Monday, September 28, 2015

Christ's Suffering, Our Growth, and the Ordinances

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship [κοινωνιαν] of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).

I love the ordinances commanded to the Church by its only Lord and High Priest, Jesus Christ. I am passionate about them, and am convinced that by minimizing them for more flashy and entertaining pursuits, we have robbed ourselves of a blessing the Head of the Church Himself has given us for our spiritual benefit.

Today’s Southern Baptists identify the ordinances as one of the marks of a true Church:
  • “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers...observing the two ordinances of Christ” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, VI).
  • “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour [sic], the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming” (BF&M 2000, VII).

While we typically read passages like Philippians 3:10 (“the fellowship of His sufferings”) as a reference to persecution (see also Matthew 20:23; Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11; 1 Peter 4:13), I believe the ordinances to be a regular and consistent liturgical means by which the Lord brings His Church into conformity with His own “sufferings.” I don’t deny that for the apostle Paul (and countless believers in the past and today) these passages speak of a literal experience of Christian suffering, but given what else Paul says on the subject, I would suggest that we shouldn’t limit his language to these persecutions. Instead, there is a way in which biblical Christian liturgy makes these realities a regular experience of the gathered Church for our spiritual growth and sanctification. Let’s consider the language the apostle Paul uses in other places concerning the ordinances.

Concerning baptism: “ you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:3-13). Baptism is “an act of obedience symbolizing” union with Christ’s suffering, but Paul certainly takes it beyond just symbolic act in his teaching on this ordinance. “...we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death...our old self was crucified with Him...we have died with Christ...” This is strong language connected with the ordinance, and we would do well to take it seriously! So when Paul speaks of “the fellowship of His sufferings” and conformity “to His death” to the Philippian church, it is not necessarily limited to persecution and martyrdom. Paul’s own language to the Romans shows us that the ordinance of baptism brings us into this experience which should produce profound ethical/moral fruit in our lives. Let’s look at the Philippians passage again: Paul counts all things (both his sin and his own personal righteousness) as loss, so that he may have a righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (3:9,10). Justification (being proclaimed righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ is followed by a union with Christ which includes “the fellowship of His sufferings” and conformity “to His death” as experienced in the ordinances.

In addition to baptism, Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as an ordinance which brings us into this “fellowship” and “conformity.”

“Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing [κοινωνια] in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing [κοινωνια] in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16,17). Just as the doctrine of baptism should have spiritual fruit in a believer’s life, so too does the Lord’s Supper have powerful implications for unity in the Church and dedication solely to Christ (read the rest of chapter 10 through the end of chapter 11...and truth be told, probably through the end of chapter 14!).

We need to continually remember Paul’s confession “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). We must remember it so that we “do not nullify the grace of God” (2:21) – a continual temptation for every believer. The ordinances are an instrument of this grace and sanctifying work in our lives.

Early in ministry, a wise deacon (now in Glory) once told me that humans never stay in the middle of a position/opinion/doctrine, but are continually swinging back and forth to extremes. My dear Baptists, I fear that in this day we have gone so far on the ordinances that they are barely there in the life of the Church. May we consider the testimony of the Scriptures and carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully begin moving the pendulum back to a more faithful view of the ordinances which grants them the central place in Christian liturgy that the Scripture itself gives them. The promised fruit of Scripture concerning the ordinances and what they represent is freedom from sin, service to God’s righteousness, unity, and faithfulness to Christ. Sound like something needed in the Church today? All these things come from union with Christ in His death and resurrection – the very reality the ordinances lead us to walk in together.

For by them we regularly “may know...the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that [we] may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

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