I grew up in a pretty traditional Baptist church in So. Cal. I learned a lot of Bible there, memorized a ton of verses, and I’m thankful for the way God used that church in my life. But I like to joke that the only point of theology I was taught growing up was this: “we don’t baptize babies.”
I didn’t know why. I don’t remember any explanations. I just remember that was the one theological distinction that I was aware of.
In my 20s, I was introduced to theology for the first time, which started me down a path of studying the Bible and trying to understand the faith more deeply. And as I continued to study, my confidence in that one point of theology from my childhood began to weaken.
About 4 years ago, I decided I needed to plant my flag. What do I believe about baptism? Why? What is the biblical practice? This has been a hot topic of debate for the last 400 years or so. Which side do I fall on?
After much study and prayer and soul-searching, I began to come out to members of our church about 3 years ago. I am a baby baptist. My position—that infant or paedo-baptism is the biblical practice—didn’t come quickly or easily for me. But it’s where I’ve landed.
Today, we’re starting a series on the Sacraments. In our Protestant tradition, we believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two sacraments God has given us. Part of our reason as an Elder Team for deciding to do this series is to introduce this idea of infant baptism. We have studied it in depth for over 6 months and come to unified agreement that it is a biblical practice. In the next few weeks, I’ll be teaching on baptism from this perspective. But today our primary focus is going to be the idea of sacrament. What is it? What does the word mean? What is happening when we engage in baptism and the Lord’s Supper? That’s a question I hope to answer today. And as we define sacraments, I hope you’ll see God’s grace in Christ all the more clearly.
1. Sacraments Unite Us to Christ by Faith
God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). Ephesians 1 teaches that it was God’s eternal plan to pour out blessings on His people, to lavish us with his love. In Eph. 1:9-10, St. Paul writes that in Christ, God makes known “the mystery of his will… as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s plan was always to reconcile us to himself. He always wanted heaven and earth to meet in his people. This happened at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ! By faith, we are IN Christ, united to Him, one with Him. And now we, the church, are the place where heaven and earth meet today. People should come in here and get a sense of heaven among us because we are united to Christ.
Paul uses the word “mystery” in v.9. Early in church history, that word was translated into Latin as sacramentum, where we get the word sacrament. Sacrament means mystery in the biblical sense. Mystery isn’t a Sherlock Holmes word. It’s a revealing word, a word that means something that was hidden has now been made known. God had always planned to pour out his love in Christ. Now that Christ has died and risen, we are PARTICIPANTS in the mystery of the gospel.
Baptism and communion aren’t just rituals. They are mysteries. Not in a Scooby Doo way. No, the sacraments unite us to Christ by faith. In the sacraments, we are invited into a tangible, physical receiving of the spiritual reality of God’s covenant, His gracious promises to us fulfilled in Christ.
When you finish a deal, traditionally, you shake on it. The handshake is not the deal. But it seals the deal. It completes it. The handshake is a sign that you trust one another, and a seal of the deal, an accomplishment of it.
The sacraments are a handshake, a sign of God’s grace poured out upon you, a seal of your union with Christ through faith.
2. Rationalism Undermines Sacramental Participation
Now before we go on I have to talk to some of you. Because some of you are asking the question, “Ok, but what does that mean?” Maybe you’ve read some theology, heard some different teachings from different denominations and traditions. You want to get it. What’s the bottom line? Where does our church land? What does it mean?
Throughout history, there has been a theological tradition of restraining ourselves from saying more than the Bible says about the things of God. We don’t want to go beyond God’s self-revelation in his Word. We speak of these things in humility and submission to His glory and wisdom to tell us so much, and nothing more.
The question, “What does it mean?” is a perfectly understandable one. But it can also be a dangerous one. It can be dangerous, because a tendency toward rationalism—elevating our human ability to understand divine things—can lead us to undermine the very grace we are seeking in Christ and the means by which he gives it. In fact, Paul directly addresses this tendency toward a rationalistic understanding of the faith in 1 Corinthians. We’ll look there briefly and see together that rationalism undermines our sacramental participation in Christ. I don’t have time to get deep into the passage, but I want to trace what Paul says there because I think it will help us remember the importance of submitting our reason to Christ.
