“Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle,” wrote John Calvin, “that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace” (“Institutes of the Christian Religion,” 4.14.17). The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Directory for Worship upholds Calvin’s strong conviction about the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: that — together with the proclamation of the Word — by the power of the Holy Spirit they reveal the presence of Christ and the promise of the gospel to the people of God.
The 2017 revision to the PC(USA) Directory for Worship — approved overwhelmingly at the 222nd General Assembly in 2016, affirmed by 153 out of 170 presbyteries and now published in the 2017–2019 edition of the Book of Order — reflects a decade-long process of scholarly study, pastoral consultation, denominational feedback and prayerful discernment, much of it centered on the place of the sacraments in Christian faith, life and worship. This article lifts up some of the key features of the revision in relation to these gifts of God’s grace.
Jesus Christ in Word and sacrament
The Directory for Worship insists that Word and sacrament together reveal the real presence of Jesus Christ, establish the shape of Christian worship and inform the identity and mission of Christ’s church. This threefold affirmation is grounded in Calvin’s teaching: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (“Institutes,” 4.1.9). The Scots, Second Helvetic and Westminster Confessions (3.18; 5.134–35; 6.143) echo these “notes of the church”; they also are woven into the fabric of the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity (F-1.0303) and our Form of Government (G-3).
On the first point, the Directory for Worship teaches: “In Christian worship Jesus Christ is truly present and active among us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the gifts of Word and Sacrament” (W-1.0106). The Directory for Worship further demonstrates that Word and Sacrament provide a meeting place for God’s gracious action and our grateful response: “Through these means of grace, God imparts and sustains our faith, orders our common life, and transforms the world. Through these same acts of worship, we share in the life of the Spirit, are united to Jesus Christ, and give glory to God” (W-1.0106). Sacramental life is a dynamic relationship with the living God who is made known to us in the crucified and risen Lord.
Regarding the second point, the Directory for Worship maintains that the pattern of Lord’s Day worship depends on the unity of Word and sacrament in the life of the church: “We meet in the presence of the living Lord, who appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week — the day he rose from the dead — to interpret the Scriptures and break bread. Following Jesus’ example, the church proclaims the fullness of the gospel in Word and sacrament on the Lord’s Day” (W-3.0102). If faithful evangelical proclamation or vibrant sacramental celebration is neglected, we fail to receive the full and abundant life Christ offers — the “treasures of heavenly grace.”
As for the third point, the Directory for Worship explains: “God’s gifts of Word and sacrament establish and equip the church as the body of Christ in the world” (W-1.0107). This is true at every level: local congregation, regional council, national denomination and universal church. Word and sacrament together define the identity and mission of the people of God. The Directory for Worship elaborates: “The mission of the one holy catholic and apostolic church flows from Baptism, is nourished at Lord’s Supper, and serves to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all. In the same way, the church’s ministry emerges from the font, arises from the table, and takes its shape from the Word of the Lord” (W-1.0107). This authority comes from Christ alone — who, as head of the church, has given these gifts to the members of his body.
Theology and practice
An important contribution of the 2017 revision to the Directory for Worship was to place the theology and practice of the sacraments side by side, within the central chapter on the service for the Lord’s Day. (The 1989 version of the Directory for Worship divided the theology and practice of worship between chapters two and three, under the headings “elements” and “ordering,” respectively.) Beyond the obvious advantages for pastors looking for answers, worship committees resolving disputes and seminarians studying for ordination exams, the close juxtaposition of theology and practice in the revised Directory for Worship makes an important point: what we believe and how we worship are inextricable and interdependent.
