The Self-Induced Uselessness of Modern Church Sacraments
I don’t like to get involved in arguments about the sacraments. Not that I don’t believe the sacraments – or the ordinances – are not important. But the modern debate – on both sides, Presbyterian and Baptist – is irrelevant to the Biblical faith. It revolves around issues that are not even Biblical to start with. Its focus is far from the Biblical focus. It ignores God as the direct immediate reality behind the sacraments. It ignores the work of the Holy Spirit – far more important than the work of the individual or the church leadership. It ignores the ethical/judicial issues involved – especially the judgment part. And it ignores the victory of the Gospel in history.
Modern sacraments are the symbolic equivalent of crossing the Red Sea and settling in the desert on its eastern shore, feeding on manna forever. Actually, I take that back: the manna was sweet. The correct symbol would be feeding on rusk forever. Modern sacraments are a useless exercise, without any spiritual or judicial reality behind them. If some day I get back into that debate, it will be only when the Biblical focus is restored, and with it, the efficacy and the usefulness of the sacraments.
Book of the Week:
– The Sovereign Spirit by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
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Welcome to Episode 10 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will be talking about church sacraments, their meaning, their effectiveness, and their uselessness as well. Or, rather, their modern uselessness within the context of the theology of the modern church.
I want make this disclaimer at the very beginning: I generally stay away from arguments about sacraments. In fact, I don’t even like the word “sacraments,” and I prefer “ordinances,” for the obvious reason. Ordinances, because they are ordained, or commanded, by Christ. Sacrament in its modern meaning would presuppose some form of magic or liturgy behind it. Sacramentum is the Latin word for oath, and oath were considered a special form of magic in the pagan world. Now, of course, if we take the Christian meaning of “oath,” an ethical/judicial binding involving invoking God’s curse for breaking the oath, it would be better. The problem is, most, if not all, modern churches have abandoned the meaning of the sacraments as vows or judgment; even in the most anti-liturgical ones, the sacraments continue to be rather liturgical, even if no one calls them liturgy anymore. Also, modern Reformed churches have abandoned the belief in the spiritual reality behind judicial oaths. Yes, yes, I know, they pay lip service to the belief in the spiritual, but their “spiritual” is always rather abstract, happening somewhere in the background. And it better stay there in the background and in the shadows, while we have a theology that bans it from our churches and from our practice. No matter what their leaders claim from the pulpit, the real ideology of the majority of Reformed churches today is Enlightenment rationalism. God is just added to this ideology as a sort of an insurance company, making sure nothing extraordinary happens to our neat programs and pageants.
My personal preferences are generally on the Presbyterian side of the debate over the sacraments. I believe the children of believing parents are by default members of the Covenant and not little pagans living in a covenant home. I believe there is a corporate aspect to the Covenant of Grace which allows for representative inclusion in the Covenant of Grace; therefore, children of covenant parents should receive the sign of the Covenant. Nevertheless, I seldom participate in debates between Presbyterians and Baptists. Why? Because I can see that the majority of Presbyterians are absolutely clueless of the covenantal foundation of their argument. Thus, they argue in a fragmented way, not in a covenantal way. In the final account, all the arguments between Presbyterians and Baptists are on a level that is either rationalist or mysticist. And when I say “all the arguments,” I don’t mean only amateurish arguments on FB. I mean argumentation brought forth between theologians and writers and preachers. Yes, I must say, most of what comes out of our modern seminaries is pure childishness – including the theological arguments. The celebrities we have elevated for ourselves – on both sides, Presbyterian and Baptist – are quite simplistic and fragmented in their understanding of theology. Yes, yes, I know, you will tell me, but these guys write fat books and they preach so many sermons and write blogs and briefings, etc. I am not impressed. Quantity doesn’t make up for the lack of quality. The multitude of words can’t make up for the lack of covenantal thinking. So I generally stay away from those debates.
