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Sacraments are visible signs and seals instituted by God, administered by the Church, received by, the believers and their seed, whereby He obsignates visibly the invisible grace of His covenant and seals it unto the believers, and whereby He gives unto His Church ensigns and banners of His covenant to distinguish them from the world.

Signs in general serve the purpose to represent something visibly that is in itself invisible. Numerous are such signs in the life of men in general; they evidently have need to express the spiritual and invisible by a visible and material token. Thus, secret police bear a badge of their invisible authority and power. Members of secret societies and unions wear a button to denote their membership and their unity with the fraternity to which they belong. A ship raises the flag as a sign of its nationality.

The same is true of signs in the Word of God. The Word itself is really a sign, for language serves the purpose to express in visible and audible form that which eye hath not seen and ear hath never heard and hath never been conceived in the heart of man. And so, also in creation there are many visible signs of the invisible and heavenly things. In a very general sense all things are signs and symbols of things that are heavenly. For when the Creator of the universe called into existence the present world, He had respect unto the world to come. Mere earthly things did not constitute the ultimate realization of His eternal good pleasure. He hath provided some better thing for His people, the glory of the heavenly kingdom. And when He made things earthy, He had the heavenly things in mind and made the former an image of the latter. And so it happens that all things are signs, and that the things of the kingdom of God, according to the Word of Christ, take place in parables. The sun and the moon and the stars, shining and sparkling in the firmament, the rainbow that spans the heavens, the beasts of the field and the flying birds, the cedars of Lebanon and the noble vine, as well as the thorn and the thistle, the lamb and the serpent, the mystery of the numbers and the manifold beauty of the colors, the earthly square and the heavenly cube and the eternal circle, the sparkling diamond and the softly shining pearl, the sand that is by the seashore, the restless ocean and the mighty mountains, the bare desert and the fertile field, the seed that falls in the earth and dies to live again, the fierce tempest and the gentle zephyr, the roaring thunder and the flashing lightning, the light of day and the darkness of the night,—all things are signs, and they speak a language of their own, pointing upward, groaning in hope.

Resides, there are signs which the Lord God Himself has separated out of that creation and which He especially designates as signs, drawing the attention of His people. The tree of life in the first paradise was indeed more than a sign in as far as Adam through the means of that tree could receive the perpetuation of his earthly life. Rut it nevertheless was also a sign. As the tree stood there, in the midst of the first paradise, it was a token between God and Adam of the life of the friendship of God, an image of the eternal life in the new paradise that was to come. And the same is true of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: it was a sign unto Adam and also between God and Adam of the antithesis, a sign that either in the way of obedience or of disobedience he could attain to a certain knowledge of good and evil. For in the way of obedience Adam would be established in that positive knowledge according to which he hated evil and loved the good; while in the way of disobedience he would plunge himself in the darkness in which he hated the good and loved the evil.

Later, after the deluge, God gave the sign of the rainbow to the people of His covenant. For the rainbow was a visible creature of God, obsignating the invisible faithfulness and grace of God’s eternal covenant as it encompasses all the universe. Similar signs, to which God Himself calls the attention, were given to Abraham in the stars of the firmament and in the sand that is by the seashore. Besides, in Scripture the flood is called a sign of baptism, and so is the passage through the Red Sea; while the rock in the desert, that followed the Israelites, and the manna that rained from heaven point to the Christ. Besides, all the miracles performed by the Savior during His earthly ministry, the healing of the sick, the restoration of sight to the blind and of hearing to the deaf, the strengthening of the lame and halt, the changing of water into wine, the cleansing of the lepers, and the raising of the dead, were signs, manifesting the power and authority of Christ to redeem and to renew all things in the eternal kingdom of heaven.

However, all these signs are not as such sacraments, although some of them, especially the trees in paradise, have a certain sacramental value. But they are nevertheless distinguished from the sacraments in this respect, that they are not instituted in the Church to be kept and administered by the Church and to serve as distinguishing marks and banners for the Church. However, also the sacraments are first of all signs. There is in the sacrament a visible token: water, bread, and wine. And these visible signs obsignate and represent the invisible grace of God’s covenant: the blood of Christ, forgiveness of sins, justification, sanctification, the entrance into God’s covenant, and the nourishing grace which is received out of Christ. And therefore they also serve as ensigns and banners, separating and distinguishing the people of God in separation from the world and designating them as of the party of the living God.

In the second place, the sacraments also are seals; for thus we read in Romans 4:11: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” Now a seal is a sign of the authority of its author, in this case of God. It is a sign that cannot be violated or broken; it is a solemn pledge. It is, as it were, the oath of God, which He will surely fulfill. For thus we read in Hebrews 6:13,ff.: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.”

