Word and Sacrament in Worship

Having been in this apologetics battle for quite some time, I have become used to our enemy being allowed to counter-attack us viciously as our standing firm in the name of the Lord has caused light to come to bear into places of confusion and deception he has caused. However, I have never become used to how vicious these attacks are nor how those who are being used by our enemy are so convinced that they are actually the ones serving God and what we are doing must be stopped because after all we are stirring things up by being so unbending, unyielding, and not politically correct, et cetera. God is Love isn’t he? After absorbing several charges of legalism, being overly harsh, and losing some readership and subscribers because of that, I think it is time to make some things more clear. Just because I use what God says as the truth and insist that there is no other because that is what he says, does not mean that I do not also have religious affections. I do worship my Lord. I could not bear to have a form of Christianity forced on me that consisted of mere intellectual assent devoid of joy and fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. That being said, I pray that you carefully read Kim Riddlebarger’s excellent article below about proper worship. – Mike Ratliff

Word and Sacrament in Worship

by Kim Riddlebarger 

In those fundamentalist churches in which I was raised, most Sunday mornings the minister preached from a well-worn Bible, told a few stories to illustrate his point and then reminded us that Jesus is our only hope of heaven. But every service ended the same way, with an altar call. Those who heard the message and were convicted of their sins were invited to come forward and speak with the minister, who would ask those brave enough to repeat the sinner’s prayer and thereby be assured of God’s favor toward them. Sometimes church members would go forward, which was always a shock, because you wondered what they did the week before that required such a public act of contrition. On a rare, but joyful, occasion, someone for whom the church had been praying, was ready to accept Jesus as their “personal Savior.” They would get up out of their pew, walk the aisle and be received with great joy, especially when the person was known to be an unbeliever or a “backslider.”

On the one hand, there was something truly wonderful about this. Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7). It was wonderful to be assured of Christ’s favor and to know that even in those times when we struggle with some particular sin, or when doubt chips away at our faith, we could be reassured of God’s favor in some tangible way. On the other hand, there was something quite troubling about this practice. There was always a qualification. The minister would tell us that if we were truly sincere — “if you really meant it”— then God’s promises about the forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven truly applied to us. But I wasn’t sure I really “meant it.” No doubt others felt the same way.

Now that I am a Reformed minister, the irony of the altar call occasionally comes to mind. In the churches of my youth, the altar call was every bit as central to worship as was the sermon. While baptism was required for church membership and the Lord’s Supper was celebrated on special occasions, the altar call filled the most important role in worship next to the sermon and offered struggling sinners a way to make sure that the promises the minister discussed in his sermon actually applied to us — with that one qualification, “if we truly meant it.” The sacraments (called “ordinances”) were not central. Sacraments were something Roman Catholics had and could not possibly be biblical!

The great irony is that the altar call functioned in many ways like the sacraments do in the Reformed tradition. While the Reformed understanding of the sacraments is firmly rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, the altar call is not. God is aware of our weakness and our need to be reassured of our standing with Him. God promises that we are His in the Gospel, and He confirms His favor toward us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, God invites believing sinners to come to Him — not to an altar — but to a font (where the water of baptism is applied) and to a communion table (where bread and wine are given to struggling sinners to remind them of God’s favor and to strengthen weak faith).

Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 65) defines the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.” And what is the promise of the Gospel? “To forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.” You cannot have a sacrament without the Gospel, any more than you can give an altar call without a sermon!

Sacraments are tangible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace promised to His people in the Gospel. They are given by God to confirm that faith already given through the preaching of the Gospel. Just as the altar call seemed to be the logical outcome of a sermon — the Word often calls us to do something — so too the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments are intimately connected. What God promises to us in the Gospel (the forgiveness of sins) is confirmed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Gospel is both promised and then made visible when the Word is preached and when the sacraments are administered.

Yet, there is one huge difference between the altar call and the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. In the altar call the qualification was “if you truly meant it,” which made the subjective state of the sinner the critical factor in whether or not one actually benefited from going forward. In both sacraments, however, the emphasis falls squarely upon God’s sovereign oath: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” an oath that can be paraphrased as God stating to struggling sinners, “I really mean it!” In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis falls squarely upon what God has done for sinners in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith.

