Recall we’ve spent much time going over the call that the Christian life is a disciplined life. A life of certain private and public habits that we’re to grow in throughout our entire lives. What habits? First, privately and publicly availing ourselves of the ministry of the Word, rejoicing that in it we have the voice of God. Second, privately and publicly availing ourselves of the gift of prayer, rejoicing that in it we have the ear of God. Third, publicly availing ourselves of the fellowship of God’s people, rejoicing that we truly do belong to a body of believers.
Tonight marks, not only the last evening service of our year together, but the last evening in our series on the Habits of Grace. So, we turn once again to our life together and how we can continue learning to fly among the fellowship of God’s people. Three things are before tonight: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Discipline. Why take these three things together? Because God has given us these three things to build and fan into flame the unity of His people. Or to say it another way, in the congregations where we find these three things being practiced in a healthy manner, we’ll also find not only a healthy church but a unified congregation as well.
Let’s take one at a time:
On the Sacraments
The word sacrament comes from the Latin word ‘sacramentum’ meaning a solemn or sacred oath. Roman Catholics believe there to be seven sacraments, most Protestants only believe there to be two of them; baptism, given to us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’ Supper, given to us in Jesus’ teaching in the upper room (Matthew 26:26-29). In addition to the word sacrament is the word ordinance, which simply means a statute or command Jesus ordained for the Church. The difference between these two words comes down to what we believe is happening while engaging in these activities. To prefer the title ordinance over the title sacrament generally means one believes there is no grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. To prefer the title sacrament over the title ordinance generally means one believes there is grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. I prefer to call baptism and the Lord’s Supper sacraments because I believe God strengthens us in His grace through them, but I also do not mind the term ordinance either because these two practices truly have been ordained by God for the Church.
We can also state generally that both sacraments function as signs and seals. Signs, in that what the preaching of the gospel is to our ears, the sacraments are to our eyes.[i]This means they visibly signify or show the invisible truth of God to us. In a very real sense the sacraments are a dramatized display of the gospel. But they are also seals. Just as a ruler in ancient times would seal a document with his royal seal to communicate that the message was from him and carried his authority, so too, the sacraments are visible seals from God promising that all who receive them truly participate in the grace given through them (see Romans 4:11-12 for more).
There are two fundamental issues we must cover when approaching baptism. First: we are commanded by God to embrace, believe, and teach not only what the Bible explicitly teaches, but also what the Bible implicitly teaches. Second: while the New Testament authors assumed discontinuity with Moses, they always assumed continuity with Abraham.
Few Christians will disagree with the first fundamental principle. Let me explain the second principle. All over the New Testament, various authors place Moses and the law of God, in contrast to Christ and the gospel. For example, one could say the whole point of the book of Hebrews is to teach that Jesus is better than all that’s come before. Better than the angels, better than Moses, better than the law. The author even says that Jesus deserves greater glory than Moses because His blood can do what the blood of bulls and goats could never do. For this reason Heb. 10:1 says the law was just a shadow of the greater realities to come. We could also point to Paul where he mentions we’re no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14) and that the law was only given by God to chase us to the cross, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). Each time the Mosaic covenant is mentioned in the New Testament discontinuity is in view.
Now contrast that with how the New Testament authors speak of the Abrahamic covenant. Rather than discontinuity being in view, we only find continuity being spoken of. After Paul’s great explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3, who is his example of such faith in the very next chapter? Abraham. The largest place we see this reality is in Galatians 3 where Paul makes some marvelous statements linking Christians with Abraham. In Galatians 3:7-9 Paul says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Rather than being placed in opposition to the gospel, when Abraham is in view we see a continuity.
This principle leads to an implication in how we ought to interpret the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. Because the New Testament authors showed a consistent discontinuity with Moses and continuity with Abraham, we not only should read the New Testament in the same manner, we should understand that the New Testament is an inspired commentary on the Old Testament. Or to say it another way, we should never read the Old Testament apart from the New Testament.
Now we are primed to see baptism, and no surprise we’ll begin with Abraham. Follow along as I read Genesis 17:1-14 (read). You may think this is a strange place to begin discussing baptism, but as you’ll see, it is very appropriate. In this passage we see God relating the details of His covenant with Abraham. This is where we learn of Abram’s name change to Abraham, where we learn that God will bring many nations and kings from him, and where we learn that the Abrahamic covenant also had to do with Abraham’s children. In 17:7 God said He would be God to Abraham and to his offspring after him. Then in 17:10 to confirm this covenant God commanded both Abraham and his children to be circumcised. Circumcision was thus, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and from this point on in Scripture all Israelites had the sign of the covenant put on them as children to indicate that they were part of visible Israel.
Now, when Jesus came and inaugurated the New Covenant in the great commission He gave these instructions, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Rather than giving the command to go into all the world, make disciples, and circumcisethem, Jesus makes it crystal clear that the sign of the New Covenant is no longer circumcision, but baptism. Paul affirms this in Colossians 2:11-12 when he says, “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
So taking a look at the whole of Scripture we see a clear connection between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. Just as circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, baptism is the fulfillment of it and is now the sign of the covenant in the New Testament. Most believers agree with this.
