Joy in the Ordinary

One of the greatest discoveries for me in learning about Reformed Theology came in discovering the concept of the ordinary means of grace. What exactly is that all about? The ordinary means of grace are a part of the warmth and joy that is found in Reformed Theology. Wrestling with the attributes of God, sovereign election, particular redemption, and covenant theology can be quite hard. Those deep theological matters cannot be reduced to a bumper-sticker with a catchy phrase or hashtag. The ordinary means of grace present another aspect of Reformed Theology: finding joy in that which is simple.

In the 2nd London Baptist Confession, Particular Baptists defined the ordinary means of grace this way: “The grace of faith, by which the elect are enabled to believe so that their souls are saved, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts. Faith is ordinarily produced by the ministry of the Word. By this same ministry and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed by God, faith is increased and strengthened.”[1] Notice that they identify the ministry of the Word, the sacraments or ordinances, and prayer as the ordinary means by which our faith is strengthened and assurance deepens. Other ordinary means of grace that can be identified, especially in a corporate worship gathering, are singing and fellowship. Reformed Baptist pastor Richard Barcellos offers this definition on the ordinary means of grace: “The delivery systems God has instituted to bring grace – that is, spiritual power, spiritual change, spiritual help, spiritual fortitude, spiritual blessings – to needy souls on earth.”[2]

The beauty and richness of the ordinary means of grace comes shining forth when we consider how God uses the ordinary to bless us in an extraordinary way. Are we comprehending just how nourishing the proclamation of the Word is when the Bible is read, explained, and applied to our hearts? This is why Jesus told Simon Peter in John 21 to feed and nourish the flock of Christ. The ministry of the Word is not just the means of the Spirit’s effectual call and regenerating work among the unconverted; it is also the means by which the saints are nourished and strengthened. Growing up in a more fundamentalist Baptist background, the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper was so ingrained that understanding of Christ’s spiritual presence at the Table seemed almost Romish to me. However, as I have learned more, I have come to realize not just the historic Baptist view of the Supper as both a memorial and spiritual nourishment but that the Scriptures teach this as well. [3]

As one might deduce, the ordinary means of grace are connected to the fellowship and assembly of the local church. How magnificent is our Lord to remind us through these means of how we are a covenant people together in need of encouragement, strength, and reminders of who we are in Christ. I often tell people that if you believe Reformed Theology is found only in T-U-L-I-P then you are missing out on what the real meaning of doctrines of grace is. Reformed theology changes your outlook on everything. It changed my outlook on preaching as I come to more and more find rest and solace in the sovereignty of the Spirit in the Word. Reformed Theology’s teaching on the ordinary means of grace deepens my appreciation for the Christian Sabbath and gathering on the Lord’s Day. Every Scripture reading, prayer, hymn, ordinance, reading of creeds/confessions/catechisms, and time together fellowshipping over the Word are the channels by which the Spirit refreshes, matures, corrects, and settles my weary heart as a pilgrim. So, when you gather this coming Lord’s Day, do not think that simple worship means ineffective or backwards. Rather, meditate upon the extraordinary power of God unleashed in the ordinary means of grace!

 

[1] See: https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/chapter-14-saving-faith/

[2] See: https://founders.org/reviews/the-lords-supper-as-a-means-of-grace/

[3] See: https://vimeo.com/287451369 for a recent sermon I preached on this topic.

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From Passover to Lord’s Supper

The word sacrament comes from the Latin word ‘sacramentum’ meaning a solemn or sacred oath. Roman Catholics believe there to be seven sacraments, most Protestants only believe there to be two of them; baptism, given to us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’ Supper, given to us in Jesus’ teaching in the upper room (Matthew 26:26-29). In addition to the word sacrament is the word ordinance, which simply means a statute or command Jesus ordained for the Church. The difference between these two words comes down to what we believe is happening while engaging in these activities. To prefer the title ordinance over the title sacrament generally means one believes there is no grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. To prefer the title sacrament over the title ordinance generally means one believes there is grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. I prefer to call baptism and the Lord’s Supper sacraments because I believe God strengthens us in His grace through them, but I also do not mind the term ordinance either because these two practices truly have been ordained by God for the Church.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 92 asks, “What is a Sacrament? A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” Did you notice that both the word sacrament and ordinance are present in this definition? Though we find people rejecting one title in preference of the other, it’s good to use both in defining what they are.

