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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Ethical Implications

It has been possible to ascertain portions of Paul's sacramental theology from his letters by studying them closely and within the context of his overall letters. It is much easier, however, to understand the ethical implications of participation in the sacraments, since Paul writes about the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in an almost exclusively ethical context (22). For Paul, there are ethical implications to receiving both Baptism and the Eucharist. Although he strongly believes that these sacraments deliver and sustain Christians, neither Baptism nor the Eucharist exclude their participants from the possibility of falling into sin (23).

In Baptism, by being buried with Christ and therefore passing away from the old life of sin, and towards the new life "eis Christon," Christians are no longer slaves to sin - sin reigns in their lives no more (cf. Rom 6:6) (24). Previously, the believer lived under the dominion of sin and death, but by being baptized into Christ's death, he is raised to a new life. As Paul writes to the Romans: "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." (Rom 6:4). This "newness of life" that Paul is urging his readers to embrace does not include the sinful behaviors of their previous lives. As Paul details later in the letter to the Romans: "let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy" (Rom 13:13). For Paul, to live in the "newness of life" that Baptism brings while at the same time indulging in the sins of the old life is unthinkable.

Partaking of the Eucharist also has ethical implications. Paul's only extended discussion of the Eucharist occurs in his first letter to the Corinthians - and his purpose is to chastise the Corinthian Christians for their unethical conduct during the Eucharistic celebration. It appears that the divisions that racked the local Church in Corinth manifested itself during the liturgy. Rich Christians were having their fill of food while poorer Christians went hungry. Yet these unrepentant wealthy Christians were still participating in the Eucharist, an act that Paul strongly denounces: "For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (1 Cor 11:29). To continue to live selfishly was not compatible with participating in Christ's saving works through the Eucharist.

As noted earlier, the Eucharist makes Christ's death present to the participant and is the culmination of Christ's self-denial, his kenosis (emptying) of himself (cf. Phil 2:6-11). This self-emptying was done on our behalf, and therefore, how can one who participates in this death and self-emptying ignore those around him who are in need? This is the crux of the issue addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. Those who were rich were excluding the poor members of the Church from their bounty, which to Paul was antithetical to participating in the death of Christ (25).

Also in his first letter to the Corinthians (10:1-5), Paul uses the typology of the Exodus to show the importance of ethical living for those who have been baptized and receive the Eucharist. First, he compares the passing through the Red Sea with the believer's Baptism: he states that the ancient Israelites were "baptized into Moses" (10:2). Then, speaking of the manna in the desert, he writes that the Israelites "ate the same supernatural food and...drank the same supernatural drink" (10:3-4), introducing the imagery of the Eucharistic bread and wine. But even though the Israelites experience a prefigured Baptism and Eucharist, many of them still displeased God through idolatry and thus "they were overthrown in the wilderness" (1 Cor 10:5). This warning comes in the context of the Corinthians' lack of charity towards their fellow believers: Paul warns them that their Baptism and reception of the Eucharist will not save them any more than the Israelites were saved if they continue to sin against their neighbors.

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