How To Fence The Lord’s Table

After the a conference I received a question which asked essentially: whom should Reformed Churches admit to the Lord’s Table?

There are three basic approaches to fencing the table:

  • Open—Anyone who will, who professes faith in Christ, without regard to church membership, may come to the table.
  • Guarded—Anyone is a member of a particular sort of congregation may come to the table.
  • Closed—Anyone who is a member of our congregation or our denomination may come to the table.

I suppose that open communion is the dominant practice among American evangelicals. The only condition is profession of faith in Christ. I witnessed this during my years in broad evangelicalism. The assumption tends to be that the believer is the only person required to make an assessment of who should come to the table. In fairness, Paul does say, “Let a man examine himself” (or as the ESV has it: “Let a person examine himself” 1Cor 11:28) so there is an element of personal self-examination before coming to the table. The question is whether there is more than that?

The Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman traditions have said yes, there is more. The latter two traditions have practiced closed communion. One must be a Roman Christian in order to receive the consecrated and transubstantiated host from a Roman priest. In confessional Lutheran churches one must be a member of the denomination in order to commune. The assumption in a closed table is that the communicant has already professed faith and is eligible for communion.

The Reformed Approach: Guarding The Table
The Reformed approach historically has been to guard the table. Guarding or fencing means that there is more than one condition to communion. A person must profess faith in Christ and must examine himself but our understanding is that the Supper was instituted by Christ, to be administered in and by the visible church. Paul’s account of the institution and administration of the Supper says more than “Let a man examine himself.”

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

The American assumption tends to be individualistic, that the Supper is primarily a private or personal matter between the communicant and his God. This assumption is grounded in the history of Pietism, which emphasized the personal and individual aspects of faith. American evangelicals tend to be influenced by the low-church tradition that de-emphasizes the visible, institutional church and has tended to view the Supper less as a means of grace, an instrument through which the Spirit operates to sanctify and strengthen, and more as an opportunity to remember Christ’s death and to assess one’s spiritual state.

The Reformed, in contrast, confess that the Supper is a sacrament instituted by Christ. It certainly entails remembering and honest self-assessment but it is more than that. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 66 says:

66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

A sacrament, by definition, is a divinely-appointed sign and seal of the “promise of the Gospel: namely that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ…”.

So, for us, the Supper is more than a time to reflect and remember. Something else is happening. God is certifying that the promise preached in the Gospel is true. There is more.

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

The catechism affirms remembering but we also confess that “with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life…”. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this feeding on the on the “crucified body and shed blood” mysteriously but it happens. In communion we are fed by more than bread, wine, and memories. We are fed by the “proper and natural body” and the “proper blood” of Christ (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).

Our understanding the Supper is that to “eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ” (HC Q. 76) means not only to “to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal” but the Supper is a way that the Spirit strengthens our union with Christ’s body. We look not only to the institution of the Supper as recorded in the gospels but to Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 11, part of which says,

The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread

In other words, there is a communal aspect to communion. We come to the Supper not only as individuals but as members of a body which is not only an organism (Abraham Kuyper) but also an organization, to which our Lord Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16).

It is fine to say “I am a believer” but one must also say that to and in the visible, institutional church. Who is a believer? Is everyone who says, “I believe in Jesus” to be regarded as a Christian? Is that a sufficient profession of faith for the purposes of coming to the table?

The evidence in   1 Corinthians suggests no. The evidence in the early, post-apostolic, church suggests no. Catechumens preparing for communion for as long as three years (the length of the earthly ministry of Jesus before the institution of the Supper) before being admitted to the table.

This really comes down to the question: what is the church? Not every entity that gathers together and calls itself “church” is really a church. In Belgic Confession Art. 29 we say:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

So, when we think about who should come to the table we also ask, is this person a member of a church with the marks of a true church.

The Reformed church orders (church constitutions) reflect the churches’ attempt to synthesize the whole of biblical teaching and apply it to the life of the church in a given time and place. The most famous Dutch synod, of course, is the Great Synod of Dort (1618–19) but there were several synods before it, on which the Synod relied. According to the Synod of Emden (1571) only members of the Reformed churches were to be admitted to the table.

Synod of Dort (1574)

Art. 81. Whoever brings a valid certificate shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper unless it was written a long time ago, in which case one must proceed as if there is no testimony. However, we deem it fitting and are inclined to accept rather than decline those whose piety has been attested either by a written or personal testimony.

The original practice of the Reformed churches was that one had a certificate of membership in a Reformed church. This was not a mechanical thing. The concern was not only membership but also piety and life.

The second half of Belgic Confession says:

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

There was some struggle, however, in the Netherlands between confessionally Reformed churches and civil magistrates who were influenced by what we might call Erasmian pietism. Their interest was less in establishing a “true church” than in keeping the peace between the various groups and promoting a minimalist approach to Christianity that centered on religious experience. They were, in some respects, the forerunners of the modern evangelical movement. So the the “church laws” of the Province of Holland and Zeeland, 1576, written by order of the magistrates, loosened the restriction (art 71) imposed by Synod in 1574 in favor of private self-examination relative to “travelers” who are passing through.

Synod of Dort (1578) had to address the question of what to do with those who were influenced by the “biblicism” of the Erasmians and others?

35. Whether it is permissible to admit to the Lord’s Supper those who do acknowledge the Bible alone as God’s Word but will neither answer nor agree to answer the usual questions which are asked of those who go to the Lord’s Supper.

Answer: The churches shall maintain their usual custom of requiring confession of faith. Everyone is bound to give an account of is faith according to the teaching of Peter. It is also not fitting that a usual custom of the congregation should be changed for some particular reason.

The intent of the Reformed churches became clearer by 1581. Here the language that would be used by the Great Synod of Dort was adopted:

Synod of Middelburg (1581)

43. No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

In other words, those who had evidence of membership in a Reformed church (objective) and an indicator of a godly walk (subjective) were eligible to come to the table. This same language of “confession of the Reformed Religion” and “godly conduct” was adopted by the Synod of den Hague/Gravenhage in 1586. The provincial synod of Middelburg and Zeeland, art. 51 restricted the supper to those who “have made profession of the Reformed faith” and have given proof of pious conduct. The church order of Utrecht (1612), s.v. “Concerning the Lord’s Supper”

III. Those who come from other places and want to be admitted to the table of the Lord shall first present a proper certificate of their earlier way of life to the pastor of the place where they desire to be admitted.

Thus, the practice of the Reformed churches had been established for forty years by the time the Great Synod of Dort met. Now, most of us think of the famous “Five Points” in response to the Five Points of the Arminians (1609) but synod did much more than that. They also established the pattern of Reformed practice that would be the pattern for the centuries after.

The Dort Church Order (1619), Art. 61 says:

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

The original Reformed practice then was to “guard” or “fence” rather closely. There were fewer Reformed denominations in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they did have to address many of the same challenges that we do. There were other traditions in the Netherlands at the time the Reformed were working out their practice. They were particularly aware of the Anabaptists (whom they called “Baptists” in the 1570s—there was a strange case of a kidnapping in order to prevent an infant baptism! More on that in another post) and other competing groups. They were aware of the problem of people traveling through town and visiting and asking for communion. There are substantial continuities between their church life and ours.

Whom should Reformed churches admit to the table? If we ask those who gave to us our confession of faith and who set the pattern for our practice we should admit those who confess the Reformed faith and of who have testimony of a godly life. The objective evidence for the latter is that they are not under church discipline.

The Practice Of Fencing The Table
There is irony in fencing the Lord’s Table. What should be a joyous celebration, after due preparation of course, and a communion of believers with their risen Lord and with one another, is for ministers—particularly for church planting pastors—sometimes a moment of uncertainty. We live in a transient culture. We do not know who will be in the congregation when we step behind the table to read the form. We can’t anticipate who will appear in the congregation halfway through the service and appear at the table or expect to be able to commune (on the assumption of open communion).

There is anxiety too. Sometimes when the table is fenced, whether that is done in the foyer by elders or from the table by issuing a warning (see below), pastors worry that newcomers, who are likely unfamiliar with historic Reformed practice, will be offended and leave quickly after the sermon and before the administration of communion. More than one pastor has chased a visitor to the parking lot after a service but when it’s time for communion that can’t happen. Practically, fencing the table can seem like just another way small, struggling Reformed congregations remain small and struggling.

So, when Reformed churches fence the table it is an act of faith in the wisdom, providence, and grace of God. Pastors and elders (and the members) desperately want the lost to come to faith and we want the confused to come to the truth. We live in a culture that, at least touching the evangelical sub-culture, is largely shaped by assumptions that we do not share. Thus, there is often a culture shock for visitors who have a Christian background but who are unfamiliar with Reformed practice. “What do you mean I cannot come to the table? Are you saying that I am not a Christian?” It’s impossible to sort out these thorny questions in the foyer and especially when people are lined up and coming to the table or receiving a tray of elements as it comes by.

This is not just Reformed hyper-scrupulosity. I have seen families give communion to their young children or infants, on the assumption that what they do at home is appropriate for church. I have seen people come to the table who had no idea of was happening.

These sort of challenges have caused some to say, “Well, it is a fine old practice but we live in a new day and we need to adapt to the realities at hand. Better to err on the side of inclusion than exclusion.”

One can sympathize with this reasoning. The old Reformed practice does look a little Grinchly when compared to the apparently open and gracious invitation given in congregations that do not fence the table. We do not want to be pharisees chasing off the publicans because they are unclean or not like us. One can understand those congregations that emphasize that it is “the Lord’s Table” and say, in effect, “Let the Lord sort it out.” Yes, it is the Lord’s Table and he has instituted a church, given to her the keys, and biblical revelation about the administration of the table.

It is not really a matter of whether there will be conditions. Even those who practice open communion ordinarily require that one be baptized and make a Christian profession before coming to the table (although I have seen even those conditions discarded). It is not really a question of whether there are conditions or even, in that sense, whether the table is to be fenced (if there are conditions, then there is a fence) but only how high the fence, if you will.

Remember, there is jeopardy attached to the table. It is not a free-for-all. The supper is just as much a communal act as it is an individual act. The actions of some, in Corinth, had fatal consequences and that was bad for the entire body. If one of us suffers, we all suffer.

So, given our principles, what do we do? First, we must explain ourselves. We need to smile and say something like the following:

We love you and we love the Lord. If you profess faith in Christ we would very much like for you to come to the table if certain things are true of you. As we understand the Lord’s Table it is both personal and communal and therefore we believe that our elders have a responsibility before the Lord to administer the Supper carefully. The Lord’s Table is for believers who are members of congregations that have three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.

If you are a member of a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian church we invite you to the table. If you do not know what this means please abstain from the table today and see me or one of the elders. We will be happy to talk and pray with you.

By this we are not saying that you are not a believer or that there are no other believers in the world. We know the gospel is preached elsewhere and we are thankful for this but we hope that you’ll respect our attempt to be obedient to God’s Word.

This certainly is not perfect language but it captures the essence of what I think we are trying to communicate. In my experience people without church backgrounds are not offended. They expect church to be religious and they expect a certain amount of order. The difficulty is with those Christians who assume autonomy relative to the visible, institutional church. There are those who profess faith but are united to no congregation or to a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church.

There are difficult cases. I have been asked about confessional Anglicans and Lutherans. I don’t know if the Reformed have ever spoken to either case explicitly but I’m still learning. The Dutch Reformed church orders help here. They do stipulate the “Reformed Religion,” which seems to mean, “the Belgic Confession” or its equivalent. If we exclude confessional Lutherans we should not expect them to be offended since they are familiar with closed communion. Someone from an Anglican congregation that confesses the 39 Articles might be admitted to the table. Church polity is not of the essence of the faith and there were three polities at Dort and Westminster. One difficulty is that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (i.e., NAPARC) have no relation to the Anglican communions. Maybe the most difficult case is the question of Baptists who confess aspects of the Reformed faith. There is frequent interchange between Baptist and Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. If “Reformed Religion” stands for the Belgic (or its equivalent) that would seem to answer the question. A Baptist shouldn’t be offended since they don’t accept our Baptism so they are familiar with a degree of exclusion.

Second, it may help to do more than to fence the table at the table. Some congregations have elders in the foyer and even signs announcing that communion is being administered today and that visitors should speak with an elder before coming to the table. This is not always practical. Some congregations do not have enough elders to pray with the minister and greet visitors in the foyer. Others find this procedure a bit daunting. Those can be interesting conversations!

Third, there may be real wisdom in the old Reformed and Presbyterian practice of a certificate of membership or a token. The old Scottish Presbyterian practice was to require communicants to attend the preparatory service the week prior. There one was given a token that was to be returned the next week when one went to the table. In the case that a congregation administers the supper weekly (Calvin’s desired practice) then every Lord’s Day is a preparatory service and the token becomes less practical.

Fourth, a statement in the bulletin explaining the congregation’s practice will be most useful. It might be well to have an elder, if possible, in the foyer to speak with late comers (this might not be a problem everywhere but it’s an issue in California).

Fifth, there might be wisdom in adopting the practice of coming forward for communion. This seems to have been the dominant practice in the German, Dutch, and French Churches, as well as the Scottish Presbyterian Church. There is evidence in the Dutch Church Orders from the late 16th century that communion was sometimes distributed to the seated congregation, as is often done today, but that seems to have been the minority practice.

If people come forward to commune, in rows or in a moving line, or simply to collect the elements and to return to their seats to commune together—I have seen this done effectively—then there is a fencing that can yet take place at the table. Ministers have been known to discourage from communion those who should not come to the table (e.g., those who’ve not made profession of faith). If the elements are distributed to the seated congregation then there is little that can be done after the distribution.

This side of glory there is no perfect way to administer communion but as ministers and elders we have a duty to try to administer the Supper in a way that is edifying to the body and obedient to the Chief Shepherd of the Church to whom we must give account. We are men under authority. That is why we are called “ministers.”

May the Lord bless your administration of Holy Communion and may it be a true communion in the body and blood of Christ by the work of the Spirit through faith.

Kingdom Through Covenant: A Review

Below is a review by Harrison Perkins (MDiv) of Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He grew up in the south and attended college in Alabama. He began to get more involved in the church in college and there grew in his love for the church and desire to help others understand the riches of the Word of God and the gospel of God’s free grace. He is married and lives in the San Diego area. He is a graduate Westminster Seminary California and a PhD student at Queens University, Belfast.


It is difficult to know what the best way to review such a large book is (778 pages plus bibliography) in way that is useful to readers. There is much ground to cover and it is nearly impossible to do justice to all that the authors argue. The book is much too long to treat point by point. Rather, it seems better to treat this work topically and give a basic overview and response regarding the major issues.

First, there is much to appreciate in this volume for those of us holding to classic Covenant Theology (hereafter CT). This work might well be valuable to have simply as a one-volume commentary on many of the major passages related to CT. Although Reformed CT would not always agree with the exegesis, it can be a useful guide to what many of the issues are in particular texts.

Second, the authors do argue against a separate eschatology for Israel and the church. A wonderful argument is made that the land promises are made to Abraham and his seed, but his true seed are those of his faith (Gal. 3:7). This means that believers, not an ethnic group inherit the land promises. They also argue that there was the promise of expansion beyond the borders of Palestine from the beginning. The land promised to Israel is promised in light of the covenant made at creation. Adam was to tend Eden and fill the earth. The same is true of later land promises: it was meant to fill the earth. These arguments serve well to dispel the Dispensational disjunction between the church and Israel. There is only one people of God.

But what do the authors say about the covenants? Where do they stand in relation to Reformed CT? It is helpful to look at what they say about each major covenant heading. Regarding the covenant of redemption, they do not affirm it by name, but say that it is on the right track (pg. 654–656). They affirm the eternal plan of redemption among the Godhead and also affirm that God in Himself is covenantal, which gives warrant for us to think about all things covenantally.

Regarding the covenant of works, they do not agree with all that CT holds as the covenant of works, but that it is on the right track (pg.610). They do affirm and argue at length for a covenant with Adam (pg. 177–221). What they seem to neglect, however, is that it that covenant was a covenant of works. They affirm, however, the obligations for Adam and that his fulfillment of this covenant arrangement would bring about a further eschatological reality. This shows that there is much that the authors do like about CT’s position on the covenant of works. What they do not seem to like is that it is the covenant of works, i.e. they deny that the other covenants are not also a type of works covenants, as we will see under the covenant of grace section. Thankfully, they do emphasize that Christ did what Adam failed to do and that Christ earned for us redemption. This is an important feature related to CT’s exposition of the covenant of works and covenant of redemption that the authors have affirmed (though I got the impression that they did not fully grasp the issues behind the works covenant between the Father and Son and how that relates to the covenant of works).

Regarding the covenant of grace, they deny that it is legitimate to speak of one covenant. They affirm one “plan of salvation,” but say that we should only speak of the plurality of covenants because the Scripture has a plurality of covenants. There are several reasons why they make this move. First, I am not sure that they understand that in some ways, “one covenant of grace” means one plan of salvation. That is the point of the doctrine. They certainly, however, miss that WCF 7.5-6 speaks of the one covenant administered in diverse ways. CT also speaks of the plurality of covenants, but these covenants are administrations of the one covenant of grace made after the fall (Gn. 3:15). Second, the main reason for dividing the covenant of grace into many pieces is to argue for credobaptism. In many ways, this book is simply a drawn out argument for credobaptism. It becomes clear that the primary reason for posing their hermeneutics under a covenantal scheme is to try and make credobaptism at all plausible for those of us who hold CT. They want to show that there are non-Dispensationalists that hold credobaptism (a claim to be examined below). By not posing one covenant of grace, they leave open the holes they need to make a radical discontinuity between the new covenant and all the others.

Two of the major issues in the concept of the “one plan of salvation” posed in this book are the nature of the covenants and soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. As far as the nature of the covenants is concerned, the authors deny the distinction that CT traditionally makes between conditional and unconditional (promise) covenants. They say that all the covenants are in some ways conditional and in other ways unconditional. This is the reason they give for the tension between God’s promises and man’s unfaithfulness. God has promised, but He requires a faithful covenant servant. This is the reason they say that the Incarnation was necessary: God had to provide His own faithful covenant servant. However, it seems to me that by denying the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants, they have made them all conditional. If the unconditional aspects (promises) of a covenant are conditional, then they are not really unconditional. The whole covenant is simply conditional.

This scheme makes all the covenants function the same way. Granted, Wellum and Gentry do a better job of doing justice to redemptive-history in its progress through covenants; they do see the covenants as fulfilling God’s one plan and do acknowledge that later covenants fulfill earlier ones. However, by making all the covenants function the same way (conditionally), they end up posing each covenant as a real potential at fulfilling God’s one plan. If a particular covenant can provide a faithful covenant servant, then it will fulfill God’s promises. It just so happens that this does not happen until the new covenant. This strikes me as Dispensationalism is a covenant suit and tie. The authors have done more to use covenants as the Scripture does, but ultimately they have made each covenant function individually and undermined any attempt at unifying the covenants, which is a major point of Reformed CT.

The other issue is related to soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. The authors do not seem to pose that OT saints were saved in the same way that NT saints are saved. They state that a flaw of CT is that it poses OT saints as indwelt by the Spirit and united to Christ (pg. 113n74). They do not go as far as classic Dispensationalism and argue that Israelites were saved by keeping the law. However, they do argue for differences in soteriology between the new covenant and the old (this obviously seems to confuse old covenant with OT, but this is a separate issue). They state that OT saints were saved by faith in God’s promises (pg. 684, n.70). They argue that now in the NT the promises of God for salvation are Christologically focused (pg. 685). “In the Old Testament, particularly under the old covenant, the forgiveness of sins is normally granted through the sacrificial system,” (pg.650). This is not the soteriology of Reformed CT, nor is it the biblical soteriology. Christ said no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn. 14:6) and I do not think that meant only after the NT era began. It was an eternal reality for sinners. When Christ laid down His life for the elect, it was not only the NT elect (Jn. 10). It was the elect from all times. What the authors have posed is a diluted Dispensational soteriology.

More specifically within the covenant of grace, the authors rightly recognize the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, but are mistaken in most of their conclusions about it. They have made it a conditional covenant, just like all the others. This allows them to put it in contrast, rather than continuity, with the new covenant, which is fulfilled by the work of Christ. By setting even the Abrahamic covenant in contrast with the new, they are able to argue that the “genealogical principle” of the Abrahamic covenant is a type of a new covenant reality: the lineage of faith. This forms their argument for the shift in covenantal structure from including infants of believers to not including them. They support this argument by appealing largely to Jeremiah 31:26–40. They put heavy emphasis on the contrast of the new covenant to the old, which they are right to do, but they seem to think that the contrast is mainly about children in the covenant. This places the new covenant in contrast with the whole OT scheme of covenants (which is a Dispensational scheme) but this is not what Jeremiah’s contrast is. He contrasts the new covenant with that made at Sinai (31:32), which is a specific OT administration. Therefore, the authors are mistaken because they miss that the contrast must be between the new covenant and something specific to the Mosaic covenant. The very thing, to which Jeremiah points, is the breakable nature of the covenant at Sinai. The old covenant (Mosaic) was breakable, primarily because it was conditional and rested on the covenant servant to be faithful but the new will be unbreakable (unconditional). It will be fulfilled by God. This not only undermines the authors’ contrast of new covenant with all the OT, but also their denial of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants.

More so, the authors have made many of these moves arguing backwards. They know that infants cannot be baptized so they read the OT covenants in a way to support this view rather than listening to the text. They also miss much of the argument of Galatians regarding the AC. Galatians 3:7 poses that the seed of Abraham is those of faith. Paul does not say that this is only true in the NT era. It was always the truth. The same thing is expressed when he argues that the true Jew is the one inwardly (Rom. 2:29). The seed of Abraham was always a spiritual reality. Additionally, Paul calls the Abrahamic covenant the gospel (Gal. 3:8). As hard as the authors work to distance the new covenant and the AC, this runs contrary to Paul’s statements cited here.

Further, the authors argue that the genealogical principle is typological of the principle of faith in the new covenant. They state that the invariable inclusion of all of the physical lineage prefigures the invariable inclusion of all those who have faith. However, this misses much of what happens in the Abrahamic covenant itself regarding the genealogical principle. It should be obvious that not all the physical descendants are true believers (e.g. Esau). This shows that there is certainly a spiritual dimension to the AC, which is the dimension that the NT emphasized most. Some of the physical descendants, however, are also cut off from the covenant (e.g. Ishmael). This shows that whether discussed spiritually or physically, the Abrahamic covenant includes a mixed community in the covenant. Wither way the typology will point forward to a mixed covenant in the church. This runs against the majority of the authors’ arguments for credobaptism in the covenant context.

A few other comments are in order. The major content issues have been addressed, but there are also a few methodological features that should be discussed. First and foremost, the authors do a great job of interacting with Dispensational material. They cite relevant and credible sources and deal fairly with the Dispensational arguments, sometimes at length. The same cannot be said, however, regarding the authors’ interaction with CT. Many times, they do not cite sources for what they claim CT holds. Much of what they claim CT believes, I do not recognize as actual CT. When they do cite sources regarding CT, they are typically shallow or disreputable. Although they cite Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology (also published as God of Promise) regularly, most of the sources the use for CT are either web searches or Federal Vision writers. The first category is simply not acceptable for academic work. Web pages are helpful for many things, but they are not fit for academic engagement. They authors failed to really wrestle with full-bodied CT, particularly, they did not engage with the primary CT sources at all, even those translated into English. There is no excuse for not including at least one from Witsius, Turretin, Owen, or Hodge in this discussion. They rely on shoddy second hand material, which undermines their attempt at doing any credible academic work on the topic. Regarding the second category, all confessional Reformed CT would have a severe aversion to Federal Vision. To cite Federal Vision authors as representative of orthodox Reformed CT is not only to set up a straw man argument, but is an extreme misrepresentation of the opposing side. If this is an example of being unaware of the controversy, that is totally inexcusable.