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God swears the same covenant oath first promised to Adam in Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”) that He swore to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 (“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you”). At the heart of the sacraments is God’s gracious covenant promise to be our God and that we will be His people, a promise that is ratified again whenever we receive the sacraments through faith. Once the promise of the Gospel is declared to God’s people from the pages of His Word, that Gospel promise is then ratified through the sacraments.

There are two sacraments instituted by Jesus in the New Testament. Baptism is the sacrament of entrance, and its importance can be seen from the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus instructs His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Disciples are not made by going forward to an altar, but by being baptized! This is the biblical way in which repentant sinners and their families publicly declare their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; 16:15; 16:31–33). To be baptized means that we have been buried with Christ (Rom. 6:4), clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and circumcised with Christ (Col. 2:11–12). Baptism is the sign and seal that sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and of the presence of regeneration (Titus 3:5). It is baptism that marks us off from unbelievers. All of these things are promised to us and to our children in the Gospel (Acts 2:38–39).

As for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus defined this sacrament on that night in which He was betrayed. Investing the Jewish Passover with a new meaning, we read in Matthew 26:26–28 that “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” Not only does Jesus tell us that the sacrament is connected to the promise of the Gospel — through the shedding of His blood, our sins are forgiven — but Jesus states that what is offered to us through the bread and wine, is nothing less than His own body and blood (Himself!), along with all of His saving benefits.

These words also appear in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, indicating that the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper was based on our Lord’s words of institution. Paul also tells us that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated regularly (weekly) “when you come together” for public worship (1 Cor. 14:26). This means that the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Christ is a ratification of the Gospel promise — the new covenant in Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins — and that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated whenever the church assembled for worship. We know from Acts 2:42 that the worship of the apostolic church centered in the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, the prayers, and fellowship with the Risen Savior.

Since the sacraments confirm the promise of the Gospel — that God will save us from our sins — the link between the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments in public worship is firmly established. The fundamentalist churches of my youth were absolutely correct to realize that sinners needed some way to ensure that the promises made in the sermon apply to those who believe the Gospel, but who may be struggling with sin and doubt. A sermon without an altar call was incomplete.

But the biblical way God reminds sinners of His favor toward us is through the Word and the sacraments. God promises in the Gospel to save us from our sins, and in the sacraments He swears on His sovereign oath: “I really mean it.” “I am your God and you are my people!” This is what weak and struggling sinners need, not to be directed to look within to see whether or not they really mean it. Rather, we need to look to God’s sovereign oath: “I really mean it.” This is God’s way of comforting the downcast, strengthening our faith, and conquering doubts. This is why Word and sacrament are together essential elements when God’s people assemble for worship.

From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.

Soli Deo Gloria!

12 thoughts on “Word and Sacrament in Worship

  1. Careful with this one, Mike. Baptism is a one time act of obedience. The Lord’s Supper Is a time of inward inspection of our heart by the Holy Spirit and an out pouring of gratitude from us to our Savior for all that He has done for us. To say that either or both is God saying “I really mean it” is not scriptural and has a creepy ring to it. There is only one guarantee given to us by the Father and that is the Holy Spirit Eph.1: 13 &14.

  2. Mike, take heart when the enemy hurls cruel criticism. Any saint who today dares hold up man-idols to the word of God and compare their teachings to Scripture is going to be pummeled. Even the slightest criticism of the popular teacher-du-jour, and the fans cry “off with your head”. Like the church of Corinth, many are following “Apollos” and “Cephas”, and not Christ. It’s quite sad, actually.

    That said, while I am no fan of the “altar call” (silly name anyhow, there is no more altar!!!), I do depart from my reformed brothers and sisters in that I emphatically refuse to call baptism and communion “sacraments”. Having come from a RC background, the term is vexing, especially in that it is loaded with wrong meaning in so many ways. I also understand – and correct me if I am wrong – that some reformers still hold to infant baptism, which I also flatly reject as unbiblical.

    I do agree, thought, that it is the finished work of Christ at Calvary, nothing more, nothing less, that is our assurance.

  3. Mike, my brother, it seems you have come under some mighty trial. My prayers are with you. Of course you worship. Worship is all about truth, the truth of Who Christ is and His incomparable glory and grace.
    John 4:23-24 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
    24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
    John 14:17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
    John 16:13-15 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
    14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
    15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
    1Co 2:11-14 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
    12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
    13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
    14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
    2Th 2:13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
    Isa 59:21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.”
    Diligently and intentionally seeking truth (God is truth) is worshiping. There is no real worship of God without Truth.

