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I grew up in a large Baptist church where baptisms were frequent and the Lord’s Supper was rare. Baptism was always a celebratory event—sometimes people even cheered. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, was solemn, quiet, and, to a young boy, dull. I never understood the purpose of having to sit still for an extra fifteen to twenty minutes. Couldn’t the pastor just say, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins,” and be done with it? I never really understood the purpose of baptism either, except that Jesus had commanded it. When I was baptized at age twelve, it was simply a rite of passage to me.
The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up biblical teaching on the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper this way: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him” (27.1). The language of “signs and seals” comes directly from Romans 4:11: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” In what way do the sacraments function as signs and seals?
The Bible contains many “signs.” Moses performed “signs” in Egypt (Ex. 4:8, etc.). Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” (John 2:11). In fact, the incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus themselves constituted a “sign” (Isa. 7:14). Signs are visible markers that, while perhaps significant in themselves, point to something else. Moses’ signs pointed to the power of God and to His intention to redeem His people. Jesus’ signs pointed to His identity as the eternal Son of God (John 20:30–31).
Significantly, four of the first six occurrences of the word “sign” in the Bible occur in the phrase “sign of the covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 13, 17; 17:11). After the flood, God made a covenant, that is, a binding agreement, with Noah, promising that He would never again flood the earth. As a sign to confirm His covenant promise, God gave the rainbow. I grew up in Florida, where afternoon summer thunderstorms, often accompanied by rainbows, are common. We can be amazed at the beauty of a rainbow. But its main purpose is to remind us of God’s covenant promise and faithfulness.
God also made a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18; 17:2, etc.; see Ex. 2:24). In this covenant, God promised to be God to Abraham and his offspring, to give him an inheritance of land, to bless the nations through him, and to make his seed as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the heavens. To confirm these promises, God gave Abraham circumcision as the “sign of the covenant” (Gen. 17:11).
These signs are visible, tangible reminders that confirm God’s promises to His people. They are also suitable for each covenant. The rainbow appears in the sky after a rain when the sun passes through droplets of water. God may send heavy rains that result in local flooding and disastrous results for some. Yet, He will never again flood the whole earth and wipe out all humanity. In God’s covenant with Abraham, God promised Abraham descendants, a “seed” (ultimately fulfilled in Christ; Gal. 3:15–18). Appropriately, the accompanying sign is applied to the male reproductive organ. As we will see, the fitting nature of God’s signs is true in other covenants as well, including the new covenant in Christ’s blood.
The church father Augustine famously referred to the sacraments as “visible words.” When children are learning, they often need pictures or tangible objects to help them understand a lesson. This is what God provides for us in these visible, tangible signs. He comes down to us as to children so that we truly grasp, remember, and have confirmation of His covenant promises.
A seal in Paul’s day was often made of wax and had a stamped imprint in it that confirmed the identity of the owner. Official documents and letters typically bore seals. If the sender was a king or government official, you did not dare break the seal to look at the contents until it reached its proper destination. In this sense, a seal both confirmed the identity of the sender and secured the contents.
In the same way, God’s covenant signs both confirm our identity as those who belong to God and secure our membership in that covenant. To put it differently, covenant signs—or sacraments—both assure and strengthen us in our relationship with God. Augustine also put it this way: sacraments are “visible signs of invisible grace.” They are one way that God imparts His grace to strengthen us in the faith.
Looking again at Romans 4, before Paul’s statement about circumcision’s being a sign and seal of Abraham’s righteousness by faith (v. 11), the Apostle says that Abraham “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (v. 3). Hence, circumcision was a sign and seal of the fact that God declared him righteous by his faith and by his faith alone. Yet, Paul later says that Abraham “grew strong in his faith” (v. 20), even after years of trying to have a child with no success. One reason for his strong faith was the covenant sign that God had given him. His own body continually testified to and confirmed God’s promise to him.
Covenant signs also work in the other direction. Covenants in the ancient world were binding agreements that included promises and responsibilities by both parties. In biblical covenants, God promises to be our God. We in turn pledge to give ourselves fully to God and to obey His commandments. The Latin word sacramentum often referred to the oath of allegiance that soldiers made to their commanding officer. In the same way, sacraments set us apart as belonging fully to Christ. In the sacraments, we pledge that we fully, wholly, unreservedly belong to Him.
When I perform weddings, the bride and groom exchange rings, declaring to each other, “I give you this ring, in token and pledge of our constant faith and abiding love.” Biblical marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14). The wedding ring is a sign and seal of that covenant. It confirms and declares the bride and groom’s love for and commitment to one another. The ring that I wear marks me off as belonging to my wife and confirms my promise to be faithful to her as long as we both shall live.