Another methodological concern is with Gentry’s exegesis. I should say, it is not with the way he does exegesis per se, but he never makes explicit his exegetical conclusions or the relevance of particular exegesis to the overall topic. The individual chapters on the various covenants hardly ever express a thesis regarding the particular covenant under examination. This makes it difficult to follow the overall argument and frustrating to try and see why he is making the points he is making, Much of the almost 500 pages of exegesis as if it was published simply for the sake of exegesis. A great number of pages does not prove an argument. Conclusions are not only helpful for the reader but necessary for tracing arguments.

In the end, this book is interesting, but it does not really advance the discussion. It is too big and not clear enough for a general audience. On the other hand, academic audiences will see that it has not moved much past a progressive Dispensational position. It rejects a separate future for Israel but still holds a Dispensational-style soteriology and makes the same mistakes regarding what the nature of discontinuity is between the new and old covenants (the major contrast is not about including infants). I enjoyed this book and found much of it helpful. I find, however, claims that this book is “groundbreaking” quite misleading and over stated, unless they refer to the literal effect dropping a book of this size would have on the ground.

Calvin: Short Treatise On The Lord’s Supper (1541)

The following is Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (Petit traicté de la saincte cène; 1541). As general background to the theology, piety, and practice of the Lord’s Supper and to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper, we should put this treatise in a broader and narrower context. For that I’m borrowing sections from an earlier essay, “The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace” published in John Armstrong, ed. The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).


Who should participate in the Lord’s Supper and how they should do it were two of the most hotly contested questions of the sixteenth-century Reformation. For both Luther and Calvin, the Supper was of critical importance as a means of grace, as a testimony to Christ’s finished work, and as a seal of His work for us. Furthermore, it was a means by which our union and fellowship with the risen Christ and with one another was strengthened and renewed. As much as the Lutherans and Reformed disagreed about the relations of Christ’s humanity to His deity and thus the nature of His presence in the Supper they agreed on one very important truth—in the Supper the living, Triune God meets His people and nourishes them. The question was not whether, but how.

The most immediate reason for our fall from the Protestant idea of the Supper as a means of grace is that we have become practical modernists. Modernism (or the Enlightenment) was a profoundly anti-Christian theology and worldview. Building upon the conclusions of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and others began to remove the overtly supernatural elements from Christian theology in order to make it acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion. The task and trajectory of modernist theology has been to find a way to do theology without actually believing (in the same way as Luther and Calvin) what it actually taught. (By modernism and modernity I mean to encompass the various Enlightenment movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By rationalism I mean the use of human reason and sense experience as the fulcrum by which all authorities, including Scripture, the creeds, and confessions, are levered.)

Those theologians who accepted the basic rationalist belief of modernity (man is the measure of all things) worked to find ways to express their modernism in Christian terms. Where the Reformation theologians were convinced of God’s present activity in history, modernist theologians were convinced of His present inactivity and hiddenness from us.

The modernist theology provoked a crisis and a reaction. Since we could no longer be certain of God’s existence and care for us by the old-fashioned Protestant ways (preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments), we abandoned them for more direct and immediate means of knowing and experiencing God. This flight to the immediate encounter with God is pietism or mysticism. Pietism is not to be confused with piety. The latter is that grateful devotion to God, His Word, and His people that is at the heart of Christianity. Pietism believes that what is truly important about Christianity is one’s personal experience of Jesus; it is a retreat into the subjective experience of God apart from any concrete, historical factuality…..

American evangelicalism is a pietist, experiential religion that is too busy with cell-group meetings to be troubled with the Lord’s Supper At the same time, we have functionally excommunicated ourselves and, to borrow Calvin’s language, robbed ourselves of Christ’s benefits. The remedy for the pietist transformation of sixteenth-century Protestant evangelical religion into a religion of private, personal experience is to repent of our unbelief that God does not or cannot use created means to strengthen or edify us as His people. Here is one of the central differences between the religion of the Protestants and pietist-mysticism: Protestantism believes in the use of divinely ordained means. It also seeks to recapture those divinely ordered gospel instruments.

… For Luther and Calvin, the reformation of the church was first of all a recovery of the gospel message itself: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, lived and died to justify helpless sinners, not to enable them to cooperate with God toward sanctification and eventual, final justification. I fear that our devotion to private exercises is, partly at least, a sort of idolatry in which we worship the “Christ of faith,” i.e., a savior of our own making. In short, it may be that we are disinterested in the Lord’s Supper because we are disinterested in the Lord Himself and His free gift of righteousness.

It is not that Calvin thought that we should love the sacraments in themselves. Rather, the sacrament of the Supper is valuable because it is an “appendix” to the preaching of God’s Word that confirms and seals (obsignet) it to the elect.Though we ought to believe the Word by itself, and it is certainly true as it stands, nevertheless the sacraments are God’s kind “gifts” (dotes) to strengthen our trust in the Word. The Christ of the Supper is the same Christ offered to us in the gospel word. Since it was not meant to be a mute witness by itself, the Supper therefore can be effective only in the context of gospel preaching.

At the heart of Calvin’s view is that the Eucharist is a supper, and even more intimately, a family meal. Scripture calls it a supper because it was given to nourish us and feed us. He called it a “spiritual feast” (spirituale epulum), a “high mystery,” and “this mystical blessing” (mystica haec benedictio) of which Satan hopes to deprive us.

How does the Supper feed us? In several ways. First, as a visible representation of the Gospel it symbolizes for us the “invisible nourishment” we receive from Christ’s flesh and blood. Just as it is Christ who is preached to us in the Gospel, so it is Christ we eat in the Supper. Not that the elements are transformed; no, they remain bread and wine. Christ, however, uses the elements to share Himself with us by the power of His deity. He is the “only food of our soul.”

We are fed by the Supper as Christ uses it to strengthen His spiritual union with us. Just as water pours from a spring, so “Christ’s flesh is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain.” Though we confess that, with respect to Christ’s humanity, he “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” nevertheless God the Spirit overcomes the spatio-temporal distance between us and the risen Christ and unites us to Him. For this reason, one does not need to think of Christ as being physically present in the elements of the table. His flesh is present by the “secret operation of the Spirit” drawing us up to Himself, not bringing Christ down to us. It is not necessary “to drag Him from heaven” for us to enjoy Him.

We eat because God has entered into a covenant with us to be our God, and He has given signs and seals to this covenant union. Thus when He calls us to the Lord’s Table, “as often as He pours out His sacred blood as our drink,” it is for the “confirmation of our faith” in which “He renews or continues the covenant once ratified in His blood.” So the Supper does not initiate faith in us; that is the function of the Spirit working through the preached Gospel. As we “constantly” eat this bread (by trusting in Christ’s imputed righteousness), so in the Supper “we are made to feel the power of the bread.” There is more to union with Christ than “mere knowledge” (simplex cognitio). Christ meant to teach something more “sublime” in John 6:53. Just as it is not “seeing” (aspectus) the bread, but “eating” (esus) it that feeds the body, it is not the mere intellectual apprehension of Christ that is saving faith, but “the soul must partake of Christ truly and deeply,” entering into His promises.

The prime benefit of this mystical Supper with earthy elements is that by it the Holy Spirit works assurance of our faith. Christ is the object of our faith. His promises are the sure foundation of our confidence. As we eat it, Christ again says to us, “You are Mine.” As we hear the promises set before us weekly in the preaching of the Gospel, so we also see them in the Supper. In this way “pious souls” can derive “great confidence and delight from the sacrament.”



1. Reason Why Many Weak Consciences Remain in Suspense as to the True Doctrine of the Supper

As the holy sacrament of the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ has long been the subject of several important errors, and in these past years been anew enveloped in diverse opinions and contentious disputes, it is no wonder if many weak consciences cannot; fairly resolve what view they ought to take of it, but remain in doubt and perplexity, waiting till all contention being laid aside, the servants of God come to some agreement upon it. However, as it is a very perilous thing to have no certainty on an ordinance, the understanding of which is so requisite for our salvation, I have thought it might be a very useful labor to treat briefly and, nevertheless, clearly deduce a summary of what is necessary to be known

of it. I may add that I have been requested to do so by some worthy persons, whom I could not refuse without neglecting my duty. In order to rid ourselves of all difficulty, it is expedient to attend to the order which I have determined to follow.

2. The Order to be Observed in This Treatise

First, then, we will explain to what end and for what reason our Lord instituted this holy sacrament.

Secondly, What fruit and utility we receive from it, when it will

likewise be shown how the body of Jesus Christ is given to us.

Thirdly, What is the legitimate use of it.

Fourthly, We will detail the errors and superstitions with which it has been contaminated, when it will be shown how the servants of God ought to. differ from the Papists.

Lastly, We will mention what has been the source of the discussion which has been so keenly carried on, even among those who have, in our time, brought back the light of the gospel, and employed themselves in rightly edifying the Church in sound doctrine.

3. At Baptism God Receives us into His Church and as Members of His Family

In regard to the first article — Since it has pleased our good God to receive us by baptism into his Church, which is his house, which he desires to maintain and govern, and since he has received us to keep us not merely as domestics, but as his own children, it remains that, in order to do the office of a good father, he nourish and provide us with every thing necessary for our life. In regard to corporal nourishment, as it is common to all, and the bad share in it as well as the good, it is not peculiar to his family. It is very true that we have an evidence of his paternal goodness in maintaining our bodies, seeing that we partake in all the good things which he gives us with his blessing. But as the life into which he has begotten us again is spiritual, so must the food, in order to preserve and strengthen us, be spiritual also. For we should understand, that not only has he called us one day to possess his heavenly inheritance, but that by hope he has already in some measure installed us in possession; that not only has he promised us life, but already transported us into it, delivering us from death, when by adopting us as his children, he begot us again by immortal seed, namely, his word imprinted on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

4. The Virtue and Office of the Word of God in Regard to Our Souls

To maintain us in this spiritual life, the thing requisite is not to feed our bodies with fading and corruptible food, but to nourish our souls on the best and most precious diet. Now all Scripture tells us, that the spiritual food by which our souls are maintained is. that same word by which the Lord has regenerated us; but it frequently adds the reason, viz., that in it Jesus Christ, our only life, is given and administered to us. For we must not imagine that there is life any where than in God. But just as God has placed all fullness of life in Jesus, in order to communicate it to us by his means, so he ordained his word as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, with all his graces, is dispensed to us. Still it always remains true, that our souls have no other pasture than Jesus Christ. Our heavenly Father, therefore, in his care to nourish us, gives us no other, but rather recommends us to take our fill there, as a refreshment amply sufficient, with which we cannot dispense, and. beyond which no other can be found.

5. Jesus Christ, the Only Spiritual Nourishment of Our Souls

We have already seen. that Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord,which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty. Since, then, there is something so mysterious and incomprehensible in saying that we have communion with the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, and we on our part are so rude and gross that we cannot understand the least things of God, it was of importance that we should be given to understand it as far as our capacity could admit.

6. The Cause Why Our Lord Instituted the Supper

Our Lord, therefore, instituted the Supper, first, in order to sign and seal in our consciences the promises contained in his gospel concerning our being made partakers of his body and blood, and to give us certainty and assurance that therein lies our true spiritual nourishment, and that having such an earnest, we may entertain a right reliance on salvation. Secondly, in order to exercise us in recognizing his great goodness toward us, and thus lead us to laud and magnify him more fully. Thirdly, in order to exhort us to all holiness and innocence, inasmuch as we are members of Jesus Christ; and specially to exhort us to union and brotherly charity, as we are expressly commanded. When we shall have well considered these three reasons, to which the Lord had respect in ordaining his Supper, we shall be able to understand, both what benefit accrues to us from it, and what is our duty in order to use it properly.

7. The Means of Knowing the Great Benefit of the Supper

It is now time to come to the second point, viz., to show how the Lord’s Supper is profitable to us, provided we use it profitably. Now we shall know its utility by reflecting on the indigence which it is meant to succor. We must necessarily be under great trouble and torment of conscience, when. we consider who we are, and examine what is in us. For not one of us can find one particle of righteousness in himself, but on the contrary we are all full of sins and iniquities, so much so that no other party is required to accuse us than our own conscience, no other judge to condemn us. It follows that the wrath of God is kindled against us, and that none can escape eternal death. If we are not asleep and stupified, this horrible thought must be a kind of perpetual hell to vex and torment us. For the judgment of God cannot come into our remembrance without letting us see that our condemnation follows as a consequence.

8. The Misery of Man

We are then already in the gulf, if God does not in mercy draw us out of it. Moreover, what hope of resurrection can we have while considering our flesh, which is only rottenness and corruption? Thus in regard to the soul, as well as the body, we are more than miserable if we remain within ourselves, and this misery cannot but produce great sadness and anguish of soul. Now our heavenly Father, to succor us in this, gives us the Supper as a mirror, in which we may contemplate our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified to take away our faults and offenses, and raised again to deliver us from corruption and death, restoring us to a celestial immortality.

9. The Supper Invites us to the Promises of Salvation

Here, then, is the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper. It directs and leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ and to his resurrection,to certify us that whatever iniquity there may be in us, the Lord nevertheless recognises and accepts us as righteous — whatever materials of death may be in us, he nevertheless gives us life — whatever misery may be in us, he nevertheless fills us with all felicity. Or to explain the matter more simply — as in ourselves we are devoid of all good, and have not one particle of what might help to procure salvation, the Supper is an attestation that, having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have every thing that is useful and salutary to us.

10. All the Treasuries of Spiritual Grace Presented in the Supper

We can therefore say, that in it the Lord displays to us all the treasures of his spiritual grace, inasmuch as he associates us in all the blessings and riches of our Lord Jesus. Let us recollect, then, that the Supper is given us as a mirror in which we may contemplate Jesus Christ crucified in order to deliver us from condemnation, and raised again in order to procure for us righteousness and eternal life. It is indeed true that this same grace is offered us by the gospel, yet as in the Supper we have more, ample certainty, and fuller enjoyment of it, with good cause do we recognize this fruit as coming from it.

11. Jesus Christ is the Substance of the Sacraments

But as the blessings of Jesus Christ do not belong to us at all, unless he be previously ours, it is necessary, first of all, that he be given us in the Supper, in order that the things which we have mentioned may be truly accomplished in us. For this reason I am wont to say, that the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus, and the efficacy of them the graces and blessings which we have by his means. Now the efficacy of the Supper is to confirm to us the reconciliation which we have with God through our Savior’s death and passion; the washing of our souls which we have in the shedding of his blood; the righteousness which we have in his obedience; in short, the hope of salvation which we have in all that he has done for us. It is necessary, then, that the substance should be conjoined with these, otherwise nothing would be firm or certain. Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion. This is implied in the words which were used. For after commanding us to eat his body and drink his blood, he adds that his body was delivered for us, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins. Hereby he intimates, first, that we ought not simply to communicate in his body and blood, without any other consideration, but in order to receive the fruit derived to us from his death and passion; secondly, that we can attain the enjoyment of such fruit only by participating in his body and blood, from which it is derived.

12. How the Bread is Called the Body, and the Wine the Blood of Christ

We begin now to enter on the question so much debated, both anciently and at the present time — how we are to understand the words in which the bread is called the body of Christ, and the wine his blood. This may be disposed of without much difficulty; if we carefully observe the principle which I lately laid down, viz., that all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless — an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.

13. What is Prerequisite in Order to Live in Jesus Christ

Moreover, if the reason for communicating with Jesus Christ is to have part and portion in all the graces which he purchased for us by his death, the thing requisite must be not only to be partakers of his Spirit, but also to participate in his humanity, in which he rendered all obedience to God his Father, in order to satisfy our debts, although, properly speaking, the one cannot be without the other; for when he gives himself to us, it is in order that we may possess him entirely. Hence, as it is said that his Spirit is our life, so he himself, with his own lips, declares that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood drink indeed. (John 6:55.) If these words are not to go for nothing, it follows that in order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food. This, then, is expressly attested in the Supper, when of the bread it is said to us that we are to take it and eat it, and that it is his body, and of the cup that we are to drink it, and that it is his blood. This is expressly spoken of the body and blood, in order that we may learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life.

14. Of the Imperfection and Perfection of Believers

Now, although being called to do good works, we produce the fruits of our calling, ask it is said, (<420175>Luke 1:75,) that we have been redeemed in order to serve God in holiness and righteousness, we are however always encompassed with many infirmities while we live in this world. What is more, all our thoughts and affectations are so stained with impurity that no work can proceed from us which is worthy of the acceptance of God. Thus so far are we, in striving to do well, from being able to merit anything, that we always continue debtors. For God will always have just cause to blame us in whatever we do, and reward is promised to none but those who fulfill the law; which we are very far from doing. (Deuteronomy 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12.) See then how we hold that all our merits are suppressed. It is not only that we fail in the perfect fulfillment of the law, but that also in every act there is some evil vicious taint. We are well aware that the instruction commonly given is to repair the faults we commit by satisfactions; but as the Scripture teaches us that our Lord Jesus Christ has satisfied for us, we cannot repose in any thing else than the sacrifice of his death, by which the wrath of God is appeased, wrath which no creatures could sustain. (Galatians 3:13; 4:5; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18, 19.) And the reason why we hold that we are justified by faith alone is because it is necessary for us to borrow elsewhere, namely, from our Lord Jesus Christ, that righteousness which is wanting to us, not in part but wholly.

15. Of Invocation 

It is this which gives us boldness to call upon God, for without this we should have no access, Scripture teaching that we never shall be heard while in doubt and disquietude. (Hebrews 11:6; James 1:6, 7.) Therefore we hold that our sovereign good and repose consists in being assured of the forgiveness of sins, by the faith which we have in Jesus Christ, seeing that this is the key which opens the gate that leads us to God. (Romans 4:6; James 1:32.) Now it is said that whosoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Still, according as Scripture teaches us, we address our prayers to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become our Advocate, because without him we should not be worthy of obtaining access. (Ephesians 3:12;  Hebrews 4:16.) That we do not pray to holy men and women in common fashion, should not be imputed to us as a fault for since in all our actions we are required to have our conscience decided, we cannot observe too great sobriety in prayer. We accordingly follow the rule which has been given us, viz., that without having known him, and that his word has been preached to us in testimony of his will, we cannot call upon him. Now in regard to prayer, the whole of Scripture refers us to him only. What is more, he regards our prayers as the chief and supreme sacrifice by which we do homage to his Majesty, as he declares in the fiftieth Psalm, and hence to address our prayers to creatures, and go gadding about to this quarter and to that, is a thing which we may not do, if we would not be guilty of sacrilege. To seek other patrons or advocates than our Lord Jesus Christ, we hold not to be in our choice or liberty. True it is that we ought to pray one for another, while we are conversant here below, but as to having recourse to the dead, since Scripture does not tell us to do so, we will not attempt it, for fear of being guilty of presumption. Even the enormous abuses which have been, and still are in vogue, warn us to confine ourselves within such simplicity, as a limit which God has set to check all curiosity and boldness. For many prayers have been forged full of horrible blasphemies, such as those which request the Virgin Mary to command her Son, and exert her authority over him — and which style her the haven of salvation, the life and hope of those who trust in her.

16. The Proper Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Received Only by Faith 

Hence when we see the visible sign we must consider what it represents, and by whom it has been given us. The bread is given us to figure the body of Jesus Christ, with command to eat it, and it is given us of God, who is certain and immutable truth. If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that it accomplishes all which it signifies. We must then truly receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. Were it otherwise, what could be meant by saying, that we eat the bread and drink the wine as a sign that his body is our meat and his blood our drink? If he gave us only bread and wine, leaving the spiritual reality behind, would it not be under false colors that this ordinance had been instituted?

17. The Internal Substance is Conjoined with the Visible Signs 

We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it. Though there should be nothing more, we have good cause to be satisfied when we understand that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the proper substance of his body and blood, in order that we may possess it fully, and possessing it have part in all his blessings. For seeing we have him, all the riches oil God which are comprehended in him are exhibited to us, in order that they may be ours. Thus, as a brief definition of this utility of the Supper, we may say, that Jesus Christ is there offered to us in order that we may possess him, and in him all the fullness of grace which we can desire, and that herein we have a good aid to confirm our consciences in the faith which we ought to have in him.

18. In the Supper We Are Reminded of Our Duty Towards God. 

The second benefit of the Supper is, that it admonishes and incites us more strongly to recognize the blessings which we have received, and receive daily from the Lord Jesus, in order that we may ascribe to him the praise which is due. For in ourselves we are so negligent that we rarely think of the goodness of God, if he do not arouse us from our indolence, and urge us to our duty. Now there cannot be a spur which can pierce us more to the quick than when he makes us, so to speak, see with the eye, touch with the hand, and distinctly perceive this inestimable blessing of feeding on his own substance. This he means to intimate when he commands us to show forth his death till he come. (1 Corinthians 11:26.) If it is then so essential to salvation not to overlook the gifts which God has given us, but diligently to keep them in mind, and extol them to others for mutual edification; we see another singular advantage of the Supper in this, that it draws us off from ingratitude, and allows us not to forget the benefit which our Lord Jesus bestowed upon. us in dying for us, but induces us to render him thanks, and, as it were, publicly protest how much we are indebted to him.

19. The  Sacrament a Strong Inducement to Holy Living and Brotherly Love 

The third advantage of the Sacrament consists in furnishing a most powerful incitement to live holily, and especially observe charity and brotherly love toward all. For seeing we have been made members of Jesus Christ, being incorporated into him, and united with him as our head, it is most reasonable that we should become conformable to him in purity and innocence, and especially that we should cultivate charity and concord together as becomes members of the same body. But to understand this advantage properly, we must not suppose that our Lord warns, incites, and inflames our hearts by the external sign merely; for the principal point is, that he operates in us inwardly by his Holy Spirit, in order to give efficacy to his ordinance, which he has destined for that purpose, as an instrument by which he wishes to do his work in us. Wherefore, inasmuch as the virtue of the Holy Spirit is conjoined with the sacraments when we duly receive them, we have reason to hope they will prove a good mean and aid to make us grow and advance in holiness of life, and specially in charity.

20. What it is to Pollute the Holy Supper — The Great Guilt of So Doing. 

Let us come to the third point which we proposed at the commencement of this treatise, viz., the legitimate use, which consists in reverently observing our Lord’s institution. Whoever approaches the sacrament with contempt or indifference, not caring much about following when the Lord calls him, perversely abuses, and in abusing pollutes it. Now to pollute and contaminate what God has so highly sanctified, is intolerable blasphemy. Not without cause then does St. Paul denounce such heavy condemnation on all who take it unworthily. (1 Corinthians 11:29.) For if there is nothing in heaven nor on earth of greater price and dignity than the body and blood of the Lord, it is no slight fault to take it inconsiderately and without being well prepared. Hence he exhorts us to examine ourselves carefully, in order to make the proper use of it. When we understand what this examination should be, we shall know the use after which we are inquiring.

