Magic or Mystery? | A Primer on the Sacraments

When I was nine years old, one Sunday a month, my family would stay after the service to help clean the sanctuary. The room was laid out in the usual fashion, but at the forward end, skier’s left, there was a section of pews we all understood to be where the rowdier “teenagers” sat. 

At that time, the church was only observing the Lord’s Supper once a month. And I remember that, when our cleaning fell on the same Sunday, I would wade cautiously into teenage territory to collect the abandoned stacks of communion cups from the backs of the pews. Apparently interpreting it as a challenge, the teenagers would stuff as many communion cups into each stack as physically possible, erecting numerous swaying towers of clear plastic and juice. As a child I balked at this hooliganry. But today I can only reflect fondly on the idea of those young people participating in the body and blood of the Master. This was my first experience with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and it stays with me.

The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is one of the two sacraments instituted by Christ for the Church. The other is baptism (Mt. 28:19-20; Lk. 22:19: I Co. 11:24). A sacrament is a rite or ritual which, in Christianity, is a symbol and a means of grace.

Practically speaking, baptism is the public act of being submerged in water, and then—quickly (if the pastor likes you)—being lifted from the water, reemerging.

Theologically, baptism is a sign and a seal (an affirmation) for those who place their faith in Christ (Col. 2:12; Ro. 6:3-4). The whole event is symbolic of Christ’s death and resurrection and our sharing in it through faith, which includes our washing and being made clean through the remission of sins and our being engrafted into the body of Christ. But baptism is also a cairn marking a dramatic shift in the direction of our life from old life to new.

At baptism, the grace we have already received through faith is intensified within us. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones compared this phenomenon to a wedding ring. In marriage, the giving of the ring does not mean that the man loves the woman any more than he did previously. But when he gives her the ring, the love is intensified. The love is sealed by the ring, and in baptism our unity with Christ is sealed just the same.

Crucial Questions
“Why do we submerge? Is sprinkling an acceptable method of baptism?”

It is our conviction at Fellowship Denver Church that the biblical intent for baptism is that of immersion (dunking) in water. Though salient arguments exist for other methods, immersion depicts our dying and rising with Christ and holds most true to the original definition of the Greek word “βαπτίζω” (baptizo), which means to dip or submerge. But the method is less important than the thing symbolized, which is our union with Christ unto death and into life.

“I was baptized previously; do I need to be baptized again?”

This is an important question requiring discernment on the part of you and your pastor. Some items to consider in preparing to answer this question are: (a) Were you genuinely trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of redemption at the time of your initial baptism? And (b), was your previous baptism carried out in a biblical manner and under biblical authority? These questions will help you and your pastor determine if a “re-baptism” is appropriate for you.

Why Baptize?
We practice baptism because the Lord Jesus Christ commanded it (Mt. 28:19). As Christians, we profess that all our Lord does and commands is good. For this reason, baptism is an opportunity to express genuine obedience and commitment to Christ and our unity with Him (Eph. 4:5; 1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is a worshipful, gospel proclamation of Christ as our Savior and King, serving as a witness to the reality of His work on our behalf.

Crucial Question
“Is baptism necessary for salvation?”

In a word, no. Baptism does not save, rather it follows salvation. Since baptism is an expression of an event having already occurred, and since salvation is a gift apprehended through faith (Eph. 2:8) (Jn. 5:24), it would be impossible for our salvation to hinge on the act of baptism.

How is baptism performed?
Baptism is usually performed by a qualified elder or pastor, particularly one who has held an active role in the shepherding of the baptizee, though some churches allow fathers to baptize their children. The event is to be public, before the congregation, and done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Baptism is appropriate only if the individual to be baptized has made a discernibly genuine profession of faith in Christ; he or she must have “received [God’s] word” (Acts 2:41). This is called believer’s baptism. Believer's baptism, or credobaptism (credo = belief), is contrasted with pedo- or oikobaptism (pedo = child; oiko = household), which teach that children should be baptized regardless of conscious faith.

