Life Together Experienced in the Church Ordinances
Selected Texts – Life Together
6th Sunday of Easter – May 6, 2018 (am)
We’ve decided to continue on in this series on life together even though we’ve finished our exposition of Philippians. Through the month of May we’ll consider topics related to this theme. On the 27th Pastor Ray will preach on Life Together in Church Membership. Pastor Nick will address Fighting Sin in our Life Together on the 20th. Next Sunday I’ll speak on Life Together as Hospitality. And today, Life Together Experienced in the Church Ordinances.
Now, today I’m not intending to preach on the doctrine of the church or of its ordinances, but some clarification in this category would be helpful. I believe the best way to begin is just to define what we mean by the church and ordinances. We understand the church to be the community of all true believers for all time (Grudem ST 853). That definition recognizes the implications of what Paul wrote about the ultimate union of believing Jews and believing Gentiles—that (Christ has created) in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Eph.2:15).
So, that is the definition of the church, but as time progresses there are many groups that could claim to be the church, but really aren’t—or maybe were the church, but have ceased to be the true church. So, theologians routinely write about the marks of the true church. John Calvin wrote: Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence (Inst.4.1.9). And by sacraments, he is meaning the same thing we mean by ordinances, namely, baptism and communion. Calvin defined sacraments as a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him (Inst.4.14.1). That’s good, because we can often leave out God’s part in these signs and treat them as though they’re just something we choose to do, or not.
One more clarification here: why do we call them ordinances when others call them sacraments. Really, either word is fine. But because the RCC uses the word sacraments and teaches that they actually convey grace to people even apart from faith in Christ, some Protestants, especially in the Baptist tradition, prefer ordinances, reflecting the understanding that baptism and communion were ordained by Christ (Grudem 966).
So much for clarifications! Let’s look at these ordinances as rich and unifying experiences of our life together. Let’s take them in alphabetical order!
Life Together Experienced in Baptism
Our Doctrinal Statement says: Baptism by immersion (Act.8:36-39) is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, a testimony of a believer’s faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Savior, and a symbol of union with Him in death to sin and resurrection to new life (Rom.6:1-11). It is also a sign of fellowship and identification with the visible body of Christ (Act.2:41-42), in which all nations and colors and classes are welcome (Gal.3:27-28) (GCD DS 36). This is a community experience.
Baptism… is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, a testimony of a believer’s faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Savior. But a proclamation to whom? A testimony to whom? Some will say it’s a proclamation of the gospel to our own hearts, a testimony of assurance of faith in Christ to our own souls. And in a sense, that’s true. Peter wrote that the faith which baptism (proclaims), that to which it gives testimony, is not the mere washing of our bodies with water. Rather, it’s our appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1Pe.3:21). Baptism is the outer, physical ceremony that bears witness to an inner, spiritual work of God—His free gift of salvation granted to us by faith in the work of Christ on the cross, where the penalty of our sins was paid-in-full.
But who hears this proclamation? Who listens to this testimony? Surely it’s the watching world, the eyewitnesses to the ceremony itself. Particularly it’s the local church to which God has led us to experience baptism. That’s why we don’t often see baptisms done anywhere away from our local church gatherings. We take communion supplies with us when we visit those who can’t get out to church. But we don’t do something similar with baptism, at least not generally. And even when there’s reason to do a baptism elsewhere—a member of this summer’s Israel team, for instance, will be baptized in the Jordan River—a friend like Eitan Kashtan will preside, and a video recording will be made so we can celebrate together when the team returns.
The next portion of our Doctrinal Statement definition adds: (baptism) is also a sign of fellowship and identification with the visible body of Christ. And to this we say: Amen! We feel that fellowship. We affirm that identification. It unites us as family when we witness each one’s participation in this God-ordained symbol of union with (Christ) in death to sin and resurrection to new life. And, indeed, that’s just what is happening. We’re welcoming a new brother or sister into the family of God! Baptism is the visible rite of entry into the body, the bride, of Christ. It’s the induction oath, the swearing-in ceremony, even though all of this pomp and circumstance is spotlighting a work already done—a sovereign, saving work of God that is cause for great rejoicing. Anyone who’s witnessed a baptism service here at GCD, where we have the privilege hearing testimony to the saving work of Christ in the lives of each candidate, you know what at rich and joyful, corporate experience it is! Some of the sweetest times of worship in this room have been the services that included baptisms.