21.The Manner of Examining Ourselves

Here it is necessary to be well on our guard. For as we cannot be too diligent in examining ourselves as the Lord enjoins, so, on the other hand, sophistical doctors have brought poor consciences into perilous perplexity, or rather into a horrible Gehenna, requiring I know not what examination, which it is not possible for any man to make. To rid ourselves of all these perplexities, we must reduce the whole, as I have already said, to the ordinance of the Lord, as the rule which, if we follow it, will not allow us to err. In following it, we have to examine whether we have true repentance in ourselves, and true faith ill our Lord Jesus Christ. These two things are so conjoined, that the one cannot subsist without the other.

22. To Participate in the Blessings of Christ, We Must Renounce All That is Our Own

If we consider our life to be placed in Christ, we must acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves. If we seek our strength in him, we must understand that in ourselves we are weak. If we think that all our felicity is in his grace, we must understand how miserable we are without it. If we have our rest in him, we must feel within ourselves only disquietude and torment. Now such feelings cannot exist without producing, first, dissatisfaction with our whole life; secondly, anxiety and fear; lastly, a desire and love of righteousness. For he who knows the turpitude of his sin and the wretchedness of his state and condition while alienated from God, is so ashamed that he is constrained to be dissatisfied with himself, to condemn himself, to sigh and groan in great sadness. Moreover, the justice of God immediately presents itself and oppresses the wretched conscience with keen anguish, from not seeing any means of escape, or having any thing to answer in defense. When under such a conviction of our misery we get a taste of the goodness of God, it is then we would wish to regulate our conduct by his will, and renounce all our bygone, life, in order to be made new creatures in him.

23. The Requisites of Worthy Communion

Hence if we would worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper, we must with firm heart-felt reliance regard the Lord Jesus as our only righteousness, life, and salvation, receiving and accepting the promises which are given us by him as sure and certain, and renouncing all other confidence, so that distrusting ourselves and all creatures, we may rest fully in him, and be contented with his grace alone. Now as that cannot be until we know how necessary it is that he come to our aid, it is of importance to have a deep-seated conviction of our own misery, which will make us hunger and thirst after him. And, in fact, what mockery would it be to go in search of food when we have no appetite? Now to have a good appetite it is not enough that the stomach be empty, it must also be in good order and capable of receiving its food. Hence it follows that our souls must be pressed with famine and have a desire and ardent longing to be fed, in order to find their proper nourishment in the Lord’s Supper.

24. Self-Denial Necessary

Moreover, it is to be observed that we cannot desire Jesus Christ without aspiring to the righteousness of God, which consists in renouncing ourselves and obeying his will. For it is preposterous to pretend that we are of the body of Christ, while abandoning ourselves to all licentiousness, and leading a dissolute life. Since in Christ is nought but chastity, benignity, sobriety, truth, humility, and such like virtues, if we would be his members, all uncleanness, intemperance, falsehood, pride, and similar vices must be put from us. For we cannot intermingle these things with him without offering him great dishonor and insult. We ought always to remember that there is no more agreement between him and iniquity than between light and darkness. If we would come then to true repentance, we must endeavor to make our whole life conformable to the example of Jesus Christ.

25. Charity Especially Necessary

And while this must be general in every part of our life, it must be specially so in respect of charity, which is, above all other virtues, recommended to us in this sacrament for which reason it is called the bond of charity. For as the bread which is there sanctified for the common use of all is composed of several grains so mixed together that they cannot be distinguished from each other, so ought we to be united together in indissoluble friendship. Moreover, we all receive there one body of Christ. If then we have strife and discord among ourselves, it is not owing to us that Christ Jesus is not rent in pieces, and we are therefore guilty of sacrilege, as if we had done it. We must not, then, on any account, presume to approach if we bear hatred or rancour against any man living, and especially any Christian who is in the unity of the Church. In order fully to comply with our Lord’s injunction, there is another disposition which we must bring. It is to confess with the mouth and testify how much we are indebted to our Savior, and return him thanks, not only that his name may be glorified in us, but also to edify others, and instruct them, by our example, what they ought to do.

26. All Men Imperfect and Blameworthy

But as not a man will be found upon the earth who has made such progress in faith and holiness, as not to be still very defective in both, there might be a danger that several good consciences might be troubled by what has been said, did we not obviate it, by tempering the injunctions which we have given in regard both to faith and repentance. It is a perilous mode of teaching which some adopt, when they require perfect reliance of heart and perfect penitence, and exclude all who have them hot. For in so doing they exclude all without excepting one. Where is the man who can boast that he is not stained by some spot of distrust? that he is not subject to some vice or infirmity? Assuredly the faith which the children of God have is such that they have ever occasion to pray, — Lord, help our unbelief. For it is a malady so rooted in our nature, that we are never completely cured until we are delivered from the prison of the body. Moreover, the purity of life in which they walk is only such that they have occasion daily to pray, as well for remission of sins as for grace to make greater progress. Although some are more and others less imperfect, still there is none who does not fail in many respects. Hence the Supper would be not only useless, but pernicious to all, if it were necessary to bring a faith or integrity, as to which there would be nothing to gainsay. This would be contrary to the intention of our Lord, as there is nothing which he has given to his Church that is more salutary.

27. Imperfection Must Not Make us Cease to Hope for Our Salvation

Therefore, although we feel our faith to be imperfect, and our conscience not so pure that it does not accuse us of many vices, that ought not to hinder us from presenting ourselves at the Lord’s holy table, provided that amid this infirmity we feel in our heart that without hypocrisy and dissimulation we hope for salvation in Christ, and desire to live according to the rule of the gospel. I say expressly, provided there be no hypocrisy. For there are many who deceive themselves by vain flattery, making themselves believe that it is enough if they condemn their vices, though they continue to persist in them, or rather, if they give them up for a time, to return to them immediately after. True repentance is firm and constant, and makes us war with the evil that is in us, not for a day or a week, but without end and without intermission.

28. The Imperfections of Believers Should Rather Incline Them To Use the Supper

When we feel within ourselves a strong dislike and hatred of all sin, proceeding from the fear of God, and a desire to live well in order to please our Lord, we are fit to partake of the Supper, notwithstanding of the remains of infirmity which we carry in our flesh. Nay, if we were not weak, subject to distrust and an imperfect life, the sacrament would be of no use to us, and it would have been superfluous to institute it. Seeing, then, it is a remedy which God has given us to help our weakness, to strengthen our faith, increase our charity, and advance us in all holiness of life, the use becomes the more necessary the more we feel pressed by the disease; so far ought that to be from making us abstain. For if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick. See then how the weakness of faith which we feel in our heart, and the imperfections which are in our life, should admonish us to come to the Supper, as a special remedy to correct them. Only let us not come devoid of faith and repentance. The former is hidden in the heart, and therefore conscience must be its witness before God.The latter is manifested by works, and must therefore be apparent in our life.

29. Times of Using the Supper&emdash;Propriety of Frequent Communion

As to the time of using it, no certain rule can be prescribed for all. For there are sometimes special circumstances which excuse a man for abstaining; and, moreover, we have no express command to constrain all Christians to use a specified day. However, if we duly consider the end which our Lord has in view, we shall perceive that the use should be more frequent than many make it for the more infirmity presses, the more necessary is it frequently to have recourse to what may and will serve to confirm our faith, and advance us in purity of life; and, therefore, the practice of all well ordered churches should be to celebrate the Supper frequently, so far as the capacity of the people will admit. And each individual in his own place should prepare himself to receive whenever it is administered in the holy assembly, provided there is not some great impediment which constrains him to abstain. Although we have no express
commandment specifying the time and the day, it should suffice us to know the intention of our Lord to be, that we should use it often, if we would fully experience the benefit which accrues from it.

30. Impropriety of Abstaining on Frivolous Grounds—Pretended Unworthiness in Ourselves

The excuses alleged are very frivolous. Some say that they do not feel themselves to be worthy, and under this pretext, abstain for a whole year. Others, not contented with looking to their own unworthiness, pretend that they cannot communicate with persons whom they see coming without being duly prepared. Some also think that it is superfluous to use it frequently, because if we have once received Jesus Christ, there is no occasion to return so often after to receive him. I ask the first who make a cloak of their unworthiness, how their conscience can allow them to remain more than a year in so poor a state, that they dare not invoke God directly. They will acknowledge that it is presumption to invoke God as our Father, if we are not members of Jesus Christ. This we cannot be, without having the reality and substance of the Supper accomplished in us. Now, if we have the reality, we are by stronger reason capable of receiving the sign. We see then that he who would exempt himself from receiving the Supper on account of unworthiness, must hold himself unfit to pray to God. I mean not to force consciences which are tormented with certain scruples which suggest themselves, they scarcely know how, but counsel them to wait till the Lord deliver them. Likewise, if there is a legitimate cause of hindrance, I deny not that it is lawful to delay. Only I wish to show that no one ought long to rest satisfied with abstaining on the ground of unworthiness, seeing that in so doing he deprives himself of the communion of the Church, in which all our well-being consists. Let him rather contend against all the impediments which the devil throws in his way, and not be excluded from so great a benefit, and from all the graces consequent thereupon.

31. Abstaining Because of Pretended Unworthiness in Others

The second class have some plausibility. The argument they use is, that it is not lawful to eat common bread with those who call themselves brethren, and lead a dissolute life — a fortiori, we must abstain from communicating with them in the Lord’s bread, which is sanctified ill order to represent and dispense to us the body of Christ. But the answer is not very difficult. It is not the office of each individual to judge and discern, to admit or debar whom he pleases; seeing that this prerogative belongs to all the Church in general, or rather to the pastor, with the elders, whom he ought to have to assist him in the government of the Church. St. Paul does not command us to examine others, but each to examine himself. It is very true that it is our duty to admonish those whom we see walking disorderly, and if they will not listen to us, to give notice to the pastor, in order that he may proceed by ecclesiastical authority. But the proper method of withdrawing from the company of the wicked, is not to quit the communion of the Church. More-ever, it will most frequently happen, that sins are not so notorious as to justify proceeding to excommunication; for though the pastor may in his heart judge some man to be unworthy, he has not the power of pronouncing him such, and interdicting him from the Supper, if he cannot prove the unworthiness by an ecclesiastical judgment. In such case we have no other remedy than to pray God that he would more and more deliver his Church from all scandals, and wait for the last day, when the chaff will be completely separated from the good grain.

32. Excuse, That Having Already Received Christ, It is Uncessary to Return Often to Receive Him

The third class have no semblance of plausibility. The spiritual bread is not given us to eat our fill of it all at once, but rather, that having had some taste of its sweetness, we may long for it the more, and use it when it is offered to us. This we explained above. So long as we remain in this mortal life, Jesus Christ is never communicated in such a way as to satiate our souls, but wills to be our constant nourishment.

33. Fourth General Division—Errors on the Supper

We come to the fourth principal point. The devil knowing that our Lord has left nothing to his Church more useful than the holy sacrament, has after his usual manner labored from the beginning to contaminate it by errors and superstitions, in order to corrupt and destroy the benefit of it, and has never ceased to pursue this course, until he has as it were completely reversed the ordinance of the Lord, and converted it into falsehood and vanity. My intention is not to point out at what time each abuse took its rise and at what time it was augmented; it will be sufficient to notice articulately the errors which the devil has introduced, and against which we must guard if we would have the Lord’s Supper in its integrity.

34. First Error

The first error is this — While the Lord gave us the Supper that it might be distributed amongst us to testify to us that in communicating in his body we have part in the sacrifice which he offered on the, cross to God his Father, for the expiation and satisfaction of our sins — men have out of their own head invented, on the contrary, that it is a sacrifice by which we obtain the forgiveness of our sins before God. This is a blasphemy which it is impossible to bear. For if we do not recognize the death of the Lord Jesus, and regard it as our only sacrifice by which he has reconciled us to the Father, effacing all the faults for which we were accountable to his justice, we destroy its virtue. If we do not acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the only sacrifice, or, as we commonly call it, priest, by whose intercession we are restored to the Father’s favor, we rob him of his honor and do him high injustice.

35. The Sacrament Not a Sacrifice

The opinion that the Supper is a sacrifice derogates from that of Christ, and must therefore be condemned as devilish. That it does so derogate is notorious. For how can we reconcile the two things, that Jesus Christ in dying offered a sacrifice to his Father by which he has once for all purchased forgiveness and pardon for all our faults, and that it is every day necessary to sacrifice in order to obtain that which we ought to seek in his death only? This error was not at first so extreme, but increased by little and little, until it came to what it now is. It appears that the ancient fathers called the Supper a sacrifice; but the reason they give is, because the death of Christ is represented in it. Hence their view comes to this—that this name is given it merely because it is a memorial of the one Sacrifice, at which we ought entirely to stop. And yet I cannot altogether excuse the custom of the early Church. By gestures and modes of acting they figured a species of sacrifice, with a ceremony resembling that which existed under the Old Testament, excepting that instead of a beast they used bread as the host. As that approaches too near to Judaism, and does not correspond to our Lord’s institution, I approve it not. For under the Old Testament, luring the time of figures, the Lord ordained such ceremonies, until the sacrifice should be made in the person of his well- beloved Son, which was the fulfillment of them. Since it was finished, it now only remains for us to receive the communication of it. It is superfluous, therefore, to exhibit it any longer under figure.

36. The Bread in the supper is Ordained to be Eaten not Sacrificed—Errors of the Mass

And such is the import of the injunction which Jesus Christ has left. It is not that we are to offer or immolate, but to take and eat what has been offered and immolated. However, though there was some weakness in such observance, there was not such impiety as afterwards supervened. For to the Mass has been wholly transferred what was proper to the death of Christ, viz., to satisfy God for our sins, and so reconcile us to him. Moreover, the office of Christ has been transferred to those whom they name priests, viz., persons to sacrifice to God, and in sacrificing, intercede to obtain for us grace, and the pardon of our offenses.

37. Attempted Defense of the Sacrifice of the Mass

I wish not to keep back the explanations which the enemies of the truth here offer. They say that the Mass is not a new sacrifice, but only an application of the sacrifice of which we have spoken. Although they color their abomination somewhat by so saying, still it is a mere quibble. For it is not merely said that the sacrifice of Christ is one, but that it is not to be repeated, because its efficacy endures for ever. It is not said that Christ once offered himself to the Father, in order that others might afterwards make the same oblation, and so apply to us the virtue of his intercession. As to applying to us the merit of his death, that we may perceive the benefit of it, that is done not in the way in which the Popish Church has supposed, but when we receive the message of the gospel, according as it is testified to us by the ministers whom God has appointed as his ambassadors, and as sealed by the sacraments.

38. Errors Connected with the Abomination of the Mass

The common opinion approved by all their doctors and prelates is, that by hearing Mass, and causing it to be said, they perform a service meriting grace and righteousness before God. We say, that to derive benefit from the Supper, it is not necessary to bring any thing of our own in order to merit what we ask. We have only to receive in faith the grace which is there presented to us, and which resides not in the sacrament, but refers us to the cross of Jesus Christ as proceeding therefrom. Hence there is nothing more contrary to the true meaning of the Supper, than to make a sacrifice of it. The effect of so doing is to lead us off from recognizing the death of Christ as the only sacrifice, whose virtue endures for ever. This being well understood, it will be apparent that all masses in which there is no such communion as the Lord enjoined, are only an abomination. The Lord did not order that a single priest, after making his sacrifice, should keep himself apart, but that the sacrament should be distributed in the assembly after the manner of the first Supper, which he made with his apostles. But after this cursed opinion was forged, out of it, as an abyss, came forth the unhappy custom by which the people, contenting themselves with being present to partake in the merit of what is done, abstain from communicating, because the priest gives out that he offers his host for all, and specially for those present. I speak not of abuses, which are so absurd, that they deserve not to be noticed, such as giving each saint his mass, and transferring what is said of the Lord’s Supper to St. William and St. Walter, and making an ordinary fair of masses, buying and selling them with the other abominations which the word sacrifice has engendered.

The second error which the devil has sown to corrupt this holy ordinance, is in forging and inventing that after the words are pronounced with an intention to consecrate, the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ, and the wine into his blood. First of all, this falsehood has no foundation in Scripture, and no countenance from the Primitive Church, and what is more, cannot be reconciled or consist with the word of God. When Jesus Christ, pointing to the bread, calls it his body, is it not a very forced construction to say, that the substance of the bread is annihilated, and the body of Christ substituted in its stead? But there is no cause to discuss the thing as a doubtful matter, seeing the truth is sufficiently clear to refute the absurdity. I leave out innumerable passages of Scripture and quotations from the Fathers, in which the sacrament is called bread. I only say that the nature of the sacrament requires, that the material bread remain as a visible sign of the body.

40. From the Nature of a Sacrament The Substance of the Visible Sign Must Remain

It is a general rule in all sacraments that the signs which we see must have Some correspondence with the spiritual thing which is figured. Thus, as ill baptism, we are assured of the internal washing of our souls when water is given us as an attestation, its property being to cleanse corporal pollution; so in the Supper, there must be material bread to testify to us that the body of Christ is our food. For otherwise how could the mere color of white give us such a figure? We thus clearly see how the whole representation, which the Lord was pleased to give us in condescension to our weakness, would be lost if the bread did not truly remain. The words which our Lord uses imply as much as if he had said Just as man is supported and maintained in his body by eating bread, so my flesh is the spiritual nourishment by which souls are vivified. Moreover, what would become of the other similitude which St. Paul employs? As several grains of corn are mixed together to form one bread, so must we together be one, because we partake of one bread. If there were whiteness only without the substance, would it not be mockery to speak thus? Therefore we conclude, without doubt, that this transubstantiation is an invention forged by the devil to corrupt the true nature of the Supper.

41. False Opinion of the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Supper

Out of this fantasy several other follies have sprung. Would to God they were only follies, and not gross abominations. They have imagined I know not what local presence and thought, that Jesus Christ in his divinity and humanity was attached to this whiteness, without paying regard to all the absurdities which follow from it. Although the old doctors of Sorbonne dispute more subtilely how the body and blood are conjoined with the signs, still it cannot be denied that this opinion has been received by great and small in the Popish Church, and that it is cruelly maintained in the present day by fire and sword, that Jesus Christ is contained under these signs, and that. there we must seek him. Now to maintain that, it must be confessed either that the body of Christ is without limit, or that it may be in different places. In saying this we are brought at last to the point, that it is a mere phantom. To wish then to establish such a presence as is to enclose the body within the sign, or to be joined to it locally, is not only a reverie, but a damnable error, derogatory to the glory of Christ, and destructive of what we ought to hold in regard to his human nature. For
Scripture everywhere teaches us, that as the Lord on earth took our humanity, so he has exalted it to heaven, withdrawing it from mortal condition, but not changing its nature.

42. The Body of Our Savior in Heaven the Same as That Which He Had on Earth

We have two things to consider when we speak of our Lord’s humanity. We must neither destroy the reality of the nature, nor derogate in any respect from his state of glory. To do so we must always raise our thoughts on high, and there seek our Redeemer. For if we would place him under the corruptible elements of this world, besides subverting what Scripture tells us in regard to his human nature, we annihilate the glory of his ascension. As several others have treated this subject at large, I refrain from going farther. I only wished to observe, in passing, that to fancy Jesus Christ enclosed under the bread and wine, or so to conjoin him with it as to amuse our understanding there without looking up to heaven, is a diabolical reverie. We will touch on this in another place.

43. Other Abuses Arising Out of An Imaginary Bodily Presence

This perverse opinion, after it was once received, engendered numerous other superstitions. First of all comes that carnal adoration which is mere idolatry. For to prostrate ourselves before the bread of the Supper, and worship Jesus Christ as if he were contained in it, is to make an idol of it rather than a sacrament. The command given us is not to adore, but to take and eat. That, therefore, ought not to have been presumptuously attempted. Moreover, the practice always observed by the early Church, when about to celebrate the Supper, was solemnly to exhort the people to raise their hearts on high, to intimate, that if we would adore Christ aright, we must not stop at the visible sign. But there is no need to contend long on this point when the presence and conjunction of the reality with the sign (of which we have spoken, and will again speak) is well understood. From the same source have proceeded other superstitious practices, as carrying the sacrament in procession through the streets once a-year; at another time making a tabernacle for it, and keeping it to the year’s end in a cupboard to amuse the people with it, as if it were a god. As all that has not only been invented without authority from the word of God, but is also directly opposed to the institution of the Supper, it ought to be rejected by Christians.

44. Reason Why the Papists Communicate Only Annually

We have shown the origin of the calamity which befell the Popish Church—I mean that of abstaining from communicating in the Supper for the whole period of a year. It is because they regard the Supper as a sacrifice which is offered by one in the name of all. But even while thus used only once a year, it is sadly wasted and as it were torn to pieces. For instead of distributing the sacrament of blood to the people, as our Lord’s command bears, they are made to believe that they ought to be contented with the other half. Thus poor believers are defrauded of the gift which the Lord Jesus had given them. For if it is no small benefit to have communion in the blood of the Lord as our nourishment, it is great cruelty to, rob those of it to whom it belongs. In this we may see with what boldness and audacity the Pope has tyrannized over the Church after he had once usurped domination.

45. The Pope Has Made Exceptions to the General Rules Laid Down by Our Lord

Our Lord having commanded his disciples to eat the bread sanctified in his body, when he comes to the cup, does not say simply, “drink,” but he adds expressly, that all are to drink. Would we have any thing clearer than this? He says that we are to eat the bread without using an universal term. He says that we are all to drink of the cup. Whence this difference, but just that he was pleased by anticipation to meet this wickedness of the devil? And yet such is the pride of the Pope that he dares to say, Let not all drink. And to show that he is wiser than God, he alleges it to be very reasonable that the priest should have some privilege beyond the people, in honor of the sacerdotal dignity; as if our Lord had not duly considered what distinction should be made between them. Moreover, he objects dangers which might happen if the cup were given in common to all. Some drop of it might occasionally be spilt; as if our Lord had not foreseen that. Is not this to accuse God quite openly of having confounded the order which he ought to have observed, and exposed his people to danger without cause?

46. Frivolous Reasons for Withholding the Cup

To show that there is no great inconvenience in this change, they argue, that under one species the whole is comprised, inasmuch as the body cannot be separated from the blood as if our Lord had without reason distinguished the one from the other. For if we can leave one of the parts behind as superfluous, what folly must it have been to recommend them separately. Some of his supporters, seeing that it was impudence to maintain, this abomination, have wished to give it a different color, viz., that Jesus Christ, in instituting, spoke only to his apostles whom he had raised to the sacerdotal order. But how will they answer what St. Paul said, when he delivered to all the people what he had received of the Lord—that each should eat of this bread and drink of this cup?Besides, who told them that our Lord gave the Supper to his apostles as priests? The words import the opposite, when he commands them to do after his example. (Luke 22:19.) Therefore he delivers the rule which he wishes to be always observed in his Church; and so it was anciently observed until Antichrist, having gained the upper hand, openly raised his horns against God and his truth to destroy it totally. We see then that it is an intolerable perversion thus to divide and rend the sacrament, separating the parts which God has joined.

