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; Acts 16:15; Acts 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:
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.