“Sorry I Could Not Travel Both”: Protestant Divergence on the Sacraments

Brannon Ellis
Monday, May 1st 2023
May/Jun 2023

Spanish and Portuguese are close siblings. Both descended from Latin and developed alongside one another on the Iberian Peninsula in relative isolation from their closest European neighbors. Spanish and Portuguese thus have what linguists call a “high degree of mutual intelligibility.”[1] If a person from Spain is speaking to a person from Portugal, much of the conversation will be intelligible for both. But there will be surprises. The Spaniard, downcast, may lament a situation in which his sister, Maria, was embarrassed or ashamed (embarazada), while the Portuguese might joyfully respond to the news that Maria is pregnant (embaraçada). The Portuguese might express his delight at spotting an octopus (polvo), and the Spaniard may wonder why his friend is so fascinated by dust (also polvo). The Spaniard should certainly take care in extending an invitation to a party to which his friend should feel free to bring (traer) his wife—it will sound an awful lot like an invitation to betray (trair) her! These linguistic land mines are called “false friends.”[2]

Sometimes this is exactly how I feel when I talk with a fellow Christian from a different confessional tradition. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been discussing baptism or the Lord’s Supper with a friend and felt like we were tossing the same terms or Bible verses back and forth, while the words we caught were nothing like what was thrown. Why is it that when we discuss the sacraments with brothers and sisters in Christ from other traditions (close siblings indeed!), we feel like we understand each other one moment and then speak completely different languages the next? Why do our fellow Christians—not just their words—sometimes feel like “false friends”?

In this article, I want to bring attention to a root source not only of surface misunderstanding but of real disagreement among classic Protestants, one I’ve found to underlie many other misunderstandings and disagreements. Being attentive to this divergence at the very root of our theology of the sacraments will, I hope, help us as we work through our differences over its branches, limbs, and leaves. This underlying cause of disagreement—the reason why so much of our conversation about the sacraments is lost in translation—is our answer to the question: What do sacraments accomplish, and who’s the primary performer?


“And That Has Made All the Difference”

Most Christians I know have never asked about what sacraments accomplish, at least not explicitly. We’ve asked what the Bible teaches about how many sacraments there are, whether we should call them sacraments or ordinances, how baptism should be administered and who should receive it, how often the Supper should be celebrated and who is authorized to offer or withhold it. But if we have any convictions at all about these other questions, we also have an implicit answer to the question of what a sacrament does. That answer affects everything else. It colors how we hear and respond to one another whenever we disagree. It influences how we interpret what the Bible says in the first place.

When we as Protestants ask what a sacrament accomplishes, and by whom, our answer should be what we believe is the Bible’s answer. But our pursuit of biblical answers never happens in a vacuum. We have great clouds of witnesses in our Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions. Our respective confessional standards and liturgies summarize clear convictions and the rationale behind them. Those forms, more than individual representative thinkers, will guide my exploration here.

All the reformational traditions agree that the sacraments don’t accomplish anything by the mere fact of being performed or impart grace apart from faith.[3] The point I’m getting at in asking what the sacraments accomplish is to uncover implicit assumptions about their function. What primary role do the sacraments perform in the life of the church and in the lives of Christians? Most importantly, who is the main performer? Whether tacitly or openly, Protestants have answered in one of two ways: the sacraments primarily function as means of God’s grace or as means of our gratitude. In the work of the sacraments, the primary performer is either God or the believer. In this article, I’m using the labels of “first-road” and “second-road” Protestantism as theological shorthand to describe these alternative sacramental paradigms.[4]

Robert Frost famously mused on the choice between opposite, though not equally mysterious, paths: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . ” Sacramental disagreements among Protestants rarely feel like such a clear-cut choice between the road of grace and the road of gratitude. Still, at the trailhead, we can discern two diverging paths of priority and emphasis leading from our convictions about what a sacrament does. As Frost admits with sorrow, he “could not travel both / And be one traveler.” We all veer one direction or another. Some of us focus on what God is doing in the sacraments while others focus on what we are doing. Some of us find the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in God’s gracious action; others find it in our faithful obedience. These diverging lines of spiritual emphasis are as different as gospel and law. And while this divergence by itself may not make “all the difference,” it deeply influences the rest of our differences.


