Previous article in this series: June 2016, p. 405.
*A word of explanation. I thought I was finished writing about worship, but realized I had not explained the sacraments in worship, a key aspect of God-ordained worship. I do that in this article and the next five. After that I will be finished writing on this topic for now. Thanks for reading.
If someone would ask you what you do to worship God, what would you say? Surely you would say that you pray to God, privately and in church. You would say that you sing to Him. You would answer that you read His Word and hear it preached with His people on the Lord’s Day. I wonder though if you or I would ever answer that question by saying also, “I worship Him by using the sacraments.”
We do, you know. Not just the parts of the service before and after the sacrament, but the baptism itself and the Lord’s Supper itself on those Sunday mornings are worship. Why is that? How is that?
In our series on the worship of the church we began with three great principles of Reformed and biblical worship. The first was that the public worship of God on the Lord’s Day is a covenantal assembly. God Himself calls us to come together as a people before Him, not just as individuals, but as a body, the covenant people gathered before our covenant God.
Secondly, the Scriptures teach that when we come before God in that covenantal meeting, that experience is played out in a holy dialogue between God and His people. The covenant at its heart is fellowship between God and His people in Christ. And the chief means of fellowship is communication. That is what the Reformed worship service is—a holy dialogue. There are elements where God is speaking to us in His Word, and there are elements where we respond to Him.
Finally, we noticed, that this covenantal assembly and its dialogue is regulated by God. God determines what the dialogue will be about. God determines, in principle, how the dialogue will take place. God determines how we will worship Him as He comes close to us. There must be no will-worship, as the apostle Paul describes it—worship that is governed by what we want instead of what God wants. Instead the question must be asked, What does God in His Word tell us to do before His face?
God Commands Us to Worship Him By the Sacraments
One of those things God calls us to do in this covenantal assembly as we meet with Him is to participate in the sacraments. Did you ever wonder why the minister does not instead go to the homes of the families who want their children to be baptized and perform the sacrament there? Did you ever wonder why we cannot celebrate the Lord’s Supper at home, with our father explaining what it means, as Israel did in the Old Testament with the Passover? Why is it part of the public corporate worship of God? The answer is, because the sacraments are a God ordained element of corporate worship.
That is proved first from the fact that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He gave this sacrament to the church. The disciples with whom He first celebrated the Lord’s Supper were the apostles, the leaders of the New Testament church. Jesus did not celebrate the Lord’s Supper with his blood family, as was the custom, but with the disciples as leaders of the church. He gave this sacrament, therefore, to the church, to be administered only with the authority of the church in her officebearers and to be performed officially in her worship.
That was also the practice of the church already in the book of Acts.describes the worship services of the apostolic church and includes the element of the Lord’s Supper: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
That baptism is also a God-ordained element of church worship is proved in two ways. The first proof comes from the essential unity of the sacraments. Though Acts 2:42 does not mention baptism in its description of apostolic worship, (it did not happen as often as the Lord’s Supper) due to the essential oneness of what it is to be a sacrament, if the Lord’s Supper was performed in church services, baptism must be also. The second proof is that the institution of baptism inshows that baptism too is a church element: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Here Christ is again speaking to the apostles as the leaders of the church. Baptism was to be used by the church in an official manner.
Part of the purpose of baptism is to mark out those who were part of the instituted church. This is the same significance that was attached to baptism’s Old Testament shadow. And in the Old Testament, that marker, circumcision, was placed upon someone by the church institute. Circumcision was performed at the place where the church institute gathered, that is at the temple in Jerusalem. It was a church rite. That is why Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple on the eighth day to be circumcised at the temple. And if people did not live near Jerusalem, or could not get to the temple, the rite was practiced in the synagogue. It became a “church thing.” And now, in the Great Commission the Lord calls for baptism to be performed by the church as part of what the church does officially. So, while there are certainly examples in the book of Acts of the apostles baptizing outside of a worship service, the main principle is that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, is to be performed in church worship.
For these reasons, when the Heidelberg Catechism lists the elements of public corporate worship for the New Testament church in Lord’s Day 38 (Q&A 103), it includes the sacraments: “…And that I, especially, on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor…” (emphasis added).
This is why the Westminster Confession says the same in Chapter 21. After listing the other elements of public corporate worship it adds, “the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.”
And this is also, in part at least, why the Church Order of Dordt says this, “The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached” (Art. 56, emphasis added). And this, “The administration of the Lord’s Supper shall take place only there where there is supervision of elders, according to the ecclesiastical order, and in a public gathering of the congregation” (Art. 64, emphasis added).
Part of the Holy Dialogue
Since the sacraments are elements of worship, they are part of the holy dialogue between God and His people. This is the divine motivation for regulating worship in such a way that the sacraments take place in church worship. In these sacraments God speaks to us, all His people, and we, hearing, understanding, and appropriating His speech, respond to Him in prayer and praise. The sacraments have their own distinctive dialogue, so that there is a “dialogue within the dialogue” when the sacraments are used. In fact, this is the primary purpose of the sacraments, and we are to use them this way, aware that a holy and special conversation with Jehovah is taking place through them. This makes the sacraments, too, part of the covenantal assembly, the assembly of fellowship with God.
If you recently had a baptism in your church, God spoke to the congregation beautifully. He did not just speak to the parents or to the one being baptized. He had a declaration to give to the whole of His true people gathered before Him. The main point of that baptism was not that God was there acting in that sign itself. God is not, as Roman Catholics and many Lutheran and Anglicans teach, actually regenerating the one baptized by the water. The sacrament itself, that is, the water on the person, though a visible thing, is not accomplishing a divine invisible action. It is accomplishing a divine invisible speech. Even the sealing aspect of the sacrament is accomplished by what is being declared. The sacraments are speech that give witness to divine acts, but they are not the acts themselves; they are declarations.
That is why the Catechism asks and answers, “Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself? Not at all…” (Q&A 72). Well then, what is it? Lord’s Day 25, A. 66 states, “The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel” (emphasis added). Declare! Speak! And then, to answer this question, How do the sacraments speak to us? Lord’s Day 26, A. 69 says, “Christ appointed this external washing with water adding thereto this promise…” (emphasis added). Christ attached a promise to this sacrament, so that it is God speaking to us. In baptism God is speaking to His church.
If you recently had the Lord’s Supper in your church, God spoke to the congregation beautifully. He had something to declare to all His people gathered before Him. Especially as the elements were there before us on the table and the bread and wine were broken is this the case.1 In those signs the Lord’s Supper is not, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, a visible divine action in the sense that it is a re-sacrificing of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not an atonement for sin being accomplished. His actual body is not being broken; His actual blood is not being poured out. In those actions rather are found visible, divine speech.
That is why the Catechism says in Q. 75, “How art thou admonished and assured in the Lord’s Supper…” (emphasis added). Admonishment and assurance are communication, speech. For this reason A. 75 points out again that Christ has attached promises to these elements. There is speech here, promises being spoken in the sacrament. And so, A. 80 also says the Lord’s Supper “testifies to us.” God has something to say to us. Are we listening? Are we responding?
1 In the actual taking of the elements God will also act and give to us what He declares to us. As the elements are on the table and being broken and poured out, God is only declaring.