Participating in the Lord’s Supper

It is commonly accepted that if we claim something to be true about someone or something, we must be able to prove it.  The bigger the claim, the more evidence required and the stricter the process of verification.  For instance, an immigrations officer is not just going to just accept your word about your citizenship; he’ll want proof.  A criminal court is not going to acquit you without evidence that dispels reasonable doubts about your innocence.

There is no greater claim than to profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  While it is true that believing in the gospel is ultimately a matter of individual decision and only God knows the heart of man, the Christian life is not an individual and private affair.  Rather, our lives as disciples of Christ unfold in the context of the church: under the leadership of its officers and in fellowship with other believers.  The church is that one place in which our claims to faith and godliness are both tested and strengthened according to the Word of God through God’s appointed means.

In the sermon this morning, I would like to explain from God’s Word why good church governance insists that our claims to faith and a godly life require examination by the elders before we can come to the Lord’s Supper.  The Supper is that special time when the church family congregates togetherunified in faith and in life in the gospel – to receive God’s life-giving grace in the body and blood of Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is the clearest sign of the certainty of God’s forgiveness of us revealed in his Word.

Proper church governance

The book of Titus is one place in which we see God setting forth the protective and nurturing role of the church for the good of Christians.  In Titus 1:5, Paul writes to the young church-planter, Titus, on the island of Crete: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…”  Paul goes on to say that ministers and elders are to be appointed by the church only once they meet certain requirements.  For instance, a person may claim to be called by God to be a minister, but the church must weigh the evidence for this through various objective tests relative to his learning and life.

To claim to be called to be an elder is a very serious thingQualified and ordained ministers and elders are entrusted with the weighty responsibility of judging the claims and lives of those under their care: both those who are already members and visitors.

Now, Scripture imposes no conditions on anyone who wants to hear the gospel preached.  There are no requirements to fill a chair in the church.  However, when someone claims faith in Jesus, the Word of God teaches that the person must become part of the visible church and submit to her ministry.  Why?  Because God has chosen to work through the means of the church to communicate salvation to his people.  It is by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the public means of the Word preached and the sacraments administered that God ordinarily saves sinners and strengthens the faith of Christians.  Contrary to the rampant individualism and anti-authoritarianism of our age, the Word teaches that there is no such thing as having God for your father without having the church for your mother.

However, to become a member of the visible church and enjoy the benefits she offers – like the Lord’s Supper – requires that certain conditions be met.

Baptism: the sign and seal of our entrance into the church

Even though a person may indeed be a part of God’s saving kingdom by faith, God nevertheless still requires certain things of us if we want to join the church.  For those who have not grown up in the church, God commands that they receive the mark of baptism.  At the end of his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter proclaims to the masses: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Nevertheless, the wisdom of good church governance teaches that before the mark of baptism is applied, the elders must examine the individual’s claim to faith.  Therefore, ordinarily, the elders spend a period of time ensuring that the new convert understands and believes the basic truths of the Bible.  Once church leadership is satisfied that this has happened, the new Christian will then make a public profession of faith before the church and receive the sacrament of baptism.

In the case of children of at least one believing parent, they too are to receive the sign of baptism.  But only once it has been determined by the elders that at least one parent or guardian makes a credible profession of faith as a member of good standing in the church.

The point that I am trying to make is that like other aspects of church governance, the administration of the sign of baptism entails a degree of elder oversight and care.  Why?  Because baptism is that rite of passage into the visible church, which carries with it various profound benefits and obligations for those who receive it.  For the ordained church officers, baptism, and church membership that comes with it, are the objective means by which they can best determine who is inside or outside the visible church.  In Hebrews 13:9, we read that church leaders are those who are charged with keeping watch over our souls and will one day give an account to God for this.  Therefore, membership is that form of church governance that helps elders determine – though imperfectly – who are under their care.  Church discipline and excommunication assumes that elders have some way of knowing who belongs to the visible church (cf. Matthew 16-18).

The Lord’s Supper: effectual grace for members of the church

In light of what we now know about the care involved in church governance and how it functions with regard to baptism, how then do we approach the important matter of giving and receiving the second sacrament instituted by Christ, the Lord’s SupperFirst off, we must understand that the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, never acts independently from the Word preached.  Rather they both communicate grace that confirms God’s promise of salvation.  While baptism is a once off sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is God’s means of assuring and strengthening our faith throughout our Christian life.