The question is, however: what exactly is being sealed by the sacrament? Is everyone that receives the sacrament by that seal of God assured of his salvation? Is the sacrament a seal upon the persons that receive the sacrament? This is evidently impossible, for in that case the sacrament would lie at least as often as it speaks the truth: for there are many that partake of the sacrament, or receive it, without believing or without having the faith; not all that receive the sacrament are saved. Hence, some try to make the distinction between the objective bequest of salvation and the subjective reception or acceptance of it. According to them the case would be thus, that God through the seal and the sign of the sacrament on His part assures unto everyone that receives the sacrament that He will grant salvation out of free grace. This means about the same thing as the so-called well-meaning offer of salvation to all that hear the gospel. Just as the promise of salvation in the well-meaning offer of the gospel is meant for all that hear it, so, objectively, God promises grace and righteousness and salvation and eternal life to all that outwardly receive the sacrament. And it depends upon the acceptance of this gracious bequest on the part of God whether or not the sacrament is applicable to and valid for him that receives it.

This is the view of the sacrament which for many years has been taught by Prof. Heyns and has been imbibed by many in the Christian Reformed Churches. The essence of the covenant, according to him, is the promise of God; and that promise really amounts to a well-meaning offer of salvation to all that receive the sacrament. He made the distinction between the objective bequest of salvation on the part of God and the subjective application or acceptance of that bequest on the part of the believer. In the baptism form he made the distinction between the work of the Father and the Son on the one hand, and the work of the Holy Spirit on the other. In the sacrament God the Father “witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit.” And through the same sacrament “the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God” All this belongs to God’s objective bequest of grace and salvation. It belongs to the promise of God which is applicable to all that receive the sacrament. But whether those that partake of the sacrament will also actually receive the salvation depends upon the subjective state of him that receives it, that is, upon the faith of the believer. Hence, Heyns wants to read that part of the baptism form that speaks of the application of salvation and of all that we have in Christ by the Holy Spirit in such a way that it is really contingent upon the choice and the will of man. God the Father and God the Son objectively grant and bequest all that is included in the promise of salvation to everyone that receives the sacrament. But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, Heyns wants to emphasize that He will dwell in us and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us that which we have in Christ; but whether He will actually apply this salvation to us depends upon our acceptance of the objective bequest of God. It goes without saying that in this way we must needs fall into the Arminian and Pelagian error.

Hence, we must view the matter in a different light.

Sacraments do not seal the persons that receive the sacraments, nor do they seal an objective bequest or offer of salvation to everyone that receives the sign of the sacrament. But they do seal the righteousness which is out of faith. That is why the element of faith was emphasized in all the quotations of the Reformed symbols to which we referred in the preceding part of this chapter. God seals, He assures with an oath, that He reckons faith unto righteousness. Hence, through the same sacrament He assures the believers in Jesus Christ that He will surely grant unto them all without doubt the grace of His covenant and the salvation which He promised them. In other words, the sacraments are particular, not general. Even as the promises of the gospel are particular and are only for the believers, that is, therefore, in last analysis, for the elect, so also the seal of the sacrament is a particular seal: the sacrament sets the inviolable seal of God upon the unbreakable connection between faith and righteousness without the works of the law. This is evidently the meaning of Romans 4:11: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised. This is also the meaning of question 67 and its answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation? Answer. Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon the one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.” Sacraments direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Faith is presupposed, and is an indispensable requisite for receiving the sacrament. The unbeliever has absolutely nothing in the sacrament. This does not mean that the sacraments ever lie: for they seal the righteousness which is of faith. No more than the promise of the gospel. But exactly because it is faith that is required in the true participation of the sacraments, and faith is not of man but the work of God through the Holy Spirit, the author of faith, therefore the sacrament as well as the gospel is ultimately only for the elect. And just as for the unbelieving reprobate the gospel is a savor of death unto death, so also is the sacrament, whether of baptism or of holy communion, a savor of death unto death for those that have not the faith. It is only to the believers, therefore, that in the’ sacraments God seals His salvation.

In the third place, it must be emphasized that sacraments are signs and seals that are instituted by God. This implies first of all that God has ordained them and separated them unto the purpose of sacraments. Bread, water, and wine are indeed adapted in creation to be signs of the grace of Christ; but without anything else they are not sacramental signs. This they become through the fact that God separated them and ordained them specifically to be signs of His salvation. And in the second place, this also implies that the Church received the sacraments in order that they should be observed and administered and celebrated by her. This was true with respect to circumcision and the Passover under the old dispensation, and this is equally true with respect to baptism and holy communion under the new dispensation. In Gen. 17:9-11 we read: “And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant, therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man-child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.” And in Exodus 12:14: “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.” In Matt. 28:19 we read: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And in I Cor. 11:23-27 the apostle Paul speaks of having received the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper as a special revelation: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”