How Church Rescues

Christ’s Body as His Means

Eden Baptist Bible Conference | Minneapolis

I mentioned briefly this morning that fellowship is often overlooked as a means of grace. I understand why, because when we talk about fellowship, we’re talking about a lot of stuff that you don’t control. With Bible reading we think, “I can set my watch. I can get up in the morning. I can find my quiet space. I can have a plan. I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat.” Or with prayer, we might think, “I can decide when I’m going to pray. I can pray in the car, or I can pray after reading the word.”

It seems like there’s the kind of agency with prayer and with Bible reading that when we’re talking about fellowship, somebody else has to consent with you. A group of people have to gather. Even if you’re doing one-on-one coffee, you can’t just make someone else show up for coffee. You have to arrange that. You have to schedule that. There have to be rhythms and patterns in the life of a local church.

Yet in those things, even though they’re not these personal things we can just make happen like other activities, they’re vital for our spiritual health. In one sense maybe they are all the more important because there’s more involved in setting them up and setting up good rhythms and patterns in church life. I’m excited to talk with you about this, the middle child of the spiritual disciplines. The forgotten means of grace in fellowship is our focus this evening. Then, you get to share together at the Table, and that’s really sweet. We’ll talk about belonging to the body. This morning our summary was hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body in the fellowship of the local church. We focused on the word this morning, and tomorrow night, God willing, we will focus on prayer and fasting.

Belonging to the Body

Tonight on belonging to the body, we start with a statement: Life and health and perseverance in the Christian faith is a community project. We don’t do this as individuals. This gets at the essence of it being a means of grace. Our hearts harden. Our faith fails as we distance ourselves from the fellowship. It was one thing to go about saying these things three or four years ago. Now, after what we went through in 2020 and 2021, maybe some of you would resonate particularly with that statement.

As you think back to what it was like when all of a sudden this pandemic was going around and we didn’t know the extent of it, there was a lot of fear. There are good reasons to be cautious when you don’t know the full extent of something and when all the data is. I assume with your church as with ours, there was a brief break in your gathering together. We met outside instead of indoor spaces. We were trying to figure this whole thing out.

As a pastor now on the other side of COVID, I can see the effects. We as a church are still dealing with the effects of people who were part of our body and during the time away a vital means of grace was removed from their life, and they haven’t quite been the same since. For some we have barely seen them since. There are others whose means of grace were in place. There were still ways to keep going.

More healthy Christian lives were able to endure those few weeks or even months, but that had effects on our churches. We saw the impact of not meeting together, and that there is an important, not only accountability, but distribution of God’s grace through each other mutually in our lives for the Christian life. I’m excited to look at that here this evening.

Essential for Our Sanctification

By way of review from this morning, I’m going back to that Ryle quote. Maybe it’s my favorite quote on spiritual disciplines outside the Bible. Ryle, over a hundred years ago, was talking about the means of grace. He says:

They include things such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in church wherein one hears the word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper.

My little tweak is about Bible reading. I really like the way Don Whitney talks about Bible intake. It’s not just reading. We talked this morning about reading and study and meditation and hearing the word and all these different ways to try to engage the phrase “Bible intake.” This is not just an individual thing but a corporate thing. And he says “private prayer,” but I don’t think he has to say “private” because we should be praying together.

As you’ll see tomorrow night, it is a very critical means of grace and part of fellowship as these disciplines overlap. Then, he says “regularly worshiping God in church wherein one hears the word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper.” That’s our aim tonight. Ryle continues:

I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things (the means of grace) must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul . . .

Does anybody want that in their life? Do you want fresh supplies of grace? Are you good with yesterday’s grace, or grace from 10 years ago? Let me tell you, I want fresh supplies of grace. Ryle says:

The Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man . . . Our God is a God who works by means, and he will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them (the means of grace).

We talk tonight about the major category of means that may be most neglected. I don’t know if I mentioned this morning that I like to call these the twin texts on fellowship. My life changed 13 years ago when we had twins. I see twins now all over. When there’s two things together, there’s twins. I’m sure I’ll cheer for the Twins baseball team too. I like to see twins and this is the twin texts of fellowship. I’ll focus on Hebrews 3 and then in a minute here we will go to Hebrews 10. This is where we’ll spend the main chunk of our time on fellowship. I have a few observations here. I’ll explain them as we go through them and we’ll look at these twin texts on fellowship.

