If the Sacraments Are Elements of Worship Then…

In response to the post on what to do with the offering, Ruben asks,

“I’m still curious — are you saying that if the Lord’s Supper is absent (more generally, if no sacraments are administered), it’s not (proper) worship? Certainly a worship service with no Word or no Prayer seems absurd. And certainly we can’t have baptism every worship service …Is it just through faulty tradition that I feel comfortable with a worship service lacking the Table?”

Hi Ruben,

Not exactly, though I can see how that might seem to follow from what I said. I have struggled over how to express the the essential nature of the sacraments to Christian worship without making them mandatory in every service. Obviously baptism can only be administered when there are candidates for baptism. It’s my conviction that the Supper should be administered every Lord’s Day. I agree with Calvin who thought that it ought to be administered every time the gospel is preached. I can’t say, however, that any service lacking the Supper is not a service but I don’t want to say that the Supper is not essential. The sacraments are not things that we can change at will or omit the way we would a change or omit a circumstance. Ordinarily, there is no obvious moral question regarding the time of service. That’s a matter of wisdom. We cannot simply begin omitting the Supper, however, without doing great damage to worship. It is properly a constituent of the service.

Each sacrament has to be administered according to its purpose and nature. The purpose and nature of baptism is to signify and seal the admission of one into the visible covenant community. The nature and purpose of the supper is to renew our profession of faith, to be fed by the body and blood of Christ. It is a sign/seal of covenant renewal. The promise of God is renewed and our reciprocal response is renewed. Van Mastricht called the supper a “sacrament of nutrition.” Thus it is appropriate to observe it every week. Its omission is a a defect in our services. That’s why I wrote as I did.

Should a Reformed person feel uncomfortable with anything less than weekly communion? The short answer is “yes.” If we view the Supper as the divinely instituted pledge whereby his promises to us are renewed, and if we view it as a sacred, divinely instituted meal whereby, by the mystical operation of the Spirit, by faith, we feed on the “proper and natural body and blood” of Christ (Belgic Confession), then one would think this is something to be desired! How can a Reformed person say, “Oh well, I just don’t want God to confirm his promises to me every week, because then the act of having the promises confirmed to me just won’t mean anything.” Of course no Reformed person would say this.

I am convinced by my experience as a pastor and teacher that the reason members of Reformed congregations are comfortable with less than weekly communion is because they don’t not actually view the Supper as a communion with the risen Christ. They view it as a funeral and subconsciously they know that they cannot tolerate the emotional cost of attending a funeral every week. When they say “It won’t mean as much” what they are actually saying is that “it will not have the same emotional affect as it does when we have the Supper less frequently.”

Of course the Supper has an affect upon us but that is not the primary intent or function or result of the Supper. The primary intent and function of the Supper is the same as the preached Gospel. It is to testify to us of the good news that Christ is raised from the dead and that all who trust him are right with God. The Supper is the application of the promise of the gospel to particular believers. This is why the catechism says, “as certainly as….” As surely as I receive the elements from the hand of the minister, just as surely am I assured that the gospel is really true for me.

I don’t know about you, but I am a weak a beggarly sinner. As Luther said, “Wir sein Pettler. Hoc est verum.” We are beggars, this is true! As such I need to have the promises sealed to me as often as the Word of God and the church will allow. It’s not a funeral, it’s a communion meal in and with the body of our risen Savior, and with his body the church. What’s not to like?

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  1. Fantastic post in many ways. I especially like the point about “affect.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are right: if we primarily assume some sort of existential affect, and if we also assume more funeral-o-sity than “confirmation of promise,” it seems only natural that we stay away. The same principle can be applied against how too much weight can be placed upon the other means of grace, the sermon. Sure seems like there can be a performance expectation placed on it to the point of exhausting poor preachers to wow a crowd instead of exhort and build up and make believers. As well, listerners who come away “unaffected” (whatever that may mean) seem to betray that they expect to be wowed instead of simply exhorted by the Gospel.

    (The post which generated this question is also helpful. As a deacon who cringes at how his own diaconate is rolling out a “direct debit” program as it only serves to underscore the low view of the Church as a glorifed charity organization needing regular, clinical installments, tithing is an act of worship. There is a world of difference. What’s next, a vending machine that dispenses wafers and vials for customers on their way out of church?)


  2. AMEN!!!

    It is astounding how some of our modern reformed churches so easily substitue the glory of the Lord’s Supper with dung (i.e. special music, glory bells, etc). Having weekly communion is no shame at all.

  3. I do have one question. Would substituting wine with grape juice somehow disqualify, for lack of a better term, the proper administration of the LS?

  4. There are differing opinions on this. The churches have never made the nature of the elements a matter of dogma, so far as I know. We have some grape juice in our communion for those who are unable to commune using wine.

  5. No. There’s at least some organic relation between grape juice and wine. There isn’t any intrinsic relation between wine and sodas.

    Should we insist that folks who have scruples, history of alcohol abuse, or health problems with alcohol take only alcohol at communion?

