Clinging to Externals: Weak Faith and the Power of the Sacraments

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Behind the debates about the objectivity of Christ’s presence in the Reformed view of the supper are crucial pastoral questions about the nature of faith, and I think it will bring clarity to the debate if we can state those questions clearly. I have suggested elsewhere (“Why Luther is not Quite Protestant” in Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005) that the crucial issue for Protestants is whether faith must be reflective—i.e., whether we must first know we have faith before we are permitted to believe that God is gracious to us as he promised. In connection with the sacrament, the question is: must I first know I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before taking the sacrament, or can the sacrament itself be a means of giving me a faith I am not confident I really have? In short, can the sacrament strengthen weak faith, or does it demand faith? Although it is logically possible for the sacrament to do both, in pastoral practice the latter typically excludes the former. Requiring people to believe is not a good way to strengthen weak faith. For—to use the classic Protestant distinction—to require something of people is to preach Law rather than Gospel. God gives his gifts by the promise of Christ, which is the Gospel, not by the commandments of the Law—not even the command to believe.

A good way to get at this issue is in terms of the Augustinian theory of signs that Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed share. The sacrament is a sign (signum) says Augustine, and the thing (res) it signifies is a spiritual gift of grace. What all parties to the 16th-century debate agree on is that unbelief separates the signum from the res. This means that to receive the sacrament without faith does a person no good, because that way one receives a sign of grace without the grace it signifies. The crucial difference between the Reformed on one side and the Lutherans and Catholics on the other, I suggested in my previous essay, is that the Reformed identify the body and blood of Christ as the res in the sacrament, whereas the Lutherans and Catholics identify them as belonging to the signum as well. So for the Lutherans and Catholics, those who receive the sign of the sacrament without the thing it signifies still receive the body and blood of Christ, but do so to their own harm.

What all agree about, again, is that those who receive the sacrament without faith receive it to their harm. That point, I suggest, is what raises the crucial pastoral question. The question is: since faith is required for the sacrament to do me good, must I know—or at least believe—that I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before I approach the sacrament? If so, then the sacrament is not likely to strengthen those who have weak faith.

These pastoral questions have played a large role in the history of the Reformed churches, especially among the Puritans. Early in the history of New England Puritanism, for instance, communicant church membership was restricted to those who could give a profession of saving faith. (For the history here, see the classic study by Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints.) This institutionalized the requirement of reflective faith: anyone who could not sincerely profess that they had saving faith was excluded from the sacrament and from church membership. And it is important to emphasize here that we are talking about a distinctively Protestant view of saving faith. In contrast to requirements of church membership among earlier Puritans, it was not sufficient simply to confess the creed or to believe and understand Christian teaching. Much less was it sufficient to be baptized. The profession of faith (which made you, in the technical language or the time, a “professor of religion”) meant that you could confidently show that you had a saving interest in the blood of Christ, which typically meant you must be able to narrate the occasion on which you made regenerate by the Holy Spirit through conversion to saving faith.

The concept of saving faith here is distinctively Reformed, and it underlies the requirement of reflective faith. The crucial distinction is articulated by Calvin himself, who contrasts the faith by which we are saved with a temporary faith, by which we experience the goodness of God for a time but do not persevere in true faith until the end. For like Augustine, Calvin teaches that in order to save us God gives not only the intitial gift of faith but also the gift of persevering in the faith until the end. But unlike Augustine, he sees these as one and the same gift: when God gives true saving faith, he necessarily gives us persevering faith, for a faith that does not persevere to the end does not save.

This is a radical departure from Augustine, and it has enormous consequences. For Augustine and the whole Christian tradition prior to Calvin, it is perfectly possible to have a genuine faith and then lose it. Apostates, in other words, have apostasized from the true faith. For Calvin, on the contrary, there is a kind of faith I can have now which I am sure not to lose, because it comes with the gift of perseverance. What is more, I can know that I have such faith rather than the temporary kind. For the whole point of the distinction between saving and temporary faith is that I can know that I am eternally saved, and that means I must know I have saving rather than temporary faith. Again, this is a profound departure from Augustine, who explicitly teaches that we are not yet saved (nondum salvos, in City of God 19:4). In a typical formulation, Augustine insists that we are saved in hope but not yet in reality (in spe, not in re).

Calvin’s departure from Augustine here results in the requirement of reflective faith. In order to believe that you are eternally saved, you must believe that you have saving faith. From this follows what is genuinely distinctive about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which is not (as Calvin rightly argues) the doctrine of double predestination, but rather the epistemic thesis that we can know we are among the elect, those chosen by God and predestined for salvation. For anyone who adds to an Augustinian doctrine of predestination the notion that we can know we are saved for eternity will necessarily believe that we can know we are predestined to be saved. For if Augustine is right about predestination, it is logically impossible to know you are saved for eternity without knowing that you are predestined for such salvation. That is precisely why Augustine denies you can know you are predestined for salvation.