We can also state generally that both sacraments function as signs and seals. Signs, in that what the preaching of the gospel is to our ears, the sacraments are to our eyes.This means they visibly signify or show the invisible truth of God to us. In a very real sense the sacraments are a dramatized display of the gospel. But they are also seals. Just as a ruler in ancient times would seal a document with his royal seal to communicate that the message was from him and carried his authority, so too, the sacraments are visible seals from God promising that all who receive them truly participate in the grace given through them. Paul makes this point well in Romans 4:11-12 saying, “Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

As with all sound doctrine we must look into the whole of Scripture to find the whole overview of any particular doctrine. And this is especially true when we come to the Lord’s Supper, because its roots take us all the way back to the Exodus. Recall that during and after God redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt He instituted the Passover. As the final plague was drawing near God warned His people (in Exodus 12) to prepare for this moment by putting the blood of an unblemished lamb on each doorpost of their homes. The people were then to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in haste with their belts on and sandals on their feet. As God passed through to strike down the first born of the land of Egypt He saw the blood and passed over all the homes who have done this. This hasty meal was to be a memorial day feast celebrating the beginning of Israel’s new year from this day forward and it was these things that each prophet of God called the people of God back to throughout the Old Covenant. Then there’s a change.

As Jesus’ hour was drawing near He gathered together with His disciples to celebrate this Passover one last time in Luke 22. At this meal in the Upper Room Jesus did something new. Rather than repeating what the Israelites had done for ages and ages, He changed things. Here is how Luke recounts the moment. “And when the hour came, He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He 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.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:14-21).

As God instituted the Passover long ago for the remembrance of what He did to redeem Israel from slavery in Egypt and from the death of the first born, so too here Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper for the remembrance of what He was about to do to redeem God’s people from a greater slavery, sin, and a greater Pharaoh, Satan. And just as the Passover was to be a repeated event for Israel each year as they did life together in the land God brought them to, so too the Lord’s Supper is to be a repeated event for the Church as we do life together where God has placed us.

As often as the Church does this, her members see Christ’s death showed forth and are, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 96 says, “…not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.”

Learning something from an Old Dead Guy

For many of us in Reformed Christians circles this is a very important year, as it marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the wall of the Castle church at Wittenberg. This one single event sent into motion a tidal way of change that left the western world scrambling to find out what the true meaning of being a Christian is about. Over the next century men and women would rise up and take a stand for the truth of the Gospel and the proclamation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The reformation began at Wittenberg, but for most of us it had its fullness shaped in Switzerland.

Now when I talk about the importance of Switzerland many immediate go to John Calvin, and while he is an important part of the reformation he was not the first in Switzerland to begin the journey, that title belongs to a man named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was one of the first preachers of the reformation to institute strictly exegetical biblical preaching based on the practice of John Chrysostom the great early church father. He not only viewed the Scriptures as supremely authoritative; he found it to be the only source of true faith and worship. Zwingli was a man driven by the truth of Scripture (as he saw it) and finding his purpose and ministry goals summarized in the Scriptures and not in some external reality. For many this may have made him an extremist. He removed art and music from worship spaces feeling that only the word of God should be seen and adored in the church, all else would simply lead to idolatry. He focused the attention of the early reformation to think about the reasons for communion and baptism according to the scriptures and not according to traditions handed down.

This is all well and good but why do I bring up Zwingli today and why does all this matter? Well first Zwingli shows us that even men that have since been forgetton or overshadowed by history still speak through the history of those who were influenced by them. The vast majority of the writings and systematic teachings of John Calvin found in the Institutes will arise from the teachings of Zwingli and his protégé Bollinger. The modern reformed churches emphasis on exegetical preaching can be traced back to his reformed movement in Switzerland. For while Luther was busy being a professor of theology Zwingli was working as a pastor in Zurich.

We owe a great debt to the man for his contributions to how we think about preaching as he pointed us back to the Scriptures and the church fathers as examples of preaching the word, not our own opinions or feel good messages. Maybe you have at times felt like your ministry was just spinning its wheels, you are teaching the gospel, you are following the Scriptures but the results or long term effect is not what you imagined.  Zwingli’s legacy points to the fact that it is okay to be forgotten as long as the message remains and is supreme.

