This book seeks to help Christians recover the importance of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian life by explaining 3 purposes of the sacrament in light of God’s covenant signs.
About the Author
Guy Prentiss Waters (PhD, Duke University) is the James M. Baird Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, and was formerly an associate professor of biblical studies at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. Guy and his wife, Sarah, have three children.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is chief publishing officer and Bible publisher at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life. He is an elder at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Miles V. Van Pelt (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Alan Belcher Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, academic dean, and director of the Summer Institute for Biblical Languages at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson. He also serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Reformed Church in Madison, Mississippi. He and his wife, Laurie, have four children.
Read an Excerpt
In order to understand something, we have to know what it is. To grasp and appreciate the significance of the Lord's Supper as a covenant sign and meal, we have to understand what a covenant sign and a covenant meal are. And to understand what a covenant sign and a covenant meal are, we first have to understand what a covenant is. In this chapter, we will take up the question What is a covenant? In the next two chapters, we will take up the related questions What is a covenant sign? and What is a covenant meal?
The Word Covenant?
The word covenant is not often used in modern Western society. We sometimes hear of "covenant neighborhoods" or even "covenant marriage." For the most part, however, the term covenant is unfamiliar to many people.
In the Old and New Testaments, covenant often appears both as a term and as a concept. The term first appears in the Bible at Genesis 6:18: "But I will establish my covenant [Hebrew, berith] with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you." It last appears in the Bible at Revelation 11:19: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant [Greek, diatheke] was seen within his temple."
The term covenant is used in two basic settings in the Bible. Sometimes covenants are made between or among human beings. One example, well known to Bible readers, is the covenant that David and Jonathan made with one another in 1 Samuel 23:18. The Bible, moreover, can speak of the marital relationship as a covenant: "The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Mal. 2:14). Covenants in the Bible also appear in political contexts. Sometime after the death of Saul, David entered into a covenant with "all the elders of Israel," and "they anointed David king over Israel" (2 Sam. 5:3).
The most important covenants in the Bible, however, are the covenants that God made with human beings. I have already mentioned the covenant that God made with Noah (Gen. 6:18). Afterward, God entered into a covenant with Abraham (Gen.12:1–3; 15:1–21; 17:1–14). Over four hundred years later, God entered into a covenant with Abraham's descendants (Israel) at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:1–6). God subsequently made a covenant with David, in which God pledged to "establish the throne of [David's] kingdom forever" (2 Sam. 7:13). The prophet Jeremiah later spoke of a "new covenant" in which God pledged to "forgive" his people's "iniquity" and "remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament writers tell us that this new covenant came to fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ (see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).
What Is a Covenant?
Covenants, then, course like a river through redemptive history and biblical revelation. Their importance to the Bible underscores the question What is a covenant? To answer that question, we may draw three observations. These three observations yield a working definition of the covenants that God made with human beings. Once we have that working definition in place, we will be able to think about how these covenants structure both the history of God's dealings with humanity and the divinely authored record of that history, the Bible.
First, "covenant" assumes an "existing, elective relationship" between two parties and serves as the "solemn ratification" of that relationship. Covenants in the Bible do not create a relationship that did not exist before. They formalize a relationship that is already in place. When God, for example, made a covenant with Abraham, he did so in the context of an existing relationship with Abraham. God had called Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 11) before he entered into covenant with him (Genesis 12). Similarly, God was already in relationship with Israel when he entered into covenant with them at Mount Sinai. In each case, God's covenant provided depth and structure to a relationship that was already in place.
These relationships, furthermore, are elective. God was not obliged to enter into relationship with either Abraham or Israel. It was God's sovereign and unmerited choice to establish a relationship with the persons with whom he would enter into covenant (see Deut. 7:6–7). God's covenants with human beings are never a "given," nor are the relationships that lie back of those covenants.
Second, a covenant involves life-and-death issues. Part of the solemnity of a covenant is that it does not traffic in the trivial details of life. Covenants address the most important concerns of human existence. We will see below that God made a covenant with Adam in the garden (Gen. 2:15–17). God held before Adam nothing less than eternal death and eternal life: "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). The death to which Adam and his ordinary descendants are subjected through sin is not only physical or biological death. It is also eternal death (Matt.25:46).
