Paul and the Sacraments
What is the Role of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Pauline Concept of Salvation?
Over the centuries, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist have been considered integral to the Christian concept of salvation. Although there has been much debate throughout the centuries regarding exactly how they integrate into the salvific plan of Christ in the life of the Christian, most Christians have acknowledged at least some role for them. This is no less true of the Apostle Paul.
The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist did not originate with Paul, but instead were already established within the Christian Church of his day. Paul himself was baptized (Acts 9:18), and he assumes it as a common experience of Christians (Rom 6:1-4, Gal 3:26-28)(1). Likewise, when speaking of the Eucharist, Paul states clearly that it is something he "received" (1 Cor 11:23), not something he invented. While it is true that in the Pauline corpus (2), there is little detailed discussion of these two sacraments, this is due to the nature of his letters, which were written to address specific topics and controversies of the communities to whom they were addressed. One can deduce from the content of Paul's letters that he did not feel the need to address controversies regarding a "sacramental theology." When Paul does address Baptism and the Eucharist, it is almost always in an ethical context (3).
However, it would be a mistake to assume from this that these two sacraments are unimportant to Paul, or not an integral part of his theology. When it suits his argument, Paul does not hesitate to use the realities of these sacraments to further his view. Some point towards Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17 as evidence that he denigrated Baptism. However, this passage is not a statement on the essential role of Baptism in the Christian life, but instead simply a reminder from Paul that his specific mission from Christ is to "preach the gospel" (1 Cor 1:17), not to administer Baptism (4). Furthermore, one must understand the context in which these letters were received and read. Paul's letters are typically intended for a specific ecclesia (1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, 1 Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:1, Philem 1:2). Meeks and especially Zizioulas show that, for Paul, an ecclesia is specifically the Eucharistic gathering of the community of believers (5). Thus, the context of the reading of Paul's letters is within the Eucharistic liturgy. Thus Paul does not build a true "sacramental theology;" nevertheless these two sacraments are fundamental parts of his overall theology of salvation.
For Paul, both Baptism and the Eucharist are a participation in the saving works of Christ which bring about an incorporation and union with Christ and a corporate union with all other believers. These effects have ethical implications for the believer, and ultimately point towards the parousia, when Christ will come again and bring all his followers into his kingdom.
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).
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.
As Baptism incorporates the believer into Christ, so also Paul emphasizes that it incorporates the Christian into the Body of Christ, the Church. Likewise, the Eucharist becomes the means by which the Body is kept in unity. By these two sacraments, the believer is brought into, and sustained in, the mystical unity of all baptized Christians.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is urging his readers to be united. There are certain realities that make this union possible, according to the Apostle: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:4-6, emphasis added). Each member of the Church partakes of one Baptism, and it is through this one Baptism that each member enters into the unity of the one Body of Christ.
By Baptism, the divisions that existed beforehand are eliminated as all become one body. Paul writes to the Galatians: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28). Paul is linking Baptism with its result: no longer is there the Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female divisions that existed beforehand. Now all are one in Christ, and these distinctions that are so important in our present world are removed through Baptism (17).
It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the baptized is brought into the unity of the Body of Christ. Paul writes, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13) (18). From this passage, it is clear that Paul does not consider it the work of individual Christians to bring about the "one body," but instead it is the work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that brings about corporate unity, and it is through Baptism that one initially enters into that unity (19). Paul emphasizes the practical aspects of the unity brought about through Baptism earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians. The Church in Corinth was racked with divisions, and Paul was trying to overcome these divisions by reminding the Corinthian Christians of their fundamental unity in Christ. He writes, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor 1:13). Christ is the central figure of their Baptism - they were not baptized in the name of Paul, but "into Christ." And as Christ is the unifying center of the Church, so those baptized in his name are united to each other through and in him (20).
This fundamental unity which the Corinthians have forgotten is remembered, and revived, each time Christians gather together for the Eucharist. Paul writes to them, "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). This sacred ritual is more than just another meal - it is an "experience of solidarity, or fellowship" (Gorman 268). Koinonia, the word used here to denote fellowship and participation with Christ, was also a term used by the early Christians to refer to their community (cf. Acts 2:42). As Maloney writes, ecclesia "refers to the Church as a community, the Church sharing in the Trinitarian divine life, especially in and through the Eucharist. It is a work of the Holy Spirit to bring about such a community of love" (Maloney 131). Thus, koinonia with Christ via the Eucharist brings about koinonia within the Christian community.
The Eucharistic feast for Paul is not an individual affair, but one in which the whole community makes real their communion with Christ, and therefore with each other. In this sacrament, the "many" become "one body": "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." (1 Cor 10:17). It also appears from this passage that the ancient practice was to share "one loaf" when celebrating the Eucharistic feast. This further strengthened the symbolism for Paul of how one loaf feeds the many, and unites them into one body, which is the body of Christ (21).
It is important now to reiterate what was discussed earlier: the reading of Paul's letters took place in a Eucharistic context. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is addressed "To the ecclesia of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor 1:2). As Maloney notes, this refers "to all Christians bonded together by the same faith and sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist..." (Maloney 130). Zizioulas states it even more explicitly: "in the thought of Paul and the Churches which read his Epistles, the terms...'the Lord's supper' (i.e. Divine Eucharist) and 'the Church' (ecclesia) or 'the Church of God' mean the same thing" (Zizioulas 48-49, emphasis in original). Thus, it can be seen that when Paul urges his readers to be "one body" in the "one loaf," they would be living out that command in the context of hearing it proclaimed.
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.
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).
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.
(2)For the purposes of this paper, "Paul" and "Pauline" will refer to the author of all thirteen letters attributed to Paul. back
(3) Cf. Lampe p. 36 back
(4) Cf. Carlson p. 255 back
(5) Cf. Zizioulas pp. 46-53 and Meeks p. 143. Zizioulus especially emphasizes this point, focusing on the direct connection between the term ecclesia and the celebration of the Eucharist. back
(6) All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, copyright 1946 National Council of Churches in Christ in America unless otherwise noted. back
(7) Cf. Oepke p. 541 back
(8) Cf. Bouyer p. 77 back
(9) Cf. Ziesler p. 15 back
(10) Cf. Ziesler p. 15 back
(11) Cf. Lampe p. 44 back
(12) Cf. Cullmann p. 29 back
(13) Cf. Tarazi p. 172 back
(14) Cf. Meeks p. 151. This practice, which continued for a number of centuries, had its roots in Jewish ritual washings, but was given new meanings in the Christian sacrament of Baptism. back
(15) Cf. Meeks p. 156 back
(16) Cf. Petersen pp. 10-13 back
(17) Cf. Tarazi pp.168-185 and Hunn p. 374 back
(18) Cf. Hawthorne p. 64 back
(19) Cf. Carlson p. 260 back
(20) Cf. Carlson p. 260 back
(21) Cf. Ziesler pp. 59-60 back
(22) Cf. Carlson p. 255, Ziesler p. 19, and Lampe p. 36 back
(23) Cf. Brown p. 521 back
(24) Cf. Carlson p. 259 back
(25) Cf. Lampe p. 44-45 back
(26) Cf. Carlson p. 258 back
(27) Cf. Fitzmyer p.1411 back
(28) Cf. Hauck p. 806 back
(1) Cf. Carlson p. 255, Ziesler p. 19, and Lampe p. 36 back
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