The Semipelagian heresy often masquerades as Arminianism; many Christians, misled and misinformed over many years, have no idea that they espouse heretical ideas. I myself was no exception. One cause that fuels this heresy is, I think, an inadequate view of mystical union with Christ. When poor teaching and incorrect worship lead people to see union with Christ as just another term for belief in Christ, and when people rationalistically consider the latter the more basic category, what’s left is a diminished concept of grace and relationship with God. Without too much analysis of the error, I’ll try here to give a churchly account of the orthodox truth.
The Psalmist prays, not unto us, YHWH, not unto us, but unto thy Name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake (cf. Jn 17.5–10). For the sake of his Only-Begotten, the Father has given himself the glory, having delivered all things into the hands of the Son, who once ascended now reigns over the earth from on high (Acts 1.6–8).
The Church is the oblation of Christ himself, and so the sacrifice I bring is precisely part of what the Son can, and does, present to the Father. For this reason the Apostle Paul enjoins us in Romans, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (12.1). Our individual bodies together are one living sacrifice, which is the Church, the Body of the living Christ who has appeared before the Father, as both priest and sacrificial victim, in the heavenly Holy of Holies. This corporate presentation of worship is made indeed by the mercies of God, because the Body is consecrated in and by the Head. So says St Paul, husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it [in his Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection]; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word [that is, in baptism received with faith], that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing [by the imputation of his righteousness, through faith, for the Holy Supper]; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Eph 5.27; cf. all other biblical occurrences of without blemish).
This living sacrifice of the Church in union with Christ takes place in fulfilment of the prophecy in Malachi given as a gloss on God’s rejection of man’s unfaithful and defiled sacrifices: from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my Name, and a pure offering: for my Name shall be great among the heathen, saith YHWH of hosts (1.11). The word offering in the Hebrew (מִנְחָה) prototypically designates an unbloody offering of tribute, such as the grain offering: this word choice, which refers primarily to presentation and not to propitiation, may comprise the living bodies and the substance (that is, the possessions) of the gathered Church, who in partaking of Christ’s Body by faith becomes, and is constituted as, his Body, a pure offering whose prayers rise like incense to the throne in heaven (Rev 5.8). Ultimately, only the one faithful sacrifice of the Christ is acceptable to God by nature, and only Jesus’ sinless person as the propitiation for our sins: this is the consummation of sacrifice, through whom and in whom all other sacrifice is counted pure.
For in Christ – that is, by the Holy Ghost’s power made part of the whole Christ, both Head and Body – we are alive, sinners who have been raised with him and seated in the heavenlies, sinners who rely not on a conversion event of their own minds’ making, nor on their minds’ mere memory of events past, but solely on the God who through the Sacrament keeps us in continual living union with Christ. As John Calvin says (Institutes iv.17.33),
God’s will is that his truthfulness be acknowledged not in the reception itself, but in the constancy of his goodness, in that he is ready to give to the unworthy what they reject, indeed, offers it freely. And this is the wholeness of the Sacrament, which the whole world cannot violate: that the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God’s elect believers.
So we receive Christ’s Body by faith, but through the Holy Spirit he holds it out verily and indeed, independent of our imaginations, the Holy Ghost uniting what’s in heaven with what’s otherwise separated from it on earth. Annexed to Christ in the present and relying on his presence now, not merely meditating on past historical events, we are indeed holy to God when presented to him within the veil.
And so the Anglicans pray at the close of the Lord’s Supper: ‘O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.’
Whereupon, presented as a living sacrifice on the merits of Christ alone and eucharistically confirmed in union with him, we conduct the rest of our lives as well in conformity to God’s holy word, that in the end his pledge may prove true, that the Church will be holy and blameless and justified in resurrection (cf. Mal 3.3–4; Isa 66.1–4 describes the inverse). This we do, however, not just because of what we ourselves know about the Cross and have decided because of the historical fact but because of what the Lord truly does in the Holy Supper. Indeed, to look upon only the example of Christ once having received his Body and Blood – or once ‘converted’, as is more often the case – is to forget that we rely upon the same saving grace every hour of every day. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. To teach on the real grace of Holy Communion, therefore, is to teach the true faith against the Devil’s subtleties.