A Command for Mutual Care

This is Hebrews 3:12–13:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Let me point out a few things here about Hebrews 3:12–13, which I find so interesting and helpful as a means of grace. Notice that the command here comes to the brothers not just to look after themselves. There’s a place for that like, “Keep a close watch on yourself” (1 Timothy 4:6). But here he says, “Take care, lest there be in any of you . . .” This is not just a charge to individuals. He’s not just saying, “Hey, all of you look at your own hearts.” He’s actually saying, “Hey, church, take care that there not be an evil unbelieving heart in your midst.”

In other words, don’t let the person fall through the cracks. Look for any of you like that. This language of “some” will be in the other passage. It’s the same thing in the original. It’s the “any” or the “some.” There are folks at the margins. The hope is that the bulk of the church will be healthy in strengthening each other, and will be solid enough to be able to look out for those on the margins who are struggling, who need help, who may have an evil unbelieving heart growing in them.

The first observation here is that we are our brother’s keeper. Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The answer for Christians is, yes we are. It’s part of the faith. We look out for each other. We take care lest there be an evil unbelieving heart in our midst. In a fellowship of this size, you can’t know everyone to the extent that you can see the slow encroachments of an evil unbelieving heart. So it’s important to have a smaller life together so that we can know each other better, that we would know a few at depth and they would know us at depth to be able to speak into each other’s lives.

Then this morning we saw as it was introduced initially in that Psalm 95 quotation that he applies right to his listeners today. Grace is being offered today. Today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts (Hebrews 3:15). He’s saying, “Exhort one another every day as long as it is called today,” picking up on that emphasis from Psalm 95:7–8. I think the point here is what I would call regular attentiveness. I don’t think it’s a literal command that whatever names are in your accountability groups, you must check in on each other every single day. However, daily and weekly is probably a lot better than monthly.

I think there’s a regularity here that is implied in keeping short accounts, in staying on it right now. If you see some encroachments of evil you should speak into them, to exhort one another on that kind of regular basis. You should not let it go on for a long time and let it become some big thing, but keep an eye on it and speak to each other’s lives.

The Words We Need

Then, notice the power of words in Christian perseverance. This is going to come back again. This morning we saw how our God is communicative, how he uses the power of words, so it should make sense that God would have us also use the power of words. I mean, there’s no mention here of any sword or gun that would be used to keep each other accountable in the life of the church. This involves words, the power of words. This is how we hope to speak grace into each other’s lives, to help keep each other accountable. This is about the power of words in Christian perseverance. You exhort to treat an evil unbelieving heart and preempt hardening. I love thinking of it this way: We put grace into the heart through the ear hole. Isn’t this strange?

We have these holes in the side of our heads. We get used to looking at them, so you don’t think about it that much. If you stop and think about it, it’s strange. We have holes in the sides of our heads. What’s that for? When you speak words, your breath brings those with your vocal cords out into the air, it goes through the air, and the ears can take that in.

It is so amazing. We take this for granted how words work, how God has set up the world. But for you to have a thought or a feeling or a word in you and to be able to speak that into the air and have it go into the side of someone’s head so that it goes down into their heart, it’s amazing. I’m changing the metaphor here. It goes down into their heart (figuratively) and is a measure of God’s grace. That’s an extraordinary thing.

It often happens in the Christian life where those (the “any”) that need our help are maybe not in the best position to feed themselves or enter into this rich time of prayer on their own. What they need is somebody to come in and put a word in their ear. If a brother is struggling, probably simply giving him a list of to-dos won’t help, as if to say, “Hey, you’re struggling. I can tell you’re pretty spiritually weak right now. Here’s a bunch of things to read.” Well, he may not have the energy to engage and read like that. What might really help is that right there in that moment that you use the airspace between you to say something that goes in his ear and is the kind of word of appropriate encouragement or correction for you to, in a sense, be the voice of God in that moment for what needs to be said. You could be that act of grace toward his soul through the ear so that he would hear God’s voice.

This is summarizing what we’re doing in fellowship. We’re hearing God’s voice in our brothers and in fellowship. And now, there’s this reciprocity part that we want to be God’s voice to our brother. Again, we have no pretenses of doing this perfectly. We’re not playing prophet, or saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” You might say something like, “God prompted me to think this,” or, “I think God prompted me to say this,” or something like that. We’re not speaking infallibly for God. We mess up all the time. When somebody’s speaking into our lives, you don’t need to take that as either infallible or error. You can hear it, bring it in, and take that for your spiritual benefit and blessing.

