Christians agree universally that baptism and the Lord's Supper were instituted by Christ and should be observed as “ordinances” or “sacraments” by His followers. Neither ordinance or sacrament is a biblical term. Some interpreters believe sacrament conveys the concept that God's grace is dispersed almost automatically through participation in the Lord's Supper. Others believe ordinance stresses obedience in doing that which Christ explicitly commanded. Extreme dangers involved in the terms range from superstition to legalism.
The “sacraments” varied in number for a thousand years in the church's early history. Peter Lombard (about A.D. 1150) defended seven, and Thomas Aquinas (about A.D. 1250) argued that all were instituted by Christ. After A.D. 1500, Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers rejected five of these, insisting that only baptism and the Lord's Supper have a biblical basis. Most Protestants agree with their assessment.
Not only the name and number but the practice and meaning of the ordinances have been matters of continuing debate. Who should receive baptism or participate in observing the Lord's Supper? What are essential elements in the observances that ensure validity? What do they accomplish in the life of the individual and the church? Definitive answers acceptable to all Christians have not been forthcoming for these or many other questions, but a survey of biblical evidence should be helpful in reaching some conclusions.
Baptism Biblical references to baptism abound in the Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, and other New Testament books. John the Baptist preached and practiced a baptism of repentance (Matthew 3:11-12;
Luke 3:2-17). His proclamation looked forward to the coming kingdom. “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Multitudes responded. Confessing their sins,” they “were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, (Mark 1:5). Apparently, not everyone who came received baptism, for John challenged some to “bring forth therefore fruit meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:8). John regarded his role as a transitional one to prepare the way (Matthew 3:11). The coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
All the Gospel writers record that Jesus was baptized by John (Matthew 3:13-17;
John 1:32-34). Matthew noted that John hesitated to baptize Jesus but finally consented “to fulfill all righteousness” (John 3:15). The identification of Jesus as Messiah followed as the heavens opened, the Spirit descended on Him like a dove, and a voice proclaimed Him the beloved Son. This event inaugurated His public ministry and set the stage for Christian baptism.
The coming age prophesied by John the Baptist arrived in Jesus. Jesus affirmed the ministry of John by submitting to baptism and adopted the rite for His own ministry, giving it new meaning for the new age. The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus gained and baptized more followers than John the Baptist (John 4:1-2), but notes that the actual baptizing was done by His disciples. Jesus referred to His impending death as a baptism (Luke 12:50), linking the meaning of baptism with the cross. These and other scattered references to baptism in the Gospels are evaluated and interpreted in a variety of ways by Bible students, but the total impact of evidence favors the view that Jesus practiced and commanded baptism. Central in this evidence is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Acts of the Apostles reflects the practice of the earliest Christian churches regarding baptism, referring to baptism far more frequently than any other New Testament book. At Pentecost after Peter's sermon, “they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). They had been exhorted by the apostle to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). At other times baptism was “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16;
Acts 19:5). Sometimes the gift of the Spirit followed baptism; at other times, the spirit preceded baptism (Acts 10:44-48). These were apparently regarded as separate experiences.
Baptism “for” the forgiveness of sins may be translated “on the basis of.” Many New Testament passages stress that forgiveness is based on repentance and trust in what Jesus had done, not on a rite—baptism or otherwise (John 3:16;
Acts 16:31). The gospel is for everyone; baptism is for disciples. Salvation is provided by Christ and not through baptism. References to Jesus' blessing little children contain no indications of baptism (Mark 10:13-16), and baptism of “households” described in Acts (Acts 16:31-33) should not be utilized to defend a later Christian practice.
If baptism is for believers only and does not convey salvation, then why do Christians universally baptize? It is highly unlikely that the early Christians would have adopted this practice without hesitation unless they were convinced strongly that Christ had intended that they do so. Further reflection upon what Christ had done enabled them to understand baptism in relation to the gospel. No New Testament writer contributed more to a fuller theological interpretation of baptism than Paul.
Paul (Saul) encountered the living Christ while on a journey to Damascus to persecute Christians. This led to a meeting in Damascus with Ananias, where Paul's sight was restored and where he was also baptized (Acts 9:17-18). What Paul had known about baptism previously must have been largely negative, but from this time baptism became a part of his missionary message and practice among both Jews and Gentiles.
Paul's basic message declared that a right relationship with God is based exclusively on faith in Jesus Christ. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith'“ (Acts 1:17 NIV). Throughout Romans Paul stressed the primacy of grace over law. Access to this grace is through faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 5:2). Where sin (breaking the law) abounds, grace much more abounds. This poses the question (Acts 6:1 NIV), “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Paul denied emphatically that this is the case, for one dead to sin lives no longer in it. This fact is clearly illustrated in Christian baptism. “Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Acts 6:3-4 NIV).”
