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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The Pauline corpus does not contain a detailed "sacramental theology." Since Paul's letters were written to address specific topics and situations, his discussion of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist only come in the context of other issues, usually ethical in nature. However, there is no evidence for a conclusion that these two sacraments were unimportant to Paul, nor that he considered them unessential aspects of the Christian life. Rather, he assumes a common sacramental heritage with his readers, one that pre-existed him.

For Paul, these two great sacraments were rituals that involved participation in past historical events, participation that was not mere remembrance, but a making present the realities that occurred in the past. Specifically, they make present and real in the life of the believer the saving works of Jesus Christ. Paul assumes that his readers have been baptized and they participate in the Lord's Supper, and his desire is to make sure that they understand the implications of these rituals.

According to Paul both sacraments first of all incorporate the believer "into Christ." The old life under the dominion of sin and death dies when one is baptized, and a new life under the dominion of Christ is made real. This incorporation involves a deep union with Christ, making one able to live the resurrected life to some extent here on earth. By the fact of this union, the believer is transformed: no longer a slave to sin, but now alive in Christ. This incorporation "into Christ" also leads to a corporate union within the Body of Christ, the Church. One who participates in Baptism and the Eucharist are now part of the mystical reality of the Church, and no longer associated with the idolatrous world outside of it.

Such effects have deep implications in the life of the believer. They do not wipe away the lure of sin; rather they make it possible to overcome it. Paul urges his readers to live the resurrected life that they proclaim and participate in during the sacramental rituals. One who is incorporated into Christ and his body should no longer live as he formerly did. And consistent with the very fact that the struggle against sin still exists, Paul is reminding his readers that the sacraments point to future realities. Only Christ has truly died and risen again in glory. His followers participate in that death through the sacraments, but these are only a promise of the future glory that awaits those who continue to live the resurrected life until Christ comes again.

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