Need Help? Call Now
I Believe In The Church

I Believe In The Ordinances

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 4, 2001

Selected highlights from this sermon

The ordinances of the church are important marks of obedience.

Baptism is an outward symbol of our inward repentance, and it identifies us with our Savior in His death and resurrection. 

Communion, though some have erroneously declared it to be the actual body and blood of Jesus, is another symbol. It is only bread and juice, but in this sacred act, we look back at what Christ has done for us on the cross and look forward to His coming return.

In this message, Pastor Lutzer walks us through the ordinances and what they represent. He also reminds us that they cannot save us—only the blood of Christ can do that.

Philipp Melanchthon, who was an associate of Martin Luther, said that it was deserving of tears that the Lord’s Supper, which was to be a means to unify His people, had become a means of great division. It is deserving of tears. It’s also deserving of tears that baptism, which was to unite the people of God, has been used as means of division.

Today I am going to speak on the topic of those two ordinances of the Church – baptism and communion – and I do so being very well aware that we come from very diverse backgrounds. As a matter of fact, if you are here today and you are Roman Catholic, you are in good company because probably 25% to 30% of the people who are sitting around you have had a similar upbringing.

When we have new members here at the church we always discover that perhaps 25% to 30% are Roman Catholic. Maybe 20% Baptists, and beyond that then we have Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist, and I’m sure I left out many, many others. So what I am going to be saying to you today is probably contrary to what some of you were taught. But I want you to listen carefully and if you disagree with me, that’s fine. I just want to make sure that your disagreement is based on the Scriptures, so check it out.

In the early centuries of the Church, say by the third century, the view began to develop that baptism and communion had the ability to actually convey grace to those who participated. The whole idea was that this grace was really saving grace. Can you imagine the awesome power of the Church in those centuries? What that meant was that the Church had the ability to keep you from heaven because it could keep you from receiving these ordinances. Along with the idea that they conveyed grace, the idea also arose, and you can see why, that infants should be baptized. Even though infant baptism is not practiced or mentioned in the New Testament, the idea was that surely we should not withhold from infants the grace that comes through what was called the sacraments. Surely they too should be baptized, and they were. And in those early centuries they were not only baptized but they were also given the wine and the bread because the belief was that if grace is communicated through these ordinances, why then indeed the children - the infants - should also participate. And therefore if a child was born sickly, and perhaps expected to die, the priest would hurry there quickly so that the water would be given to the child, and the bread and the wine would be given as well.

Sometimes these ordinances are referred to as sacraments, and many of you come from a background where they are called that. It’s a perfectly good word. The word sacrament comes from sacramentum, which means sacred in Latin. And these ordinances are sacred. The reason that we prefer the word ordinances rather than sacraments is because in the minds of many people sacraments exactly are the means of grace, the way of salvation. So we prefer the word ordinance, though the word sacrament is also a good word.

What I’d like to do in the next few moments (and they will have to be few) is to talk about why we believe in the ordinances of the Church, and we are going to discuss briefly baptism and the Lord’s Supper. How I wished, as I was going through this yesterday, that I had an entire message for each, but as it is, we’ll do both today and you’ll get the Reader’s Digest version.

Regarding baptism, when John came baptizing, he was asking people to repent, and when they were baptized in the Jordan River they were baptized as a sign of inward repentance. In a sense, even back then, baptism (the outer washing) was a sign of the transformation of the heart, the cleansing of the heart. It was a symbol of that. Right from the beginning in the early church we discover that the early Christians were baptized, but it was not the means of salvation. It was not through baptism that they were born again and regenerated. That came through faith in Christ, but baptism followed.

Now the reason we know that baptism was not considered as necessary for salvation, that it was not the means of salvation, is that the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1, “I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus and Gaius; for Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel.” So notice that Paul is distinguishing the two there. As a matter of fact, about a hundred times in the New Testament faith in Christ alone is mentioned as the way of salvation. And therefore it would be very strange indeed if baptism would be a part of that.

As a matter of fact, let me ask you this question. Since it says, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin,” how many sins are left for the water to wash away? The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.

