In recent years, many of my teachers and elders and friends have helpfully reminded the Church that God’s grace, His covenant and loyalty to His people is objective, historic, outside of the feelings of wavering, doubting, sin-ridden people. The Church is the center of this objective reality. Here, in the historic, concrete, gathering of believers God’s presence and power is known. At the center of this recovery of the objectivity of this covenant presence has been a recovery of the ways the Bible speaks about the objectivity of the sacraments. The Bible does not shy away from pointing believers to baptism as an objective sign of God’s favor and a means of comfort and assurance. The Bible never instructs believers to trust in their baptism, but it frequently points believers through their baptism to the cross, to Jesus their Savior. Baptism is a trustworthy and enacted word from God to man. The Bible also speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a place where Jesus meets His people in space and time. Some meet Jesus for their judgment at the table of the Lord, but for those who seek their Lord in honesty and humility, He meets them through the bread and wine shared with thanksgiving. Again, the point of this is not to cling to bread and wine like some talismans but rather to see in the meal and through the meal Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose body was broken for us, whose blood was shed to wash away our sins. We see Jesus in baptism and at the table through the gift of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit.
I for one have been immensely blessed by this recovery, and when I read the Westminster Confession, I find that my Reformed and Presbyterian fathers labored faithfully to represent this breadth of Biblical language in our statement of faith.
At the same time, we should not forget that there are other objective realities in this world, and one of the most significant is the Word of God, the Word of the Gospel. The Word is no less historic, no less objective, no less outside of us, imposing itself upon us. The Word read, the Word proclaimed, the Word sung, the Word prayed, memorized, meditated upon. And frequently the Biblical writers do not point to Baptism or the Lord’s Supper but rather point believers to the Word, to the Promises of God, to the gospel proclamation, to what has been written down for us.
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
“Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides forever. For all flesh is grass and withers away, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls away. But the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
People waver. People forget. People doubt. People sin. But the Scriptures are still there, and they were written for your comfort. The Word of the Lord endures forever. The gospel still stands, and it was preached to you, to you personally.
Were you in the room when the gospel was read? Then it was read to you. Were you there when the minister proclaimed full atonement in the blood of the Lamb who was slain? Then it was announced to you. It was announced for you.
This isn’t a novel concept, and I don’t think this is in tension with the objectivity of the sacraments. But perhaps in an enthusiasm to embrace a sacramental objectivity it can sound like we are disparaging the efficacy and objectivity of the Word. For example, my good friend and former colleague, Peter Leithart, recently wrote this about the relationship between baptism and justification:
You might say, “I know I’m justified because I believe the gospel.” You know you’re justified because you’re confident that you have fulfilled the condition of justification, which is faith. That sounds a lot like putting faith in your faith, which is putting faith in something you’ve done, which is the opposite of what a Protestant should say.
You might protest, “But faith is a gift. I’m not putting faith in my own belief, but in God’s gift of faith.” Fair enough, but you’ll notice that you’re still focusing on what’s happening in you. Instead of getting assurance by turning outward to God, you’re assured by turning inward. Which, again, seems like the opposite of what a Protestant should be doing. That inward turn was one of the main things Luther was trying to escape.
If baptism is not a public declaration of justification, where and when does that public declaration take place? Is it ever heard on earth? Is it ever spoken to me in particular? Can I hear it anywhere except in my heart? If I only hear the declaration of justification in my heart, how can I be sure I’m not hearing things? To be sure we’re right with God, we need some sign from Him, and it has to be a sign to me. We might wish for some other sign, but the sign that Paul talks about is water…
…We cannot get assurance unless we’re convinced that God declares me His beloved child in the water of baptism.
Which means, No baptism, No justification.
You can read the whole thing here, but in these paragraphs I think Peter significantly overstates his case. In another article he explained in even more detail how he sees Paul using justification language in connection with baptism, and it seems clear that Protestants do need to reckon with that biblical language. But despite Peter’s insistence that since we’re Protestants and therefore we have to say “what the Bible says” it seems like Peter is ignoring clear passages in Scripture that are perfectly comfortable assuring believers of their standing before God without any reference to baptism. It’s certainly true that baptism is one of the objective words that God speaks to us to assure us and remind us and comfort us. But his account of finding assurance through belief in the gospel is at odds with the very words of the other Peter — the one that wrote the letter in the Bible! Sure, St. Peter feels free to point to baptism later in his letter, but at the beginning he’s perfectly comfortable pointing to the Word of God, the imperishable seed which lives forever (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
Peter asks, “If baptism is not a public declaration of justification, where and when does that public declaration take place? Is it ever heard on earth? Is it ever spoken to me in particular? Can I hear it anywhere except in my heart? If I only hear the declaration of justification in my heart, how can I be sure I’m not hearing things?” Again, I think he overstates his case. In fact, knowing Peter as I do, I’ll suggest that I don’t think he really thinks this. We believe in creation. We believe in the world outside of us. And this world includes sounds and ears to hear them with. And some of those sounds include intelligible, meaningful, powerful words. In fact, we can also communicate words through written transmission in letters, books, and blogs (!). So for example, if Peter reads this post, he will not doubt whether this really applies to him or whether it is real or whether it is only something that he has “heard in his heart.” Now Peter may still insist that the Bible read and the Gospel proclaimed lack the personal address whereas this blog post specifically names him, but I disagree. The sound waves that echo in a room upon individual ears and the words on a page that light reveals to my eyes are no less objective, no less outside of me, and no less personal than water applied to my head. And so I reply that objective justification is proclaimed publicly every time the gospel is proclaimed, every time the Scriptures are read, every time the forgiveness of sins are announced through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Word is not merely a transcendent idea or supra-natural reality. The Word is real. The Word is objective. The Word thunders. The Word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it (Dt. 30:14). It is not merely in my heart. It is also in my mouth and in my ears. It’s God’s Word and it’s true, and along with all of the signs God has given, it comforts and assures us. Did you hear the gospel? Did you hear the Word of grace announced? Then it was for you. Only believe.