The Sacraments: Baptism & the Lord's Supper

 

In his magisterial work entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), John Calvin defines a sacrament as "a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him." (Inst. IV; xiv; i) In other words, in the administration – by a lawful minister of the gospel – of the signs of water, bread, and wine, God's covenant promises are sealed to our consciences and confirmed in our hearts when received by faith. Indeed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are God's visible words of love, ordained by God to direct our faith toward Christ, the One in whom all of God's promises are gloriously fulfilled.

The sacraments are ordained by God to play a vital role in the life of the Christian Church and of the individual believer. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand the nature and role of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the primary means – along with the Word – by which God has promised to save and sanctify His elect. (WLC Q. 162)

Baptism

The sacrament of baptism is the New Covenant replacement of Old Covenant circumcision, both signifying and sealing the covenant promises of God in Christ. (Colossians 2:13) In circumcision, the bloody act of cutting away the foreskin of an eight-day-old male infant was a sign pointing not only to the bloody sacrifice of Christ, cut off for the sake of His people, but also the circumcision of the heart accomplished by the Holy Spirit. (i.e. Regeneration; Romans 2:28-29) Because Christ shed His blood "once for all," no longer do God's covenant people participate in bloody rites and sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:11-14).

Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign, each pointing to the same reality. Indeed, like circumcision, baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin by the cleansing blood of Jesus and the regenerating / sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5; Colossians 3:11-12; I Peter 3:21). Thus, we see the obvious connections between the Old Covenant and the New. Both Old and New Covenant signs point to the person and work of Christ. The sign of circumcision looked forward and baptism looks back. Both are signs and seals of the covenant of grace, God's unconditional promise to save a people for Himself (Genesis 3:15; 17:1-14; Romans 9:22-25; Titus 2:14). Both are signs of initiation into the visible church, signs which identify, mark, and set apart those who are members. Hence, Christian baptism must be received only once.

Baptism, therefore, is the New Covenant sign that is to be placed upon all believers and their children (Acts 2:38-39; 16:15, 33; Matthew 28:19). Just as the sign and seal of God's unconditional promise was not withheld from infants in the Old Covenant, so it must not be withheld from our little ones in the New Covenant. The Word of God has never relegated the children of the covenant to second-class citizenship in the visible church. Children of believers, like adult believers, are members of the visible church (church militant); and they, like we, are members of the invisible church (church triumphant) only by grace, through faith. It must always be stressed that the act of baptism itself does not save. It is what baptism signifies or points us toward that saves, namely, the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, baptism has become a very man-centered event in the mainstream evangelical church. Rather than being explained and administered as a sign and seal of the sovereign grace of God in Christ, it has become, in many quarters, merely a time for public confession of faith, highlighting the commitment of the believer. An emphasis upon what baptism signifies will help to keep things centered upon God's grace. Moreover, the lifetime benefit of baptism will be reinforced. When we "remember our baptisms" (the visible sign and seal of God's promise of grace and mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ) our weak faith is bolstered and our feeble hearts are comforted and renewed. Baptism is a means of grace, an instrument that the Holy Spirit employs not just once, but all throughout our lives to sanctify us and conform us more and more into the image of Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism helpfully explains how, as followers of Christ, we can "improve upon our baptisms" or to put it another way, how we can employ baptism as a means of grace all throughout our lives.

Q. 167. How is our baptism to be improved by us?

A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

In the future, when you see the waters of baptism poured out in public worship, exercise your faith upon the crucified and risen Christ, rejoice in God's undeserved love, and recommit yourself to serve Him with greater zeal and thankful obedience.

The Lord's Supper

Like baptism, the Lord's Supper is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace, signifying and sealing to us the redemptive work of Christ. Also as with baptism, over the centuries there has been much debate surrounding the true nature and role of the Lord's Supper in the life of the Christian Church and of the individual believer.

In the Roman Catholic Church the Eucharist or Mass is thought to be a re-sacrifice of Christ. They believe that when the priest consecrates the bread and the wine with the words "This is my body" and "This is my blood" the elements turn into the actual, corporeal body and blood of Jesus Christ. This view is called transubstantiation, indicating the transformation of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ while the "accidents" of the bread and wine remain (i.e. the way it looks, feels, tastes). Those who receive the body and blood of Christ in communion, according to this system of doctrine, have the life and righteousness of Jesus Christ infused into them, thereby further justifying them before God. For Roman Catholics justification is a process.

