Book Review: Truths We Can Touch, by Tim Chester
Tim Chester, Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives. Crossway, 2020. 176 pages.
Intramural Protestant conversations about the ordinances often feel like entrenched squabbles over ecclesial distinctives about everything these symbols are not. Many of these arguments have emphasized what pastors are communicating by administering the ordinances, or what Christians are saying by participating in them, and the ecclesial implications that follow from these practices. We might be dismayed, then, when an evangelical author deliberately disappoints our penchant for partisan answers about subject, manner, and mode—unsettling, I know, but all articulated by other able voices.
What we get in return for our disappointment, however, is affirmative, devotional, confessional meditation on how the ordinances function for our Christian encouragement and growth in grace. Instead of insisting on what we’re saying to others in these symbols, Chester invites us to listen afresh to what Jesus is saying to us in them. As a result, we see not how the ordinances divide churches, but how they unite Christians.
But come on. Can a book really unite if it refuses to reconcile the controversies that divide? I wondered that too; and then I read it.
IF BAPTISM AND COMMUNION DISAPPEARED, WOULD YOU MISS THEM?
Chester begins by wondering whether we Protestants would really miss the Lord’s Supper or Baptism if they were taken away. He attributes our indifference toward the ordinances to our complicity in allowing sola Scriptura to be hijacked by rationalism. As a result, even many Christians feel more comfortable inhabiting a “disenchanted” worldview (18–20, 159–164)— after all, shouldn’t word trump experience? Adamant for transcendence, we’re wary of immanence.
Yet it is precisely in the ordinances that Jesus has somehow “materialized” or dramatized his promised presence; just how, though, we’re afraid to ask. Experiencing the transcendent in terms of the tangible feels rather . . . taboo, medieval, mystical—un-Protestant. This is, perhaps in part, why the word “sacrament” gives some of us the heebie-jeebies and why we (myself included) retreat for safety to the linguistic fortress of the word “ordinance” instead. Yes, we practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but only because Jesus told us to . . . and always careful not to enjoy it too much.
EMBODYING THE GOSPEL PROMISE
Chester’s summary of his argument is that “it is helpful to think of the sacraments as embodied promises. . . . The water, bread, and wine are objective realities outside us that embody the objective nature of the gospel promise. . . . Their meaning derives from the gospel. They are . . . objective declarations of God’s promise to us” (43–44 emphasis original). Thus while baptism is us going public with Christ, it is first and foremost God tangibly signifying his own action of cleansing us from sin and uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Chester challenges evangelicals to consider whether we think more like Catholics than we’d care to admit when we see baptism either exclusively or even primarily as “something we do for God” (declaring our faith) when in fact the ordinances “are something he does for us” (50). Our very passivity in baptism—we do not baptize ourselves but we are baptized—signifies the objectivity of our union with Christ. It is not just that we are doing something in being baptized, or that the church is doing something for us (though true). It’s that God is doing something for us in baptizing us—giving us an enacted and even palpable sign to assure us that his gospel promise is real—and has a real effect in the real world of real people.
This very objectivity, signified tangibly in the water and the experience of being baptized, is what Luther was reaffirming of himself while he holed up in the Wartburg yelling at no one in particular “Baptizatus sum . . . I am a baptized man” (51). It’s hard to know what Luther was thinking when he said that; but the takeaway for Chester is that Luther’s baptism was the tangible experience and memory that re-directed him out from his subjective feelings about his rejection by the world, and up to the objectivity of his union with Christ, no matter how he felt within himself. And this, it appears, is what Paul is doing in Romans 6:1–4—directing the church at Rome back to the objective spiritual reality concretized (tangibilized) in their water-baptism (130). The ordinances, then, are the multisensory (dare I say immersive) experiences that Jesus gives his people as a way of making his spiritual presence tangible among us during his physical absence.
