I have been studying up on the sacraments for ordination exams, and, in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, I came across an interesting contrast between how Lutheran and Reformed Christians understand the efficacy of the sacraments that I did not previously understand fully.
Lutherans understand the sacraments as being inherently powerful, provided that the one receiving the sacraments does so in genuine faith.
They hold that the efficacy of the sacraments is due to their own inherent virtue or power; a power independent, on the one hand, of the attendant influences of the Spirit (extrinsecus accidens), and, on the other hand, of the faith of the recipient. Faith, indeed, is necessary to any saving or sanctifying effect, but that is only a subjective condition on which the beneficial operation of the power, inherent in the sacraments is suspended….Luther’s own favourite illustration was drawn from the case of the woman who touched the Saviour’s garment. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. III, p. 503)
The woman, of course, believed that if she could just touch Jesus’ garment, she would be healed. The garment of Jesus was inherently powerful, and she was blessed because she believed that it would heal her.
The Reformed, on the other hand, do not believe that the sacraments have inherent power, grace, or blessing; rather, all the grace offered to us in the sacraments comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, which we receive through faith:
There is, therefore, a strict analogy, according to the Reformed doctrine, between the Word and the sacraments as a means of grace. (1.) Both have in them a certain moral power due to the truth which they bring before the mind. (2.) Neither has in itself any supernatural power to save or to sanctify. (3.) All their supernatural efficiency is due to the cooperation or attending influence of the Holy Spirit. (4.) Both are ordained by God to be the channels or means of the Spirit’s influence, to those who by faith receive them. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. III, p. 502)
Hodge does an excellent job of explaining the difference; however, he does not give many reasons to adopt the Reformed view on this point over against the Lutheran view. I am not sure what particularly, aside from theological creativity, would commend the Lutheran view; however, I would be love to hear from someone more knowledgeable about the Lutheran reasons.
I do think that a strong case can be made in favor of the Reformed view. Paul, in 1 Cor. 12:13, writes that, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The Holy Spirit plays an active role in the baptism of believers so that, in our baptism, we are made to drink of him.
Or, consider that, in each of the accounts of Jesus’ own baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32), the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove; moreover, in each of those accounts, John’s baptism is contrasted with Jesus’ ability to baptize in with the Holy Spirit. Relatedly, in Romans 2, Paul explicitly links the supernatural work of circumcision to the work of the Spirit: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29).
It seems to me that physical circumcision and water baptism were both intended to point toward (and actually confirm!) the work of the Spirit, which the Scriptures describe as heart circumcision and as baptism with the Spirit. Apart from heart circumcision, physical circumcision means nothing; apart from Holy Spirit baptism, water baptism means nothing.