Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Are the Sacraments “Necessary” for Salvation? Reflections on an Impious and Ungrateful Question

But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet hesent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them. Please excuse me.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

Luke 14:16-24

Do I have to?

Suppose there was a couple who have been dating for some time and the man is in love with his girlfriend as he could possibly be and believes that she feels likewise. So he decides to propose to her and at the very moment as he pops the question to her, she replies a little wearily,

“Do I have to marry you? Is it necessary for us to be married to love each other? Can’t I love you without needing to marry you?”

What are we to make of such a reply? One, we can say that she really isn’t into him and is just trying to evade getting “tied down” by marriage and be bound to him for life. Or two, she doesn’t really see the value of marriage itself regarding it as a mere piece of paper. The latter would be the more “charitable” interpretation, that she just doesn’t understand the importance or significance of marriage, but one cannot help suspect that there is the very distinct possibility of the former, that to even ask the question is already an indication that she doesn’t really love him or want to be with him.

Let’s consider another example. Suppose a great king liberates a city held captive by a tyrant, and as he marches triumphant throughout the city with his army, to the wild enthusiastic waves of the populance, he strides into the city prison to personally proclaim liberty to the captives there and invite them to a rich banquet he had prepared for the masses, as well as celebrate his victory in a ceremony whereby he would grant them a sum of gold to aid in the restoration of their lives. So as each starving prisoner leaps to kiss the ring of the king and pay homage to him, a non-chalant prisoner lounges at the corner and arrogantly replies, “Do I have to attend the banquet and ceremony? Is such a ceremony necessary for me to get the money? Can’t you just give me that sum of gold right now?”

What are we to make of such a prisoner? Would the king just comply with his request? Or would he have him remanded in the prison instead of his utter lack of gratitude and reverence for the king who had just liberated him and for despising his invitation?

Compulsion and Necessity

Something is terribly wrong here. For anyone to even raise the question of “necessity”, to ask whether I “have to”, already arouses our suspicion that there is something wrong with the questioner, or at least, something terribly confused. For the girl whose greatest desire is to spend the rest of her life with her lover, the question of “necessity” or “have to” would never have entered her mind, she would have promptly leaped at the proposal and gushed her consent. A grateful captive prisoner who has suffered much under the previous tyrant would never have dreamed of asking whether he has to attend the ceremony and banquet to receive his gift for his restoration and would promptly have leaped at the invitation with many tears of joy.

The question of “have to” is essentially a question of external compulsion and law, it is question raised by those who do not desire or love the gift or offer from the heart, who despising the gift inwardly requires the external coercion of the law to force them to accept it, as St Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:9, “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane”. But of course, the minute the occasion of a freely offered gift and love and joyful or grateful reception turns into an occasion of force, law, threat or compulsion, is the very nature of free offer and grateful reception destroyed, for the logic and language of compulsion is applicable only to those who do not love and desire the gift and therefore cannot accept it from the heart.

The Necessity of Compulsion and the Necessity of Desire

Of course someone might point out that what I am doing here is raising an argumentum ad hominem, attacking the person to evade the “objective” question of the “necessity” of the sacraments.

I freely admit that what I am doing is an argumentum ad hominen, but that is only because the very nature of the Sacraments does involve at the deepest level the subjective person. It is the Kerygma, divine Word or proclaimation which is specifically addressed to the whole person in his existential entirety. As Rudolf Bultmann puts it, it is “a proclamation addressed not to the theoretical reason, but to the hearer as a self”. It is a demand, an address, an offer made to the heart of man, to his whole person to the most inward depths, not an object of idle theological speculation or discussion.

Of course, one can step back and observe the institution of the sacraments objectively and ask whether it is “strictly” necessary. For example in our previous examples, one of the prisoners maybe crippled or gravely ill, and as such is unable to attend the ceremony, of course he doesn’t “have to” attend the ceremony to receive the gift, the king can even personally visit him at his own home and offer it to him. Or consider the example of our romantic couple, living in Nazi Germany, and the girl in distress reveals that she has Jewish ancestry and as such cannot marry an Aryan, and she asks if it is necessary for him to marry her for him to love her, and to which he answers of course not and goes to an underground confessing church to get a martial blessing without the civic marital contract.

Both the Catholics and Lutherans have always acknowledged these “cases of necessity” in the case of the sacraments and have always acknowledged that while of course God has bound himself to the promise which is offered by the sacraments, he is not thereby confined to it, as the Blessed John Duns Scotus would put,

The sacraments are not so needed by men for procuring eternal salvation that without them men could not attain it, because there were not lacking innumerable other means occurrent to divine wisdom beyond the institution of the said sacraments, whereby man might be brought back whence he had strayed, just as anyone is saved now through the sacraments who is achieving salvation…

…we do not say that the sacraments are necessary such that man could not be saved in another way, but for the present state of things; given, therefore, the promulgation of the Gospel law, it was fitting and necessary for the observing of it, since it is the most perfect of all laws, that the most perfect helps were instituted, such as are the sacraments of the same law.

and as the Lutheran Saxon Visitation Articles would put it on the “necessity” of baptism

Unless a person be born again of water and Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of heaven. This is not intended, however, for cases of necessity.

