The sacraments are outward, visible signs of inward, invisible grace—but we must not confuse the sign with the thing signified! Alistair Begg helps us to distinguish between the symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the realities to which they point. These ordinances are given to believers as commands from Christ in order to commemorate and proclaim Him. When we share in them, our faith is strengthened and our anticipation for Christ’s return grows.
Father, as we turn now to your Word, we pray that you will be our teacher and that you will enable us both to understand and to obey your truth and to live in the application of it to our lives. To this end we come to you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Those of you who are worshipping with us regularly will know that we’ve said that in the evenings we’re looking at these seven marks of an effective church from Acts chapter 2. And we have dealt in the past two evenings with the issue of teaching, or the apostles’ doctrine, and then last time with fellowship. And we come this evening to this whole matter of the breaking of bread—what I’ve referred to on the card that we gave out to you as the sacraments. And I’m not sure just how we’ll handle the other one—namely, baptism—but we needn’t delay, thinking about that just now.
I’d like to encourage you to turn to 1 Corinthians 11:23, where I’d like to read from 23 to 26.
During the week, I was saying to myself, “You know, I’ve really mentioned this so many times over the years that it hardly seems necessary for me to reiterate these truths.” And interestingly, even this morning I had a number of people quite graciously and honestly ask me the most elementary questions concerning Communion that it was as though the Lord said to me, “See? I told you, you do need to mention it again and again, and you need to mention it with regularity.”
First Corinthians 11:23, Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Now, I purposefully used the phrase the sacraments in the card that I gave out to you. And that is because I want to make sure that we understand what we’re talking about in the usage of that word, because it is a term that is subject to much confused thinking, and consequently, application. Sacrament is not a biblical word, but of course, we use a lot of important words that are not biblical words. One that immediately comes to mind is the word Trinity. We never find in the Bible the word or the phrase the Trinity, and yet it is a vital word to us in explaining the person of God triune, as revealed in Scripture. So although the word sacrament is not a biblical word, it is a useful word. It’s a word that entered theological parlance via the Latin Vulgate, and it literally means “something sacred”—something sacred.
When Augustine defined the sacraments in history as “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace”—a phraseology that is not unfamiliar to many of us, perhaps not knowing that Augustine is the one who said it first of all—when he identified the sacraments in that way, he made it possible for people then to think of them subsequently in terms of signs or symbols, external elements which point to a reality beyond themselves. And it’s important that we understand this, that the sign or the symbol—whether it is water or bread or wine—is not to be confused with the thing it signifies or symbolizes . When you find people confusing the sign with the reality, then you discover them moving in the realm of mysterious magic. And when you find people who have a sacramental view of things, you are usually moving amongst people who have found it difficult or have chosen not to distinguish between the symbol and that to which the symbol points.
The sign or the symbol, then, is a visible object that points to the reality, a reality that is different from and more significant than itself. If we put it down at the most elementary thinking, we don’t imagine that because we have seen on the highway a sign pointing to Chicago that we have actually arrived in Chicago. All that we have seen is a sign that is pointing to a reality beyond itself, and we could park by the sign and never, ever be in Chicago.
So, in the signs, the reality to which they point—and get this—is displayed, not dispensed; is displayed and not dispensed. The blessing which is promised in the sacraments is not mechanically or automatically conveyed in them. So there are blessings which attend the sacraments, to which we’ll come in a moment. But the blessings which attend the sacraments are not automatically conveyed by getting close to them or involved in them.
Now, we ought not to be surprised by that, because that is just as true of the Bible. The blessings which are conveyed in the Scriptures as the Word of God speaks are not automatically conveyed because we read the Bible. That is why, when we studied Hebrews, we found that there were those individuals for whom the preaching of the Word and the reading of Scripture was “of no value to them,” because they did not combine the hearing of it with faith. So the fact that they were present for the reading of the Bible did not mean that they automatically received the benefits which came from the Scriptures.
In the same way, when we think in terms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the blessings and the benefits which accrue from them do not come to an individual automatically or in some mechanical fashion. And that’s why it’s possible to sit on the fringes of all of this and say, “I don’t understand why these people are so concerned about this,” or “I don’t understand why they would be so passionately involved in the matters of baptism, etc.”