47. The Buffoonery of the Pope in Regard to the Supper

To get to an end, we shall embrace under one head what might otherwise have been considered separately. This head is, that the devil has introduced the fashion of celebrating the Supper without any doctrine, and for doctrine has substituted ceremonies partly inept and of no utility, and partly dangerous, having proved the cause of much mischief. To such an extent has this been done, that the Mass, which in the Popish Church is held to be the Supper, is, when well explained, nothing but pure apishness and buffoonery. I call it apishness, because they there counterfeit the Lord’s Supper without reason, just as an ape at random and without discernment imitates what he sees done.

48. The Word Ought Always to Accompany the Sacraments

The principal thing recommended by our Lord is to celebrate the ordinance with true understanding. From this it follows that the essential part lies in the doctrine. This being taken away, it is only a frigid unavailing ceremony. This is not only shown by Scripture, but attested by the canons of the Pope, (Can. Detrahe. 1:4, 1,) in a passage quoted from St. Augustine, (Tract 80, in Joan.) in which he asks — “ What is the water of baptism without the word but just a corruptible element? The word (he immediately adds) not as pronounced, but as understood.” By this he means, that the sacraments derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligibly. Without this they deserve not the name of sacraments. Now so far is there from being any intelligible doctrine in the Mass, that, on the contrary, the whole mystery is considered spoiled if every thing be not said and done in whispers; so that nothing is understood. Hence their consecration is only a species of sorcery, seeing that by muttering and gesticulating like sorcerers, they think to constrain Jesus to come down into their hands. We thus see how the Mass, being thus arranged, is an evident profanation of the Supper of Christ, rather than an observance of it, as the proper and principal substance of the Supper is wanting, viz., full explanation of the ordinance and clear statement of the promises, instead of the priest standing apart and muttering to himself without sense or reason. I call it buffoonery, also, because of mimicry and gestures, better adapted to it; farce than to such an ordinance as the sacred Supper of our Lord.

49. The Ceremonies of the Ancient Law, Why Appointed—Those of the Papists Censurable

It is true, indeed, that the sacrifices under the O1d Testament were performed with many ornaments and ceremonies, but because there was a good meaning under them, and the whole was proper to instruct and exercise the people in piety, they are very far front being like those which are now used, and serve no purpose but to amuse the people without doing them any good. As these gentry allege the example of the Old Testament in defense of their ceremonies, we have to observe what difference there is between what they do, and what God commanded the people of Israel. Were there only this single point, that what was then observed was founded on the commandment of the Lord, whereas all those frivolities have no foundation, even then the difference would be large. But we have much more to censure in them.

50. The Jewish Ceremonies Having Served Their Purpose, The Imitation of Them is Absurd

With good cause our Lord ordained the Jewish form for a time, intending that it should one day come to an end and be abrogated. Not having then given such clearness of doctrine, he was pleased that the people should be more exercised in figures to compensate for the defect. But since Jesus Christ has been manifested in the flesh, doctrine having been much more clearly delivered, ceremonies have diminished. As we have now the body, we should leave off shadows. To return to the ceremonies which are abolished, is to repair the vail of the temple which Jesus Christ rent by his death, and so far obscure the brightness of his gospel. Hence we see, that such a multitude of ceremonies in the Mass is a form of Judaism quite contrary to Christianity. I mean not to condemn the ceremonies which are subservient to decency and public order, and increase the reverence for the sacrament, provided they are sober and suitable. But such an abyss without end or limit is not at all tolerable, seeing that it has engendered a thousand superstitions, and has in a manner stupified the people without yielding any edification.

51. The Death and Passion of Our Lord the Perfect and Only Sacrifice

Hence also we see how those to whom God has given the acknowledge of his truth should differ from the Papists. First, they cannot doubt that it is abominable blasphemy to regard the Mass as a sacrifice by which the forgiveness of sins is purchased for us; or rather, that the priest is a kind of mediator to apply the merit of Christ’s passion and death to those who purchase his mass, or are present at it, or feel devotion for it. On the contrary, they must hold decidedly that the death and suffering of the Lord is the only sacrifice by which the anger of God has been satisfied, and eternal righteousness procured for us; and, likewise, that the Lord Jesus has entered into the heavenly sanctuary in order to appear there for us, and intercede in virtue of his sacrifice. Moreover, they will readily grant, that the benefit of his death is communicated to us in the Supper, not by the merit of the act, but because of the promises which are given us, provided we receive them ill faith. Secondly, they should on no account grant that the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Jesus Christ, nor the wine into his blood, but should persist in holding that the visible signs retain their true substance, in order to represent the spiritual reality of which we have spoken. Thirdly, they ought also to hold for certain, that the Lord gives us in the Supper that which he signifies by it, and, consequently, that we truly receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless they will not seek him as if he were enclosed under the bread, or attached locally to the visible sign. So far from adoring the sacrament, they will rather raise their understandings and their hearts on high, as well to receive Jesus Christ, as to adore him.

52. View of Enlightened Christians in Regard to the Supper

Hence they will despise and condemn as idolatrous all those superstitious practices of carrying about the sacrament in pomp and procession, and building tabernacles in which to adore it. For the promises of our Lord extend only to the uses which he has authorized, Next, they will hold that to deprive the people of one of the parts of the sacrament, viz., the cup, is to violate and corrupt the ordinance of the Lord, and that to observe it properly it must be administered in all its integrity. Lastly, they will regard it as a superfluity, not only useless but dangerous, and not at all suitable to Christianity, to rise so many ceremonies taken from the Jews contrary to the simplicity which the Apostles left us, and that it is still more perverse to celebrate the Supper with mimicry and buffoonery, while no doctrine is stated, or rather all doctrine is buried, as if the Supper were a kind of magical trick.

59. Duty of the Servants of God in Regard to the Advancement of Truth

Both parties failed in not having the patience to listen to each other in order to follow the truth without passion, when it would have been found. Nevertheless, let us not lose sight of our duty, which is not to forget the gifts which the Lord bestowed upon them, and the blessings which he has distributed to us by their hands and means. For if we are not ungrateful and forgetful of what we owe them, we shall be well able to pardon that and much more, without blaming or defaming them. In short, since we see that they were, and still are, distinguished for holiness of life, excellent knowledge, and ardent zeal to edify the Church, we ought always to judge and speak of them with modesty, and even with reverence; since at last God, after having thus humbled them, has in mercy been pleased to put an end to this unhappy disputation, or at least to calm it preparatory to its final settlement. I speak thus, because no formulary has yet been published in which concord is fixed, as is most expedient. But this will be when God will be pleased to assemble those who are to frame it in one place.

60. Fraternal Concord Among the Churches

Meanwhile it should satisfy us, that there is fraternity and communion among the churches, and that all agree in so far as is necessary for meeting together, according to the commandment of God. We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. How that is done some may deduce better, and explain more clearly than others. Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements; and, on the other hand, not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, this being the reason why it is called spiritual.

Children At The Lord’s Table? A Review

Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009).

Note: This review was published originally on the Heidelblog as a series in 2009 and is slightly revised.

In his latest book Cornelis Venema has tackled a serious problem in the Reformed world that needed to be addressed and he has done so in a thoughtful, thorough, biblical, and confessionally Reformed manner.

Background to the Review
Before we begin the review it will be useful to put the current question in its immediate historical and ecclesiastical context.

Over the last forty years the conservative and confessional Reformed churches (the two groups are not always identical) have been afflicted with a series of movements which reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty (QIRC—on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession). Among these movements have been the theonomic and Christian Reconstruction movements, the Federal Vision movement, and the paedocommunion movement.

Each of these three movements has attracted followers from evangelical fundamentalism into the Reformed sphere and in the NAPARC (sideline) Reformed and Presbyterian churches. They have also stimulated ecclesiastical committees, reports, and controversies. Over the years, most of the NAPARC churches have addressed theonomy (e.g., the the RCUS and PCA have had Synodical and GA reports and most of the NAPARC denominations have rejected the self-described Federal Vision movement. A few have tackled paedocommunion. The Presbyterian Church in America, the largest of the NAPARC bodies, addressed infant communion in a 1998 report. The majority concluded, “It is the thesis of this report that…the main argument [for paedocommunion] is not sustained. The PCA is well advised to continue the classical Reformed practice of delaying the admission of children to the Lord’s Table until they reach a 
level of maturity at which they can profess their faith and partake of the elements with discernment.” We should be grateful that the GA adopted the majority report and recommendation that: “That the PCA continue the practice defined in our standards and administer the Lord’s Supper “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.”

About the same time that the PCA addressed this problem, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) received a report containing a majority report which rejected paedocommunion (and two minority reports advocating it). As the OPC site notes, these reports have no constitutional authority but they probably reflect the range of opinion in the OPC.

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) addressed the doctrine and practice of paedocommunion at Synod in 2004. Synod concluded, “The confessions to which the URCNA subscribe (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort) accurately summarize the teaching of scripture in, for example, 1 Cor 11.24–25; 28. Thus our confessions, in harmony with the scripture, require that the Lord’s Supper be administered only to those who have publicly professed their faith, in the presence of God and His holy church.” The question of paedocommunion has also been addressed recently by Matthew Winzer, in the Confessional Presbyterian (2007): 27–36.

Nevertheless, the paedocommunion problem persists. There was a minority report in the PCA written by Robert S, Rayburn (pastor of Faith PCA in Tacoma) which argued “That the common opinion of the Reformed church on this matter was and remains ill-considered.” This was essentially an Anabapist argument: the Reformation did not go far enough, it remained unduly influenced by medieval theology and practice. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, many of whom are federal visionists, theonomists, or at least sympathetic to theonomy or the federal vision. A website propounding paedocommunion provides a “Who’s Who” list of paedocommunion advocates which confirms this judgment. It offers the names of 15 proponents several of which are advocates of the FV or the NPP (e.g., James Jordan, Steve Wilkins, N. T. Wright) and many others of which are associated with the theonomic movement either as ought right advocates (e.g. Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony) or as advocates of quasi-theonomic ethic (e.g., G. I. Williamson who wrote essays in the 1980s advocating a sort of quasi-theonomic ethic). A couple of names on the list are a little surprising—Jack Collins (OT Prof at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the PCA) and William Willimon, a mainline (UMC) Methodist and insightful critic of contemporary Christianity. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, however, who are not listed: Douglas Wilson, the de facto head of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches and a Tim Gallant (a graduate of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, who operates a website devoted to paedocommunion), who advocated paedocommunion within the URCNA and whose views were rejected by the URCNA and who has since left for the Christian Reformed Church. The move by the CRCNA in 1995 to open the door to paedocommunion—recently ratified at synod—was overlooked in the furor over women in office, but the admission of infants to the Lord’s Table is arguably as significant a sign of the inroads of fundamentalism and evangelicalism into the CRCNA as the admission to women to presbyterial and ministerial office is a sign of liberalism.

As a matter of logic the fact that the primary and most vociferous proponents of infant communion are advocates of, associated with, or tolerant of aberrant movements such as the Federal Vision and theonomy does not, in itself, prove that paedocommunion is wrong. The provenance of the doctrine, however, is relevant for understanding its impetus and its adoption in segments of the Reformed world. In my experience since 1980, many of those who are attracted to paedocommunion are recent converts to the Reformed faith from fundamentalism.

It is also worth noting that it is beyond doubt and admitted by all intelligent proponents of paedocommunion that the Reformed Churches do not and never have confessed paedocommunion. It is a fact that the Reformed Churches were aware of the theology and practice of paedocommunion as they formed their confession and practice of the Supper. As we begin the survey of Venema’s book, we should understand that the questions are really these: “Have the Reformed Churches been fundamentally wrong about the nature of holy communion and the relations between the sacraments of baptism and the Supper since the early 16th century?”

I realize that this is a prejudicial way of stating the question. That is intentional. On matters indifferent to the being or safety of the churches we may be dispassionate and open-minded but on matters touching the being or essential theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed Churches we should be more than careful. We should be aggressively defensive of the Reformed confession. At ordination, Reformed ministers vow to take such a stance toward the confession. It may be that our confession is wrong. We confess the primary and unique authority of holy Scripture and thus our confession is subject to revision, but when the Donatists, Novatians, Valentinians, or more recently, the Anabaptists, or the Federal Visionists come knocking, we have every right to place the burden of proof squarely where it belongs (upon their shoulders) and to demand that they meet the highest standard of evidence and to exercise the greatest caution about their proposals. In the case that, in the NAPARC world at least, the theology and practice of paedocommunion usually comes wrapped in a theonomic or federal visionist bundle should also make us abundantly hesitant about it.

What We Confess
The Heidelberg Catechism Q. 81 asks, Who are to come to the Lord’s Table?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

In his introduction, Venema makes the point that how we frame the question makes a good deal of difference. If we ask, “Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated?” we beg the question (i.e. assume the conclusion in the premise). I would add that we distort the question because “excommunication” presumes that one was “communicated” in the first place. The author says, “The historic view does not deny that the children of the covenant are invited to the Lord’s Table. As a matter of fact, if thier baptism means anything, it means that they are invited to respond in faith to the Lord’s Gracious promise, which would qualify them to receive the sacrament that nourishes that faith. Therefore, the only thing preventing such children, or any others, from coming to the Table is the absence of an appropriate response to the invitation” (2).

What is meant by “covenant children” and “paedocommunion.” He distinguishes between a “soft” version of paedocommunion which advocates communion earlier than middle to late adolescence (2-3). It admits those who’ve made a simple but credible profession of faith. The second class of paedocommunionists he calls “strict,” i.e. those who favor “the admission of any baptized child of believing parents who is physically able to receive the communion elements.” These two views, he rightly says, are “quite distinct.” Indeed, I was not aware that arguing for communion prior to “middle to late adolescence” made one a paedocommunionist of any kind.

Some advocates of the “strict” view (which seems to me to be paedocommunion proper) like to call their position “covenant communion.” With the “strict” view, however, “there is only one basis for admission to the Table of the Lord, namely, membership in the covenant community” (3). Venema is quite rightly unwilling to concede the term “covenant communion” to the strict paedocommunionists.” The Reformed Churches have reckoned their practice of communion as “covenantal” since the 16th century. For paedocommunionists to appropriate (hijack?) the adjective “covenant” is to assume what needs to be proven (more question begging; 4).

He acknowledges that the appropriate age for communion is not easily determined (4). More on this below.

The rest of the introduction quickly sketches the four main areas of discussion: the history of paedocommunion, the nature and administration of the covenant of grace, the matter of the analogy with Passover, and the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11.

As one who is sympathetic to the notion that communion might occur before “middle to late adolescence” I am a little skeptical of Venema’s assertion that “middle to late” adolescence is the “historic” position of the Reformed Churches. It may have been the practice of some of the Dutch Reformed Churches in the modern (since the 18th century) period but my understanding is that Calvin expected children to learn a catechism which was rather larger than the Heidelberg and to be ready to make profession of faith and come to the table by age 10 (see below). Would this make Calvin a “soft” paedocommunionist? I think not.

Calvin wrote:

How I wish that we might have kept the custom which, as I have said, existed among the ancient Christians before this misborn wraith of a sacrament came to birth! Not that it would be a confirmation such as they fancy, which cannot be named without doing injustice to baptism; but a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God (Institutes 4.19.13).

Article 54 of the Acts of the Synod of the Hague (1586), a regional synod of the Dutch Reformed Churches, declared:

No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table unless he conforms to practice of the church he is joining and has made profession of the Reformed religion as well as furnishing a testimony to his pious conversation. Without this those who also come from other churches shall not be admitted.

This was the language of Art. 61 of Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619):

No person shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, but those who make confession of their faith in the Reformed religion (Gereformeerde Religie), agreeably to the practice of the churches to which they are joined, and who also have the testimony of pious deportment; without which also, none coming from other churches shall be received.

These two articles do not answer when that profession was made but neither do they stipulate that it can only be made in mid to late adolescence.

The Historical Argument
The historical argument for paedocommunion, according to its proponents, is that the evidence is mixed but it was “likely the original practice of the church” (11). Proponents argue that the loss of paedocommunion in the Western Church was due to the rise of the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the doctrine that the elements of the supper become the literal body and blood of Christ). “In contrast to the relatively strong evidence for the early and general practice of infant baptism, clear evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in some segments of the church begins in the middle of the third century (12).

Justin Martyr made reference to the “proper recipients of the Supper” in his First Apology (12-13) where he taught that only those who have embraced the teaching of the church and who have resolved to live in accord with the gospel are to be communicated. Clement of Alexandria restricted access to the table “to active believers” (13). Origen also “seems to suggest that small children (parvuli) are restricted from communion.

There is some evidence from Cyprian that, during the Decian persecution, may have come to the table. Venema argues that this practice was probably not widespread (15). Contemporaneous evidence suggests that the earlier practice of restricting children from the table was the practice.

Paedocommunion became a “normal practice” of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries (16). This is clear from many places in Augustine’s writings and was closely connected to his realism (i.e., things do what they do because they are what they are) and his view that the sacraments work ex opere (i.e., by the working, the use of the sacraments) it is worked. The thing signified isthe sign. It was closely connected to his doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

It is not clear when paedocommunion became the dominant practice In the Eastern church but the “practice of Eastern Orthodoxy since the fourth century certainly lends support to the argument that paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of church history” (19).

Venema disputes the account of medieval history given by proponents of paedocommunion as “unduly simplistic” (20). The evidence, however, is that “prior to the eleventh century, paedocommunion was practiced” (20-21) but it diminished in the period leading up to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) where admission to the supper was granted to those age 7 or older. Between the 13th century and the Reformation the practice of baptism was separated from the practice of communion.

By the Reformation, “the only groups practicing paedocommunion were the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Armenian church, and the Bohemian Hussites.” In the Reformation the Lutheran and the Reformed admitted children only after catechism training. Venema distinguishes between the Lutheran practice of “confirmation” and the Reformed practice “profession of faith” (22). He continues by surveying Calvin’s approach to the differences between baptism as “the sign of new birth and incorporation into Christ” and the Supper as a “means of nourishing the faith of believers” (23).

Wolfgang Musculus was one of the “few dissenters to the prevailing view…” (24) He argued for paedocommunion “on the ground that children are included in the covenant of grace with their parents.” His view was “an exception to the rule among the Reformed churches of the continent and the British Isles.”

Venema observes that observance of paedocommunion was only “in some sectors of the church” by the middle of the third century, but it was never as prevalent in the Western church as in the Eastern. He reminds us to take note of the diverse reasons offered for it. We should note the connection between the rise of paedocommunion and sacerdotalism. He reminds us that, though transubstantiation may have had a role in the decline of paedocommunion, there were other reasons for challenging it even in the medieval period, including the long-standing view in favor of an informed reception of the Supper. Finally, he notes that the Reformed churches stressed the distinct function of the Supper as distinct from baptism. The argument for paedocommunion from history is “inconclusive” (26).

Sola Scriptura Is Not Biblicism
Venema observes that the Reformed Churches are committed to the principle of sola Scriptura which means that the Scriptures are to be “regarded as the supreme standard for their faith and life” (27) but that principle does not mean that we read the Scriptures in isolation from the church or from church history.

One of the marks of biblicism is doing just that: refusing to read the Scriptures with the church. This is a quite different principle than that by which Rome operates. She makes the Scripture the product of the church. That’s exactly backward. The church is the product of the divine Word. The Word is not the product of the church. So the Reformed Churches neither conform to the general pattern of evangelical biblicism (though more than a few Reformed folk have become biblicists in the modern period) nor do we conform to the Roman pattern of making church norm the Scripture.

Venema says that the question of paedocommunion cannot be settled merely by appealing to Scripture. “It is also necessary to study what the Reformed churches have confessed regarding the proper recipients of the sarament of the Lord’s Supper.”  The evidence from the confessions is that “Reformed believers held that the Lord’s Supper ought to be administered only to professing believers.” In distinction from the Baptists, the Reformed  churches affirm that “the children of believers, together with their parents, are recipients of the gospel promise and ought to receive the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and membership in the covenant community of the church.”  The Reformed churches also require, however, that children undergo instruction prior to attending to the table (27).

He proceeds to give a summary of the confessional teaching on the relation of the Word and sacraments, the distinctive nature of the sacraments, the two sacraments of the New Covenant, and the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. His claim that the dictum often assigned to Cyprian (but actually a received summary of his teaching on this question),  “extra ecclesiam nulla salus est” (outside of the [visible] church there is no salvation) is “not explicitly echoed”  (29) in the Reformed confessions is hard to understand since in footnote 2 (p. 29)  he writes, “Cyprian’s dictum is using the the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXV….and the Belgic Confession, Art. 28….” One wonders if the “not” was an editorial oversight?

In the Reformed confessions, the preaching of the gospel has ‘a priority” in relation to the sacraments (29-30). “The sacraments do not communicate anything other than the grace of God in Christ, the grace that is communicated firstly and primarily through the preaching of the gospel,” (30).

The sacraments are auxiliaries, appendices to the preached gospel. This is the teaching of HC 65. He addresses the question of the relative necessity of the sacraments. Are they indispensable? Venema writes, “the best answer to this question…must be that ordinarily the sacraments are necessary and indispensable.”  That indispensability is not absolute. It is a consequence of the Lord’s “appointment of the sacraments for the believer’s benefit.” (30-31). It is ingratitude to neglect the sacraments.

The sacraments have the most intimate relation to the grace signified and yet they are distinct from that grace. They are signs and not the thing signified (32–33). They add nothing new to the grace of Christ promised in the gospel and like the gospel they must be received in faith (33). Thus the Reformed rejected the doctrine of sacramental regeneration apart from the the Spirit’s working through the Word. They “do genuinely serve, as means of grace, to confer and to communicate the grace of God in Christ” but only as the Spirit “is working through them and as they confirm the faith required on the part of their recipients” (34).

As addressed above the Reformed churches confess two distinct sacraments, with two distinct roles or functions (35). Baptism is the sign and seal of the adoption of believers. The emphasis falls on the privileges of baptism but the Westminster Larger Catechism also teaches the accompanying obligations of baptism (36). They do not teach baptism regeneration but they do teach “a real efficacy” in “conferring the grace of God in Christ on believers” (36). It is not merely a visible testimony to the believer’s subjective state. Because it is a promise by God and commanded by God, baptism is to be administered to believers and to their children (37). We don’t baptize infants on the ground of presumed regeneration or infant faith (38).

The Supper is the sign and seal by which God ‘continually nourishes and strengthens the faith of its recipients” (39). Unlike Baptism, it is meant to be repeated. The governing metaphor in the confessions is that the Supper is a “sacred meal” (39). It is a memorial but not merely that (39-40). It is a means of assurance. It is a holy communion with Christ. “It also serves the purpose of uniting believes more intimately with Him and calling them to a life of loving obedience and holy consecration” (40). Those who receive “Christ through the sacrament with the mouth of faith genuinely partake of him” (41). “In several of the confessions, the language used to describe Christ’s presence is quite robust” (41). Nevertheless, we reject the Roman and Lutheran doctrines of the Supper.

The proper recipients of the Supper are limited by  the nature of the Supper as a sacrament and its intended purposes. The confessions describe the “kind of faith that is competent to remember, proclaim and receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper” (43). This is why we fence the table. Unbelievers are not to be admitted. It violates the nature of the sacrament to allow the unbelieving or impenitent to the table (44). The confessions require the active participation of believers in the Supper (44). They warn against the danger of eating and drinking judgment to oneself (45). They explicitly limit participation to those who are capable of articulating their faith who are, as HC 81 says, “displeased with themselves for their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake Christ….” (45). The marks of true faith in Q. 81 are the same as the three parts of the HC: guilt, grace, and gratitude. This was intentional. This was the consensus of the Reformed churches in Europe and Britain (46-48).

