Within the circles I grew up in, there was no strong doctrine of the sacraments—at least in comparison with the Reformed tradition. Since adopting the Reformed tradition (as much as a Baptist can), I have thought occasionally about the theology of the sacraments and have come to recognize their significance. However, I have often struggled to appreciate their importance in my own life. I was eager to receive Tim Chester’s new book Truth We Can Touch through the Crossway Blog Review Program for the opportunity to think through this more practical and personal side of the sacraments. In many ways, Tim delivered. The book is well written, and Tim has a way with illustrations.
Truth We Can Touch is organized into six chapters. The first four chapters consider four aspects shared by Communion and Baptism: Chester argues that these sacraments are each an enacted promise, grace, presence, and memory. The last two chapters consider the importance of baptism as conveying a status change that shapes our life, discussing the nature of a “Baptized Life” and “Baptized People.”
I found Chapter 1 particularly insightful and helpful for thinking about the practical significance of Baptism and Communion. The following chapters follow a standard Reformed understanding of the sacraments, arguing that they are indeed significant and full of meaning. Addressing any view that makes the sacraments pure symbolism, Chester argues that the sacraments do not only have subjective meaning but have meaning found in what God does in and through them. They are meaningful in the context of God’s overall redemptive work and the specific context of the gathered church. Thus, they are truly means of grace. The applications presented in these chapters are the practical outworking of the Reformed theology Chester presents.
However, these chapters lacked a persuasive Biblical argument for the theology underpinning their application. That is, Chester presented lots of Reformation-era evidence for his views—citing Luther, the Formula of Concord, Cranmer, Calvin, Turretin etc.—but did not show why the positions he presented are Biblical. I am not suggesting he does not use Scripture; as the Biblical index will reveal, this is far from the case. Some of the sections are quite helpful in connecting the sacraments with the Biblical witness, such as his “History of the World in Twelve Meals” (56-67).
However, when it comes to debatable issues, Chester does not give the reader good Biblical reasons to accept, for example, the Spiritual presence of Christ in communion (Chapter 3). I am not sure—generally nor after reading the book—what it means that the “signs convey the reality they signify without becoming the reality they signify” (73). That is, what does it mean for “grace,” the thing signified, to be conveyed through the sacraments? If grace is a freely given gift or God’s kind mercy, how is it “conveyed” but not identified with sacrament? This language found throughout the historical discussions of the sacraments, but it is not Biblical language for them (as far as I can tell). Chester does not give good Biblical reasons for viewing them in this manner.
Additionally, I am not convinced that baptism is what unites us to Christ, brings us into the New Covenant, and makes us part of the Church, for which Chester argues in the last two chapters. Chester does not draw a clear distinction between the Church universal and the church local, which muddies the waters. Further, the picture is oversimplified. In the New Testament, baptism is presented as an aspect of conversion, alongside faith/repentance and regeneration. References to baptism often encompass the whole (an instance of the literary device called a synecdoche, where a reference to the part indicates the whole). Thus, though our entrance into the Church universal happens when we believe and our belief is itself entrance into and a product of being part of the New Covenant, and though regeneration is the precondition of faith, baptism is associated with each of these.
Because theology and the Bible are my areas of study, I have drawn attention to several issues I had in these regards. However, I do not want to give the impression that Truth We Can Touch is a write-off. I enjoyed reading the book and was encouraged to think again about these gifts we call the sacraments. Read it and hear a call to recapture the enchanted world we live in and to find value in symbols. Don’t settle for a “mere symbolism.” Use this book as a starting point and conversation partner in turning to Scripture and hearing what Jesus and the apostles have to say about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This book has the potential to get us, Evangelicals thinking once again about these doctrines. For that, I am thankful.