How precious are the sacraments to the people of God! We confess in Lord’s Day 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism that the sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals used by God to declare and seal unto us the promise of the gospel—the free remission of sin and life eternal—for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ. Does your heart wax warm when you meditate upon the forgiveness of all your sins and the life that awaits you in heaven? Then your heart will wax warm as you meditate upon the sacraments. So precious are they to God’s people.
How necessary are the sacraments in our lives! Our Savior commanded, “Take, eat . . . take, drink, and do so in remembrance of me.” Just as our physical bodies need to be nourished and strengthened, so also our spiritual lives need to be nourished and strengthened. We need the visible sign that points us to the invisible grace of God that works mightily in our hearts.
It is exactly for these reasons that when the sacraments are corrupted and defiled, when the sacraments are gutted of their significance, when the sacraments are not administered properly, then something must be done.
Something was done in 1857. Reformation.
One of the official reasons for this reformation was the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) “inviting [men of] all religious views to the Lord’s Supper, excepting Roman Catholics.”1 Because of this (and other reasons) Dutch immigrants living in western Michigan seceded from the RCA in 1857.
Gysbert Haan, a leading voice in the secession of 1857, brought this matter of the sacraments to the attention of the churches. After emigrating from the Netherlands, Haan resided for a time in the RCA churches of Albany and Rochester, but eventually moved to West Michigan, where he became an elder in Vriesland and Grand Rapids. At the September Classis meeting of 1855 Haan asked the Rev. VanderMeulen (a delegate to that summer’s synod) to relate what happened at Synod with regard to the Lord’s Supper. In the official minutes is recorded Rev. VanderMeulen’s rather perturbed response: “Shall the members of the Synod observe the Lord’s Supper alone, and exclude therefrom others, professors, ministers, and students, yea the Christians who reside in New Brunswick and are present?”2 The minutes continue by affirming that all present at the Synod were indeed allowed to partake. Not that this was an isolated incident. The standard having been set by Synod, open communion was allowable, if not outright encouraged, in the RCA out east—allowing any and all who made an outward confession of Jesus Christ to come and partake. This was very troublesome, not only for Haan, but for others in West Michigan as well.
In addition to this issue concerning the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of baptism also came into view. In 1871, in his memoir, Stem Van Een Belasterden (translated “Voice of One Slandered”), Haan recounts an incident when he lived out east. Haan notes,
After residing in New York for some time I left for New Jersey and settled in the vicinity of Paterson, occupying a house jointly with an elder of the Dutch Reformed Church. Since this man loved to talk and spoke Dutch quite well we often conversed together. Among other things, he told me that none of his nine children had been baptized. To my question “but Mr. Van Es, is that right?” he replied, “Oh yes! I prefer to have them reach maturity and then they can decide for themselves with which denomination they wish to affiliate.”3
There was another man, a certain elder in the church at Vriesland, T. Ulberg, who had similar experiences. Already in 1851 Elder Ulberg noted that, when he was in Albany, baptism was sometimes administered apart from the public worship.4 Though these examples pertaining to baptism may not be regarded as the prevailing practice in the RCA at the time, nevertheless it was tolerated. And this toleration is what grieved the men in many of the churches in west Michigan.
Such was the “sacramental” condition of the RCA in the years leading up to 1857. But does this warrant a drastic act of reformation to oppose these abuses? The churches of 1857 answered with a resounding “Yes! The sacraments matter.”
Why do the sacraments matter? Why do the sacraments matter to us today who stand in the tradition of 1857? The sacraments matter because Jesus Christ is presented in them. The Belgic Confession, Article 33, states: “Therefore the signs are not in vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment.” Slight the sacraments, you slight Jesus Christ. Mishandle the sacraments, you mishandle Jesus Christ. Dishonor the sacraments, you dishonor Jesus Christ. “Open communion” is not an option for a Reformed church.
But what exactly is open communion? There are thoroughly apostate churches that practice open communion without any supervision whatsoever, so that anybody off the streets is welcome to partake. Reformed and Presbyterian churches who do practice “open communion” would declare they are not that open. They would not allow Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, those under discipline, or those who are defiled with sin and lead offensive lives to partake of communion. By “open communion” is usually meant an open invitation for all believers who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation to come and partake. According to the RCA’s official website: “Who may participate in communion? Christ is the host and invites us to his table. All who have been baptized into Christ are welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper, although local boards of elders have been given the responsibility to decide at what age and under what circumstances young children may be served.”5
is key to the proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” To discern the Lord’s body does not mean simply that one understands that the bread is a picture of Christ’s body and the wine of His blood. To discern means that one understands the significance of the Christ presented in the supper; understands His suffering and His death; understands who He was, the very Son of God in the flesh. To discern is to grasp the truth of the cross, that Jesus died for His sheep and them alone. To discern is to know the truth about myself, that I am a desperate sinner in need of the forgiveness of sins.
