Sunday, May 11, 2014

More Than a Memory

The Lord's Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a MemoryThe Lord's Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory by Richard C Barcellos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up not active in church. I was converted as an 18 year old at a typical Southern Baptist Church and began to grow much in my Southern Baptistism…and also some in my Christianity.  Even when I was not necessarily growing in grace and knowledge of the Lord, I was most definitely absorbing the culture of, some if not much, of the Southern Baptist world.  I bought into the true truth.  I knew that it was not a worship song if you couldn’t make motions to go along with it (Youth Group), that conversion is as simple as ABC (VBS), that one method of evangelism is to leave a video for those “Left Behind” (Christian movie nights), that two teenagers holding hands was more dangerous than a conflation of Law and Gospel (summer camp), that those baptized as a baby were definitely lost (pastoral counsel), and that you had not preached the Gospel until you gave an altar call(Christian college).  I was a living, breathing, Southern Baptist caricature.

And my understanding of the Supper ordinance was exactly what you assume it to be.  Sacrament?  Pfft, Jesus was sacrificed once for all, thank you very much.  Communion?  Umm, I think you mean “Lord’s Supper”.  It is a somber memorial where Christians look into themselves to see if there is any sin in us that would shame the Lord Jesus.  Means of Grace?  Woah, woah, woah.  We are not, and I mean NOT, saved by works.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbols.  They do not convey grace to us.  And we aren’t Catholics or Lutherans or Presbys, none of that “As often as you gather together” junk.  We do it once a quarter….so it doesn’t become rote.

Part of what has faced the young and restless crowd during this resurgence of Reformed Theology is the question of “How ‘Reformed’ are you going to go?”  Calvinism is cool.  It is the in-thing to grow a beard, embrace unconditional election, smoke a cigar and wax poetic about Puritans and Old Princeton.  But those of us who have been influenced by this movement have to wrestle with the big questions.  What about Covenant Theology as a whole?  How does our eschatology line up with our new understanding of the entirety of Scripture?  What is the appropriate way to engage worship?  What is the role of the Law in the Christian’s life?  What is the biblical form of church government?  What about the Christian ordinances of Communion and Baptism?

There are a ton of great works on the sacramental nature of communion from a traditional Covenantal perspective.  What has been lacking is a solid, accessible defense of this position from the point of view of a Baptist.  Richard Barcellos fills this void brilliantly with The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More than a Memory.

Barcellos offers a convincing, edifying, biblical, and historical argument for why the Lord’s Supper is more than a memory.  He “shows us (in this book) that the Holy Spirit of God brings grace to His people through the channels He has established (including the Supper).”

Barcellos warns from the outset that the work he presents is not for the uninitiated.  He takes the readers through the deep waters of some complex exegesis including some large sections of Greek.  Graciously, he is gentle and accommodating on this trip.  He does an excellent job of not allowing this work to get away from those of us who haven’t made it past the alpha, beta, gamma’s of Greek yet. (And those of you who have forgotten most of the Greek you used to know!)

Barcellos chooses Pauline theology of the Supper as the focus of his study—and for good reason.  While the Gospels “contain the facts of redemption accomplished” the epistles “contain the implications, consequences, and applications of redemption accomplished.”

But wait!  Maybe you are where I have been and cannot hear “means of grace” without blurting out compulsively, “WORKS RIGHTEOUSNESS!!”(Yep, 2 “!”s)  Well, may I encourage you to take a breath?  Count to 10 backwards.  Go to your happy place, whatever it takes to get back to clear thinking.  Barcellos does a fine job of slaying this Roman bogeyman throughout his text and gives a simple, clear definition of “means of grace” with which all who trust the Scriptures can be comfortable. “Means of grace”, according to Barcellos, is “God’s delivery systems through which that which was acquired for us gets distributed or delivered to or in us.”

Berkhof’s comment on the Supper as a means of grace helps clarify the position.
The Lord’s Supper is intended for believers and for believers only, and therefore is not instrumental in originating the work of grace in the heart of the sinner. The presence of the grace of God is presupposed in the hearts of the participants. Jesus administered it to His professed followers only; according to Acts 2:42, 46 they who believed continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread; and in 1 Cor. 11:28, 29 the necessity of self-examination before partaking of the Lord’s Supper is stressed. The grace received in the sacrament does not differ in kind from that which believers receive through the instrumentality of the Word. The sacrament merely adds to the effectiveness of the Word, and therefore to the measure of the grace received. It is the grace of an ever closer fellowship with Christ, of spiritual nourishment and quickening, and of an ever increasing assurance of salvation. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 654)



One way Barcellos seeks to give us a fuller understanding of the Supper is to look at why we call it “the Supper”….or “Communion”…or “Eucharist”…and all other language associated with the meal from Scripture.  One of the reasons many of us do not place an emphasis on the Lord’s Supper is due to the fact that we have a very reductionist understanding of a topic that is, in Scripture, quite robust.  Barcellos wants the reader to see how communion occurs at the meal, not just communion between believers but communion with Christ, vertical rather than simply horizontal koinonia.  He argues from Scripture that believers participate, in a present and active sense, in the Supper with Christ.

To support his thesis of the Supper as a means of grace he offers an argument from Ephesians 3 about prayer as a means of grace.  Barcellos’ conclusion is pretty self-evident: “According to Paul, prayer is a means through which the Father sends grace procured by the Son to the souls of men delivered by the Spirit.  Paul views prayer as a means of grace in a Trinitarian economy of redemption.”

But Barcellos wants the reader to not fall into the trap of Rome, the trap that so many Evangelicals are rebounding so violently against.  “(Prayer) is a means of grace, though it does not work ex opere operato. God remains the sovereign granter who grants what is requested at his pleasure.”

The Supper is just the same.

Just as prayer does not work ex opere operato, neither does the Supper. Both the Lord’s Supper and prayer are a means of grace through which the Spirit of God brings soul-nourishing and faith-strengthening blessings from heaven to Christ’s people on earth by the blessing by God.

Barcellos, building on this point of the Supper not operating ex opera operato, makes the statement that “(t)he Supper benefits believers alone.”  I am not sure I can get there with him.  Does the Supper offer communal benefits to unbelievers? Certainly not.  His emphasizing the fact that this is not some magical formula for access to the divine, regardless of faith, is important.  But, I also believe there is a testimonial benefit to the Supper, even to the unbeliever.  The Gospel being proclaimed visually in the Supper is bound to be used by God as a means to bring repentance and faith to some unbelievers who witness this meal.  How could such a clear presentation of the Gospel not inevitably lead to the conversion of some who witness it?  I think
Barcellos would agree and I would have enjoyed seeing this highlighted at this point.

Barcellos closes with an admonition to which I offer a hearty “amen and amen!”  After summarizing his overwhelming case for the Supper as a means of God’s grace, Barcellos says,
If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit brings to the souls of believers the benefits of Christ’s body and blood and, as a result, souls are nourished, then we ought to think seriously about its frequency.

Barcellos quotes Michael Horton in his suggestion that a “diminished interest in frequent communion is the product of an inordinate emphasis upon ‘the individual’s inner piety’. “  Horton’s quote is worth re-quoting in its entirety,
The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual’s inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other.  Instead of viewing it first as God’s saving action toward us and then our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the Law.  Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion we are still trembling on the foot of Mount Sinai.  It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion. (God of Promise,160-161 )

If Horton’s phrase “God’s saving action towards us” causes some hesitation, Herman Bavinck offers a good clarification that is helpful.
The Lord’s Supper is a spiritual meal at which Christ feeds our souls with his crucified body and shed blood. Eating and drinking them serves to strengthen our spiritual, that is, our eternal life, for those who eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood have eternal life and are raised up on the last day (John 6:54). (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 4 pg 579)

Barcellos is right to warn the reader that this work will require a bit of effort and the ability to follow a detailed exegetical and theological argument, but he leads the reader magnificently and I feel comfortable encouraging any who are even the least bit interested to take the chance and make the effort.  The effort will undoubtedly bear much fruit.   Barcellos said in his introduction that,
The subject matter of this book is vitally important for confessional Reformed churches and all other local churches.  I am convinced from the word of God that the Lord’s Supper is a vital part of local church life because it was ordained by the Lord Jesus to be a means of grace and more than a memory.  I hope you will agree with me once I am finished.

I don’t know how anyone could honestly read this book and not agree with him at the finish.  Enjoy this work and restore the Supper to its proper place in your thought and worship.

I received a review copy if this book from Christian Focus publishing to offer an honest review.  I am buying copies to give as gifts because I think God will use this work mightily in many people’s lives!


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