In 1 Cor. 8, Paul begins to answer a question about whether a Christian can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Christians in Corinth know there’s only one God and that idols aren’t really gods. So what’s the big deal? We can eat what we want! True, Paul says. But remember: Knowledge puffs up, love builds up. You might hurt the faith of a weaker brother who doesn’t understand the theological emptiness of idols! So don’t do it, in love, Paul says. Surrender your “right” to eat that meat for the sake of love.
Then in chapter 9, he says, “Look at me! I’m an apostle. I have rights, that I have laid down, left and right, for the sake of the gospel and the love of others.” In ch.9, he lands his argument in v.22-23:
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
So Paul gives up his rights in order to love others and promote the gospel. But that’s not the whole argument. The Corinthians think there’s nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols. Because of what they know—rationalism—they can do what they please. The material world has little significance because they have divorced the physical and the spiritual in their minds.
That is what rationalism does: it divorces the spiritual from the physical. It says God’s grace is so great that it doesn’t REALLY matter if you obey. He will forgive you anyway. It doesn’t matter whether you eat that meat or not, because you know there’s no such thing as an idol REALLY. You can worship God everywhere and every day of the week; it doesn't REALLY matter if you "keep the Sabbath holy" and worship with God's people on Sunday.
Paul doesn’t let them go the route of rationalism. Instead, he links the physical acts of Israel’s worship and wilderness wandering to their union with Christ in the OT:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:1-4)
Then he goes on to show how their idolatry—which the Corinthians seem to think is no big deal!—is what prevented that generation that came up out of Egypt from entering the promised land. Then the kicker:
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.… The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ…? You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Cor. 10:14, 16, 21)
We might know that there’s nothing to Tarot cards or Ramadan. But that doesn’t mean we should have our future read or fast with our Muslim neighbors. The Corinthians thought, “our knowledge of spiritual things exonerates us from these false spiritual practices.” In reality, their rationalism put them in deep spiritual danger. It would have made them participants with demons like ancient Israel, Paul says.
So, what do the sacraments mean? When Jesus says, “this is my body,” is there a physical transformation taking place in the bread? If we baptized a baby that can’t trust Christ, does the water save the baby? These are important questions and we will no doubt touch on them in the coming weeks. But today, I want us to understand that rationalism undermines our sacramental participation. Our modern impulse to “get to the bottom” of everything is not always bad, and has done a lot of good. But when we take a scientific approach to the things of God, we are in dangerous territory. Enemy territory even.
I want to show that when we participate in the sacraments, we participate in Christ. But I don’t want us to get distracted by things that can do us no spiritual good. Paul says in that passage, “If anyone thinks they know something, they do not yet know as they ought to know.” Our knowledge of God and the things of God stops at Scripture. We can’t know any more than he has revealed. We say what the Bible says, and then we silence ourselves in worship. Anything more and we run the risk of falling into a rationalism that can easily lead to idolatry.
3. In the Sacraments We Participate in Christ Himself
But notice something. Paul says we can participate in demons or in Christ. That the sacraments are a participation in Christ Himself.
Back at my Baptist Church in SoCal, I learned Galatians 2:20 through a song. It’s one of those verses I can remember most easily because of the song. St. Paul writes there: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered himself up for me.”
Now, Paul had NOT been literally crucified. He was alive and well as he wrote those words. So what did he mean? He meant that—by faith—he participates in the life of Christ Himself. He is united to Christ. And so are ALL of us who believe! And according to Paul in 1 Cor. 10, we participate in the life of Christ Jesus Himself whenever we participate in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the sacraments, we participate in Christ Himself.
1) Earthly Participation in Heavenly Things
Listen to Eph. 2:4-6:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Or Colossians 3:1-3:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
We set our minds on things above because that’s where our LIFE is. We are united to Christ! What does our participation in heavenly things look like? Is it purely mental? Intellectual? Rational? I assent to these truths? Or is it simply emotional? The only time I am really connecting to God is when I feel him?
