Superstitious sacramentalism is a danger within the Reformed church...

Under this post, a dear brother writes to say he believes my concern about superstitious sacramentalism within parts of the conservative Reformed church is unwarranted. He writes, "I haven't seen anything resembling contending for superstitious sacrementalism..."

To which I respond...

Here at Clearnote Church, Bloomington we have always practiced communion every other Lord's Day, more frequently than Calvin's Geneva practiced it. Yet the intensity of commitment and drawing fellowship lines on the basis of weekly communion is at least a parry, if not a thrust, in the direction of a reordering of emphases and priorities in Reformed worship. And is that reordering not in a direction conducive to superstitious sacramentalism?

It seems inarguable to me, and thus I wasn't surprised to have a prominent F-V pastor describe to my brother David and me how he had to stop the women working in his church's nursery from bringing the children into the worship at the very end, so they could partake of the Lord's Supper. You respond that he told them they shouldn't do it, so what's my beef? I respond that their doing it is the thing to focus our attention on. What teaching and practice and emphases produce such an error?

We have a low hurdle for the elders' granting a place at the Lord's Table to our children and mentally handicapped. Yet the intensity of commitment and drawing fellowship lines on the basis of paedocommunion is at least a parry, if not a thrust, in the direction of a reordering of emphases and priorities in Reformed worship. This practice is largely unheard of across the centuries of Reformed worship, finding maybe its closest parallel under the practice of the Halfway Covenant by Solomon Stoddard's Northampton congregation. Edwards inherited this practice allowing covenant children to come to the Lord's Table without any profession of regeneration or fruit...

(although these covenant children were not toddlers and pre-teens).

Now, I don't write this to attack Paedocommunion, but only to point out that the closest parallel to it in the Reformed church in America came to pass under Solomon Stoddard who believed the Lord's Supper was a converting ordinance. In other words, superstitious sacramentalism. And honestly, I simply cannot conceive of any serious student of pastoral care and theology, whether pro or anti-paedocommunion, not admitting the practice tends in the direction of the danger of superstitious sacramentalism. After all, I admit the same with regard to paedobaptism—which I hold to firmly.

This list could go on. Based upon long familiarity with what I view as the fad of covenant renewal worship, it's my judgment this shibboleth of F-V and/or CREC pastors results in a reordering of of priorities in Reformed worship, from the centrality of the preaching of the Word to the centrality of the Lord's Supper pointed to by a liturgical superstructure worthy of Purdue's best engineering students. Thus a friend of mine recently had a conversation with a pastor who is a disciple of Covenant Renewal worship's flow chart who said to him with some pride, "I'm only preaching twenty minutes, now!" As in "this is a change for me and I'm greatly relieved and pleased with myself."

This list could go on.

When I begin to hear preaching with authority in the power of the Holy Spirit that leaves men more convicted of sin with more fear of God and a deeper call upon God for salvation and a more lovely and loving trust of the completed work of Christ, I will begin to wonder if I'm wrong in my judgments. Meanwhile, I am a pastor whose calling is to guard the sheep and there's no doubt in my mind that, as cheap grace is the main threat to Biblical faithfulness within Reformed ministry in the PCA, the decline of trust in the preaching of the Word and correlative growth in trust in liturgical superstructures and sacraments is the main threat to Biblical faithfulness within Reformed ministry in F-V, CREC, and Escondido congregations.

Thank you for your kind comments, dear brother. I hope you will not take this rejoinder as hostile. My brother and I have watched the movement from the Reformed church into Lutheranism and Rome for many years and have lost several friends and acquaintances to Rome's heresy. We are not excitable on this subject. We are experienced. We love Biblical faith as the Reformers recovered it.


Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.


Pastor Bayly:

Even though I (obviously) disagree with you on the FV, I think the pastoral and practical concerns you raise are very real and should be taken seriously by all who consider themselves FV or friendly to FV stuff, like me.

My PCA pastor recently told me over lunch that there were some he knew who advocated limiting the sermon time...and that he strongly disagreed. He typically preaches from 30-45 minutes, providing notes, digging deep into the passage. He says for many people this is all the Word they may receive in a week, and he is determined to give it to them. He is not afraid to call out typical Reformed sins, such as intellecualism, nor he is afraid to exhort women to submit to their husbands and husbands to lovingly lead their families.

If you visited our church I suspect you wouldn't like our worship very much, considering it maybe too highbrow or too liturgical...nonetheless I suspect you would like the throngs of children running around everywhere, the focus on Christian education, and the lengthy sermons.

The Reformed faith is broad and deep. Brothers in arms often disagree on matters of tactics and other serious issues. Nonetheless I don't hesitate to call you a friend...and I thank God for the work you do did help me embrace the Reformed view of the world.

Peace be with you brother...and thank you for these posts that stick thorns in my side. Looking forward to seeing you at the conference in July.