Now, in the pre-Reformation church, there were a number of sacraments; those of you who are students of history will know that to be true. And when, in the Reformation, the Reformers determined that there were actually only two, the Council of Trent then rebutted the notion of the Reformation and declared that there were in fact seven sacraments. And some of you have come out of a ecclesiastical background in which you have been taught that there are seven sacraments—namely, baptism, communion, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and final unction. And it was in reaction to the Reformers’ cry of sola Scriptura—“only the Scriptures alone”—that these same people declared that the unwritten traditions of the church and Scripture were to be received with equal reverence—that the unwritten traditions of the church and the Scriptures were to be received with equal reverence and were to be submitted to on the same level.
Now, you see, this is a most fundamental distinction, then, between that notion and the Reformed church. Because ever since the Reformation, Protestantism has understood that there are only two sacraments, and they are those which have been given to us by the word of Christ himself—namely, that Jesus himself instituted both: one on the night when he was betrayed, when he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said… as is recorded for us in the Gospels; and on the other occasion on the eve of his ascension, when he gave to his followers the responsibility to go into all the world and to preach the gospel and to baptize. Jesus, then, instituted these two sacraments.
Now, by the time, again, of the Reformation, the confusion extended beyond the number of the sacraments to the very nature of the sacraments. So there wasn’t simply confusion about how many there were, but there was confusion as to what they actually did. And so they came to be regarded as not simply signs of God’s grace or a means of grace, but they were actually thought to contain and convey grace—to contain and convey grace.
Now, you see, if you think about this for a moment or two, you understand, then, why certain churches establish themselves along certain lines, because there is a logical cohesion, provided you understand their starting point. Given one’s conviction that their premise is wrong, their application follows wrongly, but nevertheless, from where they start, it makes perfect sense to demand of their people and to call their people always to be receiving the sacraments, because they believe that in the receiving of the sacrament, grace is conveyed to the individual recipient. And the fact is that these notions are still firmly embedded in the minds of many people, and that is why there is a kind of mystical superstition which attaches itself in the minds of men and women both to baptism and to the Lord’s Supper.
And we need to understand that the Reformation church and the Reformed church down through all of the centuries, in concurrence with what was happening in the institution of these things in the Gospels—to which Paul refers here in 1 Corinthians 11—throughout all of time, the Reformed church has understood that the bread and wine in Communion remain bread and wine and that the water of baptism is quite simply tap water. And that immediately demythologizes the notion; it brings it down to a level of extraordinary ordinariness, which is exactly where it was. There was no particular benefit in the waters around the pools and streams of Jerusalem. And there was nothing significant about the actual bread or the particular cup that was shared in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It was normal bread, normal wine, normal water, and remains so. But to attach significance beyond that to these symbols and to confuse the reality with the symbol is to end up in dreadful positions.
So, for example, the Roman Catholic view, in distinct contrast to what I’m just saying, is that the bread and wine actually become the Lord’s body—which is, of course, transubstantiation—and the water of baptism is no longer ordinary water. We categorically deny both of these notions. And there is no middle ground.
So the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—do not signify, don’t teach us, any other truths than the truths that are taught in the Bible . It’s not that we find in the sacraments things that take us in another direction from the Scriptures. And that is why the Reformers always said that there should be no celebration of the sacrament without the preaching of the Word, because what you have verbally in Scripture you have visibly in the sacrament. And so the idea of doing baptisms in people’s bathtubs and things like this, and little private individual baptisms and private individual Communion services, except in strange and extraneous circumstances, with hospitalization or whatever it might be, in the normal run of events, it is an aberration to consider such things. Because the sacraments don’t signify to us or teach us anything other than what we find in the Bible.
Now, people are concerned. They say, “Well, why do we use different names for the sacrament? I mean, why would somebody call it ‘the sacrament’ and we wouldn’t call it that? We would want to call it ‘an ordinance,’ because ordinance doesn’t sound like sacrament, because sacrament,” we think, “conveys all these faulty notions.” Well, we refer to it as the Lord’s Supper; we refer to it as the breaking of bread; some refer to it as Holy Communion; some refer to it as the Eucharist. The Anglican Communion calls it the Eucharist. Presbyterianism never calls it the Eucharist, but eucharistos is simply the noun in Greek for “thanksgiving.” There’s nothing particularly special or bad about the term. And the issue is not the terminology; the issue is, what is it actually all about?
