It’s a typical Sunday at First Baptist Church for Dustin. Pastor Jon had just finished his sermon and announced that after the closing hymn he is going to baptize Thomas, a college student who, after wrestling with doubts over the resurrection for years, has finally believed the gospel. Dustin’s wife ducks out during the first verse of the hymn to retrieve their children from the nursery. When she arrives back at the pew with their gaggle of children, Dustin is noticeably flustered by their raucous behavior. As the final verse ends he decides to sneak out with his family before the baptism. His conscience is troubled at leaving early, but he decides to go ahead anyway. After all, Thomas’ baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with him, does it? Isn’t it just about Thomas personal profession of faith? He can do that just as well without Dustin and his family.
Dustin’s attitude toward Thomas’ baptism represents the way many evangelicals think about the ordinances. For many, baptism is essentially about my personal profession of faith, an expression of my obedience to Jesus. Regrettably, this individualism characterizes how many Christians even think about the more obviously communal ordinance, the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is purely about my remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, my confession of sin, or my hope in the Lord’s return. So with eyes tightly shut and hearts pretty well indifferent to who may or may not be in the room, the Lord’s Supper becomes nothing more than an act of private devotion—just one we do in proximity to a lot of other Christians.
The Bible, however, paints a very different portrait for how the ordinances function in the life of the church. Let me submit three ways the Bible shows us how the ordinances should shape our relationships with one another, both on Sundays and throughout the week.
1. Baptism and the Lord's Supper Create Day-to-Day Commitments
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not hermetically sealed events in the life of the church—“flash in the pan” moments that interrupt our regular routine of worship. Instead, these are events that create day-to-day responsibilities toward one another. Going back to our opening illustration, when Thomas is baptized on Sunday morning, that baptism has implications for Dustin on Monday. In baptism, the church is making commitments to the believer and the believer is making commitments to the church.
Where do we find this in Scripture? Baptism is how the church marks out the people of God. In the Great Commission, Jesus authorizes the apostles, and by implication the church, to administer baptism to “disciples” (Matt. 28:18–20). When someone is baptized they are not only going public with their faith, the church is also affirming their profession as credible. The church, after all, is the one administering the baptism, giving as it were their stamp of approval to that person’s profession of faith.
And what happens after someone is baptized? They join the church. Baptism doesn’t just mark someone’s commitment to follow Jesus, it also marks their commitment to Jesus’ people. Throughout the New Testament, new believers joined up or “were added” to the church by baptism (Acts 2:14; 1 Cor. 12:3), and once added to the church, the church loved and spiritually nourished them (Acts 2:42–47).
So when church members watch someone get baptized, we aren’t just celebrating their private profession of faith. We are making a commitment to them to oversee the well-being of their Christian walk, to care for them, and to love them as members of our church. In other words, when we witness someone baptized we are, as a congregation, implicitly saying our church covenant to them as they go down into the water and they are saying it back to us as they emerge. When you see someone baptized in your congregation, add them to your prayer list and start asking how they’re doing—they’re part of the family now.
2. The Lord's Supper Consistently Confronts Any Unchecked Pride or Bitterness
In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, Paul identifies one of the primary problems in the Corinthian church as divisiveness (11:18) rooted in some form of classism and pride (11:22). How does Paul respond? By talking about the Lord’s Supper—yep, the Lord’s Supper! Shocking isn’t it? But not if we recognized just how central the ordinances are for a healthy church community.
Paul rebukes the Corinthians because the Lord’s Supper demands that they be one unified body (11:23–33). This supper portrays a gospel which demands that we all make the same claims about ourselves: we are sinners and Jesus is our only source of righteousness. The Lord’s Supper assumes we are one, united, reconciled body. It’s a family meal.
The Lord’s Supper then is meant to function like a net, catching any unchecked pride or bitterness that church members might be harboring toward one another.
To switch analogies, the Lord’s Supper is like an air filter in your heating system. Air filters catch all the pollen, bugs, and other decaying material from outside to make sure that only the cleanest air gets pumped into your home. But after three months, those filters need an upgrade. The wear and tear of catching all that muck means it needs replacing. So too the Lord’s Supper catches the muck of division. Each celebration of the Supper is like replacing that air filter, renewing the church’s resolve to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace (Eph 4:3).
In other words, the unity of the church manifested in our relationships with one another is so important that God implemented a regular, reoccurring table fellowship that demands that all the participants resolve their differences and forgive one another before participating. The supper makes the many into one: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
As we remember that the Lord’s Supper is coming, it should motivate us either to dissolve any bitterness we may harbor toward others (1 Pet 4:8) or to seek out reconciliation and work through our bitterness with them (Matt. 5:23–24).
3. Baptism and the Lord's Supper Contribute to Our Corporate Fight for Assurance of Salvation
The Bible teaches that our assurance of salvation should primarily be rooted in the objective work of Christ in our place and second in evidences of grace we see in our own life (i.e. our response to the objective work of Christ [1 Jn 2:3; 5–6; 3:10]). How then should we examine these evidences of grace?
First of all, we should endeavor to maintain a clear conscience and a healthy dose of self-critical honesty. But self-reflection is not the only way we analyze whether our lives exhibit gospel transformation. When understood rightly, baptism and the Lord’s Supper also function as God’s ordained means whereby the entire congregation exercises its authority to strengthen and encourage our personal sense of assurance.
How so? Remember, in baptism the church tells the believer, “We think you’re a Christian.” Well, in the Lord’s Supper, the church tells the believer, “We still think you’re a Christian.” That’s why church discipline involves barring the unrepentant one from communion (i.e. excommunication), not from attending the church.
This means that when we gather around the table, we’re exercising a congregational authority and proclaiming to one another, “Brother or sister, if you are at this Table, then be emboldened and have assurance.” The people of God with whom you live week in and week out and who are examining your profession of faith are telling you, “Yes, your life reflects someone who genuinely believes the gospel.” As one friend of mine puts it, when we gather with our church to take the Supper, our brothers and sisters look at us and sing “blessed assurance, Jesus is yours.”
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog and is used with permission.