The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 96-97)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Taking part in the Lord’s Supper is a high privilege given by God to his children. By it God blesses them, and by it they declare how our Creator redeemed his people out of the fallen human race. The practice of this important Sacrament has often been confused. It has become divorced from the covenant of which it is a part. Some attribute magical powers to the elements used. Others reduce it to little more than an object lesson. It is worth our time and effort to restore this part of worship to what God ordained it to be.

The Lord’s Supper is a Sacrament.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 96, “What is the Lord’s Supper?”
Answer: The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.

The Lord’s Supper was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for the church during this era between his death and the final Judgment (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25). This has been the universal understanding and practice of Bible-based churches.

It is the covenant meal which fulfills the promises signified in the feast of Passover. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper while he partook of the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his own sacrifice on the cross. He identified the bread as his body which was to be crucified on the cross the next day for the sins of his people. He also explained that the cup of wine represented the blood of the covenant in his own blood which was soon to be shed for them. Jesus is called “our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7), and “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).

The Mosaic Passover was prophetic in nature. The New Testament sacrament is not in every way the same as Passover. It fulfills what the covenant meal prefigured. Not all the particulars of it should be expected to apply to the fulfillment. Many of the details had to do with things that symbolized the coming of the Messiah as our sin bearer. Only what is specified by our Lord for the church applies to the Lord’s Supper. For example, we no longer celebrate this covenant meal in our own homes led by the head of the family unit just once each year. We don’t sacrifice a lamb. There is a requirement that all who partake now must discern the body of Christ, etc.

As a Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It is a means by which true believers grow spiritually and are nourished when the elements are received in faith, and in the way God has specified in his covenant promises.

The benefits are not attached to the elements themselves apart from their proper use. When we rightly partake of this covenant meal we both receive God’s promised blessings and attest to our common commitments as believers and as members of Christ’s body, the church.

By partaking of the elements we come into union with Christ as a united covenant people. For this reason the Lord’s Supper is often called “Communion”.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”

It is not an offering up of Christ as a sacrifice.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.

A common confusion arises from the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the “Mass”. Contrary to that teaching, the Bible does not present this sacrament as a re-sacrificing of Jesus Christ. His once-for-all sacrifice is not to be repeated ritually. It is a sacramental practice to commemorate what has already been accomplished, and to seal its blessings upon proper recipients.

Its Appointed Administration

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:III. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.
IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone; as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshiping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.

The sacraments are to be administered only by those given the authority to do so by ordination to serve as shepherds of the people. The Elders are held responsible in Scripture for the right administration of all the elements of worship. They are the only ones recognized by God’s word to properly represent the gathered congregation before God in its times of convocational worship. Among the Elders, only those examined for their thorough understanding of the Biblical issues involved should lead in the Lord’s Supper. We commonly designate such Elders as Pastors or Teaching Elders. Most churches require them to complete seminary level training.

According to the institution given both by our Lord and the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, certain things should always be present in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Prayer should be offered. The word of God is to be expounded. The elements are to be clearly set apart for this special use. The words of Jesus (usually those in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) are recited. The elements are distributed to and partaken of by the members of Christ’s true church.

Since this is a communion of the church as a body of Christ, and since it is to be accompanied by the teaching of the word and the words of Christ, this sacrament should not be administered outside the called worship of the church under the oversight of its Elders. It should never be distributed later to those not present in the worship time.

The practice of taking the Lord’s Supper to people in private settings, or the administering of it to only the bride and groom at weddings, are in direct violation of this biblical principle. It is therefore contrary to the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith and most importantly to the word of God in Scripture. This practice reflects either a superstitious view of the elements as if they have some power or quality infused into them, or a diminishing of their sacramental use as if they are mere object lessons, endearing ceremonial trappings, or signs, but not seals, of God’s Covenant of Grace.

The administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins, or to those unable for physical reasons to attend the convocations of the church, should always include all the biblical elements of the Sacrament. To honor God’s word Pastors and the Elders of the church will sometimes call a worship time at the bedside of those who are disabled. The word is taught, other believers are present as a congregation, and all the things required for its rightful administration are included in the presence of those partaking. The details of this are far beyond the scope if this present lesson, and get into the portions of the Bible that teach about those God calls to minister to his people during this present era.

Other abuses of this sacrament such as limiting the cup to only those administering it, or the carrying around or venerating of the elements, are pure inventions of men and are contrary to the biblical practice instituted by our Lord and reported by the Apostles in Scripture. They are usually attached because of an improper understanding of how the elements of bread and wine convey the blessings promised in the Covenant.

The outward elements remain
unchanged in substance and nature

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.
VII. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

The physical elements of a Sacrament convey blessings due to the promise attached to them, rather than by any power or change in the actual elements themselves. They ought to be rightly received and administered, while leaving the blessing part to God who alone is the author of our every spiritual benefit.

When Jesus administered the bread and wine at his last Passover supper with his apostles, he explained that the bread was his body and the wine was the new covenant in his blood. There could have been no confusion in the minds of those present. In that context, nothing indicates that he was speaking of a physical transformation which would mean that what he called bread was no longer bread as they understood it, nor that what he gave them as wine was anything other than what God’s laws of Passover required it to be. There is nothing to make us expect that his command to continue the sacrament implied that the elements would be any different after his resurrection.

The medieval doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the whole substance of the bread is changed into the literal physical body of Jesus, and that the wine is changed in substance into the literal blood of Jesus. This view protects itself from the obvious objections by saying that they continue to have the outward characteristics of bread and wine, but they are no longer what they appear to be.

This view was taken up by the Roman church. It led to superstitions about the power and efficacy of the elements themselves. The bread is sometimes paraded around invoking followers to worship it and to expect actual blessings to flow from its mere presence. Extreme measures have been taken to keep the leftovers of the consecrated bread or wine from being treated with disrespect, since they are believed to remain the body and blood of Jesus even outside the context of the administration of the sacrament. The administration of the elements have been guarded so that no crumbs of the sacred body or drops of our Savior’s true blood would fall accidentally. A special wafer was designed to replace the bread so that it would be laid intact into the mouth of the participant and could not produce crumbs.

The Lutheran view was a modified form of the Roman doctrine. Their view is often called consubstantiation. Though they also believed that in consecration the actual physical body and blood of our Lord became present in, with, and under the elements, nevertheless the real bread and wine remain also.

Most of the confusion which led to these extreme positions has to do with a basic misunderstanding of the concept of the sacramental relationship which unites the outward forms with that which they represent. Those who hold to those views put a very unnatural reading upon the words of Jesus when he said, “this is my body”. Throughout Scripture figures of speech are used where the thing representing something is spoken of in terms of the thing it represents. Though Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are not transformed into photons or Sodium Chloride crystals. There are many classical discussions of this issue and we will not try to reproduce all the details of the arguments here.

In response to these abuses some have taken a view often called Memorialism. It reduces the entire Sacrament to an object lesson denying that the body and blood of Christ are received in any real sense at all.

The position of the Reformed churches differs from these other schools of theology. The classic Reformed symbols indicate that there is a real presence of Christ in the elements, but it is not a physical presence. By virtue of God’s promise we partake of Christ’s body and blood spiritually, receiving the benefits of his covenantal presence when those rightly partaking trust in God’s assurance that blessing will accompany this means of grace.

Unworthy Partakers

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 97: What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer: It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.

Those who receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper in ignorance or with a wicked intent cannot receive the blessing promised. God looks upon the heart and blesses only those who come as he specifies in his word.

Paul carefully instructed the church at Corinth about the right reception of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11 he wrote,

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;
24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.

Those who receive the elements without faith in, or awareness of what they represent, and of the church gathered as the body of Christ, are unworthy receivers. They bring condemnation upon themselves rather than blessing. For this reason most Reformed churches require communicants to be qualified by the examination of the Elders in order to be admitted to the Lord’s table. Children and new members must show that they are acting with understanding and a credible faith in Christ before they are welcomed to this Sacrament.

Some admit all baptized children on the basis of their covenantal union in the body of Christ. The admitting of children is called Paedo-Communion. Study committees in most Reformed bodies have not been convinced by the arguments offered to support this concept, but it is a worthy issue for study, and challenges us to improve our understanding of the Sacraments and of their Covenant nature.

The many detailed practices of the ancient celebration of the Passover are not brought over into the New Testament era without change. Most believe that the caution Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 shows one of the ways in which the prefiguring of the Lord’s Supper changed as it came into its fulfilled form.

Since the Lord’s Supper is a means by which God extends his work of grace in the believer, those admitted to the Sacrament should not abstain from it. It is a good time for confessing sin and renewing commitments to the Lord. The idea that one must first have made full restitution for the effects of all his sins is neither biblical nor reasonable. Passages relating to the Levitical sacrificial system and its demands for outward purity should not be transposed into the New Testament era in a way that keeps a truly repentant believer from taking advantage of this important means of grace.

There are many issues which have engaged the church in the study of this Sacrament. Some say fermented wine should always be used, while others insist on the use of unfermented grape juice. Some demand that the bread be unleavened, while others prefer the ordinary leavened bread in common use. Some receive the elements while remaining seated as a congregation. Others come to the front of the church and kneel while receiving it. Some eat and drink each element as it is received while others wait until all have been served then partake as a congregation. Some administer the sacrament every Sunday, others monthly, some quarterly.

These are fascinating areas of discussion and have been used by God to provoke his people into studies that explore the depths of his word for answers. Great caution should be exercised regarding these differences lest things not directly addressed in God’s word should be used by the enemy of our faith to divide us and derail our joint efforts to preserve true biblical worship, individual spiritual maturity, and the declaration of the gospel to the world. The members of local churches should submit to the judgment of the Elders of the church in such matters as these, unless they find sound biblical cause to do otherwise.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Who Should be Baptized?

Who Should be Baptized?

Part Three of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

The Subjects of Baptism

The question of who should be baptized has caused a great deal of debate between some who equally love God’s word and who take it as the only standard in determining what we should believe and do. The differences are not because some are unaware of certain Bible verses. They all cite the same ones. The divergence takes place in the area of interpretation.

Those who have a more extensive understanding of the original languages admit that rigid dictionary definitions of the words, and narrowly interpreted grammatical structures of individual verses are not honest solutions to the problem. It comes down to how each passage fits together with other related passages and teachings of the inspired Scriptures. Scripture must interpret Scripture.

All those who sincerely profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should be baptized into membership in a local congregation.

Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore are also proper subjects of baptism. Those who do not baptize infants until they are able to make a credible profession of faith are classified as baptists. The term baptist does not identify particular denominations which may use that word in their name. The term is used here to identify a particular belief system concerning baptism.

The Westminster Standards summarize the understanding of the Reformed branch of Christianity about what the Bible says on this topic.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 95. To whom is Baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ,
but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

Theologically conservative Christians all agree that the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant word. Therefore it alone must be the final and authoritative test of what is to be believed. The primary divergence between the historic Reformed view and that of the Baptist position relates to how they undersand changes in the administration of God’s promises to his people following the finished work of Christ. This impacts not only the question of who are the proper subjects of baptism, it also effects the meaning attached to baptism and its presumed efficacy.

The first and primary issue is the unity of God’s covenant with his people. The Baptist Confession of 1689 is largely based upon the Westminster Confession, but it differs in the section about baptism, and about the nature of the church. In chapter 26 it does not include the children of believers as members of a visible church. The explanation given by some falls short of defining the visible church concept accurately. The term “visible church” does not codify the admission of unbelievers into the church as some accuse. It merely admits that the church has the same basic type of composition as the symbolic church embodied in the nation of Israel by God’s own commandment. Some members are not true believers. Jesus himself mandates this same view as illustrated in his parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).

We need to determine from Scripture what changes God made in the composition of his church. Does he now exclude infants of believers, and deny them the sign and seal of his covenant which they previously had received? The identifying sign of God’s people during the age from Abraham until the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which was then circumcision) was commanded to be administered to two groups of people.

1. Circumcision was to be performed upon those males outside the covenant community who come to make a credible profession of faith in God’s promises and salvation, and who demonstrate their sincerity by a desire to live by God’s principles and to submit to the God-appointed authority of the church.