One of the primary blessings that Abraham enjoyed in covenant with God was justification by faith alone (see Gal.3:6–9). In his letters, Paul explains that justification is God's declaration that the sinner is righteous. This declaration is based solely upon the obedience and death of Jesus Christ, imputed to the sinner, and received through faith alone (see Rom. 3:21–26; 4:1–8; 5:12–21). In Christ, the justified sinner has passed from condemnation to vindication. For the person who is justified, the day of judgment will not be a day of divine wrath and the beginning of eternal punishment. It will be for him or her a day of blessing and glory. This divine promise of justification was administered to Abraham and to all his believing offspring in God's gracious covenant with them inJesus Christ.
Similarly, the Mosaic covenant set before Israel matters of life and death. Moses, the human mediator of the covenant between God and Israel, ratified the covenant by sprinkling the altar and the people with sacrificial blood (see Ex. 24:1–8). While the Mosaic covenant concerned itself with Israel's experience in the Land of Promise, its concerns were not exclusively this-worldly. The Mosaic covenant was no less occupied with eternal concerns. The exchange between Jesusand the rich young ruler, for instance, shows us that the Mosaic covenant pointed the way to "eternal life" (see Matt. 19:16–22). Jesus, in dying on the cross, "redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'" (Gal. 3:13, citing Deut. 21:23). Jesus's death, which rescues us from eternal condemnation and wrath (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9), has redeemed us from that curse to which the laws of the Mosaic covenant testified.
Third, a covenant is a sovereign administration of promises with corresponding obligations. God's covenants are sovereign administrations. That is to say, God comes to human beings and imposes his covenants upon them. We have already observed this characteristic of God's covenants in the cases of Abraham, Israel, and David. In the Bible we never see human beings coming to God and proposing a covenant with him. Recall further that God's covenants are made in the context of elective relationships. God sovereignly chooses to enter into a relationship with someone before he enters into covenant with that party. There is yet another sense in which we may appreciate God's covenants as sovereign administrations. It is God and God alone who sets the terms of his covenants with people. People never negotiate or haggle with God over these terms. God, in his kindness and goodness, sets these terms and imposes them upon human beings.
Older writers often spoke of God's covenants with humans as agreements between God and people. This term can be misleading insofar as it may suggest that God and humans enter into covenants as equal partners. Properly understood, however, agreement captures an important dimension of God's covenants with people. When God enters into covenant with someone, God calls that person to embrace that covenant unreservedly. God's covenant partners should sincerely and willingly walk with him in covenant (Gen. 17:1). The fact that God sovereignly imposes his covenant on human beings does not destroy our humanity. On the contrary, it engages and exalts our humanity. God's covenants give us the privilege of entering into fellowship and communion with the God who made and redeemed us.
If God's covenants with humans are sovereign administrations, then what do they administer? They administer promises with corresponding obligations. God's promises sit at the heart of his covenants with human beings. Implicit in the covenant that God made with Adam in the garden of Eden was the promise of life. Had Adam obeyed God, he would have entered into confirmed, eternal life. In his covenant with Noah, God promised to preserve the world from another global deluge. In his covenant with Abraham, God pledged to Abraham offspring and land (see Gen. 26:3–4). In his covenant with Israel at Sinai, God offered Israel life and blessing in the land that he provided them and to which he brought them from their former bondage in Egypt. In his covenant with David, God promised that David's "house" and "kingdom shall be made sure forever before me" (2 Sam. 7:16).
It is important to observe that God did not condition the giving of these promises upon the worth or merit of his covenant partner. In other words, God did not make these promises because he saw or could foresee that their recipients did or would deserve them. He made them unconditionally, that is, without regard to our character or performance. Paul insists in Romans 4 that Abraham received the promises through faith and not by works "in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring" (4:16). Even faith contributes nothing to the promise. Faith trusts the One who makes the promise and receives with open and empty hands what the promise-making God graciously provides the undeserving.
