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Lecture XVII: The Church Service as Divine Action

(Art. 21)

As the Fatheris under the Law, besides the veritie of the Sacrifices, had twa chiefe Sacramentes, to wit, Circumcision and the Passeover, the despisers and contemners whereof were not reputed for Gods people; sa do we acknawledge and confesse that we now in the time of the Evangell have twa chiefe Sacramentes, onelie instituted be the Lord Jesus, and commanded to be used of all they that will be reputed members of his body, to wit, Baptisme and the Supper or Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and his Blude. And thir Sacramentes, as weil of Auld as of New Testament, now instituted of God, not onelie to make ane visible difference betwixt his people and they that wes without his league: Bot also to exerce the faith of his Children, and, be participation of the same Sacramentes, to seill in their hearts the assurance of his promise, and of that most blessed conjunction, union and societie, quhilk the elect have with their head Christ Jesus. And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted. And alswa, that in the Supper richtlie used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us, that hee becummis very nurishment and fude of our saules. Not that we imagine anie transubstantiation of bread into Christes body, and of wine into his naturall blude, as the Papistes have perniciouslie taucht and damnablie beleeved; bot this unioun and conjunction, quhilk we have with the body and blude of Christ Jesus in the richt use of the Sacraments, wrocht be operatioun of the haly Ghaist, who by trew faith carryis us above al things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us to feede upon the body and blude of Christ Jesus, quhilk wes anes broken and shed for us, quhilk now is in heaven, and appearis in the presence of his Father for us: And zit notwithstanding the far distance of place quhilk is betwixt his body now glorified in heaven and us now mortal in this eird, zit we man assuredly beleve that the bread quhilk wee break, is the communion of Christes bodie, and the cupe quhilk we blesse, is the communion of his blude. So that we confesse, and undoubtedlie beleeve, that the faithfull, in the richt use of the Lords Table, do so eat the bodie and drinke the blude of the Lord Jesus, that he remaines in them, and they in him: Zea, they are so maid flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones; that as the eternall God-head hes given to the flesh of Christ Jesus (quhilk of the awin conditioun and nature wes mortal and corruptible) life and immortalitie; so dois Christ Jesus his flesh and blude eattin and drunkin be us, give unto us the same prerogatives. Quhilk, albeit we confesse are nether given unto us at that time onelie, nether zit be the proper power and vertue of the Sacrament onelie; zit we affirme that the faithfull, in the richt use of the Lords Table, hes conjunctioun with Christ Jesus, as the naturall man can not apprehend: Zea, and farther we affirme, that albeit the faithfull, oppressed be negligence and manlie infirmitie, dois not profite sameikle as they wald, in the verie instant action of the Supper; zit sall it after bring frute furth, as livelie seid sawin in gude ground. For the haly Spirite, quhilk can never be divided fra the richt institution of the Lord Jesus, wil not frustrat the faithfull of the fruit of that mysticall action: Bot all thir, we say, cummis of trew faith, quhilk apprehendis Christ Jesus, who only makis this Sacrament effectuall unto us. And therefore, whosoever sclanders us, as that we affirme or beleeve Sacraments to be naked and bair Signes, do injurie unto us, and speaks against the manifest trueth. Bot this liberallie and franklie we confesse, that we make ane distinctioun betwixt Christ Jesus in his eternall substance, and betwixt the Elements of the Sacramentall Signes. So that wee will nether worship the Signes, in place of that quhilk is signified be them, nether zit doe we dispise, and interpret them as unprofitable and vaine, bot do use them with all reverence, examining our selves diligentlie before that so we do; because we are assured be the mouth of the Apostle, That sik as eat of that bread, and drink of that coup unworthelie, are guiltie of the bodie and blude of Christ Jesus.


