RPM, Volume 16, Number 28, July 6 to July 12, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Doctrine of the Church
The Sacraments of the Church
Part 1
Sermon Number Twenty-eight

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


What do swimming pools, bathtubs, soft drinks, Twinkies, rivers, oceans, and crackers have in common? All of these things have been used to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. In response to the Bible's command that we believe and be baptized, people have immersed others in pools, bathtubs, rivers, and oceans. In response to the Lord's instructions concerning the sacrament specifically designed to commemorate His work of atonement, people have used soft drinks for the blood and Twinkies and crackers for the bread.

As long as God does not mind how sacraments are administered and as long as He does not care what substances are used in the administration of sacraments, what I've just described would be perfectly acceptable. But, God does mind; He has revealed in the Word that sacraments are important acts and must be administered carefully and with the substances designated in Scripture.

The contemporary Church is, by and large, guilty of two offenses in relation to the sacraments: first, the contemporary church neglects the sacraments; second, the contemporary church abuses the sacraments. There is an urgent need for Christians to be educated regarding this extremely important area of theology. One thing to keep in mind is that neglect and abuse of any doctrine arise from a lack of understanding. If we understood the significance of the sacraments, including how beneficial they are to us, we would not have the situation I just mentioned.

Therefore, as we continue to study the doctrine of the Church within the overall topic of Covenant Theology, we will begin giving our attention to the theology of the sacraments today. As just stated, this issue receives far too little attention from Christians today. This oversight is most costly, indeed, because the sacraments are vital to the Church and when they are misunderstood, when they are ignored, and when they are wrongly administered, the people of Christ, for whose sake the sacraments were given, suffer. A proper theology of the sacraments is essential to a proper ecclesiology and a proper ecclesiology is essential to life.

I will consider the subject of The Sacraments of the Church under these three headings: 1. The Sacraments in General; 2. The Sacrament of Baptism; and 3. The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Under the first point, I plan to present a theological foundation for the sacraments. In the following two points, I will look in some detail at the two sacraments recognized by Protestants.

01. The Sacraments in General

The word "sacrament" is used to designate ordinances that were instituted by Jesus Christ to be observed in His Church. These ordinances are distinguished from all others, not only by the fact that they were so appointed by the Head of the Church, but also by their unique features. Sacraments involve the use of visible material to communicate invisible, or spiritual, truths.

The meaning of the sacraments is to be gleaned from the Old, as well as the New Testament. Even though Protestants recognize only two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, both of which are instituted in the New Testament, we believe that the use of sacraments is common to God's dealings with man and, therefore, spans both Testaments.

Moreover, these two sacraments, themselves, are not to be viewed in isolation, but are to be seen as continuations of certain ideas first given in the Old Testament. Consequently, I want to cite several passages, explain each one briefly, and then comment on what these verses teach us about the nature and meaning of sacraments.

In Gen. 17, God reveals His intention to enter into a special relationship with Abraham and the descendants of Abraham. According to God's announcement, Abraham would enjoy a saving relationship with God and this relationship would continue between God and Abraham's faithful posterity. Beginning in v. 7 of this chapter, we read:

7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." 9 God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.

These verses show us that God made certain promises to Abraham (which, by the way, are identified as the gospel in Gal. 3) and then He appointed a visible sign to represent the relationship that He was establishing between Abraham and the descendants of this patriarch; that outward, visible sign was circumcision.

Another passage for our consideration comes from Ex. 12. The context is the Lord's instruction regarding the Passover. After explaining that the Passover is, in part, a commemoration of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, and after explaining how this feast was to be observed in the land, God adds:

But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. (v. 48)

Here the Lord appoints a feast to represent an event in the life of the nation that was a critical part of the people's redemptive history; and He limits participation in this feast to those who had entered into a covenant relationship with Him and had, consequently, received the sign of circumcision.

Circumcision identified those men, and the households they represented, who had received and were trusting in the promises of salvation; the Passover commemorated an historical event that demonstrated, in an earthly manner, what God intended to do for His covenant people. Logically, of course, participation in a feast that commemorated a redemptive act had to be restricted to those who had received and were believing the promises of redemption. Therefore, the Lord says: "No uncircumcised person may eat [the Passover meal]." By the very definition of circumcision, an uncircumcised man, who would also be representing his household, had no claim to the promises of redemption and, accordingly, no right to celebrate Israel's deliverance from Egypt.

In the New Testament, I would point first to Christ's words in Matt. 26:

26 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."

This passage recounts the time when Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The words of Jesus both establish this sacrament and explain its meaning. The disciples participated in a ritual that was intended to commemorate the all-important work of atonement, which was about to be completed by the Savior on their behalf. And from Luke's account, we learn that Jesus commanded that this ceremony be repeated by His followers after His departure (22:19).

In the passage of Scripture that we call "The Great Commission," we read:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matt. 28:18-20)

To be baptized in the name of another is to identify with that party; it is to indicate one's desire to be associated with that party. In the case of Christian baptism, Jesus appointed it as a means of giving expression to the union between Himself and His people. As the gospel was preached, those who embraced it took part in the ritual of baptism as a way of identifying with the Savior in His work of redemption.

