Scriptural use of the sacramental signs

The Bible instructs us to observe two sacraments: baptism and communion. They are the essential means for gathering a church of born-again believers and for maintaining the unity of that church. There is a lot of confused thinking about both of them.

As a boy, I learned from the Anglican catechism that a sacraments is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” I still believe that. But I do not believe that the outward and visible sign is the means of imparting the inward and spiritual grace. The inward and spiritual grace must come first, it is the work of God, by the Holy Spirit, that transforms the heart and makes a person fit for the outward and visible sign.

For Anabaptists, baptism is the key to gathering a church of believers. Thus the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the new birth, is a precondition for water baptism. The evidence of this baptism of the Holy Spirit is a changed heart, revealed by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Galatians 5:22-23).

It is not enough for a person to claim that he/she has met the Lord. It is not enough for a minister to give his approval. There must be a community of believers who know what it is to walk with God and who can say, “Yes, we see the fruit of repentance and a changed life in this person.” This is what gives water baptism its meaning, and upon water baptism the new believer becomes part of the community of believers.

The Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is a commemoration of the sacrificial death and the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It is also a confession that we all stand on common ground before the cross, claiming no merit other than the blood of our Saviour. Communion is an outward evidence of community. If there are problems, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, bitterness, if a congregation is not in full unity, the observance of Holy Communion will not resolve those problems.

Communion is not a means of grace. We must first seek the grace of God to deal with anything in our own life that would hinder us from taking part in communion. If needs be, the congregation must also deal with divisive spirits in its midst. Then, before the communion service, we can each testify with a clear conscience that “I am at peace with God and with my fellow men”. That is what makes for Holy Communion, and a true community of saints.

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