Sacraments and Salvation
Jason Hsu—Baldwin Park, California, USA
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God
to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the
No topic is more relevant or
important for Christians than the gospel of salvation. The gospel impacts our
life of faith, our ministry, and ultimately, our salvation. So a clear
understanding of the gospel is very important for True Jesus Church (TJC)
When TJC believers share the
gospel with Christian friends, the role of sacraments in salvation may become a
point of divergence. In many areas in life, differences should be embraced.
God’s church is vibrant because of diversity. But gospel fundamentals cannot be
compromised or else the gospel’s entire foundation disappears.
A gospel that teaches the
administration of new covenant sacraments for salvation is not opposed to
“justification by faith” or “salvation by grace”. Instead, the sacraments that
Christ commanded and instituted should and do play a vital role in our
salvation. Rather than undermining a relationship with Christ, sacraments
establish it. This is the very reason Christ instituted the sacraments under
the new covenant in His blood.
For instance, when Jesus says, “Most
assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot
enter the kingdom of God,” He is pointing out a fundamental means of
salvation. The essence speaks of regeneration but historically, “born of water”
in John 3:5 follows the pattern of Christ (baptized and then receiving the
Spirit) and refers to water baptism; this interpretation has been delivered from
the time of the apostolic church and hundreds of years thereafter. Understood
rightly, sacraments are not mere religious rites, but essential means of
regeneration and salvation in Christ.
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with
Me…For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
(Jn 13: 8, 15)
Throughout history, “sacrament”
has been defined in many different ways. The fact that “sacrament” is not
exactly a biblical term makes it difficult to define. Tertullian, an early
church father, first used the Latin sacramentum, meaning “mystery”, to refer to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.
In the Bible, however, “mystery”
is not used to refer to what we now call sacraments. Yet the fact that the
church continues to use the word “sacrament” for various procedures to initiate
and establish a person’s relationship with Christ only confirms the deep sense
of “mystery” in sacraments. Just as we cannot rationally explain how the blood
of animals atoned for God’s people under the old covenant except by
faith in God’s word, we are hard pressed to rationally explain how common
physical elements, used in new covenant sacraments, affect our spiritual life
But if we believe in the authority
and effect of new covenant sacraments according to Christ’s promises, we do it
on the basis of faith—faith not only in Christ, but also in His word and the
promised effect of the sacraments founded upon that word.
Traditionally, TJC uses a
three-part definition to define sacrament:
Jesus instituted and commanded the practice.
Jesus set an example for the institution by administering/undergoing the
The institution is related to our salvation in Christ.
Using these criteria, TJC
administers three sacraments: water baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion.
Marriage, considered a sacrament by some, is not a sacrament under these
criteria, for Christ neither commanded marriage nor entered into it. Moreover,
marriage is not related to salvation.
Christians Discount New Covenant Sacraments
“And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of
men.” (Mt 15:9)
“[H]aving a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such
people turn away!” (2 Tim 3:5)
Some discount sacraments as part
of the gospel because they take this as preaching unnecessary “religion” (man-made
forms, rituals, and formulae) in opposition to true “relationship” (a
heart-felt, transformative connection with Christ).
Viewed as mutually exclusive,
“religion” seems to inevitably lead to legalism, while “relationship”
inevitably leads to a regenerated life in Christ. Sacraments, if seen as human religious institutions, are largely discounted since
we are saved by faith, not religion. As a result, new covenant sacraments,
although commanded by Christ, are largely viewed as optional symbolic rituals.
These rituals merely confirm that God has already transformed us inwardly. Of
necessity, sacraments become mere signposts of a prior redemption, essentially
devoid of Christ’s promise and spiritual effect, i.e., “ritual”.
Truly God must transform our heart
inwardly before we accept any sacrament by faith outwardly; yet this does not
negate the fact that sacraments themselves are important historical means
by which God effects His promise of salvation.
Throughout history, terrible
things have been done in the name of religion. But, for the Christian, religion
and relationship are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, religion is just
another way to say “belief” must be realized in “practice.” If practiced in
truth, religion establishes and even strengthens our relationship with God and
others. When faith finds real form, it will truly function for our salvation.
But to put all faith practices and relationship in conflict suggests
Christianity has no visible form, which is simply untrue.
True faith always manifests in
some visible form, pattern, or behavior. In this sense, every faith has
“religion.” The most important question is not whether our faith has some
practice attached to it; rather it is whether our forms and practices are
approved by God or by man.
The old covenant had regulations
and forms for atonement by blood, including the scapegoat as a picture of the
transfer of sins. Truly, God provided these forms of atonement;
but the Israelites could only receive God’s promise of atonement if they did so
Although animal sacrifices under
the Mosaic covenant could not perfectly atone for sin,
this does not mean God’s promise of atonement was without effect. In other
words, God was not joking when He commanded His people to make certain sacrifices
to atone for sin. In reality, the source of atonement is God Himself, and the
animal sacrifices were just the means God used. In the new covenant, atonement
finds its ultimate fulfillment in the sacrificial offer of Christ’s body and
blood on the cross, once for all.
