This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
Many pastors and churches today grant the sacraments a low status in public worship. Sure, we know they are important because our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has commanded us to be baptized and to celebrate his meal. But surely these rites don’t have a role as significant as Scripture’s. The preaching of God’s word is the central part of corporate worship. It is the primary means by which we hear from God, and then we respond to him with thanksgiving in prayer and praise. We can never exhaust the riches of Scripture, but an overemphasis on the sacraments can lead to cold ritualism and even superstition, right?
Right. But could it be that many of us are wary of ascribing the sacraments a more central role in corporate worship because we have misunderstood what the sacraments are and do?
Truthfully, the sacraments have played a vital role in nourishing God’s people throughout the course of church history. So significant are baptism and Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) that the Reformers, many of whom were pastors, considered right preaching (and hearing) of Scripture and right administration of the sacraments to be the two main marks of the church. Thus, the Scottish preacher Robert Bruce could say that Scripture and the sacraments are the “two special means” that God has chosen to “lead us to Christ.”1
Scripture and Sacrament
As heirs of the Reformation, we rightly recognize that Scripture is the chief source for theological investigation and religious matters, the one to which all others must submit. And so we cherish and champion sola Scriptura (Scripture alone): Scripture—as self-revelation of the triune God—is the perfect, sufficient, and ultimate authority regarding faith and practice.
Yet sola Scriptura must not be confused with nuda Scriptura (bare Scripture), or solo Scriptura (only Scripture), the flawed idea that Scripture can be understood outside any church context or that other sources have no bearing on the task of theology, which necessarily informs our worship and living. Even though Scripture is the chief means that God uses to nourish us and draw us closer to himself, it is not the only means he uses to do so.
God has given his people two types of words: the written word (Scripture) and visible words (the sacraments). While Scripture grounds the sacraments and gives them their meaning, the sacraments reinforce or accentuate Scripture. Baptism and Communion present to us in visible, touchable form the good news of Jesus Christ. Scripture and sacrament are therefore complementary, not competing, and both offer us Christ.2
How God Works
But is all this just fanciful talk? Does God really use such mundane physical objects to work in and through his people? The answer is a resounding yes! In fact, he has always worked through material stuff that he has chosen to be fitting instruments of his work.
He used water to judge rebellious humanity and to save Noah and his family. He used circumcision to confirm the righteousness that Abraham had received by faith (Gen. 17; Rom. 4:11), and he used the circumcision of infants to maintain his covenant with Israel and to incorporate children into his covenant people. God used the Passover to preserve Israel from death and the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to protect and guide them once they had escaped bondage from Egypt. And he used sacrifices to forgive his people of their sins when they turned to him, trusting in him alone. Ultimately, God joined himself to humanity in his Son. In the incarnation, God united the spiritual and the physical and therefore gave himself to humanity through flesh and blood. In the person of Christ, the spiritual and physical meet and are inextricably bound.
It is for precisely these reasons that we should highly value the sacraments—which are anticipated by many of the events and practices I listed above. God has chosen to use baptism and Communion as instruments for communicating himself and his goodness to us. The sacraments don’t just present to us the good news of Jesus Christ in visible, touchable form. They certainly do that. But they also make God’s word “more evident” and “more certain,” as John Calvin states.3 And Sinclair Ferguson explains, “We do not get a different or a better Christ in the sacraments than we do in the word. . . . But we may get the same Christ better, with a firmer grasp of his grace through seeing, touching, feeling, and tasting as well as hearing.”4
Thus, we can affirm what the Belgic Confession asserts: “God has added [the sacraments] 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.”5
Our God is a compassionate, attentive Father, and he is mindful of our creaturely condition. He has deemed it fitting to make himself knowable and accessible through various means, even though physical means because we are physical-spiritual people.
This does not mean that Scripture is deficient. Indeed, Scripture is perfect in what it does. It creates and strengthens faith within us by forming our intellects, affections, and imaginations. Yet God’s word engages only our hearing and, to some extent, our sight as we read it. This means that the rest of our senses are left unengaged. Again, Scripture is not defective, but it targets a particular sensual aspect of our being. The sacraments appeal to our senses of sight, touch, smell, and taste. They enable us to experience the gospel in ways that engage our whole selves—and in ways we cannot by simply hearing or reading.6
Baptism and Communion present to us in visible, touchable form the good news of Jesus Christ.
The most profound reason that the sacraments engage our entire being is that they present to us the incarnate Son of God. Baptism and Communion help us encounter the crucified, risen, and present Christ in a full-bodied manner.
Whenever these visible words of the gospel are celebrated in the context of the gathered body, our Lord invites us—all of who we are, soul and body—to come to him. And when we come to him in faith, we become more enamored and transformed by him. The sacraments immerse us into and fill us with Christ and allow him to continually work on us. They enable us to behold, to look on and embrace, him. And as we behold his glory, we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The elements also force us to reimagine who we are. They reveal that we are people united to Christ. By faith, we have been baptized into him, and we therefore commune with him. In an age when countless people are utterly confused over who they are, where they belong, and what their purpose is, the sacraments teach us that we have been created and redeemed for personal union and communion with the triune God. And it is through the work of Christ, presented to us so beautifully in baptism and Communion, that we are reconciled to the Father and by the Spirit. We are marked by him, we live with him, and we exist for him.
So let us not undervalue the sacraments. They are far more profound than we dare realize. They reinforce the good news that Jesus Christ presented in the written word. They present to us Christ and lead us to Christ, the one who has created and redeemed us. So may our churches receive these gospel gifts with faith and gratitude and therefore draw closer to our crucified and risen Lord. May we look on him through these visible, tangible words of the gospel—to the end of seeing him more clearly and embracing him more firmly. All the while, may we see ourselves more clearly and come to understand with humble confidence who we are in him.
- Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper: Sermons on the Sacrament Preached in the Kirk of Edinburgh in A.D. 1589 by Robert Bruce, trans. and ed. Thomas F. Torrance (London: James Clarke, 1958), 39.
- I am indebted to John C. Clark for this expression. See also “Sacraments in Worship,” Ligonier, September 15, 2017, https://www.ligonier.org/.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 4.14.3, 6. See also Tim Chester, Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 39.
- Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 223.
- Belgic Confession, art. 33, in Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms: A Reader’s Edition, ed. Chad Van Dixhoorn (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 184; emphasis added. Cf. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), 616; Bruce, Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, 39–40; W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, 1930), 343.
- Cf. Chester, Truth We Can Touch, 39–40.
Kevin Emmert is the author of The Water and the Blood: How the Sacraments Shape Christian Identity.
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