2. Circumcision was to be performed upon the children of those already members of the covenant community. This sign was to be administered to all male children at the age of 8 days. This did not mean that they were also necessarily members of the invisible church which is the body of all those God actually regenerates by the promised future work of Christ. The election and regeneration of any person, adults as well as children, cannot be determined by the church, therefore it cannot be what the sign of the covenant represents. The circumcision of children indicates that God considered them to be members of the visible church, otherwise he would not have permitted them to receive its sign and seal.

The changes made in the covenant are well documented in the books of the New Testament. The narrowness of the church before Christ was expanded beyond Israel so that it would include people from all nations. The post-ascension church did not “replace” the pre-ascension church identified as Israel. The Church after the time of Christ is Israel in its fulfilled and completed form as promised by God throughout the Old Testament.

The sign marking members of the covenant was also enlarged so that both males and females were proper recipients. The reason for this change likely involved the symbolic federal headship of the husband and father which was fulfilled by the completion of the work of Christ who is the second Adam, the federal head representing all who believe. This was taken up earlier in this topic where we compared Baptism and Circumcision.

It would be contrary to God’s enlargement of the covenant community if all the children of believers who were not old enough to believe on their own were no longer to be included. Rather than enlarging the church, it would be a diminishing of its scope. Only God can announce changes resulting from the fulfillment of his previous commandments. Considering this, it would be unprecedented and contrary to sound biblical interpretation to presume such a change when nothing is said of it in the Bible. No where in any of the New Testament books is such a change announced, or shown by apostolic example.

Even a casual reading of the Epistles of the New Testament or the history of the early church in the book of Acts shows that the Inspired writers and the Apostles were diligent to advise the church about questions that would naturally arise among the Jewish believers as the covenantal changes took place. It would be astounding that no Jewish family in the decades covered by those books ever raised the question of their children’s inclusion in the covenant community. For thousands of years obedient parents placed the sign of the covenant upon their male children on the 8th day of their lives. If suddenly children were to be excluded, their godly parents would have been informed. That no controversy or issue is recorded for the churches then, or for the churches using the New Testament as their guide in the years to come, it is indicative that no such dramatic change took place. For lack of evidence to the contrary, God’s already revealed word must stand.

On the positive side of the issue, there is abundant evidence in the New Testament that the same practice of God’s people continued regarding the children of believing members of the covenant community, and regarding the families of those who come to believe and who join the church.

The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament were directly applied to the New Testament church.

Acts 2:38-39 reports the words of Peter at Pentecost. He applied to the church the ancient promises made to Abraham and his descendants, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ ”

It connects the covenant promise made to Abraham and to his seed, with the New Testament church as the proper heirs of the covenant. That promise includes both the forgiveness of sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit. These are both central in the meaning of baptism as we have demonstrated in a previous heading in this lesson.

However, some confuse the Covenantal position by misrepresenting the identity it makes between circumcision and baptism. The Reformed view actually limits this identity between the prefiguring and the fulfillment of it. It recognizes changes clearly explained in the teachings of the New Testament.

For example, the pre-messianic shedding of blood in sacrifices and in circumcision is no longer appropriate after the shedding of our Savior’s blood completed what was signified. Blood is replaced by water, which was also an Old Testament symbol for purification, for the washing away of the pollution of sin.

Also, the sign is no longer limited to the male as representative for his entire family. The death of Jesus as the representative for his church, the bridegroom dying to redeem his bride, is what that male headship representation was about.

The New Testament church and pre-messianic Israel are the same olive tree in Romans 11:16-17. Their unity does not deny basic changes directly explained by God himself. But the removal of children from the covenant community is no where commanded as part of this change.

To see how the New Testament church both understood and carried out the promise mentioned by Peter at Pentecost, we need to examine the examples of baptism in Scripture after the resurrection of Christ. There are only nine examples of baptism recorded in the book of Acts.

The first is the baptism of 3,000 at Pentecost. There are four baptisms where individual men were received into the church but families were not present. This leaves four baptisms where it expressly mentions the baptism of households along with the adult who became a believer. As Dr. Gregg Strawbridge observes, “… virtually every person who had a household had it baptized!”

If a person presumes that only adults who make a credible profession of faith can be members of the church and therefore can be baptized, he must also presume in all these cases that all the members of each household were not only old enough to understand the gospel, but they each also believed, and voluntarily and knowledgeably submitted to baptism at the same moment. This is certainly possible. But it has nothing to do with the issue. We do not know the ages of any children present in these families. We do know that they were received as families without any qualifying comments being made about those families in the biblical record.

If we set aside the presumptions, we would see these passages as a continuation of the practice commanded by God long ago for his covenant people. The including of the children was the common understanding every Jew would already have had. The Apostles who were sent out to baptize, and the families to whom the gospel first came, would have known God’s instruction to mark out their children as members of the covenant community.

At this point the reader is directed to the excellent article by Dr. Gregg Strawbridge, Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It? It would be redundant to reproduce here all the careful work he has done in reviewing the passages and arguments from Scripture that support the continuation of the inclusion of the children of believers in both the visible church, and as proper subjects of the sign and seal of that membership.

The baptism of the infant children of believers does not save them, nor does it contradict the fact that babies are not able to believe before they are baptized. The question does not fall down upon the fact that covenant children are commonly excluded from the Lord’s Table in most Reformed churches. We will take that up in the study of the Lord’s Supper.

The Efficacious Nature of Baptism

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
VI. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
VII. The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.

It confuses the sign with what it represents if we believe that Baptism itself produces all that it represents and seals upon the recipients. The act of baptizing does not mean that the person receiving the sacrament is actually among the elect and therefore a member of the invisible church. As with circumcision in the time before Christ, it assures for every person being baptized only that he is a member of the visible church, and is subject to the blessings or cursings of God’s promises.

The grace represented is truly granted to those qualified by the work of Christ under God’s covenant. Others receiving the sacrament who prove never to be regenerated by their lack of profession of faith and disobedience to God, receive rightfully all the curses of that same covenant. This applies to adults as well as to infants who are baptized. The Reformed view is therefore completely distinct from the view of Sacerdotalism as held for example by the Roman Catholic Church.

Similarly, if we look upon this act as merely an outward ritual or object lesson, we deny the promises God’s word attaches to Baptism. The Reformed view therefore directly denies the limited symbolic view of the Memorialists.

Since infants may not evidence the work of regeneration until later in life we say that the efficacy of baptism, the actual conveying of the graces signified, may not take place at the moment when the Sacrament is administered.

Since baptism represents the cleansing of sin and engrafting into the covenant body of the church it is rightly administered only once. There is no biblical justification or example of multiple baptisms of the same person. To do so would be a direct rejection of the meaning of Baptism and would obscure what God intends it to reveal about himself and his work of cleansing the guilty sinner of the stains of his sin.

The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.

The Significance of Baptism

The Significance of Baptism

Part Two of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

The Significance of Christian Baptism

In this era of the history of God’s people, believers in Christ are marked out by Baptism. When people come to believe the gospel, they should be Baptized with water in the name of the Triune God. This is one of the things Jesus commanded his disciples to do in the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines baptism in its answer to Question 94:

Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

God has always marked out his people by an outward sign ever since he constituted them as a covenant people in the time of Abraham. The sign he commanded in that era was circumcision. That practice continued until the Apostolic age when the New Testament church became established as the earthly representative of God’s continuing covenant people. The continuity of God’s church in both eras was dealt with in detail in previous studies. (See our syllabus notes on chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession about God’s Covenant With Man, and chapter 25 of the confession about the nature of The Church.)

The changes that took place in the covenant community after the coming of the Messiah were massive and dramatic. The old symbols of redemption were fulfilled and replaced by a new system of practices that looked back upon the finished work which the earlier system prefigured. The change is well documented in the New Testament so that the church would have an authoritative record of them. God alone has the right to direct his people to stop doing what he had formerly commanded, and then begin doing something different. The new system does not indicate a change in God’s plan of redemption. It reflects a completion of many of the promises made in his continuing covenant.

A major change was how members of the covenant community are to be marked out as belonging to the people of God. Circumcision was no longer to be required. Instead the ancient concept of baptism would be used, but with deeper meaning attached. Yet its root meaning continued the primary symbolism it always carried. The practice of baptism would still illustrate washing and purification from moral impurity.

Obviously such a dramatic change would have to be explained. It is not surprising that the New Testament addresses this issue in several places. It was important that the church in its new form should understand this revised requirement. The change of initiatory practice impacted the life of every family among God’s people.

The change in the sign and seal of the covenant involved fulfillment of what the old sign and seal prefigured. The finished work of Jesus Christ as Savior by his death in the sinner’s place changed the practices that represented God’s dealing with the guilt and pollution of sin. The new sign also shows how the redemptive benefit of the atonement is applied by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner to regenerate him, to bestow upon him a righteousness that was not his own, and to give him spiritual life where before there was death.

The change from circumcision to baptism is much more than just modifying the outward practice. It represents the change brought about by the ending of the era of symbols where the physical nation of Israel represented the church of Christ. To understand this change it is important to briefly review the significance of circumcision.

1. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community. It marked out the visible church of God at that time. It did not mean that every person circumcised, or every family member represented in the circumcision of the male head of the home, was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marked the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

2. Circumcision was a bloody ritual representing the cutting away of sin and its pollution in the soul. Before the shedding of the blood of the Messiah God used bloody rituals to prefigure what had not yet taken place. It was still future by his promise.

3. Circumcision could only be administered to those outside the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ circumcision was mandated in Israel. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.

4. Circumcision was a representation of an invisible and spiritual reality. Moses and the prophets repeatedly told the people they need to be circumcised in their hearts, not just in their bodies (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, etc.). The church was never to be imagined as being made up exclusively of the truly redeemed. There were provisions for removal from Israel of those circumcised members who showed by their rebellion or unbelief that they were not circumcised in the heart.

To see the changes in the New Testament along with the continuity of the underlying meanings, baptism can be described by similar statements.

1. Baptism is a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, the visible church in this era. It does not mean that every person baptized was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marks the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

God’s earthly representation of his kingdom was expanded after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It no longer would be seen in just one nation, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That nation prefigured the New Testament church (Galatians 3:14,16, Ephesians 1:12, etc.). The male representation of the family prefigured the federal headship of Christ. This is what male headship over the home was designed to communicate (Ephesians 5:25-31). This limitation of the initiatory ordinance was eliminated in Christ’s fulfillment so that wives and female children would receive the sign and seal of the covenant also.

2. Baptism is a non-bloody ritual representing the washing away of sin and its pollution in the soul. After the shedding of the Messiah’s blood God rescinded the use of all bloody rituals. What they prefigured had been fulfilled.

3. Baptism is only to be administered to those outside of the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ baptism is mandated for all those becoming members of the New Testament form of the church. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.

4. Baptism represents an invisible and spiritual reality. Jesus warned that in the New Testament church the tares and wheat are to grow together without attempts to judge the heart.

Excommunication recognizes that the visible church includes some baptized members who come to show no evidences that they are regenerated members of the invisible church of the redeemed. We cannot judge the heart. We only remove those who openly deny the grounds upon which they were admitted in the first place. Baptized believers are reminded that it is the purifying of the heart, not of the body that is important in the eyes of God.

The spiritual import of the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace continued even though the form of the initiatory rite changed. The connection is clearly referenced in Colossians 2:11-14.

11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,
14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

The outward acts of circumcision and baptism are not the issue here. Paul shows that they both relate to an inner change by which we are identified with Christ as our Sin-bearer. This atonement and its application to the believer is what the physical signs and seals represented in both eras.

Many clear references in the New Testament show that membership in the church after the time of Christ is a continuation of the same covenant and promises made to Abraham (see Acts 2:38-39; Romans 3:21; 11:16-17; Galatians 3:14,16,29; Acts 26:6,7; etc.).

Baptism represents the union of the believer in Christ’s victory over sin and its judicial effects. Since the true believer is identified with Christ who is his substitute, he is considered to be free from the penalty of sin which is death, the separation of the offending soul from the presence of God (see notes on the Work of Christ section of our syllabus notes on Jesus Christ, the Mediator, from the Westminster Confession chapter 8).

