[K:NWTS 5/3 (Dec 1990) 1-8]

A Sermon on I Corinthians 5:7

Geerhardus Vos

The Old Testament feasts had, among other important features, this one peculiarity—that they brought to the remembrance of Israel the great underlying facts and principles of their covenant-relation to Jehovah. They invited the pious Israelite at stated seasons to collect his thoughts and fix them upon those things which were fundamental in his religious life. Thus the feast of tabernacles reminded them of their dwelling in tents in the wilderness, and of the wonderful guidance and deliverance through which they had been enabled to overcome the perils of their journey and enter upon the possession of the promised land. In a similar manner, the feast of weeks, by requiring them to bring the first loaves of bread prepared from the new harvest to the sanctuary of Jehovah, reminded them that all the fruits of the land, all the blessings of their life, were on the one hand the free gift of God, on the other hand designed to be consecrated to God.

The Backward Glance of Passover

But it was especially in connection with the Passover that this peculiarity in the purpose which the feasts were intended to serve became most apparent. The Passover was preeminently a historical feast. It pointed back to the deliverance of the people from Egypt, a deliverance through sacrifice, a deliverance from the slaying angel, a deliverance in which manifestly the grace of God alone had made a distinction between them and their persecutors. Each time this feast was celebrated in the families of Israel, it proclaimed anew that redemption through blood and by grace and by sovereign choice was the great fact which lay at the basis of their historic existence; the source from which everything that Israel was and had or could ever hope to be and have ultimately flowed. And how significant it was that to this great feast there was immediately joined the feast of unleavened bread which marked the beginning of the harvest, and therefore gave a religious consecration to the tillage of the soil, on which the prosperity of Israel so largely depended.

All the gifts of God, which under the blessing of heaven were poured into the people's lap, were thus each year by a conjunction of these two feasts represented afresh as the fruit of a blood-bought redemption [and] the whole covenant-life was placed on the basis of the saving grace of God. Of course in a dispensation like that of the old covenant (in which there was a large and complex system of religious duties and ceremonies through which the mind of the believer might so easily be distracted and led to lose sight of the central facts and the central truths), there was more than ordinary need for such outstanding observances which compelled the church to center her mind on the one great provision of God and the one great need of her own life, the realization of which was absolutely necessary, if she was to fulfill her calling in the world.

The Backward Glance of the Lord's Supper

Now brethren it occurred to me, that on a day like this, a day on which we have sat at the Lord's table to commemorate his death, it might be well for us to observe how the Lord (knowing our weakness, our forgetfulness, our tendency to look away from that which is most vital and essential in our religion, and to let ourselves be absorbed and distracted by a multitude of surface-duties and surface-experiences); how the Lord, I say, knowing this weakness, has made gracious provision in the institution of the Supper for recalling us ever again to a sense of what is the center and core of our relation to him, in order that we might not lose our contact with the heart of the gospel in which lie the issues of all true Christian life and activity. What the feasts were to Israel, that the sacraments are to us [and] that the Lord's Supper especially ought to be to us. Our Passover also has been sacrificed and each time that we repeat its observance, the Lord himself invites us that we shall call our thoughts home to the contemplation of that one thing on which our very life as believers depends, his atoning death.

But not only does the sacrament point us to the most fundamental fact of our religion, it is like unto the Passover also in this other respect—that it places before our minds in a condensed form the whole compass of what we have and are in Christ, the entire range of the salvation he has purchased for us, in its length and breadth and depth and height. Precisely because what it commemorates is so fundamental, it cannot help being comprehensive, for in the root of our redemption lies everything that this redemption can possibly embrace.

We may well, therefore, adore the wisdom of our Lord who has given us this ordinance. First of all, for the reason that it comes to meet our human weakness, that it brings his own person and grace within the reach of our senses, so that symbolically our eyes can see, our hands can handle, our mouth can taste the word of life. Secondly it leads us, as I have already said, to seize upon the center of the gospel. And thirdly because it has served through the ages, wherever the ordinance has been observed in obedience to our Lord's command, a perpetual proclamation of the great, comprehensive principle of salvation through Christ. It was certainly more than an appeal inspired by personal sentiment when he implored them in the night of his betrayal: "Do this in remembrance of me." He knew how often occasion would arise in the subsequent history of the church for his followers to forget if not his person, yet to forget the true purport of his work and of that final act in which it was about to reach its climax. In many a period when the spirit of the gospel was obscured, has the table of the Lord continued to be an eloquent witness on its behalf—sometimes perhaps the sole witness proclaiming to men the truth of salvation (and who shall say how many souls may have been saved through its ministry). And similarly the apostle's words—"As often as ye eat of this bread and drink of this cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death until He come"—obtain a new significance to us when we regard the sacrament in this light as an epitome of the gospel of redemption.