What Does Scripture Say?
At the heart of the revisionist, paedocommunionist case is that the confessional and historic Reformed theology and practice of the supper effectively denies the OT pattern of, as it were infant communion, and excommunicates children unjustly.

Venema does a fine job surveying the paedocommunionist case (53-59). He concludes that “the Old Testament does not provide a case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper….” (59). In his critical evaluation of the paedocommunionist appeal to the OT, he notes that they tend to slight two principles of interpretation: 1) “the ultimate norm for the practice of the church must be the New Testament description of the administration of the new covenant.” 2) “participation in the observances of the covenant….must be governed by the Lord’s insistence that His people worship him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) (59).

Reformed covenant theology has always acknowledged that the old and new covenants are “one in substance” and various in “mode of administration” (WCF 7.6; p. 60). He also notes (61) that we cannot assume that “simple membership in the covenant community automatically grants to believers and their children access to all its rites and observances.”

The paedocommunionist appeal to the manna in the wilderness (1 Cor 10; Ex 16–17) proves too much. It is true that children ate the manna. Presumably strangers to the covenant ate the manna as did animals (62). The manna was a type, not a blueprint. It was also a means of bodily sustenance. The sacrament is a means of spiritual sustenance but it is not intended for bodily sustenance. There are differences between the OT types and the NT fulfillment. Circumcision was, in the nature of the thing, applied only to males. Baptism is applied to both sexes. The Passover was annual and the Supper was frequently administered (62).

Children participated in the feats of weeks and booths (63) but children did not participate in those that “more directly ‘typify’ the sacrifice of Christ, which the Lord’s Supper commemorates and proclaims….” The work of atonement and their accompanying meals was restricted to Levitical priests. Venema faults the paedocommunionists for highlighting those places that teach the participation of children while “downplaying those that stipulate restrictions” (64).

One of his more interesting observations/arguments, one that I find compelling, is the NT usage of Exodus 24 (Heb 9:20). The NT regards this as perhaps the most important OT precedent for the Supper. Moses, the covenant mediator, “sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings before the Lord” (65). He spread the blood over both the altar and the people (including the children). The accompanying fellowship meal was celebrated on the mountain. Infants did not participate in this meal, but our Lord appealed to this typological event in the institution of the Supper. There are significant OT precedents for the Supper that do not support paedocommunion (66).

As to the Passover, there is “no indisputable evidence for or against the claim that all of the children of the covenant participated fully in its celebration” (67). Venema helpfully distinguishes between the first celebration of the Supper and its subsequent celebrations (68).  The initial celebration was a household event, but the subsequent celebrations were pilgrim feasts that “required only male  members of the covenant community to keep the Passover and the other two pilgrim feasts…(68) (i.e. feasts and booths). Since there is no “clear biblical evidence that women or children attended the pilgrim Passovers” it doesn’t follow, therefore, that exclusion from Passover was tantamount to excommunication.

Perhaps the most helpful thing Venema does in this chapter is to challenge some of the more fundamental paedocommunionist assumptions about the way things “must” have been and about the way continuities between typological and fulfillment periods in redemptive history should be viewed and used.

In ch. 5 Venema addresses the NT evidence (or lack thereof) for infant communion in the NT. Thus far he has argued that the case from history is mixed at best. The case for paedocommunion from the Reformed confessions does not exist. If the case from the OT is lacking, then the case for paedocommunion is tottering precariously at best.

He proposes to resolve the debate “only on the basis of an argument that considers general features of the New Testament doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its relation to the Word of the gospel” (78). E.g. the accounts of the institution of the Supper in the gospels “reflect an understanding that may suggest how this question should be answered.

He notes (80) is the difference between Baptism as a sacrament of initiation that, in the nature of the case, can only be administered once. Either one is baptized or one is not. The Lord’s Supper, however, “is to be celebrated regularly in the context of Christian worship and the ministry of the Word of God until Christ comes again.” Thus Paul quotes the words of institution (1 Cor 11:25) “this do as oft as ye drink it” with the “obvious implication” that the Supper is to be “celebrated frequently by the church….”

The Supper is to be observed and celebrated “in remembrance of Christ.” Participation is “in response to an imperative….” The sacrament is a sign to be received “remembering and believing” (emphasis original). The Supper requires “the active participation” from the recipient that is not required in baptism (80). This is “particularly significant” for the question of paedocommunion.

He notes that Jesus’ meal with the two men on the road to Emmaus has been understood to refer to the Holy Supper (81) and that the men “knew” that he was the risen Lord. Acts 2:42 records the practice of the Apostolic church and the “breaking of bread” “may be an allusion to the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper…” (82). If so, then it is is significant that those who ate the Supper are said to have received the preached Word. Communion is observed in the context of the preaching of the Gospel. He points to two possible allusions to the Supper in Rev 3;20 and 19:1-9 wherein it is described as a means of fellowship with Christ and in which it could be withdrawn as a matter of discipline.

Thus far, he says, nothing “in this evidence argues for the admission of non-professing children to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” (83). “In its basic form, the argument of many paedocommunionists is easily stated” if all children (with the exception of unweaned infants) in the old covenant participated fully in the Passover meal, and if the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant form of the old covenant Passover, it follows that children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table.”  (84) The middle premise here is that the Supper is a NT Passover. To this question Venema now turns his attention.

Since the Supper was instituted in connection with the pascha, the premise has “apparent plausibility.”  (85). It has been traditionally believed that the elements used in the institution of the Supper were passover elements, but, he notes, that traditional belief has been questioned. There is some “apparent discrepancy” between the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) accounts and John’s account (86). One resolution to read John’s language as indicating that the meal occurred on “Friday of Passover week.” The “similarities between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover should not be overstated on this account” since “there are several important differences between them” (86). First, there are the words of institution which were derived from “the covenant renewal ceremony of Exodus 24—a ceremony that was reminiscent of the way the Lord had confirmed His covenant with Abraham…” (87). Like M. G. Kline Venema observes that these OT antecedents of the Supper involved a bloodletting to signify the “solemn bond between them.” The Lord bound himself to them with a “self-maledictory oath” and taught that covenant breaking requires a blood atonement. Thus “Christ’s words of institutions do not connect the Supper with the Passover, but with the covenant renewal meal that Moses and the elders of Israel celebrated on Mount Sinai” (emphasis original). The Passover was the setting but the true antecedent was not the private family Passover meal, but the public, religious fellowship meal shared by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders.

The Passover commemorated the Exodus. The Supper commemorates “Christ’s sacrificial death, which is the fulfillment of of all the types and ceremonies of the law, especially the sin and guild offerings of the old covenant. (emphasis original). The Passover is certainly fulfilled in the Supper, but the Supper recapitulates and fulfills much more (87-88).

Is membership covenant in the covenant of grace sufficient ground for admission to the table? To answer this question Venema appeals to John 6 and 1 Cor 11. The former has important implications for our understanding of the Supper (90-91). Here Venema is following Calvin (93), quoting his commentary on John 6:56: What is in view in John 6 is not the Supper directly but rather the eating of Christ by faith. That eating says Calvin, however, “is figured and actually presented to believers in the Lord’s Supper” (93; emphasis original in Venema’s quotation). For Calvin, Christ made the Supper a “seal of this discourse.” It is necessary to participate in Christ but the only way to participate in Christ then, is to do so by faith and the Supper is the sign and seal of that faith (94-97).

Thus, in the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the manner of our partaking [of Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper] is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Art. 35; quoted on p. 98). The Belgic echoes the teaching of John 6. The “general teaching of John 6 regarding how believers participate in Christ’s body and blood has a clear and compelling implication for any mode of communion with Christ, whether by by means of the gospel Word or the sacrament that accompanies the Word” (emphasis original; 98). Thus “the church’s requirement that those who are admitted to the Table of the Lord” make a credible profession of faith before communing is a “legitimate application of the teaching of this passage.”

According to Venema, the “most important and compelling piece of New Testament evidence that bears on the question of paedocommunion is undeniably 1 Corinthians 11:17–34” (101). This is the because this passage is “the most extensive and comprehensive New Testament passage on the Lord’s Supper.” The Supper has no exact analogy in the old covenant. The “scriptures of the new covenant must determine how it is administered and received.”

The historic Reformed interpretation of 1 Cor 11 “Paul’s instructions regarding what it means to participate ‘unworthily’ in the sacrament are viewed as normative for all members of the new covenant community.” Paul used this particular instance to articulate not only specific guidance but general guidelines for the administration of the holy Supper.

The “most important features of the traditional interpretation” focus on vv. 27–29 (103). Paul required self-examination before communing. The point of the self-examination was to “test” (Venema’s term) whether one’s faith and conduct are “in accord” with one’s profession. This requirement has been implemented variously in the Reformed tradition. Generally it has been taken to mean that “believers must test themselves in terms of the normal requirements of of a Christian profession.” Here he cites HC 81 in a footnote. It’s worth repeating here to set the context:

81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.

After the requirement for self-examination paul adds that “all who partake of the sacrament must do so only as they properly ‘discern’ the body of Christ (v.29). Such discernment includes an understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and its implications for the conduct of believers in relation to him and others” (103). Thus, as Venema notes, the Reformed Churches have restricted the Supper to professing members in good standing. Paul’s teaching that some ate and drank judgment to themselves has weighed heavily on the Reformed as they’ve interpreted this passage and that weight is reflected in the language of the Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 25 when it makes self-examination a prerequisite for communion. The HC Lord’s Day 30 also appeals to this language (104).

Contemporary advocates for paedocommunion allege that the Reformed Churches have misunderstood this passage. They argue that the passage “commends the admission of all members of the church, young and old alike.” The traditional view wrongly “divides segments of the covenant community (in this case, professing and non-professing members) in a manner that is reminiscent of the unwarranted divisions in the Corinthian church.” They argue that the historic Reformed view and practice actually comes under the apostle’s rebuke since it “excludes some members of the community from full participation in Christ” (105).

Their view depends considerably upon their reconstruction of the circumstances prompting Paul’s response. For the paedocommunionists, the problem was not “orthodoxy” but “orthodopraxis” (right practice). The problem was not “unworthy” participants but ungodly pride and factionalism. [Here one hears echoes of the NPP/FV reconstruction of the 2nd-temple Judaism and of Paul’s response to it. Justification not about “acceptance with God” or “courtroom metaphors” but about “boundary markers” and the like. It’s not hard to see how the argument “The Reformation misunderstood Paul on justification” could easily become the argument, “The Reformation also misunderstood Paul on the Supper”—rsc] They argue that the language of “remembrance” and “showing” (vv.24–26) does not necessarily exclude infants from communion. They argue that the Supper is itself an exhibiting of the body and a remembrance, not that anyone necessarily has to remember. Advocates of paedocommunion argue that what the Corinthians failed to discern was their membership in the body of Christ. I have previously responded to this claim. Venema quite rightly concludes that the paedocommunionist interpretation of this passage has “clear and startling implications for the practice of paedocommunion” (107).

Essential to the paedocommunionist interpretation of 1 Cor 11 is their reconstruction of the original setting and problems that provoked Paul to write this section of the epistle. According to Venema the most basic premise of the paedocommunionist argument is that “the Lord’s Supper represents, in a  most powerful way, the unity and fellowship of the whole body of Christ” (108). He concedes that the theme of the unity of the body and the “full participation” of members in that body runs like a thread through 1 Corinthians. The Lord’s Supper is a “beautiful expression of the oneness of the body of Christ.” The theme of the Supper as an expression of the unity of the body is not isolated to 1 Cor 10:16-17. It is expressed in 1 Cor 7:14 and the early verses of 1 Cor 10. Does 1 Cor 10:16-17 support the case for paedocommunion?

Venema says, “No.” The Supper is a powerful witness to the unity of the body but “it seems premature to argue from the theme enunciated in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 to the conclusion that all covenant children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table lest the oneness of the body of Christ be compromised” (109). If the historic Reformed view of 1 Cor 11:17–34 is correct then the paedocommunionist reconstruction of the original situation and their reading of 1 Corinthians 10 fails. 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 “must retain its unique status as the single most decisive biblical teaching for determining whether such children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table” (110).

If infants are not allowed to commune, is there status as members of the covenant of grace jeopardized? Well, Venema notes that the “participation in Christ” described in 1 Corinthians 10 included uncircumcised males and even animals! As previously noted, the paedocommunionist reading of 1 Corinthians 10 proves too much.

There are 4 sections in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. Vv. 17-22 identifies the problem, vv. 23–26 contains Paul’s summary of the institution of the Supper, vv. 27–32 instructs us on how to receive the body and blood of Christ, and vv. 33–34 return to the original problem (111).

The problem is not reconstructing the original context and problems (112–14). Venema argues, however, that the advocates of paedocommunion use their reconstruction of the original context to obviate Paul’s clear instructions in ch. 11. In other words, because we do not have the same problems today (namely turning the Supper into factional meals) as described in 1 Corinthians 11 it  does not really apply directly to us. In other words, in the historic Reformed reading of 1 Corinthians 11, it is normative for our understanding of the Supper even if our circumstances have changed whereas for the paedocommunionist it is not so normative because of the change in circumstances. This move allows them to control the understanding of the supper via their reconstruction of the original situation and via their reading of 1 Corinthians 10.

Another question/problem raised by the paeodcommunionist reading of 1 Cor 11 is their “handling of the words of institution” by which they argue that we should translate “this do in remembrance of me” as “do this unto my remembrance.” The force of the revision is to move the locus of the act from the person remembering (which requires of certain level of cognition) to a purely objective state of affairs so that whenever the Supper is administered (including infants) it is done as an objective, corporate memorial along the lines of Leviticus 24:7 (115). From an historical-theological perspective this is a sort extreme anti-Zwinglianism. Is the “of me” in 1 Corinthians 11:24–25 subjective or objective? Is it “remembrance of me” or “my remembrance”? Contra the paedocommunionist reading most English translations (115–16) take it as “remembrance of me.” Venema argues, the “point of the Lord’s words of institution is that the participant in the sacrament is placed under the obligation to obey the Lord’s command, to act in such a way that expressed informed remembrance and believing proclamation of his death” (116).

The historic Reformed understanding of this passage recognized some distinction between the original context and our, post-apostolic, post-canonical context. This difference, however, did not stop them from rightly finding general principles in 1 Corinthians 11 that preclude infant communion (117–18). Paul’s instructions are “applicable to any celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the part of any believer” (118; emphasis original). Even if one no is not committing the very same sin committed by the Corinthians, it is nevertheless possible to eat and drink unworthily (note the adverb). The “closes parallel to this passage is 2 Corinthians 13:5 where the apostle summons all believers to “[e]xamine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove [test-rsc] your own selves. Know ye not that your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (Venema quotes the AV following RHB publication guidelines). The ESV reads:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

Venema points to Gal 6:4 as another parallel passage that has the same reflexive language. He also observes that the “idea of self-examination in verse 28 has often been freighted with the excess baggage of protracted, introspective process of spiritual inventory-taking, the term requires only a responsible testing on the part of the believer to see whether his faith is genuine” (119).

A second issue is the intent behind the language “discern the [Lord’s] body.” There is a textual variant here. The older text omits the qualifier “Lord’s.” This has allowed paeodcommunionists to argue that what should be discerned is the “church” not the body of Christ in the Supper. I have already addressed this claim. Venema concludes that the shorter reading is the best text but that the shorter reading does not support the paedocommunionist claim (121). The body to be discerned is not the congregation but rather the body which “he gave as a sacrifice on behalf of his people” (121).

I hope that readers will see that the historic Reformed, confessional theology, piety, and practice of the Lord’s Supper is not and has not been mere conservatism. The Reformed Churches have paid close attention to Scripture and from it have formed a covenant theology (i.e. a reading of redemptive history) and a view of the sacraments of the covenant of grace (baptism and the Supper). As Venema notes 127–28), the impetus for the modern revival of the error of paedocommunion in some Reformed denominations and federations is not a superior biblical exegesis or superior theology of the Supper but rather a covenant theology that is not Reformed, which is alien to the Reformed reading of Scripture.

He says, “[s]ome contemporary advocates of paedocommunion claim that all covenant members without exception—believers and their children who are recipients of the covenant promise and the accompanying sacrament of covenant incorporation, baptism—enjoy a full and saving union with Christ.”

He is correct to highlight the connection between the covenant nomism of the so-called and self-described “Federal Vision” movement. You can read more about this erroneous covenant theology in the booklet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace, in this more academic essay, and in the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. To add a layer of complication that Venema does not mention but which draws the FV covenant theology perilously close to that advocated by the Remonstrants and rejected soundly at Dort, is their doctrine that the benefits conferred in baptism must be retained by grace and cooperation with grace. This, in their view, is the second part of “the covenant.” God has done his part and now you must do yours.

Since, in the FV theology, “the baptism of the children of believers effectively unites them to Christ and grants them full participation in his saving work, baptism by itself provides a sufficient warrant for admitting such children to the Table of the Lord without requiring a preceding profession of faith” (141). Venema is exactly right about this. The argument over paedocommunion, at least in our circles, is really an argument about covenant theology. What i the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches? The answer, of course, is that it is that which has been taught and confessed since the early 16th century and since that time we have consistently rejected paedocommunion because we reject the biblical exegesis of the paedocommunionist argument and because we have a different covenant theology. The FV view borders on (or crosses over into) “sacramentalism” (145). We understand, in the language of the Westminster Confession 27.2 that there is a “sacramental union” between the sign and the grace signified. The sign is not the grace signified.

Chapter 7 is particularly useful for its brief survey of the historical, exegetical, and theological issues and for a summary of the confessional Reformed response. One might do well to begin his reading with this chapter to get an overview before going to chapter 1. There is an appendix to the work, a chapter on covenant theology and baptism.

Venema has produced a truly helpful survey and analysis of the arguments being advanced by contemporary (Federal Visionist) proponents of paedocommunion. If you are tempted by the FV or its arguments for paedocommunion (and it is a temptation) you should read this book for yourself. All of us who value the historic, confessional Reformed reading of Scripture, the Reformed covenant theology, the Reformed Word and sacrament piety, and the Reformed practice of the Supper owe a debt of thanks to Venema for this fine work.

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”


Zwingli On Covenant And Baptism (1524)

From Zwingli’s 1524 Exposition Of the Articles

  1. Baptism is being enrolled by an “oath of allegiance” (sacramentum) into the church visible,
    an initiation into the people of God.
  2. If there is one people of God, with one faith, in one Savior, then it follows that the signs and seals of that salvation, Savior and faith, have not changed radically.
  3. Thus, he appealed to Colossians 2.11-2, where Paul linked circumcision and baptism, as evidence that Christian parents ought also to administer the sign of the covenant to their children.
  4. He agreed with Luther that the Sacraments strengthen faith, but he was clear to say that they do not give it. This is the work of the Spirit through the Word.
  5. Against the Anabaptists (i.e., Schwenkfelders) he argued that they added to Scripture by denying paedobaptism. NT is silent, therefore the command to administer the sign of the covenant continues to apply today.
  6. By forbidding it, they were adding to Scripture and doing exactly what Jesus said not to do: forbidding the children to come to him!
  7. If we deny that children should be baptized, then we must deny that women should come to the table, because there is no positive evidence that they were communicated in NT.
  8. If John’s baptism is substantially the same as Christ’s, then there is no categorical necessity of being discipled before baptism since John’s disciples had not even heard of Christ before they were baptized. John’s baptism was prospective and Christ’s retrospective.
  9. Certainly children were baptized in the OT. All Israel, children and adults were baptized with Moses in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10).
  10. Children of believers are born with original sin, but not original guilt and are therefore eligible for baptism.
  11. How can the children of NT believers be worse off than the children of the Jews who received the sign of the covenant, since this is a better covenant?
  12. The sign of initiation, in both covenants, always entailed a pledge to renew it with one’s children, hence the sign.

The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace

This article is taken from John H. Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis (Crossway Books: Wheaton, Ill., 1998). Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, This material is not to be electronically transferred. Download for personal use only.

The prayers had been offered, the promises read, and the psalm sung. Two princes stepped forward to receive Communion, but the deacon refused to give them the cup. The superintendent of the city’s pastors ordered a second minister present to take the cup from the deacon and give it to the nobles, and a struggle for the cup ensued. Outraged by the deacon’s insubordination, the superintendent excommunicated him on the spot. This nasty business occurred in 1559 in Heidelberg, Germany. The minister was the Lutheran theologian Tilemann Hesshus (1527-1588), and the deacon was a Zwinglian named Klebitz.1

As ugly and sub-Christian as it was, the story of the Communion combatants of 1559 reminds us of a time when men took seriously the means of grace, and it presents us with a sharp contrast to our own times. Few evangelical Christians or churches in our time are so devoted to the Supper as to be willing to argue about its proper use, let alone physically struggle for the cup. Why? It is because we have become practically anti-supernatural and simultaneously super-spiritual in our theology, so that we are, on the one hand, bored with God’s ordinary means of grace (the sacraments) and on the other hand have stopped believing that God can and does use those means to accomplish His purposes. That is to say, we are guilty of a sort of unbelief.

We have replaced the sacraments with spiritual exercises of our own making. A survey of virtually any evangelical bookstore finds dozens of books on spirituality, self-denial, church growth, and recovery from various addictions. Some of these contain useful advice; so did some of the medieval handbooks of spiritual direction. But few of them contain the Gospel, and almost none of them make any reference to the use of the Lord’s Supper as a means to Christian growth.2 Even Reformed churches that confess the Supper to be one of the two divinely instituted means of grace (media gratiae) normally serve the Supper only quarterly.

This essay is something of a continuation of a nineteenth-century debate in Reformed theology. The various revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to push the Lord’s Supper to margins of Reformed piety. For various other reasons some nineteenth-century Reformed theologians became suspicious of what they regarded as Calvin’s overly mystical view of the Supper. In turn, the German Reformed theologian J. W. Nevin criticized the influence of revivalism and realism on Reformed theology and defended Calvin’s views.3

The History of the Fall from the Means of Grace

Who should participate in the Lord’s Supper and how they should do it were two of the most hotly contested questions of the sixteenth-century Reformation. For both Luther and Calvin, the Supper was of critical importance as a means of grace, as a testimony to Christ’s finished work, and as a seal of His work for us. Furthermore, it was a means by which our union and fellowship with the risen Christ and with one another was strengthened and renewed. As much as the Lutherans and Reformed disagreed about the relations of Christ’s humanity to His deity and thus the nature of His presence in the Supper they agreed on one very important truth in the Supper the living, Triune God meets His people and nourishes them. The question was not whether, but how.

The most immediate reason for our fall from the Protestant idea of the Supper as a means of grace is that we have become practical modernists. Modernism (or the Enlightenment) was a profoundly anti-Christian theology and worldview. Building upon the conclusions of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and others began to remove the overtly supernatural elements from Christian theology in order to make it acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion.4 The task and trajectory of modernist theology has been to find a way to do theology without actually believing (in the same way as Luther and Calvin) what it actually taught. (By modernism and modernity I mean to encompass the various Enlightenment movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By rationalism I mean the use of human reason and sense experience as the fulcrum by which all authorities, including Scripture, the creeds, and confessions, are levered.)

