Published on May 13, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2023 | 240 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ryan M. McGraw


For most of Christian history, the sacraments have shaped who Christians are in Christ and how they live in the Spirit. Protestant reactions, especially to the central place of the sacraments in the Medieval period, have often slid today into overreaction. Since sacraments are not everything, they often practically become nothing. Though many believers today may not readily place baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the center of who we are, how we think, and how we live, Kevin Emmert demonstrates well how baptism and the Lord’s Supper reorient life around union and communion with Christ, fostering a biblically grounded and historically informed view of both sacraments. Ultimately, this book is about union with Christ and his church, spelling out implications for personal identity and what we do in every area of life.

Drawing his theme from John 19:34 (7, 64), Emmert presses on finding our identity in union with Christ through the signs of washing in baptism and of feasting in the Lord’s Supper. Bracketed by an introduction and conclusion, his six chapters trace the relationship between Word and sacrament, of sacraments and Christian identity, the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper proper (chapters 3-4), the implications of both for conformity to Christ, and living in communion with the church by participation in Christ’s offices of prophet, priest, and king. He effectively and persistently makes his point that the Triune God designed baptism and the Lord’s Supper to change how we think about ourselves by shaping the way we think about our relationship to God and to his church. Taken alone, the sheer volume of relevant biblical passages he applies to the sacraments illustrates both how neglected the sacraments have become in modern evangelicalism, and divine wisdom in giving these outward signs to the church to keep the church on track. This timely, gripping, and well-written book fills a void in the church while avoiding the pitfalls of making either too much or too little of the sacraments.

Several elements of this work stand out, even prompting a bit of healthy dialogue and debate. One outstanding feature is his consistent Trinitarian theology. While modern people often seek to define their own personal existence and significance, Emmert wisely starts with divine personhood and identity as the root of believing personhood and identity, stating, “Indeed the doctrine of the Trinity is the very rationale for human existence and personhood” (116). Because Trinitarian personhood is more fundamental than human personhood, creation by the Triune God defines who we are, and “to be truly human…we must therefore exist in communion” (118), both with God and with others. Drawing heavily from John Owen (116-122), Emmert reminds readers that the Lord’s Supper, for instance, proclaims to us that the Father does not tolerate us, but he is well pleased with us in Christ, with the Spirit dwelling in our hearts (121). Such Trinitarian themes pervade the book, promoting a God-centered view of reality.

Additionally, while some today reject the term “sacrament” in favor of “ordinances,” Emmert retains the older term as meaning something sacred, or a divine mystery. The importance of doing so lies not only in retaining continuity with Christian history, but in pressing a God-originating and God-oriented view of the sacraments. What he is getting is that “The sacraments are not chiefly anthropological…” (44), but about the work of the Triune God (45). “Ordinances” could prioritize human activity, while “sacraments” prioritize divine activity (45). For example, baptism is more about God’s pledge to us of his saving work, requiring our believing response, than about serving as a badge of our professions of faith. Treating sacraments primarily God-downward holy communication is a much-needed corrective to modern assumptions about the sacraments.

Though the author generally avoids controversy, stressing what Christians have in common respecting the sacraments, he gives some scattered food for thought regarding how often the church should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The logic behind using the sacraments as often as possible is simple: “for we benefit greatly by participating in them more frequently, just as we benefit by engaging the word of God more frequently” (64). Emmert adds wisely, that when, with the word, “the Lord’s Supper is one of the two great peaks in the church’s worship…what is reinforced is that communion or fellowship with God is the telos of the Christian life” (111, fn 21). Even though the Word is primary over the sacraments (i.e., we can have the Word without the sacraments, but we cannot have the sacraments without the Word), we should not marginalize the sacraments. From the first days of the Christian church in unbroken historical succession, the church practiced weekly communion. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and many other Protestants still do so. The fact that only churches descended in some way from the Reformed branch of the Reformation broke this pattern points towards overreaction. Though weekly communion is not necessary like the Word and preaching are, it is appropriate, and most Christians have certainly thought it so. When people object that weekly communion would downplay self-examination or diminish the importance of the Lord’s Supper, then one wonders whether we are unintentionally treating the sacrament as superior to the Word, requiring more preparation with higher significance. The value of Emmert’s occasional references to weekly communion is that instead of arguing his case head-on, he simply illustrates the Spirit’s design in using the sacraments continually in our worship to drive us continually to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). As he notes, “The frequency with which we partake of this sacrament and its nature as a meal give it special fortifying power” (127). Take this mild exhortation to reconsider the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, in the right light. Weekly communion is not an issue to split churches over while ceasing to preach the gospel would be. Like Emmert, desiring the Lord’s Supper more often should be winsome and positive, not combative and negative. The real issue should be that we desire communion with Christ, for ourselves and others, and we want to get as much of Christ as we can as often as we can (e.g., 173). Though some Christians have a knack for behaving badly when disagreeing with others, Emmert’s stress on the value of communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper should at least promote friendly, patient, and productive conversations over this issue.

People today are obsessed with the question of identity to the point of distraction. Yet the sacraments remind us that to think about ourselves properly, we must begin by thinking about our God properly. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remind us that the Triune God comes first, then the church and others, and then we come last. This book sounds like a vital note that Christians today need to hear.


Ryan M. McGraw

Buy the books


Crossway, 2023 | 240 pages

Share This

Share this with your friends!