So, what is the purpose of the ordinances?
It’s interesting hearing how people think of them, which largely depends on one’s church background. Some view them as just religious routine, with very little personal benefit, much like how giving to the church or liturgical readings are viewed—all the way to the other end of the spectrum—that the ordinances are actually a transference of grace from God to the participant. However, the most general answer to the question regarding the purpose of the ordinances is that they provide tangible representations that point to the finished work of Christ. As time moved on from the death and resurrection of Christ, the eyewitnesses of those events began dying off. So, how would the Lord ensure that his true church would make his saving work the primary focus of the church? In conjunction with the preaching of the message of the gospel, He has chosen to give his people signs or symbols of that saving work. In other words, the Head of the Church ordained that the church would participate in visible representations of what he has accomplished on sinners’ behalf. Our God is transcendent and a spiritual being, and thus cannot be represented by any form that our mind can even imagine. However, God, the Son, did come to this world to be born as a man and physically die on the cross. So, it makes sense that God would give us tangible expressions for which to consistently highlight that saving act.
Despite the profound significance of these expressions, there is no inherent grace in the participation of these ordinances, which can easily be discerned by the myriads and myriads of people who have been baptized and partaken of the Lord’s supper and then have abandoned the Lord or never really committed to him in the first place. To be clear, there is the grace of obedience in participating in the ordinances when accompanied by faith, just like there is in any act of obeying Christ AND there is grace involved in recounting the gospel and how Christ has applied the benefits of the gospel to each one of his people by faith.
That’s why, oftentimes, it’s asked: Can someone be a Christian and not practice them? That’s the same question as asking: Can someone be a Christian and not express love to the body or not use one’s gifts for the edification of the body? Similarly, participating in these ordinances do not bring about salvation, again evidenced by the multitudes of unbelievers who have participated in these things throughout the ages, however there can be no assurance of salvation when refusing to practice them simply because they are clear commands from the Lord Jesus.
In conclusion, Christians should neither over-emphasize the efficacy of participating in the ordinances, nor under-estimate the significance of them.