2/26/10

Come Let us Use the Grace Divine

When I was in college I one day stumbled across an interesting looking book at Barnes & Noble called Swear to God: the Promise and Power of the Sacraments by Scott Hahn. Hahn came out of the Reformed tradition (which also shaped Anglican views - including John Wesley's - of the Sacraments) though he had later become a Roman Catholic. True to Hahn's reputation, the book contained plenty of apologetics for the Roman Catholic Church, but I really resonated with his teaching on sacraments that was exciting, Biblical, and fresh.

The sacraments are signs of the covenant (like Circumcision) and they are "covenant oaths" - or pledges or promises. In recieving the sign we recieve certain promises from God and simultaneously make our own pledges of faithfulness to him as well. "I will be your God and you will be my people" is that refrain that echoes throughout the Bible.

It is very much like an exchange of rings during a wedding ceremony. The exchange is symbolic, but in the act of "doing" the symbol itself (what Hahn and others call "a sign-act") we do something else. In giving and recieving rings, we "wed" (from the old ceremony: "With this Ring, I thee wed"). In the sacraments we commit ourselves to Christ and recieve - in a solemn covenantal way - his grace-filled commitment to us. Undertaking the sign-act changes our relationships and therefore our identity (like with the rings).

Hahn lays out the Biblical case for this understanding of sacraments in great detail, starting from Genesis and going all the way to Revelation. One simple passage that may uniquely illustrate it is 1 Pet. 3:21 "And baptism, which [the great flood] prefigured, now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ..." Now the phrase translated "as an appeal to God for a good conscience" can also be rendered "as a pledge to God of a good conscience." (Compare the RSV with the NIV here). So you can see that in the same sentence baptism is both our appeal, asking God to give us cleansing grace, and also our pledge of faithfulness to live in that grace. The baptismal promise is tied here (as in Romans 6 as well) to the power of the Resurrection of Jesus for its efficacy.

The Eucharist or Lord's Supper, then, can be understood similarly: we make a "covenant remembrance" calling upon God to remember his gracious promise over us and renewing our own vows to him; and in the Holy Communion we also recieve heavenly nourishment to live out our promises - the nourishment that is the presence of Christ.

I was delighted to discover, after having read and been convinced by Hahn's approach, that this is also the Wesleyan and Methodist approach to sacraments. Consider this statement from Hoyt Hickman's little pamphlet "United Methodists and Communion": Our Confession of faith states: "We believe the sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of the Christian's profession and of God's love toward us..." The term [sacrament] is taken from the Latin sacramentum, which was a Roman soldier's pledge of allegiance. A sacrament is God's pledge of allegiance (love and faithfulness) to us, and our answering pledge of allegiance to God.

A beautiful statement of the covenant nature of sacraments (as well as their efficacy as "channels of grace") can also be found in the Charles Wesley hymn, "Come Let us use the Grace Divine." Though included in the Baptism/Confirmation section of the hymnal it can be understood eucharistically as well, as at my seminary, where the SMU Wesley Foundation had a weekly communion service that always began with this hymn before the Great Thanksgiving prayer:

Come let us use the grace divine and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
give up ourselves, through Jesus' power, his name to glorify;
and promise in this sacred hour, for God to live and die.

The covenant we this moment make be ever kept in mind;
we will no more our God forsake, or cast these words behind.
We never will throw off the fear of God who hears our vow;
and if Thou art well pleased to hear, come down and meet us now.

Thee, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, let all our hearts recieve,
present with Thy celestial host the peaceful answer give;
to each covenant the blood apply which takes our sins away,
and register our names on high and keep us to that day!
(United Methodist Hymnal #606)

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2 Comments:

Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

The Collect for "The Baptism of the Lord" (see The United Methodist Hymnal #253 and The Book of Common Prayer 1979 page 214) also lifts up the "covenant vow" understanding of the sacrament.

10:07 AM, February 26, 2010  
Anonymous Todd Stepp said...

Actually, Charles Wesley wrote this hymn specifically for the Covenant Service which culminated in the Lord's Supper. So, it does fit the eucharistic setting quite well!

11:56 AM, February 26, 2010  

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