When an elder performs the baptism, he will indicate that your going down into the water points to our sharing with Christ in His death and burial (Ro. 6:3-4), and that your coming up points to our resurrection with Him in new life (Co. 2:12).

Crucial Questions
“Do we baptize infants? Why or why not?

Despite finding godly men on either side of this debate, and the intriguing arguments to the contrary, it is the conviction of our church that baptism is for professing believers only. Consequently, due to the inability of infants to profess belief, they are not baptized. Scripture consistently depicts people exhibiting belief prior to being baptized (Acts 2:41; 8:12, 36-38; 10:44-48; 16:30-34).

“How soon should I be baptized?”

In Scripture, baptism and conversion occur hand-in-hand; we never see them apart. Therefore, it is the conviction of our church that baptisms take place as soon as practicable following a confession of faith. New believers should reach out to their elders (and children their parents) to arrange for baptism.

Preparation for Baptism
Since baptism is an important event that, ideally, only occurs once, each believer should take care to prepare him or herself spiritually. A comprehensive understanding of what is going to take place, what it means, and the implications that follow, should be pursued in advance. Our pastors are eager to help you here. In addition, the believer should find himself in a state of open repentance, not in a hiding of secret sins or in storing up calamity in his heart. Again, your pastor, or another church figure, will be eager to walk with you in such accountability preceding your baptism and beyond.

Practically speaking, bring a towel. Seriously, you’re about to get soaked, so prepare accordingly. Avoid white clothing that will become transparent when wet, and bring a separate bag for transporting your change of clothes. If you wish for your family members to witness your baptism, make sure to notify them in advance. This is an especially unique opportunity to witness to your unbelieving friends and family of the reality of the gospel and its impact in your life.

Finally, do not underestimate the importance of prayer leading up to your baptism. Ask God to instill in you a thorough understanding of the sacrament, to make clear His gospel, and to use it for the furtherance of His kingdom in the hearts of the people watching.

The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper involves the pastor’s delivery of the broken bread and drink to the congregation. Each believer present is then invited to partake of these elements for the nourishment of body and spirit.

Theologically, the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, serves as a sign and a seal for the Church. It illustrates Christ’s sacrifice and our participation in it by faith. We believe the bread represents Christ’s body, broken for His people (1 Cor 11:24), and that the cup, which is Christ’s blood, represents the new covenant for which it was spilled (1 Cor 11:25). Christ died and was raised to life, and we, having died with him, now live according to His power. We believe this sacrament is the duty and right of believers, to commemorate and proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until He returns (1 Cor. 11:26), and to receive the blessings of the gospel afresh, as a source of spiritual nourishment and encouragement.

As we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, our need for food reminds us of our spirit’s want for Christ. We cannot live without Him any more than we can live without food, and He has given Himself, and we have received Him.

Crucial Questions

“What is the significance of the elements? Do the bread and wine turn into Jesus’s real flesh?”

We do not agree with Rome that the bread and wine cease to exist in substance, becoming instead the true flesh and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). Neither do we believe, as the Lutherans do, that Christ’s physical body is “localized” in, on, and under the elements so as to constitute His being physically with the elements (consubstantiation). Rather, the bread and drink remain entirely as they were—bread and wine—while Christ’s spiritual presence abideth, as Calvin says, as a “fountain of spiritual virtue and efficacy.”

“I want to partake of the Lord’s Supper, but I remember my sin. Should I refrain?”

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 are not meant to exclude those within the Church who are aware of their sin. In fact, awareness of sin is essential for repentance, and repentance is required for the Lord’s Supper. The question is not whether we have sinned or not (or even sinned big). The question is the posture of our hearts in response to sin. Anyone keeping secret, unsurrendered sin in their hearts should abstain. Otherwise, it is you, sinner, for whom Christ died. Come to the table and experience His grace afresh.

