So far in this series on the Marks and Works of the church, we explored the first two essential Marks of Orthodoxy and Order. To maintain a balanced Orthodoxy, we must focus on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in our preaching and teaching, which will exclude destructive heresy and allow for diverse views on non-essentials. To uphold a proper biblical church Order, church leaders (pastor-elders and deacons) must lead with wisdom and humility and the congregation must obey and submit to the ordained leadership. But before we move on to the essential Works of a church, we must discuss the third Mark—Ordinances.
A Rare Instance of Radical Advice
Not long ago a young man contacted me with concerns over his church’s apparent teaching and practice of communion. He reported that the pastor of their church taught that the biblical Lord’s Supper was never intended to hold a special place in church worship. Rather, the Lord’s Supper, he said, was any meal that believers enjoyed together. In fact, that Bible Church pastor boldly asserted that the traditional in-church observance of the Lord’s Supper is a “bastardization” of its original intent (these are his words, not mine!). And he added that he partook of the Lord’s Supper three times a day—whenever he broke bread with fellow believers at breakfast, lunch, or dinner!
This radical teaching sounded strange to my friend. And rightly so! All his life he had been taught that the Lord’s Supper was a special, solemn rite of the covenanted church community—an integral and special part of Christian worship. So, unsure of how to handle the situation at his church, he called me for advice. My response to him was simple: confirm that this was really what the pastor taught . . . then leave that “church” and bring as many people with him as he could.
For those of you who know my view on local church commitment, this may sound shocking. I can count on one hand the times in my life I’ve recommended that people actually leave their local churches. (See my essay, “Leaving Church” here.) However, when a church’s leadership intentionally tampers with a foundational Mark of the local church, that organization comes dangerously close to losing its legitimacy as a true biblical church. That “church” may be a teaching ministry, it may be a worship experience, and it may contribute in its own way to the nourishment and growth of believers. But without the essential biblical Marks, that organization is not a living local body of Christ.
Some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering, “What’s the big deal? It’s just the Lord’s Supper. A piece of cracker and a sip of juice—barely a crumb and hardly a swallow!” My response? If you wouldn’t leave your church over a failure to rightly observe the Lord’s Table, you don’t quite understand the essential Mark of Ordinances and the role they play in the sanctification of the church.
My View of the Ordinances
The doctrinal statement of Dallas Theological Seminary, where I teach church history and systematic theology, says this: “We believe that water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the only sacraments and ordinances of the church and that they are a Scriptural means of testimony for the church in this age. (Matt. 28:19; Luke 22:19-20; Acts 10:47-48; 16:32-33; 18:7-8; 1 Cor. 11:26).” This brief statement on the essential Mark of Ordinances is striking in what it doesn’t say. It favors neither infant nor believer’s baptism and allows for immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. It permits the Lord’s Supper to be observed weekly, monthly, or annually. In short, besides affirming the enduring quality of the sacraments for the church, this statement allows for a number of diverse beliefs and practices regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
But in light of Scripture and the early church, what more can we say about these essential Ordinances of the church?
Yes, Baptism Now Saves You!
It is undisputed that the New Testament closely relates believing, baptism, and salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 18:8). As such, water baptism is often associated with receiving the Word, repentance, forgiveness, washing away sins, calling on Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37–41; 22:16). Indeed, it vividly pictures a cleansed life freed from the debilitating stain of sin (Romans 6:3–4). However, before we jump to the mistaken conclusion that the rite of water baptism itself saves, forgives, or literally washes away sins, we must note that water baptism and baptism by the Holy Spirit are clearly distinguished (Acts 1:4–5). In fact, in some cases water baptism precedes baptism by the Spirit (Acts 8:14–16). In other cases Spirit baptism—received by simple faith—precedes water baptism (Acts 10:44–48).
How do we reconcile the Bible’s close connection—but clear distinction—between water baptism (the outward sign) and Spirit baptism (the inward reality)? First Peter 3:21 helps. Peter wrote that “baptism now saves you,” immediately clarifying the kind of rite he had in mind—“not a cleansing of dirt from the flesh [the physical act itself] but a pledge to God from a good conscience.” That is, the rite of water baptism is the public pledge or confession that marks a conscience already cleansed by the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 9:14; 10:22). Thus, the ceremony of baptism must be closely associated with our conversion to Christ by grace through faith alone—but it should never be equated with it. I think the Westminster Confession of Faith presents a good biblical balance with regard to the association (but not equation) of baptism and conversion: “Although it be a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (28:5).
In short, water baptism was the exclusive response of faith to the preaching of the Gospel. Though baptism is rightly viewed as an outward sign of an inward reality, the early church would not officially recognize inward faith apart from the outward sign. Just as a public wedding initiates a man and woman into the life of marriage, public baptism initiates a believer into the visible community of Christians. As such, biblical baptism must always precede church membership, discipleship, leadership, and observance of the Lord’s Supper. I believe we deviate from the teachings of Scripture and the practice of the early church if we severely divorce saving conversion from the seal of baptism.
