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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Incorporation and Union

If for Paul these two sacraments involve a believer's participation in the saving works of Christ, what are the effects that they have in the life of the Christian? The first effect is an incorporation into and union with Jesus Christ that leads to the transformation of the participant.

In Galatians 3:27, Paul writes, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on [or "clothed yourselves with"] Christ." A key point to note initially is that Paul does not say "put on the Lord", but specifically "put on Christ". This is an important distinction. If Paul had used Jesus' "divine" title of "Lord," he could be simply harkening to the overall redeeming action of God. Instead, by evoking the title "Christ," he is specifically linking one's Baptism with the work of the Christ, i.e. his crucifixion for our sakes (13). This is what one "puts on" at his Baptism.

Furthermore, this language of "putting on" or "clothing yourself with" Christ evokes the imagery of the Baptism ritual itself as practiced in the early Church. When a convert was baptized, he first completely disrobed before his Baptism, and then "put on" his clothes after his Baptism (14). This imagery allowed the new Christian to see that he had begun a completely new life, one that was now "in Christ:" the disrobing represented a "death," and re-clothing represented the new life (15). Of course, the ritual of Baptism itself, with its immersion into water and rising out again also powerfully evokes the dying/rising theme. All of this symbolism existed to emphasize the important theological point: that one begins a new life through Baptism.

But what is this "new life"? By reading Romans 6 in its context, it is possible to see that to which Paul is referring. In Romans 5, Paul is comparing Adam and Christ, and describing how Adam's transgression brings about sin and death, but Christ's "act of righteousness" leads to new life. The natural question then arises: how does one attach oneself to Christ's act, and thus to new life? Paul answers this in Romans 6:4-5, when he writes, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." By dying with Christ in Baptism, we are incorporated into him, and thus are able to one day be incorporated into his resurrection (16). Christ's "act of righteousness" which leads to new life now applies to the baptized believer.

Paul describes this incorporation as one of being baptized "into Christ (eis Christon)" (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27). This language "pregnantly expresses the movement towards Christ that these initial experiences imply, the beginning of the Christian's condition...Torn from one's original condition, from one's natural inclinations, and from one's ethnic background, one is solemnly introduced 'into Christ' in faith and Baptism. Eis Christon denotes, then, the movement of incorporation." (Fitzmyer 1409). In the rite of Baptism, the initiate was separated from his old state of existence. Death to the old life is not the final goal; new life in Christ is. As Paul writes in the letter to the Colossians: "you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead." (Col 2:12). Baptism buries one with Christ, but its ultimate purpose for the participant to be raised with Christ to new life.

This incorporation also occurs through the celebration of the Lord's Supper. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul urges his readers to "flee from idolatry" (1 Cor 10:14 NIV). They need to remove themselves completely from the old life that they lived before their Baptism. But he uses the imagery of the Eucharist to remind them of why they should no longer live an idolatrous life: "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?... are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?" (1 Cor 10:16,18). When one participates in the Eucharist, one is re-incorporating himself into Christ, and thus away from pagan idols. The Eucharist re-activates, so to speak, the reality of new life that Baptism grants to the Christian.

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