In 1 Cor 11:27-32, Paul is clear that there is definite individual aspect to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  Here he exhorts us to examine ourselves before partaking of the bread and wine, lest we do so in an unworthy manner and eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.  Basically, this means that in order to come to the Table, we must have repented of our sins and be trusting in Christ alone for salvation.  We should also have an understanding that Christ is indeed mysteriously present in the Lord’s Supper by the Holy Spirit for the good of our faith.  (This individual element of examination is one of the reasons why infants may not partake of Communion.  They must wait until they can consciously exercise faith.)

The historic Reformed tradition has not, however, kept examination merely to the individual level.  Why?  Because Scripture affirms that the Lord’s Supper is ultimately a family meal for the body of Christ: it is a corporate celebration.  In 1 Cor 10:16-17, Paul writes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  Later in 1 Cor.12 Paul writes about the church as being one body with many parts.  In verse 26, he states: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

Just as it is detrimental to the whole church to allow someone entrance into the visible church who does not qualify, so too is it damaging to allow someone to the Table who does not meet the criteria I just mentioned.  It is therefore the responsibility of the elders to guard the Table by only allowing those who make a credible profession of faith and who are known to lead a godly life.

Participating in the Lord’s Supper

Things, however, become more complicated when it comes to serving the Lord’s Supper in a church plant like this one today.  No doubt, we rejoice at having many regular attendees and visitors who are from various church backgrounds outside of the Reformed Churches or no church background at all.  The difficulty with this situation, however, is for us elders to verify your claim to faith through any other way than a time of teaching and careful examinationWhy?  Because, unfortunately, as far as we can tell there is a serious lack of consistent evidence of Biblical teaching and practice in the broader church today.

This is not to say that we believe there are no churches or no true believers outside of the Reformed Churches of South Africa (God forbid!).  We are not the ones to ultimately make this judgment.  But the sad reality is that based on what we can discern from a human perspective, there are too many social gatherings that claim to be churches which lack the marks of a true church.  These marks are the pure preaching of the Word, the faithfulness administration of the sacraments and the due exercise of church discipline (cf. Belgic Confession 29).

Often one cannot even tell what a church believes because they have no substantive confession of faith.  In other cases, a church has a confession in name only and in reality it has little bearing on the governance of the church.  It is all too common today to find the preaching of the gospel replaced with moral pep talks and humorous stories.  Instead of the sacraments representing God’s action in grace towards us, they are turned into our testimony of obedience to him.  Instead of elders exercising discipline by paying careful attention to what their people believe and how they are living it out through church membership, their energies are diverted to more “so-called” noble causes.  The result is that God’s grace is routinely replaced with human works, and the gospel confused with the law.

How, then, can we as responsible elders have confidence that people coming out of such churches are ready to come to the Lord’s Table without our further pastoral examination and care?  How do we know that such churches have indeed prepared Christians adequately to wisely approach the Lord’s Supper?

All this to say, I hope you are beginning to have some appreciation for why the elders overseeing this church plant have chosen to ordinarily accept only those who are members in good standing of one of the Reformed Churches in South Africa.  There is unfortunately no perfect system in guarding the Lord’s Table this side of heaven.  This is our best attempt to be faithful to the Word of God.

If you are someone who is worshipping with us from another church background – again – we are glad to have you!  God welcomes you.  God extends his promise of forgiveness to you in Christ.  Please understand that by not allowing you to sit around the Table this morning, we are not saying that you are not a true Christian or you are not from a true church.  Only God knows.  However, because we take God’s Word seriously, and therefore church governance seriously, we ask you to wait until you become a member of a Reformed church before you enjoy this benefit with us.  Some of you are already in the process of taking membership classes in anticipation of joining us at the Table next time.  I hope that what has been preached this morning will encourage others to join us as well.  Lord willing, the next time the Supper is served here, you too can be eating and drinking with us.

For those of us who do get to partake this morning, let us be thankful that we are members of church in which the elders care about our claims to faith and godliness.  Let us remember that we approach the Table now not because of anything inherently good in us, but out of the goodness of our God who sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins.  If you have repented of your sins and are trusting in Jesus, come now and receive God’s grace, which is confirmation of this Word that has been preached.  Amen.

