Accurately valuing God’s ordinances
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
30 May, 2024

God has provided many ordinances as means for Him to show us His grace, including preaching, prayer, Christian fellowship, etc. The New Testament also has two special ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s supper, known to the Covenanters and others as sacraments to distinguish them among the other ordinances. These are the Lord’s gifts to His people to help us in our faith along the way, and the spiritual significance of participating in these particular ordinances is immense. The spiritualness of both baptism and the Lord’s supper can, however, mean that we distort their importance, either overlooking their value altogether, or investing far too much in them. While we do not want to ungratefully undervalue their significance, neither do we want to superstitiously exaggerate them. In the following brief updated excerpt, James Durham guides us between these extremes.

Giving excessive respect

We place too much weight on the sacraments if we think that they are absolutely necessary in order to salvation — or if we imagine that they confer grace by themselves (just when people partake of the outward elements of water, bread, wine, without faith) — or if we rest on simply the outward receiving of the elements, as if that made us in some way acceptable to God.

Sometimes, people superstitiously and blindly prefer the sacraments to all the other ordinances, so that they disparage the others. They will go for a long time neglecting preaching and praying, but they simply must have baptism and communion.

It is also excessive when we prefer the outward ordinance to Christ and the thing signified by the ordinance. For example, if we are more interested in the baptism of water then the baptism of the Spirit, or more interested in the external communion than the inward. Then, anything of heaven that is to be found in the ordinances is left neglected, and people are more upset about going without the sacrament once, than about missing Christ often and long.

We should also beware of coming and going from ordinances while neglecting Him who gives the blessing, yet thinking that all is well enough, seeing we were present at the ordinance.

Too much is made of the sacraments when people travel a great distance in order to partake of a sacrament when this means they are unable to fulfil necessary moral duties called for at that time. Likewise when people place more value on the sacraments than on works of mercy and charity, or dote on the sacraments to the neglect of such works.

It is also too much esteem when the sacraments are accounted so holy that they may not be administered where Christ permits, or as if they are somehow spoiled when they are not administered in some “consecrated” place.

Finally, also excessive is adding to Christ’s institution, in the way of administration, as if what He has appointed (because it is common and ordinary), is base, and too low for them.

Giving too little respect

On the other hand, the sacraments get too little esteem when people use them as bare and empty signs, without respect to their due ends.

They are disrespected when God is not reverenced in them as He ought to be according to His command, when we are going about such holy and solemn pieces of worship. Also when people can carnally, and without preparation and observation, treat them as common things.

Too little respect is shown in the failure to admire and bless God’s grace and goodness in stooping down in them to us, the failure to ponder and study them, failing to delight in them, and being careless as to whether we have them or go without them.

Likewise, corrupting the Lord’s institution in our manner of going about a sacrament, either adding to it, or diminishing from it, or changing it, as if this is something that humans had the right to do.

We do not value the sacraments highly enough when we have little zeal to keep them pure, as well as when we neglect them on those occasions where we needed to make more of an effort to get them.

It is disrespectful when we account them better when administered by one minister rather than another, or we think the less of them when they are administered by certain men (who are also lawful ministers) — as if men added any worth to the ordinance of God. Also when we assume that their efficacy depends on the one who administers them, or the grace of those who participate alongside them.

We give the sacraments too little respect when we never actually lay weight on any of them, or draw comfort from them. When we don’t wish and pray for others to get good from them. When we are unafraid that they are used wrongly by multitudes of those who partake of them, and rather than endeavouring to improve the situation, we are content for them to be made available to all indifferently. Also when we have little zeal against the errors that wrong them.

Finally, people show insufficient respect when they are not afraid that they might break the commitments and engagements they made in the sacraments.

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