Yes, Christ Is Present in the Eucharist!
The ancient term “eucharist”—already used by Christians for the Lord’s Supper in the first century—comes from the Greek word, eucharistia, which simply means “thanksgiving” (see the first century historical document, Didache 9). In the apostolic age, it referred not simply to the broken bread or the poured wine, but to the observance itself—the celebration, the commemoration, the participation as a community. “Eucharist” at the time of the apostles primarily meant the prayer, confession, and fellowship that centered on re-proclaiming Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection—the Gospel. It included our response of reflection, repentance, reconciliation, and renewal in light of our mark of baptism and our ongoing fellowship with God and with one another.
But what do we mean by the “presence” of Christ in our observance of the Lord’s Supper? Well, here’s what I don’t mean—I don’t mean Christ has magically merged with the bread and wine. I don’t mean His spirit has left His body and descended from heaven and attached itself with the wafer and the juice. Nor am I particularly fond of all of the ancient and modern attempts at explaining how Christ is present in the Eucharist—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real spiritual presence, and so forth. In my opinion all of these views miss the profundity of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and reduce this Ordinance to a thing.
What I do mean by Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is that in our right observance of the Lord’s Supper He has made good on His promise that “where two or more have gathered together” in His name—that is, according to His will, by His standards, centered on Him—then He is there, in their midst (Matthew 18:20). As we properly partake of the sacred meal He ordained, Christ graces us with His mysterious real presence by means of the Holy Spirit. Simply put, Christ doesn’t simply pass into the morsels; He is truly present at the meal. He’s not simply uniting with the food, but inviting us to fellowship. Furthermore, in a real, physical sense, Christ is present through the gathered Body of Christ, the Church, as it joins together in unity and submission to its Head. This mystical union of Christ with His Church means that where the community is present, so is Christ (see Acts 9:4–5; Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 10:16; 12:12–14; Eph 4:12–13; 5:23).
What, practically, does it mean to you and me that Christ is uniquely present in the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper? Well, think about it this way—when we pray that God will be “with” somebody, we’re actually praying for real, tangible effects, that is, for God to do something. In fact, where God is present, God is active. When we think of Christ’s presence in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, we should worry less about how He is or isn’t lingering in the bread and wine, but what He’s doing in the midst of the people. God has chosen to work through the Lord’s Supper in a way that He works in no other church practice.
One effect of Christ’s active presence is the unity and purity that result from self-examination, proclamation, and participation. In this sense, the Lord’s Supper is a means of sanctification. God has chosen to bring about sanctification of the whole church through the Lord’s Supper in a way that no other individual or corporate discipline can. When we properly observe the Ordinance, we will grow together spiritually as a family of God. However, there’s another side of his promise of participation in the “cup of blessing” (1 Cor 10:16). Failure to partake properly brings judgment in the form of weakness, sickness, and even death (1 Cor 11:29–30)!
Three Needed Responses
First, many independent Bible Church traditions have over-reacted to the Roman Catholic dogma that understands baptism and the eucharist as means of salvation rather than as means God uses in His work of sanctification. As a result, we have spent much of our time emphasizing what baptism and the Lord’s Supper don’t do, all the while neglecting the biblical teaching on what the Ordinances do. It’s time we move on from telling what baptism and the Lord’s Supper aren’t and get back to explaining what they are. We need to return to the biblical centrality of baptism as the ceremony of initiation into the community of faith . . . and the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of continued fellowship. We need to recall the indispensable role these Ordinances play in our spiritual growth as individuals and a church. There’s a reason the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly: it’s as important to spiritual growth as the apostles’ teaching and prayer (Acts 2:42)!
Second, if you or your children are unbaptized believers, what’s keeping you from taking that initial step of baptism as the public act of initiation and commitment to the Christian community? As you arrange for this act of obedience to Christ, let me urge you to follow the biblical order of the Ordinances, holding off on participation in the Lord’s Supper until you’ve been baptized. This isn’t a light matter. Proper order is a vital part of proper observance. Just as a wedding ceremony frees a man and woman to participate in the intimate act of marriage, baptism publicly confirms a believer’s devotion to Christ, allowing the believer to participate in the intimate fellowship of the Lord’s Supper. From the biblical perspective, participation in the Lord’s Supper without baptism is like shacking up before the wedding!
Finally, if you harbor unresolved conflict with a fellow member of the church or hide unrepentant sin, stop participating in the Lord’s Supper. On the authority of the Bible, if you don’t repent you will become weak, sick, and die. And as long as we as a church continue to practice the Lord’s Supper tolerating unrepentant members, the entire body will continue to suffer as it fails to experience the full blessing that comes from the presence of Christ in the right observance of the Ordinances.