January, 2017

The Sacraments – Conclusion

We began this series on the sacraments (primarily the Lord’s Supper) by noting that our weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper is something of an anomaly in the PCA. While the weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper is a growing trend, it is still only observed in roughly 20% of PCA churches. The vast majority of PCA churches celebrate communion on a monthly basis. There is a myriad of good reasons why some practice monthly communion, but some of the reasons boil down to the fact that in our current evangelical Christian culture the sacraments are misunderstood and underappreciated.

The sacraments are one of the Means of Grace that God has provided for the church. By this phrase, Means of Grace, we mean those things that God has ordained for us to communicate his grace to us. He has given us his Word. He has also provided for us the sign and seal of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These means are the instruments by which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to apply salvation to us, seal us in Christ, and build us up in the faith. There are countless gimmicks and marketing strategies that can be used to gather people into a congregation. But only the Means of Grace as used by the Holy Spirit will build Christ’s Church.

The sacraments, therefore, are an invaluable instrument of God’s grace for the church. We ought to avail ourselves to the proper use of them. It is through these gifts that God signifies and seals His grace in us. These “sensible signs” represent Christ and “the benefits of the new covenant” to us (WSC 92). But the sacraments are more than just a sign. They are also seals. The sacraments also confer by faith God’s grace. Calvin noted 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 before men.”[1] Far more than the sacraments being something we do to declare our faith in God, the sacraments are something that God does to communicate the faith his is giving to us. There is a physical reality to the symbols of the sacraments, but their importance is that they confer a greater spiritual reality:

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.[2]

The sign is more than a physical remembrance. It is also a spiritual reality.

Since we view the sacraments as a Means of Grace instituted by Christ, we are bound by the constraints of God’s Word as to the number of sacraments. The only sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Testament are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Membership, ordination, marriage, and the like can be good things. But they are not sacraments. They do not represent the grace given by God to all who are in Christ. Only baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify the grace of regeneration in Christ through the giving of his body and shedding of his blood. The water, bread, and wine are the symbols used by Holy Spirit through faith that seal God’s grace in us.

Because the sacraments signify and seal the grace found in Christ, only those who are in Christ are to participate in the sacraments. This is one of the reasons why the Church must exercise discipline and “fence the Table.” This is also why only the Church, and not individual believers, can administer the sacraments. Only those in good standing with the Body of Christ can rightfully receive the symbols of being in Christ. To receive otherwise, would be a lie.

In sum the sacraments are a gracious gift to the Church. They are meant to build the church up. They are meant to strengthen and nourish your faith. They are meant to seal you in Christ. They are meant to communicate God’s grace to us in a physical and a spiritual way. The Reformer Theodore Beza helpfully explains the benefits of the sacraments:

Since the simple word only strikes one of our senses, while the sacraments involve in addition sight and other bodily senses, and also are distributed with very significant and distinct ceremonies, it is easy to recognize how necessary to us is the help of the sacraments to maintain our faith, since, in a manner of speaking, they cause us to touch with the finger and the eye, and as it were to already taste and actually feel the outcome of that which we await, as if we had it and possessed it already. For this reason, far from despising the holy sacraments, we confess that we cannot sufficiently magnify their dignity and legitimate use.

[1] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.14.1.

[2] ibid., 4.17.3.

The Sacraments – Why?

Often in discussions about the Lord’s Supper we ask the theological questions, “What and how?” Seldom, though, do we ask the practical question, “Why?” Why should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today? What benefit is there for us today? The “Why” question will determine what the celebration of the Lord’s Supper looks like in our modern worship services.

When we discussed some of the historical differences regarding the Lord’s Supper, we mentioned the views of the Swiss Reformer Ulhrich Zwingli. Zwingli viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, that is, in the sacrament we bring to remembrance what Christ did. Zwingli did not view anything mystical, mysterious, or even spiritual happening in the bread and wine. Christ is bodily “up there” but certainly in no way here with us. There is no grace in the sacrament, rather there is simply the remembrance of grace that has happened. There is no assuring seal of God’s forgiveness, but only the memory of its basis.

In Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, Christ’s body is seen as being tied to the bread and wine. In a sense, his body becomes ubiquitous. Wherever there is bread and wine that has been consecrated, Christ’s body is there or thereabouts. But this militates against the understanding that Jesus was and remains fully human with a real human body. This is where Calvin emphasized the bodily ascension of Christ and our union with Him through the Holy Spirit. Douglas Farrow says, “A Christ everywhere means a Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.” A Jesus of Nazareth nowhere robs us of the hope of the resurrection.

We need the balance of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper for today. We need something that is more than just a bare remembrance. But we also need a Christ who is still fully human and bodily present in heaven. Our modern Western world struggles with a dualism when it comes to the physical and the spiritual. We see this in the evangelical church today, who tends to overemphasize the physical in the here and now, while diminishing the physical in the life to come. The Austin Institute reports that only 75% of evangelical Protestants believe in a bodily resurrection. What is more common, in my experience, is the view that life after death is equated with a disembodied spirit in heaven. The evangelical church seems to be drifting toward a pagan Gnosticism that views the body as something to be shed so that we can be the spirits we really are. Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching labels this drift as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the church.

If I might illustrate, in the broadly evangelical church today, worship is typically dominated by praise and worship songs and a lesson from the Bible. The praise and worship is often music that is designed to be emotionally affective. The music is high energy at the beginning, building to a celebratory opening to worship. Then it descends into a more contemplative feel. A prayer might be offered at this point, calling the worshipper to reflect on his life and to thank God. A transition will be made to a lesson from Scripture. It might be a sermon or it might be more of a practical lesson gleaned from Scripture, e.g. 7 Principles for a Better Marriage, or 5 Habits of Effective Christians.

There is a strong pragmatic and bodily focus on worship. How does this worship music make me feel right now? How can God solve my problems? The focus tends to be on what I get out of worship. The danger is a very man-centered worship. To be fair, there is a hope in an eternity with Christ, but that eternity is often viewed as disembodied. The notion of a redeemed creation or a resurrected body and the implications for our life now is often missing.

So how does this relate to the Lord’s Supper? Let’s look at the “Why” question. Why do we celebrate this sacrament? We celebrate because it helps us hold the tension between the physical and the spiritual. It reminds us that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We too will die. But we will rise. The Supper nourishes us in the here and now. Instead of Christ’s presence coming down into the bread and wine, our hearts are lifted up by Holy Spirit to be united with Christ. In a crude manner, I sometimes picture the Lord’s Table as a snorkel that allows us to suck in celestial air while we swim around in the world here. So, why the Table? Because it nourishes our bodies and souls until Christ comes again. It reminds us that though we will die, we will be raised again with Christ. It delivers to us a real grace and communicates to us a hope in Christ.

The Sacraments – Who Can Come to the Table?

There are a variety of views on the question of who are the appropriate recipients of the Lord’s Supper. In some churches the practice of “Open Communion” is observed. This means that anyone can partake of the bread and wine, regardless of their spiritual condition. This seems gracious on the surface but is a biblically indefensible position. Others practice “Closed Communion” in which only the members in good standing of that particular church are allowed to partake of the sacrament. The majority of evangelical Protestant churches, however, practice a mixed form of admission to the Table. In general, one must be baptized, a professing believer in Jesus Christ, and usually a member in good standing of a faithful church. Our church falls into this category. Our Book of Church Order instructs the minister to “invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church, to participate in the ordinance” (BCO 58-4).

Why do we do it this way? Our practice is in order to be faithful to how the Scriptures instruct our observation of the Lord’s Supper. In the Scriptures the sacrament was only observed by those who were believers in Jesus Christ. Jesus only observed this meal with his disciples, and only after Judas had left (Matt 26:21-25, Jn 13:21-35). In the book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper was only observed with believers (Acts 2:42, 20:7). And Paul instructed the church at Corinth in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper to do so as one family in Christ (1 Cor 11:17-34). This was also seen throughout church history. Justin Martyr (110-165AD) wrote in his First Apology that “this food is called among us the eucharista, of which no one is allowed to partake by the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration (i.e. baptism), and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”[1]

The biggest matter at stake is that to partake of the bread and wine when you are not in Christ, it is to declare a lie. You are claiming union with Christ when it is not true. And it brings dishonor to Christ and His Church and judgment on the individual. So, the church has historically fenced the Table from non-believers to protect them from this blasphemy.