In baptism, the convert professes that he has received and is believing in God's promises of salvation. The sinner is declared to be at peace with God and existing in a state of blessing when he is baptized in the name of the Triune God. The name of God that is invoked at baptism is meant to symbolize the reconciliation of the sinner to his Creator, a reconciliation that is a result of his union with Jesus Christ.

We see the application of the Great Commission recorded early in the book of Acts. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter had an opportunity to address the crowd that gathered in response to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples. He told them that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy; he confronted them with their guilt in the rejection, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus; and he declared to them that Jesus had been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God.

Peter's words were met with the cry: "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37) To this plea, Peter responded:

Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself. (vv. 38, 39)

A few verses later, the text says:

So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (vv. 41, 42)

As the gospel was preached and believed, repentance was to be followed by the administration of the sacrament of baptism by which the subject made a declaration of faith in the risen Savior. Subsequently, he was received into the number of the growing Church. The sacrament of baptism testified to the union between Savior and sinner.

Next, I would direct your attention to 1 Cor. 10 where Paul uses the negative example of Israel to warn the Corinthians about the necessity of faithfulness to God. The Corinthians lived in a culture steeped in idolatry, not unlike the culture that proved to be the undoing of Israel. After referring to Israel's transgressions, Paul writes:

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? 19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

The apostle uses the symbolism of the Lord's Supper to teach the Corinthians about the distinction between the people of God and pagans. The meaning of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper precluded fellowship with those outside the Church. Participation in the Lord's Supper served to segregate the Corinthians from all others in their city and, at the same time, magnify the union they shared with one another in a common Savior.

In the next chapter, Paul adds: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." (11:26) In this verse, Paul draws a direct connection between the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and the atoning work of Christ, which was accomplished on behalf of the Corinthians.

I'll pause here for a moment and say that I realize that today, speaking of segregating or establishing divisions between people is denounced. But I'm not referring to differences based on race or economics. I'm referring to the one distinction that God Himself has made among His creatures. After the fall, the Creator said the human race would be divided into the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman; that is, those who do not walk in peace with God and those who do.

That is the one overriding division that Scripture identifies and explains. The sacraments are key indicators of this division. As God commanded in Ex. 12, and as Jesus and Paul taught much later, sacraments distinguish between people. Those who receive the sacraments are in a unique relationship with God, one in which those who do not receive the sacraments do not share.

Now that we have surveyed just a few relevant passages, we must ask: What are the implications to be drawn from these verses that explain the Biblical doctrine of sacraments? I will offer a number of observations in response to this question; in addition, I'm going to do something a bit different in this sermon. Instead of waiting o the very end of the sermon to offer application, I'm going to include the application as I complete each of these observations.

First, we learn that sacraments serve to identify the existence of a covenant relationship; that is, sacraments serve as visible, observable signs and reminders of the relationship that exists between God and His people.

Sacraments are designed to point us toward a spiritual reality; they are meant to help us as we relate to God as His people. When we consider the words of Christ at the Last Supper, we see that He emphasized that the bread and cup would, from that point forward, be reminders of what He was about to accomplish for His people.

Assuming that this is true, then at the very least we must confess that the sacraments are highly significant components in our theology. Christians should understand what the sacraments mean and how important they are for our well-being.

Regrettably, we live in a day when ignorance of the sacraments reigns supreme in many churches. But let's remember that the sacraments are for our good and, therefore, every Christian should have a desire to see the sacraments rightly administered even if this means having long-held beliefs challenged. The sacraments are not insignificant practices that are to be "tacked on" to our services whenever we find the time.

Second, and as an extension of what I just said, sacraments serve to establish and emphasize a distinction between God's people and those who are not God's people or between those who are in a covenant relationship with Him and those who are not. Since sacraments are outward, visible signs of spiritual truths, this implication is easy to understand. The nature of the sacrament necessitates a distinction between those for whom it is intended and all other people.

The sacraments of the Church are constant reminders of our standing, constant reminders of the glorious work of Christ on our behalf. The sacraments of the Church are important; they are important because they identify us to the world and so bring honor to the God of our salvation.

When we give due attention to the sacraments, then we are going to be much more aware of our standing as a special people before God. One of the difficulties facing us today is the lack of awareness of this distinction in the minds of many Christians. As we survey church after church, we would have to say that the difference between those inside the church and those outside the church sometimes is not all that discernible.

Regular and right use of the sacraments, however, will reinforce our distinction from unbelievers. Instead of downplaying the importance of the sacraments, which is being done throughout Evangelicalism, we need to underscore their essential quality and use them rightly to train ourselves and our children so that the distinction between believer and unbeliever is, once again, blatantly obvious.