Paul assumed here the universal Christian practice of baptism and a common understanding that it symbolizes death, burial, and resurrection of the believer with Christ. The mode of immersion most clearly preserves this symbolism along with the added emphasis of death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ. The stress is upon what Christ has done more than what the believer does. Through faith in Him, grace is received and makes baptism meaningful.
Paul in 1 Corinthians related unity in Christ to baptism. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (Acts 12:13). The body of Christ encompasses Jews and Greeks, slave and free, each with a diversity of gifts; but they are bound together in a unity of spirit and symbolized in baptism.
Galatians 3:26-29 stresses identification with Christ and unity in Him also, using the figure of putting on clothing. “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). But the preceding verse should be noted also. “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” For those who belong to Christ, earthly distinctions disappear; and all are one in Christ, heirs according to the promise.
The subjective aspect of baptism for the believer and the objective aspect in Christ are brought together in
Colossians 2:9-12. In a circumcision not by hands of men but by Christ, the sinful nature is put off. The Colossians have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him through faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead. Consequently, they are to set their hearts on things above and put to death the earthly nature (Colossians 3:1,Colossians 3:5).
It is evident from the above and other passages that, for Paul, baptism portrayed the gospel message of the death and resurrection of Christ, affirmed the death of the believer to sin and the rising to walk in newness of life, and signified a union of the believer with Christ and a unity with other believers. The rite itself does not effect these, for they are based on what Christ has done and is done. Baptism serves as the effective public symbol and declaration for those who trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.
The Lord's Supper The earliest written account of the institution of the Lord's Supper is in
1 Corinthians 11:23-26. The Corinthian church was divided, and many of its members were selfish and self-indulgent. In their fellowship meal, therefore, they did not eat “the Lord's Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20); for some overindulged, while others were left hungry and humiliated. In response to this abuse, Paul reminded them of the tradition that he had received and passed on to them regarding the Supper of the Lord with His disciples the night He was betrayed.
The Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
The terms eucharist or thanksgiving and communion or fellowship are often applied to the Supper, and each highlights a significant aspect of this ordinance. “The Lord's Supper” appears more satisfactory for the overall designation, reminding Christians that they share the loaf and cup at His table, not their own.
The account of the Last Supper in
Mark 14:22-26 is roughly parallel to Paul's account but with some differences (see also
Matthew 26:26-29 and
Luke 22:17-20). Both accounts (Mark's and Paul's) record the blessing (thanksgiving) and breaking of bread. Both refer to covenant in connection with the cup as His blood, though only Paul called this a new covenant (see
Jeremiah 31:31-34). Both contain a future emphasis, though in different forms. Mark indicated that Jesus said He would not drink again of the fruit of the vine until He drank it anew in the kingdom of God. Paul related that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26 NIV).
Paul stressed the memorial aspect of the Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Christians were to remember that the body of Christ was broken and His blood shed for them. As in baptism, sharing the Supper is a proclamation of the gospel in hope, “until he comes.” As the Passover was a symbol of the old covenant, the Lord's Supper is a symbol of the new. Christians remember the sacrifice provided for their deliverance from bondage and look forward to the ultimate consummation in the land of promise, the kingdom of God.
The Supper shared in remembrance of the past and hope for the future is fulfilled in fellowship for the present. Time and again the phrase “in Christ” is repeated in the writings of Paul. Union in Christ and unity with Christians is a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, therefore, one finds these emphases related to the Lord's Supper. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16 NIV). Paul was not talking about a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, but a genuine sharing of fellowship (koinonia) with the living Lord. Fellowship in Christ is basic for fellowship in his body (1 Corinthians 10:17).
All Christians are unworthy to share the Lord's Supper, but His grace has provided for them in their unworthiness. The tragedy is that some partake in an unworthy manner, not discerning the Lord's body. Paul addressed this matter for the Corinthians and for us, urging that Christians examine themselves and respect the corporate body of Christ as they share the Supper of the Lord.
Conclusions Christ instituted both ordinances. Both portray publically and visibly the essential elements of the gospel, and both symbolize realities involving divine activity and human experience. Baptism is a once-for-all experience, but the Lord's Supper is repeated many times. Baptism follows closely one's profession of faith in Christ and actually in the New Testament was the declaration of that faith. The Lord's Supper declares one's continuing dependence upon the Christ proclaimed in the gospel, who died, was buried, and rose for our salvation.
The significance of baptism and the Lord's Supper will increase as churches and people commit themselves anew to the Christ proclaimed by the gospel. This commitment will recognize that, in observing the ordinances, they are presenting in a unique way the gospel of Christ and committing themselves fully to its demands. Calling upon Christ the Savior and Lord to provide strength and leadership for the people of God individually and collectively, believers will leave the observance of the ordinances to give faithful service in His world.
Claude L. Howe, Jr.