The opening paragraph on the theology of the sacraments is worth reading in full, since it encapsulates so much of what we believe about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in a few words:
“The Sacraments are the Word of God enacted and sealed in the life of the church, the body of Christ. They are gracious acts of God, by which Christ Jesus offers his life to us in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are also human acts of gratitude, by which we offer our lives to God in love and service. The sacraments are both physical signs and spiritual gifts, including words and actions, surrounded by prayer, in the context of the church’s common worship. They employ ordinary things — the basic elements of water, bread, and wine — in proclaiming the extraordinary love of God. The Reformed tradition recognizes the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Eucharist or Holy Communion) as having been instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ through the witness of the Scriptures and sustained through the history of the universal church.” (W-3.0401)
The addition of a parallel section on the theology of proclamation in the revised Directory for Worship underscores Calvin’s point about the sacraments having the “same office” as the Word, and gives us an opportunity to reflect theologically on the act of preaching.
After this introduction, the Directory for Worship offers more detail about the theology and practice of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Perceptive readers will notice a set of carefully constructed parallels; the structure of both entries can be roughly outlined as follows:
Theology of Baptism/Lord’s Supper
- Sacrament as sign and seal
- Relation to Christ’s life, death and resurrection
- Witness of the early church
- Ecumenical theological themes
- Covenant theology in Reformed tradition
- Images in the Hebrew Scriptures
- Relation to the Word
- Gift of the triune God
- Union with Christ and the church
- Call to service in the world
- Invitation and participation
- Significance in personal life
- Setting in Lord’s Day worship
Responsibility for Baptism/Lord’s Supper
- Role of minister
- Role of session
- Role of congregation
- Authorization of the sacrament
Practice of Baptism/Lord’s Supper
(A description of particular elements in the order of worship follows: for Baptism, this is presentation, profession of faith, thanksgiving over the water, the act of Baptism, and welcome; for the Lord’s Supper, this is offering, Great Thanksgiving, breaking the bread, and Communion.)
It is hoped this careful exposition of the theology and practice of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will help Presbyterians to understand the relationship between the sacraments and their implications for Christian discipleship.
Baptism and Lord’s Supper
Indeed, at the 222nd General Assembly where the revised Directory for Worship was approved, much of the debate and discernment around the Directory for Worship had to do with the relationship between the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The principal matter has been a recurring question at recent General Assemblies (including overtures in 1998, 2004 and 2016): whether people who are not yet baptized may participate in the Lord’s Supper.
The revised Directory for Worship makes it clear that, ordinarily, Baptism precedes the Lord’s Supper: “The church’s way of welcome into the body of Christ involves the unrepeatable sacrament of Baptism and the repeatable sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Christ bathes us with mercy, then feeds us with grace” (W-3.0408). This is the ancient and ecumenical pattern of Christian initiation, and it has a certain theological coherence as well: in order to have communion with God in Christ, one must first be welcomed into Christ’s body.
However, we also understand that things are not always so tidy in the real world of congregational life. The revised Directory for Worship therefore follows the pastoral guidance of the 2010 General Assembly in saying: “All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended” (W-3.0409). When worshippers show a desire to receive the Lord’s Supper, they are to be invited into deeper relationship with Christ through Baptism.
Is this an ideal solution? Probably not. Is it a little messy in practice? Undoubtedly so. What this admittedly imperfect approach seeks to do is to maintain a constructive tension between our theological/liturgical/historical/ecumenical tradition and the Reformed Christian values of reconciliation, forbearance, hospitality and grace. It represents an attempt to stand in the “already/not yet” of Christian life, to make room for pastoral wisdom and, above all, to trust the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our life together.
The sacraments and Christian life
The significance of our baptism spills out from the sanctuary to the street, as we seek to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), glorifying God. The meaning of the Eucharistic meal nourishes everyday discipleship, so that, in all things, we are called to “do this” remembering Christ. Accordingly, beyond the opening chapters on the theology of Christian worship, the ordering of Reformed worship and the service for the Lord’s Day, readers will discover other references to the sacraments throughout the rest of the Directory for Worship.
For example, chapter four attends to “pastoral and occasional services.” This chapter opens with a paragraph on “services claiming and completing baptism,” demonstrating how the rites of confirmation, commissioning, ordination, marriage and funerals all flow from the font. These are all ways of living out of and into the promise of our baptism. Thus each section in this chapter opens with a sentence that begins: “In Baptism …”
Chapter five describes “worship and Christian life” in expanding circles: worship and personal life, worship and the church’s ministry within the community of faith, and worship and the church’s mission in the world. Sacramental themes and images are particularly prominent in the sections on household worship, vocation, Christian education and pastoral care, and may also be found in the sections on evangelism, compassion, justice and peace, and care of creation.
