Those of us who are parents know what it is to have a desire for our kids to grow. We celebrate growth milestones as they progress from sitting up to rolling over, to crawling, to pulling up and then walking. Each new step brings us great joy and multitudes of Instagram posts.
In the same way that we desire the physical growth of our children, God desires the spiritual growth of his children.
But what does it mean to grow spiritually?
The apostle Peter gives us a clue in 2 Peter 3:17-18,
17 You therefore, beloved… take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
In view of this statement, we can deduce that growing spiritually is simply the process of coming to a greater and greater personal understanding of God’s grace expressed to us in the personal, substitutionary, redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the result of this growing in grace that we see bear fruit in our love for God and for other people.
If growing in an understanding of God’s grace is the what of spiritual growth, what about the how? How does God communicate this grace to us in such a way that we may receive it with faith and be spiritually nourished as we grow in grace?
The answer is two-fold. The primary means by which God communicates grace to us is by the Scriptures read and preached. In Romans 10:17, we read, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The context of that passage is the preaching of the gospel, which is why we believe that the preaching of the Scriptures in gathered worship on Sundays is the most vital aspect of spiritual growth and health. To miss gathering on Sunday is not just missing church, it is to forsake the spiritual nourishment your soul needs to make it through the week from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. Without hearing the gospel, our spiritual muscles begin to atrophy and weaken.
In addition to the primary means of grace in the Word preached, the secondary but still indispensable means by which God communicates his grace to us is through the sacraments, which is our focus today.
Therefore, in order for us to experience maximum spiritual benefit as we participate in these sources of spiritual nourishment and growth, let’s ask the question, “Why sacraments?”
The Meaning of the Word “Sacrament”
Our English word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which means to consecrate or set apart as holy. When discussing the sacraments, we are talking about ceremonial practices that Jesus instituted not as empty religious rites, but as means by which those who participate with faith experience spiritual growth.
An early church leader named Augustine called these sacramental, ceremonial practices “signs.”
Just as road signs are visible helps that point to a destination, the sacraments are visible signs that point to a destination—a destination outside of Jerusalem in the first century where the redemptive work of Jesus was fulfilled as he substituted himself in the place of sinners suffering judgement for sin upon a cross.
That is the meaning of a sacrament. It is a God-ordained sign that points to the cross.
While that may sound simple enough, there are at least…
Four Areas of Misunderstanding Surrounding the Sacraments
The first area of misunderstanding concerns the number of sacraments. While the Romans Catholic Church identifies seven sacraments, most protestant churches recognize two, which are baptism with water and the Lord’s Supper, which is also called Communion (and in some churches, the Eucharist).
The reason why protestants limit the sacraments to two is not only because baptism and the Lord’s Supper have two Old Testament counterparts, but sacraments in the New Covenant have three things in common.
- First, they were instituted by Christ.
- Second, they were taught by the apostles.
- Third, they were practiced universally by the early church.
Baptism and communion are the only ceremonial ordinances that qualify under these three requirements.
The second area of misunderstanding concerns the necessity of the sacraments. While most Christian churches affirm the crucial importance of the sacraments for the spiritual growth of believers, most do not view the sacraments as necessary for salvation. In other words, the sacraments are profitable, but are not meritorious. This misunderstanding of the necessity of the sacraments is the result of…
A third area of misunderstanding which concerns the efficacy of the sacraments. While some see the sacraments as automatically conferring grace upon the recipient, we hold that the sacraments do not automatically confer grace to the recipient, but that the sacraments serve as channels through which we, as if with fork and spoon, receive with faith the promises of grace which the signs represent as we partake in the sacraments. The sacraments are effectual to the degree I receive them with faith.
This leads to…
A fourth area of misunderstanding which concerns the essence of the sacraments. What I mean by essence is this: What do the sacraments themselves represent? Do the sacraments primarily represent my profession of faith or God’s promise of grace?
How we answer that question will determine which side of the line we fall when it comes to how you approach the essence of what the sacraments represent.
To answer the question of sacramental essence, it will help if we take a full Bible approach in order to understand whether the sacraments are intended to represent my promise of faith to God or whether they represent his promise of grace to me.