 

Living in God’s two kingdoms

Over the last few weeks we have heard God speak to us through Paul’s letter to Titus.  In this letter we have learned many things about our lives inside and outside of the church.  Central among these truths is that God has saved us by his grace and not by works of the law.  This good news of the gospel comes to us through ordained preachers.  We have learned that baptism signifies and seals our entrance into Christ’s church, and our participation in the benefits of the covenant of grace.  God has chosen to govern his people in the church through elders, who must meet certain requirements.  We deal with false teachers in the church.  In our lives outside the church, we are part of marriages and families.  We have vocations.  Some people are slaves.  We are all called to submit to civil government.  We share with the broader society a common moral standard that obligates us toward God and our neighbour, and gives shape to our lives in this world.  God wants us to be ready for every good work in order to preserve the witness of the church and the gospel.

What I would like to do this morning is to provide a biblical framework that helps us fit these truths together to give us a holistic picture of the Christian life.  This framework emerges from two covenants that God has instituted with humankind: God’s covenant with Noah and his covenant of grace with Abraham.  These covenants form the basis for God establishing two kingdoms in which you and I live.  What we shall see is that just like the Christians on the island of Crete, we too are simultaneously members of Gods two kingdoms.  On the one hand, we are citizens of God’s redemptive kingdom, which is expressed in the church only.  And on the other, we are citizens of his common kingdom, which is expressed in various other institutions in this world, like marriage and the state.

The redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace

Paul’s ultimate burden in his letter to Titus is with the redemptive kingdom of Christ.  The redemptive kingdom according to the NT, especially from a place like the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), is given earthly expression in the church only.  It is through the church that the good news of Christ’s redemptive kingdom has been revealed by God’s ordained preachers throughout the ages: from the OT priests and prophets, to Jesus, to the Apostles, and pastors in the church today.  It is through the ordained ministry of the church that sinners enter into Christ’s kingdom and are fed and nurtured in grace.  Therefore, Paul’s chief concern in the book of Titus is for the redemptive kingdom to expand and flourish according to God’s churchly means.  This is why he wants qualified ministers and elders to be elected.  Between them, they preach the Word of God and rule over us for our good.  The ordained officers alone are the ones who have been given the keys to open and close the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20).

According to Paul, it is our membership in God’s redemptive kingdom – the church – that ultimately defines our existence in this world.  In the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul writes that we were “once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.”  We were once God-haters and people-haters.  But, Titus 3:4-5, when the “goodness and loving kindness of Jesus appeared, he saved us.”  God saved us from our sins and turned us into Saints because Jesus fulfilled the covenant of grace that he made with Abraham.  Therefore, to have faith in Jesus is to be in a covenant of grace relationship with God, and enjoy all of its benefits.  By faith we have been freed, in Christ, from the demands of the law for our justification.  By faith in Christ we have become citizens of heaven.  By faith we have received the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, children and friends, the way of life in Christ’s kingdom is radically different from life in any other institution or community in this world.  How so?  As we have seen, life in Christ’s kingdom – in the church – is defined by forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  Even when church discipline is exercised, it is always done in mercy and toward reconciliation.  It is the one place where the claims of justice are not enforced against sinners; where the consequences for breaking the law are transcended.  The church is a place of peace; a place where we turn the other cheek when wronged; where we don’t give another his due when he sins against us.  It is the one community in the world where the slave goes free, debts are forgiven and criminal records are thrown away.

As people of faith, our way of life is profoundly different from the rest of the world when it comes to matters of eternal significance.  When it comes to the God we worship and serve, and our eternal destiny, there is no overlap between members of the redemptive kingdom and non-Christians in the civil kingdom.  Christians and non-Christians have nothing in common when it comes to salvation.

But this does not mean that there is no overlap or commonality between the two kingdoms whatsoever.  This does not mean our lives have no meaning outside of the church.

The common kingdom and the Noahic covenant

One of the things that Paul assumes in his letter to Titus is that Christians have legitimate and significant lives in broader society, which is also under Christ’s sovereign rule.  For example, Paul’s list of elder requirements is such that it describes a man who has a good moral reputation both inside and outside the church.  In fact, he uses a list of moral traits common to the first-century Greco-Roman world to describe many of the traits expected of an elder within the church.  You will also notice that Paul does not call Christians to abandon their lives in the broader communities and institutions of this world.  Rather, he calls us to “upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12): as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children; as slaves; as lawyers and accountants; as housewives, etc.  And then in Titus 3:1, Paul calls all Christians to be submissive to the governing authorities of the land, that is the state.