Now, I want to summarize it for you very briefly by giving you five phrases. I’ve done this a number of times, and when I went back through my notes over the last twenty-two years, I have all these different bits and pieces that go all over the place. And this time I determined that I would take five phrases from one of my dear friends and use his phrases, just because I liked them and they were a bit of a change.
So, here, in the phraseology of the Reverend Eric Alexander—I suppose we will allow a Presbyterian to define at least one of the sacraments for us—are these important observations.
The truths to note are very, very clearly there before you in 1 Corinthians 11, and the first thing to notice—although this isn’t one of the five—is that Paul is declaring that his practices derive directly from what the Lord revealed to him. That’s why he says, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” In other words, he said, “I’m not making this up; this is not my own idea, but this is from the Lord himself.”
So what then is the Lord’s Supper? What is happening in the breaking of bread? What is the first of these two sacraments? Number one, it is an instruction in which we obey Christ. It is an instruction in which we obey Christ. The meal was instituted by Christ. If it were merely a human tradition, it would be optional. Since it is an instruction issued by the Lord Jesus, it is ipso facto an obligation. It’s not an optional dimension; it is obligatory, because it is the instruction of Jesus, which must be obeyed.
Now, the Reformers were very clear that we should understand that the sacrament of Communion is not a saving ordinance. In other words, you can still get to heaven without ever sitting at the Lord’s Table , which is particularly good news for the thief on the cross, I think you would agree. If you could only go to heaven as a result of sitting at the Lord’s Table, then, of course, our dear friend there would never have gone to heaven.
So it’s not in itself a saving ordinance, but it is a commanded ordinance. And since we have been commanded to do it—we haven’t been told how often to do it or in which particular framework to do it, but we have been told to do it—and therefore, it must be observed. It’s not a matter of choice for a Christian. And it is something, loved ones—just in passing—that we need, as an eldership, to pay far more careful attention to in our church. The cavalier attitude with which our people respond to the issue of the Lord’s Supper is a disgrace. And it owes largely to ourselves for having been less than helpful and honest in instructing our people about the nature of a commanded ordinance. But that’s in passing. In saying that, we do not raise the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament above the Scriptures, but it is always that which is simply visibly portraying what is verbally in the Bible.
Incidentally, that is why we have the pulpit in the center of things. And when you go in churches where you find their architecture is such that their pulpit is way over in the right-hand corner or way over in the left-hand corner, and they have an elaborate table in the middle, whoever designed it in that way was making a very clear statement. The real issue, they were saying with their architecture, is the taking of the sacrament. The preaching of the Word can be put on one side, but it is imperative that we take the sacrament.
The Reformed church always said that Christ is encountered in the Scriptures. The Catholic Church has always said Christ is encountered in the Mass. And that is why it is imperative for a good Catholic to be at Mass. It doesn’t matter about the homily; it doesn’t matter if it’s short, long, good, or bad, as long as you get to that table. That’s why it’s in the middle, and that’s why it’s called an altar. And that’s why, incidentally, this thing is on two trestle tables with a white cloth on top of it: so that nobody would ever get the wrong end of the stick, as if, somehow or another, we had holy furniture. So the sacrament sets forward only what the Scriptures convey.
It is an instruction, then, in which we obey Christ.
Secondly, it is a commemoration in which we remember Christ. Now, I don’t want to weed my way back through the Old Testament, but can I assume that you understand the link between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover? The events of Exodus, and the sending of the angel of death, and the instruction that was given for the taking of a lamb without blemish, and the lintels and the doorposts, and the framework of the door of the home being covered with the lamb’s blood as a sign of dependence, and the angel of death passing over that.
