Chapter 28: Of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
When we read chapter 28 of the 1689 Confession of Faith, we should first of all sit up and take notice! It is significant that the Confession deals with the subject of church ordinances at all.
The men who framed this Confession represented Reformed Baptist congregations in England in the seventeenth century. They were concerned to declare their substantial agreement with others who embraced the theology of the Protestant Reformation (especially the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists), but they were also concerned to promote the purity and the unity of their own churches.
They knew that such purity and unity could only be achieved on the basis of a common commitment to the truth of the Scriptures. They knew that they didn’t need to agree on everything, but they knew that they needed to agree on the most important things. In the Confession, they summarized their understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the most important things.
When we see statements on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, then, we must conclude that the framers of the Confession did not regard the ordinances as issues of minor importance. Along with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists before them, our Baptist forefathers obviously believed that it was necessary to have a clear understanding of what the Bible said about these things.
But there is more to be said. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not merely mentioned, they are given a place of prominence. They could have received a paragraph or two in chapter 26, “Of the Church”. Instead, three entire chapters are devoted to the ordinances! Each ordinance is treated separately (baptism in chapter 29, the Lord’s Supper in chapter 30), and a general statement on the ordinances is provided in chapter 28.
Are we surprised to discover that the framers place such an emphasis on the ordinances? Are they not guilty of placing far too much emphasis on outward religious ceremonies? As we consider these chapters, I believe that we will see the reason for the attention paid to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I believe that we will realize that a correct understanding of the ordinances is dependent upon a correct understanding of the gospel itself. It is precisely because so much emphasis is placed on these outward religious ceremonies that we must clearly understand what the Bible says about them.
Chapter 28 really serves as an introduction to the ordinances. The contents of the chapter may be summarized under four heads:
I. The Nature of the Ordinances
“Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances…”
The word “ordinance” means something that is ordered or commanded by someone in authority. By using the word “ordinance”, the Confession means to say that Christian churches are commanded to observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are not things that a Christian church may or may not choose to do. Each church must baptize disciples of Jesus Christ, and each church must administer the Lord’s Supper to its members.
In the succeeding chapters, the Confession will explain the precise significance of these outward acts. Baptism is a picture of the believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection, with all of the attending benefits of that saving union. In the Lord’s Supper, believers express their unreserved commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and to His people. Far from being minor details of church life, these ordinances are precious gifts of Christ. They are visual displays of the amazing grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the appropriate response of repentance and faith.
In the employment of the word “ordinance”, the 1689 departs from the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith which had been published by English Presbyterians in 1646. Each such departure is significant since the framers of the 1689 uniformly used the language of the Westminster Confession whenever they could because the Baptists wished to show their substantial unity with their Reformed Presbyterian brethren. That confession employs the word “sacrament” rather than “ordinance” in referring to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We are not told why the Baptists consciously rejected the word “sacrament” and substituted the word “ordinance”. There is nothing objectionable in the word “sacrament”: it merely refers to something which is sacred, or set apart from the ordinary for the purposes of divine service. Most likely it was not the technical meaning of the word, but rather its historical usage, that prompted the change.
The framers of the 1689 Confession probably wanted to avoid even the suggestion that there is any saving grace actually communicated in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholics have historically used the word sacrament to describe baptism and the Mass (along with other observances), and they certainly do believe that saving grace is thereby communicated to the participant. Furthermore, Roman Catholics believe that it is the activity and the intention of the priest, rather than the spiritual state of the participant, upon which the sacrament mainly depends for its efficacy.
Whether we call them sacraments or ordinances, it is important that we understand that baptism and the Lord’s Supper do not save anyone. They are vivid pictures of the redemption that comes to the believer through the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the appropriate response of faith and repentance which must be made by the believer, but the ordinances themselves do not and cannot save.
This point cannot be emphasized too much. In every generation, the church must guard against the constant tendency to equate saving religion with the observance of religious ceremonies. There is something of a desire in every sinful heart to be on good terms with God without actually obeying God. Many people wish to be saved from the penalty of sin while they themselves continue to live in their sin, and they frequently look to the ministers of the church to make the necessary arrangements with God. Most often, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are seen as those channels through which grace automatically flows.
That is why the church must make it very clear that participation in baptism and the Lord’s Supper will not benefit anyone who does not truly repent of his sins and exercise saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Protestant Reformers made it a rule that the ordinances were never to be separated from the Word. Whenever a baptism takes place, or whenever the Lord’s Supper is observed, the act is explained from the Scriptures, and the absolute necessity of repentance and faith is emphasized.
It is interesting to note that this principle even influenced church architecture. In Roman Catholic cathedrals, the altar is at the center of the platform, while the pulpit is off to the side. The Reformers changed that, placing the pulpit at the center, emphasizing the centrality of the preaching of the Word. The baptismal tank and the table which holds the elements of the Lord’s Supper are usually present and visible, but are not as prominent as the pulpit.
