John Owen on the importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Here is an interesting excerpt from Owen’s Works, 7:218-21. He is writing primarily against the Quakers (who rejected the use of ‘carnal ordinances’), but his words have great relevance for our own circumstances today. Few understand the importance of the sacraments. Point 2 below is especially useful. Perhaps this brief selection will help restore them to the place they deserve.

Again, let any, in faith and obedience unto him, practice and attend unto all those parts of divine worship which he hath appointed, and I am persuaded no man will have the confidence to say that there is this or that wanting to render it a solemn and acceptable service, however they may contend for the conveniency of some circumstantial additionals.Wherefore I take it for granted at present, that the Lord Jesus Christ hath appointed such a solemn worship under the gospel, which all his disciples are obliged constantly and invariably to observe, as he declares, Matthew 28:20. And with respect hereunto men may fall away and apostatize from the gospel, no less sinfully and fatally than they may fall from the mystery of its doctrine or the holiness of its precepts. And there are two ways whereby this may be done: – 1. By neglecting and refusing to observe and do what he hath appointed; 2. By adding appointments of our own thereunto, inconsistent with and destructive of that which he hath ordained: -.

I. In the first way we have some among ourselves who are fallen off from the worship of the gospel. It is true, they will do some things which have an appearance of being what Christ hath commanded; such are their first-day’s meeting, and their prayers, with speaking in them; – but they neither observe the Lord’s day, nor pray or speak in obedience unto any institution of his. Conveniency and the light within are all the reason and guide which they plead for them. And for the sacraments, or baptism and the supper of the Lord, which are so great a part of the mystical worship of the church, on I know not what fond pretenses, they utterly reject them. In like manner they deal with a stated ministry as of Christ’s appointment, although they have found out means to set up one of their own.

And because herein also Christ is “put to an open shame,” we shall briefly inquire into the grounds and reasons of this defection from the obedience due to his commands: –

1. Now the principal reason, and which compriseth all others, why some men have forsaken the gospel, as unto the administration of its ordinances, is because they are no way suited unto, nor indeed consistent with, that faith and obedience which they have betaken themselves unto; for the ordinances of the gospel are representations of the things which we believe, and means of the conveyance of their efficacy unto us. Unto the confirmation of that faith and our edification therein are they suited, and to nothing else. Now, these persons having fallen, as we have showed, from the faith of the gospel in the mystery of it and the spiritual obedience which it doth require, of what use can the ordinances of worship be unto them? For instance, the ordinance of the Lord’s supper is instituted in the remembrance of the death of Christ, of his suffering in our stead, of the sacrifice he made of himself therein, of the atonement or reconciliation with God that he wrought, and of the sealing of the new covenant with his blood. To what end should any man solemnly worship God in and by this ordinance who upon the matter believeth none of these things, at least doth not believe them as proposed in the gospel, namely, as the principal causes and springs of life, righteousness, and salvation? Those who believe in God through these things, who find the effects of them upon their souls in righteousness and peace, cannot but delight to be found in the exercise of faith through this ordinance, as they know it to be their duty so to do. is apparent that neither this nor the other ordinance of baptism doth contribute any thing to the furtherance, increase, or establishment, of that light within men which upon the matter they resolve their faith and obedience into; yea, they are, in their true and proper notion, as both directing unto the sanctifying and justifying blood of Christ, diametrically opposite thereunto and unto what is ascribed unto it. It is, therefore, so far from being strange that these men should forsake these ordinances of gospel worship, that the admission of them in their true and proper use and signification is destructive of the whole scheme of religion which they have formed unto themselves. Where the faith of the gospel is forsaken, the ordinances of worship must be so too, and so all instituted divine service be neglected, or other things found out that may suit unto the imaginations whereunto men are turned aside.

2. Another reason hereof hath been want of spiritual light to see through the veils of outward institutions, and of the wisdom of faith, to obtain communion with God in Christ by them. Our worship under the gospel is either absolutely spiritual, or that which comes immediately unto what is so. But in these institutions there is somewhat that is outward and sensible, and it is to be feared that many do rest in these outward things, and proceed no farther in the worship of God by them than the actions and words that are used will carry them; but they are, as appointed by Christ, “animae vehicula,” means of leading and conveying the soul unto an intimate communion with God. That they may be so unto us, three things are required: –

(1.) That we submit our souls and consciences unto the authority of Christ in these institutions. Unless this be the foundation which we build upon, the whole service will be lost unto us.

(2.) That we rest on the veracity of Christ for the working of the grace and accomplishment of the mercy represented in them and sacramentally exhibited by them; for they will not profit them by whom the promises of Christ, virtually contained in them and accompanying of them, are not mixed with faith, and we cannot believe the promise unless we submit to the authority of Christ in the appointment of that whereunto it is annexed.

(3.) That we understand in some measure the mystical relation that is between the outward symbols of the ordinance and the Lord Christ himself, with his grace represented thereby, wherein the nature, use, and end of the institutions are contained. And all these are necessary to keep up any delight in them, or a conscientious use of them. Where, therefore, all these are wanting, – as apparently they are in those concerning whom we treat, being none of them either understood, owned, or acknowledged by them, – whereas they have neither spiritual light into the internal nature of these things, nor spiritual gifts for their administration unto edification, following the conduct of their own principles, they could do no otherwise but reject them, and therein fell off from the worship of the gospel, and thereby do reflect dishonor upon the Son of God, the author and Lord of all these institutions.