The Sacraments as a Means of Grace
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 91-93)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
(This Lesson is based upon and is almost identical with Lesson 3 in the Ecclesiology section of our Syllabus on the Westminster Confession of Faith.)
Definition of the Sacraments
The term “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum. In its classical uses it represents something set apart from other things, something dedicated for a particular and special purpose. It was used for the oath a soldier took as he dedicated himself to the defense of king and country, and for money set aside to bind an agreement. The church came to use the term “sacred” for those things set apart specially for God’s honor. Its original uses are vague, broad ranging, and offer little help in understanding what the Reformed churches mean when they declare that God has instituted two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The word sacrament is not directly used in Scripture. Like the words theology, Trinity, and others, it is used to represent a particular biblical teaching. Some who use this word may have a very different meaning than others who use it. The test of correctness depends upon which definition is derived from the teachings God has revealed in his word, not upon the historic or presumed meanings attached to it by men or churches.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism deals with the Sacraments in general in questions 91-93.
Question 91: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
Answer: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
Question 92: What is a sacrament?
Answer: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.
Question 93: Which are the sacraments of the New Testament?
Answer: The sacraments of the New Testament are, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
The Westminster Confession of Faith handles this more completely than the Shorter Catechism, so that will be the center of our lesson on this topic. It defines the Sacraments in chapter 27.I.
I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him:as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.
In this 27th chapter of the Westminster Confession the term sacrament represents something with five distinctive features:
1. A sacrament is a holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
As a sign, a sacrament represents something other than itself. It teaches about some truth symbolically. There is something in the sign which corresponds with the object it signifies making the truth about its object obvious to those who see the sign. Not everything about the sign corresponds with the object or there would be no difference between the two. The one instituting the sign must tell or explain what particular features are being illustrated. In the sacraments God who institutes the sign reveals by his word what is being signified.
As a seal, a sacrament certifies by the authority of God that the person receiving it has the quality signified. This does not mean that an unauthorized use of the sacrament imposes the quality upon its object. Only when rightly administered by the conditions demanded in God’s word does the sacrament truly certify and authenticate the promise or quality signified.
When someone receives a diploma upon graduation, the diploma certifies that he has completed the course of instruction as recognized by the faculty and board of the institution granting the degree. If a person forges a diploma or has misrepresented himself to the institution, the certificate does not make him qualified in the field it represents. It would be a serious crime and offense to the institution to make such a false claim. Similarly, someone who wrongly receives a sacrament offends God and does not bring the blessings promised upon himself. Instead he calls down the wrath of God upon himself for his false claim. When a child of God receives the sacrament rightly administered by God’s prescription he receives that blessing which is represented by the sign upon the authority of God who instituted it.
In this sense we say that a sacrament is a means of grace. It does not convey the grace by its outward application. God uses the sacrament, when rightly applied and received, as a means by which he dispenses his grace to the recipient.
2. A sacrament is immediately instituted by God.
The term sacrament is reserved for those signs and seals of the covenant of grace which God has instituted himself. By “immediate” the confession means that it came about without the mediation of a human prophet or instrument. Jesus Christ himself directly instituted the sacraments of the New Testament church. No council of human ministers or prophets have this authority. Jesus himself instituted both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as continuing signs and seals of his covenant with the church. No other sacraments were instituted by him. This definition eliminates the claims of some groups that there are more than two sacraments for the church in this era.
3. A sacrament represents Christ and his benefits.
The two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, represent and seal to true believers the cleansing work of Christ’s atonement and the conveyance of his continual removal of the guilt of sin. The work of our Savior on the cross is depicted and sealed in both, but in different senses. Baptism is the initiatory rite marking a person out as a member of the covenant community, and the Lord’s Supper is the covenantal meal for those marked out. By this meal believers regularly show their partaking of his promises and benefits. The significance of each is covered more thoroughly in the next questions of the Catechism and the next two chapters of the confession. Only these signs which represent the person and work of Christ can be called sacraments according to the definition derived from Scripture and adopted by the Reformed churches.
4. A sacrament confirms our interest in Christ.
Those who partake of the sacraments must meet the qualifications set forth in God’s word. When we receive the signs they must represent not only the work of Christ in a general sense, but also its application to the individual who receives the outward sign. Those who receive it and who are not redeemed by our Lord as individuals appropriate God’s wrath rather than his blessing upon themselves.
This is why the sacraments are to be carefully guarded in their administration by rightly examined and ordained Elders who have a sound understanding of the qualifications God gives us in Scripture. Solemn warnings ought to be issued before the reception of the sacraments to advise against receiving them casually, or by partaking without showing a true interest in the person and work of Jesus Christ who is being represented.
When rightly administered and received the sacraments are a benefit to believers in several ways. They are a witness to the person’s trust in Jesus Christ, and in the promises of God attached to the sacraments. By receiving the sacraments a person declares to God and to the church that he is a partaker of the covenant of God’s grace, and loves the Lord who extends his blessings to his children. God honors this sincere confession, and promises to bless those who obey him by submitting rightly to the sacraments he has instituted.
