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.