The Sacraments (1)
17 Sep 2018
On Sunday evenings I have begun a four part series on the sacraments. Here is the text of my first sermon:
When we come to thinking about the sacraments, we in the evangelical church world are quite good at fighting the battles of the reformation and making sure they don’t take hold again. We are careful to state “nothing magical happens at baptism or communion”. We are rightly concerned about folk who are keen to head to their local parish church for the 8am communion once a month but have no other meaningful contact with the church. We rightly try and dissuade unbelieving friends from getting their children baptised because it’s the thing to do.
But there is an opposite danger when we think about the sacraments. There’s the person who trusts Jesus - reads her Bible, calls herself a Christian, but rarely comes to church. Doesn’t know when she last took communion. May or may not have been baptised. But thinks - “hey, what does it matter? After all, Christianity is just about my personal and private relationship with Jesus”.
There’s the church that - as I saw recently - very clearly put on their website that “The Lords’ Supper is a remembrance meal. Jesus Christ is no more present at a celebration of the Lord’s Supper than at any other gathering of the members of a local church” (by which I take it to include house groups, members meetings, fellowship meals etc). Those two approaches are also far away from a reformed, and I would say Biblical and ultimately vital and life giving understanding of the sacraments.
So over the next few weeks I want to encourage us by looking at the sacraments and see their place in the life of the church. Not for controversy's sake - but to strengthen our faith and love for Jesus Christ. Ultimately the sacraments aren’t about the sacraments - they are about Jesus.
Now these Sunday evenings will be a bit different. We wont just be in one passage. But I felt that it needed to be taught at some point in the churches life and Sunday evenings are the best place.
The big question I want to ask tonight is what are the sacraments? What terms, ways of understanding does the Bible give us - (and what terms has theological reflection through the years given us) to grasp the importance of baptism and the Lord’s supper?
MEANS OF GRACE
Now, that is common language in creeds and confessions of the Reformation, but it is open to misunderstanding - and we can want to steer clear of it if we’re not clear about what that’s getting at.
It doesn’t mean that “grace” is a kind of stuff that God gives out - and that we somehow get “grace” through taking part in certain ceremonies or activities. No, what we’re talking about is the places or activities where the Lord especially promises to meet with us and give us Christ by faith.
Now, the big danger when we think about God is that we begin by thinking about all the things that God can do. And the thing is God can do anything. He is free and powerful. But the Lord doesn’t encourage us to think in those terms. Instead, he calls us to believe and trust and move towards and obey those things he has particularly promised to do. Don’t live in the abstract - go to the promises!
Now, when we think about the gospel, and knowing Christ and being saved by him, it is true God could save through a dream to someone in a closed country whose never met a believer. God can do that. And we can’t restrict the Lord. But God has called us to believe and act on what he has promised to do. Which is - to use the preaching of his word to save and build his church. Just as God gives life by his word in Genesis 1, he gives new life and grows that new life by his word.
So remember the passage I read earlier in Romans 10? Faith comes from hearing the word of God through a preacher who has been sent. There are lots of other passages that make the same point. 2 Corinthians 4 - Christ Jesus as Lord is proclaimed, and through that Paul prays God will use that to remove the darkness from his hearers eyes.
1 Peter 1 talks about the preached word as living and active. The Holy Spirit works as he chooses - but God has chosen to tie his working to the preaching of the word of God. Particularly the public preaching. Yes, we learn lots through sermon cd’s and websites - but there is something different about gathering under a “sent” preacher (Romans 10).
This method, this means of grace, the place and means by which we come to know Christ is not an accident. No - by doing things this way God is showing us the gospel. We are receivers. We can’t do anything. All we do is receive. He gives life. Preaching seems foolish - but God uses foolish things to shame the wise. We don’t reach up to heaven, God comes to where we are. But not just anywhere. Especially where the word is preached. That’s why in 2 Timothy, his chief job as a new pastor’s is to keep going preaching the word. That’s why in Matthew 28 - the call is to go into all the world and establish churches. In easy seasons, in hard seasons. Because it is how God saves and builds his church. It is a “means of grace”. That’s the reformed category, description for that.
