*Update* - This article is part of a series on corporate worship which has been put together into one digital book entitled Corporate Worship: Principles & Elements of Worship at Providence Presbyterian Church, PCA (Midland, TX). It is available for free download in pdf or Kindle format here: http://providencemidland.org/resources/helpful-links (it is the second resource listed on this page).
Dear Church Family,
Some people think of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper) as unimportant or inconsequential for the faith of believers. On the other extreme, some people think of the sacraments as essential to the faith of believers. Neither of these two ways of thinking is true. Rather, the sacraments are two of the important outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption (WSC 88) – they are important and of great consequence. At the same time, the sacraments are also ‘ordinary’ in that they are intended for the regular use of God’s people as means of growing in faith.
There are two sacraments of the New Testament: baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:19; 26:26-28). According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “a sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC 92). It is important that we take note that contrary to the assumption of some, the sacraments do not impart faith, but rather increase and strengthen the faith of those who already believe.
A very important teaching concerning how we ought to rightly understand the efficacy (the ability to produce the intended result) of the sacraments is given for us in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 27:
The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers. (Westminster Confession of Faith 27:3).
This historic statement and confessional understanding of the sacraments refutes two misunderstandings about the nature of the sacraments and then describes the three necessary elements upon which the efficacy of the sacraments is based. The Confession denies the validity of “sacramentalism” (the idea that the sacraments themselves have special powers) along with “sacerdotalism” (the idea that the one who administers the sacraments has special powers).
Instead of these false teachings, we understand from the Scriptures that sacraments ‘work’ – communicate God’s grace to believers – based upon three things (I usually think of these in terms of three “w’s”): the work of the Holy Spirit who moves where He pleases; the word of institution in the promises of God; and the worthiness of receivers who have been made worthy through being justified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Obviously, we cannot be exhaustive in our discussion of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. To speak in extensive detail about the meaning and significance of each would require much more time. So, we shall limit ourselves to just touching on some of the things that are distinctive about the sacraments as they relate to their administration as part of the corporate worship of the church.
Baptism is a sacrament wherein the washing with water in the name of the Triune God signs and seals (symbolizes and communicates the promises of God) concerning our ingrafting into Christ, the partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to the Lord’s (WSC 94). Because baptism is an outward symbol (visible words) that illustrates the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” in salvation (Titus 3:5-7), it is only administered once to a person (WCF 28:7).
Often when speaking about baptism, there is great emphasis placed upon the individual aspect of this sacrament. To be sure there is great personal benefit for those who are baptized, and much could be said about that; however because we are here talking about the corporate worship service, we will emphasize just two of the corporate aspects of this rite.
(1) A differentiating mark: baptism puts a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world (WCF 27:1). It is the initiatory rite of becoming a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19). Though it is not a mark which a person carries around on their person (such as circumcision of the old covenant, or an indelible physical mark of some kind), a person who is baptized with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by a lawfully called minister of the Gospel (WCF 28:2) publicly receives the covenant sign of God’s people and is set apart from the world.
(2) Reminder of the Christian calling: we are familiar with speaking about improving upon our marriage vows, or renewing our commitment to our spouses, or ‘working on our marriage.’ When married couples attend a wedding, they often are reminded of what they promised one another at their own wedding and then seek to improve where they have fallen short. A similar thing ought to happen for baptized believers when we attend and participate in the baptism of another person. Especially when we are present at the administration of baptism to others, we ought to seek to “improve our baptism” (WLC 167). According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, there are several things that we ought to do: renew our thankfulness for Christ’s work on our behalf, humble ourselves and repent of our sins and falling short of God’s holy law, grow in our assurance of the forgiveness of sins, be strengthened in our sanctification, endeavor to live by faith in holiness and righteousness, and walk in brotherly love with our fellow believers.
The Lord’s Supper
The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper have many similarities; however, there are significant differences, as well:
The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves. (WLC 177)
While those visitors who are baptized members of Bible-believing, evangelical churches are welcome to partake of the Lord’s supper in our church, those who come to join in membership are admitted to the privileges of the sacraments in our church through an interview with the session (the elders of the church). Likewise, covenant children who have previously received the sign of baptism in infancy must also be interviewed by the session before they may partake of the Lord’s supper.
At Providence Presbyterian Church, we partake of the Lord’s supper on a weekly basis – each Lord’s day. We do this for several reasons: (1) Biblically, it seems that this was the practice of the early church (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7); (2) Historically, this was the practice of the Church for many centuries; (3) Worshipfully, the Lord’s supper functions as an important element in the covenant renewal aspect of our worship service.
Like baptism, there is great personal benefit for those who partake of the Lord’s supper, but again, because we are here talking about the corporate worship service, we will emphasize just two of the corporate aspects of this rite.
(1) Communion of the saints: The sacrament of the Lord’s supper is often referred to as “communion” and rightly so, for as we partake together we are reminded of our communion with Christ and our subsequent communion with our fellow believers. We are not Lone Ranger Christians, but are reminded that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). In the Lord’s supper, we are reminded of our fellowship with Jesus Christ in His graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. We are also reminded of our subsequent holy fellowship and communion with each other’s gifts and graces, and our obligation to serve one another in love – to all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus (WCF 26:1-2).
(2) Proclaiming the Lord’s death until He returns: In his teaching and explanation concerning the proper administration and partaking of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), the Apostle Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (v 26). This is one of the reasons for which the sacraments are sometimes referred to as “visible words.” The very message of the gospel is on display and proclaimed in the breaking of the bread (symbolizing the breaking of Jesus’ body) and the cup (symbolizing the pouring out of His blood for the remission of sins). Whenever we partake of the Lord’s supper together we are proclaiming the good news of the gospel that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 3:18) – to ourselves, to our covenant children, and to a sinful world.
The sacraments are rich with meaning and significance: for our worship, for the work of the ministry of the Church, and for our individual edification. There has been much debate about the sacraments throughout Church history. We have not said all that could be said, but have simply sought to touch on some of the important aspects of the sacraments as they relate to our participation in corporate worship. However, I would like to add just one more consideration by way of a pastoral admonition and exhortation.
Sometimes, baptized Christians in good standing in the church will voluntarily not partake of the Lord’s supper because they are deeply convicted by their sin or lack assurance of faith. I implore you not to make this mistake. Certainly, those who do not profess faith, nor those who profess faith but are found to be ignorant and scandalous are to be barred from the sacraments by the power which Christ has left in His Church (WLC 173). This is what is often referred to as the exercising of the keys of the kingdom or church discipline (WCF 30:2; Matthew 16:17-19; 18:15-20; John 20:21-23; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8). It is an important aspect and benefit of life in the church, yet it is never formally imposed by an individual (even self-imposed); church discipline is exercised by the elders of the church.
But, I am not here talking about church discipline or the exercising of the keys of the kingdom. What I wish to warn you about is barring yourself from the Lord’s supper because you are over-wrought by the guilt of your sin or have doubts concerning your salvation. To not come to the Lord’s supper because you are convicted of your sin or lack an assurance of faith would be like deciding to not eat food because you’re too hungry, or to not take any medicine because you’re too sick. I implore you, consider this instruction from the Westminster Larger Catechism, and then, if you are a baptized member of the church who has professed faith in Christ and thus admitted to the Table, then come and receive God’s grace to you in the Lord’s supper as you partake in faith:
WLC 172: May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s supper?
Answer: One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labour to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch