Paul and the Sacraments

What is the Role of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Pauline Concept of Salvation?

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Participation in Saving Works of Christ

What exactly occurs during Baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist in the believer? In Romans 6:3, Paul writes, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (6) and then in 1 Corinthians 10:16, he writes, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" and in 1 Corinthians 11:16, he proclaims, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." From these passages, it is clear that both Baptism and the Eucharist involve a believer's participation in the saving works of Christ, most especially his death.

Many have speculated that Paul's thought in this area was influenced by the Hellenistic notions of participation in the death and resurrection of the Mystery deities. Whereas it is possible that his language is reflective of certain Hellenistic influences, there are too many differences to attach a direct causal relationship (7). First, as Bouyer observes, there is nothing in the Mystery religions that convey the idea of a "God dying voluntarily in order to save his worshippers" (Bouyer 77). Furthermore, he notes that a believer's participation would simply signify a special protection, not an entrance to new life as Paul sees it (8). Paul does not use the language of "rebirth" as in the Mystery religions, but instead speaks of "resurrection." (9) Finally, Paul is inviting his readers through the sacraments to participate in a real historical event, not in an unending mythical death and rebirth (10). Thus, it is clear that the overall orientation is different for Paul, and is not based in the Hellenistic Mystery religions.

Instead, this participation motif is part of Paul's sacramental mysticism: one is not simply remembering past events, but through the sacraments, one is truly participating in them. Paul's mysticism is deeply informed by his Jewish heritage. Gorman notes, "'Remembering' for Jews was never merely recollecting; it meant faithfully responding to God and God's past saving actions, which are made present and effective once again in the act of faithful remembrance" (Gorman 269). For example, in the celebration of the Passover, Jews are not simply remembering the great works done by God during the original Exodus. Instead they are participating in those historical events in such a way as to make God's original saving work active and present to them.

Thus, Paul continues this Jewish way of "remembering" and applies it to the saving works of Christ. In Baptism and the Eucharist, the believer makes present the death and resurrection of Christ in his own life and in the life of the community (11). The main focus of this participation for Paul is the death on the cross of Jesus Christ. Lampe writes, "The time and space differences between Christ's crucifixion and the sacramental act become irrelevant, and the past event of the crucifixion is made synchronous with the sacrament. It is made 'present.' The Christian participants in the sacraments [of Baptism and the Eucharist] identify with the dying Christ on the cross: They perceive themselves as dying with Christ on the cross" (Lampe 46).

Paul writes to the Corinthians: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ" (1 Cor 10:16). The term used by Paul to designate this participation, koinonia, reflects more than a simple reflection. As Hauck notes, koinonia with Christ "is not just a living again of Christ's sufferings. Nor is it a mere personal conformity. Nor is it a retrospective passion dogmatics. By spiritual participation in Christ the sufferings of the apostle are a real part of the total suffering which is laid on Christ (Col 1:24)" (Hauck 806). One truly becomes part of Christ's own sufferings and death on the cross.

This participation occurs in both Baptism and the Eucharist, but there are two primary distinctions in this regard. First, Baptism is the initial, and non-repeatable, entry into the death of Christ. When referring to the participatory aspects of Baptism in Romans 6:3, Paul uses the past tense, thus signifying a one-time event in the life of the believer. But in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 1 Corinthians 11:26, he speaks of the believer's participation in the present (and future) tense, signaling the ongoing nature of the sacrament. Also, as Cullmann notes, Baptism is applied to the individual, whereas the Eucharist is a community event in which all participate (12).

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