And the sacraments belong in this category. The preaching of the word, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The places where God particularly promises to meet with his people. Now there is a difference between the word and the sacrament. The word is to be preached indiscriminately (to everyone). the sacraments aren’t for everyone - we’ll think about the restrictions as we go along. But they belong to this category of places where God has particularly promised to meet with us.
But this meeting doesn’t mean we get automatically zapped by God just by being there. Hear preaching - zap we don’t have to do anything. Take communion be baptised - zap with grace. No - as we hear preaching we have the responsibility to believe the gospel truths preached. Then its a means of grace. Same with the sacraments. Accompany with faith.
But why do we need more than just the preaching of the word? How are the sacraments different? If preaching is so vital (which it is) why do we do these other things. Why are they “means of grace” too.
One conversation I’m sure every pastor committed to making preaching central to their ministry has had goes something like this. “Pastor, I appreciate what you do, but I struggle with listening to preaching. It’s very unusual these days to listen for so long. And after all - I don’t learn that way. I’m a very visual learner. I like to see things”. Or perhaps they say “I’m a very practical learner - I learn by doing. Holding things in my hands.”
How would you respond to that? Perhaps you ask that question - secretly. How do I answer that question? Well, sometimes I’ve been known to launch off into a discussion about why preaching is what God uses. The kind of thing I’ve just said about the gospel being a message we receive. We don’t do anything to get it. I sometime show how preaching is universal - everyone can listen, not everyone can engage in discussions. And then I’m tempted to point to recent academic work that’s been done to show that the stuff about learning styles is a bit of myth.
But - God’s answer to that question is far more patient, and more loving. He says “I know”. “You are right.” “And in fact - those folk who you think who are brighter, who write down every point in their notepad and can debate the text and read big books - they struggle too. Not to listen or understand. But to really trust and obey.”
God knows we aren’t just brains in a body. But he has created us as whole people, and he’s created his world, and he’s created our senses to see and feel and taste and touch. He knows we are human. And so in love, his reaches down to us and helps us in our humanity.
So he doesn’t just preach the gospel to us - he takes part of his created world and attaches his promise to them. As a kind of huge visual aid to help us to trust him. That is ultimately what sacraments are. God’s promise attached to God’s creation. Now we can’t make our own visual aids. They are ordained by God.
And as God’s promise, as his covenant unfolds in the Bible, at each point the LORD doesn’t just give the promise to listen to, he gives a sign with a promise. So, he makes a covenant with Noah not to flood the earth again. A big promise. But there’s a something that goes with that promise. The rainbow (Gen 9:16-17). The sign of the covenant.
The LORD makes his promise to Abraham - land, people, blessing. But he doesn’t just give it in words. In Genesis 17 there’s a sign of that covenant (a sacrament). Circumcision of every male. Now, notice rainbows and circumcision may have existed before this. That doesn’t matter. What matters is God takes them and for a particular people attaches his word of promise to them. With the sinai covenant - as the people become a nation heading into the promised land, there’s still the sacrament of circumcision obviously (they are still in the Abrahamic covenant) but the Sabbath is described as a “sign”.
When you get to the New Testament and the New Covenant - the fulfilment of everything God has been promising, and Christ comes there are 2 things that Jesus attaches his promise to. Two sacrament. Baptism - Matthew 28 “Go and baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. An initiation, at the start. He doesn’t just say go and preach.
And then the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus gathered his disciples round the table on that Thursday before he died he doesn’t just say “Teach this, he says “do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 10 calls it “the table of the Lord” where we “participate in the body and blood of Christ.” 2 things that are very physical. Water. Eating, drinking.
They don’t replace our need for the word of God in preaching. In fact, doing those things without the word of God, without hearing God’s promise and the gospel, the sacrament is pointless. It’s not a sacrament then. But as we are baptised or watch a baptism, as we take communion, God uses the fact we can see and feel and taste and smell to confirm his promises to our senses. God’s visual aids! As Augustine called them “visible words of invisible grace”. Doesn’t make sense - but underlines the deep connection with the word of God.
The LORD knows we are very weak. We get so easily distracted - in church especially. We know his word is important, but our minds drift. We may understand what’s said but in the struggles of life we doubt. So the LORD have provided for that. And by doing so he reminds us we aren’t just souls being saved, but whole people - bodies and souls which belong to him.
I love the way the Heidelburg Catechism describes the Lords Supper - which we’ll come to in a couple of weeks.
