The Double-Edged Nature of the Gospel and Sacraments
The gospel and the sacraments (i.e., visible gospels, baptism and Holy Communion) are means of grace (i.e., The Holy Spirit’s acts of delivering Christ and all His saving benefits to us through faith). The gospel—audibly and visibly—is good news!
But, if a Spirit-wrought faith isn’t present the gospel and the sacraments can become means of judgment. The Apostle Paul offers this chilling prospect in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” The sobering reality is that the gospel and the sacraments can be “to one a fragrance from death to death.”
To be sure this condemning function of the gospel and sacraments is accidental to their nature but it is nonetheless a sobering reality. Concerning the condemning function of the gospel, Calvin, in his comments on 2 Corinthians 2:15, states, “We must always . . . distinguish between the proper office of the Gospel, and the accidental one (so to speak) which must be imputed to the depravity of mankind, to which it is owing, that life to them is turned into death” (Calvin, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 20:161; see also 177-78.)
The gospel, like the sacraments, is double-edged (J. V. Fesko, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapid, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 307.). The gospel, like the sacraments, may hold out covenant blessings or sanctions depending on the presence or absence of faith in the recipient (Ibid., 297, 307.).
Consequently, to those without faith the gospel may be like a fragrance from death to death, but to those who receive it in faith, like a fragrance from life to life (2 Cor. 2:15-16). However, Calvin explains that the proper office of the gospel is for salvation because Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world (Calvin, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 20:161.). The gospel in its proper office is “the doctrine of life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a free reconciliation with God.”
Thus, let us heed the warnings of the author of Hebrews who writes, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). Again, “1 Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, lest any one of you may seem to have come short of it. 2 For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard" (Heb. 4:1-2).
Concerning the double-edged nature of the gospel and the sacraments, J.V. Fesko writes:
"True, the sacraments are means of grace. However, because they are linked to the covenant and more broadly to divine revelation, they are not always means of grace but sometimes means of judgment. The microcosm of the crucifixion shows that God’s self-revelation in Christ is both a means of judgment and redemption. Two thieves were crucified with Him—one believed and was saved, but the other thief did not believe and was condemned (Luke 23:39–43; cf. John 3:16–18). The same Jesus brought both redemption and judgment—He is both the cornerstone and the stone of offense and stumbling (Isa. 8:13–15; Rom. 9:33; 1 Peter 2:7–8).
God’s revelation has always been double-edged. There are no neutral encounters with God. In the covenant with Adam, God revealed His command as well as the blessing and sanction—to eat from the tree of knowledge would bring death, but to obey the command would bring life (Gen. 2:17). In the Mosaic covenant, Israel was given the law and their tenure in the land, which was connected to the historia salutis, not the ordo salutis, and was conditioned by the same covenant blessings and sanctions—do this and live (Lev. 18:5), which implies that to disobey meant death (Deuteronomy 27–28). God’s covenantal revelation has always come with both blessings and sanctions.
The double-edged nature of God’s revelation is aptly captured in Paul’s angst-filled statement that describes the apostolic role to bear the gospel of Christ: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:15–16). The author of Hebrews similarly states: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12–13).
This blessing-sanction principle is true not only of God’s revelation in Christ and the Word, but also of the sacraments. The sacraments are revelatory visible words and come through God’s covenantal dealings with His people. The blessing-sanction principle is evident, for example, in the Lord’s Supper. The supper is clearly a means of blessing and judgment, for Paul warned the Corinthians that some of them had died because they failed to recognize rightly the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:27–30).
Redemption and judgment are bound with baptism, as Part II of this study has shown. The same flood that delivered Noah and his family through a covenant brought judgment on the unbelieving world (cf. Gen. 6:17–18; 1 Peter 3:20–21). The Red Sea crossing that Paul calls a baptism was the covenantal deliverance of Israel and judgment on Pharaoh’s army (cf. Ex. 14; 1 Cor. 10:1–4). Christ drowned in His crucifixion-baptism in the wrath of God (Luke 12:50); this crucifixion-baptism was also the curse of the covenant (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23). But the crucifixion-baptism of Christ is also the source of new creation and life (Rom. 6:1–4; Col. 2:11–14). . .
For now, it is sufficient to note that the sacraments are means of grace, because apart from a Spirit-wrought faith, they become means of judgment."
J.V. Fesko, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, 286-288