God’s Big Gift that Is Often Left Unwrapped Under the Tree (HC LD 25, QA 65-68)

Oliver loved Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and he couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning, run down the stairs, and open his presents. He knew he had to wait until after breakfast, but his visions of tearing open presents after his mother’s morning spread were quite vivid. He struggled to fall asleep, but in time he did, and on Christmas morning he jolted awake, ran down the stairs, and beheld quite a sight. Under the sparkling tree were presents galore. After breakfast, Oliver’s father read the Christmas story, prayed, and it was finally time. Under the direction of his doting parents, he opened his presents in a particular order. You know how parents are. They like to build suspense before the big reveal. Oliver opened several wonderful smaller gifts, and there was one more under the tree. A bigger one. Oliver gave the last gift a quick glance, gathered up his newly acquired presents, and ran upstairs. He was finished. As Oliver ran up the stairs to enjoy his Christmas gifts, his father called out, “Oliver, don’t you want to open your last gift,” but Oliver never heard. His parents looked at each other with concern and a tinge of sadness. Oliver seemed disinterested in one of their most wonderful gifts.

God gives His people many wonderful gifts. He showers us believers with gifts and because of His blessing upon them, His gifts contribute to our greatest good (HC 125). And among His many good gifts lies a big, wonderful, significant, and useful gift that many Christians don’t open. They see it, but they don’t unwrap it. It’s there, but they don’t really enjoy it. It is the gift of the sacraments.

Only in more recent years have I woken up more to the wonderful grace of the sacraments. Many Christians focus on the Word of God as God’s wonderful gift to them. They read it, memorize it, read books on it, hear it read and preached at church, and talk about how it applies to their life with other believers. And they are right to do so. It is good that God’s Word is an ever-flowing source of comfort and strength for them. God’s Word ought to be front and center for us. However, in their proper focus on Scripture, many believers largely ignore the ongoing comfort and usefulness of the sacraments to their own detriment as if the sacraments are insignificant in their daily walk with Christ. They largely ignore one of God’s most wonderful and significant gifts to them, and they don’t realize how this dishonors God and hinders their growth in the gospel. Could this be because they don’t understand the sacraments? Could this be because they don’t know how the sacraments benefit them? Could this be because they don’t realize that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are God’s means of grace through which he strengthens and sustains faith?

Dictionary.com defines means as “the medium, method, or instrument used to obtain a result or achieve an end.”[1] If I want to communicate to my wife that I deeply love her, I may use the means of a letter, text, email, spoken words, or a love song. Those are different means. What means does God use to grant us grace, to communicate to us the gospel, to strengthen our faith? What gifts does He give us to sustain us through this wearying life? Here, Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 helps us out. It asks, “What are the outward means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” It answers:

The outward and ordinary means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer, all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. [1]   

Law and gospel preaching is the means by which God saves sinners. We shouldn’t stop there. The sacraments are also means of God’s marvelous grace. Through the sacraments, God sovereignly communicates to His covenant people the glories of Christ. God even makes the sacraments effectual for salvation for the elect who received them by faith. This means that God gives us the sacraments for our ongoing spiritual good and growth and uses the sacraments to sustain us in our journey to the celestial kingdom.

As we continue through the Heidelberg Catechism and the essential Biblical truths presented in it, and as we come to the section on the sacraments, it is helpful to remember we are in the grace section of the catechism. Guilt, grace, gratitude. Many Christians are confused about the sacraments. They put them in the gratitude section, at least baptism, as something we do to go public with our faith. No, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are in the grace section because they are gifts to us from God, means through which He gives us grace. And of course, for us to truly benefit from them in the deepest sense, we must have true faith.

Heidelberg 65 presents a very important point about God’s sovereign grace. It says:

Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from? From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments.

I keep a running tally of Bible verses that prove that faith is a gift from God and not something that we conjure up or do ourselves. Faith is a gift, not a work. If you’d like that list, email me. I’d be glad to send it to you. God grants us faith. We receive it as the means through which God extends us His saving and sustaining grace. You believe the gospel because the Holy Spirit works faith in your hearts as you hear the gospel preached. But not only that, your faith is strengthened, bolstered if you will, by the use of the sacraments. This means that you need to receive and unwrap your big and wonderful gift under the tree and really benefit from it. God has given you the gift of the gospel and communicates it to you in the Word and sacraments. The gospel is communicated to you verbally in preaching and tangibly or corporeally in water, bread, and wine.   

I encourage you to meditate upon Heidelberg 65-68. Really try to sense God’s love toward you in the sacraments. But Let me quickly mention 66. It says:

What are the sacraments? The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel. And this is the promise: that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

The sacraments point us to something. They extend to us a promise, a pledge, a vow. God gave His covenant people sacraments so that when His people use them, they are reminded again and again of His promise of the gospel. Many Christians think the sacraments are something they do more than something they received. That’s a problem. Through the sacraments, our faithful God continues to declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel. He tells us over and over again about His forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the glories of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us. Meditate on Romans 4:11; it says a lot about the sacraments.

So, look to the Word, but also look to your baptism. Remember that you have received the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Teach your children from infancy that their baptism is God’s declaration of the gospel to them, and encourage them to trust Christ. Ask your elders to administer the Lord’s Supper more often in worship and to really explain it, unpacking for the congregation the glories of Christ revealed in it, because you need it and desire it to grow. When you receive the Lord’s Supper, be grateful and thank God for His grace realizing He is strengthening you along your way to His eternal glory and rest. God, thank you for the gracious gift of your Word and sacraments.

[1] The Confessions of Our Faith, Fortress Edition, ed. Rev. Brian W. Kinney (Fortress Book Service & Publishers, 2007), 138.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/means

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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