  6. How about a compromise then: grape soda!

    Thanks for your response; it is helpful. A grammatical nitpick: Of course the Supper has an effect on us. That’s because it affects. Same goes for you, Z! (Although I think “unaffected” is correct)

  7. Scott,

    Your argument is, as always, compelling and well worth consideration. My hunch, though, is that our direct debit program isn’t so much based on your kind of exegesis and reasoning as much as it is on creature comfort and ease, a low view of the church as a glorified human institution and all that. Until my diaconate justifies it by your post in hand, it may be more accurate to say they are justifed but for all the wrong reasons.

    As compelling as you are, I have a hard time swallowing the deletion of the collection from the service. Didn’t Calvin include it as an element of worship?

  8. Hi Zrim,

    Another correspondent asked about Calvin’s practice. As far as I know, there were alms boxes in the Genevan churches. Christians were exhorted to give alms (after the service perhaps?) but most of the diaconal ministry in Geneva, which wa s quite extensive, was supported by wealthy donors. The congregations and ministers were, of course, state-supported.

    There is no place, that I can find, in the Genevan or Strasbourg liturgies for an offering. Calvin did mention almsgiving in the Institutes but he doesn’t in his exposition of Acts 2:42, which he (and we with him) took to be paradigmatic for the churches.

    The question is: what do we, who live after Christendom, where churches are voluntary associations, who live under the RPW, do? Why not simply place alms boxes in the back of the church? It seems fitting that, after communion, on the way out, Christ’s people should think of the “least of these” (in their congregations and churches) after the service.

    With respect to the RPW, taking the collection during the service, seems much more problematic.

  9. One of the best arguments for the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper that I’ve ever encountered is in the works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 11 (Tanski Publications), Book VII “Concerning the Time for the administration of ordinances, and whether the sacrament of the Lord’s supper out to be administered on every Lord’s day.” Goodwin’s argumentation seems quite bullet proof to me…

  10. Not to clog up the comments section, but here’s the basic argumentation of Goodwin. IF anyone would like the word document to this, they are welcome to it.


    There are four standing ordinances in the church based on Acts 2.42
    1. Apostle’s doctrine
    2. Fellowship (koinonia)
    3. Breaking of bread
    4. Prayers

    • Ordinances 1 and 4 are not disputed as to their meaning (preaching and public prayers)
    • Ordinance 2 is argued to mean sharing, or giving of alms based on 2 Cor. 9.13; Rom. 15.26; and Heb. 13.16
    • Ordinance 3 is agued to mean the Lord’s Supper based on 1 Cor. 10.16 and Acts. 20.7

    Preliminary Remarks:
    There are two sorts of rules laid down in scripture to determine the circumstances of worship:
    1. Prescriptive rules. These rules relate to the application of the second commandment (“worship me only as I command you…do not add, nor take away from what I tell you.”) An example of a prescriptive rule would be the command to carry out the temple sacrifices in the OT twice a day. Hence the circumstance (twice-a-day) is prescribed.
    2. There are also rules from the light of nature and right reason from the word (WCF 1.6). These rules are not left up to the mere will of men. Rather these rules are to be guided by scriptural principles using sanctified reason. For example, God calls us to meet in the assembly on the Lord’s Day but He does not ell us the hour we are to meet. But the principle that will guide the decision of when to meet is Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor. 14.26). In this way these rules are guided and directed by the third commandment. We make sure there is no occasion for taking God’s name in vain. Further illustrations: Circumcision (we are told to do it once, and to do it on the eighth day, but not told the hour of the day to do it); preaching (not told how long, how much, how often on the Lord’s Day); the timing of baptism; the timing of excommunication.

    There are two different kinds of edification that relate to God’s ordinances
    1. There is a primary edification that is intrinsic in the ordinance as God has instituted it.
    2. There is a secondary edification in the outward circumstances surrounding the ordinance that God has instituted.

    One must not confuse the circumstances which God has prescribed with the outward circumstances agreed upon by general biblical principles. To do so is to risk binding the conscience where God has not bound it, or to risk calling into question the adequacy of God’s wisdom regarding the establishment of his worship.

    Assertion #1—Given the nature of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, God must have of necessity instituted when it should be administered—either explicitly, or by good and necessary inference. (proved by the following 3 propositions):

    1. There are only two sorts of ordinances instituted by God in the church—occasional and continual.

    Occasional ordinances: those which have ongoing standing in the church but require some providential occasion to call them forth (baptism, circumcision, excommunication, personal sacrifices.)

    Continual ordinances: those which also have ongoing standing in the church but also have been given regular prescribed times for their observance (OT: the daily sacrifices, the day of atonement, Passover, other feast days; in the NT: preaching, public prayers, daily prayers).