God’s sacraments, however, are deeper and richer than wedding rings. They actually strengthen us spiritually to be faithful to our commitment to God. They help us grow in Christlikeness and lead to closer communion with Christ. They do not work by themselves alone, in some magical way. They must be accompanied by the Word and Spirit, and they are effective only when combined with faith. Yet, when administered and received properly, they are an important means of spiritual vitality and growth.
The rest of this article will focus on the two and only two sacraments that God gives to His new covenant people: the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We will explore the specific meaning of each one separately and discuss how they serve as means of grace and spiritual strengthening in our lives.
The Lord’s Supper
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at a Passover meal with His disciples. The celebration of Passover was an old covenant sign to remind God’s people of God’s great redemptive act in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 13:9). The meal included lamb and unleavened bread, both fitting signs because of their centrality to the exodus itself. The Israelites ate unleavened bread because they were leaving quickly. The blood of the lamb applied to the doorframe of their homes turned away the judgment God poured out on Egypt.
Likewise, the Lord’s Supper celebrates God’s great redemptive event in the new covenant. Jesus said at the Passover meal with His disciples, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The Lord’s Supper is a sign that points us back to Christ’s death on the cross. We eat and drink “in remembrance of” Christ (Luke 22:19).
The Lord’s Supper also points forward. At the Last Supper, Jesus, looking forward to the consummation, said, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). Similarly, Paul writes with regard to the Lord’s Supper, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Notice here that the Lord’s Supper “proclaims.” It is a visible word.
The Lord’s Supper, however, does more than make the Word visible. It involves all of our senses. We see, but we smell, touch, and taste the bread and wine as well. The Lord’s Supper, rightly observed, also includes hearing, occurring after the preaching of the Word and proper instruction on the meaning of elements. The Lord’s Supper helps us better grasp the wonder of Christ’s death by the involvement of all five senses. The Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s death on the cross personal. Christ did not just die for sinners. Christ died for me.
The Lord’s Supper, in other words, seals this truth to our hearts. It is an external, physical confirmation that I belong to Christ and that Christ has given himself to me. In the beautiful words of Heidelberg Catechism 1:
What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins, and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil, and that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.
Moreover, in the Lord’s Supper we commune spiritually with Christ. Paul writes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). The Greek word translated “participation” is koin nia, a word that refers to intimate fellowship with someone. In contrast, Paul admonishes the Corinthians not to have koin nia with demons by participating in pagan worship (v. 20). Christ is spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper. When we partake of the bread and cup, we have intimate communion with Him.
In the ancient world, eating a meal together was an expression of intimacy. Meals were also an important part of covenant-making ceremonies. The parties entering into a covenant with one another would seal that agreement by eating together. We see this in Exodus 19–24. After God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai, Moses and the leaders of Israel ate a meal on the mountain in the presence of God. In fact, an intimate relationship between God and His people is the purpose of God’s covenants with them.
This is especially clear in the new covenant. In the new covenant, God writes His law on our hearts, God forgives our sins, and God makes Himself known to us in the most personal, intimate way: “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:34). All three persons of the Trinity are involved in this intimate relationship. God draws near to us in the covenant. Christ became one with us to fulfill the promises of the new covenant. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, making us a new creation and enabling us to fulfill the obligations of the covenant. God is not just near us—He is in us.
The Lord’s Supper makes our intimate relationship with God a greater experiential reality for us. It speaks to the heart of our relationship with God, namely, God’s love for us and our love for God. In the supper, Christ is present, saying to us: “You are My beloved child. I laid down My life for you. Now I give you strength to take up your cross and follow Me.”
The Lord’s Supper also reminds us of our new identity in the new covenant. The old covenant Passover was to be celebrated with one’s family. Jesus, however, ate the Passover with His disciples, indicating that they were the new, true family of God. All who follow Jesus are His brothers and sisters. The Lord’s Supper is what some have called a “separating ordinance,” marking us off as those who truly, wholly belong to Christ.
In this way, the Lord’s Supper also unites us to all who belong to Christ. Paul told the Corinthians that because they were not eating together in a unified and unifying way, they were not even eating the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20). At the supper, we commune with Christ and with one another. By the Spirit, the supper strengthens our bond to Christ and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Lord’s Supper is rich in its symbolism. Most importantly, it reminds us of Christ’s death in our place as He took our judgment on Himself. It also confirms and strengthens our union with Christ, as we not only remember but also commune spiritually with Christ. In the supper, we also strengthen our bonds with one another. The Lord’s Supper points forward to the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” which we will eat in the presence of Christ and with brothers and sisters in Christ from every nation, tribe, language, and tongue. In the meantime, the Lord’s Supper strengthens us to live for Christ as the body of Christ, setting us apart from the world, for the world.
