A Walk Through the Worship Service: The Sacraments
If you have ever needed a document notarized, you know how much of a hassle it can be. Sometimes the simplest form (oftentimes some sort of government document) requires an additional trip to the post office or the nearest bank, and you may even have to pay a fee, all for a simple stamp and a signature. The notary stamp does not change the document in any significant way, but it is placed upon the document as a seal of the document’s authenticity, attesting that the signature is genuine (not forged), and that the signer was not coerced into signing.
Even if getting certain documents notarized seems like a hassle at times, we all recognize the value of an authentic signature in the right situation. By a simple signature, the President of the United States can take a bill from Congress and make it a law. The president’s signature does not add any substance to the bill, yet the bill cannot have the authority of the law without it. On a more personal level, when we see the signature of a loved one at the bottom of a a greeting card, it helps us to connect with the sender in a special way that receiving an unsigned card cannot. The words in the card are the same with or without the signature, but when a loved one signs the card, we know that the words it contains are true for us.
In a similar, but much more significant way, God gave his church ongoing reminders of the authenticity of his love for us. We call these ongoing reminders “sacraments.” From the time of the New Testament and onward, the Christian church has recognized that there are two sacraments, which Christ commanded as ongoing ordinances to be received until he comes again: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Communion).
In Romans 4, Paul says that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). Much can be said about this verse and how it displays God’s saving grace for Abraham through faith. As it pertains to the sacraments there are a few things that should be pointed out.
First, the Old Testament ordinance (circumcision) is called a “sign.” A sign is simply a visible marker that points our attention to something greater. A sign on the front of a restaurant cannot feed you, but it represents or points to the place where you can be fed. For this reason signs are very important. Without them we would hardly be able to navigate around our world. Still, the signs are only as good as the realities they point to. Baptism, as a sign, points to how we have been washed free from sin and raised with Christ into a right relationship with God. Communion, as a sign, shows that we are continually nourished by God, and we enjoy constant fellowship with him because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
The second thing that Paul says about the ordinance given to Abraham is that it is a seal. A seal, as described above, affirms the authenticity of what is being stated. Just as an ancient king would place his wax seal across a letter with his signet ring, God places his seal on us to affirm that we have been forgiven of our sins and that we live in union with him. As seals, the sacraments do nothing to add to Christ’s work, but they benefit us as God’s signature over our lives. The sacraments make an authentic declaration on behalf of God that we are his, and he will never let us go. The reformer John Calvin put it this way: “The sacraments are exercises which make us more certain of the trustworthiness of God’s word...Mirrors in which we may contemplate the riches of God’s grace, which he lavishes upon us.”
Finally, we can see in Romans 4 that Paul says Abraham received the sacrament “by faith.” There is nothing magical happening in baptism and communion. They do not work, as is taught by Roman Catholics, simply because they are performed. They are effective only through faith, so they are of no benefit to those who have not trusted in Christ for salvation. A person might indeed receive the sign prior to faith (as was the case in the Old Testament with circumcision, and today with baptized babies), but the sign is of no benefit until faith is awakened in one’s heart. Moreover, God does not look favorably upon the one who consciously receives the sacraments apart from faith (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). On the flip side, when the sacraments are received by faith, nothing can rob us of the grace that God gives us in them, because his Holy Spirit confirms in our hearts what the sacraments signify.
Baptism and Communion
As a final word, it is worth mentioning how the two sacraments are similar, and how they are different. The two are similar in that they are both given by God, and the Holy Spirit confirms to us the benefits of Christ. They are both seals of the same covenant of grace, and both are to continue as sacraments until Christ comes again. The sacraments are different in what they represent, and therefore, in how they are administered (how we do them in church). Baptism is given only once as a sign and seal of our new life in Christ (justification). To put it simply, since our salvation is a “one time event,” the sign for salvation only happens one time. The Lord’s Supper, however, represents and exhibits Christ as our continual spiritual nourishment, and continual growth in him (sanctification). Because we are always being nourished by Christ, we continually take communion.
I hope this helps you as you continue to grow and understand what we’re doing in our worship services every Sunday.