Now, that picture is at the very heart of what takes place when we share the Lord’s Supper. Because in the experience of God’s people there, they spread the signs and symbols before them of God’s work of redemption. But they didn’t confuse the sign or the symbol with the actuality of what was taking place. It was a visual reminder, it was a concession to our frailty, so that God would set before us in a visual way the reality of his redeeming grace, and in so doing give us in a picture what the Word gives to us in verbs and nouns. Consequently, anything that makes the sacrament teach something other than the Word of God is, without question, false . Anything that makes the sacrament teach anything other than what the Word of God proclaims, it is, without question, false.
Thirdly, it is a proclamation in which we preach Christ—an instruction in which we obey Christ, a commemoration in which we remember Christ, a proclamation in which we preach Christ. As in the Passover, which proclaimed that salvation was God’s work, accomplished through the shedding of blood and applied to the homes and the lives of those who came to God in obedience and in faith, so too is the Lord’s Supper applied to those who come in repentance and in faith. It is an indication of what God has accomplished in a once-and-for-all sacrifice.
And the Jews in the Old Testament made much of this. You come on a number of occasions as you read through the Old Testament to places where the people are told, the parents are told, “Now, I want you to explain this to your children. I want you to remind them that they were redeemed by my outstretched hand. When your child comes to you and says, ‘Father, what do you mean by this service?’ the father has to reply in accordance with the truth of God’s Word.” And I believe in Orthodox homes, even down to tonight, in the High Holy Days of Judaism, the child would still be charged with the asking of the question, and the father would still be charged with the giving of the response. When the child says, “Father, why are we doing what we’re doing?” the father would say, “Because God redeemed His people by the provision of a substitute who bore the judgment of a holy God on sin.” And he would tell his children that in Egypt there was a death in every house on that night—either the death of the firstborn or the death of the Passover lamb.
And that picture, of course, you will remember, runs down through all of biblical history. That’s the great wonder that is there in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac says to his father, “I can see we have the wood, but what about a lamb?” And Abraham says, “God himself will provide [a] lamb.” And of course, he does in the immediacy of that, but it also points us forward, down to the one who would come, the Lamb of God.
Fourthly, it is a participation in which we feed on Christ. It is a participation in which we feed on Christ. That’s why, here in verse 26, he says, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Clearly this is a meal, however symbolic the meal is, however symbolic a part of the gathering might have been. But it is a participation in which we feed on Christ.
Now, if you think about that, that is true, first of all, in terms of our coming to Christ. For our coming to Christ is a feeding on Christ. Otherwise, how do we understand the words of Jesus, “I am the bread of life, and he who eats of me will never hunger”? What does it mean, then, to eat of Christ?
Well, clearly Jesus was not talking about actually eating him physically, if I may say so reverently, without appearing to be bizarre. He was using a picture. “In the same way,” he says, “as God has provided for his people of old in different ways provision for them, so in the person of myself is the provision for the most basic needs of men and women in encountering their sin. And if they will come and eat of me, if they will take me into their heart and into their experience, if they will come and commit themselves to me, then they’ll never be spiritually hungry again. And if they drink of the water that I give them, they’ll never, ever be spiritually thirsty again.” The picture is clear! To convolute that into the sacramentalism whereby transubstantiation, in all of its mystical strangeness, is pressed upon people is a long stretch. Don’t forget that when Jesus said, “This is my body which is broken for you,” the disciples in the eating of the meal were clearly able to distinguish between his physical body, by which he handed the very bread to them, and the bread which signified the reality of who he was sitting right there beside them. They were not in any doubt!
So, it is true that we feed on Christ in our coming to Christ, as we receive him into our hearts; and it’s also true that we feed on Christ as we grow in grace. We sang that hymn this morning, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” with the lines, “Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” In other words, that the journey of Christian pilgrimage is a feeding on Christ. And yes, we feed on Christ in the sacrament of Communion. Not in a literal and physical way, but God clearly has determined that in the obedient act of sharing in this sacrament, he meets with those who come in faith.
So I have never been totally comfortable with Zwingli’s hands-off, total symbolism. Nor was I comfortable with Luther’s consubstantiation—not that you care. But I have to conclude that just as in the same way that we are all called to obedience and in obedience there is the attendant blessing of God, so, if he has given express instruction to obey him at the point of baptism, we would anticipate that since he demanded that of us and it is an obligation and not an option, that there would be some peculiar attendant blessing in our obeying him at his express point of demand. If that is true of baptism, as I believe it to be, then I believe it also to be true of the sharing of the Lord’s Supper.
