A Plan for Prayer

A Plan for Prayer

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 98-99)
by Bob Burridge ©2012

Have you ever heard someone say, “One of these days I really need to get organized”? You might hear that after a long search for a recipe in the kitchen, for a tool in the garage, or for lost phone numbers and addresses. Sometimes it’s when homework or projects pile up, or the to-do-list gets to where it could be bound into a book. It might even be when closets are so full you have to post warning signs about falling objects for the unwary who dare to open the doors too fast. We know that the only answer is to get organized with a plan to handle things better as they come along.

Planning sessions are absolutely necessary for our military and for a successful business. War is never something we want to rush into without careful organization and planning. Companies that make things but never plan how to market them end up with serious storage problems and bills that can’t be paid. Even our vacation trips have to be planned so we don’t end up running out of gasoline in some desolate area with no motels, stores, or gas stations.

We need practical planning for our spiritual lives too. God tells us what we ought to be doing to grow in Christ and as a spiritual family. The means of his grace become neglected if there’s no plan for using them. Prayer gets postponed or completely neglected if it isn’t figured into our busy schedules. Bibles tend to remain unread if there is no plan to read and study them. We tend to be late for worship or not show up at all, if preparations wait until the last minute. If we respond to people’s needs without thinking ahead we might offend those we want to help. If we live in the world without a thought for our duties as God’s people, we will probably effect it very little for the Kingdom of Christ. We become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.

If the means of God’s grace are approached casually or in a disorderly manner they won’t benefit us or anyone else touched by our lives. When we have no plans, we generally accomplish little for our Lord’s glory.

Westminster Shorter Catechism questions 98-99 introduce us to the Lord’s Prayer. To make prayer an effective tool in our spiritual lives we need to follow the principles given to us in God’s word as we put together a good plan.

Question 98 asks, “What is prayer?” The answer is, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

Prayer is vitally important for every Christian.

Prayer is needed for our growth and for our effective participation in God’s kingdom. The prayerful Christian is quite a contrast to the insecurities and anxieties of the world around us. In Philippians 4:6 the Apostle Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;”

Our prayers are not made to change God’s plan. When we pray we are engaged in that plan. God uses the prayers of his children as he moves in grace and judgment. He uses them to help the needy and to comfort the grieving. By our prayers God holds back the flood of evil, and enables us to do our work skillfully. He uses our prayers to strengthen our children and other loved ones, and to give us peace even in the midst of our tensions and anxieties.

It is amazing that a duty so important and so useful for God’s people requires such simple and ordinary skills. The simplest believer with no special experience or training, even one who doesn’t communicate well, can be extremely helpful to the church by simple diligence, fervency, and sincerity in calling out to God on behalf of his spiritual family.

We have this assurance in James 5:16, “… The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones has said, “Man is at his greatest and highest when upon his knees he comes face to face with God.”

Prayer is that means given to us from our loving and sovereign God by which we grow in grace, and participate in the daily unfolding of Divine providence, and in the work of redemptive grace.

It helps to have a regular plan for when to pray.

When we get busy, things without a set time on our daily agenda usually get overlooked or forgotten. We schedule time for our favorite TV shows, regular shopping for groceries, plan to be free for important football or basketball games, make sure we stop work when it’s time for lunch, or when it’s time to go home at night. Yet the same people often never put things God commands on their schedules.

If something is not placed on our calendar or schedule, it usually doesn’t happen. Of course we should pray during the day whenever the desire or need arises in our hearts. However, it should also take place regularly as God’s word shows us by its many examples.

It’s good to begin and end each day with prayer. There are many biblical references to regular morning prayer. Among them are some classic passages.

King David wrote In Psalm 5:1-3, “Give ear to my words, O LORD, Consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God, For to You I will pray. My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”

In Psalm 88:13, Haman the Ezrahite wrote, “But to You I have cried out, O LORD, And in the morning my prayer comes before You.”