Sadly, some fear if we attach any
faith practice, such as performing sacraments, to the foundational work of
Jesus Christ, we diminish Christ’s work and turn salvation into a
works-righteousness salvation. As a popular evangelical catchphrase says:
“Religion says, ‘Do!’ Christ says, ‘Done!’” For this reason, even (human) faith
itself is explained as a divine gift and work.
Dead religion is real. Faith
easily becomes formulaic. For instance, some Christians may claim, “I confessed
Jesus with my mouth, therefore, I am saved. I was baptized, therefore, I’m
saved. I partook of Communion, so I’m saved. I obey all the commandments to the
letter, so I’m saved.” An overly legalistic mindset is dangerous, and it sets
the wrong foundation for our salvation and relationship with Christ.
Christians should never think that
they are absolutely saved because they were baptized, had footwashing, or
partook of the Holy Communion. Judas Iscariot’s example proves that sacramental
participation is not the absolute guarantee of salvation. Although not
biblically explicit, Judas was obviously baptized, had footwashing, and partook
of the last supper with Christ. If Judas’ story tells us anything, it tells us
ritually undergoing sacraments is not
sufficient to ensure our salvation.
In response to dead religion, some
Christians only allow for faith itself or “bare faith” to be the basis of
salvation. Now many evangelicals understand “justification” as synonymous with
“salvation”, so “justification by faith” means “salvation by faith.” The very
act of asserting faith in Christ itself puts a person into a “saved”
relationship with Christ. This is dangerously formulaic—an “instantaneous
salvation event” saving a person once and for all. But faith apart from true
practice is a dead faith. If a proclamation of faith in Christ itself, at one
moment in time, is all that is required to be justified, anything on top of
that moment is “extra” ritual or religion and has nothing to do with our
Foundation of Our Salvation
For by grace you have been saved
through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works,
lest anyone should boast.
What is salvation by faith?
Christians often forget that our salvation consists of two different, yet
important aspects: (a) the point of acceptance by faith in Christ; and (b) the
process of salvation in Christ. Both are necessary.
The Bible does indeed say, “…if
you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God
has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). But we must take
the whole counsel of God’s word.
James 2:24 speaks of being
“justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Just as faith without works is a
dead faith, faith itself does not justify us. Just as the body has no vitality
without the spirit, faith has no life apart from the works that manifest it.
The Bible speaks of salvation in
all tenses, i.e., past, present, and future.
We should not deny the assurance of our salvation.
But it’s important to understand that redemption plays out in history. For this
reason, the Bible often speaks of our spiritual growth and the process of continuing in what we believe.
Apostle Paul preached “faith working through love,” being a “new creation” in
Christ, and “keeping the commandments of God” as what matters beyond physical
circumcision. Yet neither our outward works nor our faith
alone forms the foundation of our salvation, for salvation is not founded upon
The foundation of our salvation is
God’s grace—pure and simple. And the source of divine grace is God Himself. In
John’s gospel, God is called the Word; this Word became flesh and dwelt among
us. And we know that this Word that became flesh
is Jesus Christ. He is God Himself, who came to save His people from their sins
and take away the sin of the world.
“For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through
Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:17)
Once we’ve established the foundation
of our salvation: (a) God’s grace, (b) God Himself, and (c) Jesus Christ and
His work, we are ready to understand the means of our salvation.
With or Without Human Means?
But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man
appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to
His mercy He saved us, through the
washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit…
Christians understand that a
divide separates humanity from God; this divide is called sin. By God’s grace,
however, Christ came to mediate our alienation and reconcile us back to God.
We speak of salvation as something
God accomplishes through His mercy. This naturally leads us to the question: If
salvation is totally God’s doing, what role, if any, do I have in this?
Practically speaking, Christians believe both in God’s sovereignty (control)
and human responsibility; both are biblical.
So we may ask another question: Is
salvation accomplished with or without human means? For the Christian, the
answer must be: “With human means.” Christ Himself, the Word that became flesh,
must be acknowledged as a historical, fully human, means of our salvation.
This allows us to establish that there is not only a divine but also a human means
of grace in our salvation.
If we want to understand
justification and salvation correctly, we need to understand the concept of imputation
or accounting of Christ’s righteousness to our account. Just as a bankrupt
person can never legally pay off his debts without someone either putting money
into his account or forgiving him his debts, a sinner can only meet God’s
righteous requirements through Christ’s intervention. As we begin to recognize
the reality of sin and evil, we begin to understand humanity’s desperate need
for both a mediator and Savior.
