The ordinance can be a sacrament

The other day I was reading again the story of the Passover and was struck by the use of the term ‘ordinance’ found in the NRSV, as also in the AV, RSV and NIV.  The Lord says to Moses: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Ex 12.14 NRSV: see also Ex 12.17, 24, 43; 13.10).

At once memories of a previous era flooded in.  I remembered how as a child I used to hear people talk of the ‘ordinance’ of believers’ baptism and the ‘ordinance’ of the Lord’s Supper.

It’s a strange term, ‘ordinance’. Within the context of Christian worship it refers to something which has been ‘ordained’ or ‘commanded’. Although the word ‘ordinance’ is not found in The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (London 2002) it has been a well-established term in Free Church circles. In the 17th and 18th centuries Baptists and other Nonconformists used the word to describe a wide variety of worship practices given us by God, which could include the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the singing of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’, as also the offering of prayer to God.  The term ‘ordinance’ was particularly favoured by the early Baptists because, as I argued in my book Radical Believers: the Baptist way of being the church,  they were keen to ‘root’ (radix: the Latin word from which we get the word ‘radical’) their life together in the Word God – and this applied not least to the public worship of God. 

However, gradually the term ‘ordinance’ was narrowed down and came to apply to baptism and the Lord’s Supper alone – it was a reminder that these two rites were ‘commanded’ by the Lord (see Matt 28.19; 1 Cor 11.24,25). Unfortunately another narrowing down took place.  For over against the excesses of the 19th century Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church, the term ‘ordinance’ was used over against the term ‘sacrament’. Henry Cook, a Baptist stalwart of an earlier generation (I still remember his wing collars!) charged that for ‘sacramentalists’:

… baptism and the Lord’s Supper were changed into mysterious rites that produced supernatural effects in those who received them, whether they had any personal faith or not.

But as Christopher Ellis has reminded us, the term ‘ordinance’ is not necessarily in opposition to the concept of ‘sacrament’. Many earlier Baptists had been happy to use both.  To quote Ellis “Previously the Lord’s Supper could be seen both as an ordinance, which was performed because it was commanded, as well as a sacrament, which signified the operation of grace in the present as well as the past” (Gathering: A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in Free Church Tradition 179). Although most Baptists still retain an innate suspicion of the term ‘sacrament’, there has been a growing recognition that as we come to God in faith, God in turn blesses us with his Spirit. 

No Baptist would believe in the concept of baptismal regeneration – the practice of baptising dying infants to ensure they do not go to hell is for us a form of superstition.  And yet texts like Acts 2.38 and Titus 3.5 suggest that the Spirit can indeed be active in and through the rite of baptism. From a New Testament perspective baptism is more than an act of obedience and an opportunity for confession of faith, it can be a believer’s personal Pentecost. Baptism can be more than a symbol of dying and rising with Christ: as we give ourselves afresh to the Lord who loved us and gave himself for us it can be a means of grace. The ordinance of believers’ baptism can be ‘an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace’ – and so can be viewed as a sacrament.

Similarly no Baptist would believe in the concept of the real presence – or at least not in the sense that Jesus is really present in bread and wine.  However, texts such as John 6.53-54 and Luke 24.35 point to the Lord’s Supper being more than a ‘mere memorial’, for it is in the process of remembering that we encounter the risen Lord.  As Ellis points out, even Charles Haddon Spurgeon, for all his attacks on the Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism of his day, nonetheless espoused what we now would call a sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper:

The priest who celebrates mass when tells us that he believes in the real presence, but we reply, ‘Nay, you believe in knowing Christ after the flesh, and in that sense the only real presence is in heaven; but we firmly believe in the real presence of Christ which is spiritual and yet certain.’ By spiritual we do not mean unreal; in fact, the spiritual takes the lead in real-ness to spiritual men. I believe in the true and real presence of Jesus with his people, such presence has been real to my spirit.  Lord Jesus, Thou Thyself has visited me. As surely as the Lord Jesus came really as to His flesh to Bethlehem and Calvary, so surely does he come really by His Spirit to his people in the hours of their communion with Him.

As we by faith feed on the Lord Jesus, the Lord’s Supper can indeed be a means of grace.  Yes, where expectant faith is present, the ordinance can be a sacrament!

One comment

  1. Dear Dr. Beasley-Murray,
    My name is Mark Hilbert. I am a member of a congregation of the Church of Christ in Rome, Georgia. Oak Hill. Dr. Murray, I read and re read Baptism Today and Tomorrow- and Baptism in the New Testament. I have given away copies of Baptism in the New Testament. I want to give copies to my friends who are Episcopalian priests and Baptist preachers here in Rome. It keeps getting harder and harder to get the Baptism Today and Tomorrow work, jhowever. My question is this-is there an electronic version? also- I am a retired teacher who loved your dad. Dr. Everette Ferguson in Abilene, who also loved your dad, and I talked about your father the other day, My mom and Dr. Ferguson were both members at Hillcrest Church of Christ in Abilene when my dear mother was alive. Dr. Ferguson is still writing but is no longer and elder at Hillcrest. He is one of my heroes- and your dad is the other one!! Godspeed good brother. You and your dad have opened the eyes of many on so many things. Godspeed, Mark Pslam 20

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