Dear Pastor . . . Don’t Undervalue the Sacraments

Dear Pastor . . . Don’t Undervalue the Sacraments

Written by Kevin P. Emmert |
Monday, January 15, 2024

The most profound reason that the sacraments engage our entire being is that they present to us the incarnate Son of God. Baptism and Communion help us encounter the crucified, risen, and present Christ in a full-bodied manner. Whenever these visible words of the gospel are celebrated in the context of the gathered body, our Lord invites us—all of who we are, soul and body—to come to him. And when we come to him in faith, we become more enamored and transformed by him. 

Dear Pastor,

Many pastors and churches today grant the sacraments a low status in public worship. Sure, we know they are important because our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has commanded us to be baptized and to celebrate his meal. But surely these rites don’t have a role as significant as Scripture’s. The preaching of God’s word is the central part of corporate worship. It is the primary means by which we hear from God, and then we respond to him with thanksgiving in prayer and praise. We can never exhaust the riches of Scripture, but an overemphasis on the sacraments can lead to cold ritualism and even superstition, right?

Right. But could it be that many of us are wary of ascribing the sacraments a more central role in corporate worship because we have misunderstood what the sacraments are and do?

Truthfully, the sacraments have played a vital role in nourishing God’s people throughout the course of church history. So significant are baptism and Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) that the Reformers, many of whom were pastors, considered right preaching (and hearing) of Scripture and right administration of the sacraments to be the two main marks of the church. Thus, the Scottish preacher Robert Bruce could say that Scripture and the sacraments are the “two special means” that God has chosen to “lead us to Christ.”1

Scripture and Sacrament

As heirs of the Reformation, we rightly recognize that Scripture is the chief source for theological investigation and religious matters, the one to which all others must submit. And so we cherish and champion sola Scriptura (Scripture alone): Scripture—as self-revelation of the triune God—is the perfect, sufficient, and ultimate authority regarding faith and practice.

Yet sola Scriptura must not be confused with nuda Scriptura (bare Scripture), or solo Scriptura (only Scripture), the flawed idea that Scripture can be understood outside any church context or that other sources have no bearing on the task of theology, which necessarily informs our worship and living. Even though Scripture is the chief means that God uses to nourish us and draw us closer to himself, it is not the only means he uses to do so.

God has given his people two types of words: the written word (Scripture) and visible words (the sacraments). While Scripture grounds the sacraments and gives them their meaning, the sacraments reinforce or accentuate Scripture. Baptism and Communion present to us in visible, touchable form the good news of Jesus Christ. Scripture and sacrament are therefore complementary, not competing, and both offer us Christ.2

How God Works

But is all this just fanciful talk? Does God really use such mundane physical objects to work in and through his people? The answer is a resounding yes! In fact, he has always worked through material stuff that he has chosen to be fitting instruments of his work.

He used water to judge rebellious humanity and to save Noah and his family. He used circumcision to confirm the righteousness that Abraham had received by faith (Gen. 17; Rom. 4:11), and he used the circumcision of infants to maintain his covenant with Israel and to incorporate children into his covenant people.

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