I once knew a 70-year-old who had been attending and serving in a Presbyterian Church all her life, and whose father was an elder. Yet that woman had never been baptised. I remember one Sunday some ex-members of my congregation turned up for a visit. It was great to see them. My wife told them that we were joining in the Lord’s Supper that morning. One of them replied, “That’s great. We don’t have the Lord’s Supper at our church.” I later made some enquiries and concluded that the Supper was so de-emphasised in that Evangelical congregation that some attenders thought that the Supper was totally absent.
Mark Powell’s article on, Why should I become a member of a local Church? should have been a wake-up call for Evangelical Christians. I pose another question: “Has our doctrine of the sacraments gone downhill along with our doctrine of the church?” I think so.
This may be because we have largely lost sight of the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church.
The Invisible Church
The invisible Church (the Heavenly Church) is invisible to mankind, but visible, of course, to God. It is invisible to mankind not only because it is the Church in heaven but because:
(a) it is the church viewed from a point in the future, after the last person has trusted in Christ for his salvation. From our perspective, the church is not yet complete, and so could not possibly be visible to us; and
(b) even if we wished to see the true church on earth today, we still cannot see it in its completeness because we cannot be sure who are the elect.
The Visible Church
The visible Church is what you and I can see. We can see it because it gathers. When we go to church on Sunday, we see the visible Church. Presbyterians strongly believe that the visible church consists of those adults who profess faith in Christ AND THEIR CHILDREN. This is the principal reason why we baptise the children of believers.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) restates the principle held by the Church over the centuries that outside of the visible church “people cannot ordinarily be saved.” This does not bind God, of course! What it says is that the visible church is the usual means which God has decided to use to bring people to faith in himself.
Note also that the visible Church is worldwide. We are able to speak of “the Church of God on earth today” without thus conveying error. In fact, such an expression conveys an important truth – that the church of God on earth is wider than my local congregation.
The WCF says that the “means of grace” have been committed by God to the visible church, and God uses the ministry, coming to church, hearing the Bible read, preaching, public prayer, singing good theology in praise of our God, and the sacraments for his purposes of bringing people to himself and enabling them to grow in grace.
What all this means is that God has given his sacraments to his visible Church. That is why the visible Church regulates the administration of the sacraments, just as it regulates the preaching of the Word of God.
The WCF Chapter 27 tells us that there are only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that these are signs and seals of the covenant of grace. This phrase “covenant of grace” is the term adopted by the framers of the WCF for the arrangement which has been put in place by God in which he freely offers us salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and actually brings about that salvation.
The sacraments are signs and seals of “the way of salvation”, if you like. (See Rom. 4:11 where circumcision is referred to by these two terms.) The sacraments are signs in that they point to the spiritual benefits of the death of Christ for us; they declare the saving grace of Christ. They are seals in that a sacrament authenticates or confirms the benefits of the death of Christ to the person receiving the sign and seal. In other words, they are like an ancient seal being pushed into molten wax on the back of an envelope. Such a seal is stronger evidence of the genuineness of the letter inside the envelope than if there were simply written on the back “This is from Fred Smith.” The seal helps convey genuineness and reality. A seal is of benefit to the recipient, not, the giver. Sacraments are of benefit because; they make known, or declare, the salvation which the believer receives in a way other than through the sacrament. Sacraments are of benefit to believers. The Word is the great means of declaring Christ to unbelievers and of confirming believers in faith and righteousness. The sacraments are given to make an additional declaration of the grace which believers receive through the gospel and to attest to the reality of it.
The sacraments express the verbal content of the Gospel in non-verbal form, in pictures, using objects which we can see, feel, smell, taste and touch. They are given to us to help strengthen our faith in Christ; they are physical things given to us by God to help us lay hold of the reality of spiritual things; they are visible things to help us take hold of invisible realities. As such, sacraments are a gracious gift of God for our benefit, and if we disregard them, we are not only being disobedient to our Saviour, but we are refusing to take advantage of the helps provided for us in our spiritual walk. We suffer spiritually if we disregard the sacraments. The WCF says that it is a great sin to condemn or neglect baptism.
According to WCF chapter 28, baptism has been commanded by Jesus Christ and does several things:
(a) it admits the person being baptised into the visible church; and
(b) it is a sign and seal
(i) of the arrangement which has been put in place by God in which he freely offers us salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and actually brings about that salvation,
(ii) of the baptised person’s ingrafting into Christ,
(iii) of his regeneration,
(iv) of the remission of his sins, and
(v) of his yielding himself to God through Jesus Christ to live a new life in Christ.
In other, words, the baptised person, infant or adult, is a member of the visible church and ought to live like a member of the invisible church. This “living like one” is done through trusting in Christ for one’s salvation as for one’s daily walk with God. That is how the baptised person should approach the question. Others ought to make the charitable assumption that someone who is a member of the visible church is also a member of the invisible church until there is evidence to the contrary. The baptised person who does trust in Christ for his salvation as for his daily walk with God will find baptism a great strength to him. It will help him be assured that he actually has beeningrafted into Christ, that he actually has been born again and had his sins forgiven, and it will strengthen him to walk in newness of life. However, the baptised person who does not trust in Christ for his salvation can find no comfort in the fact that he has been baptised.
The Lord’s Supper also expresses the verbal content of the Gospel in non-verbal form, in pictures, using objects which we can see, feel, smell, taste and touch, but now the emphasis is on the strengthening of the Christian for his daily walk with Christ. The Supper reminds the Christian that he must eat and drink Jesus (that is, come to and believe in Jesus) every day. While baptism reminds us of an event that happened at the beginning of our Christian life (regeneration and the washing away of our sins), the Supper reminds us that daily we must abide in Christ.
I implore you, fellow believer, to rejoice in the benefits of both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
– Chris Balzer