I differ with my Baptist friends on baptism, but keep in mind, on the Lord’s Supper, I find the position of the majority of my Presbyterian brethren fragmented and indefensible. Specifically, their rationalist view of the communion: that communion is a judgment of our intellectual capabilities of rationally conceptualizing the church as the body of Christ. And the belief following from it that children should be excluded from it. My children, again, are not little pagans living in my home – they are not pagans morally, and they are not pagans intellectually. They are members of the covenant judicially (contrary to my Baptist brethren), and they are members of the covenant intellectually and in deed (contrary to my Presbyterian brethren).
So, now that I have offended both groups, I should add, I know that there are nuances within each group, and some people wouldn’t agree with some specific terminology I have used so far. That’s OK. It doesn’t matter. I have a worse offense for you all, one that establishes an even worse divide between me and the two modern camps: I don’t believe the debate as it is today is even relevant to the Christian faith. Yes, you heard me well, and let me repeat it again: The debate over the sacraments is not even relevant to the Christian faith. Most of the debate today is predicated on presuppositions about the sacraments that are not even in the Bible; the Bible doesn’t seem to have such a focus on the significance and the details of symbols or efficacy of the sacraments. Such focus comes not from the early church – in fact, based on the writings of the early church fathers, there was a significant liberty in the early church concerning the methods and the beliefs about the sacraments. It’s not that the early church has specific evidence of subscribing to one or another doctrine of the meaning and the efficacy of the sacraments; it just has very scanty evidence and focus on these issues. True, the early church authors wrote on the issues of the sacraments – but judging from the volume and share of such writings, the early church seems to have relegated these issues to a place of secondary importance. They didn’t even include baptism and the Supper in most of their creeds! Whether they baptized children or not, and whether they allowed children to partake of the communion or not, or whether their mode of baptism was sprinkling or immersion, or whether the true meaning of baptism was a covenant sign or a confession of faith, or whether the Lord’s Supper was a symbol or real presence – these questions were discussed so rarely in the writings of the church fathers that we today have to glean bits and pieces from them in order to get the whole picture. There was no systematic theology of the sacraments in the early church. In fact, it wasn’t until the church started developing a special aristocracy of priests that it started developing different theories sifting out the gnats about rituals and symbols. And when such theories started developing, they ignored a number of camels that the church swallowed happily. And, I must say, continues to swallow today.
I know you are not used to hearing this about the sacraments; I know that the majority of Christians today have been conditioned to believe that the correct view of the details of the sacraments – liturgical and symbolic – is so important, that it deserves enormous attention. I will challenge this view here. I will show that Biblically, the sacraments have no meaning in themselves, and there is a higher reality behind them, and a deeper context which is specifically and self-consciously avoided by modern theologians. Avoided because they have invested in a truncated gospel limited to the church and the individual, a gospel of no victory in history, and, most of all, a gospel of a deist god who may have given his word to man some time in the past but is today silent and passive. Unless we send that truncated gospel to the garbage heap of history, we won’t understand the meaning of the sacraments, and we will have useless rituals – which they are today, in the vast majority of churches. Yes, I said it: the sacraments as the church preaches and practices them today are useless, and have no efficacy at all, no matter what your view of them is. And it is time to return to the Bible, and start reading what the Bible says about baptism and about the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s start with baptism. And let’s try for a moment to forget everything we have learned in sermons, books, and seminary lectures about baptism. Let’s be consistent with the most important clause our confessions of faith, and judge the opinions of authors, the decisions of councils, and private spirits by what Scripture says on the issue of baptism. And let’s try to visualize a realistic picture of those first baptisms performed by John the Baptist at the river Jordan.
