Leonard J. Vander Zee. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004. 249 pp. $18.00.
This is an important book for Christians to read and ponder. Here’s why:
- There is a need in the evangelical Protestant world to recover the powerful implications of Christ’s incarnation. A dualist approach—elevating the spiritual over against the material— hinders our understanding of and appreciation for the means of grace that comes to us by water, bread, wine, and the workings of Christ’s Spirit.
- There is a need to get beyond “just a symbol,” “just a sign,” or “just an ordinance,” so that worshipers may come to experience the mystery of spiritual interaction that takes place in the sacraments and that most, if not all, churches want to explain as “the presence of Christ.”
- There is a need to administer and receive the sacraments whereby participants encounter the mysterious grace and presence of Christ, thus nurturing, strengthening and stirring our faith.
- This book is accessible to a large audience of readers. It is clear that Vander Zee wants to communicate to Christians who ask serious questions while standing in the pulpit, around the font, or at the table.
Vander Zee begins by developing the notion that the world is a sacramental place. God uses creation to bring forth a cacophony of praise unto him. In this context, the author addresses the Protestant impulse to suspect and ridicule the “smells and bells and whistles” of Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. And we learn about the wondrous place of Christ’s incarnation, whereby God works toward restoration of the created world, including people. Chew on this sentence, for example: “As God’s creation, the world may offer a sacramental window into transcendent reality, but sinful humans cannot or will not open their eyes” (p.18).Vander Zee also carefully explores the theological underpinnings of the sacraments. These chapters should set the stage for thoughtful discussions in small groups.
In the remainder of the book Vander Zee aims the spotlight on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, exploring the biblical background. His discussion on infant baptism is thoroughly Reformed but not rigid in its application or role in Reformed churches today. Ponder this thought (in the context of wisdom, mutual respect, and grace): “As pastor, I freely teach, defend and practice the baptism of infants. But I do not insist that everyone has to agree or that all children of church members must be baptized as infants” (p. l32). The chapter “A Theology of the Lord’s Supper for Today” draws us back to the heart of Calvin’s teaching on the Eucharist. This chapter is worth the price of the book. The presence of the ascended Lord Jesus in the Lord’s Supper calls for much reflection by church leaders and members alike. Renewal in worship begs for an informed and renewing understanding of the sacraments. Buy this book. You won’t regret it.
Editor’s note: Recipient of Christianity Today’s Book Award for 2005 in the category "Church/ Pastoral Leadership.”