And one final word here: just as the body is blessed beyond description by the baptisms of new spiritual siblings, we’re diminished by the lack of them—by those who claim Christ as Savior but have not received the sign of baptism that publicly authenticates them as one of God’s chosen. There is just no category in Scripture for people who have been saved but have not been baptized. So, come, let’s do it! Don’t let anything stop you. We’ll help you write your testimony. We’ll prepare you for the presentation of it. Parents, watch as your kids profess to receive Christ as Savior. And as soon as you see evidence of genuine spiritual fruit, of some sacrificial decision in favor of godliness that indicates a putting off of the flesh and putting on of the Spirit, begin talking of baptism. It’s the natural next step, and it needs to become normal course of action for us. It is life together!
Life Together Experienced in Communion
The Lord’s Supper is a commemoration and proclamation of the Lord’s death until He comes, and should be always preceded by self-examination (1Co.11:28-32). The elements of communion are… representative of the flesh and blood of Christ, but the Lord’s Supper is an actual communion with the risen Christ who is present in a unique way, fellowshipping with His people (1Co.10:16). Furthermore, the Lord’s Supper conforms diverse individual believers into one body (1Co.10:17) (GCD DS 36).
We’ve been having increased conversations on communion around here in recent months since we’ve been celebrating it weekly. Many among us are blessed by this practice, finding new levels of intimacy with God through it. Some feel like it’s too often, diminishing the sweetness of something special. It’s hard to know how to strike the perfect balance on the scheduling of a commemoration like this. And I should say that the Elders have not yet finally decided whether we will continue with weekly communion. We began during a series on Thanksgiving last November—eucharist is translated thanksgiving. Then we continued through Advent season. Then we continued again through this series on Life Together. That just seemed appropriate given the testimony of 1Co.10:17, Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we partake of the one bread. It is our participation in the body of Christ (1Co.10:16) through the one bread that represents His body that makes us one body, according to Paul. So, we continued weekly communion to affirm our life together.
But this is still a new practice for us. And there are differences of opinion on whether it should become regular. So, we’re giving much attention to that subject these days, in conversation and in prayer. Yet, there can be no doubt that the practice is central to our experiencing life together. As baptism is the symbol of our entry into the body of Christ, communion is the symbol of our continuing in it. Our participation in communion according to God’s Word—examining ourselves and confessing our sins, receiving anew the cleansing that’s accomplished through the body and blood of the Lord—our participation in this way actually affirms our ongoing presence in His body. It affirms us as the church, the new covenant community in Christ.
We’ve been talking about our worship services as being covenant renewal ceremonies, much like Israel experienced in Deu.29 and on numerous other occasions under the old covenant. That idea has been challenging to grasp for some. But it simply means that when we gather for corporate worship Sunday by Sunday, we’re being reaffirmed as God’s new covenant people. We’re being identified anew as the true church, that community of worshipers which He has called together. Communion is a central piece of that. As the ceremony that affirms us as one body, it is a fitting climax to our worship services which are designed to achieve that very purpose.
Now, whether this ceremony needs to be part of our service every week is the point we’re continuing to discuss. But that it is a uniquely sweet piece whenever it is included is absolutely certain. It is so sweet, in fact, as a unifying remembrance of the sacrificial work of Christ as our substitute sin-Bearer, that denial of the privilege to participate has historically been the first step of church discipline. Before one is excommunicated from the body outright, (s)he is forbidden to participate in communion. But the sting of this step is felt only as the sweetness of the practice is maintained. A story is told from the Puritan period of a disciplined church member watching the celebration of communion through the church window with tears, longing to participate. Frequency aside, we must ask: is this manifestation of life together that sweet among us?
One final word here, again to parents. When it comes to welcoming our children into participation in communion, let me suggest one principle that could be helpful. Knowing that baptism is a sign of entry into the new covenant community, and communion is a sign of ongoing participation in it, I would suggest that we welcome our children to the Lord’s Table only after they’ve been baptized. Now, if you’ve already done it in the opposite order, no worries. So did we with three of our four children. But as I have given more attention to this subject in my later years, I believe this is a sound principle to follow as we move ahead.
There is much division in the church over what to include and what to exclude from corporate worship. But when it comes down to it, historically, the preaching of the Word and the biblical administration of the ordinances are the essential marks of true church. This begins the word from God and the response of His people. These are the bare essentials of our gatherings. And along with them comes fellowship and (prayer) (Act.2:42). Singing could be added from Eph.5:19 and Col.3:16, and we have. But, bottom line, friends, let’s recognize, appreciate, and engage wholeheartedly in all of these, but particularly in the ordinances of the church as God’s ordained expressions of life together. That is our calling. That is our privilege.
And now let’s take a few moments to examine (our hearts) (1Co.11:28) and receive His cleansing before we participate in communion.