We have John the Baptist who preaches repentance and redemption, which is not unusual in a nation that has been the guardian of the Scriptures of God for over a millennium. There was a multitude of preachers and teachers in Israel at the time, some legitimate, some not so legitimate. Very early in Jesus’s ministry, there were even religious activists who started imitating Him; see, for example, Luke 9:49-50, where the disciples met a man who cast out demons in Jesus’s name. While Athens was known for her babbling empty philosophizers, Israel was known for her preachers. They had a global fame; just a year after Jesus started preaching, Greeks from Athens came to hear Him. So John the Baptist’s preaching was not something unusual. The world at the time was used to listen to preachers of morality and redemption from Israel. After all, even Julius Caesar considered Israel so important that he freed the Jews of taxes every seventh year. Don’t forget the number of Roman soldiers described in the Gospels and Acts who either converted or at least acknowledged the truthfulness of Jesus’s claims. (Even Pilate himself did.)
But with that ordinary and normal activity – preaching repentance and redemption – John does something which has no analog in the OT: he baptizes for the remission of sins.
Where did he get that idea from?
The idea is not in the Old Testament. No one is baptized there. There is the concept of going through water, but it certainly is not of repentance for the remission of sins. When the people came to John to get baptized, in his preaching, he used terminology which pointed back to the Flood and the waters of the flood: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” But in the Flood, those who were saved, Noah’s family, were neither immersed nor sprinkled; it was the unbelieving world that was really baptized. In the same way, when Paul speaks about an OT baptism, Moses baptizing the Israelites in the sea, in 1 Cor. 10:2, the word applies to people who were neither immersed nor sprinkled; Exodus 14:22 specifically says that they “went through the sea on dry ground.” It was the Egyptian army that was properly baptized, if we take the literal meaning of the word. Obviously, the NT doctrine of baptism is not so awfully concerned about the literal meaning of the word baptizo, that is, immerse. To add insult to the injury, it’s not so concerned about the literal application of water either. Thus, at least part of the modern argument between immersion and sprinkling is irrelevant. We argue about the exact physical form of a symbol, when we have missed the real meaning behind that symbol. We have strained out a gnat, while we have swallowed a herd of camels.
Either way, there is no mention of baptism for the remission of sins in the OT. There is no mention of such a ceremony either. Remission of sins was through shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”). So where did John take his idea from?
Even more important: how come his listeners, who for generations were trained to look to the Law and especially its ceremonies as their guide, all of a sudden accepted as valid a ceremony that was not in the Law? Even Pharisees and Saducees, those experts in the minutest details of the Law, came to be baptized (Matt. 3:7), without questioning the validity of the sacrament. Others who didn’t take John’s baptism still didn’t question its meaning, they only asked if John was the Messiah; they somehow knew that when He comes, Messiah will baptize. In John 1:25 they specifically asked him, “Why do you then baptize if you are not Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” But where did they get that idea from? Certainly not from the OT. How is it that John comes up with a totally new ceremony, changing the very central tenet of the old religion, remission of sins through shedding of blood, and no one questions its meaning?
So, there was no teaching on the meaning of baptism in the OT, except for a few highly symbolic references which didn’t even include immersion of the faithful but rather of the enemies of God. And John didn’t start a new school, developing a body of literature on the meaning of baptism. Not that he was illiterate; his father was a member of the priestly tribe, after all. John simply started preaching baptism on the remission of sins, out of the blue, in the wilderness, and people started coming to him, and he just baptized, without bothering to ask them if they understood the real meaning of baptism, and whether it pointed to regeneration or was simply a symbol, or a covenant sign, etc. remember, these people didn’t have centuries of teachings on the baptism; they had other teachings that were their tradition for over a millennium, and these teachings had nothing about baptism. Why wasn’t John concerned about creating a detailed body of knowledge and literature on the real meaning of baptism?
Compare this to our modern situation. After centuries of teachings on baptism, our seminaries and theologians and preachers and pastors produce tons of materials, going into all the obscure and arcane details of the ceremony, of the meaning of the ceremony, of the meaning of its detailed ceremonial parts, of the symbolism involved, of the necessary qualities of the ministers. . . . Teaching baptism, folks, can qualify as environmental disaster; who knows how many forests we have destroyed on fat volumes or lengthy chapters on baptism? We have special instructions for the people baptized, in some churches they are made to go through a special period of learning about the meaning of the ceremony. After they have been baptized, the teaching continues – lectures, conferences, sermons, seminars. How come, after 2,000 years of Christian teaching, we still need all this, and the people in John’s time knew it without all this? Could it be that they were smarter than us and didn’t need all this waste of energy of teaching them all these details?