Third, from these passages we learn that the sacraments presuppose an existing relationship between God and the believer. This leads to an important conclusion: the sacraments are not the means of salvation. The sacraments confirm and attest to salvation, but they do not confer salvation. As important as the sacraments are to our spiritual well-being, we must understand that they are not necessary for salvation; they exhibit the grace that has come to the sinner, they are not the source of that grace.

In a day when the lines between historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are being blurred⎯sometimes deliberately by misguided Protestants⎯we need to declare loudly and without apology this vital aspect of sacramental theology. We are saved by grace through faith alone. The sacraments testify to the free grace of God that comes to us in Christ; as meaningful as they are, the sacraments merely portray what God has done for us in the Savior and apart from faith, they are of no benefit.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the correct administration of the sacraments conveys grace to the recipient. An erroneous view of the sacraments is as detrimental as a Biblical view is beneficial. Jesus Christ saved us and the sacraments only point us to His unique and great work of atonement.

Fourth, the sacraments require faith. Since sacraments are signs of some aspect of our redemption, they necessarily require faith. Sacraments remind us of what God has promised and, therefore, call us to believe what He has promised. The right use of the sacraments is a testimony to faith. For example, immediately following the magnificent promise that God made to Abraham in Gen. 17, He appointed circumcision as a sign of Abraham's faith in God's word. The promise comes first and the sacrament, or sign and seal of the promise, follows.

As another example, consider the Lord's words in Matt. 26. They indicate the necessity of faith in the promises of redemption when He says: "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." As we observe the sacrament, we are to look forward, in faith, to a coming day of consummation.

We observe the sacraments by faith; that is, we baptize converts and we baptize our children and we participate in the Lord's Supper each week because we believe the promises that God made to us. When the sacraments are observed, it is a time for us to review those promises concerning our redemption, a time for us to give thanks to God for accepting the work of His Son on our behalf and a time for us to examine ourselves as those who have received the grace of God.

Faith is the essential element that allows us to do these things; the sacraments portray what God has done and by faith, we accept what is portrayed as true and dependable.

Fifth, these passages teach that there is a relation between the sacraments. This observation comes from Ex. 12:48. Circumcision was required for participation in the Passover. This relation is not difficult to understand. Circumcision marked the subject's acceptance into the covenant community; the Passover was a celebration of that covenant community. Naturally, therefore, membership in the covenant community was required before one could participate in the life of the covenant community.

Likewise, of course, baptism now serves as recognition of our membership in the covenant community. And, while there is not a direct, one-to-one parallel between Passover and the Lord's Supper, the same principle is applicable to our New Covenant sacrament of Communion. Therefore, we do not serve the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to unbaptized individuals.

The Church must strive to preserve this relationship. We must regard baptism as the initiatory rite by which one enters the covenant community and we must regard the Lord's Supper as the meal that sustains the regenerated soul during its journey here on earth.

Sixth, the sacraments point to the unity of the people of God. This feature of the sacraments is proven by the fact that they are intended for all of God's people who comprise the Church at any given time in history. Christ's use of the one bread and the one cup while speaking to all of His disciples and, by way of implication, the many who would believe in Him through their labors, underscores the unity of His people.

No passage, however, speaks more clearly to this issue of unity than 1 Cor. 10. Paul writes: "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread." (vv. 16, 17)

Through the bread and cup, Paul teaches, we share in Christ; that is, these elements and their consumption by the believer portray the indispensable, life-giving union we have with Him by faith. And Paul adds, since all believers partake of the one bread, they function as "one body" and, therefore, share in one another. As believers see the elements distributed, as they see one Christian after another taking the elements, as they receive the elements themselves and consume them, they can't help but have the notion of unity impressed upon them. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a community activity.

The ability of the sacraments to teach theology is nowhere seen more clearly than in this aspect. Every Christian shares the same baptism and every Christian is fed from the same Table. The grand display of our unity is particularly visible in the local congregation when the sacraments are administered. We might be different in countless ways, but the sacraments declare to us our unity as the one people of God in Jesus Christ.

Seventh, these passages dealing with Biblical sacraments certainly imply a duty of covenant keeping. As I've stated, the sacraments serve to remind us of what God has promised and what God has done. At the same time, the sacraments, due to their nature, also must remind us of the obligations that belong to us as those who have been favored by God.

When we receive the sacraments, we are indicating our desire to continue living within the covenant, which, of course, implies our willingness to live according to the terms of the covenant. And the terms of the covenant are found throughout the Bible.

Your baptism represented a promise on your part or the part of your parents that you would live according to the teachings of God. When you receive the Lord's Supper, that promise is being underscored. Look to your baptism to understand who you are and what course your life should be taking. Look to the Table for confirmation that you still are pursuing that course and are being aided by Christ Himself.


Hymn for Communion


Keeping all this in mind, let us now observe the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Remember that this sacrament testifies to your standing in Christ, in emphasizes the distinction between us and the unsaved world. You will now receive the elements and, by faith, have God's promises of salvation renewed. Let us give thanks for this aid to our faith and let us give thanks for the wonderful work of God that is evidenced by the many who will, this morning, partake of this Table.

Matthew 26:26 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."

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