THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SACRAMENTS
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (1)
“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread. And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (2)
“A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” 93)
Defining the Church
In the thinking of society terms such as buildings, denominations, altars, clergy, pulpits and vestments define the Christian Church.
As our Lord ascended into glory, however, He left behind a few dozen followers who had no buildings, finance nor any form of outward organisation.
The Saviour did provide His apostles, though, with two confirmations of His continued presence. One confirmation was His Spirit, by Whom the New Testament would be inspired and through Whose power the apostles would bear witness. The second confirmation is the sacraments, the priceless heirloom which Christ has bequeathed to His people.
Sacrament originates with the Latin sacramentum, denoting “something sacred” (4). Theologically the Westminster Shorter Catechism is unsurpassed in its simple statement; “A sacrament is holy ordinance instituted by Christ.” (5)
The Protestant Reformers insisted that the Church is incomplete without the administration of the sacraments. John Calvin defined the church as a community who worships the true God in Christ, who are initiated into the faith by Baptism, who are one in doctrine and love, who participate in the Lord’s Supper, who submit to the Word and preach its truth maintaining an ordained ministry. (6)
A Biblical Balance
There are two extremes in relation to the sacraments that we must guard against. The Church of Rome and its Anglo-Catholic counterpart presents the sacraments as essential for the salvation of the soul. The notion that saving grace is conferred when water is applied or when the bread and wine is received, runs contrary to the teaching that salvation is by grace alone, never by works. The pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, however, when God’s people treat the sacrament either as an irrelevance or as an optional extra in the life of the Church. (7)
The Requirement for the Sacraments
An Act of Obedience
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul revisited the upper room with the authoritative phrase, “this do in remembrance of me”. (8)
Our Lord, as with the Communion Feast, sanctified Baptism by His own example, when He yielded to the ministry of John. Prior to the ascension His command was straightforward, that the Apostles were to baptise all nations in addition to preaching, teaching and making disciples. (9,10)
In the simplest possible terms, observing Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are acts of obedience.
The Refreshing through the Sacraments
Parables and Signs
The Shorter Catechism talks about the water, bread and wine as being “sensible signs”, meaning that they are felt, experienced, tasted and swallowed. They are parables employing earthly means to convey spiritual truth. Water, bread and wine, as refreshing substances for the body, teaches us that Christ refreshes our souls as we journey through the wilderness of life. They are not only parables but signs, reassuring us of the terms of the Covenant Grace, that we are truly engaged to be the Lord’s. (11,12)
Baptism is the sacrament we receive once, representing the regenerating work of the Holy Ghost in converting our souls and uniting us to Christ. This act of faith and witness is a tangible reminder of our place within the body of Christ.
The Lord’s Supper is the continual sacrament, that we receive as often as our local fellowship dispenses the bread and the wine. Tasting the broken bread and the wine in a moment of solemn reflection causes the heart to rest on Christ by faith, amid the business of our hectic lives. It is a precious reminder of the love of God for us and is a perpetual testimony to the Saviour as we show forth His death “till He come”. (13)
The Reevaluation of the Sacraments
Prompting Self Examination
Every part of our Christian experience must be constantly reassessed and examined; the sacraments can be no exception.
The elders of the Church have a duty to dispense these sacred ordinances, teaching their value, approving those who will receive them and refusing such as do not have a credible Christian testimony.
As Christians we have a responsibility to engage in these ordinances, for our “spiritual nourishment and growth in grace”. (14)
While our denomination has an open stance (15) where the subjects of Baptism are concerned (infants of godly parent(s) or adult believers only) and where the mode is concerned (pouring, sprinkling or full immersion), this remains a sacrament, which every believer ought to regard with solemn conviction. I would encourage every Christian who is not baptised, to have a discussion with their pastor on what is a most vital subject.
I would also appeal to every believer to make it their business to attend the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Some feel unworthy being hindered by doubts. Others are prevented because of unrepentant sin. Sadly, there are those who are simply careless and prioritise the sacrament out of their lives.
The Lord’s Table challenges us to solemnly examine our own hearts in the days before the ordinance is received. It is a gentle yet dynamic aspect of our sanctification. It stirs the backslider to restoration and it reassures the doubling soul.
We must take care, however, that we do not reduce the sacrament to a mere ritual, an act of empty religion. The Westminster Divines captured the spirit required:
“The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.” (16)
The “means of salvation” in this catechism, is a reference to sanctifying grace rather than saving grace, and it is the faith of the recipient which is emphasised. The sacrament does not confer faith but faith is required in order to receive. As faith is exercised through this act of obedience the inner man is strengthened.
“Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand th’eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with thee the royal wine of heav’n;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiv’n.” (17)
The Shorter Catechism quite rightly links Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the preaching the Word and prayer, as being the “means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of salvation”. One would not consider arguing that the Scriptures and prayer are superfluous. Why then neglect the sacraments? Pray that the Holy Spirit would help us all to not only partake but to do so with faithful and sincere hearts that together we might continue steadfastly, developing in the knowledge and love of God. (18)
1 Matthew 28:19
2 1st Corinthians 11:23-25
3 Answer 92, Westminster Shorter Catechism
4 Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, Ambasador-Emerald International, 1998
5 Answer 92, Westminster Shorter Catechism
6 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth 1984; also Calvin’s Institutes Book 4
7 Ephesians 2:8-9
8 1st Corinthians 11:23-25, Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20
9 Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-23, John 1:29-34
10 Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-16, Acts 9:17-18
11 Answer 92, Westminster Shorter Catechism
12 Answer 94, Westminster Shorter Catechism
13 1st Corinthians 11:26
14 Answer 96, Westminster Shorter Catechism
15 Articles of Faith of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster 6a
16 Answer 91, Westminster Shorter Catechism
17 Horatius Bonar, Our Own Hymnbook 652, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster 1989
18 Answer 96, Westminster Shorter Catechism