This issue seems to be resolved when we explore…
The Old Testament Background to the New Testament Sacraments
As I just mentioned earlier, the two ceremonial ordinances (or sacraments) that Jesus instituted both have their roots in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament God established two signs for his covenant people.
- One was a sign of inclusion into the covenant community. That sign was circumcision.
- The other sign was not for inclusion, but for ongoing, continuous renewal in the covenant. It was a sign of remembrance of what God had done in delivering his people from slavery in Egypt—the sign of Passover.
Both of these signs represented God’s covenant promises that were to be received by faith. Circumcision represented God’s promise to justify sinners by grace through faith (Rom. 4:11). The Passover represented God’s promise of ongoing faithfulness to his people—he would prove faithful to his promise. As they looked back with faith they could look forward with hope.
The reason why we emphasize receiving the promises with faith is because what we see in these Old Covenant signs is that, while faith is an aspect associated with the sacraments, it is not the essence. The essence is not about what we do but is about what God has done that we are to receive with faith.
Even in the old covenant, when first generation adults are included in the covenant community they must profess faith before receiving the sign of the gospel.
However, God commanded that the infants born into the covenant community should receive the sign of the gospel before their profession of faith, showing that it is God who makes promises and initiates the relationship. God makes promises to justify those who believe; the infant would grow up under that promise with the responsibility to receive the promise with faith.
For much more information on while we believe the baptism of the children of believers is not merely a sentimental practice but is a biblical practice, you are welcome to download my free booklet on baptism from our church website, which also explains why we baptized by pouring and not immersion.
As far as the relationship between the Old Testament signs and their New Testament counterparts, it is noteworthy that both of the Old Covenant signs were bloody, which pointed to the need for blood to be shed for the forgiveness of sin. Yet with the sacrifice for sin fulfilled through blood of Jesus, the signs of God’s covenant promises were altered to non-bloody signs.
- For the new covenant community, the original inclusion sign of circumcision was changed to baptism. Paul makes this connection explicit in Colossians 2:11-12, “11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism.”
- In the same way, the Old Testament feast of Passover became the Lord’s Super. Again, Paul makes this explicit in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, saying, ” For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
The purpose for both of these sacramental signs is to invite us to believe God’s promises in the gospel. As we believe, we grow, which is why the sacraments, along with the Word, are means of grace—means of growth that feed us and nourish us spiritually.
However, in the same way that it is one thing to have a meal placed before us, but something else to eat it, when it comes to the sacraments, we are called to partake—and partake with faith.
In other words, when we partake of the sacraments, we are…
Responding to God’s Promises of Grace
In baptism, God makes a two-fold promise for us to believe.
- First, we are called to believe that we have received cleansing from all our sin. I am fully, completely forgiven. No more condemnation.
- Second, we are to believe that we have received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who now dwells within to produce his fruit in us, empowering us to walk in newness of life.
In baptism, we are being called to believe that in the gospel, we truly are engrafted into Christ as fully forgiven and Spirit empowered disciples.
If baptism is a two-fold promise, in the Lord’s Supper/communion there is a three-fold promise for us to believe that is outlined in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
- The first promise relates to the past, where we remember the finished work of Jesus on our behalf.
- The second aspect of the promise corresponds to the present, where we rest in our secure position in Christ. He will not let us go. He is faithful.
- The third aspect of the promise pertains to the future, where eternal glory awaits in the very presence of our Savior.
In 1633, the artistic genius Rembrandt portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus in his work, The Raising of the Cross.
If you observe closely, you will notice that there are several men dressed in seventeenth century garb who appear quite out of place for an event that occurred in the first century.
One of the men is standing in the background looking directly at the observer of the painting. That man is Rembrandt himself. In effect, Rembrandt is saying, “This Jesus did this for me.” He was crucified for me.
That is exactly what our response is to be. “This Jesus did this for me.”
Or as Paul would say in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Oh, do you believe this? That Jesus loves you and gave himself for you in death to suffer your judgment? Do you believe that you are forgiven? That there is no more condemnation? That Jesus absorbed the wrath of the law so that we could receive the love of God?
This is what baptism and the Lord’s Supper invite you to believe, with full conviction and unwavering confidence.