The other thing that is so important to remember about this early reformer in our modern context is that while great in some theological ways, he was not perfect. Among all the reformers Zwingli is probably one of the most problematic for most, and this was due, oddly enough to what also his his best characteristic, his encouragement of his people to read the Scriptures and see the truth for themselves. In opening the Bible to the people he saw that they came to a “radical” view when it came to baptism and other aspects of the faith. Out of this bastion of freedom and authority in scripture Zwingli openly sided with the state to persecute and kill those who did not agree with his view of the Bible, especially in regards to baptism. Many Anabaptists were drowned in the local rivers for their stance on baptism. He like Luther was firmly committed to his interpretation of the Bible and the ordinance that to think or speak other than the way he did was to be accursed by God. This was the main reason why these two men could never reconcile during their lifetimes; this division was too great and their dislike for the concessions of the other too much. Each man was unwavering and hostile to the other almost as much as they were against the Catholic Church.

The break between Luther and Zwingli has been one that makes perfect sense in their time and place and yet 500 years later I still find puzzling. Of course we today live in a very pluralistic society with many different faiths and Christian denominations, while in the 16th century West there was the church and the schismatic sects of the reformation. Today the church is made up of varying points of views on things such as Communion and Baptism, but these things don’t divide our fellowship and love for one another, rather they should encourage us to dive deeper into the Scriptures to know why we believe what we believe and where it is rooted in the text. I am the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church while the other men on this blog range in their affiliations holding a variety of views on these very subjects. But rather than cutting each other off we grow from one another’s perspectives on the text. There are battles to be fought, but some of the battles need to be discussed with love, humility and the understanding that we may have missed the mark on something. One of the great marks of the church is the love for one another.

This is the last lesson I learned from Zwingli. We can have all the right theology but if we have no love for the family of God and the souls of the lost sometimes we end up dead on a battlefield…..that wasn’t needed to be fought.

Also today marks the anniversary of the council of Trent the affirmation that we as protestants are an anathema, so yes there are still battles to be won: through prayer and the proclamation of the gospel. 

When Not to Take the Lord’s Supper

From Nathan Bingham at Ligonier:

Here’s an excerpt from When Not to Take Communion, Anthony Carter’s contribution to the April issue of Tabletalk:

The Christian life is the examined life, the life that takes seriously the call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness (1 John. 1:8-91 John 2:1). Unfortunately, there are those who deny the grace of repentance by hardening their hearts and refusing to forgive or be forgiven. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sin, but harbor bitterness, malice, and hatred in their hearts, and refuse godly counsel toward reconciliation with God and others, and thus neglect the grace of repentance—let them refrain from the Lord’s Table. Otherwise, to eat and to drink in such a state is to call forth the disciplining hand of God (1 Cor. 11:32).

Church Discipline: Fencing the Table – “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

So yesterday you were introduced the reality of church discipline, today we’re talking about how church discipline relates to “fencing the table.”

Read 1 Corinthians 11

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor. 11:27-32)

Note the first paragraph of Scripture above, the “words of institution” as they are called today.  These give clarity and grounds for doing what we do during the Lord’s Supper.  But then note the second paragraph where we find clarity and grounds for warning those who desire to take the Supper, that there are times when you should and should not take the Supper.  Did you know that?  Has that ever been told to you by the pastor or one leading the Supper?  If you eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner you are guilty and eat and drink judgment onto yourself.  What does this mean?  At least two things:

For the Christian it means there are times you can take the Supper and times you cannot.  If you’re in stubborn unrepentant sin, not willing to confess or forsake that sin, in anger with another Christian you cannot take the Supper until these things are dealt with.  If you take the Supper in this manner you are not in a good place.  Repent, confess, seek and find healing with your Christian brother or sister, then come to the table and feast.

For the non-Christian it means there is never a time when you can take the Supper.  Why?  Because you are still in your sins and the wrath of God still stands against you.  While not having faith in the Christ who is present during the Supper, it is dangerous to meet Him there in that state.  It is no small thing to make small the table of the Lord.  Do not treat it with contempt or you will heap judgment onto yourself in a further degree.  Did you see what happened to people when they did this in the above Scripture?  They died.  Be warned.

This is why every pastor, before the Supper, ought to “fence the table” so that some are let in to take it while others are kept out for their safety.  When you hear the call to come to the table to feast some of us should hear a “COME AS YOU ARE!” while others of us should hear Gandalf’s voice warning us “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

?’s to Ask Before Taking the Lord’s Supper

Many of you have taken the Lord’s Supper before.  But did you know that you can take the Supper in an unworthy manner, and that if you do such a thing you actually eat and drink judgment on yourself?  Pretty serious thing huh?  Well, to help you prepare for the Supper, below are the questions that Martin Luther encouraged his people to ask before they ate and drank.  Answering them yourself will do your soul much good.