Of course in this sense, the person who believes but dies before he can receive baptism is of course saved, for while God has bound himself to honour the promises and covenant of the sacraments, he is not thereby confined to it or unable to save anyone without it.

However, when the traditional language of the Church in speaking about the “necessity” of the sacraments do not refer to the idea of objective or absolute necessity but instead to the necessity of desire. It is not an “external” necessity of compulsion or law, but it is an “inward” necessity of desire, it is the “necessity” to get married, born out of the romantic desire for each other, it is the “necessity” to attend the ceremony, born from an inward gratitude to their liberator and benefactor. In short, it is the necessity of the heart which desires the gifts of God and reverences his Word which institutes the sacraments.

As the Catholic tradition would put it, those who die without baptism are still saved by a “baptism of desire”, that is, they are saved by their desire for baptism and their seeking and desiring the salvation of God offered in baptism itself, as Duns Scotus would put it, saying that although the sacraments are not strictly necessary for salvation, but they are still “necessary, whether in reality or in desire”.

Impiety and Irreverance

Even Charles Spurgeon, the great baptist preacher who has as “low” a view of the sacraments as any baptist can possibly understands the impiety behind questions of the necessity or essentiality of the sacraments saying,

“What do you mean by, “non-essential”?

“I mean that I can be saved without being baptized.”

Will you dare to say that wicked sentence over again?

“I mean that I can be saved without being baptized.”

You evil creature! So you will do nothing that Christ commands if you can be saved without doing it? You are hardly worth saving at all! A man who always needs to be paid for what he does—whose one idea of religion is that he will do what is essential to his own salvation—only cares to save his own skin and insinuates Christ may go where He likes! Clearly, you are no servant of His! You need to be saved from such a disreputable, miserable state of mind—and may the Lord save you!”

The attitude towards God and His Word which only seeks the “bare minimum” for their salvation, which in a vulgar fashion treats salvation like a commerical transaction whereby one attempts to bargain the “price” for salvation to its lowest possible instead of seeking to reverence everything which God commands, institutes or speaks with all of one’s heart, Spurgeon condemns as “evil”, “wicked”, etc. In sort, this attitude towards the sacraments is just impious, if not blasphemous, to deal with God like a merchant bargaining for an commercial exchange.

I am quite shocked sometimes to read of the way certain Evangelicals and even, horrors of horrors, Reformed folks discuss baptism and the sacraments, dismissing it as “unimportant”, “not vital” or not of very great significance, etc. Spurgeon, Calvin, Zwingli and all the magisterial Protestants would have without any hesitation condemned this impious and sacrilegious treatment of divine and holy things in no uncertain terms. How dare they dismiss the things instituted by God and His Holy Word as “unimportant”! If it is ordained by God’s word, then of course it is of the greatest and highest importance, which we can deny only by despising his Word. Only impiety and irreverance which dismisses the things spoken of by God would dare to take this flippant and irreverent attitude towards the holy institutions of God, instead of lowly submission and reverent handling of his Holy Word and of the things so spoken and instituted by divine right.

Conclusion: The Necessity of Desire for Salvation

Of course, Charles Spurgeon, being a baptist and all, sees baptism as a duty and good work imposed by God which we are to perform in obedience to God’s Word. He does not see it as “Gospel”, that is, he does not see that anything is offered or given by God in baptism, but it is simply a spiritual work which we do to honour the command of God.

But this is not so for the Lutherans and Magisterial Reformed. Although correct that the sacraments is something commanded and instituted by God which we comply in reverence and honour to him, but baptism is not merely our work to God but it is ultimately and foremost, God’s work for us, it is in them, whereby God promises and offers salvation and his grace to us to which we gratefully receive with praise and thanksgiving.

Again, it is not a question whether or not we can be saved with or without the sacraments, or whether God cannot give his grace outside of them. Rather, from an inward distress from our sins, from an inward contrition which despairs of our works and of the wickedness and evil which lies within and desperately seeks for relief and help from the same, upon hearing the proclamation or Good News that God has decided to bestow upon us his grace and glorious gifts and promises in the visible word and sacraments, would joyfully and gladly “attend the ceremony” at once to receive the medicine of salvation and aid and consolation for their distress and sickness of sin. It is an “inward” necessity born from contrition and despair in one’s own works and sins, and sickness from sin, it is the necessity of desperation which pants and longs for salvation and consolation and which upon hearing the “glad tidings” whereby such salvation and relief might be sought, joyfully and eagerly at once sets off to receive the medicine and aid for their distress.

Luther was once asked what is the point of having the liturgy offer both absolution and the Lord’s Supper if both of them equally offer forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, to which Luther merely replied, “You know not the weight of sin”. It is argumentum ad hominen no doubt, but an entirely valid one. To the one who constantly labours under the weight of sin, such a person would rejoice at every occasion of hearing the sweet sound and offer of God’s voice, declaring his desire to save and his absolution of their sins. Such questions of “necessity” would never have arisen, nor would such a calculating and “bare minimum” attitude of “just enough” ever exist in such a person constantly weighed down by his own unworthiness.

And just as lovers never tire of giving good gifts to each other and holding hands, nor tire of hearing each other say “I love you”, neither does the pious, the children of God, the redeemed, ever tire of hearing God say that He loves them.

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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