Category Archives: Sacramentology

Luther: Baptizatus sum (I am baptized)

martin_luther_by_cranach

I have heard and read it several times:  when Luther was tempted by the devil, he would look at the words written in chalk on his desk: “baptizatus sum” (Latin for “I am baptized”).  In connection with my upcoming catechism sermon on Lord’s Day 26, I decided to look into this a little more.  I have been unable to find an exact reference for the words being written in chalk on his desk.  However, I did find several other references which I find rather interesting.

In his biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Heiko Oberman quotes Luther:  “The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.”  The endnote refers to the source of this as WAT 6. no.6830; 217, 26f.

A blog entitled Liber locorum communium provides a few relevant quotes from Luther, including this one:  “I am a child of God, I am baptized, I believe in Jesus Christ crucified for me” (translation mine).  The source is given as  TR 5658a, WA TR 5, p. 295, ll. 27-30.

Finally, there is Because of Christ, the memoirs of the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten.  In a footnote, he says that the full quote from Luther is:  “Behold, I am baptized, and I believe in Christ crucifed” (translation mine).  Unfortunately, he does not provide the source.

The intriguing thing about each of these quotes is that baptism does not stand alone — it is joined to faith.  Was Luther always consistent in maintaining the appropriate connection between baptism and faith?  Patrick Ramsey says no.

 


Admitting Guests to the Lord’s Supper

In the broader Reformed/Presbyterian context, it is common to fence the Lord’s Supper with a verbal warning only.  Typically that means that the minister makes an announcement inviting any guests to participate who are communicant members in good standing in an evangelical church, or something to that effect.  For some years, this was one of the sticking points that obstructed the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Eventually, an agreement was reached which paved the way for full ecumenical relations between the CanRC and the OPC.  You can find that agreement here.

Last week, amongst the Canadian Reformed Churches, a Classis Central Ontario was held.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was on the agenda.  We find this reported in the press release (find the full document here):

The Classis ad hoc committee submitted a report on the Lord’s Supper admission as mandated by CCO June 10, 2016. The report, which included an appendix from Burlington Fellowship, was deemed admissible. A discussion ensued. Classis having reviewed the committee report, decided that Burlington-Fellowships practice of inviting guests with only a strong verbal warning from the pulpit is not in line with the Church Order.

I mention this without any further comment at this time, except to say that I agree with the classis decision.

 


Personal Responsibility

klaasschilder

Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


Presbyterianism and Admission to the Lord’s Supper

Jeff-supper-22

I’m still working on getting acquainted with my new context here in Australia.  There’s a lot to learn!  I’m keen to pick up whatever I can about the church history in this vast land.  That led me to the autobiography of J. Graham Miller, A Day’s March Nearer Home.  Now to be clear, Miller was actually a Kiwi, but he did spent a lot of his ministry years in Australia, and eventually retired here as well.  Miller was a Presbyterian, eventually affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  The editor of this autobiography was Iain Murray, who has also served in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

In chapter 11, Miller reminisces about growing up in a Presbyterian manse in New Zealand.  His father, a Presbyterian minister, was quite strict in his beliefs about who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.  This was in the 1920s.  Graham Miller shared his father’s view.  At this point, Iain Murray (the editor) adds an explanatory footnote:

It needs to be understood that in Presbyterian churches the Lord’s Supper was only open to communicant members.  Only as regard for church discipline declined or disappeared was admission to the Lord’s Table left to the discretion of the individual worshipper.  Historically the Presbyterian churches never practised ‘open’ communion. (page 216)

This might be a surprising statement to some.  We’re told here that an open Lord’s Supper table is certainly not intrinsic to confessional Presbyterianism — as if the Westminster Standards demand or logically entail this practice.  Historically speaking, this practice was unknown, according to Murray.

I have found at least two examples that appear to confirm Murray’s claim.  The first is a booklet by Rev. W.J. McKnight, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA.  The (undated) booklet is entitled, Concerning Close Communion: An Investigation.  McKnight argues that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to communicant members in good standing of the church where the sacrament is being celebrated.  I’m told that this was the practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) until 1977.  After 1977, the RPCNA switched to “session-controlled communion.”  Sessions (equivalent to a Reformed consistory) admit communicants to the Lord’s Supper table.

I observed a second example in Hamilton, Ontario.  The city has an annual “Open Doors” event where significant historic buildings open up to the public.  One year, our family was able to tour around inside the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church.  This church was once part of the Free Church of Scotland (now a sister-church of the CanRC), but was eventually taken up into the merger process leading to the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  Inside this church, there is a fascinating little museum of communion tokens.  In historic Scottish Presbyterianism, the Lord’s Supper was typically celebrated once per year.  Prior to this occasion, the elders visited all the communicant members to ascertain their spiritual condition.  If they were faithfully walking with the Lord, they would receive a token, which would grant them admission to the sacrament.  No token, no admission.

Admission to the Lord’s Supper was a significant point of discussion between the CanRC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the lead-up to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship in 2001.  However, eventually agreement was reached on this point.  Both the CanRC and OPC agreed that the Lord’s Supper has to be supervised by the elders.  That also applies to admission.  You can find the text of the agreement here.  I might also add that both the OPC and CanRC also together “rejected the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church.” (article 45 of the Acts of Synod 2001 —reference is made to this document).  That had also been a matter of contention.

One of the thorny issues in history is causation.  When it comes to church history, what caused a certain practice to develop?  We have to be cautious of simplistic explanations.  To blame an open (or more open) Lord’s Supper somehow on the Westminster Standards isn’t going to work.  Historically, Presbyterian churches holding closely to the Westminster Standards have maintained a restricted or even closed view of admission.  It could be argued, and has been argued, that the Westminster Standards actually require that view.  No, whenever we encounter an open Lord’s Supper (or one with just a “verbal warning”), we are looking at something that has a different explanation.  Iain Murray chalked it up to declining regard for church discipline.  Perhaps in some places at some times.  But maybe there are other explanations for other places and times.  Whatever the explanations may be, where it’s needed, the resources for returning to a proper supervision of the Lord’s Supper are present in Presbyterianism itself.


Is Your Worship Reformed?

Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed.  What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship.  The proceeedings began with music.  A band was on stage with singers.  They sang several praise and worship-type songs.  Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.”  The “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.”  The focus at this church seemed clear enough.

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace.  This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive.  You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship.  The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.

The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God.  Scripture is opened, read, and expounded.  The law of God is applied to the congregation.  The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery.  That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ.  This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures.  The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation.  God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus.  This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word.  Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation.  We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us.  This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.

Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them.  His intent is to bless them through his Word.  Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard.  It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs.  When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches.  Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).

The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments.  Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles.  Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation.  Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church.  Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises.  God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism.  However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace.  We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own.  You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!

The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition.  It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one.  The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer.  At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit.  He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith.  He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith.  Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.

The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him.  He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness.  He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink.  Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness.  Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures.  So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service?  Why are these things the focus and emphasis?  It goes back to the covenant of grace.  The covenant is a relationship between God and his people.  Who stands in the center of this relationship?  Not me or you.  No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant.  He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship.  If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central?  Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”?  There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.

Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song.  The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him.  By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services.  That’s not an issue.  No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship.  The question is:  where is our focus?  What is at the center?  What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service?  The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been:  the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry.  With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.