Revivalists and Sacramentalists

I appreciate sacramentalists, but agree with Wilson that they often overstate their case, often making “staggering claims”. I have asked some of my paedo-baptist/paedo-communion friends how they would teach John 3 to their children, centering on the declaration from Jesus, “You must be born again”. I’ve received various answers, but there has sadly been an unease with how to apply it. Could they dare tell their baptized/communed children that they must be born again or instead tell them that they already are born again, or perhaps both? Desiring to avoid the ditch of revivalism, many sacramentalists think it revivalistic to consider their children unbelievers when it becomes manifestly clear that they have no fruit of the Spirit in their lives. “They are covenant breakers” exclaims the sacramentalist. “They never were in the covenant” exclaims the revivalist.  In a qualified sense, they are both right. Some young children have a saving faith and the revivalist needs to receive it as such and not constantly call such children to be born again. Some young children, baptism and all, do not have saving faith. In such cases, the sacramentalist needs to care less about saving face with everything they have already declared over their children and call their children to repentance and faith.

We, baptists, also have to deal with the same issues in the post baptismal life of our own. While sacramentalists are guilty of overstating the efficacy of baptism and communion, we are no better when we overstate the efficacy of a short prayer. Of course we are all quoting the Bible, which should make us all humble Evangelicals. “Baptism now saves you”, “If you confess with your mouth”, “Repent and be baptized”, and many more. We have much to learn from each other. We can’t exclude what each tradition has to offer. As a baptist, I believe something is happening in baptism and communion (along the lines of Calvin’s “Dynamic Presence”), and I plead with my sacramentalist friends to asses their children less by their baptism and God’s covenant promises, instead putting more emphasis on whether those promises have been received by a Spirit-wrought faith. “Baptism now saves you” is great, but only as an “appeal to God” for a clear conscience. “If you confess with your mouth…and believe in your heart” is somewhere in the Bible as well (can’t be disregarded as some revivalistic midrash).

I admit, this post was really inspired by the helpful comments of Doug Wilson in his recent post Evangelical Son, where he said the following:

Here is the thing. Using both terms broadly, revivalists and sacramentalists both make staggering claims for what they are doing. Often the claims are not borne out by what we might call “actual results.”

At the same time, I have not seen the same kind of willingness on the part of sacramentalists to admit that what they are telling us isnt working, as measured by those indicators that the New Testament gives us as being inconsistent with inheriting the kingdom of God. What happens is usually special pleading. And when a sacramentalist does acknowledge that some baptized son of the church is a son of Belial, and that something decisive needs to happen to his soul to turn him around, to turn him back to God, that is evangelical enough for me.


© 2012, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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4 comments on “Revivalists and Sacramentalists
  1. I do not recall, sadly, there being an “unease with how to apply” John 3 to covenant children. I’d apply it the same way that Peter does in his first epistle, or that Paul does in Colossians, both writing to congregations that manifestly included children in an undifferentiated way.

    “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”” (1Pe 1:14-16)

    “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe 1:23)

    “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)

    That is how we should speak to our children.

    • In my post, I said that both groups were correct: “They are covenant breakers” exclaims the sacramentalist. “They never were in the covenant” exclaims the revivalist. In a qualified sense, they are both right.

      I hear what you are saying when wanting to speak to children as Peter and Paul do, but I don’t think it’s as “undifferentiated” in our systematic theology, wherein lies the problem of tension. In one sense baptism is the regeneration, and the baptized as viewed as objectively within the covenant. Union in Christ, born again, you are holy are all applied to the baptized, assuming they are in the faith. Wilson differentiates between the elect and decreed elect to resolve this issue.

      We’ll keep working this out in our future discussions, but suffice it say that I’m pleased with Wilson’s warning to folks in his own camp who insist on the objective “since you have been born again” language when it is clear that one may actually have a “son of Belial”. Dubbing himself an “Evangelical Son”, to me, was an intentional attempt to affirm his exposure to various camps as polishing the uneven edges that can often occur when pledging allegiance to a single camp.

      • My point is simply that there is no warrant for “sadly” or “unease” with this issue. The tension is something to be embraced! God declares his promises, calls his people to faith in those promises, and sets forth warnings for those who do not respond in faith. We have to be careful not to let systematic theological categories trample over biblical language.

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