Understanding the Sacraments
Many Christians today have a weak understanding of the sacraments (also often called ordinances) and what they accomplish in the lives of believers. We know they are important because Jesus commanded that we observe them, but we are largely unaware of their purpose and power. One specific point of confusion is whether baptism is a one-time event in the life of the believer and whether anyone—baptized or not—can take the Lord’s Supper. Even if certain Christians affirm that baptism can be received only once, they may not understand why, and they may not know whether the Lord’s Supper should be given to only those who have been baptized.
In order to understand the relation between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we must first understand what baptism is. Christians debate what exactly happens when a person is baptized, and such debates will likely abound until Christ returns. Nevertheless, all Christians believe that baptism signifies (points to) something. Many Christians today think that baptism simply symbolizes personal faith in Jesus Christ. While baptism and faith are frequently connected in Scripture, functioning like two sides of the same coin, Scripture teaches that baptism represents far more than personal faith.
Baptism transliterates the Greek noun baptisma, which means “immersion,” and the verb baptizō literally means “to put or go under water,” though it carries several other senses.1 Greek expert William Mounce shows that in the New Testament, baptizō is used to describe ceremonial washing, especially that which was practiced in the Israelite tradition for the purpose of purification. It is also used “to describe the use of water in a rite for the purpose of establishing or renewing a relationship with God,” and so it “became a technical term.”2 Throughout the New Testament, we read of persons being baptized when they come to faith in Jesus Christ, signifying that they have entered into a covenant relationship with the triune God.3 More specifically, the New Testament speaks of persons being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 10:48; Acts 19:5). Baptism therefore represents our immersion into Jesus Christ. We now exist in him, and our very lives are determined by who he is. He is our Lord; we live under his authority, and we are being remade after his image.
Because baptism represents our immersion into Christ, our whole existence now being enveloped into his, it also represents all the benefits we have received in him—for he is the fountain of our salvation. And so Scriptures teaches us that baptism signifies remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16), reconciliation to the Father and adoption (Gal. 3:26–27), new life in the Spirit (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), and incorporation into Christ’s body, the church (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27–28)—to name some of the chief blessings we receive in Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of the new existence we have in Jesus. And so it is a rite, a practice, an event that is concerned with identity—of who we are in Christ.4 Baptism into Christ can no more be repeated than one’s natural birth can be repeated, and so water baptism is the onetime sacrament of our immersion into Christ.
Whereas baptism is the sacrament of our incorporation into Christ, the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of our ongoing participation in Christ. Put differently, while baptism signifies our union with Christ, which has a definite beginning, the Lord’s Supper signifies our communion with Christ, which is perpetual.
A core part of taking the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, is perpetually identifying with our crucified and risen Lord: allowing our life stories—our very identities—to be conformed to his.5 One reason this is true is because the Supper is analogous to the Passover, which was a meal whereby Israelites identified with the exodus generation and allowed their present stories and circumstances to be shaped by the past.
Just as bread and wine sustain and enhance the body, so Christ’s body and blood sustain and enhance our existence and identity as persons in Christ.
So when we eat the bread and drink the cup of Communion, we identify with the living, active, and present Christ, with whom we have eternal fellowship. We acknowledge that he lives in us and we in him. This meal therefore ratifies and shapes in profound ways our identity as persons immersed into Christ. Just as the body is nourished and strengthened by food and drink, so the identity and new existence we have received as persons baptized into Christ are maintained and developed as we feast on his flesh and blood.6
This is one reason why countless Christians throughout the history of the church have insisted that only those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are admitted to the Lord’s Table. This may seem arbitrary or even legalistic to many modern-day Christians, but there are solid biblical and theological reasons for such a practice.
The most significant reason why baptism must precede Communion is Christological. At his baptism in the Jordan river, Jesus was declared to be the beloved Son of the Father and was empowered by the Holy Spirit for his messianic ministry (Matt. 3:16–17; Luke 3:21–22). The messianic task and identity that Jesus received in his baptism at the Jordan was fulfilled in his crucifixion and death, his baptism at Golgotha (see Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50).
In his baptism into death, Jesus as the faithful and obedient Spirit-filled Son of the Father gave himself “so that those whom he would baptize in the Spirit, his Father’s Spirit of Sonship, could enter into communion with his Father.”7 The sequence of Jesus’s water baptism, death, and resurrection are therefore theologically significant. Jesus had to be baptized with water and the Spirit first in order to be commissioned and empowered for his public ministry, yes, as well as for his death and resurrection. And as persons baptized into Christ, united to him, our life pattern conforms to his. “As Jesus’s baptism finds its end, its fulfillment in his death and resurrection where he comes fully into his Spirit-filled communion with his Father,” Thomas Weinandy explains, “so the baptism of the faithful finds its end, its fulfillment, within the Eucharistic Liturgy wherein they come into full communion with the Father.”8
Our union with Christ (exhibited in baptism) is what makes possible our communion with Christ (exhibited in the Supper) and therefore our communion with the Father by the power of the Spirit.
Only those who are bound to Christ in life-giving union are able to commune with him. And as we commune with him, we are strengthened by him to become more of who we are made and called to be in baptism. When we are baptized into Christ, we are born again, and our very selves are reconfigured. We are not given new life in some generic sense or a burst of energy to foster who we already are but are given an entirely new existence and therefore a radically different identity in the Son. And in the Lord’s Supper, that identity is maintained and developed as we commune with the Lord—as we identify with him, are continually transformed by him, and await the fullness of our salvation. Just as bread and wine sustain and enhance the body, so Christ’s body and blood sustain and enhance our existence and identity as persons in Christ. And so in taking the Lord’s Supper, we become more of who we are made and called to be in baptism.
- William D. Mounce, ed., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 52.
- Mounce, Complete Expository Dictionary, 53.
- See John Murray, Christian Baptism (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977), 6–7.
- See Peter J. Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2007), 4–7.
- See Anthony C. Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 885–86. Cf. Tim Chester, Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 111–13.
- Cf. John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 80.
- Thomas G. Weinandy, Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 316.
- Weinandy, Jesus Becoming Jesus, 316–17.
Kevin P. Emmert is the author of The Water and the Blood: How the Sacraments Shape Christian Identity.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
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