A Feast of Grace

The American evangelical doctrine of voluntarism and the doctrine of populism that produced this country produced a church, “of the people, by the people, for the people” (the “Gettysburg Address”).  American evangelicalism sees itself, for the most part, as a voluntary community of, by and for the people, with preaching that tells them the best things do, think, and feel.  It also has a Lord’s Supper and Baptism as tools that show people what they have done.  American Evangelical leader George Barna offers advice for Evangelicals, “Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs.”[1]  Depending on a particular church’s theology those needs will vary: (1) for the pietist, a steady diet of moralistic preaching to stimulate the affections; (2) for the rationalist, doctrine centered preaching to stimulate his mind; (3) for the social activists, a steady stream of utilitarian preaching centered on society.  Moreover, the sacraments are reduced to tools with limited use.  They basically show people what they have done.

The Reformed church, on the other hand, believes worship to be merely a divine service—a place where God acts first, causing Christians to respond in thanksgiving.  It is a place where God cleanses Christians from the pollution of their soul.  Worship is a feast of grace, where believers receive Christ and all his benefits in the baptism and the administering of the Lord’s Supper.  It is not a voluntary community, but a community chosen by God and created by His Word and Spirit—a community with sanctified things that communicate grace.  God uses common paper, ink, vocal cords, eardrums, taste buds, noses, water, bread and wine.  He then sanctifies them for his purpose to give his people grace, that is, to give Jesus Christ.

The ordinary way God grants the communication of Christ is by means of Word and sacrament.  By Word through the preaching, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the sacramental Word of God proclaimed (Rom. 10:17).  Reading the Scripture privately and as families can and should be an encouragement for faith; nonetheless, Paul identifies the preached Word as a particular importance for creating faith.  So he writes a few verses earlier, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (10:14).[2]  For this reason The Second Helvetic Confession states, “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 278; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:23-25; Heb. 13:7).[3]

Jesus is not only present in the preached Word but also in the Lord’s Supper.  In the Supper Jesus is present bodily.  By the Supper, the Holy Spirit overcomes the ascension.  For the Reformed, ascension is a problem since the church is left without Jesus Christ.  How can a church that takes union seriously do so without Him?  The church receives the Savior every week through the sign of the Supper.  The sacramental union of sign and reality assure the believer that he receives Christ in the sacrament.  The sign of bread and wine present Christ and all his benefits.  It does so spiritually by faith for the Holy Spirit causes believers to receive Christ.[4]

The church consists of members baptized into the death of Christ.  In this second sacrament, the Father ratifies his pledge to the church, “to be God to you and to your offspring,” (Gen. 17:7), which Peter picks up at Pentecost and says, “For the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39).  Baptism is a living and active gospel promise that both young and old are members of the church.  This dismisses any idea that church is simply a voluntary society for you cannot choose your family.  Baptism assures the believer that God washes him in the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit brings about the when and where of this.[5]

There is a constancy of Christ’s presence in public worship, for he says, “I am with you always to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), a promise that follows his command to administer the public means of grace.  The sacraments express intimacy for through them Christ dwells in the midst of his church (Rev. 1:13).  There is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship than in private devotion, therefore public worship takes priority over private devotion.

[1] George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 37.

[2] Sacramental preaching must center on Christ in order for it to be Apostolic.  The very foundation of the church is the “apostles and prophets,” centered on the cornerstone of Christ (Eph. 2:20).  The life of the church must center thoroughly on Christ, for she relies on him as her head for life and existence (Col. 1:15–20).  Jesus Christ creates the church and as eternal King, governs the church by his Word and Spirit, as he gathers and defends unto himself for eternal life this chosen communion in the unity of the true faith.  This sacramental Word brings Christ to his people.

[3] Effectiveness of preaching does not derive from the piety of the minister but by the piety of the Word and Spirit.  Reformed churches do not have a problem calling ministers reverend.  The office is reverential because the blood of Jesus bought it, not because the person actually obtained a glorious status (Acts 20:28).

[4] Rome errs in this union by turning the sign into the thing signified.  Lutherans confuse the sign with the reality, and Zwinglians separate it all together.  The Reformed understand the whole Christ to be present in the Supper, because Christ cannot be separated from his body since the hypostatic union.  You cannot receive Christ’s spirit without his body, anything else smacks of the Nestorian or some gnosis heresy.  Reformed Christians are sure that Christ is received; however the mode of reception by the Holy Spirit remains a mystery.  It is God who first acts in the Supper not the Christian.  The Christian does his part by examining himself before he takes, for this reason children are not admitted to the Supper until they confess Christ.  In addition, it must be understood that the Supper is a means of grace.  It is not for the higher life, but for sinners displeased with their sin, who understands these are forgiven them by Christ’s suffering and death.  Therefore, elders should command all members to partake, apart from good reasons (Heb. 13:17).

[5] Horton, People and Place, 116–117.

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