Questions and Answers

Let me pause right here and see if there are any questions. In Sunday school this morning and in the sermon we didn’t do any. I don’t really do a lot of questions during sermons. This is Sunday night, and it’s a great time for questions. Any questions? It could be a question about this morning too if you wanted.

One of the questions I had was about these three aspects of the means of grace. Is there a linear flow to them or is it symbiotically happening at the same time?

Good question. I don’t necessarily think of a linear flow, but I do think of a relationship of priority between the word, and then fellowship and prayer. I’m a student of John Frame. Some of you guys know Frame. He loves to do things in triangles. He loves to see oneness and threeness. He says, “Our God is Trinitarian, so there are a lot of ones and threes in the world.” He draws a lot of triangles. One thing the triangles do is that they show relationships between three different things. Sometimes in three dimensions, sometimes not. I would think of the word as normative. Word has a priority. It’s the chief means of grace. It’s the action of God. He speaks first, so the word is the basis of our responding to him in prayer. Let me put that on one side of the triangle. Prayer would be the existential part of the triangle. Then fellowship, the community of the church, would be what you call the situational aspect of the triangle, that by his word he creates a church and the church prays and the church receives the word. We pray in reception of his word.

We also pray together as part of the church. All three of these dynamics relate to each other, but there’s a priority with the word as the initiative, the first action before prayer and fellowship. That’s a good question. If you think of a good way to make it linear, let me know.

The Grace of Good Provocation

Let’s come back to Ephesians 4 from a place in Hebrews 10:24–25. This is the other twin text on fellowship:

Let us consider how to stir up one another . . . (Hebrews 10:24).

I put in the word provoke here for “stir up.” I thought it was provocative. That’s one of the meanings of this verb; it means “to provoke” or to “stir up.” You can use this word in positive or negative ways. Scripture says, “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4), and, “Church, provoke each other to love in good deeds.” This is a good provocation. The passage says:

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Now, this is the only mention of “habit” in the ESV, and that’s the text I’ve been using. This is the only occurrence of “habit” in the New Testament and this is a negative one. This says, “Don’t do this habit.” There’s a positive encouragement then to do another habit in its place. He is saying, “Do a positive habit instead of the negative habit of not meeting together.” Let’s see what this positive habit is.

Again, we have this language of the many watching out for the some, as is the habit of some. This is the same language as the “any” in Hebrews 3:12–13. It’s just translated differently than the English, but it’s the same. There are the “any” you’re watching out for, and here we read there are “some” you’re watching out for. The many are watching out for the “some.” Again, like Hebrews 3, there’s this charge to look past your own needs and help the needs of others.

When the turbulence happens and the masks fall in the plane, you don’t just put your own mask on and go, “Well, I’m glad I can breathe.” You look around and think, “Can I help somebody else secure their mask?” They give you the instructions to first secure your own mask and then help somebody else because you don’t want to pass out while you’re helping somebody else. Put your own mask on so you don’t pass out and then help somebody with their mask. That’s what is going on in the Christian life. There are many watching out for the “some.” Look past our own noses. Look past our own needs to see the needs of others.

Consider One Another

Now it’s interesting here in the original there’s no how. In the ESV, the translation is bringing this word how. The way the construction works in the original is literally like this: “Consider one another unto the provoking of love and good works.” Here’s what I hear in that. Don’t just consider how to stir up one another but consider one another. At least the point of emphasis I want to put on it is that this is not a charge to just think generically about humanity, as if he were saying, “Here are ways to motivate humans to do good things. I can speak this to anybody in general as a human.”

Rather, he is saying to consider each other. It’s not mainly the consideration of the method or how you would do it; it’s a consideration of others. Consider one another. It’s that person that you’re concerned with, that person that you know well, that person that you love, that you might speak to them. Be the voice of God to them in a way that you wouldn’t to somebody else you know because you know them. This is a call to a depth of community, a depth of relationship that is increasingly difficult in our times. It’s to know each other with the kind of detail that you would say this word to exhort or encourage this brother or sister that you wouldn’t necessarily say to somebody else because of the context of your relationship and because of how you know this person.

