A couple of months ago, Pastor Martin administered the ordinance of baptism on a member of the Hills Bible Church Congregation. Baptism is one of the instituted ordinances of the Christian faith. The Lord’s Supper is the other. In Reformed theology, ordinances are described as ‘means of grace.’ The means of grace are things by which God communicates his grace to us. He tells us about himself and his relationship to us by the means of grace. A common conception of this is that the gospel is communicated through Word (the Bible) and Ordinance (baptism, Lord’s Supper).
Augustine says an ordinance is “a visible form of an invisible grace.” He also calls it a “visible word.” John Calvin’s definition is as follows:
“It seems to me that a simple and proper definition would be to say that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.”
Note two things here. One is that the Lord imparts in the form of bread and wine, or water, the promise of his grace toward us. He does this in order to sustain our faith, and also so we might respond in piety toward him. Both the Lord’s Supper and Baptism require a response – they are not passive. The second is the presence of the promise. Calvin says elsewhere that the “sacrament” (the word he uses instead of ordinance) is never without an accompanied promise. The word always goes with the ordinance. Christ himself began this pattern at the Last Supper where he said “This is my body, broken for you” and “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Next time you witness a baptism (or get baptised yourself), or partake in the Lord’s Supper, remember that God is communicating and, in one sense, imparting his grace to you. You are most certainly not saved by taking the Lord’s Supper or being baptised. You are being reminded by this “visible word” what God has done for you in Christ.
© Wellford Tiller – Fotolia.com
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter XIV, no. 1)