The First Road: God’s Means of Grace

Here is my functional description of the role of the sacraments as God’s means of grace. This won’t make every Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed adherent among us happy (precious few things do), but I hope it’s inclusive enough to be useful:

The sacraments are divinely chosen means through which God creates or strengthens faith and deepens faithfulness in his people as he, through them, joins us to Christ for the forgiveness of sins and new life.

The main work of the sacraments is the work of the gospel. Through them, God grants his Spirit, forgives sins, brings new life, strengthens assurance, and encourages us in our Christian walk. As far as root convictions go, this is the first road diverging in the theological wood. It represents sacramental practice and teaching through most of church history and is the path maintained by most reformational confessional and liturgical documents:

Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. . . . Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise. (Augsburg Confession, X and XI)

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him. (Thirty-Nine Articles, XXV)

The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted. (Westminster Larger Catechism, A. 161)

Exactly how God works to bring all these blessings to us through the sacraments is a topic of endless debate among first-road Protestants. The point I want to make is that these confessional traditions all share the conviction that sacraments function as instruments of God’s gracious action received by faith. Despite being hotly debated and variously interpreted, this is the majority view in church history. For much of North American Protestantism, however, it’s the road less traveled.


The Second Road: Our Means of Gratitude

First-road Protestants see the sacraments as instruments God uses to accomplish gospel work. But second-road Protestants—like historic Baptists as well as most contemporary broadly evangelical Protestants in North America and elsewhere—tend to see the sacraments as instruments we use to accomplish law work. By saying the sacraments primarily do law work for second-road Protestants, I’m assigning them to the third (or Christian) use of the law for grateful obedience. In the Baptist tradition, according to Stanley Grenz, baptism and the Lord’s Supper “are basically human, and not divine acts. . . . The ordinances, therefore, are signs of obedience.”[5] The sacraments function as an expression of the godly way we’re called to walk with grace-enabled gratitude within the community of those who follow in the steps of Jesus.

Here is my functional description of the role of the sacraments as our means of gratitude, which, again, won’t thrill every Baptist:

Sacraments are divinely established means through which we, individually and as God’s people in Christ who are indwelled by his Spirit, respond in faithful obedience to Christ’s command to observe these ordinances as occasions for reminding ourselves of the gospel, confessing or reaffirming our faith, and expressing our gratitude to our gracious God.

In this paradigm, the main function of the sacraments is the work of gratitude. They’re means by which we confess and praise, remember and recommit. For Baptists, this is especially apparent in baptism. Here’s how the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith describes the function of baptism:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life. (29.1)

Notice that baptism points to these blessings of salvation as a sign for the believer, but baptism doesn’t seal these blessings to the believer. This language isn’t accidental; “sign and seal” are the twin terms the Westminster Confession used a generation earlier in its description of the function of the sacraments.[6] The London signatories unpacked the point in an appendix:

If our brethren do suppose baptism to be the seal of the Covenant which God makes with every believer (of which the Scriptures are altogether silent) it is not our concern to contend with them herein; yet we conceive the seal of that Covenant is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the particular and individual persons in whom he resides, and nothing else.

In other words, the seal of Christ’s blessings for the believer is the indwelling Holy Spirit rather than baptism. Baptism isn’t the way God brings the forgiveness of sins, unites us to Christ, gives us his Spirit, and works faith and new life. Baptism is a response to those blessings of salvation. Baptism is a testimony by the believer and a reminder to the believer that union and forgiveness and new birth have already been given through the preaching of the gospel as well as the hidden work of the Spirit in the believer’s life before and independent of the act of baptism. For second-road Protestants, forgiveness through Christ and new life in the Spirit are the saving work of God to which the sacraments powerfully testify. But forgiveness and life aren’t something God brings us through the sacraments. The work of a sacrament is not so much God’s work as ours—a “symbolic act of obedience,” as the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 has it.[7] This is the perspective on the sacraments we have when walking the second road, which until relatively recently in history was the road less traveled.


