In a previous post I argued that we cannot “live out” or “display” the gospel. To assume that we can do that, I argued, confuses the biblical categories of law (what we are called to do) and gospel (what God has done to redeem us in Christ). The law gives us God’s perfect rule of righteousness and shows us just how sinful we really are; the gospel, on the other hand, is the good news that in Jesus Christ, God has fulfilled the law in our place and taken the punishment we deserve for having violated that same law by dying on a Roman cross. It’s a category error to say that we can “live out” or “display” the gospel.
What I want to do here, though, is argue that God displays the gospel in words, water, wine and bread. While we can’t display the gospel with our lives, God displays the gospel through three divinely instituted pictures that He’s given to His church: preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Let’s take each one in turn.
God displays the gospel to us in words. Paul said that his preaching to the Galatian church “publicly portrayed [Jesus Christ] as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). Commenting on this passage, Calvin argues, “the actual sight of Christ’s death could not have affected them more powerfully than Paul’s own preaching . . . Paul’s doctrine had instructed them concerning Christ in such a manner as if he had been exhibited to them in a picture, nay, ‘crucified among them.'” So when faithful teachers take the Word of God and clearly teach it to God’s people, it is as if God Himself displays the gospel to us. Indeed, this way of “displaying” the gospel is even clearer to us than if we ourselves had seen Christ’s death!
God displays the gospel to us in water. Peter said that “baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). In baptism, God gives us a beautiful display of the gospel. We don’t believe that the water itself saves us or somehow effects our salvation (“not as a removal of dirt from the body“), but we do recognize that baptism symbolizes our passing safely through the waters of judgment (1 Peter 3:21), our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:4), and even the fact that God has removed our uncleannesses, given us new hearts, and poured His Spirit into us (Ezekiel 36:25-27). What a wonderful display of the gospel!
God displays the gospel to us in wine and bread. During the last supper, Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'” (Matthew 26:26-28). Here we see that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper function as pictures which display the gospel before our eyes. There’s nothing magical or special about the bread or wine in themselves. Rather, these elements display the gospel because of Christ’s promise about what these signs signify (i.e., what they point to), which is “his body” and “his blood poured out for our forgiveness.” Thus Augustine called these sacraments “visible words,” and when we take them we commune with Christ, feed on his promises by faith, and our faith is strengthened by the Spirit.
So God displays the gospel to us through the lively and faithful preaching of His Word, through the waters of baptism, and through the wine and bread of the Lord’s Supper. When we want to see “displays” of the gospel, let us look to these means that God has given us.