  4. Darrel and Carolyn, I come down on the side of this with you. I am Reformed Baptist, however, I do see where my friend Kim is coming from Biblically in talking about God sancftifying us through the Sacraments. I remember when I was ordained as a SBC Deacon in the early 1990′s (seems like such a long time ago now) I had to be questioned about my theology. I had to agree that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the two “Ordinances” given to the Church for the Sanctifying of the Body. Some call them Sacraments while some call them Ordinances. The Church I go to is Mission Road Bible Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, which is pastored by Rick Holland who came to us from Grace Community Church (John MacArthur’s Church in L.A.). He calls these things Ordinances as well, but the way he preaches and teaches about them is much as Kim did in this post. They do edify us as we worship in their Ordinance. This is part of our worship. I have good Presbyterian and Lutheran friends who are my brothers and sisters in Christ who would differ with us on this, but we would all agree on the Gospel. Let us put our swords away and come together in Christ and worship him and rest in his finished work at the cross on our behalf.

  5. Hi Mike,
    :) Thanks for clarifying. Listening to your preacher (the sermon you posted where he talked about the Holy Spirit, again v. good sermon), yes I can see him as having come from MacA.

    I know there are true born again believers who are Presbyterian/Lutheran, who as you said differ on these things, but I pray that God will make it clear to them that some of their views vis a vis baptism/sacraments are off the mark. Just as I pray that my Pentecostal brothers and sisters would reject the unbiblical “spirit baptism”, or my Baptist brothers and sisters would cease with the altar calls and the “I see dat haaaaaand” routine (http://truthinator.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/i-see-dat-haaaaaaand-humor/ – every time I hear a pastor do this, I now hear Pesci’s voice, LOL).

    I’m not going to cut fellowship with anyone who is truly born again, unless they are in sinful disobedience as per Scripture, unto repentance. But I do know where I see eye to eye with most, and where I differ, and try to just be peaceable with all. After all, we all have been bought with a precious price, and forevermore are one in Christ.

    Gal 3 – Finished work, indeed! Amen!
    2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

  6. In my current church home – Reformed Baptist, and lovin’ it! – the elders oft refer to baptism and the Lord’ Supper as sacraments. Just because the cult of Rome has ruined a word doesn’t mean the word cannot be rightly used. These sacraments, or ordinances, are “ordinary means of grace” – given to the church by our Lord to remind us of Christ’s completed work and faithfulness to keep His promises.

    As has been mentioned here already, we should not break fellowship over defensible use of words, even if we don’t like them. None of us has perfect theology and must, therefore, continually examine what we believe to see if it is biblical.

    Let the redeemed of the Lord praise His name!

  7. BTW, it tickles me to read one of our paedo-baptist brothers, such as Kim, describe baptist as it biblically applies to repentant sinners who believe on Christ – all the while sprinkling babies to bring them into some undocumented covenant.

  8. The article– I understand what all is being said. However, it’s quite ambiguous on many points that can be misleading. For example, if a Catholic reads this, he could agree with it or a legalistic person or someone who is affirmed in Church thinking they are members because of the sacraments and outer baptism(I’m saved)… I’m not trying to be a nitpick here but some of it could have been made more clear. Maybe I’ve missed the points the author was trying to make and I apologize if I have.

    I would have liked to have seen more clarity with statements such as we are baptized by the Holy Spirit the moment we are saved -that’s the “One baptism” -Ephesians 4:5 and the baptism with water is just an outer confession visible for all the Church to see the truth of my new birth in Christ.

    As far as altar calls, I was brought up in a Presbyterian Church so we really didn’t have that. Maybe it’s a good thing I dunno. I do know that God saved me at home in my living room. So it’s not necessary to me and can leave MANY with a false sense of security “easy believism” or the “altar call” is the evidence of how I know I’m saved.

    Thanks for the post Mike and correct me if need be,,, God bless you richly

  9. No Linda, I agree with you. No one is saved because of religiosity and Kim is not saying that. He is talking about our Sanctification, which the legalists and the Catholics, etc confuse with our Justification. You were justified when you believed in your living room. You were saved by grace through faith just as I was that Sunday I wrestled with God all day about what all this meant way back in January 1986.

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