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GUEST COLUMN: The means of grace (2): baptism and the Lord’s Supper

October 2018 | by Andy Young

Andy Young
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Have you met with God recently? Did you enjoy his presence and bask in his glory? Was your faith strengthened as Christ himself ministered to your needs? Would you even know where to go to find these things? Or perhaps you have given up looking for that elusive experience of God that evangelical Christianity so craves?  Maybe that sensational personal encounter with Christ, so prized in many church circles today, is something you despair of ever having?

The reality is that God continues to speak to us, and Christ can easily be found and experienced. The problem is that we are looking for him in all the wrong places. The means of grace — preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and prayer — in the context of God’s gathered people, have always been the defining marks of the church (Acts 2:42).

They are the ‘vehicles’ Christ uses to communicate his grace. Through these ordinary means, God offers the extraordinary: to hear him speak, enjoy his presence, and fellowship with our Saviour. Whatever else we should be devoted to, it is these.

Last month we considered the first, and most important of these means of grace: the preaching of God’s Word. This month we will consider the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So taken together, what are baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

Visible words

God is a God who speaks. He has spoken in Christ his ‘Word’, and he continues to speak through the Bible and preaching. He is a God of verbal promises. He communicates to his people the riches of his grace through the word of truth.

Yet he is also our Father in heaven and Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church.  Which Father only ever tells his children he loves them? Or which husband only ever speaks words of love to his wife? No, we add gifts to our words. We confirm our promises with physical affirmations of those same promises. Fathers hug their children, hold their hands and buy them presents. Husbands kiss their wives, and bring home flowers, and take them out to dinner.

God is no different. In the preaching of the Word, God speaks to us. Together with this — and the sacraments must always go together with the Word of God — he affirms the words of the gospel with the ‘visible’ words of the sacraments.

Or to put it another way, the sacraments are gifts of God to his people to assure them that the promises of Scripture are true for them. Baptism visibly exhibits the verbal promise of cleansing from sin and union with Christ. The Lord’s Supper visibly displays the verbal promise of communion and nourishment in Christ. As such they are the loving gifts of God to his people, given with the specific intention of affirming his words of promise in Christ.

Dramatic signs

It may surprise you to read that I am an advocate of drama in the worship of the church. I am not of course referring to dance, mime, or theatrical performance. I am simply referring to the sacraments. What we have in baptism and the Lord’s Supper is nothing less than dramatic as the blessings of the gospel are visually ‘acted out’ before us.

In the ordinary symbols of water, bread and wine, we have the extraordinary benefits of Christ’s redemption set before us. As such they are ‘signs’ of the grace of God. They point to all he has and is doing for us in Christ.

They are as if God is alerting us, in visible and dramatic form, to where his grace is to be found. Not in the symbols themselves, but in the wonderful realities they point to. Christ himself is inviting us in the sacraments to (literally) taste and see and feel that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8).

Spiritual realities

Sacraments, as visible words and dramatic signs, combine to be something truly wonderful — and that is spiritual reality. God in his infinite wisdom and mercy has chosen to convey his grace to us in these signs. In other words, the water, bread and wine of the sacraments are more than mere signs. They are seals of his grace. They validate and guarantee his gracious promises to us in Christ. They do more than simply remind us of his presence  — they seal it to us.

In the Lord’s Supper for example, we ‘participate’ in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). By eating and drinking in faith, we are elevated into the very presence of Christ in heaven where we fellowship with him and his people. Through the physical, dramatic and visible symbols of the sacraments, the reality of God’s spiritual blessings are really ‘offered, exhibited, and conferred’ (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.6).

I am aware that much more could be said. The work of God is vital in the sacraments. We must look to the God of grace to make them a blessing to us. The place of faith is essential as well. As the Belgic Confession says, ‘Faith is the hand and the mouth that feeds the soul’ (Article 35).

This is this point — are we believing? Are we by faith feeding our souls on the Christ offered to us in the sacraments? Are we using and prioritising the means Christ has given to us? Is it possible that God has promised to meet with us regularly but we are too busy looking for him elsewhere to realise what we are missing out on?

We don’t need special experiences, or celebrity Christian speakers, or ecstatic times of worship, to meet with God. We already have his promised presence in the preaching of the Word and sacraments. So next time your church celebrates a baptism, or enjoys the Lord’s Supper, meet with your God! Look with faith, taste with understanding, feel with joy, that your God loves you and is with you.