Theological Essay: The Ordinances of the Church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
Introduction to the ordinances:
Jesus gave many exhortations, commands and ethical imperatives to the church, and orthodox Christians consider all His teaching to be equally true and authoritative. However, two of His commands have been considered “ordinances” or “sacraments” due to their singular nature as perpetual public practices of the church. Those who use the term “ordinances” generally view baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbols of grace. Those who speak of “sacraments” generally view them as conveyors of grace or means of grace; some even view them as means of salvation.
We believe baptism and the Lord’s Supper are for the strengthening and increase of our faith, for exhorting us to greater obedience, and for testifying of our union with Christ and communion with all the saints. They are not necessary for, or a means to, salvation but are part of the normal experience of believers and are intended by God to be a blessing to His Church.
The ordinances are meant to unite us together in Christ, not to separate us (Eph. 4:3-6). There is room within the church for some legitimate disagreement over the ordinances as to mode (whether sprinkling or immersion) and even recipients (whether adults or children). We believe this issue falls within the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to let each one “be fully convinced in his own mind” while not passing judgment on one another (Romans 5:5, 13).
The ordinance of baptism
The meaning of baptism: Baptism is the means which Christ appointed for publicly proclaiming one’s identification with Him and His Body. It is thus a testimony to the salvation of the believing participant, an encouragement to those believers who observe it, and when accompanied by a verbal profession of faith, a witness to the unbeliever. An argument might be made that it is the normal initiatory rite into the Christian faith.
Baptism can be compared to a wedding. The bride has already committed herself privately in her heart to her husband-to-be in the engagement. But at the wedding ceremony that commitment is made public. Baptism is the “I will!” to the call of the gospel in a person’s life. This means, of course, that baptism must also be both freely chosen and informed. Just as no bride should be forced to the altar, so no person should be brought to be baptized; he should come freely. And as churches properly insist upon counseling before marriage, so also candidates for baptism should be catechized, or taught the essentials of the Christian faith, before being baptized.1
There are, however, other views of the meaning of baptism in Christendom. Roman Catholics teach that baptism removes original sin regardless of the faith of the individual. In essence it “saves” a person, and the baptized individual remains a part of the family of God unless he turns away and rejects Christ.
Lutherans teach that baptism imparts saving grace, but that salvation must be
confirmed by the individual. Reformed churches teach that baptism is an initiation rite into the “covenant community.” All the these churches believe baptism is properly, and most appropriately, administered to infants.
The importance of baptism: Baptism’s importance is evident from the fact that virtually every branch of Christianity observes the ordinance, though not all in the same way, nor all with the same meaning. It is indisputable that Jesus was baptized (Matt. 3), He approved of it (John 4:1-2), and He commanded it (Matt. 28:18-20). The early church uniformly practiced it. (Acts 2, 8, 9, etc.). In fact, one looks in vain for an unbaptized believer in the NT other than the thief on the cross, who had no opportunity to be baptized and is properly considered an Old Testament saint because He died before the New Covenant was established by the death and resurrection of Christ.
The purpose of baptism: Baptism is a sign of repentance: It signifies repentance from sin and from rebellion against God, by the imagery of washing away of sin.
Baptism is a sign of one’s identification with Christ and commitment to Him. It signifies one’s identification with Him in death, burial, and resurrection. As Romans 6:1-4 says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Dr. Richard Averbeck writes, “It would not occur to the early Christians that there could be a Christian in the local church who had not been baptized…. The close proximity, time wise, between trusting in Christ and being baptized is significant. It implies that they could not conceive of a true Christian who was not willing to express his commitment to the Lord. That was not one of the options given to the person being evangelized. He either trusted in Christ and was baptized, knowing the implications in terms of commitment and lifestyle, or he rejected the truth.”
Water baptism is also an outward sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, who places every believer into the Body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:13). It is thus an initiatory rite into the church.
