When a person has been released from prison or rescued from some dire condition, the first thing he or she needs to receive is a nice, warm bath and a meal. These are universal symbols of grace and hospitality. To receive someone into your home and offer him or her a bath and a meal is one of the surest signs of full acceptance and a real relationship.
This is, essentially, what God does with us after we are rescued from the bondage of sin, brought out of our imprison-ment to Satan and into a new life in Christ. Our first act is to receive baptism, which is the Christian way of giving a new believer a “spiritual bath.” This act simultaneously symbolizes both our cleansing from sin as well as a tangible reenactment of a death and resurrection. As we symbolically reenact Christ’s own death and resurrection, we “die” to our sins and are raised to new life with Christ. Likewise, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the place where we sit down at a table in the presence of Jesus Christ, who serves as host, and we enjoy a meal together.
In the early church the Lord’s Supper was not merely the tiny tokens of bread and wine that we have today. Rather, it was a full meal, known as the “love feast,” which culminated in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and drinking of His blood as a way of declaring that we are united with Him in His death and resurrection. Today, Communion has been separated from the larger meal, so we may not fully recognize it as a “meal” with Jesus Christ, who spiritually stands at the head of the table as the host.
Jesus instituted these two ongoing practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the church as a way of marking out the new life in Christ. These are public, visible “signs” that point to Jesus Christ and the wonderful mysteries of redemption. These two practices are normally known as sacraments, meaning “sacred rituals,” because Jesus Himself instituted them and commanded us to observe them. A sacrament has been defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” This means that it is a means of grace whereby God is truly present at the waters of baptism and at the Table, and He acts in the lives of those who come to the waters of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Certainly, the grace of God and how He conveys that grace to us is a central theme of the Scriptures. The phrase “means of grace” is a general way of seeking to capture all of the ways God has appointed to convey His grace to men and women. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the best examples of this. We will now examine each of the sacraments.