I remember hearing Billy Connolly justifying his use of profanity by saying, "Sometimes 'go away' just isn't enough." I've been thinking along similar lines with respect to the traditional baptistic interpretation of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the sacraments. Sometimes the language of symbolism just isn't enough.
Taking baptism as an example, I read in the NT epistles that baptism actually 'does' something. Consider the following verses.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.(Romans 6:3, 4 ESV)
...you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
"...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:22 ESV)
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27 ESV)
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4, 5 ESV)
Baptism... now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21 ESV)
These passages seem to suggest that baptism really accomplishes something, leaving many evangelicals to struggle with the sheer lack of qualifying statements in any of these verses. Imagine your average evangelical re-wrote some of these passages. Romans 6 might read "when we were born again, we were incorporated into Christ's death and this is symbolised by baptism." Galatians 3:27 might read, "those who have clothed themselves with Christ, symbolise this through baptism." 1 Peter 3:21 might read "baptism doesn't save anyone." What makes us evangelicals so nervous about the force of these passages?
Maybe these passages are being squeezed to accommodate our soteriologies. Now I know that God is not bound to use water to accomplish his purposes (e.g. Cornelius' household received the Spirit before baptism). Nevertheless, I believe baptism is ordinarily God's means of grace to either accomplish or seal his regenerating purpose.
Another possible reason for this evangelical/baptistic nervousness is unease about God actually using something 'physical' to accomplish something 'spiritual'. This unease is not shared by Mike Horton:
Throughout church history, "baptism" has always meant one and the same thing: The sign (water) and the thing signified (regeneration by the Holy Spirit). But in our day, many who otherwise insist on taking the Scriptures literally and "at face value" will argue that passages such as this one and others, like Titus 3:5 ("He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously . . ."), refer merely to a spiritual baptism and not to water baptism. One must beware of a gnostic dualism that separates spirit from matter, as if it is somehow less than spiritual for God to bring people into his family through a common, everyday liquid. To be sure, there is a danger is attaching superstition to rituals and material signs, but God reveals himself and saves us through matter, not in spite of it. God "became flesh," wrote a book with ink and paper, and confirms it with water, bread, and wine. He does communicate his heavenly grace through the earthly creations that he sets aside by Word and Spirit for sacred use. (God's Grandchildren: The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism, (c) 1995 Modern Reformation Magazine/ACE)Robert Kolb, responding to baptist Thomas J. Nettles in Understanding Four Views on Baptism (ed. John H Armstrong), writes:
Finding baptism to be no more than a "teaching tool" (p. 31) seems to me to deny that God is at work, effecting his will to save, not just picturing it, when he comes at us with his word in all its forms - oral, written, and sacramental. Relegating forms of his word to the role of only pointing to heavenly realities seems to me to reflect the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's definition of a great gap between spiritual or heavenly reality and the material created order....Baptism consists of the word of God joined with water. The water is placed within the setting of God's command. (p49)Perhaps the Bible doesn't share our squeamishness over sacramental efficacy.