Baptism likewise is rich in symbolism. Unlike the Lord’s Supper, which is a recurring event in the church, baptism is a one-time event for each individual. In this respect, it is similar to the sign of circumcision. Like circumcision, baptism marks our entrance into the covenant community.
The primary symbolism of baptism is washing or purifying. It is a sign that in Christ we are clean. This connection of baptism with cleansing is natural because we bathe with water. Baptism, however, points not to physical but to spiritual cleansing.
Several times the New Testament links baptism to having sins washed away. After Paul’s conversion, Ananias comes to Paul and says, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). Peter later writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to [the waters of the flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Both of these, taken at a surface level, might seem to say that baptism itself washes our sins away and saves us. On closer inspection, this reading is in error. Peter says in the second half of the verse that the issue is not the water on the body but the appeal to God because He has washed the guilt of our sin away. Paul also writes that Christ has “cleansed [His church] by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). As John puts it, “the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The blood of Jesus cleanses, not the water of baptism. The water of baptism points to cleansing in Christ’s blood.
Another aspect of baptism that differs from the Lord’s Supper is that in baptism the recipient of baptism is passive. In the Lord’s Supper, the partakers are active. They actively take and eat and drink. All who partake are called to examine themselves and to “discern the body” (1 Cor. 11:28–29). We are active participants in the Lord’s Supper.
The baptized person, on the other hand, is acted upon. Baptism points to God’s grace and to the fact that salvation is all of God. God chose us and by His Spirit transforms us. Even faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). Baptism says that those who belong to Christ have been saved by the grace of God. Salvation, from start to finish, is God’s work.
Baptism in this sense also symbolizes God’s giving His Spirit to His people. Jesus referred to the Spirit’s coming upon His people at Pentecost as a baptism. The coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God would “pour out” His Spirit on all flesh—male and female, Jew and gentile. Similarly, John the Baptist declared that he baptized with water, but that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The link between the Spirit and baptism, however, is more than just a literary connection. The Spirit Himself is the means of spiritual cleansing. Paul writes that God “saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Likewise, in Ezekiel’s version of Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy, the prophet ties cleansing and the ability to obey God to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)
The Spirit Cleanses and Empowers
Baptism, furthermore, sets us apart for Christ and identifies us with Christ. This is because Christ identified with us in His own baptism. John the Baptist’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (Mark 1:4). Jesus, the sinless Son of God, had not committed any sin. John, in fact, tried to keep Jesus from being baptized, telling Him, “I need to be baptized by you” (Matt. 3:14). Yet, Jesus’ mission was to identify with His people to take the guilt of their sin on Himself. Paul writes, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was baptized by John not because He needed to be cleansed from sin but because we needed to be cleansed from sin.
At His baptism, Jesus was set apart, ordained, to begin the ministry God had called Him to do. Jesus was about thirty years old when He was baptized and began His ministry (Luke 3:23). Thirty was the age that old covenant priests began their ministry (Num. 4:3). They were set apart for ministry by a purification rite involving water (Ex. 29:4; Lev. 8:6). Likewise, Jesus’ baptism set Him apart for His high priestly ministry of teaching, interceding for His disciples, and offering Himself as the final and only sufficient sacrifice to take away all of the sins of all His people.
In a similar way, baptism marks us off as belonging to God. It says that we have a new identity in Christ. Under the old covenant, circumcision set the Israelites apart from the “uncircumcised” gentiles. Baptism sets us apart from the world and says that we belong to Christ. Our baptism symbolizes our union with Christ, who Himself became one with us and identified with us in His baptism. Baptism also sets us apart to serve Christ. Like Christ (though not in exactly the same way), we are “priests” (Rev. 1:6), called daily to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1).
Cleansing, consecration, identity, initiation—these are central to the meaning of baptism. The Westminster Larger Catechism instructs us that when baptisms occur we are to “improve” our own baptism—to remember that we are one with Christ, washed, set apart, and called to serve Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a means of grace because it reminds us of who we are and what God has done for us. Baptism does not save, but it points us to the grace of God and to the riches of God in Christ.
While the sacraments are “visible words,” the written and spoken Word are primary in Christian life and worship. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), which is the primary means of grace. Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself as pastor in Ephesus to the public reading of the Word, to teaching and to preaching (1 Tim. 4:13). The sacraments, while important, do not bestow Christ in and of themselves in some mystical way. They complement the preaching of the Word, and they must never supplant the reading and teaching of Scripture. Sacraments should never occur without preaching and without a proper explanation of their meaning. When used rightly, however, the sacraments are vital means of grace to strengthen us in our walk with the Lord.