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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Eschatological Reality

As can be seen from the ethical implications of the sacraments, Paul does not consider participation in them a final act; instead, it is a ritual that points to a future reality. Paul does not consider salvation something that has already been completed (cf. Phil 2:12); rather it is being accomplished throughout the believer's life until the Lord returns. One must continue to be Cross-centered in this life, offering one's sufferings in union with Christ's passion (cf. Col 1:24). This forward-looking attitude he also applies to the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

Paul writes to the Romans regarding Baptism that "For if we have been [past tense] united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be [future tense] united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:5). Baptism unites us to his once-for-all death in the past, but it only gives the future hope for a union with his resurrection. Christ has been raised from the dead, the resurrection of the believer has not yet occurred (26). In Paul's letters, Baptism represents the beginning of a reality, not its culmination. By being included into Christ's death, the believer becomes united to the righteous act of Christ which breaks the dominion of sin and death in his life. Now he lives under the dominion of the resurrected life, but a reversion is possible. Paul writes to the Romans: "But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Rom 6:8) - the Christian shall, in the future, live with him fully in the resurrected life if he continues to live out the Christian life. This resurrected life begins at Baptism, but does not find its fulfillment until the day when Christ returns.

The Eucharistic feast also takes on a forward-looking nature for Paul. When writing to the Corinthians about the Eucharist, he states, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26). Again the participation in the sacrament is directed towards a future reality - the coming parousia when Christ will return in glory. Only Christ in his risen state fully accomplishes the salvation of the Eucharistic participants (27). Those who participate here on earth are directed toward that reality, but not yet able to fully participate in it. The Eucharist is a "foretaste of the future messianic banquet" (Gorman 269); it points to the day when all will be united with Christ in the heavenly kingdom. Furthermore, by having koinonia in Christ's death (cf. 1 Cor 10:16), one is assured of winning through his death a koinonia with Christ's glory (28). This can be seen clearly in Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul writes, "I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." This is what Paul hopes for: that by sharing in Christ's death, both in his ministry, and by his participation in the sacraments, he will one day attain the resurrection of which Christ is already the first-fruits (cf. 1 Cor 15).

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