Articles of Religion 25 and 27 of Sacraments and of Baptism
What is it with Religion and funny hats…
Its seems every religion has it's own collection of comedy outfits and quirky ceremonies and rituals.
But Christianity is different – or is it? Sacraments is the point where Christianity meets ritual… and what are we to make of them?
We're studying the 39 articles of religion of the Church of England. These, along with the prayer book and the ordinal are the church's founding documents from the time of the reformation. The 39 articles in particular are designed to set out the theological framework for the Church of England. As we've been seeing they set out the vision for a thoroughly reformed church – one that defines itself as different on the one hand from the Roman Catholic church, which was distorting the gospel with all sorts of additions; and also different from those who wanted to totally strip out everything that wasn't expressly commanded in the bible.
We've been seeing that this means in practice a church that is very clear on the gospel – it clearly teaches that it is Jesus who saves us, by his death for us on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. And a church that is shaped by and centred on the Bible as God's true word to us and final authority. And so a ministry that is first and foremost about preaching God's word. These 39 articles reject the unbiblical tradition that had built up in the Roman Catholic church because it pointed away from Jesus and encouraged trust in all sorts of other things. And yet the 39 articles continue to assert that true ministry in the church includes the sacraments duly administered – as an aspect of rightly preaching the true word of God.
It was here – in the sacraments – that the human propensity for funny hats, and all the other paraphernalia of religious ritual making, had run wild in the Roman Catholic church – the bread on the table at communion was held up and worshipped as God, bells were rung and incense scattered, and superstitious silliness spread to the extent that rich people left trust funds to pay for perpetual offerings of Holy Communion for them for ever. As claims for the divinity of the bread became ever more outrageous, so the dignity and role of the minister was expanded – he was important, he offered up the son of God on the altar! So comedy outfits multiplied and in churches across the world people were taught to trust in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion as the means by which they could be saved.
How are we to think about these things biblically? This is the topic of our two articles this morning – article 25 on the sacraments, and article 27 on baptism. You'll remember Tom preached two weeks ago on the Lord Supper, you can catch up on that sermon on our website if you missed it.
The big idea from these two articles is that the sacraments are visual words that spell out the promise of God in the gospel: they are actions that teach us about the heavenly realities of salvation by faith in Jesus death and resurrection.
So we're going to take these articles one at a time.
First What does article 25 say about sacraments in general: Sacraments are God given signs of God's Promise to us, and of our faith in response.
Let me just run you though the article, you can find it printed on the sermon notes page in your service sheets.
The Big idea is that they are not just tokens of our faith, but also signs of God's grace – the point being made here is that the sacraments communicate the gospel to us, not just our faith to others. Sacraments are ceremonial actions that picture the gospel to us, and by which we respond in faith so as to receive the blessings of the gospel.
More than that they are effectual signs – something really happens when we take communion together and when we're baptised. But what? What is their effect? The Roman Catholic position is that they do what they picture – so if done correctly you will be saved by them. But that can't be right can it – the Bible is abundantly clear that we are saved by Jesus – what he has done for us; and we receive salvation by faith, by putting our trust in what Jesus has done for us. We can't be saved by faith and by something a man does in a church building for us. So what are the sacraments doing?
They are effectual signs – that is they really point truly to the promises of God – they re-enact the central message of the gospel itself and how it is received by faith so that if we listen to that message and respond in faith then we will receive the benefits of the gospel; Through sacraments – through ritual actions that act out the gospel – God works invisibly within us, bringing life and strengthening and confirming faith. So the sacraments consist of an outward action that corresponds to an inward reality: we eat communion with our mouths – outward action – and we feed on Christ in our hearts by faith; we are buried and raised with him ceremonially in the water of baptism, and spiritually we are joined to him by the spirit and so his death and resurrection become ours.
Now we could say a lot more about how that works, and Tom has gone into some detail on how it works for the Lords Supper, and we'll come back to it when we look at baptism together in just a moment.
But as important as how it works is the question of why? And at this point the reformers felt some clarification was needed. I've been talking about Communion, or the Lords Supper; and Baptism. But the Roman Catholic Church recognised 5 additional sacraments – Confirmation, Penance, Ordination into the Priesthood, Marriage, and Last rites or Extreme Unction. As the article says some of these are good things, some are the product of corruptions to early church practices. But you could mount a case that these are good things to do in church, and there is biblical warrant for them – take marriage for example, Jesus clearly blessed and honoured marriage and Ephesians 5 teaches that marriage is a picture of the gospel – because it pictures the relationship between Christ and the church. So why is marriage not a sacrament? The answer is simply that only Holy Communion and Baptism were expressly commanded by Jesus to be continued in the form of a visible ceremony – thus, instituted by God. Remember Luke 22.19&20:
Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them saying 'this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me'. In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying 'this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured for you…'
And remember Matthew 28. 18-20:
"Then Jesus came to them and said 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Spirit and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you to the very end of the age.'"
Do you see these aren't just religious men and their funny hats again? They aren't just religion; they were given to us by Jesus. And this is why they are important for us to practice in church; this is why we have confidence in them to communicate the gospel to us – because Jesus left them for us for just this reason.
See here is a picture that communicates the gospel, a lot of you will recognise these pictures from two ways to live. I think two ways to live communicates the gospel very clearly. I've shared it with you on many occasions. But there is a big difference between these pictures that Phillip Jensen came up with and the two ceremonial pictures that Jesus left behind. And the biggest difference is this – Jesus has promised to speak through Communion and the Lord's supper, he has made no such promises of two ways to live. Now I think two ways to live accurately and powerfully summarises the teaching of the whole bible. So it tells the gospel. And God works through the gospel. So I'm confident that God will speak as I share two ways to live with you. But the Lords supper and Baptism were instituted by Jesus himself, of course we expect him to work through them – he would not have told us to do them otherwise!
The last point the article makes is to how to use the sacraments. They are not performances for us to watch – Jesus said 'do this', not watch this. The elements involved are not magic charms for us to hold up or carry around – 'do this', not carry these pieces of bread around for good luck. The bread on the table is not Jesus' physical body to be sacrificed again, so it does not need to be preserved after communion – so the prayer book says left over bread can be eaten at home for the curate's lunch.
Sacraments are not magic acts which purchase heaven for us. They are ceremonies we do together to hear the gospel word, so the way to use the sacraments is to do them in faith – looking not to the physical elements – the water in baptism or the bread and wine; but looking to Jesus whose death they picture for us and putting our trust in him to keep his promises, that all who believe in him will be not perish, but will have eternal life. And they are ceremonies we do together – not something for us to watch others do. So they invite participation, they call us to actively respond, to act in faith on Jesus promises to be saved by him.
Now of course if these sacraments speak the gospel word to us and invite response then they will help us only if we respond to the gospel in faith. If we hear the gospel and respond in faith then we gain the things pictured by the sacraments – new life and sustaining power to follow Jesus. But if we hear the gospel and reject it, then we do not receive the promises, we remain in our sin. And if we put our trust in the act of being baptised, or in the pieces of bread or special water – then we are not putting our faith in Jesus, we have ignored the gospel word. This is the problem when we take communion in an unworthy manner. We make light of God's grace, we treat Jesus' death as if it was a small matter – and so we dishonour Christ. In 1 Corinthians11 Paul says that people were dishonouring Christ in Corinth in their communion services and as a result some of them were sick and some had died!
So how can be put this into practice in our communion services and in our baptisms?
One - Take part with joy and full attention – not just as a part of our service, but as receiving a precious promise from God to you. Meditate on the meaning so that when you are in doubt it will call you back to faith. Concentrate so you're fully present, not thinking about the meal in the oven or the kids in the climbers or the problem at the office – concentrate your mind on Jesus and what he has done for you, focus on him and his great promises.
Two – A call to humility – God has designed this because he knows our weakness. But we are often proud and insensitive to our own weakness: think of Peter and the disciples on the night Jesus was betrayed – they were full of bravdo 'even if all fall away I will never fall away' declares Peter, and all the others said the same. Jesus says 'watch and pray for the spirit is willing, but the body is weak' – the sacraments, like church and the regular preaching of God's word, are designed to help us in our weakness – you need this, come prayerfully, come willingly, come regularly, come joyfully, come expectantly, come fully aware, come humbly – bow yourself before your maker again and receive from him what you can not gain for yourself.
Three – Don't make more of the bits used in sacraments than warranted – not pieces of Jesus left on the table, not special holy water that will protect you in the font; But do make a lot of the realities are in heaven – true use of sacrament is to grow in faith in Jesus, so eat with your mouth, and lift your heart and mind to heaven and eat spiritually by faith, put your trust again in the Lord Jesus who died for you, not in the sacrament!
So that's article 25 - Sacraments are God given signs of God's Promise to us, and of our faith in response;
What about article 27 then, what does it say to us about baptism? Baptism pictures new birth, entry into the church, forgiveness of sins and adoption as sons through receiving the Holy Spirit.
Again the reformers begin by pointing out that baptism is not just something we do – not just a sign of our profession of faith, but also a gospel word of promise from God.
And the promise that baptism points us to is new birth. You'll recall that Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again. Cue confusion from Nicodemus. He couldn't imagine how a grown man could be born a second time 'surely they can not enter a second time into their mother's womb!'