Sadly, many have missed the main point of Paul’s argument in the previous passage of Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-5 to hijack the words “buried with Him in baptism” as an argument to support the mode of total immersion in baptism. A reading of the context shows that the manner of how water is applied neither supports that view, nor does it have any place in the Apostle’s line of reasoning. In reality the Apostle presents baptism in a sense that is most consistent with the covenantal view presented here.

The reference to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), and to being buried with him in baptism (Romans 6:4) is certainly not represented in immersion under water. Jesus was laid in a tomb, not buried in the ground. The concept that submerging a person under water and his emerging up as if coming out of a grave does not picture at all what Jesus did in his being laid in a tomb with a rock over the door and his coming forth from that tomb. The argument falsely imposes our modern idea of burial upon the actual facts of how the body of Jesus was handled upon his death.

Another serious problem with that argument is that it isolates one image from other similar images in the New Testament. We are also said to be “crucified with Christ” and to “put on Christ”. Neither of these images supports immersion under water and emersion from it. They are not promoting a mode of baptism. This is an inconsistent approach to exegesis and is transparently invalid.

The point the Apostle is making here is that by our baptism into Christ we show our identity with his full and complete work as our Savior. Primarily that work is the purifying of the soul from sin and its pollution. Baptism represents the washing away of the offense of sin, and the removing of the penalty of sin which is death. That debt was paid for in our place by the Savior. His resurrection ensures that we will be raised with him to walk in newness of life. The passage in Romans deals with the results of the applied work of Christ as the believer is given spiritual life in him by purification from sin. It has nothing to do with how water is to be applied to the believer when he is physically baptized into the church.

Water baptism is a symbolic act which in itself washes away nothing. It is a ritual cleansing with promises and conditions attached by God in his Covenant. Ritual cleansings all through the history of God’s people up through the time of the New Testament were commanded in the law of Moses to be done by sprinkling or by pouring.

Baptism then is an initiatory rite of membership in the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.

Water baptism also represents another kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This shows the coming of the Spirit upon a person to apply the work of Christ in cleansing them from sin. The presence of the Spirit imparts the life which is restored when our separation from God is repaired by the removal of the barrier of our offenses.

This was the promise of John the baptist (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26, Acts 1:5). In Titus 3:5 Paul mentions this as “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Again, the mode is in most proper agreement with sprinkling and pouring since these are the terms that describe what this baptism of the Holy Spirit represents. It is the coming of the Spirit upon the believer. He is said to be “poured out,” “shed forth,” to have “fallen upon” God’s people. Even the symbolism of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is that of flames coming upon the people, not of immersing them in fire.

For such reasons we say that baptism, considering its import and meaning, is best represented by sprinkling and pouring rather than immersion under water.

This important topic will continue in one more installment. The next lesson will be about who should be baptized, and how baptism becomes effective.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
Baptism is the initiatory rite into the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.

The Meaning of Baptism

The Meaning of Baptism

Part One of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

The Meaning of Baptism

Baptism is one of the two sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ for his church. In Matthew 28:19-20 he gave a three-fold commission to his apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”

Clearly these three commands are to continue in the church until the end of the world. In carrying out the duty of baptizing those evangelized, it is obviously important to know how baptism is to be administered, who is to receive it, what it accomplishes, who is to perform it, and upon what conditions is it right and appropriate to do so.

Before we get into the details of those questions, ones which have sadly divided the evangelical churches, it is important to understand the basic meaning of “baptism” as presented in God’s word.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Question 94: What is baptism?
Answer: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28.1
Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

There is a great deal of overlap of the issues that divide people. What baptism represents partly determines how it is to be done, and to whom it is to be administered. Therefore, only at the conclusion of our study will all the individual parts come together to produce a consistent understanding of the sacrament.

In a previous study we defined the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They are directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for his church. They represent Christ and his benefits, confirm our interest in Christ, and put a visible distinction upon members of Christ’s church. Baptism qualifies in all these areas if it is rightly understood, administered, and received.

It’s clear from Matthew 28:19-20 that baptism was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice of his church.

As a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community baptism represents being a part of the visible church. All those properly baptized are to be considered as citizens of the covenant community. It is evident that not all who are baptized are truly members of the invisible church which is composed of only the elect of God. From the many warnings in the New Testament about false believers and the process of excommunication it is clear that some who are received as members of what we see as the church visibly, are not truly God’s redeemed people.

As a sacrament, baptism is also a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of being given up to God through Christ to walk in newness of life. As we saw in the previous lesson a sacrament does not in itself convey these spiritual blessings. It is a sign and seal of God’s promise concerning them to the proper recipients of the sacrament. We will see these issues clarified as we progress in the topics of this lesson.

The Way We Baptize

One area where sincere believers differ is how Baptism is to be administered. The position of the Westminster Assembly describes what is followed in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28.2-3

The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

Water is the outward element used to represent and seal baptism’s inward grace. While there is no significant debate about the use of water itself, the method of applying the water has divided some branches of the evangelical churches. The issue surrounds several areas of difference.

  • The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
  • The examples of baptism in the New Testament
  • The significance of the act of applying the water

The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
Since no actual definition is given in the New Testament when baptism is first mentioned, it is obvious that the words used had a meaning which was already understood. The Greek terms in the books of the New Testament are: baptizo (βαπτιζω), baptismos (βαπτισμος), baptisma (βαπτισμα), baptistaes (βαπτιστης), and bapto (βαπτω). Instead of being translated where the English meaning or synonym is substituted, they are most often transliterated by dropping the Greek ending and using the English alphabet instead of the Greek letters. This often requires adjustments such as the adding a final “e” to conform to the grammatical rules of the English language.

The first is the verb baptizo (βαπτιζω) which is usually simply transliterated as “baptize”. This word is used approximately 80 times in the New Testament.

The second word is the noun baptismos (βαπτισμος) which is used four times and has reference to the ritual washings already practiced in Israel (Matthew 7:4, Mark 7:8, Hebrews 6:2, and 9:10). The subjects of these washings are cups and pots in the Gospel references. In the Book of Hebrews it is used to describe the Jewish ritual washings based upon the prescriptions in the Old Testament law. It is usually either transliterated as “baptism”, or translated by using the word “washing”.

The third word, baptisma (βαπτισμα), is a noun related strongly to the previous one. It is used 22 times usually being transliterated as “baptism”.

The fourth word is also a noun. Baptistaes (βαπτιστης) is used 14 times. It is always in reference to John describing him as “the one who baptizes”, “the baptizer”.

The fifth word is another verb bapto (βαπτω) which is used four times in the New Testament. It is usually translated by the word “dip” and has reference to dipping a finger in water, of Jesus dipping the sop at the last supper, and of clothing dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13).

Lexicons and dictionaries range from sound scholarly studies of how words are actually used, to attempts to define words to defend a particular theology. Those who promote a restricted single meaning for baptizo (βαπτιζω) tend to ignore many obvious places where it is clearly used in other ways. The meanings of words are determined by how they are used by those naturally speaking the language. Words sometimes take on new meanings and drop old ones since languages grow with the cultures using them. An honest approach will seek to assemble the possible meanings a word may have, then let the context determine which definitions are allowable, and which are ruled out in each particular place where the word is used.

The words for baptism are very ancient in the Greek language. They were used by Homer, Lucian, and other classical writers from various eras. They show a wide variety of uses of the words, all having to do with the basic idea of cleansing in some way. The range of uses include: sprinkling, washing, dying of fabrics, and of immersing things in a basin or pool of some kind. But ancient meanings and those used by writers in pagan cultures are hardly a good standard for judging the way the words were understood by the first recipients of the New Testament message.

The meanings of the words for baptism when introduced in the New Testament are deeply rooted in how the terms were understood by the Greek speaking Jews to whom the gospel was first given. The historically wide range of meanings for these words seems to continue as they were used by the Christians who authored the New Testament books. The basic and most literal idea is “to wash”, or “to cleanse’. This was done in the same way people have always washed things. They may dip them into some solvent (usually water) at times immersing them. Often washing is done by pouring the solvent over something or rubbing it over the object to be cleansed. Sometimes washings were symbolic of a moral or spiritual purification, in which case simply sprinkling the solvent on the object was sufficient to represent the cleansing.

These various types of cleansings were part of the Old Testament writings. When the Hebrew and Aramaic texts were translated into Greek in the Septuagint versions (often represented by the letters LXX), words based upon the “bapt-” (βαπτ-) root were often used.

A summary of these uses is offered in this table:

passage Hebrew Greek LXX use
Lev 11:32 בוא (bo’) βαπτω (bapto) to place into water (immerse)
Lev 14:6,51 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip one bird in the blood of another bird
Lev 14:16 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a finger in oil to sprinkle it
Josh 3:15 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to step one’s feet into water
Ruth 2:14 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a morsel of food in vinegar
Psa 68:23 חץ (makhats) βαπτω (bapto) to smite an enemy (figurative)
1Sm 14:27 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip the end of a rod in honey
2Ki 5:14 טבל (taval) βαπτιζω (baptizo) Naaman washed himself in the Jordan River
Isa 21:4 בעת (ba’at) βαπτιζω (baptizo) to terrify (figurative)
Dan 5:21 צבע (tsava’) ¹ βαπτω (bapto) to wet with morning dew

¹(Aramaic)

The Levitical and traditional practices described in the book of Hebrews are summarized in 9:10 using the plural of the word baptismos (βαπτισμος). They are all called “baptisms”. The actions described here are mainly sprinklings of the priests where the Old Testament passages primarily use the Hebrew words:
nazah (נזה): which means to sprinkle, spurt, spatter, or splash.
zaraq (זרק): which means to scatter, or sprinkle.

A complete analysis of each of these passages would simply repeat the careful work done by some of the best exegetes God had given the church. A very good summary is given by Dr. John Murray in his book Christian Baptism.

A simple reading of the contexts of these texts shows that no single meaning can be forced into all of them. Those who insist that the words always have only just one meaning struggle with some of these passages. For example it is hard to make the words always mean ‘to immerse” when a living bird is “immersed” in the blood of another sacrificed bird (Leviticus 14:6), or how the body of Nebuchadnezzar was “immersed” in the morning dew.

The most important question that demands an answer is how the words chosen by the Holy Spirit were used and understood in the Jewish contexts in which they first appear in the New Testament writings.

The first reference to baptism in the New Testament is in relation to the baptisms being performed by John prior to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

John’s baptism was performed as a sign of repentance. It was to call God’s people from the corruption that surrounded them, to a renewed commitment to trust and honor their Lord. It represented being cleansed from the guilt of their sins. That was the underlying meaning behind the established Levitical ceremonial washings.

John’s activities soon got the attention of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The leaders sent a delegation to find out who this baptizer claimed to be (John 1:19-27). It is helpful to note that they were not sent to ask what he was doing. Baptisms were well known to the Jews as proper things for a priest of God to do. They were performed in various contexts including the sprinklings of the Temple services and various other cleansing rituals (Hebrews 9:10).

It is also wise to note that they were not concerned with identifying the name of this baptizer. They would certainly have known the son of the High Priest Zacharias. Their questions were about who he claimed to be with relationship to biblical prophesy, not about his human identity. It is as if they were asking him, “Just who do you think you are, baptizing people to repentance as you have been doing?”

If John had been introducing some new concept, such as immersing people rather than following the Levitical and traditional mode of sprinkling or pouring water in symbolic purification, it is strange that nothing is ever mentioned of this in the record of the New Testament. You would think that those looking to find something wrong with what John was doing would have latched onto that as a good argument that he was straying from the ways prescribed by God in his word.

The next baptism described in the New Testament is the baptism of Jesus. This is of a different nature than the baptisms John had been administering to show the repentance of the people of Israel who came to him. Jesus had nothing from which to be cleansed. There was nothing of which to repent. So John expressed his reluctance and lack of understanding. He should be seeking baptism from Jesus for the purification of his own soul.

Jesus answered in a manner that satisfied John that this baptism was to be for a different purpose. It was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John gave no further argument. He understood what Jesus was asking.