Or could it be that in the worldview of the Biblical writers, baptism in itself didn’t have such a primary importance, and was only one part of a greater picture?
We have a good reason to believe that this is the case. And that reason is that in all four Gospels, when water baptism is introduced, it is always introduced in the context of a phrase that point to its secondary importance, compared to something of much greater importance.
Let’s look now at Matt. 3:11, the words of John the Baptist himself: “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I baptize you with water, but there’s a mightier and more worthy one than me, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. How does that sound? Does that sound like water baptism has a central place, over and above any other baptism? Or does it sound like it is only a prelude to another, more powerful baptism?
Mark 1:7-8: “And he was preaching, and saying, ‘After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Again, we see, water baptism is given only in the context of something much greater, and mightier, and worthier: baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Luke 3:16: “John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” Here it is again.
John 1:25, the Pharisees asked him, “How come you are baptizing, if you are not Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” They knew that Messiah would baptize; they didn’t know – or didn’t acknowledge – that John was the Prophet, of course. John answered them about another one coming after him. And then, the next day, vv. 29-34, he continues his answer, and from his answer it is apparent that the whole point of his ministry is to identify the Messiah, who will baptize in the Holy Spirit!
Apparently, if we read our Bibles, water baptism was not enough; it was only an earlier step to something much mightier, more powerful, and greater than water baptism: baptism in the Spirit. In Luke 24:49 Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high. What was that clothing with power from on high that required that they just wait passively? These people were already baptized, they had already seen and believed the resurrection. They even had received the Holy Spirit; in John 20:22, Jesus breathed on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit. Why did they have to wait? What was that power?
In Acts 1:4-5, the matter becomes clearer: “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And even clearer a few verses later when he says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
From these verses, it should be obvious that water baptism should lead to the greater baptism, that in the Spirit, and that without baptism in the Spirit there can’t be any effective testimony. If all four Gospels repeat the same thing about the ministry of John, if Jesus also confirms it after His resurrection, if He tells His disciples – already believers, already baptized in water, already witnesses of His resurrection and already received the Holy Spirit – to wait until they are baptized in the Spirit . . . there’s a good reason to believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit should be a very important doctrine for those who claim to be “sola scriptura,” right? And not only important, but our Reformed preachers and teachers should preach and teach it every time they preach and teach water baptism, and encourage their listeners to seek from the Lord baptism in the Spirit just as they sought from the church water baptism. Right?
Apparently, though, sola scriptura doesn’t seem to work in this case, not when modern Reformed ministries and churches are involved. To the flood of teaching about water baptism, the quantity of material on baptism in the Spirit is quite meager. I made the effort to run through the archives of a few major celebrity Reformed ministries to see what they have about baptism in the Holy Spirit. Very little. John MacArthur has a couple of sermons. Ligonier Ministries has 3 or 4 articles. The NT or systematic theology syllabi of several Reformed seminaries don’t even mention baptism in the Spirit. (They do have detailed courses on water baptism, though.) Reformed sermons on baptism in the Spirit are very few. Of those I have been able to find, most of the energy is spent on attacking modern Charismatics, and only small portions of them are devoted to attempts for Biblical exegesis of the concept.
