The sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper - What place do they have within the total context of the Christian life? What part do they play within the total purpose of God for our lives?
The sacraments are signposts. They point us to the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour. When you see a signpost marked, "Edinburgh", you are pointed in the direction of Edinburgh. The sign says, "This is the way to Edinburgh." When you see a sign that says, "Come alive with Pepsi", your attention is directed to Pepsi-Cola. The sacraments point us to Jesus. The sacraments direct our attention to Jesus. The signpost says, "This is the way to Edinburgh." The sacraments point to Jesus. They say, "He is the Way to heaven." The Pepsi-Cola advert says, "Come alive with Pepsi." The sacraments invite us to "Come alive with Jesus."
When you see the sign for Edinburgh, you are not already in Edinburgh. It is possible to see the sign and yet never arrive at the place. Similarly, it is possible to receive the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper with really coming, in faith, to Christ and receiving the gift of eternal life. When you hear the words, "Come alive with Pepsi", you are not, in fact, drinking a glass of Pepsi-Cola. You can see the advert without ever tasting Pepsi-Cola. Similarly, you can partake of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper without receiving the new life which the Holy Spirit gives to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ.
The really important thing is not the outward sign. The most important thing is the inner reality. We come, in faith, to Jesus Christ. He comes to live in our hearts. It is so easy to miss the point of the sacraments. Instead of allowing them to point us to Jesus Christ and all that He has done for us, we get bogged down with self-centred thoughts: "I have been baptized", "I never miss a Communion." Whenever our thoughts focus on ourselves rather than Christ - "I have done this", "I have done that", we need to hear the warning of God's Word: "Let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
In a challenging passage at the start of 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul speaks in this way of the Old Testament people of Israel: "all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:2-4).
When we read these words about being "baptized into Moses" and eating the supernatural food and the supernatural drink, our minds move quite naturally to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. If we are tempted to congratulate ourselves, we should look on to the next verse - "Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness" (1 Corinthians 10:3).
We live in a spiritual wilderness, a moral wilderness. if we are looking for salvation from the things that we have done - "I have been baptized", "I never miss a Communion", we will be disappointed. We will be overthrown in the wilderness, swallowed up in the moral and spiritual wilderness which surrounds us. If we are to know the saving power of God in our lives, we must learn to look beyond the sacraments to the Saviour.
"It is only by forgetting yourself that you draw near to God." This is how we must learn to think about the sacraments. The focus is not so much upon ourselves - "I have been baptized", "I never miss a Communion." The focus is upon Christ. Through Him, we draw near to God. This is how we must think of the whole Christian life. Christ is the centre.
In a life centred upon Christ, where do the sacraments fit in?
Baptism is a once-for-all event. The Lord's Supper is a repeated occurrence. More frequent than the Lord's Supper is our weekly public worship. Sunday by Sunday, we gather together to worship the Lord. Week by week, there are opportunities for praying together and studying God's Word together. Day by day, we can speak to the Lord and we can read His Word. In all of this, Christ is to be the centre. We do all these things, not to prove how religious we really are but to let Christ have His way in our lives. In all that we do, we confess our own unworthiness. Without Christ, we are nothing. We do not attempt to make ourselves worthy in God's sight. It cannot be done. Aware of our own unworthiness and our need of the Saviour, we come to Christ from whom we receive the forgiveness of all our sins, the new life of the Spirit and the gift of eternal life.
If, in your thinking about the sacraments, self has intruded where Christ should be, I appeal to you, on the basis of God's Word: "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God" (Ephesians 4:30), "Do not quench the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Do not boast about the sacraments as things which you have done. Let the Holy Spirit lead you beyond the sacraments to the Saviour. Do not take it for granted that you belong to Christ because you have received the outward signs.
Remember God's Word - "The Lord knows those who are His" and "Let every one who names the Name of the Lord depart from iniquity (or wrongdoing)" (2 Timothy 2:19).