But a question that often arises from this discussion is “What about the children?”. Baptism is offered not only to “those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” but also to “the infants of one, or both, believing parents” (WCF 28.4). If children receive the sacrament of baptism, why don’t they receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? This is a very good question and helps us to understand better the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are similar in some ways. God is the author of both. They both signify Christ and his benefits to the believer by faith. They are both seals of the same covenant. They are administered by ministers of the gospel. They are to be practiced until Christ returns. But they differ in that baptism is only administered once, while the Lord’s Supper is ongoing. Baptism is a sacrament of our inclusion into the covenant of grace. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our nourishment and maturation in the covenant of grace.[2]

Paul instructs us in 1 Cor 11:28-29, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself.” The believer must examine himself and freely confess his sin to God, trusting in the grace and mercy of Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. If there is unconfessed or undealt with sin, the Christian has a duty to make that right before partaking of the Table (cf. Matt 5:23, 24). For this examination or discerning of the body to take place, it necessarily means that the recipient of the Lord’s Supper is of sufficient age, mental ability, and maturity to examine his own life. Children cannot do this, so they must wait to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

But it is important to see that there is a way. Cornelis Venema notes that there is a path from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table.[3] That path is not direct, but goes by way of the Word and faith. In baptism we vow to teach our children the doctrines of our holy religion and strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This is a vow to walk our children along that path, through the Word, by faith, to the Lord’s Table. There is no set or specified age for this. But when they are ready, they will give a credible profession of faith to the elders. And then they will be invited to enjoy the soul food of the Lord’s Supper.

[1] Quoted in, Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 12.

[2] See WLC 176 and 177

[3] Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?, 148.

The Sacraments – The Body and Blood

The sacraments offer us a visual sign and seal of the grace that is offered to us in Christ. The Second Commandment prohibits the use of images in worship, but the sacraments should eliminate the need for another visual. God’s Word is sufficient and it provides for everything we need. So what is it that the elements of the Lord’s Supper signify? What does the bread and wine represent?

The bread and the wine show the death of Christ (WSC 96, WLC 168). Specifically, the Scriptures instruct us that the bread, “is my body which is for you” (1 Cor 11:24) and the wine, “is the new covenant in my blood” (v. 25). The eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine are simply an external appropriation by faith of the merits of his suffering and dying. It is an external administration of the covenant of grace and has in view our right fellowship with God. While the Lord’s Supper does not justify us, it points by faith to the grace of justification found in Christ. The Supper is to be a tangible and physical sign and seal of the application of the merits of Christ.

In what sense are the body and blood of Christ received in the Lord’s Supper? We acknowledge that this sacrament is more than just a bare remembrance. There is something mysterious and spiritual that happens in the Supper. Like baptism, it is more about what Christ is doing in us than what we are doing. But do we partake of the actual body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? This is a question with which the universal Church has wrestled for centuries. Can we say that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ?

The debate, historically, has been over the nature and substance of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Some in the Reformed camp viewed the elements as a bare remembrance. Ulhrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, argued that it is, “nothing other than with our spirit and our understanding to trust in the goodness and the grace of God through Christ.”[1] Zwingli saw this simply as an exercise in conscious faith. The believer does this to remember. That is all. While at the other end of the spectrum, the Roman Catholics promoted a view called transubstantiation, in which the real substance of the bread and wine, when consecrated by the priest, is changed into Christ’s real flesh and blood. They retain all the appearance of bread and wine (touch, taste, smell, sight) but it really is Christ’s flesh and blood.

Calvin is often seen as a via media in this matter. Calvin went further than Zwingli. The signs of bread and wine do not just signify what Christ did for us, but they also are symbols of what Christ is now doing for us as the living Mediator who still possesses our nature.[2] Calvin writes, “To summarize: our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ in the same way that bread and wine keep and sustain physical life. For the analogy of the sign applies only if souls find their nourishment in Christ…. Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses.”[3] But toward the other end of the spectrum, Calvin denounces the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation as “fictitious” and a “magic incantation.” He sought to retain the mystery without the sacrament becoming magical.

