Leonard Vander Zee’s Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship is a contemporary and thoughtful work on the sacraments. While Vander Zee approached the sacraments from a Reformed perspective, he highlighted principles that all evangelicals can appreciate in their understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The major theme Vander Zee emphasized in his book is the Christocentric nature of the sacraments. Vander Zee looked to the intercession of Christ as the starting point for understanding the unifying nature of the sacraments: “Everything that happens to Christ happens for us” (46). Since Christ is the believers’ High Priest (Hebrews 8), he worked redemption for them which the Holy Spirit later applies to them.
Understanding Christ’s intercession led Vander Zee to his second claim: “You are reconciled with God by the cross of Christ. In him you have salvation, the forgiveness of your sins, and eternal life” (49). No matter one’s view of the nature of the sacraments—whether they are effectual or merely symbolic—they are intimately tied to the salvific work of Jesus Christ. Thus Christ brings God’s people into unity with him and each other.
As Vander Zee unpacked his Christocentric understanding of the sacraments, he continually focused on their unifying nature and purpose. For instance, Vander Zee’s definition of baptism focused on the unity between Christ and believers: “In baptism, God, … incorporates us into the new creation in his Son, … and joins us to … the church” (102). In baptism, Christians are united to Jesus and each other, which sets them on a path to ultimately unite with God in the recreation.
This understanding also carries into the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord’s Supper not only gathers a community, it creates a community.” (157) In fact, this understanding is why Vander Zee lamented the Reformation’s fight over the Lord’s Supper (172-181). Before the Reformation, the church primarily held one view on the nature of the Lord’s Supper which Augustine’s neo-Platonism or Aristotle’s natural philosophy explained (168). After the Reformation, the church diverged four different views: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, Christ’s presence, and memorial (180). As Vander Zee aptly stated it: “[O]ne of its greatest tragedies was the split between the various leaders of the Reformation over the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of unity” (172).
Vander Zee’s ability to view Christ at the center of the sacraments is rooted in his understanding of the nature of the world. Basically, God can communicate through his creation to his people since he created all things. However, as Vander Zee rightly noted, “the world cannot be a sacramental place” by itself because of the fall (19). Although, through Jesus’ redemption of all things, sacraments can be physical things that point to a spiritual reality (17). Therefore, God can use physical means—in this case, water, bread, and wine—to communicate grace to his people.
Vander Zee’s worldview coincides with the framework Al Wolter’s explained in Creation Regained. Since God created, the fall corrupted, and Jesus redeemed all things, he can use the physical materials of this world to point toward a spiritual reality. Those who view Christ’s work as a merely spiritual redemption will not be able to hold to this understanding of the sacraments because they are a) merely physical artifacts and b) corrupted by the fall.
Vander Zee’s Christocentric approach to the sacraments led him to emphasize the unity between Christ and believers and believers to each other. Since the sacraments represent Christ’s work, namely his death, burial, and resurrection, Christ works through physical means to unify God’s people, no matter their view of how Christ is (or is not) present in the elements. Therefore, evangelicals should see the commonality shared in their understanding of the work of Christ rather than the differences posed in their views of the sacraments.
This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Robbie Griggs in Spirit, Church & Last Things at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version, is more technical in nature, and longer than previous posts. I have bolded the main points of sections and paragraphs as well as important endnotes. The introduction and conclusion should be read in their entirety.