There is one huge difference between the altar call and the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. In the altar call, the qualification was “if you truly meant it”, which made the subjective state of the sinner the critical factor in whether or not one actually benefited from going forward. Did you feel sad enough or contrite enough?
But in both biblical sacraments, the emphasis falls squarely upon trusting God’s sovereign oath, “I will be your God and you will be my people”, an oath that amounts to God declaring to struggling sinners, “I really mean it!” In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the focus is upon what God has done for sinners in the person of his son, Jesus, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith, which the sacraments are intended to strengthen.
In both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God swears the same covenant oath first promised to Adam in Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”), and that he swore to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 (“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”)
At the heart of the sacraments is God’s gracious covenant promise to be our God and that we will be his people, a promise which is re-ratified whenever we participate in the sacraments through faith. Once the promise of the gospel is declared to God’s people from the pages of his word, that gospel promise is then ratified through the sacraments.
There are two sacraments instituted by Jesus in the New Testament. Baptism is the sacrament of entrance and its importance can be seen from the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus instructs his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Disciples are not made by going forward to an altar, but by being baptized! This is the biblical way in which repentant sinners and their families publicly declare their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; 16:15; 16:31-33). To be baptized means that we have been buried with Christ (Romans 6:4), clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27) and circumcised with Christ (Colossians 2:11-12). Baptism is that sign and seal that our sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and of the presence of regeneration (Titus 3:5). It is baptism that marks us off from unbelievers. All of these things are promised to us and to our children in the gospel (Acts 2:38-39).
As for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus defines this sacrament for his people on that night in which he was betrayed. Investing the Jewish Passover with new meaning, we read in Matthew 26:26-28 that “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Not only does Jesus tell us that the sacrament is connected to the promise of the gospel – through the shedding of his blood, our sins are forgiven – but Jesus states that what is offered to us through the bread and wine is nothing less than his own body and blood (himself!), along with all of his saving benefits. These benefits are received through faith.
These words also appear in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, indicating that the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper was based on our Lord’s words of institution. Paul also tells us that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated regularly (weekly) “when you come together” for public worship (1 Corinthians 14:26). This means that the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Christ is a ratification of the gospel promise – the new covenant in Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins – and that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated whenever the church assembled for worship. We know from Acts 2:42 that the worship of the apostolic church centered in the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, the prayers, and fellowship with the Risen Savior. The word was preached, disciples were made, and the sacraments were administered. There was a gospel invitation, but it was a call to baptism, not a summons to feel an appropriate degree of sincerity.
Since the sacraments confirm the promise of the gospel – that God will save us from our sins – the link between the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments in public worship is firmly established. Read the full article by Kim Riddlebarger.