So the reflective faith of the Reformed tradition is strong stuff. It assures you not just that God is gracious to you today (like Lutheran faith) but also that you are saved for eternity, which means you can be assured of this much about God’s hidden decree of predestination: that it includes you among the elect. To require such a faith before admission to the sacrament is to require a great deal. It is, I think, to make faith into a work—and quite a substantial work indeed, which many anguished souls could never accomplish. The Puritan churches of New England included many baptized persons who believed that the creed was true but who did not believe they had experienced a conversion to saving faith, and therefore were excluded from the sacrament. In their case, the sacrament could not serve to build up the weak in faith.

Strikingly, there were attempts to reverse this. Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, allowed baptized churchgoers who could not profess saving faith to come to the sacrament, which Stoddard said could function as a “converting ordinance.” This is an important moment in the history of the Reformed tradition because it displays the possibilities available within Reformed theology. But the fact that Edwards and his followers, who called themselves “consistent Calvinists,” rejected this compomise, suggests that the weight of the Reformed tradition tends to be against it.

Why? Samuel Hopkins, a student of Edwards and a leader of the consistent Calvinists, gives an explanation that parallels the Augustinian point about how unbelief separates signum from res. The means of grace, Hopkins argues, do no good except to the regenerate, and when the unregenerate (i.e. those who do not have saving faith) make use of the sacraments, they succeed only in offending God by their inexcusable unbelief and misuse of his holy ordinances. Note that all the objectivity in the sacraments thus only makes this offense worse: if Christ is truly presented and offered in the sacrament, as Calvin insists, then all the more inexcusable is the unbelief of those who partake of the sacrament unworthily.

How might the Reformed resist such reasoning? I do not see how they can do so consistently without abandoning the requirement of reflective faith, and I do not see how they can do that without abandoning the fundamental Calvinist conviction that we can know we are eternally saved. It is that radical new conviction that creates the characteristic tensions and pastoral problems of the Calvinist tradition. This is not to say that other traditions do not have tensions and problems of their own. The point is that they take a different form than in the Reformed tradition. Catholics, for instance, do not worry about whether they have true saving faith. You will never find a hint of any such worry anywhere in Augustine, for instance, despite all his introspective power. For the idea that I have to have a special kind of faith which I know in advance will persevere to the end is an idea that simply never occurred to him.

Different worries generate different pastoral practices. Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion. The pastoral problem this generates is that either it turns faith into a work, a decision of faith one is required to make, or it leaves a poor sinner nowhere to go to find the grace of God, since all means of grace only work harm to the unregenerate.

Let me suggest a Lutheran diagnosis (and then identify the pastoral problems that result from this Lutheran view). Reformed and Lutheran will heartily agree that the sacramental means of grace can only do me good only because of the Word that gives them their form and power. There is no sacrament of Christ’s body without the Word of institution: “This is my body, given for you.” The question is, if I am weak in faith, how can I trust that this sacrament and its Word will do me good? Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.

In this way the Gospel and its sacraments are signs that effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened—without “making a decision of faith,” without the necessity of a conversion experience, and without even the effort to obey a command to believe. In Luther’s view, I have not chosen to believe—as if this were something that could be achieved by my own free will, a notion that Luther fiercely rejects—but have instead received faith as a gift. For what the sacramental word tells me is not: “You must believe” (a command we must choose to obey) but “Christ died for you” (good news that causes us to believe). Thus both Word and sacrament do not demand faith but strengthen it, functioning not as Law but as Gospel.

In my judgment, the requirement of reflective faith is a disaster because it means that I have no right to believe that the sacramental words, “for you,” include me unless I first know or at least believe that I have true saving faith. To make this judgment is to say that the characteristic pastoral problems of the Reformed tradition are not so much problems to be solved as theological mistakes to escape. But to be fair, let me say what pastoral problems my Lutheran view entails.

It entails rejecting the view that we can know we are eternally saved. In Luther’s view, we can be assured we have grace, but we cannot be assured of eternal salvation. For the promise of God gives us Christ—in both word and sacrament—but it does not promise that we shall persevere in the faith of Christ until the end. This is a crucial fact about the biblical Word that no amount of theologizing can get over: the Word of Christ can give me faith and thereby give me Christ himself, but it does not promise to give me perseverance in the faith and therefore does not give me assurance of eternal salvation. If you want that kind of assurance, you have to go the road of reflective faith, believing not just in the Word but in your own belief in it, being somehow assured that the faith you have is true saving faith. To put it succinctly, what you give up by rejecting the requirement of reflective faith is the assurance of salvation.

