Category Archives: Sacramentology

Supervised Lord’s Supper

Each month Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, has a column entitled “Letters from New Zealand.”  This column features historical correspondence from D.G. Vanderpyl, a long-serving elder in the RCNZ and, at one time, their stated clerk.  The February 2018 issue sees Vanderpyl commenting on the supervision of the Lord’s Supper in the RCNZ.  He notes (writing in September 1978) that the RCNZ practices “closed communion.”  The elders supervise admission to the table and only those admitted by the elders are permitted to partake.

Vanderpyl shares a number of reasons why Reformed churches have a closed Lord’s Supper with supervision by the elders:

Elders have the responsibility to superintend (shepherd) the Church of Jesus Christ to see that all things are done decently and in order, 1 Cor. 14:40, Acts 20:28-31, 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.

Open communion means that the session [a.k.a. consistory] must measure with two different standards:  Local members are under the continuous disciplinary supervision of the session while the visitors are permitted to come to the Lord’s Table without any exercise of supervision on the part of the session.

At open communion elders have no prior knowledge of who partakes of the sacrament, which allows for the possibility that visiting communicants may not have made a credible profession of faith earlier, may be living in open sin, or may even be under discipline elsewhere, all of which desecrates the Lord’s Table.

Open communion contradicts the Church Order, Articles 66 and 91 (Reformed Church of Australia), which specify that the session must ascertain whether those who come to the Lord’s Table are qualified to do so, namely, those who have professed their faith publicly and who are in good standing in the church.

Open communion contradicts the necessity of discharging and receiving members in orderly fashion by means of a letter or certificate from sister churches.

Open communion contradicts the commandments of love (Matthew 22:37-40) which indicate that, in order to love God and the neighbour properly, concern for the neighbour should include that he not be guilty of eating or drinking judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27ff.).

Open communion prevents conscientious members from exercising their right to come to the Lord’s Table because they do not wish to share responsibility for an improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30ff.).

All good reasons worthy of our consideration!  The continued practice of closed communion in churches like the CanRC and FRCA is not, historically speaking, idiosyncratic or arbitrary.


De Brès vs. Richardot: A Reformation Debate

If there’s one Reformation figure who deserves more attention, I would argue that it’s Guido de Brès.  Since I wrote my dissertation on the Belgic Confession (later published as For the Cause of the Son of God) in 2010, I’ve invested more effort in researching and writing about its author and his work for the gospel.  A few years ago, one of my projects was to translate and annotate one of the debates that de Brès had while he was in prison awaiting execution.  This was published in the 2010 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian.  Today, in commemoration of the 500th birthday of the Reformation, I’m pleased to offer you the full text of the debate, along with my introduction and notes: “De Brès versus Richardot: A Sixteenth-Century Debate Regarding the Lord’s Supper.”

 


“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.


A Supervised Lord’s Supper?

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have practiced elder supervision over admission to the Lord’s Supper.  This historic practice has unfortunately been discarded in many churches.  In other churches, even in the Canadian Reformed Churches, the practice is under pressure.  When it seems like you’re the only ones doing this, it becomes difficult to maintain.  After all, are we the only ones who see it rightly?

I’ve noted before how at least one historian attributed the loss of this practice in Presbyterianism to laxity in discipline.  There may be other factors at work as well.  Whatever the reasons may be for why an open table (with a verbal warning at best) is now the norm, those of us who still follow the historic practice need to review our reasons for doing so.  If we’re going to maintain it, we ought to be confident that we’re doing this for sound biblical reasons and not simply out of tradition.

At the church I currently serve, we try to be sensitive to our guests.  If we know someone will be attending on a Lord’s Supper Sunday, we try to speak with them ahead of time and tell them about our policy.  On the liturgy sheet that Lord’s Day we also include our policy and an explanation of it.  This policy is borrowed from the last church I served, which in turn, borrowed it from another Canadian Reformed Church.  This is how it reads:

To Our Visitors and Guests:  Our Supervised Lord’s Supper Celebration Policy

Welcome!  We’re glad that you’re with us this Lord’s Day!  You will notice that today we are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We want to briefly explain to you our policy regarding who may partake of this sacrament at the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a celebration for and by the local congregation as body of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our official policy is that normally only those guests are admitted who are members of a Free Reformed church or a sister church and have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.  As a rule, the status of these guests is articulated in an “attestation” [testimony] issued by the elders of the church in which this guest is a member.  Such a written attestation assists the elders of the church in their supervision over the table of our Lord.  It is the responsibility of the local elders to keep the celebration of the Lord’s Supper holy.  They are called to be sure these guests are true believers who are faithful in their adherence to the Reformed faith and walking a godly life.  The elders are the shepherds of God’s flock and they have a responsibility to protect the flock from the judgment that would fall on the whole congregation if the table would be profaned (see 1 Pet. 5:2 and 1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Please understand that with this policy, we make no judgment on your personal faith or relationship with Christ.  We understand that it is somewhat unusual in the broader Christian context, yet we believe that it is biblical and what is biblical is best for our congregation.  Moreover, we may be assured that by hearing the Word and watching the celebration of this sacrament, you will still be edified through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord Jesus gave the sacraments as visible signs and seals for the strengthening of our faith as we focus our faith on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.  May its observance direct you to seek your life outside of yourself in Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and everlasting life.  May the Lord bless your attendance at our service!

If you have any questions about this policy, please speak to one of our elders or our pastor.

Most guests will read this policy, understand it, and respect our practice.  I have only had one or two occasions where a visitor was offended or upset by our way of supervising the Lord’s Supper.

Let me also recommend an article by Rev. George van Popta on this topic.  He explains the history and rationale more completely.  He also goes into the way the Christian Reformed Church in North America changed course on this matter in 1975.  You can find his helpful article here:  Admission of Guests to the Lord’s Table.


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.