And in saying all of that, I’m not making one remote appeal to sacramentalism; all I’m saying is simply what the Bible says: that we feed on Christ in our coming to Christ, we feed on Christ in our growth in grace, and insofar as the sacrament simply sets forward in visual form that which we have in the Scriptures in verbal form, there ought to be a living encounter with the risen Christ when we gather round this table. Otherwise, why did he intend for us to do it?
That’s why some of the best Communion hymns have captured that:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen.
Now, what the hymn writer is endeavoring to do is to point to the fact that in this encounter, it is a participation by which we feed on Christ.
And finally, it is an anticipation in which we wait for Christ. “You proclaim the Lord’s death”—verse 26—“until he comes.” “Until he comes.” So it is always that we are able to look back in thankfulness and able to look forward in anticipation. And at every point along the journey, you see, the picture is that of a lamb. In the Passover, a spotless lamb. In the Lord’s Supper, “the Lamb of God, who [bears] away the sin of the world.” And what is it we anticipate in Revelation 19? It is the marriage supper of the Lamb. So when we come to the Lord’s Table, we come recognizing that there is a reminder here that for our past, God has given us cleansing and forgiveness. There is a reminder that for our present, he provides us fellowship and strength. And there is a clear indication of the fact that for our future, he has promised us assurance and joy.
Now, I haven’t said a thing about the frequency or the manner in observing Communion together. There is much that we could think through concerning that, I’m sure. But the riches which are the believer’s in Christ, as wonderful as they are in our present experience, do not yet compare to what they’re going to be.
And actually, in the wedding of Cana in Galilee, you have a wonderful anticipation. When Jesus puts his hand to the matter before the people—remember? His mother comes to him and says, “Jesus, we’ve got a real problem here. They’ve run out of wine.” What does he say? “Woman …. My time has not yet come.” What a strange answer to such a pressing, practical problem at a wedding reception. And as Jesus responds to that, remember the reaction of the people when they dip into these stone water pots which were there—the very stone water pots which were used by the Jews for their ceremonial cleansings. He takes that which was used for ceremonial and external cleansing, and he pours into that and makes in that the reality of this wine. And the people go around saying, “This is a strange wedding reception. Usually, the longer it goes, the more inferior the wine becomes. But in this case, he has kept the best wine till the end.”
And Jesus must have been saying, “Yes, and if only you had eyes to see, you would understand that that is the whole journey of Christian living,” so that when we look back and wonder at our cleansing and our forgiveness, and when we look around and rejoice in our fellowship and in our strength, and when we look forward in anticipation of all of our joy, we’re going to discover that Jesus has kept the best wine till the last. And that is why this is the merest anticipation of a reality way beyond itself.
I hope these remarks are helpful to us.
Let us pray:
O God our Father, how we long for the clarity of your truth to dawn upon our minds, and for the immensity of your love to grip our hearts afresh, and for the wonder of your dealings to frame our activities. As we come around this table this evening, we pray that we may harbor no animosity in our hearts to our brothers and sisters, that you will cleanse us afresh. We thank you that the invitation is to sinners, which makes it real easy for us to come. But we pray that you would save us from simply going through the routine. Help us to look back in wonder, to look around in gratitude, and to look forward in anticipation. Amaze us again, we pray, with the wonder of your grace. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 See Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus 26.50. The wording presented here was later formalized in a number of subsequent confessions and creeds.
 Hebrews 4:2 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 16:15–16 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 28:19.
 Deuteronomy 6:7 (paraphrased). See also Exodus 6:6.
 Exodus 13:14 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 22:7 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 22:8 (NIV 1984).
 John 6:35 (paraphrased).
 William Williams, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (1745).
 Horatius Bonar, “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face” (1855).
 John 1:29 (NIV 1984).
 See Revelation 19:9.
 John 2:3 (paraphrased).
 John 2:4 (NIV 1984).
 John 2:10 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.