The bridge to making peace between
God and man is Christ’s blood. Most Christians accept that Christ’s blood
justifies us and that salvation does not automatically rain
down on all humanity.
So, if redemption is not universal
but is historical, there must be some human action by which we accept and
receive God’s grace of salvation. This historical act may serve as a
fundamental means (not a
foundation) for receiving Christ’s righteousness to our account.
The basic human means to obtain
salvation is faith in Christ, a commonly accepted concept among evangelicals.
Therefore, sacraments are “of faith” in Christ not human works. The
“human” or “historical” act of receiving salvation (i.e., sacrament) has no
merit in itself; only God’s grace, not human virtue,
determines whether or not a person’s heart can be opened to the gospel of
So Titus 3:4–6 tells us salvation
is not of our own works of righteousness. At the same time, it tells us
we are saved “through” the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy
Spirit. This speaks to both the divine grace and the historical means of
salvation by which we may be saved.
Faith is a
Means of Grace in Salvation
Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast,
many believed in His name when they saw
the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He
knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He
knew what was in man.
Faith, trust, or reliance is an
important foundation for human action. But faith is not something we can easily
quantify. If someone says, “I have 50% faith it will rain tomorrow,” that
statement itself may be harder to verify than “There is a 50% chance of rain.”
We can measure conditions for rain, but can we similarly measure conditions for
faith? Like love, faith is generally intangible and immeasurable. We look at
certain actions and say, “This person has great faith. That person has deep
love.” But even actions cannot tell the whole story.
People act for many reasons. A man
courting a woman may give her a lavish diamond ring. The act alone cannot tell
the whole story. We may assume the man is acting out of pure love and devotion.
But maybe the man acted out of greed (the woman was wealthy). Maybe he acted
out of pressure (his parents told him he had to marry this woman for status).
Or maybe he did act out of pure love (the woman could offer him nothing, but he
fully devoted himself to her).
Our actions cannot always fully
reveal our motives, but they may be evidence of them. In the same way, acts of
“faith” (or even religion) in themselves cannot tell the whole story. God alone
knows the human heart, for He knows what is in man.
not enough to only understand that faith is the means of our salvation, we must
take it a step further. What type of faith can save? Faith in a fairy
godmother? Faith that says, “Jesus paid it. I believe it. That’s the end of
it.” Or is there something deeper? Hopefully, there is something deeper.
Understanding the means of
salvation (i.e., faith in Christ) is just as important as understanding
salvation’s foundation. At its core, faith in Christ must be grounded upon
God’s word—the bedrock of God’s promises. If we cannot trust God’s word, what
good are His promises? So the absolute standard for the Christian faith is
God’s word, divinely revealed to those whom He loved throughout history; found
in the sacred pages of the Bible. By that word, we are born again
and receive the gospel.
are Necessary Means of the Grace of Salvation
“But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed
from the heart that form of doctrine to
which you were delivered.” (Rom 6:17)
The sacraments that the church
administers today are founded upon God’s promises.
According to the promise of the
Water baptism effects the forgiveness of sins and imparts newness of
Footwashing, by those sent by Christ, allows us to have a part with the
Holy Communion allows us to have Christ’s life and a share in the
resurrection on the last day.
On the surface, when a person
publicly accepts Christ by getting baptized or participates in any sacrament,
we may think this is mere religious ritual. Can common water effect forgiveness
of sins? How could footwashing allow us to have a part with Christ? How does
partaking the body and blood of Jesus allow us to partake of Christ’s life or
receive the promise of resurrection on the last day?
But then we realize that
sacraments rest on the authority, command, and promise of God. If God’s word is
not trustworthy, His promises have no effect or power. On the other hand, if
God’s word is trustworthy, His promises have tremendous effect and power.
So we return to a fundamental
question: Are new covenant sacraments done on the basis of God’s or man’s promise?
Put simply, “Are the new covenant sacraments from heaven or from men?”
If sacraments are merely man-made
institutions of religion, let’s do away with them. But if God has commanded and
authorized the church to administer and perform the sacraments in His name as
necessary means of grace, let’s perform them for the sake of the gospel of
It’s easy to confuse the foundation
of our salvation with its means. But whether it is hearing or preaching
the gospel, confessing Christ, being baptized, accepting footwashing, receiving
Holy Communion, or living a sanctified life, there is absolutely no conflict
between these historical acts and salvation by grace through faith.
Following Christ’s commands and
teachings do not undermine the gospel but establish it. Salvation “by grace
through faith” doesn’t mean our faith exists in a vacuum that can only claim
Christ but is devoid of His righteousness, boundaries (forms), moral law, or
any means of salvation.
Yes, religion says “Do!” and
Christ says, “Done!” Yet Christ’s “Done!” does not mean that we don’t do
anything to receive His promise. Instead, what we do, we do by faith through
Christ’s strength and for His glory.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence
only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God
who works in you both to will and to do
for His good pleasure.