According to Reformed teaching, real service of God, and so the life of the church, has its concrete centre in what is usually called the Church service in the narrower sense of the word, i.e. the action of the congregation assembled together as such, action which is required and appointed by God and which serves to awaken, purify and advance the Christian life. When the Scottish Confession deals with this subject in Articles 21–23 under the heading “of the Sacramentis,” we shall recall that it is engaged in controversy with the conception of the church service which prevailed in the Middle Ages—a conception determined by the sacraments and especially by the Sacrament of the Altar. Over against it the Confession desires to set the right conception of the church service—the one which corresponds to the Word of God. But it is noteworthy that from beginning to end the right conception of the service is expounded from the aspect of the sacraments. Our sixteenth-century forefathers were very far from valuing the sacraments lightly. In opposition to Roman Catholicism they made enquiry about the true sacraments. But it must be noted that in doing this they desired to enquire about the sacraments, only in a still more serious and fundamental way than their opponents. One might well be astonished that in a document so strictly reformed as this, at this point the prayers and confession of faith of the congregation are not mentioned at all and preaching only incidentally. What is spoken of here is simply Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and in the main only the Lord's Supper. How the Reformed church has been misunderstood—by herself too as well as by others—when later the impression prevailed that she was a church without sacraments, even a church hostile to the sacraments! And that, where actually our fathers valued the sacraments so highly that they could hold that the whole of the church service most certainly would and must be right where the teaching and ordering of the sacraments, and especially of the Lord's Supper, were correct. The knowledge which can be perceived behind this historical fact can no longer be entirely strange to us after the course taken hitherto by our lectures. In fact it may well be the case that it is not possible to tackle the problem of the church service in any better way than from this aspect, namely, that of the sacraments.

A sacrament, according to the definitions of the ancient church, which all agree on this matter, and hence according to the Scottish Confession also—a sacrament is an action in which God acts and man serves, his service taking the form of the execution of a divine precept. In accordance with this precept and by means of definite concrete media witness is borne to God's grace and through this men's faith is awakened, purified and advanced. In principle this is all that can be said not only about the sacraments in the narrower sense of the term, but about the church service in general. The first point to which we shall give prominence is that the church service is Divine action. It is as such that the Scottish Confession has represented it in Article 21, our text in this lecture. We shall have to consider the church service as human action also in our next lecture in connection with Articles 22–23. Note how the vere Deus, vere homo, the whole rhythm of Christian doctrine, with which we are constantly meeting, holds good here also. But here also the vere Deus must come first and condition whatever is to be said about the vere homo. The church service is in the first instance primarily, in origin and in substance, divine action, and is only then human action secondarily, by derivation, and as an accident of the former. What man should and can do here is to serve. And that this service is divine service is something which is brought about not by man but by God and God alone. It is God who wills that divine service be held. It is God who provides the media suitable for it. It is God who bears witness through them to His grace. It is God who by this means awakens, purifies and advances faith. All along the line it is God not man, and man at every point appears only as the one who serves and who carries out the Will of God.

If we go on from this to ask, first of all, about the reason and purpose of the church service—its ground, it must be immediately clear to us, that all that we ourselves can choose and do in it takes second place. How could the church service but be a practice of devotion, a gathering together of thoughts and of hearts around the mystery of the church and of the Christian life, a contemplation of the Grace of God shown forth in Jesus Christ, and a new seeking after Him who has found us in His word. We have need of devotion of this kind. But this is not the primary ground for the church service. Why should it not also mean our instruction. Jesus Christ is the Truth, of which we cannot hear enough. Holy Scripture as testimony to Him demands to be expounded and made clear. It is high time that the anti-intellectualism, which has reigned so long in the church, should disappear finally. A service where there is nothing to be learned is not a service at all. We need instruction from God's Word. But this, too, is not the primary ground for the church service. Every service should be a confession of faith as well. In the service certain things become visible. We see God's Word being proclaimed and heard. The members of the church become manifest to one another and with this the fact that they belong together becomes visible and thus the church becomes visible as the church. By holding the service we confess our adherence to one another and to the church and to the Word of God. To confess means at least to render visible, and it is necessary that this should come about. But this, too, is not the primary ground for the church service.

The primary ground for the church service lies outside ourselves. It lies in the presence and the action of Jesus Christ. He wishes to rule in mercy and faithfulness. He wishes the church to be as He is and to continue as He continues. He wishes to be loved and praised in the Christian life of her members because in His person and in His work He is the meaning and the goal of all human history. It is in the church that this meaning and goal become visible. For this reason He creates and sustains the church, and for this reason and ultimately for this reason alone there is need for the church service. The power possessed by this service consists not in what we desire and do in it, but in the Divine appointment and call which we obey there. The church service is an opus Dei, which takes place for its own sake. This may all seem strange to us and also beneficial to hear. Poor present-day man with his utilitarian notions should certainly find it salutary and comforting to be told once again that there is something which, though it has its utilitarian side too, cannot be founded on utilitarian principles, but has its primary ground in its being commanded us. And this thing is the church service.