But there is one text that is debated, and I’m going to ask you to turn to it. It’s in Acts 2:38, and this is the text that is sometimes used by those who think that baptism is the means (or a part) of the salvation process. Peter is preaching and he says in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” And people say, “Aha, there it is. Repent and be baptized.”

Well, I’d like to say flat out that just because the word baptize occurs in the same command as repent, that in itself does not mean that baptism is necessary for the remission of sins. For example, I might say to you, “Take the keys and put on your coat and start the car.” Now having the keys is necessary, but not taking your coat. That is something that is thrown in. I think that Peter meant that for two reasons. First of all, the text itself suggests it. In Greek the word repent is plural. Now we can’t indicate that in English. The best that we can do is to take a lesson from the southerners and say let’s read it like they would down where some of us went to seminary in the south. They’d read it like this: “Y’all repent, okay? Y’all repent,” and notice it says, “for the forgiveness of y’all’s sins.” See that’s plural. We could read it, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins.” And the reason that we know that “and be baptized” is like a parenthesis is because it is in the singular, whereas the “repent” and the “forgiveness of your sins” are in the plural. So that helps us set it off and realize that it is possible to repent and to receive the forgiveness of your sins. And while baptism was always assumed because in the early church when you got saved, you were baptized, baptism itself is not necessary for the process.

Now there’s a second reason, and that is that the same author, the same writer, the same preacher, Peter, is preaching in Acts 10:43. And he’s explaining to a Gentile how to be saved, and this is what he says. “All the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.” Period. Nothing is said about baptism.

What do we believe that baptism teaches? What is its message? It’s an outward sign of inner cleansing. You are saying that you have personally repented. And it’s also a rite of entry into the new group called the Church. Could I simply say that in the New Testament, in the book of Acts, there’s no such thing as an un-baptized believer? They were saved. They believed on Christ. And as a result of that faith in Christ, they were baptized. It was assumed. It was a point of identity, a very important point of identity.

You know there are some cultures today where there is no persecution of you if you become a Christian until you are baptized. And after you are baptized they know that the break is final. And in the New Testament it speaks about those who came with Moses across the Red Sea. And it says they were baptized unto Moses. Now no water got on the Israelites who went through the Red Sea. They went on through dry ground. It’s the Egyptians that drowned. Why then is the word baptized used? It’s because it’s a form of identification. It was cutting off the life of Egypt and going into the Promised Land, and the break was clear. And it’s called baptism because that word not only means to immerse, but also it means to have identity with. And when you are being baptized, it is an outward sign of the inner cleansing. It is a rite of initiation, if we can put it that way, into the believing community, identifying yourself with Jesus Christ.

Why do we as a church not baptize infants? First of all, as I’ve said, it’s not mentioned in the New Testament. It was not done in the New Testament. But there’s a second reason and that is that infant baptism, as I mentioned, arose under the premise that somehow grace is communicated. And so there are some who use formulas like this. “With this water,” as they sprinkle an infant, “I make you a child of God.” And so some people grow up thinking that they are Christians because they were baptized as infants. It’s a terrible mistake. I want you to know today that that act did not make you a Christian. Of course, if I had time I’d explain that not everyone interprets infant baptism the same way, but it arose with the idea that this was a communication of special grace.

Let me ask you a question today. We do not require baptism to become a member of Moody Church. Some people criticize us for that because in the book of Acts the two were always linked. But I want to speak to those of you today who are saved, and you’ve never been baptized. That is to say, you have never been immersed as a believer. Why not? I’ve heard things like this. People say, “Well, I was baptized as an infant.” Well, you were baptized as an infant, but were you baptized as a believer upon profession of your faith, making your personal declaration that your heart has been cleansed by Christ and that you belong to God and are identifying yourself with the people of God? Have you done that?

Then there are those who say, “Well, you know I might offend my family if I were baptized.” Well let me tell you that maybe your family needs to understand that a radical transformation has happened to you, that you are breaking with your past life and your past understandings.

It’s been my privilege on numerous occasions, lecturing on the Reformation, to go to Zurich, Switzerland, and to stand on the Limmat River right at the Rathaus where Felix Manz was drowned. Now folks, you have to understand that his crime was believing that even though he was baptized as an infant, that he should be re-baptized as a believer upon profession of faith. That was his crime. In those days infant baptism was believed to be so important because it held church and state together. It was a symbol of the regional church, and not even the reformers would give it up for love nor money. And the Zurich City Council said that whoever is baptized as an adult upon profession of faith must be put to death by burning, fire or sword.

When Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel baptized one another, Felix Manz’s hands were tied. He was pushed out on the river in a little boat, and then they capsized it and he was drowned in those dark waters on January 5, 1527. And his mother was shouting across the waves urging her son to remain true to the faith. His crime was to be baptized – to be re-baptized as one who had been baptized as an infant. And that, of course, as you should know, was a Protestant dying, being martyred by other Protestants. And that began a persecution of the Anabaptists throughout Europe because the movement had spread tremendously, and whole villages of men, women and children were massacred with the sword because they believed that one should be baptized as an adult.

And today there are some people who say, “I wouldn’t be baptized because I might offend somebody.” You might offend them but you probably won’t die. Thank God that we have freedom here in America.

So there are those who say, “I was baptized as an infant. I might offend my family.” Some people say it’s embarrassing to go into the water. Repentance is always embarrassing, and that’s a symbol of it. It’s a symbol of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Romans 6 says, “We have been baptized in His death, and we have been raised again to newness of life.” What you are saying is, “I’m leaving the past behind and I’m trusting Christ, raised to new life, identified with Him as His disciple.” Let me ask you again? Why are you not baptized?

Let me put it this way: It’s possible to be married without having a wedding ring. It’s also possible to wear a wedding ring without being married. You could find one somewhere and slip it on, but that doesn’t make you married, does it?

Now folks, I want you to know that it’s possible to be genuinely saved without having been baptized because salvation is the marriage. The wedding ring, so to speak, is the baptism. But why would any bride not want to wear a wedding ring? If she were to come to me I’d say, “Hey, don’t argue with me about it. Why don’t you talk to your husband and tell him why you want to be without a wedding ring?”

And so I say to you very lovingly, though I hope pointedly, that if you are here as a genuine believer in Christ and have never been baptized, we are members of Christ. We are His bride. Would you explain to Christ why it is that you are so confident that you should disobey Him? In fact, why don’t you begin a sentence like this and say, “Lord Jesus, the reason that I want to disobey what You’ve said is…” and then you fill in the blank. And then you work it out with Him. You know, I don’t like it when people leave Moody Church and say over brunch that the pastor was unclear. Okay? (laughter)

Now let’s speak about the Lord’s Supper. It occupied always a central place in the history of the Church because the cross is central. But when sacramentalism came into being, and again we’re talking about the third century, and especially after Constantine (the fourth and fifth centuries) where it was believed now that this was something that actually became the body and the blood of Christ, what you found were two things. First, awesome power given to the priests! I mean, just imagine through saying the right words, wine could become blood, and bread could become literal flesh. That was believed by the tenth century. One thousand years after the time of Christ that was finally believed to be the correct tradition. So what you had was not only the priests having awesome power, but people were told that they could worship the wine and the bread with the same worship given to God Himself because it was God.

I have a book that was used by priests in which the priests say, “We can lock God in the cupboard overnight because this is God, a very God, the flesh of Christ, the blood of Christ.” Now mind you, when you looked at it, it was still wine. It tasted like wine. It smelled like it. It was still bread, but the essence, it was believed, was changed somehow miraculously. You know, the Latin word misa means to dismiss, and because at the end people were dismissed, the word misa became applied to the entire feast, and therefore we get the word mass. As this began to grow, the ordinary person was told, “You can’t even drink the cup because you might spill the blood of Jesus Christ on the floor. We can’t trust you with His actual blood.” You can imagine again this distinction that came between laity and clergy as the clergy had the awesome power to be able to make the concentration and to be able to make the change.

At the time of the Reformation when there was a rigorous examination as to what the Bible would say, you find that the reformers had their own disagreements. I might take a moment and emphasize that. Luther did not believe in trans-substantiation, that the elements were actually literally changed. But he did believe that there was a literalness, even though the elements remained the same. It’s very mysterious to me as to exactly what he meant, but it is called consubstantiation, that is to say that Christ is there in alongside of the elements somehow. So it is literal without a change.