Those theologians who accepted the basic rationalist belief of modernity (man is the measure of all things) worked to find ways to express their modernism in Christian terms. Where the Reformation theologians were convinced of God’s present activity in history, modernist theologians were convinced of His present inactivity and hiddenness from us.

The modernist theology provoked a crisis and a reaction. Since we could no longer be certain of God’s existence and care for us by the old-fashioned Protestant ways (preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments), we abandoned them for more direct and immediate means of knowing and experiencing God. This flight to the immediate encounter with God is pietism or mysticism. Pietism is not to be confused with piety. The latter is that grateful devotion to God, His Word, and His people that is at the heart of Christianity. Pietism believes that what is truly important about Christianity is one’s personal experience of Jesus; it is a retreat into the subjective experience of God apart from any concrete, historical factuality. Though pietism is usually said to have begun with Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), its roots were much deeper in the history of Christianity. World flight and the interior turn were the stuff of early medieval asceticism. Withdrawal from the world was a major theme among both Greek and Latin writers in the early church. Augustine (354-430), Tertullian (ca. 160-225), Jerome (ca. 342-420) in the West, as well as Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215) and Origen (ca. 185–ca. 254) in the Greek-speaking church, saw world flight as a means to spiritual improvement.

The via mystica (the mystical way) was one of the most prominent theological influences in the later Middle Ages. Mystical theology preceded and succeeded the twelfth-century development of the technical academic theology known as scholasticism. The synthesis by Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500) of neo-Platonism with Christianity produced an important example of early Christian mysticism. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Hugh and Richard of St. Victor Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), and the Theologia Germanica (ca. fourteenth century) are some of the outstanding examples of medieval mysticism leading up to the Reformation. In the sixteenth century mystical pietism found expression in much of the preaching of the Anabaptist radicals and in the theology of the Silesian (German) Lutheran Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), who taught a theology of direct experience of, and even absorption into, the divine.

Thus when Spener began to organize a pietist reaction to what he perceived to be cold Lutheran orthodoxy, he was only gathering up threads of a movement that had long been active in the church. In fact, Spener’s more radical counterpart George Fox (1624-1691) was even more consistent than Spener.5 Fox was the father of Quakerism or the Society of Friends. He quite logically followed his concern about one’s experience of the “inner Christ” by abandoning the visible church and her sacraments.

In fact, pietism and modernism were family, and those close relations are evident in the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). He received his earliest Christian training from Moravian pietists. As he reduced Christian theology to the experience of dependence upon God (Gefuhl), he declared that he was now a mature Moravian, and so he was.

Despite its internal differences, the modern evangelical movement is united in its quest for a higher and purer direct experience of the Christ of faith. It is not, however engaged in a more profound search for a more biblical understanding of God’s communion with His people through the signs and seals of the covenant.

Repentance and Restoration to the Means of Grace

American evangelicalism is a pietist, experiential religion that is too busy with cell-group meetings to be troubled with the Lord’s Supper At the same time, we have functionally excommunicated ourselves and, to borrow Calvin’s language, robbed ourselves of Christ’s benefits.6 The remedy for the pietist transformation of sixteenth-century Protestant evangelical religion into a religion of private, personal experience is to repent of our unbelief that God does not or cannot use created means to strengthen or edify us as His people. Here is one of the central differences between the religion of the Protestants and pietist-mysticism: Protestantism believes in the use of divinely ordained means. It also seeks to recapture those divinely ordered gospel instruments.

The Institution of the Supper

The Scriptures teach that God establishes the Lord’s Supper as the means by which He testifies to us and strengthens us in our salvation in Christ by sealing to His people Christ’s twofold benefits: justification and sanctification.7 According to the Synoptic Gospels, our Lord instituted the Supper in the midst of the celebration of the Feast of Passover.8 The Passover was part of a pattern of important communal feasts (including the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles) in which the covenant assembly met to offer worship and in which God drew near to His people.9 The Passover narrative is found in Exodus 12:1-36, the Feast of Weeks in Exodus 34:22 and Numbers 28:26-3 1, and the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23:34. The Scriptures make it clear that these covenant assemblies were eschatological events with the holy ones of heaven in attendance. (See also Ps. 68:7, 17; Heb. 2:2.) Paul assumes this in 1 Corinthians 11:10: “because of the angels.” God’s people sat at His feet, as it were, to hear the Word and to enjoy sacramental fellowship with Him. Certainly the structure of the liturgical calendar, filled with major and minor feasts, expressed that repeated desire of the Lord to commune with His people.

The Passover pictured this as a time of fulfillment. The very act of painting the doorposts with the blood of a lamb was symbolic of the necessity of the propitiation of God’s holy wrath and the expiation of our sins. The Passover was an eschatological feast as they ate the roast lamb by whose blood they had been redeemed. Already in the Old Covenant believers were tasting the powers of the age to come through these sacramental elements. I am alluding here to Hebrews 6:4-5. Hebrews 11:13 adds that Old Covenant believers died not having received the fulfillment of the promises, but they anticipated the day of fulfillment in Christ. Jesus teaches the same thing in John 8:56. The Passover was also an act of covenant renewal as God’s people ate the Gospel and were called again to a life of holiness in the Feast of Unleavened bread.10

It is against the Old Covenant background of circumcision as the sign of initiation into the covenant community and the feasts as covenant renewal that Calvin and Reformed theology with him distinguished between baptism as the sign and seal of entrance into the visible assembly and the Supper as the sign of confirmation.

Jesus is the paschal lamb of God (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7). It was against this backdrop that the disciples understood the words of institution: “This is My body . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). They were familiar with a world that may be nearly lost to us, a world of bloody rituals and sworn oaths to God and neighbor, in which God Himself came to Abraham and swore an oath to “be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). So seriously does the God of the covenant take His promise that He swore an oath against His own life; He sealed this pledge first in the sign of the fire-pot going between the slaughtered animals (Gen. 15:17) and later with the bloody sign of circumcision (Gen. 17:10).11

All the bloody signs of the Passover feast were fulfilled in the body and blood of Jesus. The day of types and shadows was gone; the reality had arrived. This was Jesus’ teaching against the backdrop of the feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. Though in John 6 Jesus contrasted Himself with the manna, declaring Himself to be the true bread from heaven (John 6:31-35), the broader context (see v. 4) involved the Passover. This explains why He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53). His vocabulary was drawn from the Passover feast. Had he intended only to refer to the manna, he would not have included the reference to His blood.

In the history of exegesis it has been nearly impossible for Christians not to link this passage to the Supper, if only figuratively and indirectly. Thus, for Calvin the institution of the Supper was Christ’s sigillum or seal of this sermon.12 Our spiritual union with Christ, which Jesus called eating His flesh and drinking His blood, leads the Christian naturally to think of the communal, formal, sacramental expression of that ongoing, daily eating of Christ that Calvin called our mystical union with Christ (unio mystica).13

Jesus’ words in John 6:54, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” are quite shocking to us super-spiritual evangelicals. But such sacramental use of the ordinary is the character of redemptive history. The Lord’s Supper, like the Old Covenant feasts that preceded it, involved the sacred use of ordinary things because grace does not replace creation, it renews it. The man born blind was not given entirely new eyes; his old, blind eyes were opened. Note also that Jesus used saliva, clay, and water to accomplish His miracle (John 9.1-7).

Our piety is quite different from Jesus’ in other ways as well. We have come to think of the Christian life primarily as a private affair between God and us in our prayer closet. Jesus conducted His ministry and instituted the Supper in a corporate setting, at a feast; and the New Covenant feast was intended to be a communal act of worship as well, not a private spiritual exercise. (See Acts 2:42-46; 20:7-11; 1 Cor 5:7-8; 10-11.) It is beyond question that there are strong individual elements to the Christian faith one must himself apprehend and appropriate the Gospel. The Bible, however, “deals with man, not only as a solitary unit in his relation to God, but also as a member of a spiritual society, gathered together in the name of Jesus.”14 And God has ordained signs and seals of that society that we neglect to our great peril.

The Reformation of the Supper

After 250 years of revivalism and Pietism, it is about time for us evangelicals to renew our appreciation of Calvin’s theology of the Supper. His exposition of the Supper is in his theological handbook for future pastors, the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559). The heading of the fourth book is: “On the external means or aids by which God invites into Christ’s society and retains us in it.”15 Unlike much popular evangelical piety of our time, Calvin did not juxtapose the use of means in the Christian life with direct, unmediated access to God. In Calvin’s day, as in ours, “many” were persuaded out of “pride or loathing or envy” that they could grow spiritually by “privately reading and meditating” on Scripture and thus did not need the ordained means of grace.16

More than once the church has needed a call back to the biblical means of grace. As we need to be called away from our disregard and shallow understanding of the Supper and called back to a full-orbed theology of the Supper, so too the sixteenth-century church needed a reformation and restoration of the Supper. From 1995-1997 I surveyed the theological opinions of about 200 undergraduate and graduate students at Wheaton College, which I take to be a representative cross section of American evangelicalism. Almost uniformly at the outset of their basic theology course they confessed that they had been taught that the Supper is one’s declaration of faith in Christ. Most had never been taught a connection between the Supper and the Gospel. Even Zwingli, who has sometimes been criticized for teaching that the Supper was a mere memorial of Christ’s death, taught that Christ strengthens us through the Supper.

The spiritual, theological, and moral corruption of the late medieval church was evident in its abuse of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper had stopped being a gospel feast of covenant renewal and had become partly legal obligation and partly magic.17 The doctrine of transubstantiation as promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) taught that at consecration, the substance of the eucharistic bread and wine, or that which makes them what they are, is replaced by Christ’s “substance” hence transubstantiation. This dogma was reiterated at the Council of Trent (1551) (sessio XIII, cap. IV). That the eucharistic elements continue to look, feel, and taste like bread and wine was said to be “accidental” i.e., not a mistake but a nonessential property. Though the consecration of the host was not normally intended as magic, it certainly appeared to most medieval parishioners to be a kind of magic performed by the priest. Hence the archaic expression hocus pocus (to trick someone) derives from the Latin expression, “hoc est” (this is), from the Latin (Vulgate) text of Luke 22:19, used in the celebration of the Mass. Like baptism, the Mass became one of seven means by which some thought one could receive within himself divine righteousness.18 It was this infusion of righteousness (iustitia infusa) that was said to create within the Christian a habitus or disposition toward obedience leading to eventual justification.19

Thus there is more at stake here than just spiritual growth. For Luther and Calvin, the reformation of the church was first of all a recovery of the gospel message itself: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, lived and died to justify helpless sinners, not to enable them to cooperate with God toward sanctification and eventual, final justification. I fear that our devotion to private exercises is, partly at least, a sort of idolatry in which we worship the “Christ of faith,” i.e., a savior of our own making. In short, it may be that we are disinterested in the Lord’s Supper because we are disinterested in the Lord Himself and His free gift of righteousness.

For Protestants, the sacraments are not about what one has or has not done; rather, they testify and seal to us what Christ has done for us and in our place. The Supper as instituted by Christ speaks to us of our union with Him, effected by the Spirit and the Word. What could be more intimate than “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26)? The purpose of the Supper is not to save us, but to help us grow in grace, to confirm our faith, and to seal to us Christ’s imputed righteousness. We must first, however, embrace that righteousness by faith alone.

It may be that we have rebelled from God’s weak and beggarly things in favor of super-spirituality because we overestimate our own well-being. For Calvin, the very fact that God gave us the Supper testified to our weakness. For those who have eaten Christ by faith, it should be the natural desire to want to feast on Him in the Supper with His people.

This exaltation of the ordinary (after all, even after consecration, the elements remain only bread and wine) at God’s command explains why Calvin was quite vociferous against those whom he called “fanatics” (fanatici), those who refuse to use God’s ordinary methods. It is non-Christian pride, not Christian humility, to despise divinely ordained means of Christian growth in grace.

It not that Calvin thought that we should love the sacraments in themselves.20 Rather, the sacrament of the Supper is valuable because it is an “appendix” to the preaching of God’s Word that confirms and seals (obsignet) it to the elect.21 Though we ought to believe the Word by itself, and it is certainly true as it stands, nevertheless the sacraments are God’s kind “gifts” (dotes) to strengthen our trust in the Word. The Christ of the Supper is the same Christ offered to us in the gospel word. Since it was not meant to be a mute witness by itself, the Supper therefore can be effective only in the context of gospel preaching.

At the heart of Calvin’s view is that the Eucharist is a supper, and even more intimately, a family meal.22 Scripture calls it a supper because it was given to nourish us and feed us.23 He called it a “spiritual feast” (spirituale epulum), a “high mystery,” and “this mystical blessing” (mystica haec benedictio) of which Satan hopes to deprive us.24

How does the Supper feed us? In several ways. First, as a visible representation of the Gospel it symbolizes for us the “invisible nourishment” we receive from Christ’s flesh and blood.25 Just as it is Christ who is preached to us in the Gospel, so it is Christ we eat in the Supper. Not that the elements are transformed; no, they remain bread and wine.26 Christ, however, uses the elements to share Himself with us by the power of His deity. He is the “only food of our soul.”27

We are fed by the Supper as Christ uses it to strengthen His spiritual union with us. Just as water pours from a spring, so “Christ’s flesh is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain.” 28 Though we confess that, with respect to Christ’s humanity, he “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” nevertheless God the Spirit overcomes the spatiotemporal distance between us and the risen Christ and unites us to Him29 For this reason, one does not need to think of Christ as being physically present in the elements of the table. His flesh is present by the “secret operation of the Spirit drawing us up to Himself, not bringing Christ down to us.”30 It is not necessary “to drag Him from heaven” for us to enjoy Him.31

We eat because God has entered into a covenant with us to be our God, and He has given signs and seals to this covenant union. Thus when He calls us to the Lord’s Table, “as often as He pours out His sacred blood as our drink,” it is for the “confirmation of our faith” in which “He renews or continues the covenant once ratified in His blood.”32 So the Supper does not initiate faith in us; that is the function of the Spirit working through the preached Gospel. As we “constantly” eat this bread (by trusting in Christ’s imputed righteousness), so in the Supper “we are made to feel the power of the bread.”33 There is more to union with Christ than “mere knowledge” (simplex cognitio). Christ meant to teach something more “sublime” in John 6:53. Just as it is not “seeing” (aspectus) the bread, but “eating” (esus) it that feeds the body, it is not the mere intellectual apprehension of Christ that is saving faith, but “the soul must partake of Christ truly and deeply,” entering into His promises.34

The prime benefit of this mystical Supper with earthy elements is that by it the Holy Spirit works assurance of our faith. Christ is the object of our faith. His promises are the sure foundation of our confidence. As we eat it, Christ again says to us, “You are Mine.“35 As we hear the promises set before us weekly in the preaching of the Gospel, so we also see them in the Supper. In this way “pious souls”can derive “great confidence and delight from the sacrament.“36

Calvin spoke thus because he believed that in the Supper Christians have real fellowship with Christ, who is truly present with them. Christ has not abandoned us. In the Supper we receive the “true body and the blood of Christ.“7

How Shall We Then Commune?

Calvin has three words of advice for us: simply, solemnly, and serially. One of the great faults of the medieval church was that it forgot how to preach. Contemporaneous accounts of late medieval preaching make it clear that most priests could not or did not preach. When they did, the sermons were often guilty of the most dreadful moralizing as to make them worse than no sermon at all. In their place a popular piety of pageants, passion plays, and feasts arose.

The descriptions might well be contemporary accounts of modern evangelical church life. We are increasingly known for our big buildings, fast-selling recordings, and our tacky dramatic productions more than we are known for our gracious, warm, and winning gospel preaching. To us as much as to his contemporaries Calvin says:

I ask all who are in the least affected by a zeal for piety whether they do not clearly see both how much more brightly God’s glory shines here, and how much richer sweetness of spiritual consolation comes to believers, than in these lifeless and theatrical trifles.38

In place of trifles, the Supper should be administered “at least weekly.”39 Services should begin with public prayers, followed by the sermon, which itself should be followed by the Supper.40

The proper administration of the Supper requires that when the elements have been placed on the Table, the minister should recite the promises attached to the Supper by Christ. He should also excommunicate (excommunicaret) those who by the Lord’s “interdict” are prohibited from the Table.41 (See 1 Corinthians 11:27-29.) In the Reformed tradition, this practice of warning unbelievers away from the Table is known as “fencing the table.” After the warning, the minister should give thanks and pray God’s blessing on the Supper, followed by a Psalm or an appropriate reading afterward, with the minister breaking the bread, of which “the faithful” (fideles) should partake in an orderly manner.42


Perhaps the idea of coming to the Table weekly is troubling, but why? The most common argument against weekly celebration of the Supper is that it might become routine. Doubtless this is a danger, but by this rationale all churches should hold only monthly worship services so that the sermons and singing will be truly meaningful. The absurdity of the argument is obvious. The possibility of abuse is no excuse for not making use of the divinely instituted means of grace.

Perhaps there is a more fundamental reason we are reluctant to observe the Supper more regularly. One fears that the simple gospel message of Christ offered for and to sinners is not really on the evangelical agenda or credenda for that matter. (Agenda is Latin for “things to do,” and credenda is Latin for “things to believe.”) It might be that regular observance of the Supper would require a transformation of most evangelical worship services. It is difficult to imagine how a solemnly joyful service of the Supper would fit into some “seeker sensitive” services.

Weekly Communion would also affect the preaching by tending to orient the service around Christ’s finished work and away from the constant diet of “how to” messages. The juxtaposition of “Ten Steps to a Happy Marriage” followed by a Communion service is too jarring to contemplate. Simply considering a weekly Communion a hypothetical possibility in our time seems to present radical challenges to evangelical piety.


1 J. I. Good, The Origin of the Reformed Church in Germany (Reading, PA: 1887), PP. 144-145.

2 In this regard, A. E. McGrath’s call to recover a genuinely Protestant piety is an antidote. See Spirituality in an Age of Change: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Reformers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 165-173. See also M. S. Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 215-236.

3See R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Richmond, VA: 1878; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), pp. 810-812; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1982), pp. 646-647; J. W. Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia: 1867).

4 See B. A. Gerrish, A Prince of the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). Harold O. J. Brown shows the connections between pietism, mysticism, and romanticism. See “Romanticism and the Bible,” in Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response, eds. G. Lewis and B. Demarest (Chicago: Moody, 1984), pp. 49-66.

5 The continuing influence of Quaker spirituality upon evangelicalism can be seen in the immense popularity of the books of R. J. Foster. For example, see Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, rev, edition, 1988).

6 Ioannis Calvini, Institutio Christianae Religionis, in Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, 5 vols., 3rd edition (Munich: Chr. Kaiser,1962-1974), 4.18.1,6. For the English text see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

7 The doctrine of the twofold benefit (duplex beneficium) is an important part of Reformed theology. It is found in Calvin. See Institutio, 3.11.1. It was the organizing principle of the Heidelberg theologian Caspar Olevian (1536-1587), who used it frequently. See, for example, De substantia foederis gratuiti inter Deum et electos (Geneva: 1585), 1.1.2; 2.69. On the relations between seals and the covenant theology of Scripture, see S. S. Smalley, s.v., “Seal, sealing,” The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, repr. 1975).

8 Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-23. Passover was the first feast of the new year, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. For a contemporary critical account see B. A. Bokser, s.v., “Passover,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992). For an evangelical account, see M. R. Wilson, s.v., “Passover,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979-1988).

9 See E. P. Clowney, The Doctrine of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995).

10 Institutio, 4.16.30.

11 See Jeremiah 34:17-20; K. A. Kitchen, The Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1966); M. C. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972); Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963); By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968); George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: 1955).

12 loannis Calvini, Opera Omnia, Vol. XL/1: In Evangelium secundum Johannem commentarius pars prior, ed. H. Field (Geneva: 1997), pp. 216-217. The English text is in John Calvin, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. T. H. L. Parker, eds. D. W. Torrance et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 169ff. In his interpretation of John 6:53-54 Calvin was working with two parts of the fourfold medieval hermeneutical matrix, the quadriga. According to the sensus literalis et historicus Jesus’ discourse was not properly about the Supper. Yet according to Calvin the passage does touch on the Supper, but only figuratively. Though he said “figuretur” he could just as well have used the traditional category sensus allegoricus, i.e., the doctrinal sense of the passage.

13 Institutio, 3.11.10. See also D. E. Tamburello, Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 4-101.

14 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 2 vols (Edinburgh: 1848), 1.2.

15 “De externis mediis ye! adminiculis, quibus Deus in Christi societatem nos invitat, et in ea retinet.”

16 Institutio, 4.1.5.

17 See The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: 1971), s.v., “hocus pocus.

18 The seven sacraments were: baptism, Eucharist, confession, penance, marriage, extreme unction, and holy orders. Of course no one was eligible for all seven. For Calvin’s critique of the medieval sacramental system, see Institutio, 4.19.

19 Canones et decreta sacrosancti oecumenici concilii Tridentini (Leipzig: 1890), VI, cap. X. The English text is in Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford, IL: repr. 1978); Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MD: 1994).

20 See Institutio, 4.17.5, 9.

21 Ibid.,4.14.3.

22 Ibid., 4.17.1.

23 Thus Reformed scholastic theologian Peter van Mastricht (1630-1706) distinguished between baptism as the “sacramentum regenerationis” and the Supper as the “sacramentum nutritionis.” See Theoretica-practica Theologia, Vol. 2, new edition (Utrecht: repr. 1699), pp. 828-845.

24 “Tanti mysterii” (Institutio, 4.17.1).

25 “Invisibile alimentum” (Institutio, 4.17.1).

26 Calvin resolutely rejected the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. See Institutio, 4.17.13-7, 39. Christ did not say that the bread would become His body at consecration, but that it already was His body. Calvin regarded the words of institution as a metonym, or a figure of speech (ibid., 4.17.21). The bread “is” Christ in the same way that circumcision “is” the covenant, etc. See also ibid., 4.18.

27 Institutio, 4.17.1.

28 Ibid., 4.17.9.

29 Ibid., 4.17.10, 18.

30 Ibid., 4.17.31. Hence he rejected the Lutheran doctrine of the “everywhereness” (ubiquity) of Christ’s humanity (Institutio, 4.17.30). Consequently he also rejected the Lutheran doctrine of the manducatio infidelium, i.e., that unbelievers eat Christ’s flesh in the Supper. See Institutio, 4.17.33-4.

31 Institutio, 4.17.31.

32 Ibid., 4.17.1.

33 Ibid., 4.17.5.

34 Ibid., 4.17.5.

35 Hence the language of Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Q/A.1: “That I with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ.” See P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3, 6th edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, repr. 1983), pp. 307-308.

36 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. H. Beveridge, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1979).

37 Belgic Confession, art. 35 in Schaff, Creeds, Vol. 3, p. 429.

38 Institutes (Battles edition), 4.17.43.

39 Institutio, 4.17.43.

40 Calvin’s “Form of Church Prayers” has been recently reprinted in T. L. Johnston, ed., Leading in Worship (Oak Ridge, TN: 1996). See also, Bard Thompson, ed., Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, repr. 1980), pp. 185-210.

41 See Calvin, Institutio, 4.17.40.

42 Institutio, 4.17.43. The reason for the fractio panis or the breaking of the bread was twofold. First, to illustrate Christ’s body broken for us, but also as a demonstration that despite all the benefits conferred in the Supper, the elements remain bread and wine.

