The Church Order speaks of three ceremonies that are performed in the church as part of her worship. They are the two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and public confession of faith. In all three ceremonies a form is provided which has been adopted by the churches for use in the local congregation. The form for confession of faith is very brief, and is usually accompanied by a short pastoral homily given by the presiding minister.
All three ceremonies involve specific activities on the part of the people of God in the pew. To these we turn.
The Church Order includes the following articles on baptism:
Article 56: “The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.”
Article 57: “The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.”
Article 58: “In the ceremony of baptism, both of children and of adults, the minister shall use the respective forms drawn up for the administration of the sacrament.”
Article 59: “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.”
Article 60: “The names of those baptized, together with those of the parents, and likewise the date of birth and baptism, shall be recorded.”
It is well to reiterate briefly the truth that a baby born of believing parents does not become a member of the church by baptism. Our vocabulary, unfortunately, leaves that impression: we speak of “members of the church by baptism,” or “baptized members.” Strictly speaking this is not a correct designation.
A child, by virtue of the fact that he or she is born of believing parents, is a member of the church of Christ. That is, children born of believing parents are, by virtue of this fact, members of the church institute, specifically the local congregation in which the infant’s parents have their membership. The Heidelberg Catechism is clear on the matter.
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God …” (Q & A 74).
The Heidelberg Catechism makes clear that children are baptized because they are included in the church, not in order that they may be included in the church of God. Baptism is a sign and seal of their membership in God’s covenant and church.
It is obvious that believers to whom God has given a covenant child are obligated to present that child for baptism.
When I first entered the ministry, it was customary for new parents to make arrangements with the pastor to have their child baptized, and when a suitable date had been agreed upon, the janitor was informed so that water could be put in the baptism font. But this deprived the elders of the control of the sacrament, which is part of their responsibility in ruling the church of Christ. The father (if possible; if not possible, the mother) must, therefore, come to the elders’ meeting to gain the elders’ approval to have their child baptized.
The elders do not make this a time to arrange a suitable date. The elders must be assured that the parents requesting baptism are prepared to answer in the affirmative the questions that will be put to them. These are important questions, and great care must be taken in asking and answering them. They are expected to express their agreement with the Reformed doctrine of the covenant, and specifically to express their agreement that God sovereignly establishes that covenant in the line of generations. They express such agreement when they confess that their children, though by nature totally depraved, are “sanctified in Christ” and are “members of Christ’s church.”
Further, and equally important, parents are asked to express their agreement with the truth as it is contained in the Scriptures, set down in the Reformed confessions, and taught in the congregation of which they are members. This latter was even one of the reasons for the Secession of 1834 under De Cock. Many in the State Church could not answer affirmatively to the question: “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?” They wanted to have their children baptized, and so they went to the consistory of Ulrum, where Henry De Cock was pastor, for in that church the truth was taught. De Cock and his elders, rightly or wrongly, agreed to baptize these children, even though neither the children nor the parents were members.
It is not even sufficient in our day of doctrinal departure to profess agreement with the truth of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, because other Reformed churches who claim to hold to the Reformed confessions differ on fundamentally important points with “the doctrine which is taught here in this Christian (Protestant Reformed) church.” Those who answer this question from the Baptism Form must be aware of the fact that on several crucial issues our churches have officially expressed in the Declaration of Principles what the confessions teach. These teachings are certainly implied in question 2 which is asked of parents, and an affirmative answer needs to be given. Specifically, the Declaration of Principles officially sets down the confessional truths of God’s sovereign and particular grace (over against the error of common grace) and the doctrine of an unconditional covenant established with the elect alone in Christ (over against a conditional and universal covenant established with all the children baptized).
Finally, parents are required to promise solemnly before God and God’s church that they will do all in their power to have their children instructed in the truth of God’s Word and the Reformed confessions, as taught in their church. This promise is based on an awareness of the truth that God uses covenant instruction to continue His covenant in the lines of generations, and that covenant parents, who love their children as children of God, eagerly assume this responsibility in the covenant.
These are solemn and significant statements and promises which parents make. It is well that parents go over together these questions and discuss them prior to seeking the consistory’s permission for baptism of their children.
The congregation as a whole also functions in its office of believers during the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Believers are more than mere witnesses of the statements and promises made by the parents. They also answer, though silently, in their hearts, to the questions publicly asked the new parents.
This answer on the part of all those present means two things. It means that those present who are parents, grandparents, or great grandparents renew their own vows before God’s face with respect to their own children, grand children, and great grandchildren. This is indeed for all present a solemn moment.