This is weighty. This is serious. If a man comes to the table without having examined himself, and comes unworthily (not discerning the Lord’s body), he brings upon himself the severe judgment of God. And not only upon the man individually, but upon the whole congregation. Question 82 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks whether those may be admitted to the supper who by their confession or life declare themselves ungodly. “No; for by this, the covenant of God would be profaned, and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation.” Therefore, it is the duty of the elders to exercise very close oversight over the Lord’s Supper. This is close communion. This is in accord with our Church Order, Article 64: “The administration of the Lord’s Supper shall take place only there where there is supervision of elders.”
The charge usually leveled against those who maintain that the sacrament must be closely supervised is that this practice is unloving and does not promote unity and peace. Christians are kept from the table who otherwise should be invited to partake. In full promotion of this spirit of love, unity, and peace, the RCA in 1997 adopted a “Formula of Agreement,” which made full communion possible with three thoroughly liberal denominations.6 Doctrine is set aside for “love and unity.”
But the issue is not “who may partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?” All in the Reformed camp agree that communion is for believers who have placed their trust in Christ alone for all their salvation. Rather, the issue concerns the church supervising closely who may and may not partake of the sacrament. Will the elders give an open call that “if you believe in Jesus you are welcome to partake, no questions asked,” thus leaving it up to the judgment of the individual whether he ought to partake? Or will the elders closely supervise the table to ensure that those who desire to partake are able to discern the body and the blood of the Lord? For this close supervision the churches in 1857 fought.
They also fought for the truth concerning baptism. The truth concerning baptism is not believers’ baptism—that only adults who confess their faith in Jesus may be baptized. Baptism is a sacrament that must be administered, not only to adult converts who confess their faith, but to the children of believers as well.
Must? Yes. The Belgic Confession Article 24 states, over against the error of the Anabaptists, that infants ought to be baptized. Q & A 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism states: “Are infants also to be baptized? Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God . . . they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church.” Jesus declares, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (). If the kingdom of God belongs to children, and if they too are included in the covenant of God, must they not receive the sign of the reality that is theirs? The churches in 1857 answered, “Yes! Infants must be baptized.”
There are those in Reformed churches today who find themselves sympathetic to Baptist theology. These parents opt not to baptize their children, but instead are allowed to dedicate them. This dedication involves the parents’ promise to raise their children in the fear of the Lord and teach them His statutes. When the child matures and decides to confess his faith, then the sacrament of baptism is administered. But this is not Reformed. This is not pious. This is catering to false doctrine. This is pure disobedience to the Word of God. The infants of believing parents must be baptized.
These two sacraments, held highly by the church, are to be administered only in the public gathering of the congregation. The Belgic Confession, Article 35, speaks of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: “We receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God with humility and reverence, keeping up amongst us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior.” Also, our Church Order, Article 64, requires that the Lord’s Supper be administered “in a public gathering of the congregation.” The same would apply to the sacrament of baptism.
No home baptisms. No communion being administered in the homes of the elderly. There are churches today that allow for exceptions. The Protestant Reformed Churches adhere strictly to the stipulation in Article 64 of the Church Order.
The danger in private administrations of the sacrament is that the sacrament is made to stand all by itself. It becomes an end in itself. But the sacraments are signs. They point away from themselves. The Belgic Confession, Article 33, states that the sacraments are “joined to the Word of the gospel.” In the word of the gospel is where we receive the invisible grace signified in the sacraments. Let the two—sacrament and gospel—not be separated. The sacraments are no private affair. They are to be administered in the public gathering where is the preaching of the Word.
Some might call the dissenters of 1857 stubborn, inflexible, and overbearing. I prefer to think of them as creedal, confessional, biblical, and as those who honored the sacraments and sought to administer them properly. Such is pleasing to the Lord. For when the sacraments are kept undefiled, then the people of God enjoy the reality to which the sacraments point—the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for us poor and weak sinners. May God grant that the sacraments be so honored among us.
And, yes, after all these years, the sacraments still matter.
1 Classis Holland Minutes 1848-1858 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 242.
2 Classis Holland Minutes 1848-1858 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 180.
3 G. Haan, Stem Van Een Belasterdan (Grand Rapids: C. Nienhardt, 1871), 4.
4 Word and World, ed. James W. VanHoeven (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 51.
5 https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=315. Now is neither the time nor the place to discuss paedocommunion (children partaking of communion), except to note that a church that practices open communion inevitably will, by its own position, allow children to partake as well.
6 The PCUSA, the ECLA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and the UCC (United Church of Christ).