December, 2016

La Corona

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,

Weav’d in my low devout melancholy,

Thou which of good, hast, yea art treasury,

All changing unchanged Ancient of days,

But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,

Reward my muse’s white sincerity,

But what thy thorny crown gained, that give me,

A crown of Glory, which doth flower always;

The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,

For at our end begins our endlesse rest,

The first last end, now zealously possest,

With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.

‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,

Salvation to all that will is nigh.

Annunciation

Salvation to all that will is nigh,

That All, which always is All everywhere,

Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,

Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,

Loe, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie

In prison, in thy womb; and though he there

Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet he’will wear

Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created, thou

Wast in his mind, who is thy Son, and Brother,

Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d; yea thou art now

Thy maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,

Thou hast light in dark; and shutst in little room,

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

Nativity

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,

Now leaves his welbelov’d imprisonment,

There he hath made himself to his intent

Weak enough, now into our world to come;

But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th’Inne no roome?

Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,

Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent

Th’effect of Herod’s jealous general doom;

Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how he

Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?

Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,

That would have need to be pitied by thee?

Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,

With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

 

Quarterly Missions Prayer December 11, 2016

quarterly-prayer-12-11-2016

The Sacraments – Baptism

As we have noted, we observe the two sacraments that are commanded in the Scriptures: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This reflection is going to look broadly at the sacrament of baptism. While there is much that can and should be said about baptism, this article will be very cursory. I hope to paint with broad lines the basic contours of what baptism is.

When we speak about the sacraments, it is important that we remember that these signs and seals of God’s grace are more about what God is doing than what we are doing. The grace of the Gospel is more so declared in God’s Word spoken to us than in our response to it. Baptism, therefore, is less my external declaration of an inward faith, than it is God’s declaration that His grace brings salvation. Particularly with baptism, once you begin to see the sacraments as a means of grace given to us by God, then you begin to see it as God’s gift to us instead of something we do for him. This has profound implications when we begin to understand the practice of paedobaptism.

Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (WCF 28.1). It finds its roots in the Old Testament events of water salvation, such as the flood and the Red Sea. It is to these events that New Testament writers refer when speaking about the water of baptism (1 Pet 3:18-22; 1 Cor 10:1-5). Baptism serves as a symbol of admission into the covenant community of the church. We are baptized into one body, one faith, one God and Father of all (Eph 4:4-6). The water of baptism marks all in the church, regardless of ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic status, as members in the body of Christ. It is badge of membership, and membership has its privileges.

Baptism has significance for the Christian in at least four different ways. First, it points to the promises of the Gospel. The person baptized and all those who witness the event are visibly shown the promise God has made to his children. There is redemption found in Christ. And while there is no power in and of itself, the sacrament with the word of institution by the power of the Holy Spirit validates and seals God’s grace in our lives. Just as the saints of the Old Testament could look to their circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness that is obtained by faith, the saints of the New Testament look to baptism. Paul describes the water of baptism as the cutting off of sin in the same way that circumcision was the cutting off of the flesh. This echoes the language in Gen 9:11 when God establishes his covenant with Noah and promises that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by waters of the flood.” The water of baptism points to the cutting off of the flesh as symbolized in circumcision.

Second, baptism is a sign and seal of the redemption of Christ applied to the believer. Those who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3:27). Baptism signifies that you are “in Christ.” The term “in Christ” is used throughout the Scriptures to signify someone who has saving faith. And baptism is the sign and seal connected to the union.

Third, there is a proximity to the work of regeneration and the remission of sin to the sign and seal of baptism. When Paul speaks of our regeneration in Titus 3:5, he notes that is accomplished “by the washing of regeneration” by which he is referring to baptism. This is similar to how John the Baptist spoke of the baptism of repentance (Mk 1:4). The Scriptures will speak of the sign and the thing signified by the sign in such a manner that the “names and effects of one are attributed to the other” (WCF 27.2). This is why we speak of a “proximity” of the sign of baptism with regeneration and remission of sin. The water of baptism does not actually wash away sin, but the grace of God in Christ as signified in baptism does.

Fourth, baptism points to and bears witness to a holy dedication to God. While the sacraments are primarily God’s Word to us, there is an element of our response. Our baptism is a dedication of our whole lives to God. It is a call to the one receiving the sign and to those who witness the sign being received that he is to be what we are in Christ. The baptized is to surrender her life to Christ. He is to walk in a manner worthy of the calling (Eph 4:1).

Baptism is a grace of God that signifies and seals our life in Christ. It is a sign of our being a part of the covenant community of Christ. We have been washed and made righteous such that we by His Spirit are to be with God and God with us until the end of the age.[1]

[1] For more see, Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith.

The Sacraments – How many Sacraments?

Throughout the New Testament, those who believe in Jesus Christ are rarely called “Christians.” The book of Acts uses the term twice (Acts 11:26; 26:28), and Peter uses it once (1 Pt 4:16). Luke also uses the term “The Way” in Acts to describe believers in Jesus Christ (Acts 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). The term Paul uses most frequently, though, is to describe believers in Jesus Christ as those who are “in Christ” (86 times in Paul’s letters). Paul summarizes in 1 Corinthians, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Howard Griffith adds, “The heart of the gospel is union with the once crucified, now resurrected, Jesus Christ, by faith alone.”[1] We are “in Christ” by faith alone.