The Right Words for the Right Moment

This is where I want to go back here to Ephesians 4:29. I saved Ephesians 4 because it says this so well. It is talking about the importance of our words to each other and how critical it is. Christians should be very careful with our words because we’re Christians, and because God’s careful with his words. It should be all the more when we post them online.

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15–16).

This idea of speaking the truth is so important to the life and health of the body. How we talk to each other is so important in our health as a church. Then he says:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only (now here’s the positive) such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).

There’s our concept again of the distribution, the ongoing grace in our lives that is happening through our speech to each other. That building up is happening as fits the occasion. I wanted to relate it to Hebrews 10. As fits the occasion you should consider one another. You can ask, “What’s the need right now for this brother? What’s the need right now for this sister? Is there a need for a word of encouragement? Is there a need for a word of correction? Is there a need for clarity, that would provoke them?” The language of provoking is strong here. I mean, it’s risky language because we often think of provoking as a negative thing, though if you put it in a clearly positive context, provoking can be a positive thing. Here’s the point where provoking is positive.

You’re provoking them to love and good deeds, not just using gentle, calm, comforting, smooth words, but words that would help bring about love and good deeds in the lives of others. Consider them, and provoke them to love and good deeds with your words. Note again, the power of words here.

Where the Means of Grace Convene

Then finally, we have the language of not neglecting to meet together. This is the assembly of the church, the gathering of the church. I want to say here as a church together this is our single most important habit: that we would gather. Why would I call fellowship and gathering together to worship the single most important habit? Well, in light of our means of grace, hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body in the fellowship of the local church, this is when all three happen.

This is the conspiracy of all three. This is when we go three dimensional because in the gathering we gather together to hear from God and then we respond to him in prayer. Most good worship services are going to have this kind of rhythm between hearing from God and responding to him. We hear from him in the call to worship, we respond to him in praise. We hear from him in Scripture reading, we respond to him in prayer. We hear from him over the word, we respond to him and take the Table. There’s this back and forth between hearing him together as a body and responding to him in prayer. All that happens together where we see each other beforehand and afterwards and we provoke each other to love and good deeds. Our gathering together is I think the single most important habit for us as Christians.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore private prayer or family prayer or private time in God’s word. However, it does mean this is really important. I know this like speaking of the choir. Here we are Sunday night and you’re here. The people who aren’t here on Sunday night need to hear this, but you’re here. At least hear this for building fellowship into the habits and patterns of your life as a Christian. Like no other single habit, corporate worship combines all three essential principles of God’s ongoing supply of grace for the Christian life.

“Life and health and perseverance in the Christian faith is a community project.”

In corporate worship we hear from God in the pastor’s call of worship, in the reading of Scripture, in the faithful preaching of the gospel, in the words of institution at the Table, and in the Commission to be lights in the world. In corporate worship we respond to God in prayer, in confession, in singing, in thanksgiving, in recitation and petitions, and in taking the elements in faith. In corporate worship we do all that together.

My encouragement to you is to settle it now and make it a habit. Harness the power of habit to rescue our souls from empty excuses that keep us from spiritual riches and increasing joy.

Negligence and chronic minimizing of the importance of corporate worship and church life reveals something unhealthy and dangerous in our souls. Fellowship, as an irreplaceable means of grace in the Christian life, offers us two priceless joys among others. We receive God’s grace through the helping words of others, which is my way to try to summarize this emphasis on speaking the truth in love, exhorting one another, and encouraging one another. This focuses on the importance of our helping words depending on the situation and the person we’re speaking to. We receive God’s grace, and we give his grace to others through our own helping words and to their lives. Jesus does not call us to hold fast alone as if we didn’t need the fellows he gives, but we help each other hold fast and thrive.

Questions and Answers

Do you have any questions here at this point? Is there anything regarding what we’ve looked at so far in these last few texts, or regarding the role of fellowship in the Christian life?

I have a big question that comes up a lot. We live out in a rural area. A lot of rural people say, “How do I find a good church?” The necessity and the essentiality of fellowship is very clear. What about believers that are out in the middle of nowhere? Or what about those today that are in a rural area where there’s a choice between a couple of churches that are not good?

