The Meaning of the Sacraments

Posted by colin on November 16, 2010 under From the pastor | Read the First Comment

Why has God given the church the sacraments of baptism and communion? Are they just some religious formalism that we have to go through or is there a real and meaningful purpose behind them? Too often we can allow the practice of baptism and the taking of communion to become a ritual we perform without any real understanding of their meaning or purpose. Some Christians even neglect these practices because they fail to see their significance or importance.

God has given us these rituals and has commanded us to observe them. In performing them we participate in the reality of what God is accomplishing in our lives. In them we have the truth of the gospel proclaimed to us in a deeply personal way.

In baptism God confirms to us the once-and-for-all event that takes place when we repent of sinning against Him and commit our lives to serving Jesus Christ. As we are buried in the waters of baptism and are raised up out of the water, the reality of our death to our old way of life and our resurrection to our new life in Christ is communicated and confirmed to us. We have been translated out of the darkness of this world into the light of the Kingdom of God. We are no longer a part of a human race (in Adam) that is cut off from God, but are now part of a new humanity, restored to the image of God, who will dwell with God and Christ for all eternity. Our lives have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. His life is now our life. Because He has been resurrected to eternal life, we too have eternal life. Our baptism is the reminder that this transaction has taken place. It is an accomplished fact. This is why baptism is a once-off event. We do not need to be baptized again and again. Christ’s sacrifice, offered once, has paid the full price and is sufficient to secure our salvation.

But after the initial euphoria of our baptism wears off, we find that there is a huge discrepancy between the reality of who we are in Christ and the way we are living our lives. We find ourselves sinning and failing to live up to the high standards of our calling. We can begin to doubt the reality of our salvation and wonder whether God has rejected us because of our many failures. Or, we wonder whether we were really converted in the first place. But God knew that our faith would be weak and that in our fallen state we would sin, doubt our salvation at times, and tend to drift away from the commitment we made at baptism. He therefore made provision for us to be reminded both of our commitment to Christ, and of His commitment to us.

God provided the Communion service, also known as the Lord’s Supper, as a way of reassuring us of His ongoing faithfulness to us in spite of our failures, and as a means for us to rededicate ourselves to the calling we have been given. This is why we take Communion repeatedly and regularly. It is an opportunity to be reminded of our continual and total dependence on God to provide the means of our salvation. We express our trust in Him that He will complete the work He has begun in us. As we partake of the bread and wine we are reminded of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and of its ongoing work to accomplish our salvation.

This is why we are asked to examine ourselves prior to taking the Lord’s Supper. It helps us to realize that, as William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said: “All is of God; the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed.” 1 Communion is an opportunity for us to repent of our sins and turn to God for forgiveness and renewal. It is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to God. We are reminded as we put forward empty hands to receive the bread and wine that we bring nothing to the table – we are looking to God to nourish and sustain us, and bring us safely into the reality of His Kingdom. The provision of the bread and wine is a reminder to us of God’s faithfulness to complete the work which He has begun in us.

We see this vividly illustrated in the lives of the apostles – the first Christians. These twelve disciples obeyed Jesus’ call to leave all and follow Him. They committed their lives to Him. They were baptized (John 3:22; 4:1) as an outward demonstration of the reality of their union with Him. They were now united to Him and together with Him formed the nucleus of the church, the new Israel of God. The church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). When Peter asked Christ what the reward of the apostles would be, “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).

This was the reality that the apostles looked forward to: participation in the Kingdom of God, ruling and reigning with Christ. This glorious hope, however, was not sufficient to sustain them. They failed in their commitment to forsake all and follow Him. When Christ faced His hour of trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, instead of watching and praying with Him, they slept. When He was arrested, they fled. As He hung on the Cross, they stood afar off and looked on together with the rest of the crowd. Their hopes of a glorious future in the kingdom of God were dashed. They decided to return to their former occupations.

But their failure did not mean that Christ had abandoned them. He had known beforehand that they would forsake Him. He had even warned them of this: “Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’ ” (Matt. 26:31). And yet, knowing they would forsake Him and that He would have to face the Cross alone, on that very same night, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you” ” (Matt 26:26-27). He offered up His body and blood for them, reassuring them of His ongoing commitment to them in spite of their failures.

Peter had been the most vocal of the apostles, claiming that, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matt. 26:33). His failure was the most visible and apparent as he went on to publicly deny knowing Christ three times that same night. And yet, after His resurrection, Jesus went out of His way to reassure Peter of His continuing love for him, and to call him back to faithfulness to the commission he had been given (John 21:15-17).

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are a wonderful gift from God to confirm and nourish our faith. Our union with Christ is communicated to us in baptism as a once-and-for-all completed reality; and in the Lord’s Supper as a continuous ongoing reality. We have a reminder that we have been saved, and a reminder that we are in the process of being saved. The reality of our salvation will be consummated at our resurrection when we will see Christ as He is and be like Him (Phil. 3:20-21).

References:

  1. William Temple, quoted by Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 42.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Daniel said,

    great post, thanks for sharing