Tag Archives: sacrament

PERSONAL MERIT & HOLY WORSHIP?! MAY IT NEVER BE …

Exodus 37:9b ~ “… The faces of the cherubim were toward the mercy seat. …”
This morning, let us think carefully about what we are doing here, right now, within holy worship. What I mean is: What do you think you are doing ~ for God? Let us consider some of the many activities which religious people have performed, in the supposed attempt to merit God’s favor, even though the design of each activity was to teach them of the necessity of God’s unmerited grace.
In Old Testament times, God’s people were highly engaged with sacrifices, feasts, and sacraments:
1. Sacrifices, like those offered on the annual Day of Atonement. How remarkable ~ if it ever happened (!) ~ that a Jew could stand near the Tabernacle or Temple, as the high priest would sprinkle a portion of the blood sacrifice onto him, symbolizing that worshiper’s need to have his own fresh sins covered through the death of another creature. And yet … even while the blood was being applied to him, that worshiper might have been imagining: “What a godly, spiritual person I am, for having bothered to show up at Jerusalem this year” … and counting up how many favors God owed to him for the coming farming season! We could extend this realistic possibility to what similar “worshipers” were thinking about as that same high priest laid his hands on the two goats …
2. Feasts, like the Passover. Again, each family was much involved with blood, this time slaying their own unblemished lamb, and spreading its covering blood onto their doorposts, so that the death this family deserved would be paid symbolically by another creature. And yet, pride of annual performance could often leak in.
3. Sacraments, like circumcision … the very act itself depicting and symbolizing the necessary cutting away of our sinful flesh ~ what we are as fallen humanity ~ a removal of that inborn offense, replaced with full dependence on spiritual help from God. And yet, we know that more racial and personal pride surrounded the circumcision ritual than any other aspect of Jewish life.
Are we New Testament Christians immune from this field of problems? Hardly! Professing believers are very busy about formal worship, Bible reading, the prayers, … and (again) sacraments (in our case, reduced to two ~ Baptism & the Lord’s Supper):
1. Our formal worship. Your presence at New Sabbath services (I trust?!) indicates your heart conviction that we very much need God, His favor, and His means of grace. Yet church attendance, famously, is often a point of personal, comparative pride.
2. Bible reading. How much we need a word from the Lord ~ even more than we need physical bread. And yet, it is way too easy for me to check off my DAILY BIBLE READING RECORD, and then imagine I have maneuvered God into my debt.
3. Prayer. What is genuine, spiritual petition ~ but a confession of faith, of sin, of trust, and of absolute neediness?! And yet this act (too often) is counted by nominal (in-name-only) and disobedient Christians as, somehow, meritorious.
4. Sacraments, like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism (akin to circumcision) is to symbolize my need to be washed clean of sin. Though it is properly performed one time on each believer, this cleansing picture applies to a lifetime of sin, all of it needing coverage by that liquid which is stronger than water. The Supper is the repeating sacrament; some of us will enjoy hundreds of celebrations. Each one is to remind us of our need for continuous feeding and life-power from outside the self. And yet, like our Old Covenant counterparts, New Testament saints are too quick to count up what our God owes to us for our sacramental observances.
How much better, my faithful (faith-filled), gracious (grace-bought), merciful (mercy-driven) brothers and sisters ~ to be taught by the Lord through all these means of His blessing and grace, concerning:
1. our personal unworthiness (even our counter-merit) as considered on our own, by ourselves.
2. the absolute and infinite worth of Jesus (the righteous, faithful, worthy One).
3. our inclusion in, union with, and dependence upon Jesus Christ, for any good thing. This is the gospel ~ and what it means to live by faith in the Son of God.
There are a few ways in which we can and should emulate the angels. God has given us this picture in His word about the construction of the wilderness Tabernacle and the design of the Ark of the Covenant within it (see the Exodus 37 reference above). On the top of the Ark, God instructed that the angelic figures should be fashioned to gaze intently at the mercy seat (also known as the atonement cover). This is where satisfaction for Israel’s sin was symbolically made, and where Yahweh said He would meet with His people through their appointed high priest. Jesus Christ, of course, is our Atonement, our Great High Priest, the effective Cause of God’s mercy toward us. Let us follow the angelic gaze, looking to Christ on the basis of blood-bought mercy, and not to any supposed worth in ourselves for ritual compliance or anything else.

COMMUNION MEDITATION: Because our children are asking …

The New Testament sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are simple, by Christ’s design, so that even children can understand the basic truths which these signs, actions, and rituals are illustrating.  To quote Albert Einstein (in a limited sense), “If you cannot explain it simply, then you do not understand it well enough.”  Thus I have been impressed, over the years, with the ability of some to give excellent children’s talks which are very simple, yet meaty and profound for all who will listen.  Surely Jesus was encapsulating a world of truth as He proclaimed:  “The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like little children” … but one simple application should be:  If only the professional scholars and theologians can grasp a doctrinal point, it may be that the truth claim has more of man than of God in it.  With just a few minutes, then, I ask you to consider two questions which children have asked, both of them deserving clear answers.