I would like to offer a classical Anglican view of preaching and the sacraments, learned from Hooker. The Reformed BCP has as a central purpose the delivery of the Bible to the people by means of the set readings and lessons, which are sermons from the actual apostles and prophets, not to mention the Lord himself in the four Gospels. The scripture read out in church is preaching in its purest form, being unmixed with any human error. The child is exhorted in his Confirmation to hear sermons, in addition to the daily diet of scripture. The sacraments are rightly thought of as sensory sermons, whereby the gospel is received not only through the ears, but through the eyes and the sense of touch in baptism, and the physical chewing, testing, and swallowing of bread and wine. The sacraments are visible and tangible gospel sermons.

When these things are understood there can be no question of superstitious sacramentalism in a truly Reformed liturgy, which is what the BCP is. The gospel is presented over and over in divers forms and ways.

What we disagree with is the idea of "No sermon no service". Where the scripture is read and the sacraments are administered the gospel is preached, sermon or no sermon. We do not undervalue sermons at all, but we do not make it the very definition of a service.

Roger - agreed; what is said of the sacraments could be said of religious art as well. I wonder if this discussion could be better framed if we were to cast it in terms as to which point diminishing returns set in, or, as in the case of religious art of music, appreciation turns into idolatry.

Sorry, "religious art *or* music"

It wasn't really "Calvin's Geneva," or they would have observed the Super more frequently (Institutes IV, xvii, 44). Stoddard didn't really "practice the halfway covenant." And he waffled on wheher o not the Supper is "a covnerting ordiance," sayng at different times both that it was & it wasn't. But nobody can say that Stoddard did not try to employ "preaching with authority in the power of the Holy Spirit that leaves men more convicted of sin with more fear of God and a deeper call upon God for salvation and a more lovely and loving trust of the completed work of Christ," & nobody can deny that his preaching did bear fruit. He called them "harvests."
On the other hand, as over against Mr. Du Barry, Calvin did say, in substance, "no preaching, no Lord's Supper" (Institutes IV, xvii, 39)!

Mr. du Berry, 

Your presentation of preaching flies in the face of the pastoral epistles. Nowhere are pastors told to simply read Scripture, nor are we told that, "The scripture read out in church is preaching in its purest form, being unmixed with any human error."

To be sure, the Apostle Paul commands Timothy to, "give attention to the public reading of Scripture." But note the context: "Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:13-16).

We are not simply to read the Scripture out loud; we are to exhort and teach. The salvation of our hearers is at stake.

This is the message of the Pastoral Epistles. A man is not faithful if he simply reads the Scripture. He must take the Words of Scripture and use them pastorally in the lives of the congregation. Preaching is pastoral care. 

“Prescribe and teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11).

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1, 2).

“These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:1).

Contrary to what you say above, the Anglican view of "preaching" does in fact promote a sort of superstitious sacramentalism. It removes the pastor and gives an almost magical effect to the act of reading the Bible. Should we read the Bible? Of course. Is the Word of God living, active, and sharp? Beyond doubt.

But this very same Word tells us that preaching, exhortation, teaching, reproof, and rebuke--all with authority--are essential. They are not second rate. They are the means God uses to create faith, sanctification, and salvation for His people.

It is worth bearing in mind that Anglicans like Nicholas Ridley took a very robust view of preaching to the extent that Edward VI's conscience was pricked by the preached word delivered by Ridley on occasion. So there are Anglicans who've held a robust view of the preached word.

This was motivated by my comments so I'm sorry for weighing in so late, and quite frankly, for the moment, so light.

My main issue is not with the noun but with the adjective. I would venture to say we are all sacramentalists at root. It's the way God made the world. It's not a matter of whether, but which. And not a matter of if, but how. One thing the CREC has done (at least for me), is to help to emphasize the importance and centrality (or, if you will, prominence) of the sacraments. And this comes from a guy who became reformed via the PCA, and is grateful for it.

My main problem is not with your use of "sacramentalism", but of "superstitious". Nothing you have written suggests anything other than the desire to be faithful right practice of those two ordinances and reconcile them with all of scripture.

Will the application here and there be unwise or tight-shoed or will we have to unwrap the tire chains from someone's axle now and then? Welcome to life. And if those anecdotes reflect mistakes (which I'm not conceding in any or every case) that's an indictment of life in God's world, not the superstition of sacramentalism.

I might just as well call quarterly communion superstitious to the extent that going to weekly communion is a desire not to imitate Rome....I step over 12 sidewalk cracks and step on the 13th....don't want to hurt our Mother....

That's my main point. Thanks for the response, and thanks for your faithful blog.

Have you read Leithart's "Blessed are the hungry". A book of communion meditations and exhortations. I don't believe that I ever read in there that he was suggesting weekly communion (it was years ago, so I could be wrong), but what I read made me want to have weekly communion.


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