Build yourself an ark, for I am going to bring a great flood on the earth to destroy everything in which is the breath of life.” But Noah said, “No, God, I’ve been well instructed by John Piper that salvation is not by ‘good things we do.’ I insist that if I am to be saved, it will have to be by Your ‘absolutely free mercy’.” And so, Noah did not obey God, and the waters came and swallowed him up along with the rest of the wicked. The End.
So you see that there is no contradiction between salvation being of grace, and salvation being brought about through things that men do, such as preaching, prayer, the sacraments, and building an ark.
Now, at this point, every baptist in the audience is protesting, “But that’s salvation from a flood. We’re talking about salvation from hell — spiritual salvation, not bodily salvation. Salvation from everlasting wrath can only be brought about by faith, not anything we do.”
John Calvin had a thing or two to say about the theological implications of this sort of thinking. He said that it was an insult to the Old Testament saints, and made them little better than animals. Calvin saw that denial of infant baptism threatens the entire unity of the Covenant of Grace in the Old and New administrations. That is why he was so opposed to the anabaptists. (For more on this, see Peter Lillback’s essay on Calvin in the admirable little collection, “The Failure of the American Baptist Culture”, which you can download here.)
But we don’t have time for that. So for now, let’s just note that this objection is answered directly by two Bible passages. The first is Hebrews 11:7, which says that:
“By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”
See that? “By faith Noah moved.” As in, he got off his duff and did something. So the author of Hebrews has no problem saying that salvation from the flood was by faith, AND that it was worked out through things that Noah did.
Second, we have 1 Peter 3:18-21, a passage that I’m not sure Baptists have in their Bibles. It reads,
“[Christ] went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
Now, as a mere matter of plain grammar, this passage says outright that “baptism saves us” — the very thing my baptist friends cannot abide. (It is puzzling to me how certain students of mine who have had two years of Greek can blithely contradict this verse by affixing a “not” to it.)
But there’s more: 1 Peter 3:18-21 draws an analogy between how baptism saves and how the ark saved. Baptism saves because it is “the answer of a good conscience toward God” — that is, it saves relationally, by functioning as a sign toward God. 1 Peter 3 also specifies how baptism does NOT save: it does not save by being “the removal of the filth of the flesh.” In other words, it does not save as mere water. This verse ought to put an end to the old baptist jibe that asks, “What happens when you baptize a baby?” and answers, “You get a wet baby.” That’s like saying, “What happens when adults sign papers, pay money, and say words over a baby? You get an uncomprehending baby and poorer adults.” — when in fact, the baby has just been legally adopted into a new family. Baptism works because it is the “answer of a good conscience toward God.” God sees it and honors it as the covenantal response He requires.
Circumcision saved in exactly the same way in Exodus 4:24:
“And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his feet and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go.”
And the Passover works the same way (Ex. 12:13):
“Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
Some things to notice: neither Zipporah’s circumcising of her son, nor the putting of blood on doorposts saved in a magical way. They worked as signs. They worked relationally and covenantally. God saw and acted.
Second, notice that even though Ex. 12:13 calls the Passover blood “a sign for you”, it would be a huge mistake to think that it worked by the Israelites thinking about it. They could have been intent on a game of Yahtzee when the angel of death came by their houses, and the blood on the doorposts would still have saved them. No, the passover blood worked as a sign “for you” by being a reminder to God: “when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” So it is a false dichotomy to suppose that we must choose between ooga-booga on the one hand, and sacraments as mere flashcards for us on the other. Such a dichotomy seems implicitly deistic: it acts as though God is absent: “Either the sacraments work (by magic) or they don’t work (which is the baptist claim). But they certainly don’t work by God seeing and responding to them.”
But that’s how baptism works. It might do more than that, but it does not do less. And that much is all that is needed to overthrow John Piper’s claim that sacraments do not save us.
FAITH AND WORKS
Let’s move on now to consider how Piper is wrong about sacraments being unable to save because they are “works”. The simplest way to refute this is by a consideration of the book of James, which says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14) The implied answer is, “No.” Or again, James 2:21-24:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”
But of course, this passage sticks in the craws, not only of baptists, but of evangelicals generally. They do not know what to do with it, because to accept its plain teaching, they would have to overhaul their entire quasi-gnostic paradigm of salvation. They would have to stop thinking that salvation occurs between the parietal bones of the cranium.
I don’t have time right now to refute that whole system. (Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity is a good start, but it isn’t enough.) For right now, the important point is that James insists that lazy faith, faith that doesn’t do anything, doesn’t save. Rahab had to receive the spies and send them out another way. She also had to tie a red cord in her window. If she hadn’t done these things, she would have perished with the rest of Jericho. Faith without works is dead. Once again, baptism works the same way. There is no contradiction between sola fide and the efficacy of the sacraments.
If I insist that I trust you, but I refuse to accept your cheques, what sort of trust is that? Just so, faith that insists that it saves all by its lonesome, but which refuses to trust the sacraments that God has provided to save us, isn’t really faith.
To suppose that this is somehow Pelagian or an attempt to “earn” salvation is to miss one of the most obvious features of the sacraments’ physical elements: What could be less intrinsically meritorious than tying a red cord, pouring a bit of water, smearing blood on a doorpost, or eating some bread and wine? Funny, isn’t it, how God seems to pick actions that no one could mistake for self-salvation? The power of the sacraments is nothing inherent in their physical stuff, and nothing in the virtue or power of the human agent who applies the physical stuff. No, the power of the sacraments is entirely in God.
Second, James is making the case that we are saved by obedient faith. To recur to my alternative Noah story, the faith of the disobedient Noah would not save him. Likewise someone who says, “Salvation is by faith, and not by works. Therefore I will refuse to take the sacraments.” God is merciful; He can do what He wants, and I suppose He can whoosh people up to heaven without any means at all. But a person who refuses the sacraments is turning his back on the normal means that God offers him. Fortunately, baptists are not quite in that position. They do baptize people, even if not everybody they should; and they do take the Supper, even if they think it doesn’t accomplish anything. The salvation of baptists by sacraments is like a man adrift in a life preserver who insists all the while that he is really being saved from drowning by levitation.
Is it not odd that the apostle Paul never speaks of baptism and the Supper as works? He has plenty to say against trusting in “the works of the Law” for salvation, but there is never a hint that the church’s sacraments are included in that category. Indeed, the passage that comes closest to saying that, 1 Cor. 10 with its warning not to be presumptuous like the Israelites in the desert, is the very passage that most strongly asserts that we actually participate — not merely remember — the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16).
We could say more about works, but it will have to wait for another time. I’d argue:
1. That James’ “good works” are not the same as Paul’s “works of the Law.”
2. That Paul’s “works of the Law” are always works of Torah, and thus peculiar to the Jews.
3. That the New Perspective on Paul is fundamentally correct to assert that 1st century Judaism’s doctrine — I do not say their practice — was not Pelagian, but a religion of grace.
But to establish those claims would involve many others, and would require books, not blog posts. It could hardly be otherwise. We’re dealing with a paradigm-level — I almost say worldview-level — difference in theology. It affects everything.
In conclusion, the words, “I don’t believe that sacraments save you” are a denial of the work of God, not man. If acted on, they are as deadly as the identical formula of unbelief in previous ages — “I don’t believe that blood on doorposts saves you” or “I don’t believe that a big boat saves you.” Fortunately, most Christians who say these words don’t act on them. They obey God and use the sacraments. And by this act of faith, they are saved — whether they acknowledge it or not.