So what does this all mean?  It is a sampling of the evidence found throughout Scripture that God has made us members not only of the church – the redemptive kingdom – but also members of broader society as well – that is the common or civil kingdom.  As members of the church, God governs our lives according to the redemptive terms of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, found in Genesis 15-17.  In contrast, God governs our lives as members of the common kingdom according to the non-redemptive terms of the Noahic covenant, found in Genesis 9.

God’s covenant with Noah was distinctly different from the one that he made with Abraham in that the Noahic covenant is temporary while the Abrahamic covenant is eternal.  The recipients of the Abrahamic covenant are God’s people only, while God has made the Noahic covenant with everyone.  In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises eternal life, while in the Noahic covenant he promises to uphold and sustain humanity in this life only.

In his covenant with Noah, God promises to stay his hand of judgment against a fallen world and enable all people to enjoy a measure of peace and flourishing in this world.  But in order for this to take place, God has instituted the state to punish those who break the law and threaten the dignity of human life.  In Genesis 9:6, Moses writes: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”  The state has been ordained by God to rule over and protect us in the civil kingdom, by using the threat of force.  It’s mandate it to provide a relatively peaceful space in which Christians can join with their non-Christian neighbours in enjoying God’s creation, making culture and doing good to each other.  Most importantly, God’s forbearance toward humanity in extending his common grace to all people gives sinners opportunity to repent and believe in Jesus.

So, it we can sum up at this point, when it comes to the distinct way of life that defines our existence in God’s common kingdom, the institution of the state highlights things most sharply.  Unlike the church, the state can never offer us benefits that extend beyond this life.  Unlike the church, the state judges us according to the demands of the law.  As a general rule: we cannot escape the penalties imposed on us by the state for breaking its laws.  The consequences for our bad behaviour normally follow us.  We cannot erase our criminal record.

In striking contrast to the church, the state ensures that a defining feature of the common kingdom is the relatively strict enforcement of law and justice.  This reality in itself teaches us that the common kingdom can never become the redemptive kingdom.  For, remember, the church operates according to the gospel ethic of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  It is the only community in this world in which the demands of justice have been met.

How?  Through Jesus: the one who is took upon himself God’s curse for our law breaking.  The gospel is the stupendous message that instead of judging us for our sin against him, God turned his other cheek by crucifying his only begotten Son so that we might have life!

Living as dual citizens under Christ’s rule

Beloved, the theology of the two kingdoms is of immense help to us as we try to make sense of our lives in this present evil age.  For, we are those who exist in the midst of the tension of being in the world, but not of it.  We are those who are called to heavenly-mindedness, but at the same time have lives filled with earthly responsibilities.  Understanding our lives as citizens of God’s two kingdoms gives us a holistic perspective of the Christian life under the Lordship of Christ.  For it enables us to affirm both the church and the state as legitimate institutions ordained by God and to which we owe God-glorifying obedience by faith.  At the same time, by understanding that God governs our lives differently depending on which kingdom is in view, we are taught to keep the nature and the purpose of the church free of dangerous confusion with other institutions, like the state.

For when we understand that it is the church alone that makes manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth through its ordained ministry, then the church assumes its proper place as the most important institution in our lives.  When we appreciate that the church alone is that gathering where God promises to redeem his people and where we offer our public praises to him, then our common cultural activities assume their appropriate level of importance: that is God-glorifying, but not holy or redemptive.  By seeing our common cultural labours as indeed God-honoring ways of showing love to our neighbour, but not strictly-speaking “holy” acts or “ministry” or “kingdom work”, we protect and affirm the church alone as God’s ordained means by which the kingdom of heaven grows here on earth.

Paul’s central burden in his letter to Titus is for the church, and this should be our central burden in this life as well.  Therefore, let us heed Paul’s instructions here to serve God in his two kingdoms – with our good works – in such a way that Christ’s gospel and his church continue to thrive in this world that is soon to pass away.  Let us do so out of gratitude for our redemption and in the hope that God will one day replace this world with a new and better one: the New Jerusalem that will one day come down from heaven.  Amen.

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, February 24, 2013