Simon Chan writes in his Liturgical Theology that one of the reasons evangelicals have become suspicious of the liturgy, and of sacraments in general, is because they are actually children of the Enlightenment. British evangelical scholar Philip Seddon has noted that evangelicals have “a deep-seated suspicion of references to ‘mystery’ or to anything that is not explicable,” and he sees this as “the triumph of the Enlightenment at the heart of Evangelical readings of the sacrament.”
So modern evangelicals tend not to like to think of something actually happening in baptism or Eucharist. They tend more toward Zwingli’s “memorial” theology of the sacraments, since, as Chan says, “it does not require them to associate transcendence with anything so mundane as water, bread, and wine.”
I also see a kind of gnostic dualism here, that locates spirituality in the immaterial. It says the “real” thing happened “in my heart” and my being baptized or taking communion is just a “reminder” or perfunctory ritual that I go through for no apparent reason.
But for the early Christians, the sign and the spiritual reality were not separated. Not that the sign did something in and of itself, like a magical charm, but that the spiritual reality was not complete without the sign, and that something spiritual and important really happened in the performance of the sign, when it is performed with faith and understanding. Chan says: “Baptism was not a ‘mere sign’ of a prior spiritual work effected by the Holy Spirit in the human heart; rather baptism is effective because it is the Spirit who effects the reality in and by the sign” (emphasis mine).
So baptism is not merely concerned with the indvidual’s sin and redemption, as though it was just a signifier of forgiveness. It is a cosmic event. The early church’s baptismal rites show this kind of understanding when they ask candidates to renounce the world the flesh and the devil (and then they would signal such renunciation with exorcisms!). In some rituals the baptismal candidates would first turn toward the west (the symbolic realm of darkness, where the devil was thought to originate from) and curse and spit on the devil (!). Then he or she would turn toward the east to welcome the coming of the Sun (Son) of Righteousness. Baptism announces not just an individual’s forgiveness, but God’s power over a vanquished enemy. The Eucharist does the same, and is likewise a cosmic event. The sign and the spiritual reality cannot be separated.
Even though modern evangelicals don’t have a lot of experience with or
understanding of sacramental reality, the process of falling in love
and getting married is a good parallel. Marriage is the sign and seal of two persons’ lifelong commitment to love each other. It isn’t merely a perfunctory act that signifies something that happened before, but rather something actually happens in marriage that doesn’t happen if they don’t perform the sign. Before the wedding, they were two separate persons; after the wedding, they are one. The early church had much the same “process” understanding of conversion: one truly and fully becomes a Christian in baptism.
Chan argues that baptism should be seen as the culmination of a “process of conversion”, where the Christian is weaned off the world, the flesh and the devil through a catechumenal process. “Just as love between a man and a woman culminates in marriage, the catechumenal process culminates in baptism, when one renounces the world, vows lifelong commitment to follow Christ and enters into full communion with the church.”