The quantity is meager, but so is the quality, even from those ministries considered to be most reliable. The 3 or 4 articles on the Ligonier Ministry’s website contradict and refute each other. One warns against believing in a second, more perfect baptism – that is, baptism in the Spirit – and argues that this would create second class citizens in the Kingdom of God; even though several texts in the Gospels and Acts clearly speak of two different baptisms. Then another article, again on Ligonier’s website, says exactly the opposite: that we must clearly distinguish between conversion and baptism in the Spirit. John MacArthur is also self-contradictory. In one sermon he says that being filled with the Spirit is the same thing as being baptized in the Spirit. In another he insists that the two are different. Neither Ligonier, nor MacArthur, nor any other Reformed ministry I checked, really bother to address the connection between water baptism and baptism in the Spirit, emphasized by John the Baptist, ordained by Jesus, and described practically in Acts. No ministry bothers to make the connection between baptism in the Spirit and the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit described in Acts: speaking in tongues and prophesying. No ministry mentions baptism in the Spirit as the defining sign of Jesus’s greater ministry as over against John’s lesser ministry; nor do they comment on Jesus’s command to postpone their evangelism to after they had power from above.
And it doesn’t stop there. When one goes into the details of their teaching on baptism in the Spirit, the things get even more bizarre. Some teach that baptism in the Spirit means simply baptism in the church: once we are members of a church, we are automatically baptized in the Spirit, ignoring passages like Acts 19:1-7 where there were disciples who were not baptized in the Spirit. Others claim that the supernatural element of baptism in the Spirit has ceased and today it has nothing to do with supernatural power – without offering a single Scriptural verse to prove such discontinuity. Others explain that baptism in the Spirit is not an experiential event, because the baptized person doesn’t feel anything; therefore it must be just some natural occurrence or something; forgetting, obviously, that in the Biblical account it was the people around who certainly felt something and could testify that there was baptism in the Spirit. Etc., etc., etc. When it comes to baptism in the Spirit – as well as on many other topics – modern Reformed theology is a complete mess of contradictions and human inventions, having nothing to do with the Bible.
The question of course is, how do these guys get away with it? How come we have allowed our theologians and teachers and preachers and celebrities who are professedly sola scriptura ignore the plain teaching of Scripture on this issue. How is it that the baptism which the Bible clearly describes as the lesser ministry by the lesser man, is elevated to such prominent position, while we ignore the greater baptism by the greater man, which is made the mark of the New Covenant itself? How is it that we take water baptism isolated from the real meaning of the work of Christ: to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit? Why have allowed our celebrities to mislead us so badly, when the Bible speaks so clearly on this issue?
The answer to it may take another podcast; but here it is in short: Our modern Reformed theology – or what passes for “Reformed theology” – is rather Enlightenment rationalism, peppered with a few theologically correct propositions about God’s grace in personal salvation. In everything else, it is a self-conscious rejection of the direct, spiritual, supernatural involvement of God in history and in the life and work of His Church. Yes, yes, the supernatural work of the Spirit is somewhat paid lip service to; but it is always relegated to the realm of the abstract; never allowed to have direct manifestation in the life of the church or of the individual believer. I mean, imagine if everyone in the church is filled with the Holy Spirit and has that power from above as the believers in the church in Acts had; what will happen to the tradition and the programs and the liturgies of the modern Reformed churches? And how would the sessions maintain their authority? We can’t afford that, can we? We have our own theology that is designed to keep the Holy Spirit in His place. Yes, yes, sometimes we may allow Him to give some sort of some foreboding or illumination or dream; as long as He keeps them conveniently vague and abstract; and that’s about it. But the church needs to be run by men, and these men are serious, rational men; they have no time for supernatural shenanigans.