The mode of baptism: While the NT makes no absolutely clear statement about the proper mode, immersion is the natural understanding of the phrase “he went down into the water.” It is also the primary meaning of the Greek word, “baptidzo.” Furthermore, immersion provides the best picture of one’s spiritual identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Infant baptism: Infant baptism is practiced today by the bulk of Christendom, not because there are any clear biblical examples of it (there are not), but because a theological parallel is drawn between OT circumcision, which was practiced mostly with infants, and NT baptism, a parallel more apparent than real. Infant baptism demonstrates, at best, the faith of the parents, not the faith of the child. If the Lord expected all Christian parents to baptize their infants, wouldn’t He have given at least one unambiguous example of an infant baptism in the Scriptures? It seems wisest to practice infant dedication (in line with an ancient tradition in both Old and New Testament periods) and believer’s baptism.2
Re-baptism: If a person was baptized but not as a believer, he should be re-baptized. In fact, if he was not a believer in Christ when baptized, it could be argued that the rite was not valid the first time, so he is not actually being re-baptized. A person should not, however, submit to re-baptism if previously baptized as a believer just to satisfy the requirements of a particular denomination or local church. Baptism is an ordinance that belongs to the universal church, not to any local church or denomination.
If a person was baptized as in infant, I would encourage but not require re-baptism. I would stronglyencourage it when the infant baptism was done in a church that teaches baptismal regeneration rather than covenant baptism.
The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper the night before His death (Matt. 26:17 ff.) as a perpetual memorial and celebration of His body, broken and blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins (1Cor. 11:24-25). We are to come in a worthy manner: humble, repentant, and reconciled to one another (1 Cor. 11:27-29; Matt. 5:23-24).
The meaning of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist: “Transubstantiation” is the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ.
“Consubstantiation” is the Lutheran view that the body of Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.
“Spiritual presence” is the Reformed view that believers who participate in a worthy manner in communion are spiritually nourished by a unique presence of Christ.
“A memorial” is the view of most other evangelical churches. In other words, they see the supper as an intense reminder of the death of Christ with a view to encouraging self-examination and repentance.
I believe the truth lies somewhere between the memorial view and the spiritual presence view. That the Lord’s Supper is a memorial is obvious from the repeated commands to “do this in remembrance of me.” However, it seems to be more than a mere memorial in light of the strong warnings attached to it in 1 Cor. 11 and the fact that it is referred to as an active participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). The EFCA’s Statement of Faith reads, “when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer.”
The importance of the Lord’s Supper: Its importance is seen in that it is practiced by virtually every branch of Christendom except the Quakers and ultradispensationalists, though not always in the same manner or with the same meaning. Jesus clearly commanded His followers to continue the practice “until He comes.”
The purpose of the Lord’s Supper: It commemorates the death of Christ by vivid illustration, and it is needed because we so soon forget. It symbolically confesses trust in the substitutionary atonement of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). It uniquely confesses the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church (1 Cor. 10:17). And it proclaims Christ until the Second Coming (1 Cor. 11:26).
In these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming and celebrating our union with Christ. Therefore, they are very important in the life of the believer and the church, and should be approached with reverent and joyful obedience. How, then, can we divide the church over these issues? The Apostle Paul, echoing Jesus’ prayer for our unity, condemns the attitude of divisiveness over following the “right” teachers (or teaching) on secondary matters. He even goes so far as to say he was glad he had not baptized people in Corinth so that no one could claim any special status in that way (1 Cor. 1:10-17).
Questions about the ordinances
1. Why bother with Baptism? If you can get to heaven without it, what’s the point?
You can also get to heaven without witnessing or without honoring your parents or without taking the Lord’s Table. But we do all these things because (1) God commanded us to, (2) there is value for us and for others in doing them.
2. Why don’t we baptize people immediately upon profession of faith, as was done in the early church?
Almost all New Testament baptisms are of adult believers immediately upon profession of faith. However, baptism in that culture carried with it a lot of weight (and often a lot of persecution), so no one would submit to baptism unless he or she really “meant business” with God.
