The Ordinances: The Gospel in Plain Sight
If you’ve been attending church for any length of time, you have undoubtedly witnessed baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are ordinances given by Jesus, with the expectation that they be observed regularly by the local church. There is plenty of debate as to the significance of the ordinances, and no shortage of conjecture concerning the frequency of observation/participation. While an interesting topic, that isn’t the purpose of this article.
As you know, I am a Baptist, both in theology and practice. Why say this up front? Because my understanding of Scripture and ecclesiological practice have typically been done in very specific ways. Admittedly, I have no intention of forsaking my Baptist roots, as other denominational views of the ordinances leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable. Lately, however, I have been wrestling with our attitude concerning the ordinances. When it comes to baptism, I have heard criticisms that it “lengthens the service,” and have been encouraged to “do them all at once instead of in separate services.” Likewise, when discussing the Lord’s Supper, the most common refrain I hear is, “it’s good to do it less often, because otherwise it would lose its meaning.”
While I understand the sentiment in these comments, I bristle when I hear them. It is possible, even very likely, that we have lost the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and simply consider them to be “extras” in the worship service. Hold onto your hats, because my contention is this: if all we did on a Sunday morning was baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there would be sufficient Gospel proclamation for unbelievers to come to faith and believers to be edified.
When explaining baptism, we often say, “it is an outward expression of an inward faith.” I believe this, and at a basic level, Romans 6 supports this idea. However, if we go beyond the surface, even slightly, we find that water baptism is a visual proclamation of the Gospel. Consider that the person being baptized is placed under the water, held momentarily, and then thrust upward. The significance should be clear—death, burial, and resurrection—and not just of the person who was baptized; rather, perhaps more importantly, of Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, I am not minimizing baptism or the significance it has for a Christian. Instead, I think we would do well to proclaim its deeper truths—it is a call to repentance and faith for the unbeliever, and an encouragement to the believer that their hope is in a crucified and risen Savior!
Much of the same can be said of the Lord’s Supper; however, it is very likely that a local church will observe the Lord’s Supper more often than baptism. And while Scripture doesn’t tell us how often we should observe it, we do find that the Lord’s Supper should be done with a proper heart attitude, since it is an act of worship (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). But why observe it in the first place? Because it serves as an edible proclamation of the Gospel. Consider that the bread and cup are representative of the body and blood of Jesus. The significance should also be clear—suffering and death. As we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming the death of Jesus on our behalf, and we are likewise reminding the Christian that their sins have been forgiven. For the unbeliever witnessing the Lord’s Supper, it is a call to confession and repentance of sin, and to trust in Christ for forgiveness.
These truths should not just be good information that we recite every so often. Instead, they should be esteemed as being absolutely necessary for the advancement of the Kingdom. Church family, we want our baptism candidates to share a testimony of God’s saving work in their lives—let unbelievers have an opportunity to respond in faith, and give believers a chance to worship! Church family, when we observe the Lord’s Supper, we make it clear that it represents the Substitutionary death of Christ on behalf of sinners, and we, therefore, want to partake of the elements responsibly! The Lord, in His providence, mercy, and grace, has essentially given us three “vehicles” by which the Gospel goes out—preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
While the “best case scenario” is for preachers to teach/preach God’s Word faithfully, the reality is unfortunate--false teachers creep in quite often. In the absence of good preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper stand as effective means for the Gospel to be proclaimed. In other words, a person could hear bad preaching, witness baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and have a sufficient understanding of the Gospel to respond in faith.
The Lord is a master at communicating His message effectively. Further, he knows our propensity to misunderstand Him, and He has taken the proper precautions to ensure that the Gospel is clearly proclaimed! Instead of complaining over the length of a service, or debating the frequency of observation, perhaps we should take the time to simply proclaim the truth of the Gospel—from the Word, the water, and the table.