Calvin in Geneva believed that Christ was spiritually present. And another reformer in Zurich, Zwingli, believed that Christ is symbolically present. Here at The Moody Church I am sure that we hold probably the symbolism certainly, most assuredly that Christ is symbolically present. Christ is also spiritually present, we could say, but it’s not literal. What you have in your hand is still bread. What you are drinking is the cup, but it has not been transformed into anything other than what it is. It is a symbol.

I like to think of it this way. It’s like a photograph. I’ve not seen my oldest grandson for over five or six weeks. My wife saw him last week and brought some pictures back and she gave them to me and she said, “This is Jack.” Now I can see that he’s a lot bigger than he used to be, but I didn’t see him literally. It wasn’t as if those words were literal – “This is he.” No, it’s a picture. And when Jesus was here on earth He was saying, “I’m giving you a picture.” The whole idea of eating flesh (literal flesh) and drinking literal blood would be contrary to some of the other teachings of the Old Testament.

Furthermore, when Jesus said, “This is my cup,” he said, “This cup is the covenant of my blood.” Well, we wouldn’t say that the cup is a covenant, so even within the context of His words Himself there’s a great deal of symbolism that we are to understand.

But what is it really that communion is a picture of? For this, I want you to take your Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 11 where the Apostle Paul gives the clearest explanation of what it is of which we participate and its meaning. I’m going to pick it up in 1 Corinthians 11:23. That’s where I’m going to begin to read, though I may make references to other verses here in the text.

“For I received from the Lord what I passed on to you. The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and said, ‘This is My body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way after supper He took the cup saying, ‘The cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ Do this whenever you drink it in remembrance of Me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

Paul says that when we come to communion (this symbol), first of all we look backward. We do it in remembrance of Christ. We remember that He died on the cross, and we remember that His cross is sufficient. You know it’s possible for you to confess your sins every single day, trying to remember every one of them. First of all, you can’t remember all of your sins. Number two, there are all kinds of things that God might call sin that you don’t. So if you think that confession is the way of salvation you have no assurance because you are never sure. It’s like trying to mop up the floor with the faucet running. Tomorrow is another day with more sins, and more lack of assurance.

I’ll tell you what you need. You need one act of God by which your eternal destiny is forever sealed. And it says in the Book of Hebrews that by one sacrifice He has perfected forever those who are sanctified. This is what we remember when we come to communion. At last we recognize that Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient for every one of us who are willing to believe in Him and receive that gift. And so we remember that. And we remember it with a great deal of gratitude because we know we could never possibly trust ourselves. We come remembering the covenant. What is the covenant? It is the promise of Christ. All of this, of course, within the context of the Passover, is Jesus Christ who shows Himself as a continuation and the completion of Old Testament promises. So we remember the past.

We also remember the future. We look forward to it. You’ll notice it says, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” We’re not only saying, “He came once,” but we’re also saying, “He’s going to come again.” And we are proclaiming it. We are saying that we believe in the return of Jesus. Now we may not know exactly when He’s coming back or how He’s coming back. There are lots of disputes as to exactly what are signs of His coming, and what are not, and we maybe can’t figure all that out, but we do love His appearing, don’t we?

As a matter of fact, maybe you’re sitting there today and saying, “I wonder if I am a born again Christian.” One way that you might be able to determine it is whether or not you love Christ and you love His appearing. Peter said in his letter, “Whom having not seen, we love, and though we see Him not, yet we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” I want you to know that on your own it’s not possible to love someone whom you haven’t seen. And we don’t see Christ, but we love Him. And we look forward to His appearing. And when we begin to see signs as we interpret them that the appearing of Jesus Christ is near, we may have some faint hearts, believing that there may be some trouble before He comes. But we are glad that He is on His way because we look forward to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb when we’ll be able to sit down with Him, and our fellowship with Him will be eternal and will be sweet.
And when we gather together today for communion, we are saying that. We are saying, “Lord, thank You for the past. You came back then, but I am looking forward to Your coming in the future and I am proclaiming that faith in Your coming.”

What else do we do? We look behind us. We look to the past. We look forward, but we also look inward. Notice what Paul says in verse 27: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and the blood of the Lord.”