    There are no “middle ordinances”: a “middle ordinance” can be defined as an ordinance having no occasion to call it forth into us: AND having no regular time for it to be observed. Hence it is not an Occasional ordinance, nor a Continual ordinance.
    1. Such ordinances would depend for their being and existence upon too many uncertainties.
    i. There would be no absolute necessity that such and ordinance would ever be administered
    ii. It would be according to our own sinful nature to forget or minimize this ordinance.
    2. Such an ordinance would be cast too far below all the other ordinances. All other ordinances, both occasional and continual, would take precedence over it.

    2. For all ordinances that are continual there must necessarily be a set time appointed for them by institution, else they cannot be called Continual Ordinances
    3. The continual ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is a continual ordinance and is not occasional. This is seen in the fact that there are no special occasions that would every require it to more properly observe one time rather than another.

    Assertion #2—According to the way and prescription of the NT, the time fixed for the administration of the Lord’s Supper can be no other day than every Lord’s Day.

    1. Under the gospel there is no instituted time set and fixed for any ordinance except the Lord’s Day
    2. If the Lord’s Supper is a continual ordinance (requiring prescribed times of administration), and the Lord’s day is the only fixed time in the NT, then this ordinance must have some interest in the Lord’s Day.
    3. Either every Lord’s Day is set apart for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, or some special Lord’s Day’s are set apart.
    4. There is no biblical warrant for the institution of special Lord’s Days.
    5. Therefore the Lord’s Supper was instituted to be observed every Lord’s Day.


    There are four CONTINUAL WORSHIP ORDINANCES in the church based on Acts 2.42
    1. Apostle’s Doctrine
    2. Fellowship (koinonia)
    3. Breaking of bread
    4. Prayers

    These are to be observed every Lord’s Day, as the Lord’s day is the only instituted and fixed observing of time in the NT

    These can be observed more often than the Lord’s day, but not less.

    To observe them on only selected Lord’s Day is to exalt certain Lord’s Days above others, which is unlawful.

  11. In Scotland at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper, the minister does a “table address” where he talks about the love of Christ for His people, or Christ’s death directly, or something relating more particularly to salvation through Christ. (This way the sermon can be on something very different–without risk having a church service where Christ is not mentioned, and it avoids the infelicity–to say the least–of trying to tie Christ into being a type of King Saul or something).

    The OPC is about “Tradition” (sing to tune from Fiddler on the Roof), even though that tradition is a short one of a couple hundred years. There is so much resistance to looking at Scripture afresh and seeking to please GOD, not TRADITION. That’s why, though I’ve just arrived at Heidelblog, I find it so refreshing!! Thank you.

  12. Eliza,

    Of course, one benefit of weekly communion is that it, as Calvin intended, the liturgy moves naturally from the preaching of the law and the gospel to the sign and seal of the gospel. If there is a great disjunction between what is preached and what is administered in the sacrament of the Supper, then we ought to re-think what is being preached. It’s more difficult for the minister to be giving advice from the pulpit which is then followed by the Holy Supper.

    See this essay on the Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace.

    As to the OPC, I wouldn’t be too hard on them. All the American Presbyterian churches, indeed all churches older than 10 years, face the struggle of relating Scripture and tradition. We want tradition to be subordinate to Scripture, but we don’t want to get rid of tradition. One great problem that American Presbyterians face is that they’ve inherited a somewhat muddled tradition on worship from the 18th and 19th centuries. From the reunification of the Old and New Sides, the “old side” seemed to lose most arguments thence.

    20th century American Presbyterians looked back partly to New School (19th century) and Old School theologians and churches but few looked to the Old Side of the 18th century for inspiration and even fewer looked to the 17th and 16th century Scots for inspiration.

  13. I think the whole counsel of God should be preached–sermons on the book of Nahum or Obadiah are in order; there is a relationship between them and the victory Christ has won over his enemies, God’s judgment, and the Cross. The whole Bible is related and Christocentric. Ecclesiastes should be preached on, as should the book of Proverbs. I’m not advocating sermons on Losing Weight (as my local Baptist church calls it “Bod for God”), and the like. The Supper is focused solely on atonement issues. If the Lord’s Supper is observed each Lord’s Day, no one would come to our churches wondering what the Gospel is. Nevertheless the people would be taught the whole counsel. We have been saved FOR good works. Much of the NT contains admonitions on holy living. As Dr. Gaffin has said, “be ye holy as I am holy” does not mean imputed holiness, it refers to sanctification. Thus we ought to hear about how to live as Christians. There is not a huge dichotomy between believing and living. The one leads to the other, for the glory of God. Sometimes I think MR is swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction to try to make up for past sins of evangelicalism (and past Reformed preaching or non-preaching). I will try to be more charitable to the OPC; thank you for the admonition!

  14. Eliza,

    We may be talking past one another.

    Preaching the law and the gospel IS preaching the whole counsel of God. See ch. 12 of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

    See also the essay “What the Bible is All About” just posted at:

    Preaching the law and the gospel means preaching the text. It entails preaching the third use of the law, but it also means that no minister should come away from the pulpit not having preached the gospel of Christ. See HC 65.

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