There are also examples of God’s people praying in the evening as the day ends. Jesus and others in Scripture show us that it is proper and right to pray before we receive meals, or when we leave our homes to go to conduct business or to travel. Certainly we should pray throughout every day, as we think about God’s blessings, or as needs come to our attention.

The Bible reminds us of the importance of prayer as we read or study God’s word. Psalm 119:18 is a helpful guide as we open the Scriptures, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”

It is important to pray as we prepare for worship, particularly as we ready ourselves to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we come to partake of that Sacrament. In 1 Corinthians 11:28 he wrote, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Psalm 139 shows us that this examination begins with prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”

Set these regular times of prayer on your daily schedule. Be aware of your need to pray as God brings needs and blessings to mind.

We keep records and files of our important business transactions, of good recipes or collections. It is reasonable to do the same with our prayers. Keep a list. Pray from it daily. Review it often and praise God when you see him at work and requests are completed. When you set aside times for prayer let nothing interfere with those times.

It’s good to have a plan for what to say when you pray.

Question 99 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?”
Answer: “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.”

The model prayer Jesus gave us in Matthew 6:9-13 is a valuable guide. The remaining questions of the Shorter Catechism are about each of the parts of that prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s name would be treated with the highest respect, that his kingship would be displayed in a greater way, that what he reveals as right would be done, that our daily needs will be provided, that we will be forgiven and kept from temptation and evil. We should praise God as Lord of his kingdom, the all-powerful God, as the one to whom glory is due forever.

In John 14:13 we are reminded that our prayers should be offered in the name of Christ, “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

This does not mean just adding the words “in Christ’s name” to our prayers. It means that we pray as those who trust in what Jesus Christ is, and who are resting their eternal hope upon all that he has done and promised to us. We pray as those clothed in his righteousness, not our own. Everyone resting in the work of Christ prays with that foundation, spoken or not. In fact, while it is a good practice to add those words, few New Testament prayers actually use those words. Yet all New Testament prayers are made through Christ. That is what it means.

Prayer must be made for only those things that are pleasing to God. The Apostle John explains in 1 John 5:14-15, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”

Prayers for things God has not promised or approved have no foundation for confidence. This is why prayer must be informed by God’s word, and consistent with what it says is good. It should never be to get our personal wishes or ways. James 4:3 warns, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

If we pray according to God’s revealed will (for things that fit within his promises and which promote his glory) then our prayers will be answered. This is what we do when we pray in the name of Christ. We pray as those united with him by God’s grace, and who therefore love and desire his ways. So in John 14:14 Jesus could say, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”

So our regular prayers should begin with God’s wonder. Praise him for his glory, his promises, and the blessings he gives. Then consider your need by repenting of your sins and failure to honor him as he deserves. Return again to praise God for your salvation in Christ. That he died in your place, forgives your sins, and enables you in your battle to become more like him in thought, word and deed. Then bring your needs to him; for yourself, your family, friends, church, those you work with, and for the world and its leaders. Learn from God’s word how to pray from the examples and teachings God has preserved for us there.

Put the plan into practice.

It is even good to pray about praying. Ask God to help you do it better.

Once your plan for prayer is worked out, make a copy of the plan and put it where you can see it, where it can remind you about it. You might put it in your daily planner, post the plan on your refrigerator door, or on a bulletin board where you keep your jobs listed. However you remember things, put your prayer plan there.

Encourage one another to pray. Bring it up with your family and friends in conversations. Remember to be kind, supportive, and tactful if someone keeps forgetting to pray. The goal is to help one another improve, not to catch each other doing something wrong. Paul warns us in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Prayer is a great responsibility and a wonderful privilege. If we expect to grow in Christ, we need the nourishment of all the means of grace. Prayer is one of those means. It is vitally important. If prayer is neglected, your whole spiritual life will suffer. We should not expect to grow spiritually without it.

Like a good meal that keeps your body healthy, your spirit grows healthy when you pray regularly. This is God’s promise to his children.

(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 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

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