Here’s the part where a disagreement occurs. Some believe the sign of the New Covenant is to still be placed on our children while others believe the sign of the New Covenant is only to be placed on those who believe. This isn’t really the place or time to discuss which view is right and wrong, rather, think of the communal implications for baptism in general. Each time someone is baptized they are baptized into the visible community of God. Saved individually but saved into community. Also, each time someone is baptized all who witness it are reminded afresh of their own conversion and their own baptism where they entered into the visible church. So when we gather at the beach to do a baptism don’t see it as an inconvenience to the real work of the Church or as just a family outing to the ocean. No, when the waters of baptism stir, look on, and be reminded on how you were once washed as well.
On the Lord’s Supper
As with all sound doctrine we must look into the whole of Scripture to find the whole overview of any particular doctrine. And this is especially true when we come to the Lord’s Supper, because its roots take us all the way back to the Exodus. Recall it was during God’s redemption of Israel out of slavery in Egypt that He instituted the Passover. As the final plague was drawing near God warned His people in Exodus 12 to prepare for this moment by putting the blood of an unblemished lamb on each doorpost of their homes. The people were then to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in haste with their belts on and sandals on their feet. As God passed through to strike down the first born of the land of Egypt He said He would see the blood and pass over all those homes which obeyed and did this. This hasty meal was to be a memorial day feast celebrating the beginning of Israel’s new year from this day forward and it was these things that each prophet of God called the people of God back to throughout the Old Covenant. Then there’s a change.
As Jesus’ hour was drawing near He gathered together with His disciples to celebrate this Passover one last time in Luke 22. At this meal in the Upper Room Jesus did something new. Rather than repeating what the Israelites had done for ages and ages, He changed things. Here is how Luke recounts the moment. “And when the hour came, He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:14-21).
Lesson? As God instituted the Passover long ago for the remembrance of what He did to save Israel from the death of the first born and redeem them from slavery in Egypt, so too here Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper for the remembrance of what He was about to do to redeem God’s people from a greater slavery, greater sin, and a greater Pharaoh, Satan. Just as the Passover was to be a repeated event for Israel each year as they did life together in the land God brought them to, so too the Lord’s Supper is to be a repeated event for the Church as we do life together where God has placed us. Recall it was Satan who first said ‘take and eat’ to our first parents before they fell in Eden. It is Jesus who redeems that phrase by instituting the Supper.[ii]
While this is positively astounding to see and is itself a massive paradigm shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, this does bring up other questions that need answering. Questions, which no doubt have caused much debate throughout the centuries. Is Jesus present at His Supper? If so, how is He present and what exactly happens at the Lord’s table? How is the Lord’s Supper to be done rightly in the Church? Who is to take the Lord’s Supper? Are there times to refrain from partaking?
To make a long discussion shorter, most Protestants of Church history believed Christ was present in His Supper and communicated His life-giving grace to His people by that presence. Yet, ironically the majority view in the evangelical world today is the memorial view. Which suggests we don’t take the Lord’s Supper serious enough. Because God is present at His table, the Supper should be approached with reverence, love, and care. This is why the table must be explained in churches today. This is also why we must read the warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 placing a ‘fence’ around the table for two purposes. First, the fence functions to encourage repentant believers to come forward and receive and second, the fence functions to warn both unbelievers and unrepentant believers to hold back and refrain. Both of these purposes function to guard and protect the purity of the Church. Most historical catechisms and confessions include such warnings and give instructions for those who will be receiving and refraining about how to those things well. But sadly few people practice this today to avoid offending churchgoers.Jesus didn’t ordain His Supper to be a mid or post Sunday service snack for any who so desire. May we return to a high view of His table.
On Church Discipline
What gospel do you believe in?Do you believe in a gospel that says “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are.” Do you believe in that gospel? Or do you believe in a gospel that says, “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are. But in His grace and by His Spirit He doesn’t leave us as we are. No, He slowly and surely makes us into different people. People who love Him and hate sin. People who refuse to do life alone but do it in the community of the local church. People who grow in godliness, eager to reflect His holy character and glory to this fallen world.”
Which gospel do you believe in? The first version presents Jesus as Savior, the second presents Jesus as Savior and Lord. The first version points to our new status as children of God, the second points to our new status as children of God as well as our new job description as citizens in His Kingdom. The first version has a view of God’s grace saving us, the second has a view of God’s grace not only saving us but sanctifying us as well…because this second gospel is the true one found in the Bible, it should not surprise us that we also find the Bible saying God tends His flock through the instruction and admonition of a plurality of elders. All that the elders do could rightly be considered church discipline.
God knows the Church is composed of a company of saints who daily wrestle with remaining sin (Rom. 7:14-25, Phil. 3:12, 1 John 1:8,). Since we are not perfect, we can confess our common struggle with sin and our mutual need for God’s mercy and grace. As members of the same congregation we should spur one another on to maturity by encouraging and holding each other accountable to love, seek after, and obey God with all our whole hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love one another as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31, Heb. 10:24-27). God’s discipline in the Church is a process that involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small groups, and all kinds of things that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly. When we forget or disobey what God has taught us, He corrects us. One way He corrects us is to call our elders to seek after us and lead us back onto the right track. This is always to be done in a spirit of humility and of love, with the goal of restoring a person to a close walk with Christ (Matt. 18:15, Gal. 6:1). We need to be taught what is right and to be lovingly corrected when we do something contrary to what God teaches us in His Word. Therefore, we as a Church are committed to help one another obey God’s command to be “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” (Titus 1:8).
Jonathan Leeman begins his book Church Discipline, with this question. See page 11-13.
[i]Dr. Fesko often told us this in class at Reformed Theological Seminary.
[ii]Ligon Duncan said this in his message at Together for the Gospel, 2018.