As Calvin taught, like the Word of God, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper do nothing less than “offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.” For these gifts of God to the people of God, we say: Thanks be to God.
DAVID GAMBRELL is associate for worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship and co-editor (with Kimberly Bracken Long) of the forthcoming revision to the “Book of Common Worship.”
New resources for sacramental celebration
The 1993 Book of Common Worship already made tremendous contributions toward sacramental renewal in the Presbyterian Church. That volume provided 10 models for the Great Thanksgiving (letters A–J) in the service for the Lord’s Day and 14 options (following a common template) for the seasons and festivals of the Christian year; other Eucharistic prayers were provided for marriage, ministry with the sick and the funeral. The Baptism section included five patterns for the thanksgiving over the water and two prayers of thanksgiving for baptism for the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant for a congregation. At a deeper level, the 1993 BCW advanced the understanding of Word and Eucharist together as integral to Christian worship, and of Baptism as the foundation for Christian discipleship and service.
The 2018 Book of Common Worship continues in this path. This latest edition of the BCW provides 18 models for the Great Thanksgiving in the service for the Lord’s Day and 28 options for the Christian year; still more Eucharistic prayers are provided for the reaffirmation of baptism, ordination, marriage, constituting a congregation, care of creation, world communion, marriage, ministry with the sick and the funeral. This volume includes eight thanksgivings for baptism for the Lord’s Day, five for seasons and festivals of the Christian year and eight for use in daily prayer. Significantly, many of the new baptismal and Eucharistic prayers are composed in varying formats or make use of different responses — even as they maintain a basic Trinitarian structure, thus encouraging new and creative models for sacramental celebration. (Examples of a new thanksgiving for Baptism and Great Thanksgiving are provided.) Beyond these particular forms of prayer, the 2018 BCW offers new guidance for leading other elements of worship (such as the confession and pardon or offering) from the font and table, and numerous other options (such as invitations to discipleship or prayers after Communion) around the sacraments.
A similar flourishing of resources for sacramental celebration can be seen in “Glory to God,” the 2013 Presbyterian hymnal, which roughly doubles the number of hymns found in the 1990 “Presbyterian Hymnal” sections on Baptism (from 9 to 19) and the Lord’s Supper (from 22 to 45).
Thanksgiving for Baptism
You, O God,
are the voice above the waters,
We praise you.
You sent Jesus
to give us living water —
the cup of blessing,
the cup of promise,
the cup of salvation.
We give you thanks.
By your Spirit
you make this water
a pool of healing,
a river of new life,
a flood of grace.
We glorify you.
Keep us one with you —
one in the way
and the truth
and the life
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
We praise you,
we give you thanks,
we glorify you,
now and forever. Amen.
Holy, holy, holy Lord —
we praise you for your love:
bringing order out of chaos,
breathing life into dust,
leading captives to freedom,
calling wandering children home,
giving bread to the hungry,
giving drink to the thirsty,
raising the dead to life.
The Sanctus may be sung or spoken.
Thank you, Lord —
we thank you for Jesus:
Word made flesh,
light of the world,
shepherd and gate,
way and truth,
bread of heaven,
cup of salvation,
resurrection and life.
The words of institution are included here, if not elsewhere.
Take this bread and cup, O God —
a feast of grace;
take our hearts and lives — an offering of praise.
The memorial acclamation may be sung or spoken.
Spirit, come —
come and live in us: in this bread,
in this cup,
in your people,
one in the body,
one in the blood;
one with Christ,
one in ministry,
in this place,
in every place;
in this world,
in the world to come.
Intercessions for the church and the world may be included here, if not elsewhere.
Blessing and glory,
wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor and power,
forever and ever! Amen.
Reprinted with permission from the forthcoming “Book of Common Worship.”