The assent of all present to the questions addressed to new parents means also that each member of the congregation assumes responsibility for the covenant instruction of the child being baptized. The church ofChrist is a corporate unity. Responsibility for everything that happens in the church, be it good or bad, falls upon every member. The spiritual well-being of the child being baptized is the concern and responsibility of all in the congregation.
To fulfill this responsibility the congregation agrees to encourage the parents to be faithful when such encouragement is necessary; to admonish parents when the parents are remiss in their duties; to help financially in Reformed education in the day schools, and to take these children under its own care if, for some reason, the parents are unable to do so.
It is well to stress here how important it is that all support Christian day schools. So many times parents think that they are relieved of the responsibility of supporting the schools when their children have graduated. Yet, the fact is that these same parents are fi-nancially able to support the schools in larger measure after the children have left their homes. But, whatever may be the financial resources of people, they are responsible that the schools are supported financially.
Such support includes constant prayers for the schools, the teachers, and the school boards, as well as for the parents who sometimes have to struggle to make ends meet with the high costs of tuition. And it includes constant encouragement to those upon whom falls the task of making the schools truly places of Reformed education.
It only infrequently happens that, through the sudden death of parents or through total apostasy of parents, the children are left without anyone to care for them. The courts of our land have made it increasingly difficult for the church to exercise its responsibility in such situations. It is well that parents consider this and make arrangements for someone in the church to serve as guardians of their children should God take them out of this life.
Confession of Faith
The ceremony of public confession of faith is an anomaly in Reformed churches. No mention of it in Scripture points to the need to include such a ceremony in the worship service. Nevertheless, it has a long tradition in Reformed churches, and it is an important and valuable ceremony. Public confession of faith itself does have a strong scriptural foundation. Paul is emphatic about it that “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10). While Paul refers to the life of the believer in general, the church, in introducing the practice of public confession of faith into the worship, expresses the importance of obedience to the biblical truth Paul speaks of within the fellowship of the church itself, where all true confession begins.
The line of reasoning is easily understood if one gives some thought to the way in which God works in the lives of covenant children. Though these children are brought into the world without knowledge of God and His truth, God continues His covenant with them through covenant instruction. This covenant instruction is provided by the home, the school, and the church. God works in such a way that as the child grows, he or she gains not only physical maturity, but along with physical maturity also psychological maturity. All covenant instruction is geared to that. The result is that a covenant child reaches a point in his development where he is also spiritually mature, because he understands the doctrines of the church and believes them to be the truth of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions.
In fact, all instruction must be geared to that end. Gradually, through instruction in Bible history, Bible doctrine, and the confessions of the church, a covenant child learns what the church believes and learns why the church believes what it does. If he agrees with the church, such a child is then a young adult and is ready to take his place in the church as a responsible member.
Confession of faith is made first of all before the consistory. The one appearing to make confession of faith is asked a number of questions. These questions have almost exclusively to do with doctrine. This is denied by some who hold to the notion that all that a person need do to make public confession of faith is confess that one believes that he or she is saved by Christ. But this is not so. The elders want to know why a young adult wants to make confession of faith in this particular church, and not in the Baptist church up the road a bit, or in the Christian Reformed Church around the corner. That this is indeed the meaning of public confession of faith is evident from the questions which are asked in the church service.
1. Do you acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?
2. Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto; and to lead a new, godly life?
3. Will you submit to church government, and in case you should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid), to church discipline?
In brief, the one making confession of faith must know and believe: 1) What the church in which confession is made teaches. 2) Why it maintains the particular truths it does. That is, what is the biblical foundation for the truths which are contained in the confessions and why they are important. 3) How these truths differ from other denominations so that it is necessary to maintain a separate denomination to which one must belong in obedience to Christ.
The children of the church also function in the office of believers. This ought, from childhood on, to be impressed upon them. But their functioning in the office of believers is primarily learning. This is an exciting and important part of life, and much could be said about it. But suffice it to say that the home is primarily responsible for fostering in the hearts of the children of the covenant a desire to learn. So frequently, catechism lessons are considered an additional burden to be borne and the young people look upon learning them as an odious task. The danger always exists that catechism is considered relatively unimportant and neither the parents, the minister, nor the children take it too seriously. Children must be made to understand that they are exercising the sacred duties of the office they hold in the church by making growth in the knowledge of the truth a priority in their lives.
