Sacraments Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Sacraments

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Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace. Preaching on the gospel sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) helps people understand their significance as the visible Word, the gospel in material form, the "handles" of faith for embodied people. Other Christian communions, such as Roman Catholic and Orthodox, recognize seven sacraments (see below).

In Scripture

The Bible never uses the word "sacrament", which in Greek means mystery, but it does clearly refer to acts that are ordained by God. While the gospel sacraments are New Testament ordinances, sacraments or sacramental activities are found throughout the Old Testament. God often used material means to convey his promises to people.

Sacrament of the Rainbow John Calvin talks about the sacrament of the rainbow appearing to Noah.

After the Exodus, the Israelites were told to celebrate the Passover, a meal of remembrance.

The tabernacle itself was filled with physical objects offering material means by which faith was understood and lived (the altar of burnt offering, incense, the Table of the Presence).

Old Testament Baptism Baptism was practiced in the old covenant as an act by which proselytes (especially women who could not be circumcised) were inducted into the Jewish faith community.

John the Baptist practiced "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3) at the Jordan. People flocked to the wilderness for this physical sign of a new life. Jesus also went there to be baptized by John, who had promised One to come after him who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8).

At Jesus' baptism three remarkable things happen: the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, and the Father speaks, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10, 11). These three actions describe the heart of the meaning of baptism: grace from heaven, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and adoption as sons and daughters in Christ.

Baptism serves as a kind of bookend to Jesus' life and ministry. At one end stands his baptism by John. At the other end, before Jesus ascends, he commands the disciples to "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" (Matt. 28:19). Jesus' baptism now becomes a Trinitarian baptism because the fullness of the gospel has been made known through his death and resurrection.

After his great Pentecost sermon, Peter declares what his audience should do: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38), showing how baptism is the outward sign of the inner reality of faith and new life in Christ. Following this, the pattern through Acts and the whole New Testament is for converts to be baptized almost immediately after believing in Christ (8:36, 10:47, 16:15, 16:33).

The power of baptism is such that Paul appeals to it as the means by which we know we now live a new life in Christ. "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).

The Lord's Supper (Eucharist, Communion) was instituted by Christ at his last meal with his disciples (see Matt. 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-20).

Passover Seder It is significant that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder (Luke 22:7). Jesus thus ties this sacrament to the main sacramental meal of the Old Testament, a remembrance of and participation in Israel's liberation from Egyptian slavery. Around this venerable meal he builds a new sacrament that signifies our liberation from sin and death by his cross and resurrection.

Acts and Paul's Epistles It's clear from Acts and from Paul's epistles that the Lord's Supper became a central and regular feature of Christian worship (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; 1 Cor. 10:14-17 and 1 Cor. 11:23-29).

Meal of Remembrance: Lord's Supper An important feature of the Lord's Supper is the fact that it is a meal of remembrance: "Do this in remembrance of me." However, it's crucial to understand that this remembrance was not merely an act of recalling a past event. Remembrance in Scripture is identifying oneself with that particular act. The Passover feast was meant not just to recall the event, but "so that all the days of your life you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt" (Deut. 16:3). It was an act not only of recalling, but of participating in that Exodus community. So too, the remembrance of the Lord's Supper means that participants identify themselves as those redeemed through the shed blood and broken body of the Lord.

Meal of Unity: Communion Paul's extensive discussion of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 revolves around its abuse. While meant to be a meal that united believers in Christ (1 Cor. 10:17), it had become a meal of disunity (1 Cor. 11:17-22). Participants in the Lord's Supper must discern the body of Christ (particularly its unity) so as not to "eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29).

Eschatological Focus: Eucharist Another important biblical feature of the Lord's Supper is its eschatological focus. Jesus says he will not eat it again "until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:16). Paul writes that in this meal we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper points to its fulfillment in the "marriage supper of the Lamb" at the end of time (Rev. 19:9).

Points to Ponder

A Point of Division The sacraments have become, unfortunately, a point of division in the Christian church. The main divide is roughly between those who understand the sacraments to actually convey spiritual reality (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and, with some differences, Lutheran, Anglican, and non-Zwinglian Reformed) and those who see them as mere symbols, pointing to spiritual reality without actually imparting it. It's interesting to note that those who understand the Lord's Supper as actually conveying spiritual reality typically celebrate it far more often. Also, if baptism is merely a symbolic act of one's faith commitment, it can be experienced more than once, while if it in some way conveys new life in Christ, it is once and for all.

Relation to Faith If we do understand that the sacraments perform what they say, then how do we understand them to relate to faith? Most Christians would hesitate to say that the sacraments, in and of themselves, confer salvation. One way to understand the relationship of faith to sacraments is that we do not believe in them, as though they save us, but that we believe in Christ through them. In this sense they serve as "handles" for our faith to grasp.

William Temple "When faith exists as a struggle to believe . . . when the whole life of feeling is dead, when nothing is left but a stark loyalty to God. . . then the sheer objectivity, even the express materialism, of sacrament gives it a value that nothing else can have."

Robert Bruce "Do you ask what new thing we get in a sacrament? I say we get Christ better than we did before: we get a better grip of Christ now."

Nancy Mairs "I don't partake because I am a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I'm a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul"

Martin Luther Luther was heard to cry out when sorely besieged by doubt, sin, and the devil, "I have been baptized!"

Andy Crouch [We must] "reclaim the worship practices of an embodied faith, the bath and the feast that demonstrate Christ's real presence in a world grown weary of mere words."

Word and Sacrament Word and sacrament are bound tightly together. Without the Word the sacrament becomes an empty act. Without the sacrament, the Word becomes a mere idea in the mind. When Word and sacrament function together, we have the whole of the gospel for embodied persons.

Belgic Confession "We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. God has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what God enables us to understand by the Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ without whom they would be nothing."

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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.