Righteousness is defined in Scripture as innocence before God’s law. In Deuteronomy 6:25 it defines it this way, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.”

What law would be fulfilled and honored by a baptism of Jesus by John? Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. In his ministry he would exercise the office of priest in several respects. He must therefore qualify in keeping with the law given to Israel if he was to be above reproach and was to be understood for what he was doing.

There were three basic requirements of the law that had to be followed for someone to assume the authority of a priest in Israel.

First, he had to be called by God in a manner consistent with the Scriptures. Jesus was not of the line of Aaron as was John. But he was not going to circumvent the law and intrude upon the authority of the priesthood. There were others called specially by God in the Old Testament who were not identified as priests by their blood line. Melchizedek is an example of those called by special revelation. In Hebrews 7:17 it is directly said that Jesus was a priest of the order of Melchizedek. The calling of Jesus was made clear by the revelations of God through the angels at the time of his conception and birth. Many times the words of the prophets were quoted identifying him as the one who fulfilled the promises of the Messiah, the Anointed One. It was by this authority, not by his human heritage, that he was called to the office of a Priest of Israel.

Second, a priest must be at least 30 years old (Numbers 4:3). It is interesting that the gospels are very clear to state that at the time of his baptism Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His age is not given again during any time after that in his ministry. This shows that here it must have had some particular importance. We need to remember that it is not that Jesus had to be 30 to qualify, as much as it was God’s preshadowing of the priestly ministry of our Promised Savior that set 30 as the age for all priests in the Levitical system. Many of the details of the Mosaic law made little sense until the coming of our Redeemer where the shadows became a reality.

Third, a priest needed to be properly set aside by the forms of ordination. This was only valid if done by an already properly recognized and authorized priest. John was qualified since he was of Aaron’s tribe, son of Zacharais (Luke 1:5) of the division of Abijah, those charged with temple service (1 Chronicles 24:10). The mode of ordination was also specified in Scripture. Among the things required was the sprinkling with water mentioned in Numbers 8:7. “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them, …”

It is reasonable to assume that the baptism Jesus was seeking from John fulfilled this requirement of God’s law, and therefore fulfilled all righteousness in preparation for his ministry which was about to begin.

In confirmation of this line of reasoning, we see that when the authority of Jesus was questioned when he cast the money changers out of the temple, he cited his baptism by John. Matthew 21:23 records, “Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’ ”

The answer of our Lord in verse 25 is instructive, Jesus answered, “The baptism of John — where was it from? From heaven or from men?” The accusers were left with no grounds for complaint that Jesus had abused priestly authority. He was guarding the place of worship from corruption – one of the duties of a Priest.

The writer of Hebrews makes this same connection with the priesthood of Jesus when he quotes the words spoken by God at his baptism. In Hebrews 5:5-6 he says, “So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’ As He also says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek’;” The words “You are my Son” were spoken at the baptism of Jesus.

If Jesus had been baptized into the priesthood by an innovative ceremony, one that was at variance with the details of the law he was honoring, there would have been ample reason for the Pharisees at the temple to reject his argument. But they did not. The mode of the baptism of Jesus was most likely done by sprinkling water on him as he and John walked down into the waters of the Jordan river. Then after the baptism into the priesthood they came together up out of the water.

Jesus obeyed every part of the law in securing our righteousness. He did not dare to disturb even the shadows of the Levitical system lest any confusion should occur concerning the reality it prefigured. He partook of circumcision, temple presentation, Passover, and the other biblical feasts. The baptism of Jesus is another example of his devotion to God’s law to encourage us that He is our righteousness. He kept the law in every point to be above reproach.

Other references to baptism in the rest of the New Testament build upon this same foundation. The words used come from the respected heritage of biblical law. There were also baptisms added by the Rabbis which Jesus and his disciples did not respect or follow. They did not come from God’s law but from human-invented superstitions and prejudices.

In several places it is directly recorded that Jesus and his followers did not follow the traditions of the Rabbis in washing their hands before eating (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:2-5 and Luke 11:38). John Murray points out that this tradition of the Rabbis is described in the Talmudic tractate Yadayim in chapter 2, mishnah 3. It says, “Hands become unclean and are made clean as far as the wrist. How so? If he poured the first water over the hands as far as the wrist and poured the second water over the hands beyond the wrists and the latter flowed back to the hands, the hands nevertheless become clean.”

Significantly, Mark 11:38 refers to this by using the Greek word baptizo. There is no evidence that the critics of Jesus expected that Jesus and the disciples should have immersed themselves in water every time they ate, as if all good Jews did this. It is most reasonable to believe that this tradition of the Talmud was what their accusers had in mind.

A similar reference is found in Mark 7:4 when the ritual cleansing expected of those returning from the market place is referred to by the word baptizo (βαπτιζω). Some Alexandrian Greek texts substitute the word hrantizo (ραντιζω) which means to sprinkle. This variation was probably introduced to clarify the type of Rabbinic practice to which the critics of Jesus referred. Even if we keep the more received reading of baptizo (βαπτιζω), the ritual it describes is unlikely to mean that everyone returning from the market totally immersed himself in water.

There are these types of water baptisms in the New Testament:

  • The Levitical purifications and sacrificial sprinklings of God’s Law
  • The traditions of the Rabbis who added ceremonial washings of their own
  • John’s baptism, an established symbol of purification showing repentance
  • The baptism of Jesus as a priestly ordination following Numbers 8:7
  • a new kind of baptism which marked out the followers of Jesus Christ as the New Testament church which was established in fulfillment of the old Jewish order of the covenant.

In summary, the uses of the words transliterated as “baptism” in the New Testament have a wide variety of meanings. There is no support for the theory that they must always mean “to immerse”. The practice of the church in the sacrament of Christian Baptism must be defined not by assuming narrow meanings for the words, but by the significance and purpose of the sacrament where that matter is discussed directly in God’s word. The mode will become more clear as we look to the passages which describe why believers are to be baptized.

This important topic will continue in two more installments. The next lesson will cover the significance of baptism, and the final lesson will be about who should be baptized, and how baptism becomes effective.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
The practice of the church in the sacrament of Christian Baptism must be defined not by assuming a narrow meaning for the word, but by the significance and purpose of the sacrament where that matter is discussed directly in God’s word.

The Sacraments as a Means of Grace

The Sacraments as a Means of Grace

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 91-93)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

(This Lesson is based upon and is almost identical with Lesson 3 in the Ecclesiology section of our Syllabus on the Westminster Confession of Faith.)

Definition of the Sacraments

The term “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum. In its classical uses it represents something set apart from other things, something dedicated for a particular and special purpose. It was used for the oath a soldier took as he dedicated himself to the defense of king and country, and for money set aside to bind an agreement. The church came to use the term “sacred” for those things set apart specially for God’s honor. Its original uses are vague, broad ranging, and offer little help in understanding what the Reformed churches mean when they declare that God has instituted two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The word sacrament is not directly used in Scripture. Like the words theology, Trinity, and others, it is used to represent a particular biblical teaching. Some who use this word may have a very different meaning than others who use it. The test of correctness depends upon which definition is derived from the teachings God has revealed in his word, not upon the historic or presumed meanings attached to it by men or churches.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism deals with the Sacraments in general in questions 91-93.

Question 91: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
Answer: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

Question 92: What is a sacrament?
Answer: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.

Question 93: Which are the sacraments of the New Testament?
Answer: The sacraments of the New Testament are, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

The Westminster Confession of Faith handles this more completely than the Shorter Catechism, so that will be the center of our lesson on this topic. It defines the Sacraments in chapter 27.I.

I. 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.

In this 27th chapter of the Westminster Confession the term sacrament represents something with five distinctive features:

1. A sacrament is a holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
As a sign, a sacrament represents something other than itself. It teaches about some truth symbolically. There is something in the sign which corresponds with the object it signifies making the truth about its object obvious to those who see the sign. Not everything about the sign corresponds with the object or there would be no difference between the two. The one instituting the sign must tell or explain what particular features are being illustrated. In the sacraments God who institutes the sign reveals by his word what is being signified.

As a seal, a sacrament certifies by the authority of God that the person receiving it has the quality signified. This does not mean that an unauthorized use of the sacrament imposes the quality upon its object. Only when rightly administered by the conditions demanded in God’s word does the sacrament truly certify and authenticate the promise or quality signified.

When someone receives a diploma upon graduation, the diploma certifies that he has completed the course of instruction as recognized by the faculty and board of the institution granting the degree. If a person forges a diploma or has misrepresented himself to the institution, the certificate does not make him qualified in the field it represents. It would be a serious crime and offense to the institution to make such a false claim. Similarly, someone who wrongly receives a sacrament offends God and does not bring the blessings promised upon himself. Instead he calls down the wrath of God upon himself for his false claim. When a child of God receives the sacrament rightly administered by God’s prescription he receives that blessing which is represented by the sign upon the authority of God who instituted it.

In this sense we say that a sacrament is a means of grace. It does not convey the grace by its outward application. God uses the sacrament, when rightly applied and received, as a means by which he dispenses his grace to the recipient.

2. A sacrament is immediately instituted by God.
The term sacrament is reserved for those signs and seals of the covenant of grace which God has instituted himself. By “immediate” the confession means that it came about without the mediation of a human prophet or instrument. Jesus Christ himself directly instituted the sacraments of the New Testament church. No council of human ministers or prophets have this authority. Jesus himself instituted both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as continuing signs and seals of his covenant with the church. No other sacraments were instituted by him. This definition eliminates the claims of some groups that there are more than two sacraments for the church in this era.

3. A sacrament represents Christ and his benefits.
The two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, represent and seal to true believers the cleansing work of Christ’s atonement and the conveyance of his continual removal of the guilt of sin. The work of our Savior on the cross is depicted and sealed in both, but in different senses. Baptism is the initiatory rite marking a person out as a member of the covenant community, and the Lord’s Supper is the covenantal meal for those marked out. By this meal believers regularly show their partaking of his promises and benefits. The significance of each is covered more thoroughly in the next questions of the Catechism and the next two chapters of the confession. Only these signs which represent the person and work of Christ can be called sacraments according to the definition derived from Scripture and adopted by the Reformed churches.

4. A sacrament confirms our interest in Christ.
Those who partake of the sacraments must meet the qualifications set forth in God’s word. When we receive the signs they must represent not only the work of Christ in a general sense, but also its application to the individual who receives the outward sign. Those who receive it and who are not redeemed by our Lord as individuals appropriate God’s wrath rather than his blessing upon themselves.

This is why the sacraments are to be carefully guarded in their administration by rightly examined and ordained Elders who have a sound understanding of the qualifications God gives us in Scripture. Solemn warnings ought to be issued before the reception of the sacraments to advise against receiving them casually, or by partaking without showing a true interest in the person and work of Jesus Christ who is being represented.

When rightly administered and received the sacraments are a benefit to believers in several ways. They are a witness to the person’s trust in Jesus Christ, and in the promises of God attached to the sacraments. By receiving the sacraments a person declares to God and to the church that he is a partaker of the covenant of God’s grace, and loves the Lord who extends his blessings to his children. God honors this sincere confession, and promises to bless those who obey him by submitting rightly to the sacraments he has instituted.

5. A sacrament puts a visible distinction upon members of Christ’s church.
Those who are baptized into the church and who partake of the Lord’s Supper are clearly distinguished from those who have not submitted to these signs and seals of God’s covenant. They visibly mark out those who are a part of the covenant community from those who are not. But the testimony is primarily to the church, and demonstrates to God our submission to him. The world may be aware of who is baptized and of who receives the covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper. Some may even have an academic knowledge of what they signify and seal. But our testimony to them is to be in the word of the gospel, not in the sacraments. We do not administer or receive the sacraments as a means of evangelism. They serve as a solemn act affirming our membership to the actual parties of the covenant.

Jesus leaves us with a challenging duty. The mark of the true believer to the eyes of the world is not to be found in the sacraments of the church, but in our love for one another which demonstrates a soul renewed by the power of God’s grace. In John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and our obedience to the principles our Lord has taught us that demonstrate the promise and power of the gospel to those who are yet outside of the covenant community. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments”

The Sacraments are a Means of Grace

Westminster Confession of Faith 27.II-III

II. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
III. 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.