The primary content of the church service corresponds to its primary ground. Whatever takes place in it can be concerned only with the execution of the Will and command of the Lord of the church. And His will and command is that the church exist and continue. The work of the Holy Spirit in the service is to bring this about. And now we have some small understanding of why the Scottish Confession refers at this point only to baptism and the Lord's Supper, and how far it thinks by doing this it has said all that is necessary to be said here. To what do we find Baptism bearing testimony? That “we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice,” says the Confession. And to what do we find the Lord's Supper bearing testimony? That “he remains in [us] and [we] in him” because we may enter ever anew into the same fellowship which He as a man of flesh and blood has with the Eternal God. So we see that what we are concerned with in Baptism is the church's existence. But the church is undergoing reformation. And thus all the emphasis falls now on the Lord's Supper. For what we are concerned with in the Lord's Supper is the church's continuance. Hence the Divine command embraces, regulates and delimitates the whole church service by Baptism and the Lord's Supper. These form to a certain extent the only necessary sphere of the church service because the only one adequate for it. Whatever takes place in it must have its origin in Baptism, in the existence of the church, in the threefold fact that Jesus Christ has once and for all died and risen again for us, that we are irrevocably His and that we are destined for no other end than to be justified, sanctified and glorified through Him. And whatever takes place in the church service must have as its end the Lord's Supper, the continuance of the church, Jesus Christ's giving us a new share in His existence as man as existence with God and the constant fulfilment of our destiny, which is to be the object of His work. The church service is what takes place between the beginning and the end thus described as testimony to the Grace of God and as the awakening, purifying and advancing of our faith. Therefore the Confession is quite in order in speaking only of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, when it deals with the service.

What lies between these limits? We need now only ask the further question: what must happen when the church of Jesus Christ, assembled by His command, is mindful in the symbol of Baptism of whence she comes, of her creation through the Word of God? If she is really assembled and if as an assembly she forms a fellowship that must be consummated as a fellowship, and if words must therefore be spoken in this assembly, what words would be possible except those forming the proclamation of God's revelation? The message of God's great act stands at the beginning of all the ways which the church and those within her take, at the outset of their thinking, willing and doing; it is a message which, though it is heard, is never sufficiently heard; it tells, as the conclusion of the Scottish Confession says, that He is risen in all His wrath and in all His mercy, risen in the midst of His enemies to show Himself as God, risen as the Messiah of Israel and as the Son of the Virgin, and risen the third day from the dead. That this is her origin, is a fact about which the church can be under no misapprehension and about which she cannot keep silent. That is the word which must be spoken in her midst and must continue to be spoken: God manifest in Jesus Christ. And the testimony to this, her origin, is Baptism. She can at times forget that this is her origin, and she can misunderstand it or give it a different meaning, but in her midst is Holy Scripture, which refuses to be silent. On the contrary, it speaks of this and nothing else. The Holy Spirit does not let Himself be quenched, and will see to it that the church service must consist constantly in the preaching of the gospel. And now we require only to ask the further question: what must happen when the church of Jesus Christ is mindful in the symbol of the Lord's Supper of whither she goes, of her preservation through the Word of God? If she is truly assembled, and if her fellowship must be consummated through words, what can these words be unless the word of faith, which accepts the revelation of God and which is therefore the prayer of thanksgiving, which includes the prayer of repentance and the prayer of praise and all other prayers. The Lord's Supper was called in the ancient church the Eucharist, and as being a Eucharist, a thanksgiving, the Lord's Supper characterises the whole service. The service is faith becoming audible and visible, just as it is the proclamation of revelation. The gratitude which we owe God for His revelation consists in our receiving and accepting Jesus Christ by faith as he exists as man, His body and blood, as the Lord's Supper testifies, in eating and drinking and thus in making Him our own and so in being nourished to this end that we may be with God in Him as He is with God. And it is this too which preserves the church as the true church. We can thank God in no other way than by receiving what He has given us. The Scottish Confession has very wisely and properly noted that in such a thanksgiving the decisive factor is not how much or how little we perceive or experience the partaking of Jesus Christ by faith. In the Lord's Supper what matters much more is the work of the Holy Spirit—a work which is comparable to the sowing of living seed on fruitful ground, and the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the work of Jesus Christ and hence from this sacrament also. In point of fact it is just in connection with the church service that we cannot sufficiently reflect on the fact that faith is something which defies our own lack of faith and disobedience and which must hold fast to God's gracious and Almighty Lordship and care in Jesus Christ and to that alone. Man's faith is always something contrary to his own nature. He must believe that God alone is on his side but that God is really on his side. The church service would be a lost cause if its content were Christian piety and morality and not Christian faith. But the church service is the most important, momentous and majestic thing which can possibly take place on earth, because its primary content is not the work of man but the work of the Holy Spirit and consequently the work of faith.