Paul also connects the work of faith with our hearing of the Word. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). In Galatians 3, he contrasts this hearing with faith against the works of the law. The Spirit works through the revealing of the gospel through God’s Word. The Christian is “in Christ” because the Spirit has worked the gift of faith in his life and this is accomplished through the hearing of God’s Word. Lydia was a worshiper of God but did not believe in Christ. She heard Paul preach the word and “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said” (Acts 16:14) and she believed. The gift of faith by the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the Word of God.

As mentioned before, the sacraments are, to borrow Augustine’s term, “visible words” from God. They image the work and action of Christ. It is crucial, therefore, that we understand the sacraments as first and foremost God’s word to us. They do entail a statement of faith by us, but they are primarily a word from God to us. These “visible words” are added to the Word by God to reinforce our faith. The Belgic Confession explains:

We believe that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities, has ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith, which He has joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses, both that which He signifies to us by His Word, and that which He works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us. (Belgic Confession, Art. 33).

The sacraments seal the biblical Word in us. However, we must note that while the Word of the gospel is indispensable to our salvation, the sacraments are not indispensable to our salvation. Westminster, specifically speaking about baptism, notes that salvation is not “inseparably annexed unto” the sign of the sacraments (WCF 28.5). The sacraments are incredibly important to those who are “in Christ” but only because they better present the truth of Word. The sacraments separated from the Word, though, are rendered impotent and meaningless.

Because the sacraments cannot be separated from the Word of God, the only valid sacraments are those which are explicitly proscribed and commanded in the Word of God. This understanding prompted a significant disagreement with the Roman Catholic church. The Roman church viewed the church, herself, as the Means of Grace. It was not God who gave us his Word, but it was the church as Christ’s presence on earth who gave the Word. Since tradition ultimately trumps the Word, non-biblical sacraments began to creep into the practice of the church. The Roman church observes seven sacraments. These 7 sacraments are understood as being instituted by Jesus Christ (Council of Trent VII.1) because of the “Hypostatic Union of Christ’s human nature with the Divine Person of the Logos”[2] as now expressed in the church through her ministers. Though Scripture only explicitly commands two sacraments, it could be inferred that Christ through the apostles and Church Fathers instituted five more sacraments. That view, however, is only tenable if one believes that the Roman Pontiff carries the mantle of the Vicar of Christ (i.e. one standing in the place of Christ), maintains the authority of an apostle, and remains the sole arbiter of truth and error[3].

The Reformation never separated the sacraments from the Word. The Word is primary and the sacraments are added to the Word to strengthen or nourish our faith. Because of this indissoluble bond, only those sacraments explicitly commanded in Scripture are recognized as sacraments. Therefore, “there are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel” (WCF 27.4), namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

[1] Howard Griffith, Spreading the Feast: Instruction & Meditations for Ministry at the Lord’s Table, 2015, 26.

[2] Ludwig Ott, Patrick Lynch, and James Bastible, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford Ill.: Tan Books and Publ., 1974), 336.

[3] e.g. Clement V, in Sources of Catholic Dogma, 570a-q.

The Sacraments – What is a Sacrament?

After spending the last two weeks looking at the sacraments, it is probably a good idea at this point to define what a sacrament is. There is a lot that could be said about this topic. Many good books have been written about the sacraments, and many more will be written. This article will only skim the surface of the topic by looking at the sacraments simply as signs and seals. This is the language Paul uses in Romans 4:11, “he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith.” This same language is how the Westminster Confession of Faith uses, “sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word” (WCF 27.1).
A sign is a distinguishing mark that points to something which exists. Think of the large yellow diamond with a black curved arrow posted on the side of the road. That sign points to the reality of a curve in the road ahead. A seal confirms or authenticates the genuineness of something. This is the sticker on the NY Giants hat that affirms it is an officially licensed NFL product. The sacraments both signify Christ and confirm our share in Christ. They demarcate those in Christ from those who are of the world. The sacraments cause us to be engaged in the service of Christ and his Word. The seal has been placed on us and our commitment must be to Christ or the devil. It cannot be to both.
There is, however, a diversity of opinions in the broader church when it comes to what it means that the sacraments are signs and seals. Most of this disagreement relates to whether or to what extent the signs and seals are physical and/or spiritual. Augustine wrote that the sacraments are “a visible form of an invisible grace.” The 12th century theologian Hugh of St. Victor notes that a sacrament is not just sign, but that it confers with it the thing signified. “While a sign can signify a thing but not confer it, a sacrament not only signifies but also efficaciously confers.” A sacrament is not less than a sign, which points to the thing signified, but it is certainly more, also conferring the thing signified. It is more than just physical. John Calvin says that a sacrament is “an outward sign by which the Lord seals to our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weaknesses of our faith; and we, in turn, attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.” It is both a spiritual and a physical act. It is something that we do that represents and signifies the greater reality of what God is doing.
There is an aspect where the sacrament is our expression of faith to God. But while that is true, the much more important and greater reality is that a sacrament is our receiving grace from God. The Anabaptist tradition, which is prevalent in much of Protestantism, tends to see the sacraments as primarily something we do for God. Whereas, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives see the sacraments as something God does for us. Calvin helps us see that there is a real physical reality to the symbols of the sacraments, but their importance is that they confer a spiritual reality greater than just our remembrance,
“From the physical things set forth in the sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus when the bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps life in the body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven the soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
The sign is more than just a physical remembrance, but it is a spiritual reality. There is something real and spiritual that happens when we observe the sacraments. We must open our eyes of faith to see that Christ instituted these sacraments by his Word and Spirit so that grace would be effectively exhibited to us.