I attend very few funerals where I am not the pastor. But, I have heard it is rather common to hear that the dearly loved departed one is in heaven merely on the condition that he or she was baptized. In no way do we deny that Baptism is a means by which God gives us grace. However, neither of the Sacraments are in and of themselves effective for salvation. The Word and the Sacraments must be joined with faith in order for them to work salvation and keep us in a right relationship with God.
The whole of the Letter to the Romans is based on the thesis found in 1:16, 17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (NASB). In the original language the same root is found in four words which are translated here “believe” and “faith.” We are told four times in these two verses that faith is absolutely essential to our salvation. If we do not believe, or have faith, God’s power for salvation has no effect in our lives. If we do not have faith, if we do not believe, we cannot be declared “not guilty” in God’s court of law. We must have faith, we must exercise belief, if we are to be forgiven of our sins and be covered in the righteousness of Christ.
We believe that God saves us through the gift of Baptism (see here). We believe our old nature is put to death and a new nature given us in Baptism. However, we also believe that it is completely possible for us to deny or reject the new life God gave us. Consider this question: “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). If we deliberately continue to sin after we have received the gift of salvation, eventually we place ourselves back into slavery to sin the result of which is death. Instead of deliberately sinning, then, we are encouraged to deliberately do what is right, to live in faith, not to earn salvation but because it is the way of the new nature. We do what is right because we have faith, because we believe that we have been given a new nature through Baptism. We continue to live in a saving relationship with God because we exercise the faith He gave us through His Word and in Baptism.
It is the same with eating the Bread and drinking the Cup of Holy Communion (see here). The Holy Spirit gave these instructions about partaking in the Lord’s Supper: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). Participating in Holy Communion without believing Christ’s words about the Holy Supper is dangerous. We don’t come to the Table because it is the “thing to do.” We don’t come to the table because it is in the traditions of the Church. When we come, we come believing that Jesus is truly present as the words “this is my Body” and “this is my blood of the covenant” declare. We come believing that the forgiveness of sin is “for me.” The promises are ours because we believe them.
Apart from faith, there is no value for us in the Word or in the Sacraments. In and of themselves, simply as acts, the Sacraments do not save. The Sacraments are means of grace to us when we receive them and live in them in faith. We believe that God does give us new life and that God does forgive our sins in them as the Word declares.