II. The Institution of the Ordinances
“of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ, the only lawgiver…”
Ordinances are something commanded by someone in authority. It is the Lord Jesus who has imposed these ordinances upon the churches. He has that authority because He is the great head of the church (Ephesians 1:22, 23; 5:23, 24). When a church baptizes Christian disciples and observes the Lord’s Supper, it is doing so in obedience to the expressed will of Jesus Christ.
The Confession further asserts that these are “ordinances of positive and sovereign institution”. This language requires some explanation.
Some of God’s laws are binding on all people in all places at all times. This is so simply because people are made by God to bear His image (Genesis 1:26, 27). We would call these laws “moral”, and they are summarized in the Ten Commandments. All men, simply because they are the intelligent creatures of God, should worship Him exclusively, in the way that He prescribes, with reverence, and especially on His holy day. They should always respect authority, life, sexual purity, the truth, and property. It could never be otherwise simply because of who God is and because of who we are.
There are other commandments of God which are not moral. It is not a matter of moral necessity, for example, that God be worshiped only in Jerusalem, and only in one building in that city. Nor is it a matter of moral necessity that a man refrain from eating pork products. God has a perfect right to issue such commands and require obedience, of course, but they are not moral laws. We would call these laws “positive”. In making such demands upon His creatures, God is exercising His sovereignty; He is acting as king over His creation.
The Confession says that baptism and the Lord’s Supper fall into the latter category of laws. They were not always binding. They were not commanded until the time of Jesus Christ (cf. Chapter 29, paragraph 1; and Chapter 30, paragraph 1). They belong to the era of the new covenant.
Why does the Confession emphasize this truth? In his book A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, Pastor Sam Waldron suggests that one’s response to such commands of the Lord Jesus constitutes a revealing test of submission to Him. “Despising his ordinances argues a lack of respect for Christ’s kingly office. Keeping the laws of nature may flow merely from an enlightened conscience. Properly observing the ordinances of Christ exhibits a love for Christ’s will just because it is Christ’s will.” (pp. 339f.)
Pastor Waldron is quite correct, and there is a Biblical parallel. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit of a particular tree. This was a true test of their love for God. There seemed to be no good reason to obey this command, except that it was a command of God. There does does not appear to be any good reason to be baptized or observe the Lord’s Supper…except to render obedience to Jesus.
The Confession asserts that the Lord Jesus is “the only lawgiver”. He is the only One who has the authority to issue such orders to the churches. The churches may add no others. No individual or group of individuals may assume the authority of Jesus Christ.
There can be little doubt that this statement is meant as a rejection of the authority of a pope. Roman Catholics believe that Peter possessed a unique authority over the churches. This conviction is based, in part, on a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18, 19. They also believe that each pope is a successor to Peter, and thus exercises final authority over the churches. The Confession denies any such office. Jesus Christ is “the only lawgiver”. He did indeed appoint Apostles and give them authority to speak to the church in His name, but that office ceased when the Apostles died, and their words are left to us in the Scriptures. The church ought to acknowledge no other authority.
More needs to be said, however. There are many churches that would not think of bowing the knee to a pope, but neither do they acknowledge the sole authority of Jesus Christ. There are many churches that order their worship in accordance with the ideas of men rather than the words of Scripture.
Some churches, for example, are bound by a tradition which does not reflect the teaching of the Scriptures. They do what they do because they have always done it that way! Other churches do what they do because they think it will make worship more interesting to the members and more appealing to prospective visitors.
The Confession reminds us that only Jesus Christ possesses the authority to order the worship in His churches, and He consciously exercises that authority. Pastors are to see to it that the will of Christ is implemented (1 Timothy 3:14, 15). The worship in our congregations should be based upon the Scriptures, even if that means changing things that have been done for years, and even if it does not seem to be appealing to men.
III. The Duration of the Ordinances
“to be continued in his church to the end of the world”
There are some features present in the churches described in Scripture that are not to be regarded as permanent institutions. We read, for example, of apostles and prophets. We are told of tongues-speaking and miraculous powers. There are compelling reasons for us to believe that these features are not meant to be permanent but rather temporary. (See, for example, paragraph one of Chapter 1, “Of the Holy Scriptures”.)
These ordinances, by way of contrast, are not temporary, but permanent. They are “to be continued in his church to the end of the world”. We may not omit these ordinances from church life as if their importance and usefulness were already accomplished.
In support of this assertion, the Confession refers us to Scripture.
