We all have those moments in our lives that we say were formative for the shaping of who we are today. We celebrate birthdays in our homes every year. We remember our wedding anniversaries and the dates on which we first met our spouses or made a life-changing career decision. Often, these events have sights and smells that are associated with them, or particular sights and smells bring to mind particular episodes or feelings. If your mother made you a special batch of chicken soup every time you got sick, smelling hot chicken broth might evoke fond memories of her and her care. Finding a treasured doll or stuffed animal from your childhood will likely take you back to those days and the experiences you enjoyed.
This human tendency to remember important events by means of tangible objects carries right over into the religious sphere. We understand that the life and worship of the church involves what we call “Word and sacrament.” In Protestant churches particularly, there has been a tremendous emphasis on the preaching of the Word, but historically, the celebration of the sacraments in Protestantism has also been vital. Sadly, there has been a neglect of the sacraments among modern evangelicals, though there are encouraging signs that this trend is being reversed. Nevertheless, the celebration of God-ordained sacraments has been a constant throughout the history of God’s people. From the days of the Old Testament all the way through the New Testament, God has been concerned not only to speak to His people through His Word, but also to communicate in other ways and in other methods, one of the most important of which is through the sacraments.
When we speak of the sacraments, we are usually referring specifically to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, those signs and seals instituted by Christ to remember His death and His work in cleansing His people from sin. But theologians also use terms such as sacrament or sacramental in a broader sense. Such terms can be applied to many ways in which God has communicated to His people through object lessons, through signs or ordinary symbols that take on extraordinary meaning. For example, we have the rainbow, which was the sign given to Noah that the Lord would never destroy the earth again with a flood. He used that common, natural phenomenon of the rainbow as a sign of an uncommon, special, divine promise of His persevering and preserving providence. Now, every time we see a rainbow, we are involved in the sacramental life of the faith, not in the technical sense of sacraments, but rather in the sense of the broader meaning of external objects that are used to enhance and support the communication of the verbal promises of God. Old covenant believers also had circumcision as a visible reminder that they had been cut out of the world to be the Lord’s holy people. Moreover, the prophets often dramatized the Word of God through visible signs such as a plumb line, a broken jar, or other such things. Perhaps the preeminent sacramental celebration under the old covenant was the Passover, the meal that was eaten to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Here we see the sign joined to the Word of God, as is to be the case whenever a God-ordained sacrament is celebrated. As the meal was being eaten, the families in Israel were to retell the story of the exodus, to recount the divinely sent plagues and God’s message to Israel through Moses that were part and parcel of the liberation from Egypt.
Under the new covenant, we remember, for example, the Lord’s Supper, when Jesus took the Old Testament sacrament of Passover and filled it with new meaning and new content. He took the bread and the wine of the Passover meal and made them signs and seals of His broken body and shed blood, which are the purchase price of our redemption. He said to eat the bread and wine in remembrance of Him. Jesus knew His people; He knew what we were like, that sometimes our faithfulness to Christ is only as intense and as strong as the vivacity of our recollection of our most recent blessing at the hands of God. But we come down from those mountaintop experiences and we tend to forget what God has done for us in the past. The sacraments represent the Lord accommodating Himself to this weakness of ours in order to assist us in remembering what He has done for us.
We are weak, sinful people who need all the assistance we can get in order to remember what the Lord has done for us. If we neglect the sacraments He has given His people and fail to understand the importance of the sacramental aspects of our faith, we are turning down precious helps that provide additional confirmation of His promises. When joined to the Word of God, the sacraments strengthen our faith, further our sanctification, and assure us of the Lord’s unwavering faithfulness to us—His forgetful and often unfaithful people.