Looking at confession of faith from another perspective, public confession of one’s faith opens the way for participation in the administration of the Lord’s Supper. A battle rages today, even within conservative congregations and churches, over the question of paedo-communion, i.e., whether children may partake of the Lord’s Supper. If one understands properly the role of children functioning in the office of believers, one will have no difficulty understanding why children do not belong at the Lord’s table. The specific reasons for this will be explained in connection with the discussion of the believer’s obligation to join the congregation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is the second sacrament which Christ has instituted in the church. It, along with the sacrament of baptism, is for the strengthening of our faith (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 25). It is added to the preaching and gives to believers certain signs and seals of the promises God gives His people in the preaching.
It is not necessary in this manual to go into the meaning of the sacrament. It is necessary to emphasize one point which needs emphasis in our day. Increasingly the emphasis in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper falls on the celebration of the sacrament rather than on the administration of the sacrament. Increasingly one reads on bulletins: “The sacrament of the Lord’s supper will be celebrated…,” while some years ago a similar announcement would read, “The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be administered….”
To speak of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not wrong. The Form our churches use on this occasion speaks of celebration. But the title of the form is, “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper.” A shift in terminology, seemingly so minor and innocuous, frequently indicates a shift in emphasis and in thinking. To emphasize the celebratory nature of the sacrament is to put the emphasis on what we do, what man does. To speak of the administration of the Lord’s Supper is to put the emphasis on what God does through Christ. Our celebration is of what God Himself does. He ordains the sacrament for the strengthening of our faith. Just as Christ preaches, so Christ administers the sacraments. He is the Host at the table where the signs and seals are set before God’s people. He makes the sacrament effective to the strengthening of our faith by His Spirit in our hearts. We celebrate this great work of God and do so in remembrance of what Christ has done.
The believer, functioning in his office, has obligations laid upon him with respect to the Lord’s Supper. These obligations are three.
The first obligation is his calling to come to the Lord’s table and receive the sacrament from Christ. This should be obvious, but it is not. Many in Reformed churches do not consider this to be an obligation at all. People may be born in the church, make confession of faith in the church, and die in the church, and never partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They are of the opinion that they are unworthy, and they lack the assurance that they are people of God who have a rightful place at the Lord’s table. If they come to the Lord’s table at all, frequently when they are advanced in years, they come hesitantly, with some fright in their hearts, almost in need of being pushed to their place, and partake as if they are fearful that heaven may open and judgment fall upon them for partaking.
It is not my purpose to discuss the question of assurance. Nevertheless, the biblical and creedal position of the Reformed churches is that the child of God lives in the confident assurance of his salvation in Jesus Christ. He comes to the Lord’s table seeking the God-ordained means for the strengthening of his weak and wavering faith. He does so in obedience to the command of Christ Himself, who says to His church: “Take, eat; Take, drink! Do this in remembrance of me!” If a believer does not come to the table of the Lord, he sins.
The second obligation which rests on the believer is to come examining himself. Scripture enjoins the believer to perform this act of faith in the institution of the Lord’s Supper as found in I Corinthians 11:23-29. Verses 27-29 read:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
We must call attention to a few important teachings in these verses.
It is clear that the text speaks of worthy eating and drinking and unworthy eating and drinking. The former is our calling; the latter is a dreadful sin, so serious that it brings down on the unworthy partaker damnation. This makes our participation in the sacrament a very important act.
Eating and drinking unworthily is carefully defined. It is said to be a failure to discern the Lord’s body, by which one becomes guilty of the body and blood of Christ.
Thus eating and drinking worthily is also defined, partly by implication and partly with specific language. We eat and drink worthily when we discern the Lord’s body. And the only possible way to discern the Lord’s body is through examining ourselves. If we come to the table of the Lord examining ourselves, therefore, we will not be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, and we will escape damnation.
The obligation, then, of the believer in his office in the church is to come to the table of the Lord examining himself. This is crucial. It is reason for gratitude that both Scripture and our Form give us help in how to examine ourselves as preparation for the Lord’s table.
What our form teaches is based on Scripture. In II Corinthians 13:5 we read:
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
The text does not say that we must examine ourselves “whether we have faith.” This is the way many would interpret the passage; and it is not surprising that interpreting it that way leads many to conclude that they do not have faith and that they do not belong at the Lord’s table.
Such an interpretation is impossible. Examining ourselves is itself an act of faith. Without faith one cannot engage in this spiritual activity. That necessity of faith as the source of self-examination is not only objectively true, but also subjectively true. That is, it is not only true that faith as the bond which unites us to Christ is the power by which we are able to examine ourselves; but our consciousness of belonging to Christ enables us to ask whether we are in the faith.
Another reason why the interpretation that we examine ourselves whether we have faith is wrong is in the text itself: “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you?” The examination in which the believer is called to engage has its starting point in knowing ourselves, how that Jesus Christ is in us.
