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

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