This week we begin with Question 43 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 3 (questions 36-52), which focuses on the Spirit, restoration, and growing in grace. NOTE: I am slightly adjusting the wording of the answer to this question by removing the word "seals," which has not historically been used by Baptists in reference to the ordinances.
Question 43: What are the sacraments or ordinances?
Answer: The sacraments or ordinances given by God and instituted by Christ, namely baptism and the Lord's Supper, are visible signs that we are bound together as a community of faith by his death and resurrection. By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares the promises of the gospel to us.
Differences of opinion on what are called "sacraments" or "ordinances" is largely what has led to different denominations among Christians. One of the differences between Christian groups on this issue is whether or not the preferred term for these practices should be "sacraments" or "ordinances." A brief review of that question can be enlightening.
Baptists overwhelmingly prefer the term "ordinances" to "sacraments." The reason for that preference is because historically, the term "sacrament" has often been used to refer to a practice that uses physical elements as channels of divine grace (i.e., supernatural divine power) into the recipient of the sacrament. Roman Catholics have long held that the church, by means of the sacraments, delivers grace in doses over time to its members, and that the sacraments work ex opere operato, which means by virtue the acts themselves. For example, baptism carries inherent in the act the power to wash away the stain of original sin and bring the infant who receives it into a state of grace. The Eucharist (Lord's Supper) carries with it the summation of all other graces that are, more or less, automatically delivered to those who receive it. In addition, Catholics hold that there are five other sacraments: confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and anointing the sick.
In contrast to this Catholic understanding, Protestants have long held that the sacraments depend on the preaching of the Word and on faith to be received with any benefit. They do not work ex opere operato, but require a faith response on the part of those who receive them. (How this idea coheres with the retaining of infant baptism among many Protestant denominations is tricky to understand, but we can leave that question aside for now.)
Baptists took this Protestant principle to its proper conclusion by arguing that faith in God's promise is the true substance of these practices, and thus we should regard them as public testimonies of faith more than anything else. As a result, Baptists have tended to prefer the term "ordinances" to refer to baptism and the Lord's Supper, signifying that they were ordained by Christ to be practiced as public testimonies of faith among his people as signs of the gospel until his return. Baptism, then, is what happens when saving faith, which is invisible, goes public and takes on a visible expression. It marks the public beginning of a Christian life and thus happens once. The Lord's Supper represents the ongoing faith of the baptized, as it is observed repeatedly throughout the Christian life, for our faith must persevere to the end if we are to be saved in the end.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: Matthew 28:18-20. What is the connection between baptism and preaching the gospel in this passage? Should we expect all disciples of Jesus to be baptized? What would you say about a person who claimed to follow Jesus but was unwilling to submit to baptism?