I Belong (12): True & Good Churches Give Us the Sacraments because We Need Them

Months ago, I got reclaimed white oak wood from Creekside Lumber in the small town of Ephrata, PA. I’ve been making a three-foot by 12-foot tabletop, and it’s turning out beautifully. To fill in the knots, deep grooves, and holes, I used a two-part epoxy resin. In order for the epoxy to be effective, to get hard and clear within the open spaces, you need both the base resin and the curing agent. You mix the two substances together and you get a hard and clear epoxy filler. If you simply dump in the base resin, it won’t get hard. If you simply dump in the curing agent, it won’t get hard. You need both substances together to properly fill the knots, deep grooves, and holes in the wood, and when you do it’s beautiful. The epoxy resin helps show off the beautiful character of the white oak.

In a similar way, as believers, you and I need the Word and sacraments to grow spiritually, to live the Christian life, to have the strength to love God and others as God calls us. Of course, we need God’s Word, but in my experience, the sacraments are often viewed as much less important. Many professing Christians look to many things to grow their faith – Christian music, Christian conferences, Christian books, Christian travel, and more – and though none of these are bad, they are not the means that God has promised to use to build up His church. A careful study of Scripture and church history will reveal that God uses simple means to give and strengthen faith – the Word and the sacraments.

Heidelberg Catechism 65 asks, “Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from?” With Scriptures like Romans 10:17 and Galatians 3:2 in mind, it answers, “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.” Law and gospel preaching is the means by which the Holy Spirit sovereignly and powerfully grants faith to sinners, and then He strengthens their faith through preaching and the sacraments. But here is where many Christians struggle. They want the base resin without the curing agent. They want the Word, but they don’t really feel much need for the sacraments because they don’t really understand the grace they receive through them. Might it be that your faith, my faith, is weaker than it ought to be because we put little stock in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit working through the sacraments as we receive them by faith? Might the church in America be weak and immature because we diminish the importance and helpfulness of the sacraments?

The sacraments are holy signs and seals that show us the gospel in a tangible way. No, God has not given us images of Himself in the form of paintings, statues, or pictures. In fact, He’s only forbidden these idols in His Word. But God has not left us without images – water, bread, and wine. These are the God-ordained images that communicate to us the gospel. Through the sacraments, the Holy Spirit “assures us . . . that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross” [1]. The Westminster Shorter Catechism 91 describes the importance of the sacraments like this:

The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him who administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of His Spirit in those who by faith receive them. [2]   

Did you know that the sacraments are effectual means of salvation? No, receiving water, bread, or wine does not save you. That said, the Holy Spirit works through the Word, the gospel, to save you, and God grants you grace through the sacraments in confirmation of your salvation. Thomas Boston explained:

That the word is the mean of conversion, and the sacraments the means of confirmation: so the word is the leading, and the sacraments are the subsequent means of salvation. The word is first to have its effect, then the sacraments have theirs on the soul, 1 Cor. 3:5 with Rom. 4:11. [3]

The sacraments are effectual means of salvation for those who receive them by faith or by the true faith the Holy Spirit works in their hearts. God gives great blessings of grace to His people through His sacraments. This is why baptism and the Lord’s Supper are absolutely essential for your church and for you as an active member of your church. You and I need the sacraments to live the Christian life to its fullest. You and I need the grace of God given by the Spirit through the sacraments received by true faith.

The sacraments are a mark of the true church. Whenever you see a local church rightly administering the sacraments, there you will experience the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

Belgic Confession Article 29 states, “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks . . . it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.” [4] This is true because a true church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God.” [5] Does your church purely administer the sacraments according to the pure Word of God? Do you crave the sacraments? Are the sacraments an active part of your growth and sanctification? Do you expect the Holy Spirit to work through the sacraments to strengthen, assure, comfort, and grant grace to you?

Here’s how to tell the false church from the true church. The false church “does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word.” [6] In fact, the false church “adds to [the sacraments] or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ.” [7]

Does your church administer the sacraments faithfully and Biblically? How often does your church observe the Lord’s Supper? Hopefully, quite often. Does the minister give you law and gospel when you take the Lord’s Supper? He should. Is anyone excluded from taking the Lord’s Supper at your church? They should be. What is your church’s view of the sacraments? Is it written down anywhere? Here’s where confessions and catechisms greatly help churches. Since the sacraments are gracious and powerful means that God uses to give His covenant people grace, they are of utmost importance and must be rightly taught and understood. Hopefully, your minister or shepherds are teaching you about the graciousness, kindness, comfort, effect, and necessity of the sacraments for you.

The longer I walk with Jesus and the more I learn about Scripture and church history, the more I’m impressed by the importance of the Word and sacraments in a local church. Many Christians look for many things in a local church that are completely unbiblical and unnecessary and quite frankly, ineffectual for salvation. God has given us the Word and sacraments as effectual means of our salvation, and we need them to work together for our good. You know you’re in a good church if the Word and sacraments have their rightful place in church life – front and center. True churches place the Word and sacraments at the front and center where they belong because through them, God gives us Christ and all his wonderful benefits and comforts.

[1] HC 67.

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

[3] Thomas Boston, An Exposition of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/boston/An%20Exposition%20of%20the%20Assembly’s%20-%20Thomas%20Boston.pdf, 1455.

[4] https://threeforms.org/the-belgic-confession/#29  

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.  

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

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.

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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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