The Lutheran view, often termed consubstantiation, asserts that while the elements of bread and wine do not change in substance, the actual, corporeal body and blood of Christ is found in, under, and with the elements when it is offered at the Lord's Table. Lutherans seek to guard the objectivity of the Supper, stating that they believe Christ when He says, "This is my body." According to Luther's Small Catechism, the Christian approaches the Lord's Table "Chiefly to receive forgiveness of our sins and thus to be strengthened in our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; to obtain strength for a holier life; [and] to bear testimony that we are of one faith with those who commune with us." (Small Catechism, Luther, 200-201)

A third view, perhaps the most common among Protestants, is the memorial view. This position maintains that the elements of bread and wine are merely representative of Christ's body and blood. Christ's presence at the Lord's Supper is no different than His presence at any other time. The sacrament is simply a time to remember the death of Christ and to recommit one's life to honor and serve Him.

Finally, there is the Reformed or Calvinistic position, which lands somewhere in between the Lutheran and memorial views. The Reformed believe that when a person receives the bread and wine by faith he also receives what is signified, namely, Jesus Christ and all of his benefits. However, rather than being a physical feeding upon Christ (Catholic / Lutheran), it is a spiritual feeding. Christ is not dragged down from the right hand of God when we partake of the Supper. His human nature is not ubiquitous. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit – who unites us to Christ – lifts us up by faith to the heavenly places to nourish our souls upon the life-giving, soul nourishing Christ. To be sure, this is a great mystery. Even so, we believe Paul when he states that God has "raised us up with Him [Christ] and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:6) We also believe our Lord when He says, "whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:54) Just as our physical lives can be sustained and nourished only by physical food, so our souls can be sustained and nourished only upon the Son of God – the One in whom we depend for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

When we receive the signs of bread and the wine by faith, in a mysterious manner we also receive the thing signified, namely, Jesus Christ and His benefits. After all, "the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (I Corinthians 10:16) If this were not true, and we did not receive Christ in the Supper, the Lord's Table would hardly be a means of grace.

Some may ask the question, "If I have already received Christ, why should I have to receive Him again and again in the preaching of the Word and the sacraments? The answer is because "faith is not just a matter of having all our facts right but of being inwardly persuaded of their truth as the Holy Spirit witnesses to His Word. Even if we could amass sufficient information, our faith would be weak apart from God's constantly persuasive rhetoric." (A Better Way, Horton, 118) In other words, if faith is created and sustained through the proclamation of the gospel (Romans 10:17; I Peter 1:23 – 2:2), and faith is sealed, confirmed, nourished, and strengthened in the sacraments (Romans 4:11; Colossians 2:11-12; Luke 22:7-20; etc.), then in order to live in Christ by faith, we must receive Him again and again. This does not mean that we are "getting saved" or being regenerated every time we hear the gospel and / or receive the Supper. Rather, it means that whenever we hear the glorious gospel preached or see the gospel exhibited before our eyes in the right administration of the sacraments we embrace Christ again and again with ever-increasing measures of faith, love, assurance, hope, and zeal. Isn't this the purpose of the ordinary means of grace, to drive us over and over and over again to Christ and His perfect work of redemption, and away from sin and idolatry? Word and sacrament prop up our often faltering faith and lead us to "fix our eyes on Jesus." Calvin, in this wonderful passage, states that all those who are united to Christ and receive the Supper with true faith:

"Can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him;, that by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness." (Institutes, IV; xvii; ii)

The Lord's Supper, having replaced and fulfilled Passover, is the ratification meal of the New Covenant. It is, like baptism, a wonderful gift to the Church, ever leading His elect to find their source of life, meaning, joy, and comfort in Christ alone. When you receive the Supper, receive it with great confidence, not in your own efforts or spiritual performance, but in Christ and His perfect life, sacrificial death, and Hell-conquering resurrection.