Puritan Gems

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elements Of Reformed Worship #8

The Sacraments

Even redeemed saints, tainted by remnants of their carnal natures, find it impossible to have their hearts and minds totally and consistently worshipping "in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:24). Therefore God has condescended to us by providing physical signs for our spiritual growth and nourishment. These sacraments have been given to the church as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (Genesis 17:11, Exodus 12:13, Romans 4:11).

In our modern age of individualistic, do-it-yourself spirituality, more teaching is needed on this particular subject, for the sacraments have long been the object of corruption and strange superstition, and modern evangelicalism is no exception. The elements of the sacraments in scripture, be they the cutting of circumcision, the lamb of the passover, the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of communion, have no magical power in and of themselves. They do not change into the body of Christ, nor serve as physical healing potions. They have no ability to provide justification or impart faith. Abraham received circumcision as a sign of the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:11), yet the sign itself did not impart such faith into Esau, Ishmael, and any number of Israelites. Likewise, baptism failed to impart such faith to Simon Magus, and the Lord's Supper only increases the condemnation of unworthy partakers (1 Corinthians 11:27) such as Judas Iscariot (Matthew 26:23-25). The sacraments are made useful only by faith, though they do have in them nourishment for those of the faith.

"Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty." (John Calvin - Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 14, Section 17)

The sacraments belong only to the church, and are not for individual use (1 Corinthians 4:1, 1 Corinthians 11:20-24). As it is God Himself that establishes His covenant, so only one who ministers in His name may administer the external signs of that covenant. Christ's physical presence does not join any of the physical elements of a sacraments. To promote this myth is to assign ubiquity to Christ's physical body, and is thus incompatible with Chalcedon christology. Nonetheless, Christ's spiritual presence is just as real, and acknowledged by those of the true faith.

There are only two sacraments in biblical Christianity, those being baptism and the Lord's Supper. It is these only that have been instituted by God, contain the presence of a visible and tangible element, signify Christ and his death and resurrection, and are used as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. May the church return to both a proper teaching and a proper practice concerning the sacraments, properly discerning the Lord's body.

Recommended Reading: With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by Hart and Muether