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The Substance of the Sacraments


The atonement is described as the substance of the sacraments. They have neither significance nor value, except as they presuppose the great fact of a vicarious sacrifice for sin; and to keep the atonement perpetually before the eye of the Church, as the one fact on which our entire salvation rests, not only at the commencement, but also during the course of the Christian’s pilgrimage, the Lord deemed it fitting to institute these two sacraments in the Church. Thus the Christian disciple sees the atonement everywhere, and finds it in every Church institution. It is the one great fact from which he starts, and to which he ever returns.

a. We shall notice this fact, first in connection with baptism, which is by no means limited to the idea that it is a sign of reception into the Christian Church. If nothing further than this were implied, there could be no reference to the atonement. But it involves much more. Not to adduce the subsequent statements of the apostles, which affirm that they who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death (Rom. vi. 3), the Lord’s own sayings upon the point are not obscure. Thus, when He speaks of His disciples baptizing in His name, as well as in the name of the Father and of the Spirit, He plainly alludes to a peculiar relation to Himself in His official capacity (Matt. xxviii. 19); and when He said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it is accomplished!” (Luke xii. 50), He gave His own authoritative exposition of the meaning and import of John’s baptism, as it was administered to Himself. It was a symbol of the way in which Christ was to pass under the heaviest sufferings; and He submitted to the symbol as a token of the readiness with which He submitted to undergo the reality. The baptismal water was an emblem, in Christ’s case, of the punitive justice of God, under which He passed. Christ, the surety, was baptized in His official capacity, and His people are considered to have undergone this punishment in Him for the remission of sins. The water of baptism is a symbol of the shed blood of the crucified surety on whom the curse no more rests. It is blood that has passed through death and the application of which takes away the guilt of sin. The symbol can mean nothing else but this, that His death was ours; the only difference between John’s baptism and that of the Christian Church being, that the former was a baptism for a suffering yet future, while the latter is a baptism into that which is finished. Baptism intimates a fellowship with Christ in His death. The grand fundamental idea of baptism, though not to the exclusion of other allusions, is, that His death was a propitiatory death, and that His people died with Him; and this is specially developed by the apostles (comp. Rom. vi. 4; 1 Pet. iii. 21).

b. The same thing holds true of the Lord’s Supper, intended to keep alive, through all the ages till the second coming of Christ, the great fact of His expiatory death. Its primary design was not to commemorate His office as a teacher, but to commemorate and to symbolize His great sacrifice, when He died to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. The words used by Him in connection with it are so express and clear to this effect, that no doubt as to their meaning remains on any mind interpreting words according to their precise significance. They who have a right to the Supper eat and drink spiritually of the body and blood of the Lord, not as He was still laden with the guilt of sin and still under obligation to fulfil the divine law, but as having purged our sins and now entitled to all the glory which falls to Him and His redeemed as the reward of His agony. They identify themselves with Him as passing through death for them. When Christians receive the bread and wine by faith, they are supposed to be made partakers of His vicarious death, and are regarded as united to Him, and as having undergone, in and with Him, all that He endured.

Thus, according to the purpose of Christ, both these symbolic actions of the Christian Church refer to the atonement; and they are meant to attest it, whenever they are solemnized. As they perpetually return in the services of the Christian Church, they keep before the eye of believers this great fundamental truth till the Lord come. The meaning of the atonement, its nature, and effects of every kind, the utility of the atonement and its necessity, are all proclaimed anew by every repetition of these sacraments, which are appropriate to the different stages of the Christian life, the one to its commencement, the other to its progress. These provisions keep up a constant remembrance of the cross, shewing that the eye is never to be turned away from the crucified substitute, and are accompanied with the word given to explain them. Hence we may see the rank and place that belong to the atonement.

—George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 393–396.

Related: Baptism in 1 Peter 3

Posted 2018·06·18 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Atonement · Baptism · Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement · George Smeaton · Lord’s Supper

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