A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism

[This essay was first published informally c. 1988. It has been revised several times since]


Among Western Christians there are four major views on baptism: 1

  • Baptism is the means of spiritual renewal and initial justification and sanctification through the infusion of grace received in it, in such a way that one cannot be saved ordinarily without it. Baptism communicates saving grace, by the working of its own power. Children of all church members and unbaptized adult converts must be baptized (Roman Catholic).2
  • Baptism is a public testimony to one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Only those who have reached the age of discretion can make such a profession of faith. Therefore, only those who are able to confess Christ should be baptized. (Baptist). 3
  • Baptism is so closely related to the gospel that through it, Christians receive eternal life and without baptism there can be no assurance of salvation. Both the children of believers and unbaptized adult believers should be baptized (Lutheran). 4
  • Baptism is a means of sanctifying grace and a gospel ministry to the people of God. It is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace illustrating what Christ has done for his people and sealing salvation to the same. Therefore covenant children of believing parents as well as unbaptized adult converts should be baptized. (Reformed).5

Protestants uniformly reject the Roman Catholic view of baptism as unbiblical and sub-Christian since it replaces faith as the instrument of justification. Among Bible-believing Protestant churches, the Baptist view is easily the most common and the Reformed view is probably the least well known. The view labeled Lutheran is probably somewhere in the middle in popularity.6

Unfortunately, many Bible-believing Christians assume that all infant baptizing (paedobaptist) churches are identical.7 This essay is intended in part to change that perception. I believe (perhaps naively) that if more Bible-believing Christians understood the Reformed view of baptism, they would accept our explanation of what God’s Word says about baptism. I also intend to give Reformed believers a clearer understanding of what God’s Word says about baptism and to answer objections which are often made against the Reformed position.

Is Infant Baptism Protestant?

In short, yes. All the Protestant Reformers including Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin held to infant baptism. Though these three great Protestants disagreed on many things, they all agreed on the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They also agreed that infant baptism is a biblical practice and the best expression of the Protestant gospel.8 In fact, infant baptism has been the practice of the historic Christian church since the Apostolic period.9 Of course the historic practice of the church does not settle the question. Historic practice, however, suggests a certain presumption in favor of infant baptism. Nevertheless, tradition alone is not sufficient reason for any practice in the church. Therefore Reformed Christians practice covenant baptism because we are commanded to do so in both the Old and New Covenant Scriptures. 10

We believe that the Bible alone is the Spirit inspired, infallible, Word of God written. God’s Word alone is the source of our faith.11 Comparing our ideas with God’s clear revelation in the Bible is the only way to safety and certainty.

Why Do Christians Reach Different Conclusions?

Christians study the same Bible, but we often read it differently. Sometimes we begin with different assumptions about the nature of things and authority. These different methods and starting points lead to different conclusions.

True Bible study requires comparing Scripture with Scripture and especially comparing clearer passages with those which are less clear. True Bible study requires a submissive attitude to the clear teaching of God’s Word.12 Bible study is not just looking for isolated texts which seem to prove one’s point. Rather, Bible study means that we must do exegesis, that is, understand what the biblical writer is saying, why, and to whom.

What is the Covenant of Grace?

In the gospels our Lord Jesus left us two great signs to be observed until he returns, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.13 These two new covenant signs broadly correspond to the old covenant signs of circumcision and Passover.14 We call baptism and the Lord’s supper covenant signs because that is what God himself calls them. They are signs of his covenant relationship to those he loves, his people.

The term covenant is a very frequent word in the Bible. In fact, God’s covenant with believers is so important that it is nearly impossible to correctly understand the Bible while ignoring it.15 The covenant of grace describes the way God relates to his people. It involves a binding oath between the LORD and his people in which he promises his people to be their God and his people, in response to God’s grace, swear complete fidelity to the LORD. The covenant of grace was signed and sealed in blood.

God made a covenant of grace with Adam, after the fall, in the garden.16 He made a promise to save and preserve Noah through the flood and us after it.17 He promised to be a God to Abraham and his children.18 With each the promise God attached conditions. The first is saving faith, which God works in us (Romans 4:3). The second is to make use of the covenant signs and seals. In Genesis 17 the LORD spoke to Abraham about his covenant:

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring….My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.19

The LORD gave a bloody mark as a sign to Abraham that he and his children belonged to the LORD. Similarly, in Exodus 12:1-13; vv.21-29, 43-51; God remembered his covenant with Abraham.20

The LORD also instituted an annual celebration to remind his people how he mercifully and graciously redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt. 21 As a sign and seal of his saving grace he instituted the sacrament of Passover along with many other feasts. 22

The Passover had many of the same characteristics as the circumcision. Both were bloody and associated with God’s covenant promises. Passover (like the other feasts) differed from circumcision, however, in the same way that baptism and the LORD’s supper differ: circumcision, the first covenant sign was applied to infants and adults alike, and was a mark of entrance into God’s covenant people.

The Passover feast was restricted to those who are able to understand God’s redeeming acts because it was a sign designed to nurture and lead to growth. It was not a sign of entrance into visible covenant assembly of God’s people, but served as a means of renewing the covenant of grace.

Is There Still A Covenant of Grace?

Just as God made a covenant with Abraham, he promised a new covenant to come later. 23 He made this new covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The Lord Jesus consciously and specifically established “the new covenant.” 25 The Apostle Paul said he was “a servant of the new covenant.” 26 How can this be if there is but one covenant of grace? The new covenant is new, as contrasted with Moses, but not as contrasted with Abraham or Adam. 27

This is the point of Galatians 3:1-29; 4:21-31, and 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 where Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading but the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The message of Hebrews chapters 3-10 is that the Old Covenant (under Moses) was preparatory to the New Covenant. The fundamental theme of Hebrews 11 is that Abraham had a new covenant faith, that is, he anticipated a heavenly city and to the redemption which we have in Christ. 28

The Promise Remains, The Circumstances Change

Now that the promise of the covenant of grace has been fulfilled the circumstances of the covenant have changed. We who live on this side of the cross view things differently because we live in the days of fulfillment. In biblical terms, we live in the “last days.” 29 We have the completed Bible and the gift of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. 30

The old covenant was designed to direct attention forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. 31 The old signs like Passover and circumcision along with the other bloody sacrifices and ceremonies have been replaced. Yet we still live in covenantal arrangement with God, and the bloody pictures of Christ have been replaced with bloodless signs (reminders) and seals.

Why is the Covenant of Grace Important?

Because it is a comprehensive category in Scripture, without which the Bible cannot be understood rightly. For example, because God administers his salvation through the covenant, and because there is but one Covenant of Grace, there is one salvation, one gracious promise (Christ) and people of God. Thus, the covenant of grace unifies all of Scripture. 32 God made a salvation promise to Adam and Eve. 33 He repeated the promise to Abraham, whom Paul called “the father” of all believers. 34 All believers are saved because of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise. 35

The covenant of grace is important because it also explains the Christian life. The God we serve is he who graciously and sovereignly saved us. Just as the way of salvation for Adam was the same as for us (faith in the finished work of Christ), the moral standards of the Christian life are substantially the same from age to age.

The covenant of grace is central to our self-understanding as Christians. God is covenant making and keeping God, and we are his covenant people.

How Were Covenants Made?

Circumcision was the sign given to Abraham. 36 The covenant and the sign were so closely identified that the Lord called the sign of circumcision, “My covenant.” Anyone who did not take the sign would be “cut off” from the covenant people. 37 In the old covenant Scriptures the phrase “to make a covenant” was expressed with the words: “to cut a covenant,” that is, to perform the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis of the uncircumcised adult male or the eight-day old Hebrew infant. 38 To be circumcised was to be identified with God and to be “cut off” from the world and to be included with God’s visible covenant people.

Implied in the act of circumcision is the taking of an oath: “If I do not keep the covenant, may the destruction which is illustrated by the cutting of the foreskin, actually happen to me.”39 This is why the Lord spoke of covenant breakers being “cut off” in Genesis 17:14. In Exodus 4:25, 12:15,30:33,38; Leviticus 7:20-25; Psalm 37; Ezekiel 14:8-17, 25:7-16. Scripture used the same verb for “cutting off” of covenant breakers as it did for the “cutting” of a covenant in Genesis 15:18.

The Lord placed himself under this curse in Genesis 15:17-21. He sealed his promise to Abraham by passing between the pieces as a sign that he would keep his promise. He received the curse upon himself in the Lord Jesus Christ who was “stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted…cut off from the land of the living.”40 Galatians 3:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21 clearly teach that Jesus became sin and endured the curses of covenant breaking for those who believe.41

Since the covenant of grace was made by God, it is he who gets to set its terms. God’s Word says that before we were “in Christ” we were dead in sins and trespasses. As dead people we could no more save ourselves than Israel could get herself out of Egypt.42 Because God is sovereign, he has the final say about who receives Baptism and the Lord’s supper and how they receive it.

What are the Relations Between the Covenants?

The Lord Jesus has fulfilled the bloody signs and types of circumcision and has replaced them with bloodless signs.43 Christ’s death was the reality to which the old signs and seals pointed.

Now, Christ having died, there is no need for the old sacraments and feasts. Scripture teaches that, by faith, all believers died with Christ.44 If Christ died an accursed death and we died with Christ, then by faith in Christ we have undergone the curse implied by circumcision. Colossians 2:20; Philippians 3:3 explicitly say that by faith, in Christ’s death, all believers have undergone circumcision.

Romans 6:2-10 says that we are baptized into Christ’s death. That is, when the sign of the covenant is applied, the recipient is identified with Jesus’ death and the cursedness of Christ.

The main difference between the old and new covenants is that what the old covenant promised through ceremonies and sacrifices, have been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. The New Covenant Scriptures refer constantly to the Old Covenant. Romans 3:21, 9:27, 11:13-32; Luke 24:27; Hebrews 9:15, and the whole of chapter 11 all teach that the covenant of grace instituted by God through Abraham continues into the new covenant. God’s Word clearly teaches that new covenant believers are the new covenant Israel.45 Everyone who believes is the true son of Abraham.46 Romans 9:6-9 teaches that a Jew is one who loves the Messiah Jesus and trusts him only for salvation.47

Thus we cannot say that there are two completely different “churches” or peoples of God. Paul teaches clearly in Romans 2:29; 4 [all]; 9:6-9 and Jesus teaches explicitly in John 8:31-58 no one is saved by being Jewish.48

What is the Connection Between Circumcision and Baptism?

The connection between baptism and circumcision is quite clear in Colossians 2:11-12. The connection is not direct, but indirect and the point of contact between them is Christ and baptism is the sign and seal of that circumcision. In v.11 Paul says “in him [i.e. in Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision done by Christ” and in v.12 he says exactly how it is that we were circumcised in and by Christ: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith….”49 For Paul, in the New covenant, our union with Christ is our circumcision. In baptism, we are identified with Christ’s baptism/circumcision, as it were, on the cross. Neither baptism nor circumcision effects this union (ex opere operato), rather God the Spirit unites us to Christ, makes us alive and gives us faith.

The point not to be missed is that, in Paul’s mind, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ’s baptism/circumcision on the cross for us. By faith, we are united to Christ’s circumcision and by union with Christ we become participants in his circumcision/baptism. Because circumcision pointed forward to Christ’s death and baptism looks back to Christ’s death, they are closely linked in Paul’s mind and almost interchangeable. Paul’s point here is to teach us about our union with Christ, but along the way we see how he thinks about baptism and circumcision and his thinking should inform ours.

One of the reasons that Paul so strongly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon Christians by the Judaizers is that, by faith, we have already been circumcised in Christ, of which baptism is the sign and seal.50 We were already identified as belonging to God and we have undergone the curse in Christ. So actual physical circumcision is, in the new covenant, unnecessary. Paul tells those who wish to circumcise themselves, to go the whole way and emasculate themselves.51

Acts 2.38,39 equates circumcision and baptism. In Acts 2.38 the Apostle Peter calls for repentance, faith in Christ and baptism by Jews who are hearing his preaching. In v.39 he gives the reason for this action: “the promise is to you and to your children, and all who are far off….” The Apostle Peter consciously uses the same formula in his preaching as the LORD himself used when he instituted the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17, which the Jews listening understood precisely.

What are the Relations Between Faith and Circumcision?

Romans 4:1-8,13-25 teaches that Abraham was justified by grace alone, through faith alone and not by works and yet God required that Abraham take the sign (mark) of circumcision. Romans 4:11 says that circumcision was a sign and a seal of “the righteousness that he (Abraham) had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenantal relationship to Abraham and to Abraham’s children, all who believe in Christ.52 The meaning of circumcision was spiritual and not just outward. Circumcision as a sign of faith and entrance into the covenant people as a member was also applied to children.53

What is the Relationship Between Faith and Baptism?

Acts 2:38,39 says,

Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and for your children and for many who are-for all whom the Lord our God will call.

For adult converts, baptism is a sign of what Christ has done for them, forgiven them and washed them. Adult converts are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is through faith in Christ. Baptism is a sign of our new standing with God through faith. Notice, v.39 “The promise (of salvation to those who believe) is for you and for your children.”

Our faith is in the Christ who died for us. Baptism is a sign of being united to him in his death by faith. Peter says that the flood waters of Noah symbolize baptism, because baptism is a sign of dying to sin, the washing away of sin by Christ’s blood, and living by faith in Christ.54

Everyone, (adults and children), who has been baptized must be united by faith to Christ for salvation. Unbaptized, adult converts, profess their faith before baptism. Children of believers who received the sign in infancy profess their faith as soon as they are able. Both are responsible before God to be faithful to the grace represented by the sign and seal they have received.55

What Does Baptism Do?

Baptism and the Lord’s supper proclaim the same message as the written Word of God: salvation is God’s free gift, it is not earned or deserved. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.56 Just as God the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, so also God ordained, in his Word, baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Covenant signs were given to strengthen our trust in Christ. Baptism and the Lord’s supper have no more or less power than the written Word of God.57 In the Scriptures baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered to be signs and seals of the covenant of grace between God and his people. As signs, the covenant signs are visible reminders of the great act of redemption which God has accomplished. As seals, they are God’s way of separating his people from those in the world, and they give to us God’s promise that, in example, as surely as we are washed by the water we are by faith washed by the blood of Christ. Just as in the preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith by the use of these covenant signs and seals.

Baptism is not an end in itself. Rather, it is only the beginning of a life of faith and faithful discipleship in Jesus. As Peter reminds, it is not baptism which saves. It is

…not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand-with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.58

Because sacraments are signs and seals, they do not, in themselves, save. They testify to God’s grace, they point us to Christ, and seal to us his salvation. Just as circumcision did not save, neither does baptism.59

Where Does the New Covenant Teach Infant Baptism?

From the point of view of the covenant of grace, every command to baptize, is a command to baptize the children of believers.

Because the promise of the covenant of grace, God is a God not only to adult believers, but also to their children. That is why, in 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul said that children of believers are “holy.” Paul deliberately used Old Covenant, ceremonial, language to teach the Corinthians that their children shouldn’t be considered outside of the visible people of God. To use old covenant language, children of believers are “clean,” and therefore have a right to share in the blessings of being a part of the visible people of God, including baptism.

Jesus made the same argument in Mark 10:14. He says that the Kingdom of God “belongs” to children of believers. In Acts 2:39, Peter specifically includes children in the fulfillment of the promise. In Ephesians 6:1 Paul addresses children as if they were in the covenant people of God .60

From this perspective, Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38,39 are direct commands to baptize infants. It is true that there is no explicit command “baptize infants.” There is no such command because there is no need for such a command. Neither is there an explicit verse which states God is One in three persons, but God’s Word teaches the existence of the Trinity throughout.

Nowhere in Scripture, however, is there a declaration that children are no longer to receive a covenant sign. If one needs an explicit command to baptize children then we should stop admitting women to the Lord’s table, since there is no direct command to allow women to come to the table. This is clearly absurd.

The proper question therefore, is not where does Scripture explicitly teach infant baptism, but rather where does it reverse God’s command to Abraham to administer the covenant sign and seal to children of believing parents. For two thousand years God’s people had been applying the sign of God’s covenant to the children of believers. Every faithful Jew understood circumcision to be a visible reminder that he was a part of the people of God. To fail to circumcise one’s sons, would be to declare them to be cut off from God’s people, grace and promises. To fail to circumcise one’s children was unthinkable.

Some argue that because the new covenant is new children should no longer receive the sign of the covenant. It is true that changes attend the institution of the new covenant. Formerly the sign of admission was applied to males only. Now, males and females receive the sign of admission. These are changes which flow from the change from typical, promissory signs (circumcision) to signs of fulfillment (baptism). Thus, the change from circumcision to baptism was a change in circumstances, not substance.

To exclude the children of believing parents from the sign of admission to the visible covenant people or to say that God no longer wishes children to be considered a part of the visible community of God’s people is no mere change in circumstance but rather a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people.

To change God’s clear command to Abraham, one would expect a clear Word from God on the subject, but nowhere does God’s Word tell believers to stop applying the sign of the covenant to their children. Since the new covenant Scriptures never tell us not to apply the covenant sign to our children, we have every reason to believe that the children of believers must receive the sign of entrance into the covenant people.

The Apostles Baptized the Children of Believers

In fact, there is a good deal of positive evidence in the New Testament Scriptures that baptism was applied to infants.

In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God speaks to households and “saves” them. In the language of the Bible, one’s house does not refer incidentally, but primarily to the children.61 The emphasis on “household” or “family” points to a continuity between the Old Covenant corporate view-point and that of the New covenant.62 Children are viewed as being part of a covenant household, a covenantal unit. The sign, in Scripture, is applied to the whole household unit.63

Scripture uses this household formula in several clear passages which show a great deal of unity between old covenant practice and New Covenant (baptismal) practice.64 We know that when Luke wrote Acts he was selective in his reporting. So it is important to note that proportionally, when we compare the number of household baptisms to other baptisms in Acts, household baptisms are common. In Acts, as with circumcision in the old covenant, baptism is a household affair and the household texts prove it.

Lydia, the Jailer, and Crispus.

In Philippi, in a “place of prayer,” Paul and his co-workers met Lydia, a Gentile who was called “a God-fearer,” i.e. someone on the fringes of the synagogue but not a full-member.65 After hearing the gospel, “the Lord opened her heart” and “she and the members of her household were baptized.” It cannot be argued reasonably that there were no children in this “household.” 66

Paul was jailed for his ministry to a demon possessed girl. Jesus delivered them from jail by sending an earthquake. Their jailer hears the gospel and professed his faith.

Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized….he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God -he and his whole family (Acts 16: 33,34).

As in the case of Lydia, Luke communicated the covenantal nature of baptism through the use of the oikos (household formula).

After Paul had been rejected by the synagogue in Corinth he went “next door” to the house of Titius Justus, another “God-fearing” Gentile. There “Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

These patterns were identical with what occurred in Israel for 2000 years: The adult Gentile converts were circumcised along with their male children in accordance with Genesis 17:10-14. Certainly those adult converts had to confess their faith.67 Both believing adults and their children are described by the word “household.”68

Abraham is a New Covenant Figure

It is also important to remember that not everything which was given before Jesus is eliminated in the New Covenant. The fact that our Bibles are divided into the Old and new Testaments, gives some believers the impression that everything which occurs before Jesus’ birth is part of the Old Covenant. This is not accurate.

When the Bible uses the term “old covenant” it refers to the period of Moses until the beginning of the New Covenant. Not everything which happens in the Bible before Jesus-namely the period of Adam to Abraham-belongs in the old covenant proper.69

Jesus said in John 7:22 that circumcision was not from Moses, but from the Patriarchs.70 That means that circumcision does not belong, originally to the Old Covenant (Moses) but to Abraham.

Abraham has a very special relationship to New Covenant believers. In Romans 4:1-25, Paul says that Abraham is the “Father” of those who believe. Likewise, in Galatians 3:29 all believers are said to be “Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.” 71

In many ways, Abraham is a New Covenant figure. Believers are his spiritual descendants. 72 He is said to have looked forward to Jesus’ first coming.73 He is a model of faith for believers in Hebrews 11:8-19; Galatians chapters 3 and 4. So what is true of Abraham is usually true of New Covenant believers. Just as Abraham’s faith in Jesus (John 8:56) sets the pattern for New Covenant believers, so also his circumcision, and that of Isaac, sets the pattern for New Covenant baptism.

But Wasn’t Circumcision a Sign of External Blessings Only?

In Romans 4:9-11 Paul says that Abraham believed before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a sign of God’s grace to him. Abraham loved God, not the promised land. Hebrews teaches us repeatedly that Abraham and Moses and other believers who were born before Jesus, looked for a heavenly city and not simply at the earthly Canaan.74

Believers born before Jesus received no blessing apart from faith. Like New Covenant baptism, the meaning of circumcision was spiritual and not just outward.75

How Can We Baptize Children Who Don’t Understand What is Happening to Them?

Did the babies circumcised under Abraham and Moses understand what was happening to them? Of course not. How were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saved? By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.76 The fact God require children of the believers to understand the sign of admission to the visible covenant community before it was given, doesn’t mean that they did not need to understand it as they grew up. They certainly did. The same responsibility rests with every Christian today. Every time Christians come to the Lord’s table, they renew the covenant, receive the promise of the Gospel again, take up their oath of obedience to God and renew their baptism.

In fact, every complaint raised against Covenant baptism can be raised against covenant circumcision. If those complaints were invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.

Isn’t Repentance and Faith Required Before Baptism?

It is true, that when speaking to adult Jews (Acts 2:38) Peter commanded, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you for the forgiveness of your sins.” It does not follow, however, that only adults who can understand and follow this command may receive the sign of entrance into the covenant community. This would have eliminated all infant circumcisions. Obviously, God commanded circumcision of the children of believers.

Substitute the word “circumcised” for the word “baptized” in Acts 2:38. To Jews, whose Bible was the Old Covenant Scriptures, this would have made perfect sense: Renounce sin and receive the sign of the covenant. The case in Acts 2:38 is parallel to that of the foreigner who took the sign of entrance into the covenant people Israel. He had to turn from his old ways and embrace the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The fact that adults were required to make a profession of faith before circumcision, did not prevent the Lord from demanding that they circumcise their infant sons.77

Nor should one ignore Acts 2:39 where Peter gives the positive reason for baptism:

The promise is to you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.

God’s Word says the promise is to the children of believers as well as to those old enough to repent. Peter was deliberately repeating the Abrahamic-covenant promise in Genesis 17:7 and commanding them to baptize their children.

Isn’t Faith Necessary for Entering the Christian Life?

This question seems to imply that somehow faith was not as necessary for Moses or Abraham. Such an implication is false. Hebrews chapter 11 teaches that all the heroes of the faith who lived before Jesus birth obeyed God in faith.78 If faith was necessary in the Old Covenant and yet infants received the sign of the covenant, then the fact that adults needed to express their faith by circumcision does not rule out the children of believers receiving the sign of the covenant in the New Covenant.

The point of view expressed in this objection denies the unity of the Covenant of Grace. It argues that God deals with his people in two substantially different ways in the Bible.