What does an unworthy manner mean? Well, for one thing, if we read the earlier verses in the chapter we’d know that the Corinthians were using the Lord’s Table as an opportunity to have potluck dinners at their church. And many people were overeating. They were not taking care of the poor among them. Some of them were drinking wine to the point of getting drunk. That’s part of it, so Paul says, “That’s no way to remember the Lord’s death to come with such irreverence and so many wrong attitudes and behaviors.”

The other thing that he’s talking about though is this sense of division within the body. If I eat or drink unworthily, what it means is that there may be some disunity in my heart with another brother. Let’s suppose, for example, that here this morning at the church there was someone with whom I had disagreements that were unresolved that could be resolved. It may be my fault. It may be the other person’s fault. He may be angry with me. I may be angry with him. Perhaps we’ve done some things. Thankfully, I can give this illustration because today I stand before you with a clear conscience. Maybe I can’t say that every Sunday but today I can.

More seriously, I want you to know that God has worked in my life so that whenever possible, I want to be fully right with God and with other people. But let us suppose that circumstances like that did exist. I would have no right to communion because I would be, in effect, dividing the Lord’s body, when the whole purpose of communion is to unify us.

My sister was a missionary in Africa and she said that they always had a break after the service before communion so that people could go to one another and make things right before they participated. I don’t think that’s a bad idea really, because what we are doing is we are coming together and we are saying, “I discern the Lord’s Body as being one, as united, and if there’s division within the Body we pretend that everything is okay when it is not, and we are eating in an unworthy way.”

In fact, Paul goes on to say in verse 28, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup, for anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord (that is, without recognizing its unity) eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Well, you say, “What’s the judgment?” This is terrifying, folks. We take this all for granted, don’t we? He said, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” That’s a euphemism for saying you died. If you don’t think that this is serious business, just listen to this text.

And then he says, “But if we judged ourselves (and that’s what I’m asking you to do this morning, my dear Christian friend.) we would not come under judgment.” What he means is that if we judged ourselves within our hearts and then made sure that we were right with the Lord, then we would not fall under His disciplinary hand because He wouldn’t have to judge us because we’ve judged ourselves.

So I have to ask you, what is it that you brought with you today in your heart that might prevent you from participating? And I encourage your participation, but not if you are not discerning the Lord’s body, not if there is division, not if there is unresolved conflict with someone else who is a part of the same body.

Let me give you the bottom line. Number one, no ordinance can save you. Baptism can’t do it. Communion can’t do it. They can’t take away your sin. They can’t reconcile you to God. They can’t bring you closer to the Lord, as if within these ordinances there is some inherent power. That’s not what they are. They are symbols.

And the way God works is not because someone has the power to be able to make these so sacred that suddenly they have within themselves some kind of power. That’s not in the Bible. The way God works in the human heart is directly. Through faith in Him we experience His love. We experience His forgiveness, and then these become symbols of the inner working of God. But they themselves cannot help us.

And I say to those of you who think that you are a Christian because you are baptized, if that’s the focus of your faith, you will be lost. You will be lost. No ordinance can save anybody.

Secondly, ordinances are marks of obedience. That’s why I urge those of you who know Christ as Savior, even if you are visiting with us, to participate with us today. But I also say to those of you who have not been baptized, that when you have the opportunity, as we’ll explain, to be baptized, and follow through in obedience. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Set them apart in this outward way as part of the new community.” So it’s a mark of obedience, but at the end of the day what we must do is to realize that faith alone saves. It really does.

I suppose that there is no one listening to me here today or over the radio, wherever, who does not in his heart believe that Jesus Christ is somehow necessary for salvation. I would think that everybody believes that. What there may be people who do not understand or believe, not just that He is necessary, but that He is enough. We sing,

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe,
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

I say to you today in your distress that Jesus Christ is enough. Would you join me as we pray?

Our Father, we do want to thank You today that You’ve given us the opportunity to gather together in Your name to show our unity. And as we participate today we thank You that Jesus died. We remember the cross but we also remember His return, and we do examine ourselves. We ask today for that great sense of unity and honesty and cleansing that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. And then may we participate with hearts filled with joy because we’ve come in obedience to your Holy Word. Grant that we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.