Thursday, April 16, 2020

Summary of Ordinances and Sacraments

We have been created as bodily creatures from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). We have not only minds but also five senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. The God of the Bible is the God who addresses our entire person, including our senses. The Word of God addresses the ear when read aloud and the eyes when read silently. In both the OT and NT, God communicates in ways supplementing the spoken and written word. Ancient Israel had its annual feasts (e.g., Passover) and its sacrificial system centered in the temple at Jerusalem (e.g., burnt offerings). In the NT era, the body is not neglected. We have the gospel word dramatized—preached to our senses, as Augustine noted—in the ordinances or sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The term “ordinance” draws attention to how both practices are commanded by the Lord Jesus. They are not church inventions. The term “sacrament” draws attention to these two practices as means of grace. This is classically defined as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (1662 Book of Common Prayer).


The NT describes a variety of baptisms. John the Baptist performed baptisms at the river Jordan, as did his disciples, and so too did the disciples of Jesus, even before the Great Commission was given (John 4:1–2). John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4), in preparation for the Messiah; it was not Christian baptism. Both Jesus and John the Baptist spoke of a coming baptism with the Spirit that would happen on the day of Pentecost (Luke 3:16; Acts 1:4–5). Jesus taught that baptism is part of being a disciple and making disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). Peter commanded baptism (Acts 2:38), and Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch with Christian baptism in water when he came to faith in Jesus (Acts 8:35–38). The symbolism of baptism identifies and unites the subject with the death and resurrection of Christ, as the apostle Paul taught the church at Rome (Rom. 6:3–4). It symbolizes dying to an old life and turning to a new. It signals a change of mind and a change of direction. It also symbolizes entry into a new sphere of divine influence, just like baptism with the Spirit does. It is done once (Eph. 4:5).

In Acts we read of whole households being baptized in response to the gospel, as in the cases of Lydia and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:14–15, 30–34; cf. 1 Cor. 1:16). Whether infants and children were baptized on such occasions is much debated among Bible-believing Christians. Those holding to believer’s baptism point to the NT evidence that people were baptized after believing the gospel. They regard baptism as the means by which people publicly confess Christ. Emphasizing the newness of the new covenant, they see no clear indication that the household passages included infants. They also hold that the words for baptism mean immersion and insist on that mode of baptizing believers. Those holding to infant baptism agree that pagan believers, such as we find in Acts, are to be baptized upon profession of faith. They view the household baptisms from the perspective of the OT and assume that Jewish Christians would apply to their infants the sign of the new covenant, even as Jews did in the OT. In principle they regard sprinkling, pouring, and immersion as valid modes of baptism, although in practice they usually prefer sprinkling.

Importantly, in the apostle Paul’s mind preaching the gospel took priority over the practice of baptism. In fact, according to him, preaching the gospel was his apostolic task: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). Some churches believe that, ordinarily, water baptism is necessary for a person’s salvation. This is true of some holding to infant baptism, including Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, and some holding to believer’s baptism, including Churches of Christ and Christian Churches. If this were so, it is hard to understand Paul’s words to the Corinthians where, as we have just seen, Paul claims he was sent to preach, not baptize, and where he also states he could not remember at first whom he baptized (1 Cor. 1:14–16).

The Lord’s Supper

Jesus not only left his disciples with a message (the gospel) and a mission (make disciples); he also left them with a meal (Luke 22:19–20). Unlike baptism, the Lord’s Supper is repeated (1 Cor. 11:25). The practice draws attention to the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of his people. Paul describes it in preaching terms (1 Cor. 11:26). The practice is retrospective, looking back to the cross, and also prospective, proclaiming Christ’s death until he returns.

In the early church, Augustine believed that the risen Christ preaches to our senses in the Lord’s Supper. It was the Word made visible, as it were. But as the Reformers of the sixteenth century pointed out, without scriptural explanation the practice becomes a dumb ceremony (as Thomas Cranmer argued). What is clear from the NT witness is that abuse of the practice is not to be tolerated and carries a sober warning. Gluttony and lack of love at the Lord’s Supper at Corinth were severely reprimanded by Paul. Some became weak and ill, and some even died, because in dining in gluttony and lack of love, they had ignored the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:30). Incidentally, the first Corinthian letter shows that the Lord’s Supper was part of a bigger meal. The letter also shows how early Christians like Paul prized the actual words of Jesus (11:23–25).

Debate continues to surround what Paul means when he refers to discerning the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:29). Does he mean that the presence of Christ is somehow mysteriously to be found at each celebration of the Lord’s Supper in connection with the bread and wine? Or does he refer to how some believers were ignoring the needs of other members of Christ’s body? Or is it some combination of both? On the second view, failing to discern the body is not a sacramental issue but an ecclesial one. For Paul, the Lord’s Supper makes the unity of believers visible, or at least it should. The bread and cup are a spiritual participation, a sharing, in Christ’s body and blood (10:16). The most profound meaning of Communion is thus union with Christ and partaking of him. From this vertical union flows horizontal union between believers (10:17). Divisions at the Supper were alarming to Paul and draw his condemnation (11:17–22).

Over time, the meal has come to be known by one aspect or another of NT testimony. It is a Eucharist or thanksgiving (1 Cor. 11:24). It is a Communion (10:16). It is the Lord’s Table (10:21), and he is the Host. There is no indication in the NT as to how often such a meal is to take place or at what time of day. Nor is there any suggestion in the NT as to who might preside over it. There is no indication that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper needs a priest of some kind. That idea came later. What is clear is that the Lord’s Supper took place in an intentional meeting of believers: “when you come together as a church” (11:18). It was no afterthought. For that reason, many churches make it a weekly practice.

Historically speaking, evangelicals have not always agreed about what happens in the Lord’s Supper when it comes to the details. For some, the accent has fallen on obeying a dominical ordinance in an act of remembrance. This is the memorialist tradition, often found in nonliturgical churches. For others, usually in liturgical churches, the emphasis falls on the Supper as a sacrament and therefore a means of grace. Lutherans, for example, argue that in a mysterious way Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine (consubstantiation). This was a dividing line between two great Reformers of the sixteenth century. Zwingli took the memorialist approach, whereas Luther argued for a real presence of Christ in the Supper. For Anglican evangelicals, the Supper is an effectual sign used by the Spirit to edify God’s people. Those in the Reformed tradition have viewed the Supper as a means of grace too: the Spirit makes Christ real to the communicant through the proclaimed Word and the table. Evangelicals have rejected any notion that the bread and wine miraculously become the body and blood of Christ, as in Roman Catholicism’s mass (transubstantiation). For evangelicals of all stripes, the Lord’s Supper is a special time of fellowship with Christ and one another. In it we remember the sufferings of our Lord, proclaim the gospel, and anticipate his return.