As regards baptism, the Confession cites Matthew 28:19,20.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
These verses contain Matthew’s account of the so-called Great Commission. The scope of this breathtaking mandate to make disciples of all the nations is described both in geographical and chronological terms. The scope is both world-wide and age-long, because Jesus promises His presence “unto the end of the age”. And there is no question as to what “the end of the age” means. In Matthew 13, for example, we find the great “kingdom” parables. “The end of the age” is that time when Jesus will return for judgment, separating His disciples from the impenitent (vv. 39, 40; 49, 50).
The baptizing of Christian disciples, therefore, is intended to be a permanent part of the work of the gospel throughout the world. Wherever and whenever Christian disciples are made and Christian churches are established, we should expect to see those disciples baptized and brought into those churches.
As regards the Lord’s Supper, the Confession cites 1 Corinthians 11:26 (“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”). It seems clear from this passage that the Lord’s Supper is to be observed on a regular basis, and it is to be observed until the Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory.
Jesus’ words in Luke 22:15-18 also point to this conclusion.
“Then He said to them, `With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will not longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, `Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’”
The supper of remembrance recalls the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it also anticipates the great wedding feast of the Lamb when He returns in glory to claim His Bride, and thus is to be observed in His churches until that great day.
The Confession’s assertion regarding the duration of the ordinances may well have been a response to the contemporary challenge of the Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends. The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, lamented the deadness found in many churches. Accordingly, he emphasized the importance of a genuine relationship with God which would permeate all of life. He and his followers rejected all outward forms of religion, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
While it is certainly true that the ordinances must not become a substitute for a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, it is also true that Christ has commanded His disciples to be baptized and to observe the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis. The ordinances need not be formal and lifeless! The proper response to an abuse of the ordinances is not rejection, but personal repentance, and a restoration of the ordinances to their proper place in the church.
There is a more recent challenge to the Confession’s teaching that the ordinances are “to be continued in his church to the end of the world”. There are some who believe that the true church, the body of Christ, did not begin at Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Rather, it began with the ministry of the Apostle Paul, to whom the “mystery” of the church was revealed while he was a prisoner in Rome (Ephesians 3:1-7). The “church” described in the Book of Acts is regarded by them as something of an extension of the kingdom offered by Christ to the Jews. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are therefore viewed as “carnal” Jewish ordinances, and are not to be observed in this present age of the church.
This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of this teaching which is commonly known as ultradispensationalism, or hyper dispensationalism. It is enough for us to remember that baptism is to be a feature of Christian disciple-making until “the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), and that the Lord’s Supper is to be observed “till He come” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
IV. The Administration of the Ordinances
“These holy appointments are to be administered by those only who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ.”
Who has the authority to baptize Christian disciples? Who ought to preside over the administration of the Lord’s Supper? The response of the Confession to these questions is interesting.
The Confession speaks of those who are “qualified” and “called”, but stops short of any further definition. Specifically, the Confession declines to follow the language of the Westminster Confession, which says that the ordinances must be administered “by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained”.
Pastor Waldron (A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, pp. 341ff.) suggests that the framers of the 1689 Confession wished to avoid the two extremes of “clericalism” (only ordained ministers may administer the ordinances) and “congregationalism” (any member of the congregation may administer the ordinances).
To put it another way, they were simply trying to be faithful to the Scriptures. On the one hand, the Bible nowhere teaches explicitly that only church officers may administer the ordinances. On the other hand, there is no good reason to believe that they may be administered by just any disciple.
It is the will of Christ that His churches be organized under the leadership of ministers, whose responsibility it is to preside over the life of the church. The Confession once again cites Matthew 28:19, where the commission to make disciples was specifically addressed to the Apostles. Their understanding of the commission is made clear in the Book of Acts. Wherever disciples were made as a result of the proclamation of the gospel, churches were established. When fully organized, a church was to be under the leadership of pastors who would preside over the life of that church.
The Confession also cites 1 Corinthinans 4:1 (“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”). Paul describes himself and his fellow ministers as “stewards”. A steward was himself a servant, but a servant entrusted by the master with the general administration of a household, so that the household would be characterized by order and not chaos.
While there is nothing in the Bible that says that only ministers may administer the ordinances, surely it is reasonable to believe that the baptism of new disciples and the serving of the elements of the Lord’s Supper ought to be under the supervision of the ministers. Ordinarily, they will administer the ordinances themselves. There may be unusual circumstances, however, under which they may delegate the tasks to other men selected by them and recognized by the congregation. The wording of the Confession at this point provides for appropriate flexibility.
This, then, is the Confession’s general statement on the ordinances. Before we even come to consider the precise messages conveyed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that these pictures of the gospel are to be taken seriously. They must not be elevated to a place of supertitious awe, but neither are they to be dismissed as empty ceremony.
Christian churches are bound to obey the Lord Jesus. He has commanded that new disciples be baptized, and that those disciples regularly remember the Lord’s death by participating in a special meal of remembrance. We may be quite certain that His blessing will attend the serious observance of the ordinances.
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