The Westminster Confession of Faith follows the middle road laid out by Calvin when it tells us that the elements set apart for this sacrament and used in a Biblical manner, “have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent” (WCF 29.5). This means that Jesus spoke of the bread and wine in a manner where they were not like his body and blood, but they are his body and blood. We can speak in this manner because the sign and thing signified are so closely related. But Westminster is clear to point out that this is only in a sacramental sense. In substance and nature, they remain bread and wine. This is how Paul speaks in 1 Cor 11:17-32. He speaks of the elements of the sacrament interchangeably, but while still seemingly referring to the set apart elements as being “bread” and “wine.”

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we can truly say that we are partaking of Christ’s body and blood. We do this acknowledging that the Holy Spirit is doing something incredibly important in sustaining our spiritual lives. We also do this acknowledging that we don’t eat and drink in carnal manner as if Christ’s physical body is offered up, once again or in some perpetual manner for us.


[1] Geerhardus Vos et al., Reformed Dogmatics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 5.221.

[2] Ibid., 222.

[3] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.17.10.

The Sacraments – The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is known by several different names. It is called the “Lord’s Supper” because it was instituted and celebrated for the first time in connection with the Passover meal, which was partaken of in the evening (Ex 12:8). The particulars of it being eaten in the evening are not essential, but it does give rise to why we call it a supper. It is called the Lord’s Supper because he is the object and the institutor of the meal.

The sacrament is also called the Lord’s Table. The use of “table” is meant to stand for everything that sits upon the table, that is, the bread and wine. It is at the table where people enjoy a meal and have fellowship. Paul also contrasts what happens at the table of the Lord with the table of demons (1 Cor 10:21). There are proper and improper ways to worship and the Lord’s way is proper.

We often hear the sacrament called the Eucharist. This comes from the Greek term for thanksgiving or blessing. The apostle Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). Christ gave thanks before giving the bread and wine. It recalled the thanksgiving of the Passover meal.

The Roman Catholic tradition will use the term “Mass.” This comes from the Latin term missa which was used in the dismissal of the catechumens (those who had not yet joined the church). The believers would remain and partake of the sacrament. At the conclusion of the sacrament, the minister would say, “Ite, missa est” [Go, dismissal is made]. The ceremony being bookended with the word “mass,” the whole service began to take it on as a name.

Perhaps the most common name for the sacrament is communion. It too comes from the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:16, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation (communion) in the body of Christ?” This is also reflected in the practice of the Lord’s Supper; to be a pledge of fellowship with one another in Christ. The breaking of the bread is to paradoxically demonstrate a oneness in the body of Christ.[1]

While known by many different names, the Scriptures detail the purpose behind the sign and seal of this sacrament. The Westminster Confession of Faith outlines five reasons Christ instituted and commanded its observance until the end of the age (WCF 19.1). The Lord’s Supper is to be observed for the remembrance of his sacrifice, the sealing of all his benefits, spiritual nourishment, increased commitment to perform the necessary duties, and a bond and pledge of fellowship with Christ and one another.

The Lord’s Supper is to bring to our remembrance what Christ has done for us. We are forgetful people. This is why we are constantly erecting monuments and memorials. The Lord’s Supper is a sign to point our forgetful minds and hearts to the great sacrifice Christ made for us.

The Lord’s Supper is to seal all the benefits of Christ in us. The sacraments in general seal or confirm that we belong to Christ. The Lord’s Supper gives you a claim to Christ. You were bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20).

The Lord’s Supper is to be spiritual nourishment. Just as you need physical nourishment, you need spiritual nourishment. It is food for the soul.

The Lord’s Supper is to increase our commitment to perform the necessary duties. This is simply our response to the extravagance of grace poured out upon us by Christ. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are renewed in our commitment to Christ. We are encouraged and moved to act upon his grace.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper is a bond and pledge of our fellowship with Christ and one another. As mentioned, one of the names for the Lord’s Supper is communion. This is because it is a powerful sign of our union with Christ and the oneness of the whole Church. When we partake of the bread and wine, Christ is spiritually present with us. We “drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13) and “we all partake of one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Our union with Christ gives us a special unity as the family of God built up into one body, the Church. The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of that union.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 5.206.