We have in the Belgic Confession a rather lengthy section on the sacraments. This is due to the controversy that raged at the time of the Reformation. So, in order for us to appreciate fully what the Belgic Confession sets forth as to the sacraments, we need to look at the historical context of this writing and the then-current thought regarding the sacraments.
The gospel, with the sacraments that picture and seal the promise of the gospel, ought to unite believers! But when heresy creeps in, it is faithfulness to the gospel that differentiates and divides.
The Roman Catholic Church taught that the sacraments were in themselves able to impart grace. The sacraments therefore took the forefront of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Much fear and superstition had entered into the receiving of the sacraments, and the sacraments became greatly individualized. Over against such evils, there were those who downplayed the importance of the sacraments, seeing them as vain or insignificant, or external and empty ceremonies. Menno Simons, who might be considered the most dominant spokesman for the Anabaptists, argued that preachers deceive people when they teach that God works powerfully but invisibly in our hearts by the sacraments. Others rejected sacraments, insisting that the Holy Spirit works grace apart from any and all means. Caspar von Schwenkfeld went so far as to condemn Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers as false prophets who failed to esteem Christ as the only Savior, since they placed next to Him the preaching of the Word and sacraments.1
Out of misuse, superstition, and depreciation of these holy symbols, the Reformed faith came forth on the basis of God’s Word with a beautiful and balanced treatment of the nature, purpose, efficacy, and therefore the importance and need for the sacraments. Their position was not a compromise between the various other views. Rather, it brought the church back to the Bible, insisting that, in connection with the sacraments, God does bestow saving grace. But, carefully, our Confession distinguishes between the externals (water, bread, and wine) and the internal mystery (God’s grace in Christ applied by the Spirit). Or, to put it another way, our Confession carefully differentiates between the sign and the thing signified.
There were five different approaches to the sacraments, approaches that continue today.
The first position is that taken by the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe and Asia. “Sacraments came to be regarded as means which actually conferred grace upon all who partook, so long as they did not consciously impede their efficacy by willful unbelief or sin.”2 These sacraments therefore became powerful and important, coming to the forefront of worship. The preaching was necessary only to teach men how to use the sacraments. By its seven sacraments the Church through, its clergy, dispensed God’s grace. The sacraments became a goldmine for the Roman Church.
Luther, too, taught that God bestows grace through the sacraments, but he stressed that the sacraments were intended only for believers, God confirming to them the promises of His Word. Rome accused Luther of making the grace of God subjective, entirely dependent upon the personal faith-response of the individual.3 Luther refined his ideas, making the grace of God more directly connected with the elements. This led to the Lutheran conceptions of baptismal regeneration and the physical presence of Christ in the Supper.
Zwingli rejected the Roman view of the sacraments as an objective means of grace. The sacraments, he said, are merely signs of God’s work of salvation. The partakers receive no grace through them.
The Anabaptists viewed the sacraments not as signs and seals of God’s grace to us, but rather pledges that we give to God of our faith and obedience. This view is much like that of Zwingli, though Zwingli stressed the social and corporate character of the sacraments, whereas the Anabaptist’s approach was very individualistic.4
In contrast to these four approaches, the Reformed viewed the sacraments as means of grace to the believer through the inner working of the Spirit, a view worked out and developed in the Belgic Confession, Articles 33-35. In this article we intend to focus only on the truth taught clearly in the first of those three articles.
We do need to pause for a moment to look at how Guido de Bres dealt with the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and the teachings of the Anabaptists. Surprisingly, the Belgic Confession contains no denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church, while the Anabaptists are severely denounced. John Calvin, in his Gallican Confession, on which Guido de Bres relied, and in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, did not hesitate to repudiate those churches as well as their doctrine. The Heidelberg Catechism goes further, calling the mass “nothing but an accursed idolatry.” de Bres was not hesitant to call out by name theAnabaptists, writing, “Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists” (Art. 34), and again, “Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people…” (Art. 36). But no such denunciations of Rome by name. Why?
The answer lies in the purpose of this Confession and the recipients of this Confession. de Bres sought to separate the Protestant Reformation from the rebellious and seditious Anabaptists. In contrast to the Anabaptists, the Reformed were good and loyal citizens of the earthly kingdom, posing no threat to the King of Spain. The purpose of the Confession was to bring the King and his court and those in the Roman Catholic faith to an understanding of the Reformed faith, and to win them to that faith through a positive development of the truth of God’s Word. We can learn from this. We must ask: To whom are we writing? What is the purpose? Are we writing to warn our people and our children of heresies? Are we writing in a desire to win others to our faith? If desiring to bring them to our faith, we need to come with positive teaching. If we first bash our opponents, can we really expect them to listen eagerly to our instruction afterwards? As the saying goes, “Sugar draws more flies than vinegar.” Yes, our Formula of Subscription calls us to combat and refute and contradict errors, but we must always do so by speaking the truth in love, mindful of who it is to whom we write, and therefore careful how we write.
The Purpose of the Sacraments
“We believe….” Our confessions express what we as a church believe in the heart and confess with the mouth. This is not a mere, cold, intellectual statement, but a living, vibrant confession of faith beating in believing hearts.