Today we believe baptism should occur upon profession of faith but after sufficient time to demonstrate that one’s faith is real. Since there is no persecution connected with baptism in our culture (in other words, since it is a relatively easy step), we believe it is wise to wait several months to determine whether the new “convert” is fully ready to follow Christ.
3. Will we observe baptism or the Lord’s Supper in heaven?
No, baptism will be unnecessary since only believers will be present, and we are commanded to receive the Lord’s Supper only “until He comes.”
4. Is sprinkling or pouring a legitimate way to do baptism?
The amount of water used is not the most important thing. While we believe that immersion is both the most likely mode for New Testament baptisms and the mode that best pictures the spiritual meaning of baptism, we also believe that God recognizes the intent of the heart when it comes to identifying with Christ in baptism.
5. Why do we serve people both the cup and the wafer, whereas in Catholic churches only the wafer is given to the communicant, while the priest drinks the wine?
It has to do with the Catholic view that the wine becomes the blood of Christ. Only a consecrated clergyman is deemed worthy of drinking the blood of Christ. In fact, after the chalice is emptied, it is wiped with a special cloth so that none of the “blood” is lost. However, in 1 Cor. 11, where the Lord’s Supper is discussed in most detail, there is no distinction between the cup and the bread–both are given to the disciples.
6. Why do some churches practice “closed communion” and others “open communion”?
Some churches limit the reception of communion to those who are members of their particular denomination and/or to those who agree with their theological perspective. However, I believe communion should be open to any and all believers who are willing to receive it by faith. As with baptism, communion belongs to the universal church, not the local church, and certainly not a denomination.
7. What is the point of the warning against receiving communion in an unworthy manner in 1 Cor. 11:27?
The warning is strong, threatening illness or even death. Some believe this refers to receiving the Lord’s Supper with unconfessed sin in one’s life. Others believe it is a warning against coming to the Lord’s Supper without acknowledging its importance and value; in other words, coming flippantly.
In view of the context, it is more likely that the focus of the warning is about a spirit of division in the Body. God hates disunity in the Body of Christ. When Christians gossip about one another, question one another’s integrity and motives, exercise prejudice toward those who aren’t in their social class, or in other ways make distinctions among themselves, God is offended, and He promises to judge those who practice such things. As one writer put it, “The Corinthians had turned the memorial of selflessness into an experience of selfishness and had made a rite of unity a riotous disunity.” To come to the Lord’s Table unworthily does not simply dishonor the ordinance—it dishonors the One in whose honor it is celebrated.
We shouldn’t, on the other hand, pass up Communion just because we are imperfect. Not one of us is intrinsically worthy of coming to the Lord’s Supper. All of us have sinned. But the Scripture assures us, “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) A Scottish minister seeing an old woman hesitate to receive the cup, stretched it out to her, saying, “Take it, woman; it’s for sinners; it’s for you.” Our right to participate comes from the fact that we are forgiven sinners, dressed in the righteousness of Christ alone.
8. How often should a church practice communion?
The frequency of the Lord’s Supper is not mandated in Scripture, but it is to be observed periodically until the Second Coming. The early church, at least in some locations and at some times, practiced the Lord’s Supper daily. We are simply told is that “as often as” we do it, we proclaim the Lord’s death. Our churches have generally offered communion once a month, which is thought to be often enough to serve as a regular reminder without being so often as to become a rote practice.
1This analogy to a wedding is discussed in Dr. Bill Kynes’ article, “Baptism and the EFCA,” in The Ministerial Forum, Summer 2005, Vol. 15, No. 1.
2For a compelling but irenic explanation of why the church should practice believer’s baptism rather than infant baptism, see the chapter, “Brothers, Magnify the Meaning of Baptism,” in John Piper’s book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, 127-135.