After confession and instruction in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the pastor may ask, or Christians may ask themselves these questions:

1. Do you believe that you are a sinner? Yes, I believe it. I am a sinner.

2. How do you know this? From the Ten Commandments, which I have not kept.

3. Are you sorry for your sins? Yes, I am sorry that I have sinned against God.

4. What have you deserved from God because of your sins? His wrath and displeasure, temporal death, and eternal damnation. See Romans 6:21,23.

5. Do you hope to be saved?     Yes, that is my hope.

6. In whom then do you trust?     In my dear Lord Jesus Christ.

7. Who is Christ?     The Son of God, true God and man.

8. How many Gods are there?    Only one, but there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

9. What has Christ done for you that you trust in Him? He died for me and shed His blood for me on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

10. Did the Father also die for you? He did not. The Father is God only, as is the Holy Spirit; but the Son is both true God and true man. He died for me and shed his blood for me.

11. How do you know this? From the holy Gospel, from the words instituting the Sacrament, and by His body and blood given me as a pledge in the Sacrament.

12. What are the Words of Institution? Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

13. Do you believe, then, that the true body and blood of Christ are in the Sacrament? Yes, I believe it.

14. What convinces you to believe this? The word of Christ: Take, eat, this is My body; drink of it, all of you, this is My blood.

15. What should we do when we eat His body and drink His blood, and in this way receive His pledge? We should remember and proclaim His death and the shedding of His blood, as He taught us: This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.

16. Why should we remember and proclaim His death? First, so that we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and man, could do that. Second, so we may learn to be horrified by our sins, and to regard them as very serious. Third, so we may find joy and comfort in Christ alone, and through faith in Him be saved.

17. What motivated Christ to die and make full payment for your sins? His great love for His Father and for me and other sinners, as it is written in John 14;Romans 5; Galatians 2 and Ephesians 5.

18. Finally, why do you wish to go to the Sacrament? That I may learn to believe that Christ, out of great love, died for my sin, and also learn from Him to love God and my neighbor.

19. What should admonish and encourage a Christian to receive the Sacrament frequently? First, both the command and the promise of Christ the Lord. Second, his own pressing need, because of which the command, encouragement, and promise are given.

20. But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it inGalatians 5 and Romans 7. Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say inJohn 15-16 and in 1 John 2 and 5. Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within or without, as the Scriptures picture him in John 8 and 16; 1 Peter 5; Ephesians 6; and 2 Timothy 2.

Note: These questions and answers are no child’s play, but are drawn up with great earnestness of purpose by the venerable and devout Dr. Luther for both young and old. Let each one pay attention and consider it a serious matter; for St. Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter six: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.”

N: Not Discerning the Body

In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul describes the Lord’s Supper. In the following verses (11:27-34) Paul does something that is rarely done in Christian churches, he places restrictions on the Supper. You mean, there are times when even Christians are supposed to withhold from taking communion? YES, and this is a part of true (Christian) holiness.

You see, Paul says this in 11:27-29, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” In this passage Paul makes it clear that before a Christian ought to partake of the Supper, we’re to examine ourselves. What are we looking for in this examination? Sin. Do you have any un-confessed sin, or anger at your brother/sister, or any type of alt with someone, are you a Christian or are you banking on your own goodness as the ground of your acceptance with God? All of these things should cause us to refrain from taking the Supper, because if we don’t, and go ahead and take it, Paul says we will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord and will be eating and drinking judgment on ourselves. Do you want to do that? To “not discern the body” is a mistake I’m afraid far too many Christians make. I wonder how many Christians have even heard of this before? That is a scary thought. 11:30 even shows us that people got sick and died from failure to examine themselves before communion. Bottom line – the supper is seriously holy!

I wonder if the whole idea of examination sounds crazy to you. You think, “I’m a Christian, why would I have to examine myself?” Because anytime we approach the presence of God we ought to do reverently, not foolishly or rashly. God is mystically present in the table, thus, we ought to take some time in preparation before we go up to it.

APPLICATION: Examination is a must for the Supper, but did you know that it ought to be a normal characteristic of one’s Christian life as well? 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Test yourselves to see if you’re in the faith; examine yourselves!” When was the last time you actually thought long over the state and/or condition of your soul?

Perhaps you should take a moment as you finish reading this to do so. If not, definitely do it before you take communion next – and encourage others to ponder over 1 Cor. 11:23-34 as well.