The role of the sacraments in our spiritual growth
The Apostle Peter exhorts believers to “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (Second Peter 3:18, ESV). How did the early Christians grow spiritually in their Christian faith? Acts 2:42 tells us that the Christians in the early church “…devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (ESV) The “apostles’ teaching” indicates the apostolic ministry of the Word. The “breaking of bread” in this context probably refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (though at times in the Book of Acts the inspired author uses such terminology to designate common meals the early disciples shared together). The “prayers” indicate corporate prayer in the context of public worship (i.e, quite possibly “common” or liturgical prayers engaged in by the entire community). In other words, the early post-Pentecost church sought to grow spiritually by diligently using what have been called “the means of grace” — the Word, sacraments and prayer, observed in the context of the common life of the church. As the late Rev. Calvin K. Cummings states in his membership training booklet entitled Confessing Christ: “God nourishes us with the Word of God, the sacraments and prayer in the soil of Christian fellowship.” (p. 75)(1)
As we anticipate observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on this upcoming Lord’s Day, we would do well to reflect upon the role of the sacraments in our spiritual growth. In the context of a Christian worldview “spiritual growth” means growth in personal holiness and Christ-likeness. It involves growing in the knowledge and love of Christ, bearing in greater measure the “fruit of the Spirit” (namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” – Galatians 5:22-23, ESV), and learning to live more consistently under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in obedience to God’s Word. What do the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have to do with our spiritual growth in Christ? How do the sacraments help us as followers of Jesus to grow in spiritual maturity and sanctification? Once again, allow me to share a quote from Calvin Cummings:
“The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are both means of grace. They are means by which God conveys blessings for our spiritual nourishment and strengthening in grace. As we partake of them by faith, we receive the same kind of blessing as when we hear God’s Word preached. The sacraments are the Word in pictures, in signs and seals. To understand their meaning and appropriate the grace promised in them is to receive a blessing. We are not to expect a blessing any different from that which we receive from the preaching of God’s Word. We shall, however, receive an additional and very personal blessing. Failure to participate in the sacraments is to rob ourselves of blessing. To rob ourselves is ultimately to injure the body of Christ, because we deprive the body of the ministry that our spiritual growth through the sacraments will bring.”(2)
The tendency of many Christians today (at least in evangelical Protestant circles) is to downplay the importance of the sacraments. It is true, of course, that God’s Word is more important and central than the sacraments as a means of grace, for Scripture teaches us that God creates faith within the souls of His people by His Spirit through the Word (Romans 10:17). Thus the Word is the primary and indispensible means of grace. But recognizing the centrality of the Word should not lead us to marginalize or denigrate the sacraments. Just before His ascension our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ commanded His apostles to make disciples of the nations by baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20). And it was on the night before His crucifixion, the night in which He was betrayed, that our Lord instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). It is clear that our Lord Jesus regarded the sacraments as vitally important to the spiritual life and well-being of His church; otherwise He would not have so solemnly commanded His church to observe them until His return in glory at the second advent. So, while we should always keep the Word central, let us also recognize the vitally important role that the sacraments are intended to play in our spiritual growth. Let us esteem them highly and observe them faithfully, for the glory of God and our for our growth in grace. Let us always make it a top priority to be present in worship on every Lord’s Day(3), but especially so when the Lord’s Supper is being observed and when a baptism is being administered.
(1) Confessing Christ by Calvin K. Cummings (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, copyright 1992 by Great Commission Publications, Inc.)
(2) p. 84, ibid.
(3) Read Hebrews 10:24-25.