Not So Fast: The Irreducible Complexity of Reality

I don’t want to push the either/or of the two roads too far. I’ve been careful to state that different Protestant confessional traditions approach the sacraments as primarily either grace or gratitude. I do this because many of us will want to affirm both functions—both roads—as true of the sacraments.

First-road Protestants usually acknowledge the second road in some form or another. Luther claimed baptism brings forgiveness and regeneration for all who receive God’s promises in it with faith. But he also said baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[8] Calvin defined a sacrament as first “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.”[9] Our response is never the sacraments’ primary function and shouldn’t be the focus of our faith; but the first road allows us to affirm the second. After all, gratitude flows from grace.

Likewise, many second-road Protestants acknowledge deep spiritual truth in the first road, especially when it comes to the grace of God experienced in the Supper. This is especially true of many Reformed Baptists. While the London Baptist Confession clearly emphasizes the sacraments’ function as means of gratitude in a general sense, it still claims that in the Supper we receive God’s grace as we’re spiritually nourished by Christ’s body and blood through faith:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. (30.7)

This isn’t everything most first-road Protestants would want to say, but it’s also more than the mere memorialism of someone like Grenz. Indeed, many Protestant believers or congregations whose confessional statements follow one path nevertheless hold convictions closer to the other path. American Reformed and Presbyterian believers, for example, often favor the second road even while their confessions and liturgies favor the first.

Despite this complexity, I want to be clear that I don’t believe the choice between the two roads is a false one. When we’re asking fundamentally about primacy, only one thing can hold pride of place. When we read what the Bible says about baptism and the Supper, does it place the primary emphasis on God’s activity or ours? Does grace or obedience hold sacramental priority?


Shedding Light on Twig and Branch Conflicts:
How Should Baptism Be Administered?

From the vantage point afforded by either road, and even from a mixed perspective, the sacraments are a good and blessed gift ordained by God for building up his church. But our root assumptions about whether they’re primarily occasions for gospel or gratitude spread outward into conflicting conclusions about all the other important aspects of their meaning and use. I’ll touch on just one issue illustrating my point: the mode of baptism. My goal in raising this question isn’t to provide a satisfying answer but to whet your appetite to use this two-roads paradigm as a tool for discerning underlying assumptions in future discussions of this and related questions farther out among the twigs and branches.

In the Great Commission, Christ commanded his church to make disciples through baptizing and teaching. He didn’t specify the precise actions required for baptism, beyond invoking the Triune name, any more than he specified the precise actions required to teach beyond making sure we stick to what he commanded (Matt. 28:19–20). Scholars debate whether the New Testament word for baptize—a common verb meaning everything from plunge to bathe to dip to wash—suggests or even requires a particular mode. Church history reflects a variety of practices: full immersion, partial immersion with pouring, or pouring or sprinkling alone, all performed one time or three times. The common denominator is the name of the Trinity and the use of pure water. So, what informs our convictions about the mode of applying the water? What fuels our disagreements?

Let’s start with a second-road perspective. If sacraments are means of expressing gratitude to God, then baptism’s main function is the public profession, confirmation, and renewal of a Christian’s faith. In baptism, I’m committing myself to Christ and to the believing community in response to God’s saving initiative toward me. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that expressing my faith commitment in the most scripturally obedient and symbolically fitting way is crucial to the proper function of baptism in my life as a believer and in the life of the community I’m joining.