Among the major issues dividing the denominations that call themselves Christian, is the debate over what the sacraments accomplish when they are administered. The differences have to do with how we understand the sacraments as a sign and seal.

The view the Reformers primarily confronted in the 16th Century was Sacerdotalism. This is the view of the Roman Catholic church and some other denominations. They extend the power of the sacraments to include the actual and independent conveying of the blessing signified. The seal becomes not only a certification of God’s promise and work, but an actual imparting of the things being represented. The blessing comes by the power of the sacraments themselves. Dr. Charles Hodge explains, “According to the Romanists, therefore, a sacrament is a divine ordinance which has the inherent or intrinsic power of conferring the grace which it signifies.” (Systematic Theology part III, ch. 20). For a more complete discussion of the error of sacerdotalism see B. B. Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation (chapter 3).

Another view of the sacraments is Memorialism. Those who hold to this view deny any sealing power of the sacraments. They see the sacraments as mere object lessons instituted by God, but nothing more. Primarily this position arose as a reaction against the Sacerdotal view of the Roman Catholic church. It was held by the Zwinglians and the followers of Arminius. It continues today in many Evangelical churches which often incorrectly see it as the only alternative to sacerdotalism.

The position of the Reformed churches:
The confusion is cleared up in the statement of the confession that there is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. It is a spiritual relationship. The words describing the thing signified may be applied to the sign, and that which the words represent is certified by the seal. This means there is real promise attached to the right administration and reception of the sacraments, but the effect is from God. It is not inherent in the actions or elements of the sacraments. We will see more about this as we take up our study of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the next lessons.

For now we will simply state that Baptism as an act does not remove sin or convey salvation, nor does the Lord’s Supper convey sanctification in itself or by some power inherent in it. Both are spiritually adventageous when properly practiced, but not in isolation from the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit according to God’s prescription for each which works when, where, and how he wills.

There are two Sacraments

Westminster Confession of Faith 27,IV-V.

IV. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.
V. The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

There are only two sacraments directly instituted by Jesus Christ for his church in the New Testament era. Both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper include visible signs which represent and seal to the believer the benefits of the work of Christ in the covenant of grace. The Roman Catholic church adds five more. They include Confirmation, Penance, Orders (ordination), Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. But these are missing one or more of the necessary qualities included in our definition of a sacrament. They either do not include outward signs representing the benefits of Christ in the covenant of grace, or were not instituted by our Lord immediately.

The sacraments may only be dispensed by a minister of the word rightly ordained. This principle is not based upon any superstitious view of the ministry or upon any presumed power of those ordained being necessary for the sacraments to be effective. It is based upon the nature of the office of the Elder as described in Scripture. Only ministers of the word are ever seen administering the sacraments in the New Testament. This gives us a clear example which is to be continued in the churches. Our Lord entrusted to them the guarding of the purity of the church which is covered in chapter 30 of the Confession. Only those who have given evidence of a sound knowledge of the teachings of Scripture should oversee the administration of these solemn practices entrusted to the church by our Lord.

The sacerdotalists tend to extend priestly powers to the ministers even to the extent of asserting that their intentions in administering the sacraments are vital to the conveying of God’s blessings in them. However, the Scriptures teach that it is the sovereign operation of God that makes them effective, not the heart of the one administering them. There is no fear that a Baptism or Lord’s Supper given by an insincere pastor was invalid simply because the minister’s heart was not right with the Lord at the time.

The memorialists tend to allow anyone to administer Baptisms or the Lord’s Supper. This has led to many abuses of the sacraments. They have administered them as if they taught things not assigned to them in the Bible. Extreme and bizarre elements have been used to replace the bread and wine used by our Savior. I remember reading of one youth group leader that used CokaCola and Pizza for the elements. Only those who have been ordained after examination showing them to be well studied in the Scriptures and who are proven to be genuinely called of God should take up this awesome duty representing the person and promises of our Lord.

The sacraments of the New Testament correspond with and continue the Old Testament institutions of Circumcision and the Passover. Circumcision, like Baptism, was to be administered only once and marked the recipient as a member of the covenant community. The Passover was administered repeatedly within the covenant community as a continuing sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace. As we study each of the sacraments in the next lessons this isomorphism between the practices of the Old and New Testaments will become more clearly defined.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

God’s Word as a Means of Grace

God’s Word as a Means of Grace

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 89-90)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

God has communicated with us by giving us a Bible. One way he has promised to administer his grace to us is though our use of that special collection of books.

The Apostle Paul reminded Timothy about the importance of knowing what God says to us in those books. In 2 Timothy 3:15-17 he wrote, “and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

This means that the wisdom we find in the Bible, God’s own word, is profitable for us because it teaches us what is true, it reproves us when we do things that are wrong, it corrects us about what we should believe and practice, and it trains us in how to live so that we please the God who made and saved us.

Psalm 19:7-8 is very similar when it explains the great value of God’s word, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;”

2 Peter 1:19 warns us not to ignore God’s prophetic word in the Scriptures. Peter had seen the Lord in all his glory with his own eyes, yet he wrote concerning that written word, “… we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts;”

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 89 asks, “How is the Word made effectual to salvation?” It answers, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

We need to read God’s word.

Bibles have never been as available to us in the way they are today. In God’s providence we can read them in our own language, and have them with us all the time. Printed copies come in almost every form and size. They range from the ones in the dollar stores to the expensive leather-bound editions. We can even load them onto our computers, tablets, and smart phones. No era of history has had this kind of access to God’s written word.

There are many good translations of the Bible available too. Some are better than others, because they are more faithful to the original text. Some of the versions people read with great confidence are the King James, the New King James, English Standard, New International, and the New American Standard. These are translated by people who respect the Bible as God’s word, therefore they avoided changing the wording to make it fit better with their own ideas.

Having God’s word, and using it effectively are two very different things. Almost anything we need to do is best accomplished if we have a workable plan, and stay with it. The Bible is a big book filled with a lot of information. A hap-hazard approach where we dabble in Scripture now and then is of limited value.

We each have 24 hours of every day to budget so that we keep our priorities straight. We need to schedule our reading and studying of God’s word as carefully as we do the other things that demand our time. What we do with our time reveals what we really think is important. If we regularly read the sports or comics pages, or keep up with the news, hunt for coupons, and watch movies or regular TV shows, but we have no regular times to study our Bibles, something is seriously wrong.

There are many ways to go about daily Bible study. It can be as simple as just reading it through thoughtfully. One good plan is to read one chapter of the Old Testament, a Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament each day. A chapter is usually shorter than most articles in a daily newspaper. There are several good reading plans available which have been organized by Pastors and Bible Teachers. Your church officers will probably be able to direct you to a plan they recommend.

Some keep a journal of God’s promises, or of lessons they learn in their reading. Some make outlines of the Bible books as they study. They could be detailed outlines, or just brief summaries of paragraphs or chapters. Others use simple underlining or highlighting methods and make notes in the margins. There is nothing wrong with making notes in the margins of your Bibles. Most of the earliest discovered copies of God’s word have marginal notations in them.

I like to read entire books of the Bible all the way through as I would read a good novel. That is the best way to get the flow of the author’s thoughts. A good goal is to read through all the books of the Bible every year.

Psalm 1 begins with a contrasts between the blessed man and those who are ungodly. It says in verses one and two, “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.”

Another good practice is to memorize verses that summarize God’s teachings. Psalm 119:11 “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.”

It is also very important that families read the Bible together, every day when possible. In our home we always ended our evening meal with the reading of a portion of the Scriptures, and a time of prayer.

God has given us a mandate: every believer should be daily, and responsibly learning God’s word. The Berean believers were commended as good examples for us to follow. In Acts 17:11 it says of them, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

What if a father came home from being off at war defending his family’s lives and freedom, and he had written letters home to encourage them and remind them of his love. What if when he returned he found that his wife and children had never read his letters? Maybe they read a sentence or two here and there, but never really read one all the way through? They explained that they meant to read them but they were too busy and never got around to it. How tragic that would be. Yet are we guilty of the same thing regarding God’s word to us in the Bible?

God our Father has told us what we ought to know. What he put in his letters to us must be important, or it would not be there. If we are only familiar with a few favorite portions of the Bible, we live as if God gave us a lot of unimportant material we can safely ignore.

We should attend to God’s word preached.

We should listen attentively to the teaching of God’s word every Sunday as we gather for worship on the Lord’s Day. This is the primary way God tells us to hear and to learn his word. In 1 Corinthians 1:21 the Apostle Paul wrote, “… it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

In Jeremiah 3:15 God attached his blessing to the work of pastors in teaching his word, It says, “And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”

It is the duty of these trained, examined, and ordained Elders and Pastors to make sure the word is effectively taught to the people in the congregation. They need to plan so their sermons cover all the topics in the Bible. They are obligated to be certain of the meanings of the texts they present. They are to show how what God says applies to our lives practically. They should avoid the temptation of becoming entertainers or spiritual celebrities.

Regular and attentive congregational worship is crucial for every Christian. To bypass God’s commanded first avenue for learning his word is a rebellious and irresponsible rejection of what we are told to do in the Bible. There is no excuse for not being in worship regularly except those times when in God’s providence someone is prevented from being able to be there.

When Israel returned to Jerusalem after her long captivity and exile, Ezra gathered the people to listen to the preaching of God’s word. The people showed great respect for what God had to say. Nehemiah 8:5, “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.”

In the captivity few Jews had learned the Hebrew language, so Ezra and the other Elders explained what it said. Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.”

The individual Christian’s duty in worship is to listen attentively. The answer to the Westminster Larger Catechism’s question 160 says, “It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine: What they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.”

God’s word has great benefit for us.

By God’s promise and design, the reading of his word convinces us of its own truth. We need no proofs from the meager investigations of historians to confirm its certainty. Too often the findings of archeologists have been overturned as more findings correct earlier conclusions. The Bible stands upon its own authority as God’s word. It is the test of whatever else we know, rather than being tested by our fallible and always incomplete knowledge.

By the attending work of God the Holy Spirit the inspired word converts us who are born sinners, builds us up in holiness, and comforts our often troubled hearts. It is the means by which God works in us to strengthen our trust in the work of our Savior which is our only and sure hope of eternal salvation. We should not think of the reading and hearing of the Scriptures as works that earn us God’s blessing. They are works produced in us by his grace, not by our own natural efforts. When we engage this important duty, God fulfills his covenant promises to bless us as his rescued children.

We need to approach God’s word humbly,
submissively, trustingly, and prayerfully.

The Bible is God’s word. It is not merely good literature. Though many people read it as they would the writings of Caesar, Shakespeare, Bunyan or Luther, it is not like the writings of any human, even of any great human. It is a book that lets us see behind what our senses can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. It shows us spiritual realities directly from the mouth of God.

We should pray for the Holy Spirit to guide and enable us as we study God’s Word. The prayer of Psalm 119:18 is a good model for us to use whenever we open our Bibles. It says, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”

Never let the word of God become neglected or pushed aside in your schedule. Make time for it every day. Make sure you are present and alert in worship every Sunday. Take advantage of good opportunities to study and read God’s word with others so that you can be mutually encouraged in this important means of God’s grace.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

The Means of Grace

The Means of Grace

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 88)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Did you have a good breakfast this morning? They say it helps you to be more alert if you have had a good healthy night of sleep, and something nourishing to eat in the mornings.

When I was in elementary school back in the 1950s the Birds Eye company sponsored a promotional offer with the schools. We had to keep track of our breakfasts every day for what I think was about two weeks. We had to have orange juice (Birds Eye brand was obviously recommended), and along with that there was a list of good breakfast menus to use. We turned in a report signed by our Moms certifying that we had one of their recommended breakfasts every day. Birds Eye supplied rewards which I believe were little metal buttons with pins on the back, and a certificate. The school benefitted because they knew that a good diet to start the day made for more attentive students.

