WHAT ARE THE SACRAMENTS?
Written by Doug Ponder on June 30, 2013
What Are the Sacraments?
The word “sacrament” is Latin for a sacred thing. Specifically, sacraments are sacred symbols that God has given to the church to illustrate and reinforce the promises that we have been forgiven, pardoned, cleansed and made alive together with Jesus through his death and resurrection. They are like living pictures of the gospel.
Sometimes the sacraments are called signs and seals of the gospel promises, because they point us to the work of Jesus (like a sign) and they reassure us that he has made us right with God (like a seal). Thus the sacraments function like a wedding ring. Wedding rings represent the reality of a marriage, for they are a sign to everyone who sees the ring that this person belongs to someone else. Wedding rings are also worn as proof or assurance of the marital covenant. Just as when two people shake hands to “seal the deal,” so also the wedding ring acts as a way to seal the marital promises of commitment, faithfulness, and love.
Why Did God Give Us Sacraments?
God speaks to us verbally and visually. Through the preaching of the Scriptures, the Spirit of God speaks to us verbally, teaching us about the work of Jesus on our behalf. But through the sacraments, the Spirit reassures us that our salvation depends on what Jesus did for us, not what we do for him. In this way, God uses the sacraments to strengthen his people’s faith in the gospel of Jesus.
Although God gave his people many signs throughout the Bible (he appropriated the rainbow as a sign of his promise, circumcision as a sign of his covenant, the blood of a sacrificed lamb as the sign of our sin’s consequences and our need for salvation, etc.), there are only two actions that Jesus asked his followers to repeat as signs and seals of the gospel itself. These are the sacraments of baptism and communion.
How Does Baptism Picture the Gospel?
Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and by “teaching them to obey all that I commanded” (Matt. 28:19). Thus Jesus established baptism, the act of being “washed with water,” as the means by which we publicly identify with him and with the people he has redeemed.
This is because baptism is a living picture of our union with Christ. Just as when a man and a woman become “one flesh” in marriage, establishing one common life in the place of the two, so also baptism is a sign and a seal of our union with Christ. And because of our union with him, there is only one life now instead of the two. His life counts for our life, his death counts for our death, and his resurrection is the basis for our resurrection. This is why the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)
Every time we witness a baptism, we are seeing the promises of God fulfilled in front of our eyes. He promised to rescue a people for himself who (Titus 2:14), and the baptism of a new believer is further proof that God is making good on that promise. So as a Christian is lowered into the waters of baptism, we see them lowered in the grave with Christ (“ I have been crucified with Christ” [Gal. 2:20a]). As the Christian emerges from the waters of baptism, we seem them raised to walk with the life of Christ (“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” [Gal. 2:20b].
This beautiful act points to the work of Jesus and reminds us that because of him we too have been forgiven, pardoned, and cleansed of sin (Acts 2:32). We have been given a new heart through the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-6). And our adoption into God’s family through faith (Gal. 3:26) has been sealed and confirmed through our public identification with Christ and the rest of God’s people (Gal. 3:27).
How Does Communion Picture the Gospel?
In Jesus’ last meal with his followers before his crucifixion, Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, which is also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. “[Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). “In the same way also he took the cup, after eating, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor. 11:25).
The breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup symbolize the body and blood that Jesus gave for us. In this way communion is a reminder of the costliness of sins and the severity of God’s judgment. Our sins deserve death (Rom. 6:23), but communion reminds us that in Christ that death has already happened. At the table of communion, the reality of our sin meets with the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice, and all is well.
Communion also points to the reality that life is found in Jesus alone. Jesus taught, “‘The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’”(John 6:33-35). All that we need is found in Jesus. Furthermore, when we come to the Lord’s table for communion, we find that all of us have equal need for him. Jesus is the great equalizer. White, black, young, old, rich, poor, strong, weak—none of these matter at the table of the Lord. We all need Jesus, and he has given himself for us all.
Finally, communion pictures the certain return of our Lord. Paul writes, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). We know this because the Jesus who died for sins is the living Christ who reigns in victory. He will not leave his people as orphans in the world (John 14:18-19). He will come again to be with us (John 14:3). And he will make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
Sacraments as Means of Grace
The sacraments are given for us to celebrate as plainly as the death and resurrection of Jesus were to all who saw him. They are living pictures of the gospel , and they are two of God’s greatest instruments for building our faith, for encouraging us in our walk, and for establishing our assurance that Jesus has pardoned us, cleansed us, and made us right with God.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.