Discipleship and the Sacraments
Central to the church’s mission in the world is to make disciples. In biblical times a disciple was a follower of a teacher. But it’s more than the student and teacher relationship we sometimes think of in our own day. Rather, discipleship is a close-knit relationship where one follows the instruction and life of the teacher. In Christian terms, a disciple is one who follows the instruction and life of Jesus. The intent of the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations," is that we would make followers of Jesus through fellowship with Jesus.
Of course, as clear as that command is we might wonder about the practicalities. How do we make disciples? Has Jesus left us to think up strategies and clever methods? Has he left us to our own programs and plans? No. Even as he tells us to go and make disciples he immediately adds: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Discipleship's Process and Promise
There’s two important things to notice. First, as New Testament commentator RT France said, the words baptizing and teaching “spell out the process of making disciples.” In other words, Jesus isn’t saying make disciples and baptize and teach. But we make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Christian discipleship is done through the means of the ministry of the Word and sacrament. Second, we have this mysterious promise that concludes the gospel: "I am with you always, to the end of the age." It’s mysterious because after Jesus says it he disappears — it’s the promise of presence with the appearance of absence. Jesus is promising, however, that his presence would accompany the discipleship ministry of the church. When we receive the Word and sacrament in faith we are fellowshipping with the one who has physically ascended to his Father in heaven, and as we fellowship with him we are being made his followers. And Jesus intended that this method of discipleship continue until his return.
Setting aside the ministry of the Word, I want to emphasize the important place the sacraments have in the life of discipleship. Baptism and the Lord's Supper aren't accessories to the Christian life, and much less are they mere formalities. The New Testament demonstrates that they are central to our discipleship – our following Jesus through fellowship with Jesus.
Baptism and Discipleship
To give credit where credit is due, Sinclair Ferguson once said baptism is something of a naming ceremony. By nature we are all born into the family of Adam. As such, we are identified with his sin and living up to that identity we are sinners (see Romans 5:12-17). But in baptism we have a new name given to us. We are baptized into the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And now it is our privilege to live up to that name.
In one of the most practical sections of Scripture where Paul is getting to the very bottom of who we already are in Jesus and what we are not yet, he reminds us of the spiritual significance of baptism. In Romans 6:1 he asks the question: "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" He immediately responds with the greatest indignation: "God forbid!" And then he writes: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). In a very practical way Paul is simply saying: "Remember your baptism!" Likewise, he teaches: "For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27).
It's said that when Martin Luther was tempted and tried he often encouraged himself by repeating over and over: "I am baptized! I am baptized!" We need to better learn how to use (or as the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it "improve") our baptisms especially in times of temptation and as a motive to living to the glory of God. A constant use of our baptism – whose value isn't tied to the moment it's given – is to remind us that sin is inconsistent with who we are in Jesus, and the life we live we live for him. That is to say, the whole of our Christian life is living up to the privilege of being named into the name of the Triune God.
Communion and Discipleship
Additionally, we have been given the Lord's Supper and this too is a means of discipleship. Much to the offense of many Jesus taught: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56). Hard as that saying is, it would be absurd to think that Jesus is saying we need to physically eat his body and drink his blood. Rather, eating and drinking is the act of believing (see John 6:64). And what Jesus is saying is that by faith his body and blood become to our spiritual life what food is to our physical life – and he nourishes us unto eternal life.
This is the same truth that is behind the Lord's Supper: "And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'" (Luke 22:19-20). By eating the bread in faith and drinking from the cup in faith we are being spiritually nourished and sustained by Jesus. You see, the Lord's Supper isn't simply a memorial service. In fact, Paul later teaches that by faith we actually fellowship with Christ in the Lord's Supper: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). The word for participation is koinonia – communion or fellowship.
This has practical value to our daily Christian living. In nourishing us spiritually in the Lord's Supper we are strengthened and grow in grace, resolve, gratitude, and love all of which have their place in our ordinary obedience. As Matthew Henry wrote: "To feed upon Christ is to do all in his name, in union with him, and by virtue drawn from him; it is to live upon him as we do upon our meat." When we leave the Table we do so as those who have fellowshipped and communed with Jesus and those who should be more committed to following him.
True Christian discipleship depends on this. When Jesus commanded his church to make disciples he didn't leave us to our own imaginations and programs. He also gave us a process. It's not particularly glitzy and glamorous or innovative and creative. But that's okay because we couldn't think up a better process! It also shows how important being baptized and keeping the Lord's Supper is to our daily Christian lives. Making disciples – making followers of Jesus through fellowship with Jesus – by means of baptism and the Lord's Supper has this promise: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."