Second-road Protestant emphasis on symbolism is all the more fitting when paired with the biblical and historical evidence for immersion. While it may be overreaching to speak of a scholarly consensus, many scholars agree that immerse is the typical meaning of the Greek verb and was the preferred mode of administration for most of church history in the West (and remains so in the East). The evidence is weaker, it must be said, for full immersion or submersion as Baptists practice it today—except, ironically, in the case of infants, who were often fully immersed. From what we can tell from ancient writings as well as architecture and depictions, it seems that in adult baptism being “immersed” might mean the convert stood or knelt in water while the officiant poured water over that person’s head or whole body.[10] In any case, using a significant quantity of water in the administration of the rite is symbolically suited to New Testament accounts of baptism and some of its key imagery: burial with Christ (Rom. 6:1–4; Col. 2:12), passing through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1–4), and whole-person cleansing (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22).[11]

First-road Protestants may disagree when second-road Protestants insist on the necessity of baptism by total immersion, but they shouldn’t be surprised. Obedience is gratitude put into action. This suggests the mode of administration is vital—even essential—to whether my baptism is true or valid. Misrepresentation or inadequate representation of the biblical symbolism for baptism is a misrepresentation not only of my faith, but of the word of the Lord whom I profess to believe.

From a first-road perspective on the sacraments as God’s means of grace, however, we find comparatively little exegetical or historical emphasis on any single baptismal mode as always best—and certainly no rejection of unpreferred modes as invalid. The ancient guidance of the Didache captures the range of modes already in practice soon after the time of the apostles:

And concerning baptism, baptize in this way: having reviewed all of these [teachings], baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you do not have access to running water, baptize in other water. And if you are not able to baptize with cold water, then baptize with warm water. But if you possess neither, pour water on the head three times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[12]

The author of the Didache is clearly interested in baptism’s mode and has convictions about what actions are symbolically fitting to its administration—even down to the details of running, cold water being better than still, warm water. Then why such flexibility? The underlying rationale, it seems clear, is a commitment to the objective significance of the sacrament. Christians may have convictions about whether one mode or another is more fitting or more venerable, but neither our grasp of the water’s symbolic significance nor the mode of applying it makes our baptism valid. God’s word makes it valid. When we emphasize baptism’s objectivity as God’s work according to his word, we put less emphasis on the symbolic power of the action and more emphasis on the certainty of the promise being enacted. Here, Calvin makes the Didache’s point more sharply:

Whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.[13]

For first-road Protestants, when baptism is administered with water by a representative of the church in the name of the Trinity and received by faith, it’s reckoned as if it and everything it promises are performed by God himself. Baptism isn’t our way of symbolically being buried and raised with Christ—baptism is God’s way of joining us to the crucified and risen Christ by faith. Baptism doesn’t just represent being cleansed from sin—in it, God makes us clean through faith. The sacrament serves this function whether a particular first-road confession has understood God’s promised performance to be tied to the time and place of the sacrament’s administration (as in the Book of Concord) or dependent on the Holy Spirit’s timing (as in the Westminster Standards).[14] Rather than something we do for God in faithfulness, baptism is something we receive from God by faith.

If, therefore, you’re convinced that the mode of administering baptism doesn’t determine whether that baptism is effectual or legitimate, you’re probably a first-road Protestant. You’re reasoning consistently with your underlying conviction that God is the one at work, accomplishing salvation by his word through the water and faith. But if you’re convinced that certain modes of administering baptism, because more symbolically fitting or exegetically defensible, are thereby rendered valid, then you’re probably a second-road Protestant. You’re reasoning consistently with a different underlying conviction: Baptism is primarily an expression of grateful obedience to God symbolizing that a believer has already been joined to Christ and to his church by faith.


The Road Not Taken

All classic Protestants should wrestle with the question of whether the sacraments are fundamentally gospel or fundamentally law. Do we ask: What has God promised to do? Or do we ask: What has God commanded us to do? The true answer to where the emphasis should lie, of course, must be wherever the Bible places it. Our presuppositions often hold sway in our reasoning; this diagnostic question about the sacraments’ function can only ultimately be answered not by our personal convictions but by the testimony of the Scriptures.

