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Christians have long struggled to affirm the truth that God saves freely, sovereignly, unconditionally and the truth that he uses means to bring his elect to new life and true faith. During the Middle Ages particularly, the church came to think that sacraments do what they do because they are what they are: “by the working it is worked” (ex opere operato). Another way to describe this error is sacerdotalism, wherein the thing signified (salvation) is completely identified with the sign (e.g., baptism or the Supper). The minister becomes a priest dispensing salvation. This approach almost always turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. The recipient is said to receive salvation provisionally from the use of the sacrament but that salvation must be retained by cooperation with grace (works).
The opposite error is to divorce salvation from the signs, so that the preaching of the Word and the administration sacraments lose their import. When the Word and sacraments become marginal, something has to fill the void. This view of Word and sacrament ministry is often the consequence of revivalism and Pietism....
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