I can’t imagine making any sort of desert island recommendations to any Christian. Fellowship is such an essential part of the Christian faith that I would encourage anyone to move so that they are not alone. I think these are really important decisions to make when we’re looking for where to live. I would love it if more Christians considered fellowship when getting into the housing market. Sometimes people say, “We’re looking for a new house.” The next thing you know they say, “We put a down payment on a house and it’s 30 minutes from here. We’ll be finding a new church and we don’t know anybody out there.” I’m scratching my head going, “That is so sad.” Some people move to a new city without even asking about the church scene or the landscape, trying to find out where there might be a place to go. I think fellowship is vital enough in the Christian life to consider those things. It is something we should always consider regarding where we’re going to live to have people nearby.

Now, there’s no prescription that you need to have a church of 200, 2,000, or 20. It could be a small number. It might be a large family that is almost like your church, and that’s your fellowship. I sure would want to encourage believers to think carefully about that. As a Christian, I don’t want to take the location of my house as the given. I want to take the reality of the Christian faith as the given. If I need to change my address because I don’t have adequate fellowship, then that’s a very small decision in light of eternity. I would much rather be a healthy Christian who has relationships that would help in the faith rather than think, “Well, this was the open land I needed.”

That would be my encouragement to those situations when they come up. I wouldn’t necessarily push somebody and say, “Well, we have to solve this tonight,” or, “We have to solve it this week.” I’d want to speak in and say, “Hey, what’s the value of the body of Christ? Is it worth having where you live be secondary to that rather than that being the primary thing?” That’s a good question, it’s really relevant.

Do you find that in the churches today the fellowship itself has taken on a different look? Especially in the society that we live in right now with wokeness and other stuff where fellowship is supposed to be either having fun or just approving of one another. It seems like often now the exhorting part is being lost to being afraid to hurt feelings. If you look at Hebrews 10:24–25, the very last part of that sentence says “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” There seems to be a pressing urgency that we relook at the way God defines fellowship and stop defining it ourselves. What are your comments on that?

Well, I can give you this illustration. We’re going through renovations at our church. The building was built in 1913. The Episcopal Church that was there died in 2013 and it sat empty for a while. We started meeting there and renting it, and we bought it in 2020. We just inherited this room called the fellowship hall. Recently as we were going through the renovation, we had to decide on the name plaques for all of the rooms in the church. We decided that we didn’t want to call it the fellowship hall. The reason we didn’t was that we felt like people just use the word fellowship all the time in very casual ways. If it’s people from work and it’s a Super Bowl party, then it’s just a party. But if Christians get together and watch the Super Bowl, that’s fellowship. There was no Bible, no prayer, no spiritual conversation. It was just Christians who happened to be having fun together, and so it’s fellowship. The word is suffering from being emptied of its meaning.

I think you can hear so far in my presentation what I think, so you’re serving me up a beach ball here. Fellowship is an electric reality in the New Testament. It’s the koinonia, the commonness, the partnership. It’s a partnership of something that needs to be done. We’re all in, we’re all making personal sacrifices to be all in collectively into the common fellowship to have this partnership to get the job done.

Let’s say you have this magic ring and you need to get it to Mordor, to Mount Doom. That would be a time to have a fellowship. Tolkien used the word right. When you think of fellowship, don’t think of a Super Bowl party with Christians. Think more like in the huddle on the field with blood and sweat. We have to advance the ball. Or you could think that we’re in Rivendell but we’re not going to stay in Rivendell. We’re going to gather together the best of men and elves and dwarves and help these hobbits take the ring to Mordor. There’s a mission. That’s a big part of the fellowship. We’re on a mission together. We’re not only watching out for each other’s lives and trying to purge each other of sin. That’s secondary. We have this mission together first and foremost by the very nature of the fellowship.

We would do well to take care with the use of our language to apply fellowship to our more missional and more intentional times of speaking truth into each other’s lives and exhorting one another. I looked at the text here for speaking the truth in love. That is just really good language in every season. In every generation, in every place, in every person there is often a bent in this toward the love without the truth or the truth without the love. We need to hear that phrase “speaking the truth in love.” We can’t do that without love, and we can’t do it without truth.

So what did you end up calling it?

We called it the chapel. Instead of the fellowship hall, we have the chapel, though I’m not condemning the use of fellowship hall.