Last week, a child asked me:  “Pastor John, if God has always known everything, then why did He create Satan?”  I will interpret and extend his question to ponder:  Why did God create the angel Lucifer, knowing that Lucifer would lead an angel rebellion, become the devil, tempt our first parents, and produce the fall of all mankind and of the universe itself?  I did not claim that simple answers are easy ones!  A word for parents, teachers, and others:  Praise the Lord for such questions.  They could be evidence that the Holy Spirit is stirring.  Do not say:  “Shut up!  Stop asking silly or hard questions.  Just believe and behave.  Don’t think.  And above all, don’t go poking around behind the curtain, or you may discover that there is nothing there after all!”  So much better to respond with something, even an “I don’t know … but let’s dig into that issue together.”

This question (about God’s role in the origin of Satan) is a version of the classical query:  “How could there be a good and strong God in a universe with evil and suffering?”  Okay, this is an enormous subject, but here is a starting point:  Because the universe as it really is (with a Lucifer who would become Satan, with evil and suffering, with pain and sorrow and tears, and with sin under all of it) is the universe which God has allowed and even designed to bring the maximum glory to Himself, to display before Himself, His angels, human beings, and the universe the awesome collection of His own glorious attributes, and in this particular case, to show how He will defeat and destroy His and our archenemy, the devil and all his works.

Here is a second question asked by a child, much earlier than last week, and across many years:  “Father, why is this night different from all others?”  This, of course, is the classic and scripted prompting by children at the Seder (or the Passover), that annual memorial meal to remind Israel of “Exodus Night,” how the Lord delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt to bring them into the Promised Land.

Please recognize the connection of our first question with this second one, for if God really is good and strong, especially attentive to His chosen nation, then why did He allow them to be enslaved in the first place?  There are, of course, human reasons for why and how Jacob’s family ended up in Egypt, and it is clear that God held many Egyptians to be guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.  But God allowed, even designed, Israel’s captivity to glorify and exalt Himself in their eyes, and in the eyes of Egypt, Canaan, and the whole world up until this very day.

Recognize, as well, the connection of the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, as Jesus instituted this Christian sacramental love feast at a Seder.  The Bible strongly connects the minor redemption (of Israel from Egypt) with the major redemption (of all God’s children from their captivating sin).

Recognize, finally, the connection of the Seder, the Supper, the cross, and the first question.  God’s design of a universe where Satan, sin, and sorrow could (would) happen surely had in mind this ultimate and glorious solution, the death of God’s dear Son, as the answer to the very big questions, the solution for all of our needs, and the ultimate display of the glory and grace of God.

Mull over this sentence.  If it is true, enjoy its truth, and turn it into personal worship:  “God in His grace provided what God in His holiness demanded.”  God allowed and designed a fallen universe, filled with fallen people, millions of whom would come to know their Lord as a God of grace, mercy, and faithfulness.  There is a popular book with this subtitle:  “What if marriage is designed by God, not to make you happy, but holy?!”  Well, what if time, space, the universe, and all history are designed to glorify God in His fullness, as He really is?  Would not an eternity of informed worship justify 6,000 or more years of drama, if that is the kind of thing it takes for us to get to know God as He really is?  Yes, and the cross, with the sacrificed body of Jesus Christ, is at the center.

The Sacrament of Infant Baptism

Though Jesus gave His church two sacraments to unite us around His truth, there has actually been nothing more divisive within the church than baptism and the Lord’s Supper!  Some might think that a smart pastor would, therefore, stay away from such a hot topic as infant baptism.  I am NOT that smart pastor (!), and I suggest that many of our sacramental battles have to do with ungrounded assumptions about why some churches do what they do concerning the sacraments. As a matter of fact, I am as opposed as anyone to the grounds for some infant baptisms.  So please, “hear” me out:

Our View of Infant Baptism (why we do it, what it means, what it does not mean)

One caveat:  Though “to baptize or not to baptize” an infant may seem like a simple and clear choice or decision, it touches on many deep principles about the way we see the Bible, how the testaments fit together, how God works in salvation and in families, etc.  I am saying:  This discussion could take thirty hours, or thirty minutes! I will do my best under present limitations, while I always hope for more time later.

Rumors out there (most of them very bad, inaccurate, and unbiblical):

1.     Infant baptism guarantees the salvation of the individual, no matter what.

2.     Infant baptism removes the problem of original sin.  Conscious sinful choices which your child makes from now on will be the problem to be resolved (through faith, etc.).

3.     Infant baptism guarantees that God will save (or the ceremony obligates God to save) your child sometime in the future, through saving faith which God must send.

4.     Infant baptism being practiced in some Protestant churches today is just a sad leftover from our days of being attached to the Roman Catholic Church; we did not reform enough.

5.     Infant baptism guarantees that, if the child dies before he reaches the age of accountability, he will surely go to Heaven on the basis of our church’s symbolic actions.

