By Simon Jooste
The overriding witness of Scripture is God’s salvation of sinners (Gen. 3:15; John 3:16; Luke 24:27). Natural man remains dead in his sins unless God acts (Rom. 3:9-20; Psalm 53). If God did not extend his grace, there would be no hope for this fallen world (Gal. 3:10), yet God has not chosen to save his creatures in an immediate way. Before sin entered into the world, the way of eternal life was signed and sealed to Adam and Eve in the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9). Since the Fall, God has been pleased to mediate his salvation through blood on lintels (Ex. 12:7), bloody circumcision (Gen. 17:1-14), the blood of bulls and goats (Heb. 9:12-10:4), water (1 Pet. 3:18-22), and bread and wine (Matt. 26:26-29). He once established a nation of people (Ex. 20; Deut. 5). He is now expanding the New Testament church: a community of embodied saints participating in physical rites and rituals (Matt. 28:16-20).
In fact, salvation has been won. Salvation depends upon the Son of God becoming incarnate and obeying to the point of shedding his blood (John 1:1-18). Jesus did not accomplish redemption as a disembodied spirit, but as the God-man: affirming the body and the material. It is the death of the incarnate Christ that is remembered in the Supper (Matt. 26:26-29). It is the invigorating life of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus that is participated in when the Eucharist is celebrated. Not surprisingly, the sacrament of the Supper is received in a tangible way to the hands and mouth – signing and sealing the Word of promise preached to the ear (John 6; 1 Cor. 10:14-22).
Covenant at creation
Man has always been dependent upon God. This reality is evident in the way God has chosen to relate to his people from the beginning: in covenant. Simply put, a biblical covenant is a relationship between God and his people with legal aspects (Brown 2012). In the garden, Adam and Eve were to relate to God on his terms (Gen. 1-3). God is King and his creatures are his servants. God in Christ spoke creation into existence (Col. 1:15-20). God spoke to Adam in the garden and imposed certain requirements upon him (Gen. 1-2). If our first parents had obeyed the Lord of the covenant, they would have been able to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, symbolic of eternal life (Gen. 1:28-2:9). From the beginning, God chose to unite himself to his people in worded covenant, and, in turn, with material rites that ratified the words of the covenant. In the covenant at creation, this ratification was through the earthiness of the (sacramental) “meal” of the tree.
Covenant of grace
After Adam’s fall into sin, God continues to relate to his people through covenant. Whether the covenant is conditional (as it was at creation or Mount Sinai) or unconditional (the clothing of Adam east or Eden or God’s promise to Abraham), God continued the pattern of certifying his covenant promises with ceremonies that involve earthly signs – such as blood, bread and water – that are sanctified for holy purposes. The doctrine of covenant is crucial for understanding what a sacrament is. This claim will be explained further below. For now, this section is intended to highlight that man is wholly dependent upon a sovereign God who sets the terms of relating to his creatures.
Since Adam’s covenant-breaking sin of eating the forbidden apple (meal), humankind remains absolutely reliant on God. Under God’s covenant of grace (Gen. 3:15; 15-17; John 17), God promised by his Word and deed to make salvation from sin possible through the shedding of the blood of Messiah (cf. Is. 53). The sign and seals (guarantees) of the administration of the covenant of grace under the Old Covenant were the tangible rites of circumcision and the Passover meal (Gen. 17:1-14; Exodus 11-12). They pointed forward to and effected the saving grace of the coming atoning sacrifice of Jesus (John 6; Col. 2:11-12). Under the New Covenant, the signs and seals of the covenant of grace have been replaced with the baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; 28:16-20; cf. Rom. 4:11). Like their OT counterparts, these NT sacraments represent God’s action upon the sinner (Rom. 6:1-11; 1 Cor. 10-11). In them, and with the Word proclaimed, the Lord serves his needy people. They are not badges of spiritual strength but means by which God dispenses his persevering grace to weak pilgrims.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is one place in the NT where the believer’s frailty and God’s saving grace are set forth in splendid relief. The great Apostle Paul himself has no problem, on the one hand, boasting in his weaknesses and his sufferings (1 Cor. 2:1-5; 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 11:16-29; 12:1-10), and, on the other, revelling in the all-sufficient strength of God mediated through the ministry of the Word (1 Cor. 1:18-19; 2:1-5; 10:1-25; 11:17-33). Paul encouraged the same perspective from the Corinthians. Yet, these believers are notorious in the NT canon for their dirty laundry, ranging from divisions (1:10-17) to sexual immorality (5:1-13) and idolatry (10:1-33). Also, Paul describes them as those called from among the foolish, weak, low and despised of the world: so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1:20-31). Furthermore, they – like all Christians – have this treasure in jars of clay: affliction, persecution, death and a body that is wasting away (2 Cor. 4:7-18; cf. 2 Cor. 1:3-7). These marks of suffering are there “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7); to carry “in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (4:10; cf. vv11-12). This power unto salvation God has been made available through tangible channels of grace, which are the preaching of Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5) guaranteed by the Table of the Lord (10:1-25; 11:17-33).
Like the OT saints and like believers today, the Corinthians were pilgrims looking for sustenance in the parched land of this present evil age. All Christians are looking for a God that regards them with favour. The ministry of the Word and sacraments sustain a faith that can approach God in confidence and can cry out “Abba! Father!” (Heb. 4:16; Rom. 8:15).
Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.