What is then the reason for examination of ourselves? The text speaks of examining ourselves “whether we be in the faith.” We must examine ourselves whether our daily walk is in the sphere and power of faith. Is our walk in conformity with our faith? That is the question.
The next question, which follows from this, is: What is a walk in conformity with one’s faith? This question is answered by our Form. We need not, therefore, go into detail here. A few points are worth noticing.
In defining proper self-examination, the Form follows the same outline as the Heidelberg Catechism in its explanation of attaining the true comfort in life and in death, for body and for soul, in time and in eternity: I belong to Jesus. We must, says the Catechism, know our sins and miseries, know our redemption in Christ, and know how we are to be thankful. So the Form tells us that proper self-examination includes: 1) Our need to humble ourselves before God in the knowledge that our sins are so great that we cannot do one thing to save ourselves, but need Christ. 2) Our firm faith that Christ has accomplished such a full and complete salvation that all our sins and guilt are paid for and all righteousness earned for us. 3) Our purpose to walk in gratitude to God by loving God, living in holiness, and loving our neighbor as God commands.
The third responsibility that rests on us is to discern the Lord’s body. This too is done by way of self-examination.
To discern the Lord’s body means to understand the things signified in the signs and seals. That is, it is the spiritual ability to see, in the broken bread and the wine, the body of Christ broken on the cross and blood of Christ shed for the sins of His people. In short, it is to understand the atonement of Christ. It is to understand the atonement of Christ by faith, so that the partaker appropriates that sacrifice of Christ for himself.
Many doctrines are implied in that one truth, for the sacrifice of Christ is the central and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. The worthy partaker must have knowledge of these doctrines — not exhaustive knowledge, a knowledge which he will never attain in this life, but a knowledge in which, if he is faithful, he will grow continuously.
This knowledge is always the personal knowledge that one possesses for himself the sacrifice of Christ for His salvation. To come in any other way to the Lord’s table is to eat and drink judgment to oneself.
Children do not belong at the Lord’s table because the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is for those who are able to discern the Lord’s body. To discern the Lord’s body requires spiritual maturity. Children usually reach spiritual maturity when they reach physical and psychological maturity, but only when they have given diligence to the instruction they have received in the home, the school, and especially the church.
The Scriptures command us not only to engage in the activity of self-examination during the week prior to the administration of the Lord’s Supper, but also to come to the table of the Lord examining ourselves: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup…” (II Cor 11:28). That is, the worthy partaker must come to the table of the Lord conscious of his own unworthiness and of his full and complete salvation in the cross of his Savior. He must come in faith which lays hold on Christ and trusts in Him alone.
A consideration of self-examination brings up another point. We call the Lord’s Supper “communion,” and properly so. The Form points out why this is a proper designation of the sacrament.
Besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love, as the holy Apostle saith, “For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.” For as out of many grains one meal is ground, and one bread baked, and out of many berries being pressed together, one wine floweth, and mixeth itself together; so shall we all, who by a true faith are ingrafted into Christ, be altogether one body, through brotherly love, for Christ’s sake, our beloved Savior, who hath so exceedingly loved us, and not only show this in word, but also in very deed towards one another.
The communion which the saints receive at the table of the Lord in connection with the sacrament is a communion made possible by a unity in Christ, a unity which is, most basically, a unity in truth. Children cannot express that unity until they have come to understand and know that truth as it is taught in the church of which they are members.
Confession of faith is the door to the Lord’s table.
The Form for the Administration of Baptism warns against superstition. This same warning may very well be applied to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our forms were very conscious of the error of Romewhich gave power to the elements of the sacraments — the water, the bread, and the wine — as if grace was to be found in these elements. Believers must remember, also when they come to the table of the Lord, that their blessing is not in the elements themselves, or in eating and drinking them, but in faith in Christ. The Form gives a timely warning when it says:
That we may be now fed with the true heavenly bread, Christ Jesus, let us not cleave with our hearts unto the external bread and wine, but lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is our Advocate, at the right hand of His heavenly Father….
When the minister speaks the words: “The cup of blessing which we bless,” the meaning is not that the wine is being blessed, and that, through this blessing, some special power is given to it; the meaning is that Christ has ordained the wine as a sign and seal of His blood; that in His blood is to be found blessing; and that those who are at the table of the Lord confess blessing alone in the blood of their Savior.
There is nothing magical or automatic about celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It is a busy time for the believer, requires great concentration and constant activity of faith, and is, if it may be put that way, hard work. But the one who comes in faith is blessed.