Why Do We Partake of the Lord’s Supper?
We partake of the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s instruction (Lk. 22:18-20), and choose to do so as often as we gather for worship (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). In so doing, we not only remember and proclaim the Lord’s death, but we receive a provision of grace which preserves the Church in her communion with the life of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is connected, not only to Christ’s death, but also to His present, spiritual work in glory. Though Christ is not bodily present, we assert that His entire person is enjoyed in the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper is often called communion, and for two reasons. First, because in partaking of the Lord’s Supper we commune, or participate, with Christ. Meaning, we experience our unity with Him according to His sacrifice and our adoption. And second, we commune with one another as members of the same body (1 Cor. 22).

Who Should Partake?
Because we believe the provisions of both sacraments are apprehended by faith, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for those who are trusting in Jesus Christ for redemption and the forgiveness of sins only. There is nothing magical in the elements; they communicate a grace already received. That said, there is no waiting period. Even if you have trusted in Christ this very day, go and partake.

Christians who should otherwise participate may find upon self-examination that they should abstain.

Preparation for the Table
Paul cautions us in 1 Corinthians 11:27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” This means there are both proper and improper manners of participation. We should take care that this act of worship be carried out with reverence.

Keith A. Mathison of Reformation Bible College decries passivity at the table of the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Christians are partaking of the Lord’ Supper without thought whatsoever. . .they allow their minds to wander, thinking about the football game on television that afternoon or the movie they watched the night before.” Mathison goes on to urge the Church to consider with seriousness how we approach the table of the Lord.

Each Christian should take the opportunity of Lord’s Supper to meditate on the realities represented. Not passively going through the motions, but actively thinking on Christ, His merits, His sacrifice, our sin, our needs, and His provision of grace. We should approach the table in open repentance, not in hidden sin or with rebellion in our hearts. If you are unsure if you should participate, our pastors and deacons are eager to assist. Do not let grief, doubt, or shame keep you from the table, for as we addressed earlier, it is you—the repentant sinner—for whom Christ died. It is for you that the Supper exists.

For me, after I retrieve the elements from the table, I take them back to my seat, to my wife and child, and I pray with them before partaking. The time for prayer is never inopportune, but scarcely will you find a more appropriate opportunity for prayer than that moment wherein you find yourself whisked humbly before the cross.

The Sacraments as a Means of Grace
The means of grace, which are the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, are means by which God communicates the graces of Christ to us. They are not the source or origin of grace, yet grace flows through them in a special and mysterious way.

The easiest way to explain this is by thinking about preaching. First, we must understand that the source of grace is Christ and His justifying acts 2000 years ago. However, God has ordained that the reality and implications of these events be communicated to the Church through the preaching of the Word. From the pulpit, this is easy to appreciate as the pastor teaches directly from the Bible. But what if I told you that the sacraments also preach?

Through their powerful illustration of Christ’s ministry and our union with Him, baptism and the Lord’s Supper proclaim the truth of the gospel in ways words alone cannot. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that even when the pulpit fails to preach the gospel, the sacraments do not.
Regarding the sacraments, the Protestant Church has long held to the idea of ex opere operantis, which is Latin for “from the work of the doer.” In the case of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the worker is the one being baptized or partaking of the elements. The opposing view is called ex opere operato, which means, “from the work of the work,” which is the view of the Roman Catholic Church.

I mention this seemingly obscure comparison because, as I mentioned before, the sacraments are not magical. They have no power of their own. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, anyone might accidentally invoke the power of the One Ring simply by putting it on. The power is in the ring, not in the one wearing it. But regarding our Christian sacraments, the opposite is true. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper effect grace in our lives insofar as we participate in true faith and repentance (the “work” of the worker). They are God’s tools for signifying and sealing His grace within us, not magical relics.

The water does not cleanse us, the bread does not save us, but neither should we swing so far from the mystical nature of the sacraments as the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli who believed that the Lord’s Supper in particular was merely a memorial. When embraced with heartfelt reverence, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny the mysterious and effective nature of the sacraments as carriers of the gospel's wondrous graces.

Posted in