God made us so that we need a minimum daily amount of certain basic nutrients. Doctors, commercials, and cereal boxes tell us that our diet should include a certain daily amount of vitamins, proteins, calories, fiber, minerals, liquids, and such things.

What if few pills could be made to satisfy your intake need for the whole day? They would supply a daily dosage carefully measured to meet all your personal needs by a doctor. You just had to wash the pills down with a sufficient amount of water two or three times a day. You would not have to eat a single meal ever again.

How long would it be before you started to crave some tasty foods? Before long you would be remembering the joy of a good burger or pizza. Maybe you would long for a hot refreshing cup of coffee, or a warm breakfast roll. There would be haunting visions of hoagies piled high with the quality coldcuts, cheeses and all the other things that make it a favorite food. God enabled the body to taste, savor textures, and appreciate good aromas. We were created to enjoy eating, not just to be nourished.

What about our daily spiritual nourishment?


God has provided the means by which we receive what we need for our spiritual health. The answer to question 88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”

These provisions are often called the “Means of Grace.” They are the means God uses as channels for his grace to be poured out upon his children. They are not the cause of God’s grace, nor are they things we do to qualify for God’s care. Grace is always an undeserved and unmerited gift of the Creator to those he redeems through the Savior. It was the work of Jesus Christ in his life and death that merits our blessings. In those who are given this spiritual life, he stirs the proper use of these means by which he has ordained to dispense life, spiritual strength, comfort, and hope.

We see a brief summary of the early Christian church in Acts 2:40-47. This section shows what followed Peter’s sermon when the Holy Spirit came in a special way on the Day of Pentecost.

Acts 2:40-47, And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

Notice the means God used in blessing his people in those early days of the Post-Resurrection church. The word of God was spoken, the Sacrament of Baptism was administered, the people formed a mutually helpful community of believers, and they prayed. The standards of the Dutch churches add church discipline to the means of grace which we list as three in the Westminster Standards. If we take that dicipline both as the work of the Elders in dealing with matters of sin, and as the continuing work of the body of Christ to be encouraging and admonishing one another daily, we can see how God uses this as another channel through which he builds up his children and directs his church toward purity. It is all worked in us by his unfailing grace.

The next set of questions in the Shorter Catechism deal with God’s Word (89-90), the Sacraments (91-97), and Prayer (98-99). The questions that follow are a detailed study of each part of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In the lessons about the Lord’s Prayer the issue of discipline and care for one another in the church is touched upon. We will cover the details of these sections in our continuing studies of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

These means are to help us satisfy our spiritual nutritional requirements. Like our physical nutritional needs, there is far more than just a fast fix mechanically applied to get us through without giving it much of our attention. We are created and redeemed to enjoy the exercise of these Means of Grace.

When we feel deeply troubled we cannot simply take a quick spiritual prescription and expect the problem to be gone in the morning. Just grabbing a Bible verse, or saying a fast prayer, or a quick weekly visit to church on Sunday morning is not the way God made us to live.

Our fast modern life style centers around things like fast food, instant dinners, disposable utensils, and one-day surgery. We might come to think we can satisfy our spiritual needs with the same kind of simple-to-serve, easy-to-use, instant cure-all.

Man was made to be in fellowship with God, not just to be aware of him. The Bible could have been written as a simple devotional guide with a list of prayers and christian social activities to check off each day. But it was not designed that way. It was written to show us who God really is, and who we really are. It was written to show us how to have a living relationship with God to glorify him an all we do, and to enjoy him forever.

Satisfying Christian living is never achieved by some easy formula. So then, what do we do when the “life” has gone out of our walk with Jesus? If we seemto be lacking spirituial power, and our Christian daily walk seems bland? What can we do?

Properly Making Use of the Means of Grace

As we make our way through the last part of the Shorter Catechism we will expand upon each one of the important means God provides. By way of introduction it serves as a good challenge to consider them first generally, and to make sure we are engaging in them regularly for our spiritual health.

1. We need a daily time for reading the Scriptures.
Acts 17:11 the believers in Berea were, “… more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

We need a plan that will get us into the Bible every day. It helps to have a set time and place, and to schedule your reading and study so that it takes you through the whole Word of God.

Considering our remaining imperfections in this life before our future glorification, we will not be able to accomplish this on our own. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak and given to excuses, procrastination, and neglect.

To begin with, it is crucial that you are a born again child of God. The Bible will have no real value to those without Christ. You must come in faith admitting to yourself and to God that you are an undeserving sinner. You must be sure that you place your only hope of being made right with God through full trust in Jesus, as the Messiah, that he died to remove your moral guilt. Until you are “born again” you will not rightly understand what is so special about the Bible.

1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

2 Corinthians 3:15-16, “But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

If we remain spiritually dead we cannot rightly understand spiritual truth. Jesus told Nicodemus that unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

Even after we become believers we will sometimes struggle with Bible study. We need to depend on the Holy Spirit when we read the Scriptures. Jesus told the disciples that He would send the Spirit for that purpose. In John 16:7 he said, “… It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”

Jesus was about to finish the promised work of the cross. He was about to pay the penalty of sin for His people. When this work of atonement was finished, it was to be applied to the hearts of individuals by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus did not go away, then God’s justice would not be met. If there was no atonement made, then the Spirit would have nothing to apply in the conversion of God’s people.

They Holy Spirit is what brings conviction to our heart. Jesus went on to say in John 16:8, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” Without the Holy Spirit, there is no personal sense of our own need, of the provision of the cross, or of the defeat of Satan at the cross.

The Holy Spirit is what leads us to learn truth. In the 13th verse of that same chapter Jesus said, “… when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; …” God’s truth for us is in the Bible, but it cannot be rightly appreciated or known without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We need to call for the Holy Spirit in prayer when we read or hear Scripture. Bible reading is not just a reading exercise. It is a spiritual matter. Without the attending guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit, we will miss the special value of the word of God.

Psalm 119:18 provides us with a good prayer to direct to God as we settle down to do our daily Bible reading. There the Psalmist prays, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”

We often prepare ourselves in outward ways when we sit down to read something. We take time to be sure we are comfortable, have enough light, and maybe have a snack or favorite drink while we make our way through our reading material. When you read God’s word, don’t forget to also prepare in prayer for the Holy Spirit to minister to you. Set your heart in full readiness expecting the instruction God the Holy Spirit. Prepare to have your eyes opened to behold wondrous things from God’s word.

2. We need a daily time of prayer.
The Bible itself is the best textbook on Prayer.

Matthew 6:6, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

Psalm 5:3, “My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”

What can we do to enliven our daily time of prayer and praise?

The same things can be said as for our Bible reading. Our private worship must be made effective by the Holy Spirit.
First, you need to be sure you are a redeemed child of God. Prayer and praise is a mockery and blasphemy if offered to a god of your own imagination. If you are not made right with the God of Scripture through faith in Christ, your prayer time will not have the power of the Holy Spirit. Your time alone with God will not be like walking with your own Heavenly Father.

Believers also need to depend upon the Holy Spirit during prayer. If your prayer time seems like just an empty exercise, then pray for you prayer time. Ask God to bless it to you. Call upon Him to be specially present with you and for His Holy Spirit to enliven your time with Him.

If you cling mechanically to prayer guides, lists, or formulas, but fail to make sure that your mind and heart are fully focused on the Person of our Heavenly Father, then the most important element is missing. Without consciously clinging by faith to the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit you cling to nothing that can comfort you at all.

I once watched as a child absent mindedly let go of her mother’s hand in a crowd. The little girl was watching something that kept her mind off what she was doing. She fidgetted and in doing so she moved a little way from her mother but hadn’t noticed. While keeping her eye on what ever had attracted her attention, she reached out again to hug her mother’s leg. but it wasn’t her mother’s! The substitute leg was very similar and wore a dress something like the color of mommy’s, and the girl didn’t notice the difference. The other adult didn’t realize the mistake. She smiled gently, probably flattered thinking the little girl was just showing affection. As the girl got more and more fidgetty, something was wrong. Mom wasn’t comforting or correcting her as she was used to. Not suspecting what she would find the little girl glanced up, and saw an impostor. She didn’t just say, “oh, sorry. Have you seen my mother?” Instead she let out a horrifying scream and cut loose with tears that got everyone’s attention in the room. A confused, and somewhat disappointed stranger and a slightly embarrassed mother quickly got the child back to the right person. As suddenly as it all started, the tears ended with a long close motherly hug.

There is nothing as comforting as our own parent. No substitute, no matter how competent will do. There is also no substitute for the presence of the Living God for our comfort and security. As we come to him in prayer we must be sure we come to the right Person. If we have a wrong concept of God because we have not paid close attention to the teaching of his word, we come to no God at all. If we discover we are clinging to other hopes in our lives, to the false promises of a corrupted religion, we will find no satisfaction for our souls. We need to cry out to the true God to rescue us and to be near to us. This is one of the great promises of prayer.

That little girl may not have done what Emily Post would recommend for proper social conduct, but she settled the issue most efficiently. She cried out most urgently. She did not just hope that mom would happen by. She screamed with all she was worth and mom came immediately.

How seriously do we seek for the blessing of the Holy Spirit in our walk with God? Are we like the parable our Lord told in Luke 11:5-10? Do we come, even at midnight? Do we knock again and again without giving up? Do we make our hunger for His blessing known to the Lord again and again and again until He answers?

Enoch is a good example of one whose walk with God was personal. It tells us in Genesis 5:24 that he “walked with God.” His walk with God was not just ritual or a bland spiritual prescription. His walk did not begin with what he was doing, but with the One he was doing it with.

What if you need to grow in your prayer life and present spiritual weakness and can do no more than to call out to God for the blessing of His Spirit? Then so be it. Many examples in the Bible show us that you are in good company. Several of the Psalms center upon a crying out for God in times of broken-hearted need.

3. We need to partake of the Sacraments.
How can we improve our receiving of the Sacraments? Those truly redeemed in Christ need to understand what the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper mean. They need to appreciate the infallible promises God attaches to them, and come with confidence in those promises. We will examine these more closely when we come to that section of our study.

4. We need the regular ministry of the body of Christ
God placed the members of His church into intimate fellowship so that their various personalities and talents would meet one anothers needs and serve the cause of Christ. We encourage one another to do what God prescribes for us, and with the attitude that should attend those activities. We also need to lovingly and humbly correct one another when we disobey the ways God has told us to live.

Hebrews 10:25, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another …”

When we gather for worship, Bible study, fellowship, or Christian service our coming needs to be in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is his presence among us that makes our fellowship special. Not only is he there to seal us into the one true body of Christ, he is also there to create mutual encouragement and edification.

Philippians 2:1-2 “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes God’s means effective.

To carry out what God calls us to do, and to be what he calls us to be, we need to rely completely upon the promises and power of our Redeemer.

Without the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit, our Bible reading may seem dead. Our personal prayer and worship time may seem empty. Our christian fellowship may seem shallow and unrewarding. Our corporate worship and partaking of the Sacraments may seem dull and routine. The promise of God is that there is something supernatural that ought not to be overlooked in the use of these Means of Grace.

The psalmist cried out in Psalm 42:2, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. …” In verse 8 of that Psalm God promises his blessing, “The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, And in the night His song shall be with me — A prayer to the God of my life.” Remember what the psalmist began with? “My soul thirsts for God …”

What is the hope promised to those who beg for and call out to God in prayer? Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.”

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Repentance and Godly Sorrow

Repentance and Godly Sorrow

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 87)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

People are often very regretful about having done something wrong, particularly when they have to pay the consequences. However, just wishing they did things differently, and regretting the results, is far from truly repenting for what they had done.

While sitting in jail, a convicted felon might be filled with regrets. He might wish he had planned and executed his crime better to avoid getting caught. He might wish he had been able to get away from the police better when they came after him. He might regret hiring the lawyer that got him convicted. When a person is sorry for his sins in this way, he is not repentant. It is nothing more than self-centered regret.

There is a godly kind of sorrow for sin.