Again, we can continue talking about this Enlightenment rationalism in another place. Here, it is important to understand what it does to our view of baptism: it destroys the meaning of baptism. If water baptism is taken out of its proper Biblical context and interpreted in isolation from that context, we should expect that eventually, baptism would have no meaning whatsoever. And therefore, would have no efficacy. It doesn’t matter how many books we write on it, how many lectures we deliver on its efficacy, it doesn’t matter if we masterfully prove one or another of the popular views of it – covenant sign, confession, remission of sins, regeneration, or you name it – we won’t know what baptism is and what it means. If we don’t teach that it is only the beginning and it leads to a greater baptism by Jesus’s greater ministry, we have failed our listeners. Paul said in 1 Cor. 10:2 that Moses baptized his people in the cloud and in the sea. The baptism in the sea was not the end goal of it, and was not even the main baptism. They had to be lead by the cloud which was the Spirit of God; and at night it became a pillar of fire. It was the Spirit that led them into the Promised Land, not the water. Modern Reformed theology, with its excessive focus on water baptism and with its ignoring baptism in the Spirit – or misinterpreting it grievously, as it does – would have the Hebrews just stop on the other side of the Red Sea and live in the desert, center their culture around the narrative of their passage through the Red Sea, about the real nature of the water and of the passage, retell stories about the Pharaoh’s army and their death, and declare salvation to anyone who simply crosses the Red Sea and comes to live with them in the desert. Indeed, judging from the state of the Reformed churches today – Baptist or Presbyterian – the modern Reformed churches do indeed live in the desert, and there is no purpose nor intent of going all the way to the Promised Land and taking it. The cloud is still there, turning into a pillar of fire at night, waiting for us to follow it to victory, but we have a nice theology about why it shouldn’t be paid too much attention. We even re-interpret it to be anything else but what it is and what God says it is. We don’t even follow it to Sinai anymore; we have an abundance of theologies why even Sinai is not needed anymore. Our baptism has led us to the desert and has left us there.
And the result is obvious in the culture. Our churches are apathetic and dead, even where the people in the church were taught everything about the meaning of baptism – supposedly. There is no growth, no development. Within the last hundred years we lost the American culture. On the mission field, Presbyterian and Baptist missions are among the best funded of all; Presbyterian missions are rich compared to any other missionaries out there. And yet, the underfunded Pentecostal and Charismatic missions are eating their lunch in every nation where they compete. I have seen Presbyterian missions funded well enough to have all of their missionaries live American lifestyles in a third-world country and still spinning their wheels for 20 years without any impact in the culture. Meanwhile, Charismatic individual missionaries who use their personal savings to rent small apartments and live like the locals, plant a church within a year, and then several more within the next 5 years. True enough, neither has any cultural impact because neither has the theology for such impact, but the Charismatics are still showing a much better bang for the buck. We are still in the wilderness, as Presbyterians. And our botched view of baptism is one factor for this fiasco. It’s time to re-assess it, and it’s time to actually pay attention to the real meaning of water baptism and its proper place in the bigger picture of God’s Covenant. It’s time to let God be God, and let Him intervene in our neat but useless programs and pageants and ceremonies, and ask him to move us with His Holy Spirit. And if that means we start speaking in angelic tongues, so be it, sola scriptura. Whatever it is, we need baptism in the Holy Spirit more than we need to be sprinkled or dunked in water; for without it, we are salt that has lost its savor.
The situation is not any better with the Lord’s Supper.
A few years ago I was at a service in a Presbyterian church where the elders, before administering the Lord’s Supper, specifically instructed the congregation to examine themselves before taking the Supper, and if they believed they would be taking it in an unworthy manner, to refrain from taking. They also specifically didn’t allow children to take. Yes, I know, there is a long tradition behind these practices and warnings. After the service, in a rather casual conversation with one of the elders, I asked him if he could show me where in the Bible he could point me to an admonition of not taking the Supper if the person believed he was taking unworthily. The elder was pretty sure it was 1 Cor. 11, in the passage about the Lord’s Supper.
Again, I know very well, there is a long tradition behind this belief, and behind such a practice. That tradition is not Reformed, though, it dates several centuries before the Reformation, and it comes from times when the Roman church started going more and more ritualistic and occult in its sacraments. When we go to the Bible, 1 Cor. 11doesn’t advise anyone to refrain from participating in the Communion. There is no such thing as voluntary self-excommunication in the Bible. The text in 1 Cor. 11:27-28 says the following: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” So the text doesn’t say, ‘Don’t take.” It says, “First examine yourself, and then take.”