Once more the primary form of the church service corresponds to its primary content. In the service revelation and faith have a definite form. Testimony is borne to them in the service by concrete creaturely media, by the human institution of the church, the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper and the speech and action of the preacher and congregation. In our next lecture we shall have to consider these as human action. But the form also belongs primarily, originally and really to the action of God, and only subsequently, secondarily and in a derivative way to that of man. These concrete, creaturely media are in no sense at the mercy of man's imagination or his likes and dislikes. On the contrary, it is because of God's choice and appointment that just these definite things must happen in the church service. It is He who has selected the water, it is He who has selected the bread and wine and it is He who has selected human words to serve in this way, it is He who is the Lord of His creation and of the life of the church. All the human forms found in her life can only be an attempt to do justice to the original form of the church service which is given us in the Word of God. At this point the Scottish Confession had to defend true doctrine and the true ordinance of the Church on two fronts.

Firstly, as over against Catholicism but also as against Lutheranism, it had to draw attention to the fact that the form instituted by God is none the less only the form and not the content of the service. The bread which we eat and the cup which we bless is the communion of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These both only are and only do what the creature can be and do here. They point out and characterise, bear testimony and mediate. Through the service they render we eat and drink the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is just for that end that they are instituted. Yet in this very function assigned them by God they are not themselves that end for which they serve but as a means. The form of the church service is appointed by God, but is the creaturely form and not the divine content. It is not itself revelation and faith, nor is it in itself the work of the Holy Spirit. But while the work of the Holy Spirit is taking place, use is made of this form and it is permitted to serve. It is as Augustine said the “signum visibile rei invisibilis”—the visibile sign of an invisible thing. The “res invisibilis” is not without this “signum,” but the “signum visible” is not the “res.” Jesus Christ has not rendered Himself superfluous through the human institution of the church. Without Jesus Christ Himself we can do nothing. This is the reformed confession's denial of the realistic doctrine of the sacrament. Yet one must not for all that miss the affirmation behind this denial. It is the affirmation made by adoration which seeks God in the highest, just when He has come right down to us. It is the affirmation of miracle, of pure miracle which for that very reason is an admirandum and not a stupendum. It is the affirmation of God who even in the creation which serves Him remains Lord alone, the only one to whom glory is due. For the sake of this affirmation one should think twice before surrendering the denial uttered by the reformed church. There are fleshpots of Egypt to which it were better not to return.

But as against the fanatics and spiritualists of that time, as of all times—the Scottish Confession had to draw attention in just as definite a way to the fact that the form of the church service is instituted by God and therefore not to be separated from its content. The bread which we eat, the cup which we bless is the communion of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Bread and cup are created things and remain so, but through the wisdom and power of God they are instituted to serve, to point out, characterise, testify and mediate. Once again through the service they render, we eat and drink the true body and the true blood of Jesus Christ. It is certainly not with the mouth and the teeth that we do so, but by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet we do not do so apart from the service rendered by them, but through it. We cannot dispense with the function which it is God's will that they should perform, and therefore we cannot despise or neglect it. They are not nuda signa, mere signs. They are the signs of the divine promise and command. Revelation and faith, the content of the church service, are not its form, but the content is not without the form, without the signum visibile. In the work of the Holy spirit it is precisely of this form that use is made. God has not bound Himself but He has bound us, as He has a right to do. Jesus Christ has not rendered Himself superfluous, but it is His good pleasure to glorify Himself in the human nature of the church which He has instituted. That is the denial uttered by Reformed doctrine to all idealism and all attempts to escape from the visible church. Here again, if one is to understand the Fathers and the matter at issue correctly, one must note the affirmation contained in the denial. The affirmation applies to the majesty of God which even in the sphere of the creature is majestic in accordance with His good pleasure. It applies to His mercy which by means of His creation gives us occasion and opportunity to praise and magnify Him. The affirmation applies to the incarnation of the Word, which it is the purpose of the human institution of the church to proclaim. Once again, on account of this affirmation we have every reason to pay heed to the denial expressed by the reformed church on this front too. As soon as we see the church service primarily as divine action, we dare not refuse to see its form also primarily in that light.