Previous article in this series: February 1, 2017, p. 206.
A Different Way of Speaking and Hearing
God speaks to His people in the sacraments, and His people respond. The way that God speaks to them in the sacraments must affect the way God’s people respond. The way that God speaks to us in the sacraments is different than the way He normally speaks to us in congregational worship. Normally God speaks to us solely through the written and spoken Word. But in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, He speaks to us also sacramentally, that is, through visible signs. He speaks to us in a way that rearranges the function of the senses. We hear now, not only with our ears, but with our eyes and mouth and hands. The purpose of this change is important and ought to affect our response.
Speech in the Water of Baptism
Through water applied to the skin as though to wash it, we hear of the blood and Spirit of Christ to wash us of sin’s guilt and power. Water that we go under and come up out of in baptism speaks to us of union with Christ. In the visible pictures of the sacrament itself God speaks to us that He washes us, and washes us because we are united to Christ.
Speech in the Signs of the Lord’s Supper
In the Lord’s Supper, God tells us that He has spiritual food for us by means of physical food He lays before us, namely, bread and wine. By breaking the bread and pouring out the wine before us, God tells us that Christ crucified is our spiritual food. He tells us we have union with each other, because we all eat of the same loaf together. He tells us we have heaven coming, because this is a meal and the first delight of heaven will be the marriage supper of the Lamb.
He tells us that we have all this in union with Jesus Christ, because, first, this meal is served on Christ’s table. Second, He speaks of our union with Christ because, when we partake of the bread and wine, they are physically digested, becoming united to our physical body in order to give us nourishment, as a picture that Christ becomes united to our souls, giving us nourishment.
But why do we hear these things in this water upon the head of the one being baptized and not when we wash our hands at home or give our child a bath at home? Why do we not hear these things when we break off a piece of bread at home and pour ourselves a glass of wine? What is special about this water that we ought to hear God speaking to us in it? What is special about this bread and wine and this table that we hear God speaking to us in it?
The answer is not that there is something special in the water or bread or wine or table themselves. It is not holy water; there is no such thing. It is not special bread or wine. The reason why we are to hear these things in worship and not anywhere else is because Jesus ordained them to be so. He instituted these signs to speak thus in church worship. So that, though we do not hear Him speaking when we eat bread and drink wine at home, we do in church. The Heidelberg Catechism says we hear it because “Christ hath appointed this external washing with water” to say this in the church. And Christ has “commanded…these promises” to be spoken through the bread and wine and table of the Lord’s Supper. We hear it in the sacrament because Christ says we must hear it in the sacrament.
The Speech of Assurance
But then, why speak to us through signs and not through words? Are not all the things the sacraments declare to us the same things the Lord says to us in the preaching? Are not we fed with these things in the preaching? Why then this way?
God in the sacraments speaks to us in this unique way to assure us, that is, to confirm to us personally, the truth we hear in the preaching. He is a good Father. He knows our needs. He understands our weakness. He under stands His covenant people include children too. So He uses visual aids, the only ones we may have in church. And He gives them to us personally, saying to us, “This is for you. This is real, and it is for you.”
It is like those times when you as a parent take your child, put his hands under the water, and wash them for him, teaching him, “So God washes away our sins.” God Himself as our Father does that for His children in the covenantal assembly. He puts one of us under the water of baptism and says to all His own, “See, this is what I do for you. I wash you.” He tells us what He always tells us, what we need Him to tell us, but in a way we sometimes need for our assurance—so simply, so clearly, a way we can see with our eyes and feel with our touch.
If you are teaching your child at supper-time devotions about how God strengthens us and your child says, “I don’t get it,” you might tell your child to take a bite of mashed potatoes. And when he does, you might say, “You have laid hold of those potatoes by the physical strength God gives you, and they are now going inside you and will strengthen you. So too by faith, given by grace alone, we lay hold of Christ and He is united to us and feeds our soul.” God knows we are all children and sometimes need it this plainly. So He takes us into His house of worship and He lets us go through the illustration: “Here, eat the piece of bread and drink some wine, my children; I strengthen you, you see.”
The sacraments are for assurance. “How art thou… assured by holy baptism that the one sacrifice of Christ is of real advantage to thee?” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 26). “How art thou…assured in the Lord’s Supper” that Christ is for you? (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 28). Something of that assurance is emphasized in the account of Jesus’ appearance to the two travelers to Emmaus. What a striking thing they tell the others after the episode is all over: “And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread” ()! He revealed Himself to them and opened their eyes so that they knew He died for them, when He was in their house breaking bread with them. He gave them the Lord’s Supper, and they were assured. Did He say the words of institution, “This is my body broken for you; this is my blood shed for you”? I imagine so. And their eyes were opened through the sacrament.
They needed the preaching. He preached to them the whole way (): “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” The breaking of bread would have meant nothing without that preaching. But when the sacrament was administered, they put it all together. They were confirmed, assured in the truth; they saw Him so clearly in the breaking of bread.
The Response of the Assured
And those travelers responded as those who were assured of His death for them (): “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, saying, the Lord is risen indeed…. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.” They had just come from Jerusalem. Jesus had preached to them when they were on the way to Emmaus from Jerusalem. And even though it is now night, they walked right back to the city, 7.5 miles so that they can tell the others about it. And they were zealous to do the telling.
So ought we to be. Is this not glorious what takes place here! These spiritual realities are thrilling. As we pray the prayers in the Form, we do not respond in our souls with the attitude, “Ok, whatever; is this going to be finished so I can go home and eat a proper meal?” Or, “Another baptism; so what? They happen all the time.” Both Forms have us respond not just with prayers, but with prayers of thanksgiving! Such is the title in the Form, Thanksgiving. Of course! God has just told us the greatest thing we could hear in the entire world—we are washed, and in a way that we may be so assured of it! He has just told us of His sovereign nourishing grace, and made us actually to partake of it! We respond with zeal and adoration! The words are living in us, “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins!” “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!”
We must respond, then, in harmony with the purpose the Lord has for speaking to us this way. He speaks to us this way that we might be assured of salvation. By these visible signs, He confirms what He tells us in the preaching, so that the sacraments are not only signs, but seals to us. And we must respond to Him as those who have been confirmed in that, assured of that. We must sing and pray with the deep spiritual joy of those who have just been assured by their Father of His love and grace and perfect protection.
How does a bride respond when her bridegroom puts the ring on her finger, assuring her that he will be faithful to her till death do them part? Does she respond by sort of mouthing, “Thanks, that’s nice”? No, she rejoices! So too the bride of Christ must rejoice, especially at that moment. God has just stooped down to assure us of His love. Respond like that bride of Christ. With joy! For your assurance He has spoken to you who have brought your sins to Him from a week gone by. He has said, “I wash you; I feed you.” He has reminded you of your identity in Christ. Respond then in the worship service and in all your life with this joy. The character of the response must match the character of the speech. The speech is for assurance; we must respond as those who have just been assured. And by the Spirit’s work within we will. How can we not?!