Yes, The Ordinances Really Do Change People
Evangelicals are the descendants of the Protestant Reformation. We believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Among other things, the Reformers rejected the Catholic Church’s sacramental system, which misconstrued baptism and the Lord’s Supper as instrumental for salvation.
However, just because Protestants rejected the ordinances as instrumental for salvation doesn’t mean they’re not necessary in the Christian life. We believe the Lord Jesus instituted the ordinances for the people of God to observe when they gather for worship. They’re a sign of the Christian’s union both with Christ and with one another.
And so, we believe the ordinances really do change people. Let me give you three reasons why.
1. The ordinances are the Word made visible.
The ordinances are inherently tied to the Word of God. Furthermore, it’s by the Word of God that unbelievers come to faith (Rom 10:13–17) and Christians become like Jesus (John 17:17). As the church gathers for worship, the Word stands at the center of our gatherings—through our praying and preaching, our reading and our singing, and through our practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These ordinances are the Word made visible.
Our Lord Jesus instituted both baptism (Matt 28:18–20) and the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14–20; 1 Cor. 11:23-30). They are part of God’s plans for the edification of his church. He commands his church to observe baptism and the Lord’s supper because they are profitable for us as a means for our sanctification. Just as with the Word of God, the ordinances are not magical in themselves. But yes! They really do change people.
2. The ordinances point to our union with Christ—and our union with one another.
The ordinances are visible signs of the gospel. What does that mean? Let me explain.
In baptism, we see the gospel represented in the immersion of the repentant sinner. Through baptism, their sin has been “washed away” (Acts 22:16); their baptism proclaims that they are united to Christ in his death and resurrection (Col. 2:11–12; cf. Rom. 6:3–4).
In the Lord’s Supper, we see the gospel portrayed when a local church, as one body, partakes of the Bread and the Cup (1 Cor. 10:16–17). The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal in which the body of Christ remembers Christ’s body which he gave in the place of his people and Christ’s blood which he shed to establish the new covenant.
These symbols are not abstract. They visibly display invisible truths—of salvation, regeneration, and union with Christ. That’s why Christ gave these symbols to the church. Those who participate in the ordinances ought to be Christians, such that the visible representation matches the invisible reality. In other words, yes, the ordinances change people. But they also point to changed people. Here’s what I mean.
When we got baptized, we identified with both our repentance (Acts 2:38; cf. Rom 6:3–4) and our regeneration, that is, our new life in Christ (John 3:5–7; Rom. 6:4). Furthermore, we publicly affirmed our commitment not only to God, but also to his people. This latter commitment is crystallized through the Lord’s Supper, in which the local church comes together to remember the death of the Lord Jesus and anticipate the day when he will return (1 Cor. 11:23–26).
If we read through 1 Corinthians 11, it’s clear that a proper participation in the Lord’s Supper requires self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28). It requires asking at least two questions: How’s our relationship with the Lord? And how’s our relationship with fellow believers?
The Lord’s Supper invites us to remember Christ’s work on our behalf, and to recommit our lives to God. This kind of self-examination leads to repentance. Change is an inherent part of the ordinances. In other words, yes, the ordinances really do change people.
3. The ordinances really mean something.
Finally, the way Scripture talks about the ordinances should convince us that they really change people. In his first letter, Peter says that “baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21; cf. Rom. 6:3–4; Col. 2:11-12). Note that it is not the water that saves but the appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Still, it’s significant that baptism can be said to “save.” How do we make sense of this, given what I said earlier about baptism not being necessary for salvation?
We might compare it to a couple getting married. The man and the woman could just get together and have a private, mutual agreement. But a public ceremony with a public oath before witnesses—that’s a visible contract, and it changes everything. In the wedding ceremony, the man and the woman, upon their public oath, are declared to be husband and wife. In the same way, in baptism, the person—upon their public profession of faith—is recognized by the church to be a Christian. The baptized person now enters into a new life, a new identity, a new allegiance. They belong to a new people.
Concerning the Lord’s Supper, Paul asks the Corinthians: “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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16–17; cf. John 6:53–58).
The cup and the bread are visible, material signs. But when the members of a local church partake of these elements, they become something more. They become the means by which we fellowship with Christ and one another. That’s why Paul later says that “you cannot partake in the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). When we’re participating rightly, there’s true communion with God and with one another. When we’re not participating rightly, we’re communing with something else.
Of course, the baptismal water, the loaf of bread, and the cup do not have in them magical properties. Just as the words of Scripture need to be believed to be profitable to us, so also the ordinances need to be received in faith in order to be profitable to us. In other words, yes, the ordinances really do change people. But faith must come first.