The pastoral problems this produces have a label, which Luther himself gives them. He calls them anfechtungen, the assaults of the devil, who loves to taunt us with the fear that maybe we are not among those predestined for salvation. This is why Luther insists on turning away from the Deus absconditus, the God of the hidden decree of predestination, and clinging to the Deus revelatus, the God who reveals himself in the Gospel. It is sufficient to know that Christ’s body is given for me. If I cling to that in faith, all will go well with me. And whenever the devil suggests otherwise, I keep returning to that sacramental Word, and also to the Word of my baptism, and to the “for us” in the creed (“for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate”), where the “us” includes me. Thus precisely the kind of faith that is insufficient to get me admitted to the Puritan sacraments—which is to say, mere belief in the truth of the creed and trust in my baptism—is all the faith I have. If Luther is right, it is all the faith I can ever have, and all the faith I need.

In this way the sacraments do help me when I face the typical pastoral problems generated by Lutheran theology. By contrast, the Reformed tradition generates pastoral problems that cannot be helped by the sacrament, because neither word nor sacrament can assure me that I have true saving faith. The logic of the matter, it seems to me, makes it impossible to split the difference between these two positions and get the best of both. On the one hand, if you want a concept of saving faith and the assurance of eternal salvation, then the sacraments cannot help you in the way that matters most. For—on the other hand—if you cling to the sacraments to strengthen your faith, then the faith you get is not what the Reformed tradition calls saving faith. Therefore I do not think one can consistently hold both a strong view of the power of the sacraments and the Reformed view of the nature of faith.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 4 March 2008)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Good News for Anxious Christians.

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4 Responses to Clinging to Externals: Weak Faith and the Power of the Sacraments

  1. Dante Aligheri says:

    Hello, Dr. Phillip Cary

    I really enjoyed that essay. Right now, I’m working on a graduate paper about Martin Luther and his relationship with reason. I was recommended to read Gerrish’s “Grace and Reason,” which I found to be excellent, and it really resonated with your essay except Gerrish does not focus so much on the Lutheran meaning of the sacraments (and maybe is slightly dismissive of them). I have to ask because some of what I’m reading suggests that Luther was the last of the medievals living in an early modern/Renaissance age. Your essay above, “Luther Is Not Quite Protestant,” also fits with that.

    If I wanted to explore the relationship between Luther and early modern/medieval Catholicism more, would you have any recommendations?



  2. Phil Cary says:

    Virtually every study of the early Luther will deal with his relationship with medieval Catholicism. The problem is that the best of them are in German. To get started in English, you could try Gordon Rupp’s book, The Righteousness of God, which is now a classic. The deepest study on Luther and reason I know of is Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles. Luther’s view of reason often amounted to his view of Aristotle. And this book is the best study i know of Luther and Aristotle.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I remember reading around in, but never reading all of, Philip J. Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics (OUP) when it came out. He contrasts Calvin with ‘Protestant Gnostics’ but what you describes as “the epistemic thesis that we can know we are among the elect, those chosen by God and predestined for salvation” would seem to indicate that Calvin was himself a sort of ‘Gnostic’ (as perhaps would other things like the idea of ‘autopistos’) – not in the sense that the ‘elect’ comes to realize that in fact he ‘is God’, but not in the sense of orthodox uses of Christian ‘gnosis’ from, say, St. Clement of Alexandria through St. Maximus the Confessor, either.

    And, how far, if at all, historically, is an effective antinomian libertinism such as James Hogg depicts in his satirical novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself (1824) a danger (how often actualized) of embracing such an “epistemic thesis”?

    I dwell among ‘bevindelijke’ Dutch church-folk for whom that “thesis” is central dogma, which can certainly seem to issue in something like such an effective antinomian libertinism among the despairing who assume themselves to be ‘reprobate’, but I am not sure about anything of the sort with reference of the ‘elect’.


  4. joel in ga says:

    Another insightful essay from Cary. Thanks for sharing it. I think the remaining tension in the Lutheran view comes, predictably enough, from the doctrine that hell is not purgatorial and limited to 40 stripes but endless perdition and retribution.

    A bit of a non sequitur perhaps, but Christian philosopher and Harvard professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy remarked in The Fruit of Lips: “But already 150 years ago, the Universalists harped on the same sore point of Thomistic, Lutheran, and Calvinistic doctrine: Nothing, according to the Bible, is eternal except God. Eons may punish souls during their times, but the punishment in hell is of one eon only (aionios) and this cannot mean ‘eternal.’ This wrong translation of aionios as eternal, for ever and ever, still fills our theological dictionaries. It is palpably wrong. It has poisoned theology.”


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