Present Witness of the Sacrament

Nor can we say, brethren, that at the present time there is no need for such a witness of the sacrament because the ministry of the word always and everywhere proclaims the central truth of the gospel with sufficient clearness and emphasis. It is true that there ought to be no need of this, for the church of the Reformation is preeminently a church of the word, just as the Catholic Church is preeminently a church of the sacrament (for the very reason that in it, the ministry of the word is kept in the background). But I am sure there are churches in the land in which a great many other things can be heard, yet where one could listen in vain for the plain preaching of the cross as the God-appointed means for the salvation of sinners. It may happen to a man to attend a church where not the preacher's word and the preacher's prayer, but only the hymns that are sung embody the elements of the gospel of grace and breathe the spirit of true evangelical piety; where the tradition of the past must fulfil the functions which the ministry of the present fails to perform, and where in consequence a powerful contrast is felt between the voice of the singing and that of the pulpit. And so it is possible to have a kind of preaching and an atmosphere of church-life and a type of ministry which enter as discordant elements into the true observance of the Lord's Supper simply because they are not keyed to the high spiritual and evangelical note that is struck in this sacrament of the Savior's dying love.

Now I do not mean to affirm that in all such cases there need be the preaching of false doctrine such as involves an open and direct denial of the evangelical truth. It is quite possible that both to the intention and the actual performance of the preacher any departure from the historical faith of the church may be entirely foreign. And yet there may be such a failure in the intelligent presentation of the gospel with the proper emphasis upon that which is primary and fundamental as to bring about a result well-high equally deplorable—as in a case where the principles of the gospel are openly contradicted or denied. There can be a betrayal of the gospel of grace, brethren, by silence. There can be disloyalty to Christ by omission as well as by positive offense against the message that he has entrusted to our keeping. It is possible Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year to preach things of which none can say that they are untrue and none can deny that in their proper place and time they may be important, and yet to forego telling people plainly and [to forego] giving them the distinct impression that they need forgiveness and salvation from sin through the cross of Christ.

Christ the Center

I sometimes feel as if what we need most is a sense of proportion in our presentation of the truth; a new sense of where the center of gravity in the gospel lies; a return to the ideal of Paul who determined not to know anything among the Corinthians save Jesus Christ and him crucified. This does not mean that every sermon which we preach must necessarily be what is technically called an evangelistic sermon. There may be frequent occasions when to do that would be out of place and when a discourse on some ethical or apologetic or social topic is distinctly called for. But whatever topic you preach on and whatever text you choose, there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.

And in order to assure yourselves whether or not you are doing this, whether your preaching meets this requirement or not, a good test to apply is the frequent comparison of the purport of your sermon with the purport of the sacrament. The word and the sacrament as means of grace belong together: they are but two sides of the same divinely instituted instrumentality. While addressing themselves to different organs of perception, they are intended to bear the one identical message of the grace of God—to interpret and mutually enforce one another. If in the individual spiritual life of a Christian, the Lord's Supper comes as something for which he is unprepared, something which requires a spiritual state of mind which he feels he cannot bring to it, something from which he shrinks because he realizes that it is so sadly unrelated to the usual tone and temper of his religious experience—then we would not hesitate to say that there is something wrong in the relation of that Christian to his God and his Savior. And yet I think we shall be all willing to confess that such has been frequently the case with ourselves. Is it not likely that a similar experience may be in store for us not as common believers but as preachers of the gospel? Let us therefore be careful to key our preaching to such a note that when we stand as ministrants behind the table of our Lord to distribute the bread of life, our congregation shall feel that what we are doing then is but the sum and culmination of what we have been doing every Sabbath from the pulpit.

Symbolism of the Lord's Table

It surely would be unnecessary, even if there were time for it, to do more than enumerate the great guiding principles which stand out prominently in the symbolism of the Lord's table and which ought to be constantly in the preacher's mind that he may secure the result indicated. They are four in number. In the first place, there is the plain, emphatic recognition of the fact of sin; not of any special, occasional form of sin, but of sin in its broad general sense as an ingredient of all human life in this world. Though the people entrusted to your pastoral care may be all professing Christians, remember that you are to deal with them as sinners and that you ought to have no false delicacy about that because the Lord himself does not receive them on any other footing at his own table. In the second place, there is the positive and clear affirmation that the vicarious suffering and death of the Son of God, his body broken, his blood poured out [and] appropriated by faith are the only and all-sufficient means of obtaining the remission of sin, peace of conscience and the title to eternal life. It will be impossible for us to hold out any other hope to man so long as we have clearly before our minds the picture of the Savior himself who pointed his disciples to this and this alone as the great saving factor in his ministry. In the third place, there is the eloquent reminder that there can be no true participation in the merits which flow from Christ's atoning death except through such a faith as effects a personal union with him; a faith consisting not merely in the mental acceptance of his sacrifice as a historic fact, but a faith which mystically feeds upon him, the living sacrifice, as he now exists in heaven. If we were to hold up Christ as a mere example to be followed by us in our own strength to the exclusion of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, would we not be silently corrected by our Lord's own voice speaking to us at his table: "Except ye eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man, ye have no life in yourselves"? And lastly we have here impressed upon us the solemn obligation of everyone who receives Christ as his sacrifice and enters upon the communion of his sanctified life, to abandon sin and walk in holiness. You will observe it is specifically this fourth principle which Paul has in mind when he says to the Corinthians—"For our Passover also has been sacrificed, Christ"—and derives from this the injunction: "Therefore let us keep the feast not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

Thus we see that the Lord's Supper spans the whole breadth of our Christian religion. Besides being what it must always primarily be, the means for strengthening our faith, it may also render us the additional service of becoming to us an occasion for self-examination, a spiritual ideal by which we measure ourselves and ascertain in which respects, either as personal believers or as ministers of God, we may have failed perhaps to reach the normal standard prescribed for us by Christ himself.

Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey
October 1, 1902