The Lord Jesus Christ came to deliver the good news of God’s marvelous grace. Matthew’s Gospel captures the inception of Jesus’ ministry in His proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV) This message was proclaimed from boats and plains. It was preached from synagogues and the Temple. But by the mercy of God alone, the Gospel was not merely something to be heard. God was pleased to provide His Gospel in a more visible manner through the sacraments. These signs and seals of God’s gift of grace were instituted by the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, to bless His church.
A sacrament is a visible display of the Gospel. As the early church pastor-theologian, St. Augustine (AD 354-430), wrote a sacrament is “a visible form of an invisible grace.” These visible signs are tangible ways that God demonstrates the promises of His Gospel to us. They are instructive aids, but only as they are accompanied by God’s Word.
God was not obligated to give us these signs or symbols in the sacraments. The Word of God as it is read and proclaimed is sufficient. However, our faith can sometimes rise and fall. How many of you have had moments in your life where you felt so close to the Lord? Perhaps it was a season in your life where prayer, Scripture reading, public worship, and good Christian books were just a staple of your life. You felt close to God and knew He was close to you.
But as it can sometimes occur, these seasons of spiritual highs can be met by horrific spiritual woes where we wonder if we’ve ever known God. Perhaps we allowed ourselves to be thrust into a period of habitual sin. Perhaps we neglected the Word. Perhaps we neglected God’s people. Perhaps we became a walking contradiction and were prayerless Christians. The Christian life is not a straight line going from one point to the next. As many of us know, our Christian life can be riddled with highs and lows. The sacraments are tangible reminders to us that God’s grace does not come to well-to-doers but sinners like us, whose only hope is the mercy and grace of Christ.
Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (AD 1509-1564), reminds us of the love of God in the sacraments. Calvin wrote, “as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that . . . he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.3)
In short, we are gifted the sacraments as a means of sustaining our faith throughout the wilderness-like journey of our present life here on earth. Just as the ancient Israelites received water and bread and meat in the wilderness by the mercy of God alone to sustain them, so our God today sustains His church not only through His spoken promises, but through His tangible promises. We are sustained for this journey by water, bread, and wine. God’s gospel is not merely heard, but engaged by all of our senses. Under the bread and wine: we see the gospel; we can smell the gospel; we can feel the gospel; we can hear the gospel; we can taste the gospel.
The only sacraments or visible displays of the Gospel that God provides to His church are Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are God’s gifts to His people. Why though? They were instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ. We have no more. We have no less. We find Christ’s command that His church is bound under the covenant of grace to perpetually observe these sacraments.
If Christ has gifted His church with these benefits, then who are we to reject them? If Christ tells us that we need them, how can we diminish them? If Christ instructs us that these gifts are medicine for sick-sinners, who are we to keep Christians from them? If Christ has invited us to His table, why do we remain at arm’s length?
I pray that as you have occasion to observe and participate in the holy sacraments in the coming weeks in a church that preaches the Gospel, that you would marvel and rejoice at the grace of God proclaimed to all people. God has made both Himself and His message known, are you listening?