A portion of the chapter “Sacraments and Magic” in Disciple the Nations by Stephen Perks
(But also see the Lamb’s Reign article, from which this chapter is built.)
Sacrament, in the sense that the word is used today and by the Church throughout most of history, was an invention of the Church to bolster up the growing ritualisation of the faith and concentration of power in the hands of a priesthood, and its development went, and still goes, hand in hand with the abandonment of covenant. The concept is alien to biblical theology. Where sacramental theology is strong covenantal theology is usually very weak. The degree to which one accepts the whole idea of sacraments is the degree to which one fails to understand biblical covenantal theology and adopts a magical instead of a covenantal understanding of the Christian faith. It is also the degree to which Christianity is abandoned as a religion and becomes a mere mystery cult instead. Circumcision, the Passover, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the agape, the Christian Passover) are covenant rites,—signs and seals of the covenant—not sacraments. The concept of sacrament in the sense used by the Church is an idea foreign to Scripture. There are no sacraments in the Bible. The word was not even used in the sense in which it is used today and has been used throughout most of Church history until around the third century a.d. (it was first used in this sense by Tertullian, c. 155–240 a.d.).
Fundamental to the concept of sacrament is the idea that the correct performance of ritual can produce an effect in the recipient and indeed even in the external world, so that all one needs to do to practice the faith and even reform the world is to practice the correct liturgy in the Church, and where the liturgy is deemed to be defective, to reform the liturgy according to whichever sacramental theory one believes to be correct. The correct term for this kind of belief is magic. The performance of what is deemed to be correct ritual underpins all forms of magic. Belief in the power of ritual (magic) is thoroughly pagan, and yet it is this belief that structures, governs and manifests itself in the vast majority of Christian Churches today, as indeed it has done throughout the greater part of the history of the Church, and this is so for Protestant and Charismatic Churches no less than traditional Episcopal Churches.
The Bible has very little to say about ritual in the ecclesia, the Christian assembly, and Jesus himself seems to have spoken and behaved in such a way that it is impossible to derive any form of ritual from his teaching or actions. In fact, the rituals of the Church in the main derive not from the Bible (although justification for ritual itself is often incorrectly derived from a mistaken understanding of the Old Testament temple sacrifices), but rather from pagan Roman religious rituals, which were stripped of their pagan content and then given a superficial Christian veneer. Belief in the power of ritual, i.e. magic, replaced the covenant. But Christianity does not work by magic. God works through the lives of his people, through their obedience to his word (the covenant of grace), in living as the true society, the Kingdom of God, which is a counter-revolutionary prophetic social order, the purpose of which is to glorify God by converting all the nations, thereby transform- ing the world, so that when the Lord Jesus returns the kingdoms of this world will have become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). This is about as far from what goes on in most Churches today as it is possible to get.
The Christian community today desperately faces the need for a renaissance as great as, indeed even greater than, the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But it is unlikely that such a renaissance will ever take place while the present structures of Church authority and the official magic that supports them retain their stranglehold on the body of Christ. It seems therefore inevitable that the precursor to such a renaissance can only be a complete collapse and final discarding of those structures and the ideologies that give them meaning and life. If the house is to be rebuilt again according to the Lord’s design, the crooked foundations on which it previously stood for so long must be cleared away for good.
As an aside, I do like North’s definition of magic: Something for Nothing.
A Covenant Sign, on the other hand, is a rite that illustrates the signing of a testament, a covenant, between God and Men.
Genesis 15:17-21, ESV
And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
God walked between the dead animals, saying by action that HE will be cut in half, if He fails to uphold the terms of the covenant he made with Abram.
Note that Abram didn’t have to walk between the carcasses.
You know, just like his son Issac was spared at the last minute.
Unlike God’s firstborn son.
The Covenant is serious.
Magic is not.