I’ve written this article to offer to you what has been a useful tool for me in practicing the art and craft of theological thinking about the sacraments. I hope I’ve shown that my simple two-roads schema can be a useful tool for theological thinking, though I know it can’t presume to harness all the complexity of actual reality. This approach has also helped me to see the perspective of fellow Christians who walk the other road. Your road may not be the same one I’ve taken, but—to quote Frost once more—recognizing the root differences allows me in some way to look “down one as far as I could” even as I travel the other. In fact, I hope you’re motivated to try applying this paradigm to other important sacramental disagreements among fellow Protestants to see whether it helps you understand where you and they might be coming from. What about infant baptism? What about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper?

For all the potential land mines planted by false friends between languages like Spanish and Portuguese, the key biblical and theological terms we’ve been reflecting on—grace, faith, baptism, and so on—are quite carefully chosen and well established in most of these languages. That’s not because languages are similar everywhere, but because Christians are. Indeed, Christian sacramental traditions share a high degree of mutual intelligibility because we share one baptism through one faith and are fed on one bread by one Lord. Although we still misunderstand and disagree, our unity in the Spirit enables us to appreciate and to love across divergent paths of conviction. May our Lord continue to lead us into all truth, refusing to travel our roads in such a way as to drift apart but committing to walk with him, side by side. That will make all the difference.

Brannon Ellis is the executive editor of Modern Reformation.

1. See, for example, the ongoing “Morpho-syntax of mutual intelligibility in the Turkic languages of Central Asia” project of the Surry Morphology Group, a linguistics research center at the University of Surrey. Here’s how they frame their research: “Despite being perceived as unique, self-contained systems, the languages of the world exist within linguistic continua, and most linguistic varieties, to a higher or lower degree, are mutually intelligible with other related varieties.”
2. Interestingly, this phenomenon occurs within languages too, when the meaning of a word changes over time or shifts from one dialect or region to another. On the prevalence of false friends when contemporary English readers use early modern English Bible translations, for example, see Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018), ch. 3.
3. Protestants rejected this Roman Catholic view endorsed in the seventh session of the Council of Trent in 1547: “If anyone shall say that by the said sacraments of the New Law, grace is not conferred from the work which has been worked [ex opere operato], but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices to obtain grace: let him be anathema.” See Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1957), DS 851 canon 8. Contrast this with the Augsburg Confession, XII, and Westminster Confession of Faith, 27.3.
4. I’m not implying first-class and second-class citizens; I’m recognizing that the first road has been much more prevalent in the history of the church.
5. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 644, 670, as quoted in Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 770.
6. See, for example, Westminster Confession of Faith, 27.1.
7. Baptist Faith and Message 2000, VII.
8. Small Catechism with Explanations (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2006), 214.
9. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 4.14.1.
10. The degree to which New Testament baptism reflected rabbinic Jewish purification baths, for which total submersion was explicitly required to be valid, is also contested. For an overview of the textual debates and archaeological evidence, see the entry on baptizo in Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Harper, 1889), available online at; Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); La Sor, “Discovering What Jewish Miqva’ot Can Tell Us about Christian Baptism,” in Biblical Archaeology Review 13:1 (1987).
11. There are other similar images for new life in Christ not symbolically tied to (full or partial) immersion, of course, such as cleansing through sprinkling (Heb. 9:13, 12:24, with Ps. 51:7), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, anointing for priestly or kingly office, incorporation into the church, and becoming sons or daughters through participating in Christ’s sonship (Mark 1:9–11).
12. Didache 7.1–3, in Brannan, The Apostolic Fathers (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2017), 135.
13. Institutes, 4.15.19.
14. See, for example, Defense of the Augsburg Confession, IX, and Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.6.
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Brannon Ellis
Brannon Ellis is the executive editor of Modern Reformation.
Monday, May 1st 2023

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