To say that baptism is primarily an expression of my faith also misunderstands faith, salvation, and the sign of God’s grace. Baptism is God’s sign which he applies to me through the Church whether as infant or adult. It is God’s sign of what he has done. Baptism is not, primarily, a sign of my faith. Baptism is a sign (and seal) of God’s grace.79 Circumcision is always a sign of the grace of God in making the covenant with Abraham. So also baptism is a sign of God’s grace which includes adult converts or infant children of believers.

Should Infants Come to the Lord’s Table?

God has instituted two types of sacraments. Circumcision, like baptism was a sacrament of initiation into the visible covenant community. The Passover feast (along with the other feasts), like the Lord’s Supper, was a sign of covenant renewal for strengthening God’s people. So different sacraments perform different functions and have different participants and different requirements.80

It is clear, from the institution of the Passover, that the children who participated had to be old enough to understand the significance of the Passover. 81 This same requirement was not made of infants to be circumcised. This distinction flows from the different functions of the signs and seals. Circumcision was a sign of entrance into the covenant applied to infants and to adults neither of whom had ever been circumcised. By its nature circumcision, (and baptism as its replacement), cannot be applied again. 82 The Lord’s supper, however, by its nature is intended to be celebrated repeatedly in the life of the believer. 83 This is because the sign and seal of initiation distinct from the sign and seal of renewal.

This same principle was also in effect in the New Covenant community. It is latent in the Apostle Paul’s principle that one who partakes of the Lord’s supper must be aware of the Spiritual nature of the supper (1 Corinthians 11:29). On this principle (each sign has its own function) it is proper for infants to be baptized but improper to permit infants to partake in the supper.


The answer to questions about baptism lies in God’s nature. He does not change and his promises do not change. He does not change the way he saves his people. Only the circumstances change, in which that promise is administered.

God is a faithful, gracious, loving, patient, kind, merciful, covenant (promise) making and keeping God.84 Our gracious covenant God made a covenant-promise to give Abraham a “seed” and to send a Savior, which he fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 85 In Christ, we become Abraham’s descendants and heirs. The same promise God made to Abraham, he has made to us,

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your children after you for the generations to come, to be your God and your children’s God.86

God was gracious to Abraham, God is gracious to us. He has given us visible reminders and marks of that grace, one of those is baptism.

Be a Berean, search the Scriptures to see if what has been said here is true.87 The Word of God is, after all, our absolute rule for faith and life. If you are a Christian parent who has not presented your children for baptism, I urge you to do so as soon as possible.

If you have made a profession of faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, but have not been baptized, I urge you to find a Biblical and confessionally Reformed church in your area and seek membership and baptism.

If you are baptized, but have neglected God’s grace, by neglecting your baptism, by not living gratefully, by not serving and loving Jesus with all your heart, I call you to turn away from your ingratitude, confess your sins, ask and receive God’s forgiveness.88

Christian, your baptism is good news, a reminder and promise that, if you believe, you have been bought with a price and sprinkled with the blood of Christ.89 Rejoice in God’s grace and be faithful to God’s Word. If your children have received covenant baptism, be sure to take your oath seriously. Remember, you have sworn an oath to bring up your children “in the training and instruction of the Lord.” by catechizing them at home in God’s Word and in a Reformed confession such as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) and by enrolling them in catechism instruction in a confessionally faithful Reformed congregation.90

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHYAdams, J. E., The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg: 1980).

Aland, K., Did The Early Church Baptize Infants? trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (London: 1963).

Bavinck, H., Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: 1975).

Beasley-Murray, G. R., Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: 1962).

Berkhof, L., The History of Christian Doctrines (Edinburgh: 1937).

Manual of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: 1953).

Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: 1941)

Berkouwer, G. C., Studies in Dogmatics: The Sacraments (Grand Rapids: 1969).

Brady, R. J., “An Examination of the Reformed Doctrine of Infant Baptism.” M.A. Thesis (Wheaton College, 1965).

Bridge, D. and David Phypers, The Water that Divides: The Baptism Debate (Downers Grove: 1977).

Calvin, J., The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vol., trans., F. L. Battles., J. T. McNeill ed. (Philadelphia: 1961).

Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines (Grand Rapids: 1982).

Chaney, J. M., William the Baptist (Grand Rapids, repr., 1982).

Cramer, P., Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, c. 200-c. 1150 (Cambridge: 1993).

Cullmann, O., Baptism in the New Testament (London: 1962).

Cunningham, W., Historical Theology, 2 vol. (Edinburgh: repr., 1979).

Dabney, R. L., Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, repr.: 1975).

Dale, J. W., An Inquiry into the Usage of Baptizo, and the Nature of Judaic Baptism. 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: 1869 [repr. 1991-5]).

Fairbairn, P., Typology (Welwyn, repr.,: 1975.

Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Edinburgh: repr., 1976).

Outlines of Theology, n.d., n.p.

Hodge, C., Systematic Theology, 3 vol. (Grand Rapids, repr: 1982).

Jeremias, J., Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries. trans David Cairns (Philadelphia: 1960).

Jewett, P. K., ‘Baptism’, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 4 vol., (Marshallton, DE: 1964).

Kitchen, K.A., Ancient Orient and the Old Testament. (Downers Grove: 1966).

Kline, M.G., The Structure of Biblical Authority. Grand Rapids, 1972.

Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: 1963).

By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: 1968).

Marcel, P.C., The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism (Cambridge: 1953).

Mendenhall, G. E, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, 1955).

Murray, J. Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: 1952).

Olevianus, C. A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. and ed. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand Rapids: 1995).

Sartelle, J. P. What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, 1985).

Shedd, W. G. T. History of Christian Doctrine, 2 vol. (New York: 1889).

Tenney, Merrill C. “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,” Basic Christian Doctrines, C.F.H. Henry, ed., (New York: 1962).

Vos, J.G. Baptism: Its Subjects and Modes (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, n.d.)

Wall, W., The History of Infant Baptism (London, 1705).

Warfield, B.B. “The Archeology of the Mode of Baptism,” Studies in Theology, (Oxford: 1932).

–,”The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” ibid.


* Revised August, 2004. References to the Greek New Testament are drawn from the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament 3rd edition and the Nestle-Aland 26th edition. The references to the Hebrew Bible are drawn from the Biblia Hebriaca Stuttgartesnsia (© 1977). References from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the O.T. used by the N.T. authors, abbreviated LXX) are from the Rahlfs edition. In most instances I have provided my own English translations. Nevertheless, this essay has consulted a number of English Bible translations, among them the New International Version (©1984, International Bible Society), the New American Standard (1971) and the Revised Standard Version (1951).

1 These categories are rough and ready. For example, by Baptist I do not mean only those who attend Baptist congregations, but rather most non-infant baptizing evangelical congregations in North America. Note also that there are other Christian traditions not in this list which wield some influence in North America. For example, the Campellite tradition (The Church of Christ; the Christian Church) teaches a type of baptismal regeneration, (formally resembling the Lutheran position) but denies infant baptism (formally resembling the Baptist position).

2 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 1210-84.

3 The Baptist Faith and Message adopted by the Southern Baptist Church (San Francisco, 1962), Article 8 says, “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate his second coming.” The Baptist position has received the significant support of Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics.

Many Baptistic churches also allow the practice of baby dedication. It would appear that this rite substitutes for baptism of the children of believers. Why? Because believers instinctively know that they need to present their children to God. Like the altar call this is a human substitute for divinely instituted covenant signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the sign of entrance or initiation into the visible Covenant assembly (church). Baby dedication fulfills this function. Similarly, the altar call often effectively replaces the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity for believers to respond to God’s grace.

Regarding the mode of baptism there are two major procedures: effusion (sprinkling, pouring) and immersion. Historically orthodox Christians have accepted any mode of Christian baptism. Baptists, however, usually acknowledge only immersion. Although this has not always been the case. “The original Baptists did not immerse” (B. B. Warfield, “The Archeology of the Mode of Baptism,” Studies in Theology [Oxford, 1932], 347, n.10). This also unites them with the Campbellites and distinguishes them from the Reformed position. The latter have historically practiced effusion.

The argument over mode is really an argument about what is the appropriate action in baptism to symbolize the truths of baptism. If baptism is the gospel made visible and if we are baptized as an act of identity with Christ’s death, then how we ought best symbolize those truths?

The Reformed practice of effusion draws from the rich history of the Biblical practice of sprinkling for sanctification and salvation. The typical Hebrew term for effusion/sprinkling is Zaraq (e.g., Exodus 29.16-21) which is translated with a variety of terms in the LXX. Two of the more interesting passages for understanding the Biblical background and basis for the Reformed practice of effusion are the Passover painting of the door-posts with the blood of the Lamb (Exodus 12:22) and Exodus 24:1-8.

In the former case, the Hebrew verb “to dip” is Tabal which was translated in the LXX with Baptizen, apparently strengthening the Baptist case. Yet, notice that the hyssop branch was “dipped” but the redeeming blood was “touch[ed]” (RSV) to the door-post. In the latter case, Moses “took the blood and sprinkled (Zaraq/Kataskedannumi) it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you…”. This is the sort of image Peter meant to invoke when he spoke of the sprinkling (Rantismos) of Christians with the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:2).

In fact the word baptize and its cognate Baptein is used routinely in the LXX to describe ceremonial washings. The Jews were not in the habit of immersing objects for purification. Look at two notable immersions in the Old Covenant Scriptures. Peter compares God’s judgment-flood to baptism (1 Peter 3:20,21, See also 2 Peter 3;6,
7). Notice in the case of Noah’s baptism who was dry and who was immersed. The same is true of Moses’ “baptism” in the Red Sea (See 1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Exodus repeatedly reminds us that Moses and the Israelites went through “on dry ground” (See Exodus 14:16, 22; 15:19; Psalm 66:6; Hebrews 11:29). Paul explicitly makes the point that Israel was “baptized in the sea” and yet it was dry baptism. The only ones immersed were Pharaoh’s armies. It would seem, in the Israelite mind, that to be immersed would constitute an identification not with the God of the Exodus, but Pharaoh. This would hardly be appropriate for Christian baptism.

“Why,” one might ask, “in the New Testament, do people go “down” to or “in” the river to be baptized?” (See Matthew 3:6,16; Acts 8:38). It is not certain that either John or Jesus was immersed. Practically, if one is to baptize in the desert, one must stand in the water. In the mass baptism of Acts 2:41 it is unlikely that 3000 people were immersed in the city’s water supply. If the Ethiopian Eunuch was immersed, so was Philip who baptized him. Both men are governed by the same Greek preposition (Eis). So, if the immersionist view is correct, that the jailer was immersed, then both men went “into” (i.e., were immersed) the water. More likely, both men went “to” the water or perhaps both men stood “in” the water. For more information on the verb Baptize see J. W. Dale, Baptizo (Philadelphia, 1869 [repr. 1991-5]). See also Jay Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism. Reformed churches who sprinkle infants do so on strong Biblical grounds and not out of sentiment or personal preference.

4 Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (1530) says, “Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. They condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism.”

5 The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q.69 says, ‘How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water and joined therewith this promise: that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away; Q.70: ‘What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ? It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which he shed for us in his sacrifice on the cross; and also, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and unblamable lives’; Q.72: ‘Is then the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins? No, for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin’. See Belgic Confession (1561), Art.34; Art. 27 of the Thirty Nine Articles (1662); Westminster Confession (1647), chapter 28.

6 The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) are smaller, but much larger than all the confessional Reformed denominations added together.

7 The technical word for those who baptize the children of believers is paedobaptist from the Greek word for child Pais plus the Greek Baptizo which has been brought directly into English.

8 See B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason. A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford, 1962); R. S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh, 1953); W. P. Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford, 1984).

9 W. Wall, The History of Infant Baptism (London, 1705). Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: 1960) and The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study (Naperville: 1963) defends a paedobaptist reading of ancient church practice. For a Baptist reading see Kurt Aland, Did The Early Church Baptize Infants? trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (London: 1963).

10 Many liberal mainline denominations do not confess the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant Word of God and appear to practice paedobaptism more out of sentiment more than Biblical conviction. Covenant baptism should be sharply distinguished from the unfortunate practices of those churches who baptize children regardless of the spiritual state of the parents. Baptist practice is also abused. Just as there are churches who baptize infants without any regard for Biblical restrictions, so there are Baptist churches who also abuse Baptism even by Baptist standards.

11 Please see Jeremiah 36.27; 1 Corinthians 2.13; 2 Corinthians 13.3; 1 Thessalonians 2.13; Hebrews 1.5; 2 Timothy 3.16; 2 Peter 3.17.

12 The absolute authority of God’s Word is a crucial starting point. It is not Bible Study to assume beforehand what Scripture must say.

13 See Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 22:7-23.

14 Genesis chapter 17 [all]; Exodus chapter 12 [all].

15 The Biblical teaching of the covenant is perhaps the sharpest dividing line between the Baptist and Reformed understandings of the Bible. Baptist scholars do write about the covenants. Christian theologians have been using the Biblical doctrine of the covenant of grace to teach the unity of God’s people, the unity of the way of salvation (Christ) since the 2nd century A. D. Since the early 16th century, however, Reformed scholars have worked most closely with this Biblical thread as a way of uniting the Biblical doctrine of justification with the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. Since the early 1520’s there has been a steady stream of Reformed scholars who have been working out the relations between the covenant of grace and baptism.

16 Genesis 3.14-16.

17 Genesis 6.18; 9:9-17.

18 Genesis 15:1-18; 17 [all]; 1 Chronicles 16:16; Ps 105:8; Acts 3:25; 7 [all]; Romans 4 [all]; 9 [all]; Galatians 3 [all].

19 Genesis 17.10-14

20 Exodus 2:24; 6.4,5.

21 Exodus 12:24-27.

22 Exodus 19:5. Do not confuse a sacerdotal (from the Latin n. sacerdos, priest) view, which regards the minister as priest who procures salvation for God’s people through sacraments, with the term sacrament. Sacrament comes from the Latin noun sacramentum. The term referred originally to a deposit (escrow account) held as part of a law suit. The term also signified an oath. This latter meaning was carried over into the church to describe the covenant (oath) signs and seals. See Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford, 1879), s.v., sacramentum.

23 Jeremiah 31.32,33; Ezekiel 34:25.

24 Luke 22:20; 2 Corinthians 3:7-18; Hebrews 8:1-10:18.

25 Luke 22:20.

26 2 Corinthians 3:6.

27 Luke 1:54,55,72,73; Acts chapter 7.

28 1 Peter 1:10-12.

29 Hebrews 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20.

30 John 14:25-27; 15:26,27.

31 This is why the Bible speaks of “types” and “shadows.” See Romans 5:14 (NIV-uses “pattern”); 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 8 [all].

32 Compare Jeremiah 31.31-34 with Hebrews 7.22, chapter 8, 9:15, 10:24.

33 See Genesis 3:14-16. Jesus fulfilled this promise by his death on the Cross.

34 Romans 4:11,17.

35 Ephesians 2:1-22, gentiles were brought into covenantal relationship with God by faith; compare Romans 11:17-24.

36 Genesis 17:10-14

37 God nearly took Moses’ life because he failed to circumcise his second son. See Exodus 4:24-26. On the threats attached to circumcisions see Genesis 17:14.

38 Genesis 15.18, Exodus 24.8, 34.27; Deuteronomy 4.23,5.2, 9.9.

39 For a clear example of this curse bearing see the book of Jeremiah. Repeatedly God prosecutes Israel for failing to live up to the “terms of the covenant.” In 34: 17-20 the Lord says, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf. I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beast s of the earth.” This is a direct re-enactment of the covenant-oath ceremony of Genesis 15:8-21. God graciously, sovereignly enters into a covenant with his people, i.e., “I will be your God, you will be my people.” That Covenant-oath-promise is always sealed in blood. This is a common practice of the Ancient Near Eastern world. See K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Downers Grove, 1966); M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, (Grand Rapids, 1972); ibid, Treaty of the Great King, (Grand Rapids, 1963); G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, 1955). This is not just an Old Covenant occurrence. In Galatians 5:12, Paul wishes this very curse upon enemies of the gospel.

40 See the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

41 Isaiah 53:4,8; Hebrews 13:12; see the section above on being “cut off” from the covenant. See also Deuteronomy 21:22,23.

4242 Ephesians 1:1-15; 2:1-10.

43 Hebrews 9:11-10:1.

44 2 Timothy 2:11; Romans 6:2,5,6,8.

45 Ephesians 2:1-13 3:6; 1 Peter 2:9,10, 4:17.

46 Romans 4:11,17.

47 1 Corinthians 10:3; Ephesians 2:8-9.

48 Galatians 5:2-6.

49 The first word of v.39 “having been buried” (suntapheis from sunthapto) is a participle which describes the circumstances in which believers are circumcised. See the excellent discussion of the relationship between circumcision and baptism in Patrick Fairbairn, Typology (Welwyn, [repr.] 1975), 308-315.

50 Acts 15:1-21; Galatians 2:12, 3:13,14, 5:15 and 6:12 teach that the circumcision has been fulfilled.

51 Galatians 5:12.

52 This was evident even under Moses. See Deuteronomy 10:16 where God tells the Israelites to “circumcise your hearts.” See also Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:6-14; Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:28-9.

53 Genesis 17:10-14.

54 1 Peter 3:21.

55 It is sometimes said, “I was baptized as an infant but did not come to faith until much later, so I was re-baptized.” Might it not be the case that if one is baptized in infancy and later comes to faith, God has been faithful to his promise in the sign. The sign is like a seed which God through his sovereign, gracious Holy Spirit, brought to fruition. We should rejoice that we believe and all that baptism promises is true for us.

56 John 1:12,13; 3:16; 4:3; 5:45.46; 6:32-58; 8:56; 20:31; Romans 4; Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:8,9; Hebrews 11:1; 1 Corinthians 10:1-5.

57 New covenant writers often remind readers of their baptism to encourage them to good works. See Romans 6:1-14; Ephesians 4:1-6; Colossians 2:[all]; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:8-22. Hebrews 6:4-6 probably refers to the fact that certain persons had shared the Lord’s Supper, confessed their faith and then left the assembly. In 1 Corinthians 11 17-34 Paul complains about Corinthian abuse of the Lord’s Supper. Their misuse of the Supper reflected their immaturity in Christ.

58 1 Peter 3:20-1.

59 It is possible that Colossians was written for largely the same purpose. 2 Corinthians chapters 3 [all] and 4 [all] deal with a similar topic as does Hebrews chapters 4-9. Romans 4 [all] also addresses the same topic.

60 Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:20-1. Be careful not to confuse the Biblical notion of “clean,” with the notions of “saved” or “justified.” To be “clean,” in this sense, means to be formally or legally eligible to receive the sign and seals of the covenant. In the administration of his Covenant of Grace, not all who are legally eligible to receive the sign also receive what the sign signifies, but this does not mean that they should not receive the sign. We cannot decide a priori, whom God has or has not elected to saving faith. We must obey GodÂ’s Word and administer the sign to all who are eligible to receive it.

61 Y. Feenstra, “Baptism” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity Vol. 1, E. H. Palmer, ed., 526-537. See also 1 Samuel 22:16,19; Genesis 17;12,23, 18:19, 45:17-19, 46:6,7 for clear examples of the Biblical idea of ‘household’.

62 The Bible’s emphasis on families and the visible assembly of the saints (the Church) is much different from American individualism in many evangelical churches. God does save individuals and no one else can believe for you. But throughout Scripture, God often saves and blesses whole groups (e.g., families) at one time. The actions or faith of one member of the group often affects the whole group. This is because God has set up a representative (or federal) system of salvation. Adam was our first representative. The old puritan rhyme had it right: “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” Adam’s sin affected everyone at once. So Jesus saved all his people at the same time on the cross. See Romans 5 [all].

63 The New Testament word is Oikos from which we get our English word economic.

64 Matthew 10:12-14; Luke 19:9; John 4:53; Acts 10:2; 11:14; 1 Corinthians 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:16; Hebrews 11:7-9. See also Genesis 7:1.

65 “God-fearer” is the term Jews applied to Gentiles who worshipped in their synagogues. As a frequent worshipper of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Lydia heard the Word of God read regularly. She would have been familiar with the Old Covenant requirements to receive the sign of entrance in the covenant community.

66 Acts 16 :14-15. In fact, recent archeological research has uncovered the fact that it was not uncommon for single or widowed women to “head” a household composed of an entire entourage of employees, and family members. Chloe is one likely example. See Luke 8:2,3; 1 Corinthians 1:11; Romans 16:3-5; 12. N. T. scholar S. M. Baugh (among others) has shown that slaves, in the N. T. world, owned other slaves and property. So the word “household” includes not only an immediate family but slaves and their families. See S. M. Baugh “Paul and Ephesus: The Apostle Among His Contemporaries” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Irvine).

67 Every Israelite and every Gentile convert confessed the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” Deuteronomy 6:4).

68 Some argue that only believers were baptized in the New Covenant. This is only supposition. It is illogical to argue from what is to what is not. If I tell you that I can find only blue cars on Antioch Road it does not follow that there are never any red cars on Antioch Road. It is true that adults are baptized in the New covenant. It is not true that only adults are baptized in the New Covenant.

69 2 Corinthians 3.14; Galatians 3.17; Hebrews 8.6; 9:15,16.

70 That is, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

71 See Genesis 17. The word Patriarchs refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

72 Hebrews 2.16; Romans 4; 9.7,8; James 2.20-23.

73 John 8:56.

74 Please see Hebrews 3:14ff; 11:8-10,16; 12:18-24; 13:13.

75 Please see Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:6-14; Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:28,29. If Jews received earthly blessings for simply being Jews then “it is no more of faith, but of works.” In fact the point of the exile is that judgment came to Israel because she lacked faith. If blessings were dependent upon circumcision and race then the exile is meaningless.

76 It is astonishing that many Bible-believing Christians think Abraham was saved by works. This is not true. No one in the history of the fallen human race has ever been saved by works. When Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” (John 14:6) he was speaking of Abraham and Moses as well as us. See John 12:41 where John says, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

77 Genesis 17:27.

78 1 Corinthians 10.31-13. teaches that Old Covenant believers also obeyed God in faith.

79 We weren’t saved because, first of all, we chose Christ, but because he loved us and chose us. See Romans 8:28-39; Ephesians 1:1-15; 2:8-10. We believe because God saved us. We receive salvation through faith.

80 Although the Lord’s Supper corresponds to Passover generally, it is also likely that the New Covenant communion feast summarizes all of the great Old Covenant feasts and not just Passover. Each of those feasts was a renewal of the covenant and a reminder of God’s saving grace.

8181 Exodus 12:26.

82 This is an area of sharp disagreement between Baptists and Paedobaptists. If the Reformed understanding of God’s Word is correct, then baptism does not need to be applied more than once just as circumcision cannot be done more than once.

83 This is a serious problem with the Baptist view. The roles of the covenant signs are confused. Because baptism is viewed as the primary symbol of professing one’s faith and renewing one’s relationship to Christ baptism becomes the means for Covenant renewal. But this is properly the function of the Lord’s Supper. On top of this, many Baptistic churches practice the “altar call” as a means of professing or renewing a profession of faith. The result is that in many Baptistic churches, the Lord’s supper then becomes somewhat meaningless. In some Baptistic churches the Lord’s Supper is hardly practiced at all.

84 Hebrews 13:8.

85 Galatians 3:16.

8686 Genesis 17:7.

87 Acts 17:11.

88 1 John 1.9.

89 1 Peter 1:2

90 Ephesians 6:4