I also asked the elder if he thought if that verse applied to children: that children could be “guilty of the body and the blood.” His reply was that probably not, but since they couldn’t discern the body, they were not qualified. To my question how he knew who could discern the body his reply was that they had to have intellectual understanding of the meaning of the body, and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In the final account, he said, “We as elders have the responsibility to guard the table from unworthy eating. And this is good for the people, because, as Paul said, they would be eating and drinking judgment to themselves.”
But in 1 Cor. 11 that judgment is expressed in visible, discernible events: people eating and drinking became sick and some died. And these events were not natural, for in an age when sickness and death were much more natural than they are today and happened at much earlier ages than today, such judgments were still quite obvious and supernatural for the people in the church in Corinth to notice them. And to also notice the connection between these cases of sickness and death and the Lord’s Supper. And even Paul, who wasn’t with them, knew about these cases from reports, and pointed to them as manifestations of judgment. Obviously, he didn’t expect anyone to say, “These were natural occurrences.” It was clear to everyone that these people got sick and died because of some unnatural – or supernatural – reason. Something like Ananias and Saphira.
Do we have such cases today in our churches, where people got sick and died because they ate unworthily? I can’t think of a single one. And I have never heard any report from anyone about such a case. I know many people who – in retrospect – were exposed as not even being believers, and yet, not a single one of them got sick and died because of partaking in the Communion. When it comes to children, I never heard of children who have taken of the Communion and got sick or died. (Actually, I know of children who were sick – even of terminal illnesses – and were healed after partaking.) Why is that? Is that judgment not applicable to our day anymore? Has it ceased, like some say other manifestations of the Holy Spirit have ceased? (Apparently, cessationism, to be consistent, must takes us to some really weird conclusions.) Or may be the judgment is not miraculous anymore, but stays only in the abstract and intellectual realm, just like the abstract “supernaturalness” of our modern theologians that is only somewhere in the background but never expressed in direct discernible intervention of God in the church? But what verses in the Bible could justify such radical cessationism?
The answer, I believe, is somewhere else. And it is in the fact that just as with water baptism, our modern theology has missed the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. It has presented the Lord’s Supper to us as a mixture between a magical ceremony and a seminary exam. The mood is always like at a funeral service – as if the death of Christ was the end of all, not the victory of a new covenant. People are excluded – or advised to self-exclude – based on standards that are not even in the Bible. Not to mention the practice in many churches to serve the Supper only once every several months – because, supposedly, its significance would be devalued if it was too often, like the first day of the week.
The Biblical view of the Lord’s Supper is covenantal, that is, ethical/judicial. The Supper is a judicial declaration, a court verdict. It is not a ritual of magical significance which can get polluted by the unclean participation of uninitiated people. It is not a university exam or diploma for those who can recite certain propositions of the faith and express intellectual agreement with them. It’s a court room, a place of separation where everyone must come, and will either be thrown out by the Lord Himself, or be accepted and healed.
Notice that the verses in 1 Cor. 11:30-32 do not say, “Do not eat.” There is not a single word in Paul’s admonition to suggest such a thing. Paul’s words are, “Eat only after you have examined, that is judged, yourself.” Because if you judge yourself rightly, you won’t be judged. But even if you are judged, listen to Paul’s words: “You are disciplined by the Lord so that you are not condemned with the world.”
What is Paul saying here? He is saying, “You better eat and be judged with the Lord, so that you are not judged with the world.” Don’t refrain from eating, or you are in a worse trouble than if you don’t eat. Just make sure you judge yourself before you stand before that Judge, just as Jesus said in Matthew 5:25.
That the Lord’s Supper is a judicial procedure is obvious from that whole passage. In different versions, the word “judge” appears in it seven times: But a man must judge himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be judged along with the world.
The idea that a man can escape judgment by not participating is not a Biblical idea. One is either judged in the Supper or judged outside it. And when in the Supper, he is judged not for his intellectual agreement but for his being able to recognize (or judge) the body for what it is, a body. The people judged there were not people who didn’t know their TULIP or have committed sins. These were people who used the Lord’s Supper to fill their own stomachs, because they didn’t recognize other Christians to be part of the same body. The context in the next chapter, 12, speaks clearly of the body and its unity. We are judged for our belonging to the body, not for our intellectual assent with theological propositions. Children belong to the body by default. They are not judged outside the body. They should participate.