The One Percent

I have two truths about the one percent here before we talk about the Lord’s Supper. By one percent, I’m talking about the fact that one percent of our waking hours is typically what Christians spend in corporate worship. If you have the habit of not breaking from being in corporate worship, then corporate worship is about one percent of our waking hours each week. If you take it as a little over an hour, your waking hours are a little over a hundred. That’s where I’m getting the round number. The first truth is that this is our most important hour together as a church. It really is important when the people of God gather to worship our God. That’s our most important hour. Most weeks there could be other hours in some certain circumstances.

The second truth relates to church life, and this is what I want to emphasize. Because the one hour on Sunday morning is so important, we might be prone to identify the entirety or the most of church life with the one hour. It’s the most important hour, but it’s only one percent. Being the church is not a 60-to-75-minute weekly event. We are not only the church when we gather, we are the church as we scatter into our families, into our jobs, into the other kinds of interaction we would have together in the week. This is a common error today. We assume that the main way to serve and do good in the church is to be upfront on Sunday morning.

I hope it’s not as bad here in Burnsville. Among young urbanites in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, there is the sense that you’re not a leader or you’re not serving the church if you’re not visible and upfront. We deal with this frequently in our church. It’s about being upfront on Sunday morning, whether that’s speaking or singing or reading or praying or preaching or passing plates. All the demographics and constituency groups need to have the representation. This is one hour. It’s a very important hour, but it’s one hour in the life of the church. This one hour is very important, and it’s only one hour, only one percent. What we are doing in serving each other, blessing each other, caring for each other throughout the week is so vital in church life.

Regular, meaningful engagement in the church’s most important hour of the week changes how we live as the church for the rest of the week, and how we live as the church in our 120 waking hours shapes our engagement in the one percent event. A church that genuinely, faithfully worships Jesus together each week is all the more prepared to live as the church each hour. A church that lives as the church all week enjoys the sweetest worship together on Sunday mornings. In emphasizing fellowship as a means of grace, I don’t only want to emphasize the one hour (though that’s important), but also our life together throughout the week.

Corporate Habits of Grace

I’ll summarize here about corporate habits, and then I’ll give a word about the Lord’s Supper. The first one is corporate worship, which is the most important hour. Then comes covenant membership, which is a faithful and helpful application of the reality they dealt with in the New Testament to know who the particular members are and to have some kind of covenant together with each other to say, “I’ll be the church for you, and you be the church for me.” I think that’s been applicable for a long time, but especially in modern life where we can move so quickly with automobiles and planes and in modern mega cities.

The Twin Cities are far bigger than any city in the ancient world. Ephesus was the second largest city in the ancient world and it was like 40,000 people or something like that. I mean, here we are in the Twin Cities and it’s almost 10 times that big, and that was the second largest city 2,000 years ago. We’re living in a reality now of urbanization. With the massive reality of these cities and how many people are around, people can just float in and out and it is so helpful that we make commitments to each other, that pastors and elders know who our people are and who our people aren’t.

In the hard times, there are people that have pledged to say, “I’m going to be the church to you when it’s not easy.” Anybody can be the church to each other when it’s easy. We don’t make covenant promises for the times that are easy. We make them when times are hard, when we would rather not or it’s difficult. But we’re going to stay in this. We’re going to be committed to this church, these people, as we’ve committed together. We’re going to be the church to each other. Covenant membership is vital.

Then comes cultivating and keeping up relationships in which we put grace in each other’s hearts through words that fit the occasion. Ask yourself, what few friends, whether it’s in some formal structure here of church life, or relationships that you put energy into to maintain, can speak into your life? Who does speak into your life? And who else ’s life in Christ do you know well enough to speak into with a well-timed, fitting word? A word that fits the occasion is vital in our corporate habits.

Improve Your Baptism

We finish here with the Lord’s Supper and baptism, which are part of our corporate life together in the local church. First, here’s a word about baptism. We don’t usually think about baptism as a means of grace. Maybe you might think, “I guess working through the categories here baptism can be a means of grace for the one who’s being baptized.” They’re having that one-time experience where they’ve expressed faith and now they’re covenanting to have faith in Jesus and to renounce Satan in all his ways and to live in obedience. To be baptized is to stand in front of the congregation. Yes, that must be a means of grace for the person. What about the rest of us? Are the rest of us just sitting around watching the means of grace for this person? Well, yes, but not just watching.