Real repentance is not just concern about the personal consequences of mistakes we make. It centers upon the offense to God which our sins produce. 2 Corinthians 7:10 makes a contrast between these two kinds of sorrow. It says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”

The world sorrows over the inconveniences caused by sin. This is a selfish kind of grief. The fact that it offends God only enters the picture in how God might punish the guilty party. When discipline in a society or home is only a matter of rewards and punishments, it trains people to weigh what they do against the cost of the personal consequences. So crime is avoided simply because it “doesn’t pay.” They figure that if they get caught and have to go to jail, it might not be worth taking the chance.

That is the attitude that makes people drive over the speed limit when the police are not around. They easily lie if they think they can get away with it, and if it helps them out in some way. They steal from their taxes, steal from God’s tithe, or shoplift things in stores. It’s why children often risk the consequences to break the rues their parents make.

There is a far greater reason to avoid doing what’s wrong.

Moral judgments should not be based upon what benefit we get from them. They should be measured by how they either please or offend God. We are not here for our own advancement. We advance so that God will be honored.

I often think of Eric Liddell, the Scottish olympic runner whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire. He clearly let his fans, friends, and opponents know that he was not running for his own glory. He ran for God, for his honor. In one of the race scenes another runner hands Liddell a scrap of paper. There’s a Bible verse on it: 1 Samuel 2:30, “…he who honors Me, I will honor…” Eric holds the paper tightly in his fist during the whole race.

This is why we should work hard and do our best when we scrub our floors, write our lessons or sermons, do our homework, produce our products, serve our customers, heal the sick, defend the accused, or whatever we’re expected to do here in this life. We owe all we are and have to God and to him alone. Our abilities to work, create, save, and produce are only ours because of God’s mercy.

When we do things that displease God, it ought to trouble us deeply. If we are redeemed in Christ, it ought to drive us to repentance.

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 87 asks, “What is repentance unto life?”
Answer: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

True repentance is not natural in our fallen souls.
It is an evangelical grace.

Repentance is an ability implanted by God’s gracious work of regeneration. Along with faith in the redeeming work of Christ, and the beginning of real spiritual growth, God makes us able to see our sins for what they are, and to repent of them.

Contrary to popular thinking, the Bible does not teach that first we need to repent, then God steps in because of that to forgive us for our sins. The fallen heart cannot truly repent anymore than he can have a true faith. However, once spiritual life is implanted, repentance cannot be avoided. It is not our deep feelings about sin that save us. It is the work of Christ, and the faith in that work that begins when we are regenerated by his operation upon our hearts. The same grace that makes us believe also makes us truly remorseful to God for our sins.

This is the consistent teaching of the Apostle Paul.

Romans 2:4, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”

A. A. Hodge explains, “Every Christian duty is therefore a grace; for without him we can do nothing ( John 15:5). And equally every Christian grace is a duty because the grace is given to us to exercise, and it finds its true results and expression only in the duty.”

This means that if we truly repent of our sins, God is to be thanked for our repenting. However, we should not just wait around for God to overcome our moods and stubbornness. It is our duty to admit the depth of our sins and come broken before God in repentant confession. Only when we come can we discover that God has so graciously moved our hearts to do so.

It is important to know what a true biblical repentance is.

There are two main Hebrew words in the Old Testament that are translated as “repentance”, and two Greek ones in the New Testament.

The Hebrew word, nakham (נחם), is the key to understanding the word. Dr. Girdlestone explains that it means “to draw a deep breath.” It was used to express a deep feeling that makes us sigh. Sometimes it is that deep feeling we experience when we mourn or grieve in sorrow. Other times it is used for the deep compassion we have in our hearts when we see someone else suffering. The word came to be used for comforting or consoling someone. One of the things that can move us to deep sorrow is when we consider our sins against God.

The Bible sometimes uses this word in reference to what God does. Often it is translated that God repented of something he did or purposed. However, that is not a good translation of the word in that case. God never regrets what he has done or planned. He never makes inferior decisions he later finds out should have been different. He is, however, moved with deep compassion to console his people, and to grieve over their rebellion. It is better to use wording such as, “God grieved,” “God sighed,” or “God was moved with sorrow and compassion” concerning sinful actions that harm his people spiritually.

The other biblical words often translated as “repentance” mean the change in a person caused by the deep emotions of sorrow or compassion.

Latin gave us the word “remorse” which literally means “to bite again.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs”

When God changes a heart in regeneration
repentance is one of its fruits:

There is an intellectual change. The Holy Spirit uses God’s word to convince us about what is true. He points out through Scripture and by our renewed conscience what is right and wrong. He shows us where we would crossed the moral line. The unsaved only see rules with penalties. The believer sees moral principles that show us what honors God, and what offends him. That is a huge difference. Instead of figuring out which things we can get away with, our deep love and gratitude to God compels us to live for his glory, rather than to indulge our own pleasures.

King David showed this more mature understanding of sin. The Holy Spirit, by the prophet Nathan, opened his heart to understand his offense against God. We see his reaction in Psalm 51.

Psalm 51:3-4, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”

There is also an emotional change produced. When the nature of our sin is revealed, a believer’s heart responds with profound grief and spiritual pain to know how much he has offended his God.

When we repent as we should, God generates in us a relief and joy because of his assurance of forgiveness and comfort. This is what David meant in the same Psalm after he repented.

Psalm 51:14, “Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.”

There is also a volitional change. When a redeemed soul is informed about sin and convicted by the Spirit, his desires change. He wants his fellowship with the Lord to be restored. He is not just worried about his own punishments. He knows he deserves them. He also begins to desire to make choices that honor his Creator. David shows this transformation in other verses in Psalm 51.

Psalm 51:11-12, “Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”

Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.”

It is sad that many evangelical churches
teach a watered down repentance.

Some define “repentance” as if it was only a change of mind about sin, but that it does not require a change in behavior. God does not divide us up as if we were disconnected puzzle pieces. When he redeems us, he does not just inform us mentally. He renews our dead souls. We begin to live spiritually for the first time.

A. A. Hodge says that repentance unto life is, “a change of mind including evidently a change of thought, feeling and purpose corresponding to our new character as children of God.”

If our regeneration is genuine it implants life into our lost souls. That produces a change we called conversion. That will include a true repentance, a deep sorrow over our sins, an awareness of how horrible it is to violate what pleases our loving and gracious God, and a change that makes us determine to stop sinning and strive to do what is right. The regenerate child of God is able to apprehend both the horrors of sin as an offense against God, and the wonders of grace which show the mercy of redemption through the Messiah.

He understands that sin is just plain wrong, not just because it produces unpleasant results in his life and circumstances, but because God is offended.

He sees the fleeting pleasures of sin as having no appeal to him at all when considered in the light of God’s honor (Hebrews 11:25). He understands his own inner moral weakness and wants it changed. He wants to be free from sin and its bondage, rather than just from its personal consequences. He sees his condemnation as just, and only removed by the merits of Jesus Christ in his place.

When we realize that the foolish and wrong things we do cannot possibly make us truly happy or help our loved ones, when we see that God alone is the one offended most by our every sin, we can only then understand the Apostle Paul’s cry in Romans 7:24-25, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! …”

Repentance is not just about confessing and avoiding what is bad. It is about wanting to learn to be good. It is a strong desire to please God at every opportunity, in everything we do.

In Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell says, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

The godly attitudes that grow in the heart of the repentant fill them with great pleasure to know that they do things God loves them to do. This is why we should love to live morally, to say no to sin, to turn away from temptation, to refuse to indulge our desires in wrong ways, and to give our all to Christ’s service and Kingdom.

The lost want to be free from the consequences of sin, but they care little about their offense to God. The believer will endure justly deserved consequences if he must. His joy is in the promise that he can be progressing out of his sinful ways, and becoming more and more free from offending the God he loves so dearly. He is driven to live every hour of his life for Christ — to please God.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

The Growth of a True Faith

The Growth of a True Faith

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86 Part 3)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Not everyone who hears the gospel, and discovers what the Bible actually says, believes it. Of those who say they believe it, not everyone really trusts in it sincerely and with confidence. The problem is not found in their lack of intelligence. It cannot be blamed on those who have influenced them or raised them. It has to do with the state of their soul.

In previous studies we have seen how the guilt and effects of Adam’s sin have infected and condemned the whole human race descending naturally from him. They are unable to do what is truly good by God’s definition of it. However, their moral inability to understand and to trust in what God said in his word does not make them excusable for their rejection of what is right and true.

The Parable of the Sower and the Seed in Matthew 13

Jesus had been teaching in Galilee. Crowds followed him wanting to hear more about what he had to say. From a boat along the shore he taught another of his parables about the Kingdom. Most of the teachings of Jesus during his time on earth centered around the Kingdom of God. However, the message was not going to take effect the same way in the lives of everyone who heard is lessons. Interest in the Kingdom of God would fade away in some who seemed interested at first.

In the parable of the sower, there are four kinds of soil that receives the seed. Jesus started the Parable saying, “Behold, a sower went out to sow.”

Matthew 13:4, “… some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.”

Theses seeds fell in places on the side of the prepared fields. They landed on the path. The narrow foot paths that go through fields dividing the sections were made of packed down dirt from people walking on them. Birds would easily find these exposed seeds and eat them.

Matthew 13:5-6, “Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.”

These seeds fell in areas where there was a thin layer of soil over an underlying rocky foundation. Seeds planted here would sprout and start to grow but would not be able to put down firm roots. The growth was superficial. Without a root system there was no supply of water and other nourishments. The rock under them would get hot in the sun. The heat from below and above would dry the young plants out, and they would die.

Matthew 13:7, “And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.”

This third group of seeds fell in a place where weeds were growing rampantly. These thorns were weeds that took the nourishment away from the planted seeds. They also produced shade on the ground that blocked the sun from the seeds that fell under them. These seeds were choked by the unwanted wild growth around them.

Matthew 13:8-9, “But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

These seeds landed in soil which was rich with nutrients, and had the right consistency to support growth. These were the seeds that produced a good, healthy crop.

A few verses later, Jesus himself explained what his parable meant. He made it clear that the seed was the word of the Kingdom of God. The soil represented the hearts of those who hear that word. The growth of the seed depended upon the soil prepared for the seed.

Matthew 13:19, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.”

Like the seed that landed on the hardened paths, the message about God’s Kingdom sometimes falls upon hardened hearts. The natural heart of every person lacks the ability to understand kingdom truths as they really are. They do not have confidence in the truth of God’s promises. They lack that saving faith which grows only in the hearts of those redeemed by Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

In these hearts, the truth about God’s Kingdom and the ways it teaches us to think and to live are replaced by worldly habits and myths which are preferred by the hardened heart. The truth God reveals is distorted by spiritual blindness and confused understanding. The promises of the Kingdom are snatched away and never really take root.

Matthew 13:20, “But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.”

Someone can appear to be a true child of God for a time, even if it is only superficial. They seem to receive God’s word with joy. They endure for a while but then turn away. They might be discouraged by persecution, trials, and temptations of various kinds. Since there is no real root to what they believe, they abandon their professed convictions. In difficult times a person’s true character is revealed. Some show that their faith was not the kind implanted by grace. It was a trust in their hopes of personal benefits, not a trust in the redeeming work of a Savior who calls us into service with the family of God.

1 John 2:19 makes it clear that this happens, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”

In Revelation 2:9 the Bible shows us where these false believers have their real church membership, “… I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Matthew 13:22, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.”

The thorns are the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of material riches. A heart set upon self-satisfaction is not dedicated to the service of Christ as Lord of his life. A person like that is shallow, and lacks evidence of a true Saving Faith. The person who receives the word among thorns lets his personal goals and comforts crowd out his service for God’s Kingdom. With no sound foundation, the truth is choked out in his life, and becomes unimportant to him.

This is the tragedy of many who put other values above the supreme value of trusting and honoring the Creator. There are many important responsibilities God gives us, and many wonderful blessings he bestows upon his children. They all must be handled with the right outlook. Our jobs are important to provide what we and our families need, but we should be careful to keep God’s priorities as we set up our budget and advance in our careers. Our families are important too, but we do the family no good if we elevate family fun or prosperity over helping one another grow into mature Kingdom workers in all we do, declaring God’s glory and living with a true trust in all he said is right and good. When our jobs or families are valued above God’s Kingdom Principles, they become a form of idolatry and a great evil. The same is true of education, social status, sports, hobbies .. all the good things God lets us enjoy in this life.