A MINOR QUIBBLE ON THE WORD “CONVEY”
If I have a quibble, it’s that the book uses the verb “conveys” (36) to explain the functional relationship of the ordinances to grace, when my Protestant ears would find it easier hear something like “expresses,” ”suggests,” “illustrates,” or “symbolizes.” For example, Chester writes, “the signs convey the reality they signify without becoming the reality they signify” (72, emphasis original).
Perhaps it’s semantics, but the verb “conveys” can itself unintentionally communicate the very ex opere operato relationship that Chester denies. I don’t think the intended meaning is that the ordinances “convey the forgiveness and gracious acceptance of God” (36, quoting Melvin Tinker) in the sense that they directly relay or deliver grace like a conveyor belt conveys cargo. Rather, the ordinances suggest, dramatize, symbolize, visualize, or illustrate that grace and its reception in tangible ways that assure us and help us appreciate and enjoy that grace afresh. In the context of a historic conversation fraught with misunderstanding, I’d eschew using the word “convey.”
THE ORDINANCES AND THE LOCAL CHURCH
That said, it’d be hard to find a more succinct, accurate, readable introduction to historic views on communion than in Chester’s compelling chapter on the Lord’s Supper as “enacted presence.” Within the friendly confines of just a few pages, Chester both explains and rejects the real physical presence of Catholicism, the ubiquity of Christ’s body undergirding Lutheran consubstantiation, and Zwingli’s mere memorialism (82–88) and advocates for the real spiritual presence taught by Calvin, Cranmer, and that Baptist of all Baptists, Spurgeon himself (88–91).
Chester is also strong on both the covenantal and ecclesial aspects of the ordinances (see, there I go again!). Since “every Lord’s Supper is a covenant-renewal ceremony” (121, 123), our own church takes it as an opportune time to renew our membership commitments to each other by reciting our church covenant together. But “If baptism is like a wedding, then communion is like an embrace . . . the reaffirmation of covenant love” (98). “Baptism is the embodiment of our union with Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the embodiment of our communion with Christ” (101). A baptized life, then, is really a cruciform life—a life shaped by union with Christ’s death and resurrection (133–134), which is what baptism symbolizes. And communion shapes our Christian service by reminding us of our Master’s sacrifice, re-igniting our gratitude for it, and renewing our view of the world as one where the transcendent God is immanent among us (134–142).
Since the ordinances are covenantal, Chester rightly emphasizes that they are ecclesial. At this point, Baptists might feel like we’re returning to more familiar territory. “If you want to receive God’s blessing, you do not need to go looking for some dramatic new experience. The place to be is your local church, where the word is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered” (74). In the final fifteen pages (143–158), he affirms baptism as prerequisite for both church membership and the Lord’s Supper, the horizontally reconciling intention of the Supper (149–150), communion’s relationship to church discipline and the keys (151–155), and the Lord’s Supper as the opportunity for unbelievers to see and feel themselves helpfully excluded from the family meal, not as a meanspirited snub, but as a means of corporate evangelism and as a protection against false assurance (155–158). Of course, the book’s deliberate refusal to enter the paedo-credo debate forces the awkward admission that “There is only one door into the church, and that is the font or baptistery” (144). Ah. Only one door . . . but there’s an either-or. And therein lieth the rub. But that’s a conversation for another book.
AN NOURISHING MEDITATION ON THE ORDINANCES
If you want a nourishing meditation on the ordinances, Chester’s book is a good place to cut your teeth. He models the best kind of gospel-centered ecumenism that can help evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians agree with one another on the significance of the ordinances, while not getting mired in denominational distinctives. It’s a good example of relishing our agreements before indulging our debates. I do want our own congregation to hear more specifics about the ordinances than this book addresses. Yet Chester has given me some encouragements that I hope to use in my service leading comments to shepherd people through observing communion and baptisms. He’s provided the church with an accessible discipling tool for encouraging inexperienced or poorly taught Christians in the significance of our Christian symbols, which are, despite all our disagreements, truth made tangible.