This is an old thing that I love reminding people about. It’s called “improving your baptism.” The language of improvement here is used slightly differently. Here’s a paragraph from the Westminster Confession I found helpful. This is for the next time there’s a baptism, so that you don’t think of yourself just as a bystander. You’re not just a spectator at baptism. Think through these categories about how someone else’s baptism might be a means of grace to you as you watch by faith.

The needful and much neglected duty of improving our baptism is to be performed by us all our lifelong, especially in the time of temptation.

This is amazing. You’re being tempted and you’re saying to the devil, “I’m baptized. Get behind me, Satan. Jesus’s name is on me. They put water on me. I remember it. I have a baptism certificate. This happened. Jesus’s name is on me. You get away from me, Satan.”

Martin Luther did this, but the ironic thing is that he was baptized as an infant. He didn’t remember his baptism. This is all the better for Baptist believers because we should remember our baptism. That’s part of how these sacraments are supposed to work and how the means of grace work. They’re to be remembered. This is really good for Baptists. Thank you, Westminster. It continues:

The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others (it’s a chance to rehearse our identity in Christ); by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein . . .

Westminster is great. In baptism, you’re believing and making a solemn vow. Amen. Don’t do that to children until they believe. Remember that your whole lifelong that in your baptism the name of Jesus has been put on you.

As you see someone else being baptized, that’s a chance again to receive his grace and to rehearse his grace. There’s a similar way in the Lord’s Supper, but we are participants in that.

The Lord’s Supper

In the Lord’s Supper, I’ll read the passage and come back to these four summaries as we finish. First Corinthians 11:17–34 is our key passage on the Lord’s Supper. Let me mention that he’s talking about the gathering. This is important. They’re coming together. Paul says:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

Instead of divisions and instead of despising each other and humiliating each other, this should be an act that brings together God’s people, an act of unity. We are eating together at the table. He continues in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

This is an amazing thing to think about. We’ve talked so much about words and speech and declaring and proclaiming and exhorting and warning, and in the taking of the Table we are proclaiming his death and its significance, and we’re identifying with it in him until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (maybe without faith) will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body . . .

I think Paul probably intended double meaning here. I think “discerning the body” means the body of Christ crucified and the body of Christ, the church. Both of these things should be happening. We’re discerning each other. We’re coming together in unity and we’re discerning. This represents Jesus. This is a solemn moment. I’m exercising faith here in receiving Jesus’s benefits for me at the Table. He continues:

Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home — so that when you come together it will not be for judgment (1 Corinthians 11:29–34).

But for what? Blessing. Come together for blessing, for strengthening, and for nurturing.

The Significance of the Table

I have four summary statements here on the Lord’s Supper. First, this is ordained by Jesus. He put it in place the night before he died. He took bread, he took the cup, and he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus ordained this act, however frequently we come and take it in the life of the church. He wants us to be part of our fellowship. To talk about means of grace and fellowship, we should talk about the Lord’s Supper. This is part of that.

Second, it’s for his gathered church. That’s what we see again and again. He says, “When you come together.” There’s nothing here about a private Lord’s Supper at a wedding, or a private time in the hospital, or a private time at the youth retreat, or a private segment of the body, or individuals. This is a coming together meal for the gathering of the church. Part of the significance of it is that we are celebrating our unity together in Jesus when we come together as a church. Different churches work this out in different ways and there’s space for that. For me, because of the strong emphasis on “when you come together,” I wouldn’t be eager for us at our church to do this anytime when not everyone’s welcome, when not everyone in the congregation could be there and be a part.

If any are excluded by certain demographics or the nature of it being at a wedding or whatever it seems like, then it doesn’t quite seem fitting to the meal. This is a unity meal for the family of God gathered together.

Third, we do this to remember him, which is very clear. It’s to remember what he has accomplished for us. This is the very important reality in the Christian life that we would regularly remember who Jesus is and what he has accomplished for us, the gospel message. This is not just something that we communicate to non-believers that tips them into the kingdom, but this is at the heart of the faith that we remember who our Savior is and what he’s accomplished for us. He initiated this rite in the life of the church that we might remember.

Then fourth, we do this to nourish our souls. This is a kind of an implication of the text where he’s talked over and over here about the judgment that comes from those eating unworthily. My question is, what happens when somebody eats worthily? What happens when they eat in faith? What happens then? I don’t think the answer is nothing; I think the answer is blessing. It’s a means of grace. There’s a nourishing of the soul. It does not happen automatically.