To say that God's covenant promises are sovereignly and freely bestowed, apart from the merits of the recipient, is not to say that God's human covenant partners are rendered passive, much less free to live in sin. On the contrary, God's covenants fully engage us to think and live in a way that is pleasing to him. We are to receive God's promises through faith, which is the gift of God (Phil. 1:29; cf. Eph. 2:8–10). With those promises, God also gives us commands. Faith necessarily takes up those commands in thankful obedience to God.
Consider the Mosaic legislation that God gave Israel to order life in the land that he had given his people. But theMosaic covenant is no anomaly. God called Abraham, already in covenant with him, to "walk before [him], and be blameless" (Gen. 17:1). "Walk" is a way of describing in Scripture the totality of life before God — not only our behavior but also our thinking, our attitudes, and our affections. The call to "be blameless" does not mean that Abraham needed to achieve sinless perfection or else forfeit his covenant standing with God. "Blamelessness" is a term that describes persons in Scripture who were far from sinless. It refers rather to God's expectation that his people will serve him wholeheartedly and sincerely. God does not want covenant partners who are duplicitous or wavering in their allegiance to him. He wants covenant partners who unreservedly dedicate their whole selves to God and his service. In Genesis 18:19, God shows us what blamelessness looks like. God charges Abraham to "command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice." "Righteousness and justice," as defined by God's Word, were to characterize the way in which covenant members (Abraham, his children, his household) were to live before God.
Commands are not restricted to God's covenants with Israel and Abraham. The Davidic covenant, in which God brought David and his offspring into relation to himself as "son[s]," expected devoted covenantal behavior from these sons (2 Sam.7:14–15; 1 Kings 2:1–4). The new covenant, according to Jeremiah, expects of God's people an obedience to the law that originates from the heart (Jer. 31:33). It is to this obedience that Jesus testified powerfully and early in his ministry in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17–7:29).
In summary, then, with promises come obligations in God's covenants with humans. These obligations are chiefly faith, obedience, and, after the fall, repentance. In repentance, one turns from sin to God. In faith, one receives the promises. In obedience, one takes up all the commands that God has given to that person.
Covenant Promises and Obligations
To say that God's covenants with human beings administer both promises and obligations raises the question of how promise and obligation relate to one another. Let us take up this question in reference to the covenants that come after the fall of humanity into sin. We have already seen that God's promises are not conditioned on the creature's worthiness. God does not wait for us to reach a threshold of merit or goodness before he willingly makes promises to us. The Scripture's account of the lives of Abraham and David amply illustrate that point.
At the same time, we have no right to claim the covenant promises of God while refusing to take up the covenant obligations, particularly the commandments, that God gives us. To a nation that thought the presence of the temple rendered it immune to the demands of God's law, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'" (Jer. 7:3–4). As James teaches in the New Testament, any so-called faith that lays claim to God's saving promises but lacks the fruit of good works is "dead" and "useless" (James 2:17, 20, 26). True faith, Paul tells us, works by love (Gal. 5:6).
Our obedience is necessary to walking in covenant with God, but it does not bring us into covenant relationship with God. Neither does it merit the promises that God freely and sovereignly makes to us. Obedience, rather, is the way in which God's covenant partners respond to his covenant promises. There is, therefore, a necessary and invariable priority of promise to the obligation of obedience. This priority is vividly illustrated in the opening lines of Exodus 20. Before God gives the "Ten Words" of Exodus 20:3–17, he tells his people, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (20:2). Israel's obedience is to be a faith-filled response to the grace of God in redeeming them from bondage in Egypt. This principle abides across God's covenants with human beings in redemptive history. The commands that God gives us in covenant with him are the God-appointed way in which we must respond to the covenant promises he has freely given us.