Everyone is judged in the Supper, and those who belong to the body are judged not only not guilty, they are also declared victors and judges themselves. Thus, the Lord’s Supper is also a victory feast, not a funeral feast, and not a time of subdued silence for the people of God. Subdued silence is for the pagan temples where the gods must not be disturbed by human noise, or the rituals won’t work manipulating the gods to do man’s bidding. The modern Reformed too often overemphasize their own depravity, making up fancier and fancier terminology to demonstrate verbal humility: “I am such a wretched, miserable sinner, we are simply exiles here, we just mourn by the rivers of Babylon,,” etc., etc. Most of it, of course, is an attempt to drown in self-pity and fake humility their refusal to act and bring the redemption of the Kingdom of God to every area of life. This over-emphasis on depravity and this ignoring the power of redemption contributes to the wrong concept of the Lord’s Supper, making it a somber, almost occult experience of mental self-flagellation. The Supper is a declaration of victory, and it is supposed to be joyful and triumphant, not somber and self-pitying. Keep in mind, it is supposed to have enough food and wine for some people to get full and even drunk. If there is any symbol in it, it is that we have everything in abundance now, in Christ’s victory. And what do we have today? The servings of several average churches combined today couldn’t get one person full or drunk, let alone many persons. In what way exactly do we believe our modern communion follows the example of the early church?
This self-defeating, self-deprecating, individualist, rationalist, occult, ritualistic supper we have today in our churches is certainly not the Biblical supper. I am not saying the churches are not true churches, only that the churches do not have a supper rightly conceived and rightly constituted; a supper that is a court of judgment and also a victory feast. A supper that includes everyone who is a member of the body, not just the theologically and intellectually astute. No matter how much church leaders today strive to supposedly “guard the table,” the Holy Spirit is not involved in it. We won’t hear any soon that people have gotten sick or have died because of unworthy eating of the Supper. For all practical purposes, the modern communion in the churches is an empty ritual game.
To use the imagery of the Old Testament, our churches’ supper doesn’t point to any victory, and doesn’t point to any judgment on God’s enemies. But then, I guess, it’s only fitting, given that our baptism doesn’t point to following the cloud and the pillar of fire to the Promised Land. Spending our entire life in the desert doesn’t qualify as victory anyway.
As I said, I don’t like to get involved in arguments about the sacraments. Not that I don’t believe the sacraments – or the ordinances – are not important. But the modern debate – on both sides, Presbyterian and Baptist – is irrelevant to the Biblical faith. It revolves around issues that are not even Biblical to start with. Its focus is far from the Biblical focus. It ignores God as the direct immediate reality behind the sacraments. It ignores the work of the Holy Spirit – far more important than the work of the individual or the church leadership. It ignores the ethical/judicial issues involved – especially the judgment part. And it ignores the victory of the Gospel in history. Modern sacraments are the symbolic equivalent of crossing the Red Sea and settling in the desert on its eastern shore, feeding on manna forever. Actually, I take that back: the manna was sweet. The correct symbol would be feeding on rusk forever. Modern sacraments are a useless exercise, without any spiritual or judicial reality behind them. If some day I get back into that debate, it will be only when the Biblical focus is restored, and with it, the efficacy and the usefulness of the sacraments.
The book I will recommend today is a short collection of sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Sovereign Spirit. That great Reformed teachers and pastor had something to say about baptism in the Spirit. Just pay attention to his arguments.
And help me continue the work in Bulgaria. Visit BulgarianReformation.com and prayerfully contribute to the work of building an intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization in Bulgaria. We have tried to follow the cloud and the pillar of fire to the land. We need your help in the work of judging God’s enemies. God bless you.