“Our gracious God…has ordained the sacraments for us….” What is the origin and institution of the sacraments? Are they of God, or of the church? Who gives them, who defines them, who decides the number of them? The answer to those questions determines the nature, number, and efficacy of these means of grace. Rome taught that it was the church, holding that there were seven sacraments. In answer, we confess, “our gracious God…has ordained.” He has ordained and has given the church her sacraments. He gives two sacraments, “which Christ our Lord has instituted, …two only, namely, the sacrament of baptism and the holy supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is gracious. He gives the sacraments to us, not because He needs them, but, rather, on “account of our weakness and infirmities.” It is because of our inability to comprehend spiritual things. God through the sacraments does three things.
First, he “seals unto us His promises.” A seal in itself is nothing. But when the seal is attached to a document, it authenticates what is written. Second, in this way God gives us “pledges of His good will and grace toward us.” We have a visible word. The promises of God are portrayed to us in a picture.5 Third, God in this way “nourishes and strengthens our faith.” Our weak faith continues to need to be strengthened as we battle against sin and doubt and fear. The sacraments are not vain or insignificant, as Zwingli implied. They are God’s gracious tools to bring us to the object of our faith, Christ Jesus! Sacraments are “visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing”: our salvation! By these means God works in us to strengthen our faith by the Holy Spirit.
The Sacraments and Their Relationship to the Word Preached
The sacraments are “joined to the word of the gospel.” For Rome, the sacraments were the primary means of grace, the preaching being necessary only to bring the hearers to the sacraments. Our Confession points out that the sacraments have no legitimate place, purpose, or efficacy apart from the Word. God has joined. The Word and the sacraments are ordained by our gracious God. Both have as their central content Jesus Christ, revealed in His person and work. Both are dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit for their efficacy.
But there are differences. Necessity: The hearing of the word preached is indispensable to salvation (Rom. 10:13-15). Nowhere is this affirmed of the sacraments. The sacraments are necessary because God commands us to use these means. Extent: The gospel must be preached to all men everywhere. The sacraments are restricted to believers whom God gathers into His church. Aim: The preaching of the gospel is intended by God to work and to strengthen faith. The sacraments aim only at the strengthening of that faith. While there can be preaching without the sacraments, there can be no sacraments without the preaching. The preaching in Reformed churches was thus restored to its primary position. Everything else in the service revolves around the Word and the preaching.
The Efficacy of the Sacraments
How do the sacraments work in our lives? This is the heart of the sacramental conflicts that disturbed the churches in the days of the Reformation and that continue today. Do the elements in the sacraments mysteriously change, and of themselves impart grace? Is that grace given to all who partake, regardless of whether or not there is faith? Is the reality of the sacrament dependent upon man’s response?
Notice that our Confession declares that “God has joined [the sacraments] to the word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His word….” What God has joined, let not man put asunder. The words “the better” do not mean that the sacraments are better than the Word, but rather it means that now we not only hear the word with our ears, but our other senses are also employed to see, smell, and taste those gracious promises made to us by our God. God by these means “works inwardly in our hearts.” The sacraments are not mere pictures of our glorious salvation. They are seals, a guarantee of a faithful covenant God who never breaks His word that He will be gracious towards us. God works in us! It is an inward and invisible thing. Christ Jesus is presented to us! God’s covenant with us is revealed to us.
Two things are repudiated. First, rejected are the Zwinglian and Anabaptist views that reduce the sacraments to empty and meaningless signs, or to man’s pledge to God. Rejected, also, is, Rome’s view that the elements themselves have inherent power to work or impart saving grace to the heart. The water of baptism does not cleanse. The bread and wine do not become Christ’s body and blood. Therefore we do not cling to them but lift up our hearts to heaven where Christ is seated. He is our spiritual food.
It is God who works this inward and invisible thing. He uses earthly elements: the word spoken, water, and bread and wine. But God works grace “in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit who produces and sustains our life in Christ Jesus! God binds this blessed work to the preaching and the sacraments. Christ comes to us. This is how the Spirit works! The Spirit works faith through the preaching. The Spirit strengthens our faith through the preaching and the sacraments. Unbelievers therefore, in the taking of these elements, receive only condemnation and wrath. Far better it were for them never to have received these ordinances. But the child of God, through faith, receives Christ. He experiences covenant fellowship with his God. He is nourished like a tree planted by springs of water. He is fed unto life eternal.
In the Assembly of the Saints
One more thing should be pointed out in regard to the sacraments: The sacraments are given to the church to be administered “in the assembly of the people of God with humility and reverence….” In far too many groups, the sacraments become a private affair, conducted even in homes and among friends. In Reformed churches sacraments are administered in the assembly of God’s people, supervised by the elders, enjoyed by the communion of saints. By faith, we hear and see Christ, who is our life and our salvation.
1 P.Y. De Jong: The Church’s Witness to the World, vol. 2, p. 335.
2 Ibid, p. 333, 334.
3 Ibid, p. 334.
4 Ibid, p. 335.
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xiv, 6.