That’s the error of Catholicism in communion at the Table. They said that just by eating (ex opere operato), by the working of the work itself, grace is communicated to the soul. No, grace is communicated by receiving and eating in faith. There’s a strengthening, a nurturing of the soul. To eat without faith is to subject yourself to judgment and to eat with faith is like hearing the word preached with faith. It’s to soften the soul, benefit the soul, strengthen the soul, and nourish the soul.

On Worthy Receivers

Let me finish here with the statement of one of our great Baptist confessions. This is the Second London Confession from 1689. This is chapter 30, paragraph 7, and it talks positively about the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. It has some paragraphs warning about not eating apart from faith, nor apart from self-examination. It’s saying, “Don’t drink judgment upon yourself.” Then it says, “How about worthy receivers?” By “worthy receivers” we’re not talking about being blameless in order to eat tonight. You don’t have to be blameless. You don’t have to be sinless. You would be blameless because you took your sin to Jesus like you should take your sin to Jesus.

If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. In that sense, you would be blameless or above reproach. You’d be a worthy eater to eat in faith.

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Ordinance (the bread and the cup), do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally, and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified & all the benefits of his death: the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of Believers, in that Ordinance, as the Elements themselves are to their outward senses.

I have one comment here about this. It says, “The elements themselves are to the outward senses.” This is part of the grace to us in Jesus ordaining the Lord’s supper because sometimes we can just get in our head with our faith. We think, “Do I believe, or don’t I believe? Jesus is not right here bodily and I’m struggling with this temptation.” Or someone might think, “I’m confused. I have friends who aren’t believing and that has a contagious effect in my life,” or whatever it might be. It’s in your head.

To have a visible representation is good for us. As surely as this is bread and tastes like bread, and as surely as you can taste this cup, Jesus is offering himself to you. He’s saying, “I’m here for your reception by faith. I offer myself to you. Take the bread, take the cup. This is me.” It’s not him really as though it changed into his body and blood. This is an offer. It represents him. He’s offering himself to you by faith at the Table.

There’s a real nourishing of our soul at the table, which gives a seriousness and a kind of joy to doing this together as the body of Christ. He is here spiritually and he means to offer himself to us at the Table as he does through the preaching of the word.

Questions and Answers

Are there any closing questions here as we finish up?

How often should we partake in the Lord’s Supper?

Good question. That’s loaded too. For me to be a guest and be at your church, you probably have your rhythms. He says, “Do this as often as you drink it.” Using the word “often,” I think my one little piece there would be more often is probably better than less often, or something like that. I don’t see any biblical injunction for a particular timeframe. It’s left up to particular communities led by duly appointed leaders in their wisdom to set the rhythms and the patterns for a life of the church. That’s part of the rhythms of our corporate life together, but “often” is a good word.

As a sinner saved by grace, when I know that I’ve sinned and I come before the Lord, and I abstain from the Table when I know that there’s sin in my life. Is that wrong? I’m praying that the Lord forgive me of my sins, but I don’t also want to bring judgment on myself because I know during this past week or whatever I have sinned.

That’s a very good question. I think a lot of folks think through that and struggle through that, though maybe they never asked the question and never have anybody speaking any counsel into it. Without pretending to have the last word on it, here’s how I take it and how I would encourage others to do it. If there’s a pattern of sin that you are refusing to renounce and you are not willing to open your hands and say, “Jesus, I’m done with that. I repent. I will get accountability,” then I would say that it’s good to abstain from the Table and not eat judgment upon yourself. However, I think in the normal process of preparing for the Table, the assumption is that you’ve sinned this afternoon. You’ve sinned many times this week.

This is a time to examine yourself and to come afresh to appropriate faith afresh to say, “Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner. I cast myself upon your mercy. I don’t hold onto any sin here. I know I’m a sinner and I’m still someone in the midst of my own sanctification process, by your grace. I renounce my sins and I come before you and I receive your grace afresh.” I think the Table should have that function in our lives as a church and can be a very good place to come in and have that moment of re-consecration and receive the Table. It’s not because you are worthy of it, but you’re receiving it worthily because you’re receiving it how he means for sinners to receive it, which is with repentance, exercising faith in Jesus, and trusting in the work of his cross.