NO! The cup is a participation in the blood of Christ! The bread is a participation in the body of Christ!
We don’t merely participate in heavenly things rationally or emotionally. No, through the sacraments, we participate physically by faith. The sacraments are earthly participation in heavenly things.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry touches a championship cup to end a race. But as soon as he touches it, he is magically transported to another place. One moment, he’s in a maze with Cedric Digory; the next moment he’s whisked away to somewhere else entirely.
The sacraments are not magic. No one will get whisked away to another geographical location upon picking up the bread or going under the water. But how do we enjoy participation in “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ?” How do we taste and see that the Lord is good and that our life is hidden with Christ in God? How do we take hold here and now of the fact that our most important existence isn’t on earth, but seated with Christ in the heavenlies? The sacraments. They are earthly participation in heavenly things.
2) Present Participation in Eternal Things
Not only that, but they are present participation in eternal things. God chose to redeem us in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” Christ is the first, the last and the living one, the beginning and the end. We are united to HIM who is eternal!
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 3:21-23:
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
ALL things are OURS! All things are ours through CHRIST! Even life and death and the present and the future are ours in Christ! When we receive the Lord’s Supper, we take part in the Passover with Moses and the children of Israel; we eat the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples; and we participate in the future Wedding Supper of the Lamb that we will enjoy with Him when he comes again. When we are baptized, we are circumcised into Abraham’s covenant household; we are buried with Christ in the tomb and united to him on Resurrection Sunday; and we are clothed with the saints in heaven in spotless robes washed white in the blood of the lamb.
Eternity breaks into our lives through the sacraments! The church past, present and future are all at hand when we are baptized into Christ and eat and drink at his table. Christ Himself—yesterday, today, and forever—is made present to us in the sacraments. They are present participation in eternal things!
3) Individual Participation in Covenantal and Communal Things
In John 17:20-21, Jesus prays for the unity of his church:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Jesus is praying that all of us individuals would be united to Him and the Father and each other by the power of the Holy Spirit. Each person in the Godhead is united perfectly, and Jesus wants US to be united in that same way. How does that come about? How do we as individuals participate in Christ’s covenant community? It isn’t simply through having your name on a member roster or attending a worship service. Listen again to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Paul is saying here that the sacraments are individual participation in covenantal and communal things. You don’t do baptism and the Lord’s Supper privately on your own if you can avoid it. They are communal signs that seal our union with Christ and each other!
4) Human Participation in Divine Things
Our theme verse this year is Colossians 1:27: “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Notice the word “mystery,” sacrament in Latin. There is a sacramental reality in the church that Paul refers to here. It is the greatest privilege, the most incredible of Christian truths: by faith we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit and united to Christ.
And how do we express that unity? Our union, not just with each other, but with the divine? We express it in the sacraments! We are united to God the Father, Spirit, and especially the Son through His finished work at the cross and resurrection. We take hold of that work by faith in Jesus. And we take hold of that reality, human participation in divine things, in the sacraments!
What happens in the sacraments is not just between your ears. Or just in your feelings. What happens in the sacraments is between heaven and earth, the present and eternity, the individual and God’s covenant community, and between the human and the divine. We are not the primary actors in the sacraments—we are the recipients of a divine act of grace, of his eternal, gracious, heaven and earth-uniting plan in Christ. Hallelujah and amen!
Reflection & Application Questions
- How have you understood the sacraments in the past? How has your understanding influenced the way you approach them?
- Have you trusted in Christ? Are you united to him by faith? How are the sacraments a tangible participation in that union?
- Paul addresses the Corinthians’ rationalism in 1 Cor. 8-10. Where do you see this tendency to elevate our knowledge of divine things above or beyond what Scripture has revealed? Do you fall into the same temptation to “get to the bottom” of things like the sacraments?
- What aspect of our participation in Christ in the sacraments do you find most incredible?
- Why would God allow us humans to participate in divine things (see Colossians 1:27)? What does that tell you about him?
- What should be our posture when we participate in the sacraments?