A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan McGraw
Our entire theology can tie together or unravel with the doctrine of the sacraments. We need union and communion with Christ in grace and in glory in order to be saved. The Spirit must apply the grace of Christ to us by bringing the Father’s promises home to us through faith. This comes through the Word, in continually applying grace to those receiving Christ by faith. All of this happens in the community of the church, fostering the communion of the saints. Our salvation also directs us to Christ’s return in glory, in which we will be saved in body and soul at the resurrection and dwell with the triune God and his church forever. How we regard and use the sacraments reflects all of these truths and more.
Tim Chester’s mature and wise presentation of the sacraments shows how the sacraments promote the gospel by setting the sacraments in the broader context of Christian faith and life. This book is sorely needed in a day when evangelical churches have largely lost the classic Reformed doctrine of the sacraments as means of grace. Chester rightly shows us how the sacraments have life-long significance for believers. His book is packed with sound Reformed theology, while remaining highly readable and filled with practical examples and illustrations that will profit readers of every level of maturity in the faith.
This book represents a well-rounded and mature theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The author opens by asking how long it would take us to miss the Lord’s Supper if we stopped observing it (13). While we would protest the absence of preaching or singing immediately (14), many evangelicals might go for a long time without noticing the absence of the sacraments. The author responds with a flurry of New Testament texts illustrating how frequently the Apostles attached life-long significance to the sacraments, and especially to baptism.
This observation sets the stage for the six chapters that follow. Treating both sacraments in tandem, Chester explains them as God’s enacted promise, enacted grace, enacted presence, enacted memory, and how the sacraments shape the Christian life and community in the church (chapters 5-6). The author touches all of the necessary bases in his approach to the sacraments, and the strengths of his approach are too numerous to list here. These include Jesus’ identity with us in his baptism (31), a clear and simple definition of the term “sacrament” (33), the inseparable connection between Word and sacrament (39), the priority of God’s promises over our faith (45), the connection between the sacraments and the covenant of grace (58, 121), the Old Testament pattern of feasting in the presence of God as informing Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper (61, 64), the physicality of the sacraments and our hope of the resurrection (67), the conferring of grace to believers in the sacraments (70, 73), covenant renewal by remembering God’s mighty acts of redemption in the sacraments (119), the importance of being named by the Triune God in baptism (129), the value of the sacraments in fighting temptation (51, 130), the corporate meaning of the sacraments and their relationship to the church (143-144), and the connection between the sacraments and church discipline (151-155) and evangelism (155-158). His material will challenge those who have overly intellectualized the gospel by calling them to fresh repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ.
It is a humbling fact that it is hard not to disagree with something in a book on the sacraments. Nevertheless, two points are worth noting here. While the author carefully avoids debates over issues such as infant baptism, some of his Baptist distinctives stand out now and then. For example, he occasionally implies that baptism entails immersion (e.g., 27, 134, etc.). While this reviewer believes that the case for baptism by immersion is dubious (Christ was buried in the side of a hill and not immersed in the ground, baptism is connected to the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts, as well as to the sprinkling of blood in Hebrews, etc.), the main problem is importing the mode of baptism into its meaning. Baptism means “to wash” and it functions to identify us with Christ in our baptisms, or Christ with us in his baptism. Immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are simply modes of washing. Importing mode into meaning obscures the significance of baptism to some degree, pressing modern burial imagery into places in Scripture where the image does not exist.
Another issue is that Chester asserts that the church should invite all baptized people to the Lord’s Supper (157). This implies that we must either be Baptists, or we must practice paedocommunion, which admits children to the Supper on the grounds of baptism. While this is not the place to make a case against paedocommunion, readers should be aware that such a case has always been standard fare in Reformed (paedobaptist) theology. Moreover, even a Baptist must wrestle with the occasional baptized Roman Catholic, liberal Protestant, or excommunicated person visiting their churches. Such people may be baptized, but they may not have a right to the Lord’s Supper. While no unbaptized person should come to the Lord’s Supper, clearly the Lord’s Supper does not simply belong to all baptized people. Such differences, however, should not detract from the outstanding quality of this book as a whole.
The sacraments press the gospel on those who observe and receive them. Chester illustrates how and why this is the case. The church needs a renewal of Protestant sacramental theology. It is unsurprising that she also needs a renewal in Trinitarian faith. If we are paying attention, then the sacraments press us back to the saving acts of the Triune God at the heart of the gospel at its most practical level. Having read a pile of books on the sacraments over the years, Chester’s book will likely stay near the top of the pile for a long time to come and will likely stay one of the primary modern books that I recommend on the sacraments for a good while.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
TRUTH WE CAN TOUCH: HOW BAPTISM AND COMMUNION SHAPE OUR LIVES, by Tim Chester