6.     Infant baptism is not really baptism; it is just our term for Baby Dedication.

7.     Adults who were baptized as infants should get baptized again after their conversion.

So first … why we baptize infants:

  • God has always shown Himself willing and able to work in and through families and communities.
  • God’s covenants of old (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, …) included the children of adults who were able to understand and agree to the covenants (for you AND for your children).
  • So the symbols of the covenants (like the rainbow, Passover, the Law, the Davidic throne) involved the children.
  • Example:  Circumcise ALL males, eight days and older.  Ishmael, Isaac, Jesus, and millions more were circumcised covenantally.
  • So in Old Testament times, family inclusion in the covenants and in the covenant signs was the clear expectation.  Children of Jews were treated differently than the neighbor children of pagans.  They were “special.”
  • This covenantal assumption was so strong in the ancient people of God that if He had a different expectation for His people in New Testament times, He would have had to make that change very clear.
  • Quite the opposite, God confirmed / reaffirmed this policy of family/household inclusion: Jesus’ invitation concerning the children (to be brought to Me; My Kingdom is made of such as these).  The Pentecost sermon (by Peter in Acts 2) = This promise is for you and for your children and etc. References to families/households baptized upon the conversion of a parent, inActs and other New Testament passages: Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), the Philippian jailor (16:32-34), Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16); John 4:53Acts 10:211:14;18:82 Timothy 4:19.  God’s continuing concern for the oikos (= household) is most clear.  Especially of note is the label sanctified/holy concerning the children of even one believer (1 Corinthians 7:14).
  • There is NO account in the New Testament about the children of a convert being instructed to wait for their own baptisms until some later time.  Notice that baptism episodes in the New Testament record are of new converts and their children.  There are no examples of “church kids” getting baptized upon their own later profession of faith, or at the age of twelve, or even later as adults.
  • In a profound way, the infant baptism is an opportunity for parents to (re-) covenant with God:  You are our Godwe belong to Youwe are a Christian family.  The Christian way, faith, and life is not just for individuals in theirprivate lives, but for Christians in all of their relationships (at least in the family, church, and state).
  • Those churches which claim to want to obey the Bible strictly or literally … then do not find an explicit command in the New Testament for Christians to have their infants baptized … then do not baptize their infants … STILL have this sense that their babies are special/holy (different from babies in the pagan world) … so they invent a rite/ceremony called Baby Dedication (even though the New Testament commands no such thing).

When we baptize an infant in this church, we do not mean: … that his sin (sin nature) is being washed away (so that he is saved). … that God will surely save this baby through a future conversion. … that there is nothing further expected, to pray about, to work toward.

When we baptize an infant in this church, we do mean: … to symbolize the gospel, that God will surely save all of His people, cleansing them through the redemption in Jesus Christ (so the occasion of a covenant child’s baptism is his first opportunity to proclaim the good news). … that this infant of believer(s) is ALREADYa covenant child in the eyes of our Lord (so that is why we are putting the sign on him; this ceremony will not make him a covenant child; he is a covenant child, and so we give him the sign). … that this baby occupies a privileged place (in that he will be surrounded during his upbringing by the truths, people, and blessings of the Lord). … that the parent(s) commit to faithfully raise this child in the fear and admonition of God, according to Biblical patterns (see the specific vows we ask parents to take, below). … that the members of this congregation promise to support and help the parents in all of these good endeavors.

My assumptions going into the infant baptism; will you parents assent to these?

1.     You are resting in the Lord Jesus alone for your salvation … not on anything you have done, are doing, or will do in the future.

2.     Yet it is also your desire and commitment to be a family for God, living for Him, in faith, repentance, and obedience.  We recognize that this godly desire, too, is God’s good gift.

3.     You recognize that God works in families.  Your child already has a special connection to God by virtue of the fact that he “belongs” to you, and you belong to God.  Your child is set apart.

4.     Your child’s relationship with God today is not the same as his having saving faith, which we pray that he will know and enjoy in the future.

5.     Because of your child’s position in the covenant, you should give to him the covenant sign.  Now (in the New Testament times) that sign is water baptism, in God’s Triune Name, with understanding.

6.     You parents are communicant member of this church; that is the basis for having your child baptized in Christ and into this congregation.  Part of the infant baptism sacrament will involve you parents renewing your own Covenant of Church Membership.

So now, for the parents, do you reaffirm your own membership vows before God and these witnesses?  [YES].  Now, if it is your hearts’ resolve, respond to these covenant questions for your child:

RPCNA Constitution: The Covenant of Baptism

1.     Do you believe this child is a possession of God entrusted to your care?

2.     In this light, do you promise to provide for his temporal well-being, to teach him to love God and His word, the Bible, and to provide him with a God-centered education?

3.     Do you promise to teach him of his sinful nature, of the plan of salvation which centers in Jesus Christ, and of his own personal need of a relationship with Christ?

4.     To the end that he may grow in the Christian life, do you promise to pray for him, to train him to read the Bible, to pray, to keep the Lord’s Day, and to understand the nature of the Church, the value of its worship and fellowship, and his need to seek communicant membership in the church?

5.     Do you promise to lead him (by your example and parental discipline exercised in love) to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in all the relationships of life?

6.     Do you make these promises in the presence of God, in humble reliance upon His grace, as you desire to give your account with joy at the Last Great Day?

Do you, the members of this child’s congregation, receive him into your fellowship, and promise to pray for him, and to help his parents as they bring up their children in the Christian way of life?