If the Principles of God’s Kingdom become secondary, then the weeds of this world are choking it out and the person is unfruitful. The word is choked out by foolish distractions, and their lives become spiritually unfruitful. In those who live this way, there is no evidence of a true saving faith.

It’s ironic that one of the greatest reasons given for people skipping worship and church involvement is family activities. As a Pastor I’ve seen some families stop attending worship, or avoid involvement in other activities of the congregation. I’ve seen some of those families break up horribly, or pay the sad price of children who have no interest in living for the glory of God. I remember one family where members became involved in illegal activities and were arrested shortly after a pastoral visit in their homes where they said they needed Sundays for family time, so they decided they were not going to continue to come to Sunday worship. We do our family no good, if we teach them that our own enjoyment is more important than obeying the ways our Loving Lord teaches us to live as his children. If our faith is not a firm confidence that God’s ways are the best ways for us, then we do not have the kind of faith that evidences the work of grace.

Finally, Jesus explained the seed that fell on good ground.

Matthew 13:23, “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

What made this soil good and productive? The soil was prepared for the seed. The good news of God’s Kingdom only takes root in hearts God has prepared to receive it. Only those transformed by his grace and given the quality of a true faith in God’s word, are made able to understand it, and to bear fruit in their lives to the glory of their Creator.

As we tell people the good news about being made right with the King of kings by grace, we have to remember that we cannot change the soil the seeds fall upon. We cannot prepare the hearts of those who need the gospel. That is God’s work. Our duty is to receive the word of God ourselves, and to sow the seed prayerfully where we can.

We are to live by what God says in his written word, and by putting those principles to practice in our lives above everything else. Not to do so is not just a poor choice — it’s tragic!

Knowing that success is all a matter of God’s grace, that we are not the ones who make it effective, does not mean we give up our efforts to proclaim the good news diligently. Just the opposite. Grace at work produces fruit in us. It makes us trust what God has promised, and it stirs in us a concern for the proclaiming of the Gospel of the Kingdom in Christ. Our concern should be a reason to rejoice over the evidence in us that we are prepared soil.

If we are prayerfully trying to live as God says we should, then we see evidence that a true saving faith is at work in us, growing in us, and that we can know that we are the objects of his grace.

In Philippians 1:6 Paul wrote, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;”

A true faith is a growing faith. Our confidence matures as we are made to conform more and more into the image of Christ. More and more we humbly realize that left to our own ways we will fail. As we strive to do what is right, it is by resting in what God has done, not by hoping in our own efforts.

Dr. Charles Hodge in his commentary on the Book of Romans calls it a “lamentable mistake” that we should ever assume that God loves us for our goodness. Nothing contradicts the gospel more than for us to make God’s blessing into something we earn. Hodge explains that this unbiblical idea leads us to believe that it is up to us to cling to God, and to maintain his love by our own efforts. We do not make ourselves worthy. The soil which represents our hearts produces fruit because it is prepared by our Redeemer.

When we see a concern in our hearts, when we sincerely desire to put God first, and when we strive to tear out the choking weeds, we have evidence from God’s own word that he loves us deeply, and has caused that concern and trust. It shows that the message of God’s Kingdom has fallen on prepared soil. It should humble us and make us all the more grateful for his undeserved love.

Rather than worrying over what kind of soil your heart is made of, focus upon getting your priorities right and getting busy doing what you say you believe is right. Put the principles of God’s Kingdom in first place, and fit the rest of your life around them. Then you will be demonstrating that you received the seed on good soil, and that God is busy at work in your heart.

When you bring the word of Christ’s Kingdom to others, when you challenge them to live as God commands, when you encourage them to put their eternal trust in the finished work of Christ on the Cross, be patient for this good work of God to do the convincing and convicting.

Good seed grows when it falls upon good ground with all the right conditions. The sower does not have to make it grow. He makes sure he has the right seed, then simply casts in on the good soil. Since this is not just literal seed, and God calls us to be part of his work in prayer, we also beg him to make our hearts and those we evangelize to be good soil.

Faith always has an object. A true saving trust rests in the promises of God, and shows that it is genuine by acting confidently and boldly upon what is claimed to be believed. This is what evidences a true saving faith.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

A Practical Kind of Faith

A Practical Kind of Faith

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86 Part 2)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Faith in the most general sense of the word itself is a trust we put in something. The kind of faith that delivers us from sin and restores our fellowship with our Creator is special. It is a certainty God puts into our hearts when we are restored to fellowship with him. The barrier of our guilt is removed because Jesus Christ paid our debt of sin, and clothes us with his perfect righteousness.

This restoration opens our minds to see things as they really are. This true saving faith has God’s revealed truth as its object, and his promises as the rest for our souls. There ought to be practical outworkings of it in our lives and attitudes.

Faith that does not lead us to act upon that in which we say we fully trust, is a rather empty concept. Either we trust in God’s word or we don’t. We may have in immature understanding of what the Scriptures say, but once we know what God has said, we either trust it or dismiss it. There is a practical side of a true saving faith that continues to work in our lives after being adopted into the family of God.

Hebrews 11 is a good place to start in appreciating
that continuing work of Saving Faith.

Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11 is about the practical side of what faith does, rather than defining what faith is. It is a chapter about the heroes of the faith God implants into our hearts. They are individuals who in spite of their backgrounds, trusted what God made known to them, and acted upon it faithfully.

Sadly these words that begin the chapter have been misused to promote and to support a very unbiblical concept of faith. This verse gives us a helpful introduction to an important chapter of God’s word. If we misinterpret it, we confuse all that follows. This verse shows what a true faith accomplishes in us. It is a practical definition, rather than a strict explaining of the meaning of the word.

The verse begins with the word “Now.” This connects back to the previous chapter. There, in 10:38, the writer quotes from the prophet Habakkuk. The prophet had learned that instead of questioning God when troublesome things occur, we should live by faithfully trusting in his promises.

The verse quoted is Habakkuk 2:4, “Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith.” There the word translated “faith” is the Hebrew word emunah (אמוּנה). It is usually taken as meaning, “to be firm, faithful.” The upright, instead of being proud and trusting in himself or in his own judgment, trusts in God and in his promises without wavering from them.

This genuine kind of faith is also what James had in mind in his epistle. In James 1:22 it warns us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Then in the next chapter, James 2:17-19 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble!”

When someone says he has faith in God, but lives as if his Creator was just a factual part of his life, he does no better than the demons. Simply trusting something to be true is not what saving faith means. Those who have a true kind of faith, show by their lives that it is genuinely produced by God. God never gives true faith to a person without also making changes in his heart and life.

The text tells us that true faith gives a foundation for our hope. It says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, … .” Faith is not just things we hope will happen. It is not a mere wish, fantasy, or dream. It is the “confident reality” of things hoped for. The NASB translates it, “… the assurance of things hoped for …”

The Greek word that modifies the things hoped for in the originally inspired text is hupostasis (ὑποστασις). It is a compound word. “Hupo-” (ὑπο) is that which lies under something as it’s foundation. the word “stasis” (στασις) is that which exists, or stands upon it. Faith is that well supported hope God gives us in his word. True faith gives us confidence in the reality of the things God promises. It applies God’s words personally in our hearts. It goes beyond reciting theoretical creeds.

This confidence is a work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Faith is listed among the elements that make up the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

1 Corinthians 12:3 shows that this inner trust comes only from the Spirit. It says, “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

This verse is not just talking about saying the words “Jesus is Lord”. It means that no one can actually mean that they trust in Jesus as their Lord, unless the Spirit enables them by applying the finished work of Christ to them.

Jesus explained that this coming in faith is exclusively a work of God. In John 6:44-45 he said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.”

Faith is not just a blind trust. It is always faith in something in particular. The only proper thing for true faith to trust upon is the word of God. That is why in bringing the gospel to somebody we should not just ask them to have faith in whatever it is they believe God is. We need to make sure they are trusting in God’s promises in Christ as revealed to us in Scripture. We always need to explain to people what the Bible says. They are to trust in what the gospel says, not just in some vague concept of God.

Romans 10:13-17, “For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

When the Holy Spirit implants this saving faith in someone’s soul, he will believe whatever he knows God has said. Our duty is to point people to that truth. If they truly believe God and take him at his word, they will not only trust in the promises about salvation, they will trust all the moral principles and truths they know are revealed in the Bible.

There’s another practical outworking
of true faith in Hebrews 11:1.

Faith is, “… the evidence of things not seen.”

There are things we are not able to take into the science lab, things we cannot see, touch, or measure. Spiritual realities are just as real as physical ones. They are not seen with our five senses, or measured with scientific instruments. God testifies in his word. That becomes confident certainty to us.

This is not saying that faith is in itself evidence of unseeable things. We live in an age of religious existentialism and nihilism. Those are fancy words for complicated philosophies. They reflect some very popular opinions which are promoted in movies, music, books, and in our public schools. They teach that just deciding that something is true is all the reality we can know. Having faith in your faith is meaningless nonsense. The Bible does not teach that here or anywhere.

The word for “evidence” here is elenchos (ελεγχος). It means evidence in the negative sense of correcting wrong impressions or understandings of something. It is often translated as “reproof” or “conviction of sin or wrongdoing.” When truth is brought to the light, wrong things are exposed for what they are.

This text in Hebrews 11 teaches that what God says becomes our firm conviction when the Holy Spirit gives us a true faith, confidence that what God says is right, and that anything contrary to it is wrong. This living inner testimony from God is better evidence that scientific measurements. It gives us an inner assurance that God’s written promises can be counted upon and live by.

Saving faith is that convincing proof that makes our hearts accept and trust God’s word simply because we know God said it. It exposes errors and myths about things that come from the vain imaginations of lost hearts.

Faith in what God says brings comfort and confidence which are available nowhere else. Upon divine authority believers take action based upon what God tells them is best. They organize their lives around his advice. They begin to realize the rich spiritual blessings that come to us by grace alone.

Jesus said in John 7:38, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

Principally, faith is the accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life by virtue of the covenant of grace (WCF 14:2).

This true faith produces a confidence and certainty that makes us thankfully obey God. We obey with more confidence than what any human reasoning could ever give us.

People are often quick to take human advice and risk all they have by resting upon it. Some make risky investments in the stock market because of a tip or hunch. Some take unproven medicines because of desperation and some partial research findings. People trust their lives to surgeons, pilots, bridge inspectors, restaurant cooks, and to thousands of other drivers when they take their cars out on the interstates. They trust TV infomercials, ads on coupons, the advice of friends who are no wiser than we are, and celebrities who not only act and sing, but tell us who to vote for, what soap to buy, and what foreign policy we should support for America’s future.

Even the best of human advice cannot compare with the confidence we should have in the words of God himself. If he made us and rules the entire universe, it makes no sense for anyone to hesitate to take his advice about the lessons of Scripture that effect our daily lives. He teaches us about responsibly managing our finances, about how his Sabbath Day should be honored, about how we should worship, about sexual morality and the preservation of our families and marriages.

The faith that comes to us by grace in Christ directs us to the one perfectly sure and secure foundation of truth — the word of God. We are fools not to fully entrust all we have and do to that perfect counsel.

Keeping these principles in mind, take a fresh look at Hebrews 11. Notice that each of the heroes of the faith did not simply have a blind or undefined ability to hope all things work out in the end. They did not have a leap-in-the-dark attitude which convinced them that God will do what they wanted him to do. They had a trust, a full confidence, in something specific that God had said. They believed his promises and spoken assurances. Beyond that, they showed the sincerity of their faith by acting upon what God said to them. They each did something in response to the promises of God. Their faith did not stand in a vacuum. It was such a firm trust that they could put their lives on the line knowing that if God said it, it was true and reliable.

This is the fruit our faith should have too. We do things God’s way, trust in his promises, act confidently in all we set out to do, because we are following the instructions and assurances of our Creator, the one who redeemed us undeserving sinners, and adopted us to become his beloved children forever.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism