The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper help the church to see spiritual realities that would otherwise be hidden from us. Today, Barry Cooper addresses how these visible depictions of the gospel stir up our faith in Christ.
It’s often said that “seeing is believing.”
Things which we might struggle to believe or understand if we only heard about them become much more compelling when we’re actually “there.”
My father has always been a fan of the football team Tottenham Hotspur. Yes, we call it “football” and not “soccer”—come on, America; you can’t just go around rebranding sports you didn’t invent. Anyway, being the reckless parent he is, he encouraged my sister and me to become fans ourselves. I’m not sure any of his “talking about Tottenham” made much of a difference until Dad actually started taking us to games.
And then it hits you. That smell of cheap burgers and freshly printed programs. That first glimpse of the floodlit green turf as you walk up the stairs to your seat. The sound and the sight of tens of thousands of people all crammed into the stadium—it just swallows you whole. It’s captivating. And that’s before the game even kicks off.
I became a lifelong fan—for better or for worse. And that’s the difference between being told about football and the power of actually seeing it with your own eyes.
In a similar sort of way, sacraments help us to “see” spiritual realities that would otherwise be hidden from us.
And the seeing of these things helps our believing. Sacraments are not only visual demonstrations of our faith in Christ; they also help to feed that faith, just as going to football matches has kindled and kept aflame my lifelong love of the game.
Sacrament isn’t a word that appears in Scripture; it’s a shorthand way of referring to particular practices that Christ has commanded the church to do. For that reason, they’re sometimes called “ordinances.”
The vast majority of Protestants recognize two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They recognize those two because they were both explicitly commanded by Christ.
So baptism, the use of water to represent a person’s dying to their old life and being raised to a new life, is explicitly commanded by Christ in Matthew chapter 28. He says:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Similarly, the Lord’s Supper—sharing in bread and wine in remembrance of Christ’s body and blood, given for us—is something that Jesus explicitly commanded that believers do. In Luke chapter 22, we read that Jesus
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to [his disciples], 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.”
Baptism is a sacrament that only happens once in a believer’s life, while the Lord’s Supper is an ongoing sacrament. But both are visible enactments of invisible realities.
And both are rituals that believers take part in together. That “togetherness” is an important part of the sacraments. They’re not individualistic actions, carried out in isolation from other believers. They’re carried out in community, and they mark us out as members of that community.
But why did Jesus explicitly command His followers to do these two things—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—in this very particular way? Why is it that we’re commanded to be baptized as a way of showing our membership in the new covenant? And why is it that Jesus commanded us to eat a meal together in remembrance of Him rather than simply saying, “Remember what I’ve done”?
We start to answer that question when we see the Old Testament parallels to these New Testament sacraments. The parallels are not exact at every point, because the old covenant is not administered in the same way as the new covenant. But baptism corresponds with circumcision in the Old Testament. And the Lord’s Supper corresponds with the Old Testament Passover meal.
Circumcision and the Passover meal were signs given by God to His people to mark them out as His people. These rituals also acted as seals, so that when people carried them out, they were confirming that they were beneficiaries of God’s covenant.
Now God’s people could, presumably, have been invited simply to mark their names on a written contract or something similar. But instead, God required them to mark their membership in the covenant by means of a visual aid that engaged them in a way that no mere contract signing could. It was something physical, something that demanded the involvement of a person’s whole body: their sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight, not to mention their minds. These ceremonies were a living representation or dramatization of a spiritual reality. Truths that might otherwise have seemed distant and abstract became immediate and real.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper work in a similar way. Not just engaging our minds but also our senses. Not just memorializing what God has done for us in the past, but also emphasizing our status as His people in the present and anticipating our inheritance in the future. Building our faith that God’s promises are real and trustworthy.
One theologian put it this way: “As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means.”
Seeing really does affect our believing.