5. A sacrament puts a visible distinction upon members of Christ’s church.
Those who are baptized into the church and who partake of the Lord’s Supper are clearly distinguished from those who have not submitted to these signs and seals of God’s covenant. They visibly mark out those who are a part of the covenant community from those who are not. But the testimony is primarily to the church, and demonstrates to God our submission to him. The world may be aware of who is baptized and of who receives the covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper. Some may even have an academic knowledge of what they signify and seal. But our testimony to them is to be in the word of the gospel, not in the sacraments. We do not administer or receive the sacraments as a means of evangelism. They serve as a solemn act affirming our membership to the actual parties of the covenant.
Jesus leaves us with a challenging duty. The mark of the true believer to the eyes of the world is not to be found in the sacraments of the church, but in our love for one another which demonstrates a soul renewed by the power of God’s grace. In John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and our obedience to the principles our Lord has taught us that demonstrate the promise and power of the gospel to those who are yet outside of the covenant community. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments”
The Sacraments are a Means of Grace
Westminster Confession of Faith 27.II-III
II. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.
Among the major issues dividing the denominations that call themselves Christian, is the debate over what the sacraments accomplish when they are administered. The differences have to do with how we understand the sacraments as a sign and seal.
The view the Reformers primarily confronted in the 16th Century was Sacerdotalism. This is the view of the Roman Catholic church and some other denominations. They extend the power of the sacraments to include the actual and independent conveying of the blessing signified. The seal becomes not only a certification of God’s promise and work, but an actual imparting of the things being represented. The blessing comes by the power of the sacraments themselves. Dr. Charles Hodge explains, “According to the Romanists, therefore, a sacrament is a divine ordinance which has the inherent or intrinsic power of conferring the grace which it signifies.” (Systematic Theology part III, ch. 20). For a more complete discussion of the error of sacerdotalism see B. B. Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation (chapter 3).
Another view of the sacraments is Memorialism. Those who hold to this view deny any sealing power of the sacraments. They see the sacraments as mere object lessons instituted by God, but nothing more. Primarily this position arose as a reaction against the Sacerdotal view of the Roman Catholic church. It was held by the Zwinglians and the followers of Arminius. It continues today in many Evangelical churches which often incorrectly see it as the only alternative to sacerdotalism.
The position of the Reformed churches:
The confusion is cleared up in the statement of the confession that there is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. It is a spiritual relationship. The words describing the thing signified may be applied to the sign, and that which the words represent is certified by the seal. This means there is real promise attached to the right administration and reception of the sacraments, but the effect is from God. It is not inherent in the actions or elements of the sacraments. We will see more about this as we take up our study of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the next lessons.
For now we will simply state that Baptism as an act does not remove sin or convey salvation, nor does the Lord’s Supper convey sanctification in itself or by some power inherent in it. Both are spiritually adventageous when properly practiced, but not in isolation from the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit according to God’s prescription for each which works when, where, and how he wills.
There are two Sacraments
Westminster Confession of Faith 27,IV-V.
IV. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.
V. The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.
There are only two sacraments directly instituted by Jesus Christ for his church in the New Testament era. Both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper include visible signs which represent and seal to the believer the benefits of the work of Christ in the covenant of grace. The Roman Catholic church adds five more. They include Confirmation, Penance, Orders (ordination), Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. But these are missing one or more of the necessary qualities included in our definition of a sacrament. They either do not include outward signs representing the benefits of Christ in the covenant of grace, or were not instituted by our Lord immediately.
The sacraments may only be dispensed by a minister of the word rightly ordained. This principle is not based upon any superstitious view of the ministry or upon any presumed power of those ordained being necessary for the sacraments to be effective. It is based upon the nature of the office of the Elder as described in Scripture. Only ministers of the word are ever seen administering the sacraments in the New Testament. This gives us a clear example which is to be continued in the churches. Our Lord entrusted to them the guarding of the purity of the church which is covered in chapter 30 of the Confession. Only those who have given evidence of a sound knowledge of the teachings of Scripture should oversee the administration of these solemn practices entrusted to the church by our Lord.
The sacerdotalists tend to extend priestly powers to the ministers even to the extent of asserting that their intentions in administering the sacraments are vital to the conveying of God’s blessings in them. However, the Scriptures teach that it is the sovereign operation of God that makes them effective, not the heart of the one administering them. There is no fear that a Baptism or Lord’s Supper given by an insincere pastor was invalid simply because the minister’s heart was not right with the Lord at the time.
The memorialists tend to allow anyone to administer Baptisms or the Lord’s Supper. This has led to many abuses of the sacraments. They have administered them as if they taught things not assigned to them in the Bible. Extreme and bizarre elements have been used to replace the bread and wine used by our Savior. I remember reading of one youth group leader that used CokaCola and Pizza for the elements. Only those who have been ordained after examination showing them to be well studied in the Scriptures and who are proven to be genuinely called of God should take up this awesome duty representing the person and promises of our Lord.
The sacraments of the New Testament correspond with and continue the Old Testament institutions of Circumcision and the Passover. Circumcision, like Baptism, was to be administered only once and marked the recipient as a member of the covenant community. The Passover was administered repeatedly within the covenant community as a continuing sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace. As we study each of the sacraments in the next lessons this isomorphism between the practices of the Old and New Testaments will become more clearly defined.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)