Thankfully that's not what Jesus meant – Jesus explains that baptism is a spiritual new birth, not physical, but of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, so the Holy Spirit comes to each one of us when we become a Christian – we are baptised with the Spirit. In this way Jesus and the Father come to live in us, as Jesus explains in John 14-16. And since we are joined to Jesus by his Spirit living in us, what belongs to him becomes ours – so that his death pays for our sins, and his life becomes ours – as it says in 2 Corinthians 5.21
'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God'.
Notice he takes our sin away on the cross, and he gives us his righteousness so we can become children of God.
This is what baptism pictures – it pictures joining with Jesus in his death and so joining with him in his resurrection. It pictures entry into God's people through new birth, removal of sin and adoption as God's children.
So, baptism, being a sacrament from Jesus, has an inward spiritual reality – baptism by the Holy Spirit joining us to Jesus and giving us new birth by faith – and an outward sign – washing with water, or immersion into water.
And it seems like the article says that the outward sign acts like an instrument to give us new life. But surely that is the work of the inward reality? It is work of the Holy Spirit to give us new birth, forgiveness of sins, adoption as God's children and entry into the church! And that is why the article says that baptism works like an instrument when it is received in the right manner – that is, received by faith, not faith in baptism, but faith in the promises of Jesus. That is to say, if the outward sign is matched by the inward reality, then we have life and all that belongs to Jesus!
We see just this in our reading from Col 2.11-12. It says there:
"In him - Christ - you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead."
What is the baptism in this passage? It's the baptism of the Holy Spirit – it's the inward spiritual reality by which we are joined to Jesus, and so buried with him and raised with him through faith. But Paul points them back to their water baptism to show the meaning, and to remind them of their joining in Jesus' death and his resurrection.
So where does infant baptism fit in here? The article claims that it best agrees with Christ's institution. Does it? For a long time I didn't think so. But that Colossians passage has changed my mind. Paul makes an explicit comparison between circumcision and baptism – saying both point to the same thing; both are external signs that need to be matched by internal reality.
In the Old Testament all the Israelite boys 8 days old were circumcised. But that was no guarantee of salvation. In several places the people are told to circumcise their hearts – the outer sign needed to be matched by an inner reality (Deuteronomy 10; 30; Jer 4; 9). So in Colossians we read of the circumcision done by Christ, not human hands – and that circumcision is the putting off of the flesh, achieved by our being buried with Jesus in his death and raised with him in his resurrection – it is our baptism by the Holy Spirit.
So did Jesus expect us to baptise children? I think he did. He told his disciples to welcome little children because the Kingdom belonged to such as them. He had his disciples go and baptise families – and under the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.38-39 Peter called all Jerusalem to
"be baptised, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the Holy Spirit – the Promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call."
If Jesus had meant us to understand Baptism as like Circumcision, except not to be done for children, and for families, but not for children, I think he would have needed to make that difference clear.
How to we put this into practice? Well remember the sacraments are not to be treated supersticiously, but to be practiced as the Lord instituted them.
Listen to the gospel word baptism preaches – and accept Jesus death and his resurrection for you and enter into life by putting faith in him. That's the inner reality – and if you've not done it yet, do it today. This gospel is true, the offer is amazing– but it won't be on offer forever, one day your opportunities to respond will come to an end, and you never know when that day might be, so take this opportunity, put your faith in him and be saved.
If you've been baptised – don't think that your baptism gives you a fast track to heaven, it doesn't. You need to receive in the right manner – by putting your faith in Jesus death and resurrection, the gospel proclaimed by baptism. So entrust yourself to him, and keep holding on to him. Look back to your baptism, not to trust in it, but to remember the message that it tells you – you are saved by being joined to Jesus by faith.
If you're a believer and never been baptised, then come and do it. Opportunity to speak the gospel to family and friends, and to testify that you belong to the King.
If you've got kids and they've not been baptised bring them for baptism, take the opportunity to speak the gospel to family and friends, and to testify that you belong to the King.
Sacraments – two special ceremonies that Jesus left us as visual words that speak the gospel to us. More than just ceremonies they are effective signs that truly point us to grace in the Lord Jesus, and if we use them rightly – listening to the promises of God and receiving them by faith, not trusting in the signs, but looking beyond them to the things they signify – sacraments grow our faith in the Lord Jesus and so give us life in him.
So our task is to listen carefully to the word they speak to us and to make sure that we engage in the sacraments with due diligence and care, with reverence (not for the things used in the ceremony, but for the Lord and what he did for us), engage in them fully, with mind, heart, body, spirit – respond to them by placing faith ever more securely on the Lord Jesus.