For the Life of the World


…all of the Old Covenant sacraments, like the flood, were future tense and testified to the destruction of the flesh.

[A report from our London correspondent, Chris Wooldridge:]

A week ago, I attended two conferences delivered by Peter Leithart on the subject of the Sacraments. The first one was aimed at anyone interested; the second was addressed more to ministers and theological students.

I’m about to share with you a summary of what I heard at the first conference. If you’re interested in hearing the whole thing, head over to the Emmanuel Evengelical Church resources website.

He began the first conference by speaking about the definition of a sacrament. First he spoke about the traditional Reformed understanding of the sacraments as “signs and seals” of the covenant. He explained that this would involve marking out a certain group of people as belonging to God. Whilst not disputing the traditional Reformed understanding, he went in a slightly different direction after this point, citing older thinkers who began with the Old Covenant when considering the nature of a sacrament.

He started in the Garden of Eden, demonstrating that creation itself is ‘sacramental’. At the centre of the garden were two trees, food as a means to communion with God. He spoke about how the two trees were not merely visible signs, but effected an actual change in Adam and Eve. He then moved on to speak about the fall as an abuse of the sacraments. He then mentioned that after the three ‘falls’ in Genesis 3, 4 and 5 (Adam’s eating, Cain’s murder and prophetic intermarriage), God declares that all humanity is “flesh”, that they are wicked, which seems to anticipate Paul’s negative usage of the term in his letters. In response to this, God destroys all of the ‘flesh’ on the face of the land, sparing only Noah, his household and representative animals and birds.

He explained that all of the Old Covenant sacraments, like the flood, were future tense and testified to the destruction of the flesh. Circumcision, for instance, was the cutting off of the flesh of the foreskin. Likewise, animal sacrifice was the cutting and burning of flesh in holy fire, that it might become transfigured into smoke. He concluded that Jesus Christ destroyed the power of the flesh once and for all in his death on the cross, bringing an end to the Old Covenant.

After the first break he spoke about how, unlike ‘future tense’ Old Covenant sacraments, New Covenant sacraments are ‘present tense’, signifying the accomplished destruction of the flesh in Jesus Christ. His focus was more on the individual believer and he talked about the fact that in Baptism we are given a new name, which makes us a new person. He turned to 1 Peter 3 and noted the contrast between Baptism and the purity rites of the Old Covenant. Unlike those purity rites, which involved the temporary preservation of the flesh, Baptism marks the destruction of the flesh in the one Baptized.

He also spoke about Romans 5-6. In Romans 5, Paul contrasts Adam with Christ and in Romans 6 Paul associates Baptism with the overcoming of the old Adamic world and entry into the new world established in the resurrection of Christ. He drew similar conclusions from Colossians 2, noting that the immoral practices mentioned are overcome by believing what God has spoken in Baptism. He finished by speaking about the Lord’s supper and how we eat it not at a distance (as Israel did in her feasts), but in the presence of God, suggesting once again that New Covenant sacraments are ‘present tense’, marking the fulfilment of the promise.

After lunch, Peter spoke about ‘Sacraments and us’, about the kind of community formed by the sacraments of the New Covenant. He began by contrasting the Old and New Covenants again. Under the Old Covenant, no Israelite would come into the presence of God to drink wine. The priests on duty in the temple stood all day and didn’t drink wine. The Church of the New Covenant sits and drinks wine in God’s presence. Even things like our postures testify to the fact that we are now welcomed into the presence of God through Jesus Christ.

He then moved on to Galatians, and in particular Galatians 3. Paul rebukes the Galatians for eating separately. This testifies to a false gospel by suggesting that the divisions of Abraham (Jew and Gentile, male and female etc.) have not been overcome in the death and resurrection of Christ. He pointed out that Baptism is associated with “clothing” at the end of Galatians 3, which suggests that all of the Baptized are part of the same people, wearing the same uniform. Baptism tears down the racial and cultural divisions which define human communities, making us one new people in Christ. He pointed out that the modern emphasis on ‘diversity and inclusion’ is therefore rooted in Christian principles, however much it may have become distorted.

He drew similar principles from 1 Corinthians. The factions which existed in Corinth were supposed to be overcome by the Gospel, which is why Paul rebukes them so strongly for abusing the Supper in chapter 11 – it was supposed to be the sign of their unity! From 1 Corinthians 10, we see that the Eucharist is supposed to testify to the fact that the many Corinthians are one body, since they partake of ‘one loaf’.

He began his final talk, entitled ‘Sacraments and them’ by speaking about how each member of the body of Christ plays a different part, yet all parts (both weak and strong) are necessary. He drew this primarily from 1 Corinthians 12, which speaks about Baptism as the rite which incorporates us into the body. He spoke about infant baptism as a way of expressing the fact that the Church contains weak members as well as strong ones, as per 1 Corinthians 12. He also suggested on this basis that infants (as the weakest members) should be included in the Lord’s Supper.

He then moved on to speak about the mission of the Church, which begins with being what the sacraments call us to be. He contrasted pagan gods who cannot do anything (speak, see, move etc) with the true God, who can do all things. He applied this to the sacraments by pointing out that they involve doing things like moving, eating and drinking. He also applied this to the whole liturgy of worship which drills us into an army fit to serve God in the world. In other areas of life, such as sport or music, a lot of repetition and practice is required in order to become proficient. The same is true in worship, we learn to do things habitually in order to be like the God we worship. He spoke about the various aspects of the liturgy (calling, confession, hearing, speaking, offering, communion, commissioning) and how they train us to understand the mission of the Church.

A few conclusions: Firstly, the overall message is extremely important and not heard enough in the Church today. The Old Covenant was about the world of the flesh and anticipated the destruction of the flesh in Christ and the New Covenant. This should be the beginning, not only of our understanding of the sacraments, but of our understanding of everything in the Bible. Peter Leithart should be commended for the breadth of his biblical vision.

However, in a few small ways his conclusions went against this overall picture. Although not mentioned very much, his preference for pouring/sprinkling as a mode of Baptism goes against the wider pattern that he painted. In 1 Peter 3, there is a deliberate contrast drawn between the sprinklings of the Old Covenant which temporarily preserved the flesh and Baptism which is associated with the destruction of the flesh. The flood destroyed the power of the flesh active in the world by drowning it. The Old Covenant priests were consecrated by being washed in the laver so that they might serve God. They were immersed again after administering purification for those who were defiled by contact with the dead. When I asked Peter about this, he reverted back to the sprinkling rites of the Old Covenant and to the fact that the righteous in the flood and who passed through the Red Sea were sprinkled with water from above. However, this misses the wider picture, that they were passing through water, just as in Baptism we representatively ‘pass through’ death and into new life in Christ.

Whilst there are arguments which could be made for infant Baptism, his arguments drawn from 1 Corinthians 12 were not very convincing. It’s certainly the case that there are ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ members in the body of Christ, however, it would be begging the question to assume that infants are the ‘weaker’ members which Paul had in mind. The story he gave about a sick baby who ministered to the wider body through the support that they gave could also be true of anyone who sought help from their local Church, regardless of whether they were even a believer!

However, these are minor criticisms. The real strength of the conference laid in the fact that it emphasised whole-bible thinking applied to every area of life. This particularly came to fruition in the final section of the conference, in which he spoke about the need for patterns of worship which train us to think and act biblically, reflecting the character of the God we serve. Peter Leithart is to be commended for his extensive biblical knowledge and his deep applications of biblical patterns to today’s world.

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