Ordinance Topical Study

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Preferring the term "ordinance" to "sacrament" describes a major difference in how some churches understand what happens in baptism and the Lord's Supper. Many Baptist, free church, and evangelical circles call these rites ordinances because they are actions the Lord told us to do as symbolic reenactments of the gospel message. Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and some other confessional churches prefer the term "sacrament," which points to the mystery of God's action in and through the rites. At stake here is whether God's grace can actually come to us through the physical signs of bread, wine, and water, or whether it can only come to us spiritually by acts of remembrance and faith exercised in these rites. The controversy harks back to the Reformation, particularly in the disagreement the Swiss reformer Huldrich Zwingli had with Luther and Calvin over these rites.

In Scripture

Much as we would like it to, the Bible does not easily clarify the matter, and various interpreters tend to read the relevant texts according to their traditions. Here we'll explore the interpretative approach taken by those who prefer the term "ordinance."

John 6:53-65 became the locus classicus in the Reformation for Zwingli's view. While Jesus seems to speak very realistically about the benefit of eternal life in what appears to be the Lord's Supper ("those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life," v. 54), he concludes by saying, "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (v. 63). The latter interprets the former, according to Zwingli, which means that the fleshly elements of bread and wine in themselves cannot convey spiritual grace. Only the Spirit gives life, therefore grace cannot come to us via physical means.

Similarly, in Acts 2:38 Peter declares: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Following Zwingli's logic, this can only mean that baptism is a symbol of the salvation and forgiveness that comes to the believer through faith. Baptism is thus the act by which believers testify to their faith in the saving work of Christ.

New Testament In every case in the New Testament in which it appears that baptism or the Lord's Supper actually convey grace to the believer (Rom. 6: 1-4, Titus 3:5, for example) it must really mean that this is merely a symbol of the believer's faith in Christ.

Points to Ponder

"Baptism and the Lord's Supper" "Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming."

"Creeds of Christendom" "'We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord's Supper; yea, we believe that there is no communion without the presence of Christ. This is the proof: `Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matt. xviii.20). How much more is he present where the whole congregation is assembled to his honor! But that his body is literally eaten is far from the truth and the nature of faith. It is contrary to the truth, because he himself says: 'I am no more in the world' (John xvii.11), and 'The flesh profiteth nothing' (John vi.63), that is to eat, as the Jews then believed and the Papists still believe. It is contrary to the nature of faith (I mean the holy and true faith), because faith embraces love, fear of God, and reverence, which abhor such carnal and gross eating, as much as any one would shrink from eating his beloved son. . . . We believe that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religious, believing, and pious heart (as also St. Chrysostom taught). And this is in brief the substance of what we maintain in this controversy, and what not we, but the truth itself teaches."

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.