How, then, are we to understand statements that appear to say that God suspends his promises upon our obedience in covenant with him? For example:
I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly. (Gen. 17:1–2)
For I have chosen [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. (Gen.18:19)
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:5–6)
When God speaks to Abraham as he does in Genesis 17 and Genesis 18, God has already entered into covenant with him and made promises unconditioned upon Abraham's character or performance (Genesis 12; 15). When God speaks to Israel as he does in Exodus 19, God has already set apart Israel to himself (Ex. 2:24–25) and redeemed his people from Egypt (see Ex. 19:4). God cannot mean that Abraham's and Israel's obedience is a procuring precondition for God's promises. He speaks these words in Genesis 17–18 and Exodus 19 to people to whom he has already freely and graciously given his promises.
In the verses cited above, God is giving Abraham and Israel the same message. If God's covenant partners are to enter into and to enjoy the covenant promises that he has freely made to them, then they must take up the covenant obligations that he has laid upon them. Covenant obligations in no way merit or earn God's covenant promises, but they are the way in which God has appointed us to experience and enjoy the blessings that he freely gives us in his promises. If we do not experience and enjoy the promises by this appointed path, then we have no legitimate claim to the promises at all. But if we do so experience and enjoy these unconditional promises, that reality is due ultimately to the sovereign grace of God.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lord's Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant"
Copyright © 2019 Guy Prentiss Waters.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Series Preface 11
1 Covenant Basics 19
2 Covenant Signs 43
3 Covenant Meals 59
4 The Lord's Supper 85
5 Conclusions for the Church 109
General Index 119
Scripture Index 123
What People are Saying About This
“At the time of the Reformation, more ink was spilled on the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper than on almost any other topic. Most of the debates have yet to be resolved, so what is a Christian to do to gain a better understanding of this sacrament? This concise book by Guy Waters is a helpful place to start. Waters places his discussion of the Supper squarely in the context of the Bible’s teaching about covenants, providing a particularly helpful introduction to the nature of covenant meals.”
Keith A. Mathison, Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformation Bible College; author, From Age to Age; Given for You; and The Shape of Sola Scriptura
“Many Christians suffer from a spiritual depth-perception problem or theological myopia when they come to the Lord’s Supper: all they see is bread and wine. Enter Guy Waters, expert spiritual ophthalmologist. In a single consultation he restores our depth perception and reduces our myopia. Perhaps to our surprise, he takes two-thirds of his time patiently guiding us through the pages of the Old Testament. Surely the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant ordinance! But Waters knows what he is doing. Prescribing biblically crafted lenses for us, he shows us the bread and wine again and asks, ‘Do you see more clearly now?’ Read these pages carefully and you will find yourself saying, ‘Yes, it’s so much clearer now. Thank you so much; it’s wonderful!’”
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries
“In a warm and readable style, Guy Waters blesses the church again. By first taking us on an engaging tour of the Bible’s covenants, he sets the table for his central concernthat in the communion meal the people of God ‘truly dine with our covenant Head,’ the Lord Jesus Christ. From beginning to end, the reader will find biblical texts surveyed persuasively, historic theological distinctions tackled thoughtfully, and practical concerns addressed winsomely. Before you next partake of the Lord’s Supper, consume this volume first.”
David B. Garner, Vice President for Advancement and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary; author, Sons in the Son and How Can I Know for Sure?
“Don’t let this volume’s slim size trick you. In it, Guy Waters dispenses a wealth of biblical reflection. Noting the Bible’s covenantal structure and paying attention to the entire biblical canon, he places the Supper of our Lord as the fulfillment of the pattern of God’s condescending to be present with his people and to give them signs of his presence. You may not agree with all of Waters’s conclusions. But everyone will benefit from his engagement with the biblical text and his pastoral reflections on the importance of the Supper for individual believers and the gathered church.”
Shawn D. Wright, Professor of Church History, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“In this accessible, biblical-theological approach to the Lord’s Supper, Waters demonstrates the Supper’s integral place in redemptive history and its consequent importance for the life of the church, inasmuch as Christ offers himself as spiritual nourishment to be received through faith. This message needs to be heard and heeded. I hope this book has a wide readership.”
Robert Letham, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Union School of Theology