“Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ ” (vv. 18–19).- Matthew 28:18–20
We rightly celebrate the Protestant Reformation for its recovery of the biblical gospel and the authority of Scripture. In the modern evangelical church, however, we often forget how the Reformation affected other aspects of the Christian life besides doctrine. The Reformers sought also to make the church’s practice conform more closely to the Scriptures, and this is particularly clear in their concern with the identifying marks of a true church. In line with the Apostles’ Creed, the Reformers sought to make the church grow in its unity, catholicity, holiness, and Apostolicity. And one of the ways they did so was by identifying additional marks of the church—the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, church discipline, and the right administration of the sacraments. Today we will consider the sacraments as a mark of the church.
Christ’s mission statement for the church—the Great Commission—tells us not only to preach and teach the Word of God faithfully and accurately but also to baptize people in the triune name of our Creator (Matt. 28:18–20). Thus we see that for our Lord, the sacraments are essential to the well-being of the church and the evangelization and discipleship of the world. As visible depictions of the gospel, the washing with water in baptism and the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper remind us of the core truths of the forgiveness of sins and of the atonement that provides for our reconciliation with God. They are tangible confirmations of the promises we hear proclaimed when the church’s pastors, elders, and teachers instruct us in His Word. A church that does not administer the sacraments regularly and according to Christ’s teaching is depriving its people of essential means of grace.
When we look at the early church, we see that the Apostles were committed to the ministry of Word and sacrament. The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching … to the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). The latter reference is almost certainly to the Lord’s Supper, possibly in conjunction with a fellowship meal. If the Apostles were committed to the sacraments as well as the Word of God, how can we think that these ordinances are optional?
John Calvin said a true church exists wherever the Word of God is taught faithfully and “wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ” (Institutes 4.1.9). The sacraments are not afterthoughts but vital to the health of Jesus’ sheep.
How important do you consider the sacraments in the local church? The Reformers regarded them as so important that they could not conceive of a true church’s existing where the sacraments were not rightly administered. Neither should we. When considering a local church to attend, let us look for one that places a high value on baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 11:17–34
1 Peter 3:18–21