How does the Lord’s Supper remind you and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts?
In this way : Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup. With this command He gave this promise : First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely His body was offered and broken for me and His blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely He nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with His crucified body and poured out blood.
Do we get anything different in the sacraments than in listening to the word? No. The same Christ. But as someone once said “we don’t get a better Christ, but we get Christ better.” Instinctively I think we know we are missing something if we can’t come to the Lord’s table for a season. Yes, we can hear sermons online. But taking communion? Together with God’s people? That’s different. Yes, it’s true there will be unbaptised people in glory. But is it better to know you have been baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the Lord has marked you out as being part of his people? Yes.
SIGNS AND SEALS
So, the sacraments are means of grace, they are visible words, and thirdly just moving the argument on a little bit we need to see them as “signs and seals.” Every time there is a baptism here I do the same children’s talk to make this point - and I’ll go on doing so, because these are the words I want to come into our mind whenever we think about the sacraments. Historically it’s the language used in the reformed statements of faith about the sacraments, and it’s Biblical language.
So in Romans 4, when Paul is discussing Abraham and talking about circumcision he says this -
“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith.” Sign and seal - and that’s true of all the sacraments.
They are signs - in that they point us to Christ. They aren’t randomly chosen. Each sign of the covenant helps us to see something of what happens in the covenant. It’s no accident that the sign of the covenant with Noah was something Noah could see if he looked up in the sky during unusual weather. Circumcision involves the cutting off of a part of the body - pointing to the fact that God would be cut off so we don’t have to. We’ll see in the next few weeks what baptism and the Lords supper points too - but we already know don’t we. The sprinkling with Jesus’ blood, the washing of forgiveness, the pouring out of Jesus blood, his body broken on the cross.
Again, remembering they are signs reminds us that just relying on them without trusting what they point to is foolish. It’s like camping out at a signpost and not going to whether it’s directing you.
They are also seals. What we are talking about here is the official stamp that says “property of government” or makes clear that what’s inside comes with the authority of the government. When Abraham - and his children - were circumcised it was like God stamping his seal on them. A visible word of approval. When we are baptised - God’s seal of his promises which are true for us. When we take the Lord’s supper - God’s promises sealed to us, saying - all blessings of what Christ achieved are ours. That seal is serious business!
So - if we take that sign and seal on, and then don’t believe that seal becomes a warning. The terror of being circumcised and not circumcised in heart in the Old Testament. Taking Lord’s Supper and not honouring the body - people died. Being a baptised member of the visible church but walking away - a serious thing.
So, just as we close, one big application point - which is really the big application point of all I’m going to say over these next few weeks. And that is - when we put all this together, we see that the primary direction of travel in the sacrament is from God to us. Just as in preaching we don’t just gather together to remind ourselves of what God has said in the past many years ago, and we don’t gather just to obey God’s command to gather and listen.
No - we gather because that’s how and where the Lord promises to meet with us, and he promises to speak through the preaching of his word. Yes, we need to have faith when we listen and obey what’s said, but it’s also firstly true that God speaks and gives us faith through the preaching of his word and enables us to obey.
In the same way the sacraments are words from the Lord to us. Now, yes, there is a sense in which we obey, by coming to be baptised, bringing our children, coming to the Lord’s Table, and we must receive all of those by faith responding to what God does and says. But first of all they are bits of creation with God’s promises attached. And through them Christ speaks. And through them Christ strengthens the faith of those who look to him. Not in a “magical” way. There’s nothing magical about the water or bread or cup.
And Jesus does not somehow step out of heaven and become physically present with us in the bread or water. But he has promised to be with us particularly in them. And for us to benefit from them in the way he intends - we must respond in the same we do to preaching of the word. By faith. Trust in what God is saying to us.
And for all the disagreements and controversy about the sacraments - this is the big difference. And the one where I need to be clearest on. Because today evangelical churches are rightly nervous about Roman Catholic high church superstition about the sacraments. But the alternative must never be rushing to a position that says all the sacraments are are signs of obedience. Ways of remembering what Jesus has done.
No - they are actions of God giving us his word in physical forms. And that is as it should be - because ultimately the gospel is not about our actions is it? It is God coming down to us. Speaking. Granting us faith and repentance to trust him and obey.