In the French confession of faith, which dates from 1559, Article 34, we read the following on the sacraments in general: “We believe that the sacraments are added to the word for more ample confirmation, that they may be to us pledges and seals of the grace of God, and by this means aid and comfort our faith, because of the infirmity which is in us, and that they are outward signs Through which God operates by His Spirit, so that He may not signify anything to us in vain. Yet we hold that their substance and truth is in Jesus Christ, and that of themselves they are only smoke and shadow.”
We may note here: 1) That the Word of God is always the main means of grace, and that the sacraments are added to the Word for more ample confirmation. 2) That they are pledges and seals of the grace of God. 3) That they are an aid and comfort to our faith, so that also here faith is presupposed. 4) That they are outward signs, through which God operates by His Spirit. 5) That of themselves, that is, as mere signs, they are nothing, but only smoke and shadow, and that their substance and truth is in Jesus Christ.
In the same confession, Article 36, it is affirmed of the Lord’s Supper: 1) That through the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit feeds and strengthens us with the substance of the body and blood of Christ; and 2) that this is done spiritually and can be apprehended only by faith.
In Article 37 of the same confession it is emphasized that in the sacrament the sign and the thing signified belong together: “We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord’s Supper, as well as in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which He there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us.” But again it is emphasized that this is true only for the believer: “And thus all who bring a pure faith, like a vessel, to the sacred table of Christ, receive truly that of which it is a sign; for the body and blood of Jesus Christ give food and drink to the soul, no less than bread and wine nourish the body.”
Also the Scotch Confession of Faith, dated 1560, in Article 21 emphasizes that the sacraments are instituted for the confirmation and strengthening of the faith of the believers, to seal unto them the assurance of the promise of God and the most blessed communion which the elect have with the Head, Christ Jesus. And they are not naked and bare signs, but they are so efficacious that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of His righteousness and of the forgiveness of sins; and by the Lord’s Supper Christ is so joined with us that He becomes our very nourishment and food for our souls. But all this is effected through the sacraments by the power of the Holy Spirit, “Who by a true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us to feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, which once was broken and shed for us, which now is in heaven, and appears in the presence of His Father for us.” Besides, the article teaches that the sacraments are effectual not only at the moment when they are administered or when the believers partake of them, but that “they shall bring forth fruit afterwards, as a lively seed sown in good ground. For the Holy Spirit, who can never be separated from the right institution of the Lord Jesus, will not frustrate the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action.” But once more it is emphasized that “all this comes of true faith, which apprehends Christ Jesus, who only makes the sacrament effectual unto us.”
The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, dated 1563, (American revision, 1801), in Article 25 speaks of the sacraments in general as follows: “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.”
And in Article 27 it speaks of the sacrament of Baptism as follows: “Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.”
And concerning the Lord’s Supper it confesses in Article 28: “The supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ.”
Also in this confession it is emphasized that faith is presupposed in the administration and the use of the sacraments, and that without faith no one can really or essentially receive the sacraments properly. This is emphasized in Article 29 of the same confession: “The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as St. Augustine said) the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing.”
The Anglican Catechism, dated 1549, is rather instructive in that it emphasizes that to the sacraments proper belong not only the outward and visible sign but also the inward spiritual grace; in other words, without the latter there is really no sacrament according to this catechism. We quote:
“Question. How many sacraments hath Christ ordained in his church?
“Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation: that is to say, baptism, and the supper of the Lord.
“Question. What meanest thou by this word sacrament?
“Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given unto us, ordained by Christ Himself as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
“Question. How many parts are there in a sacrament?
“Answer. Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.
“Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in baptism?
“Answer. Water; wherein the person is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
“Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?
“Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for, being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
“Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?
“Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that sacrament.
“Question. Why, then, are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?
“Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties; which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.
“Question. Why was the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?
“Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.
“Question. What is the outward part or sign in the Lord’s Supper?
“Answer. Bread and wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.
“Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?
“Answer. The body and blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.
“Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?
“Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the body and blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the bread and wine.
“Question. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?
“Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; and a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.”
Here too it is plainly emphasized that in the administration and the use of the sacraments faith is required, and, in connection with the statement that the sacrament consists both of the outward visible sign and of the inward spiritual grace, it is evident that there can be no true sacrament except for the believer. Like the preaching of the Word the sacraments are not a general offer of grace; but just as to those who have not the faith the preaching of the Word is always a savor of death unto death, so the sacraments are always unto condemnation of those that partake of them without faith.
In the Irish Articles of Religion, dated 1615, we read of the sacraments in paragraph 85 to 100; and from it we quote the following: “The sacraments ordained by Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather sure witnesses and effectual or powerful signs of grace and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.” Also in this confession the truth is emphasized that sacraments are not only unto salvation for the believer, but also unto judgment and condemnation for the unbeliever. They must not be carried about, but should be properly used, and “in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect and operation; but they that receive them unworthily, thereby draw judgment upon themselves.”
Baptism, according to this confession, is the “sacrament of our admission into the church, sealing unto us our new birth (and consequently our justification, adoption, and sanctification) by the communion which we have with Christ Jesus.” And “the Lord’s Supper is not only a sign of the mutual love which Christians ought to bear one towards another, but much more a sacrament of our preservation in the church, sealing unto us our spiritual nourishment and continual growth in Christ.”
Again, it describes the Lord’s Supper as follows: “In the outward part of the holy communion, the body and blood of Christ is in a most lively manner represented; being no other wise present with the visible elements than things signified and sealed are present with the signs and seals—that is to say, symbolically and relatively. But in the inward and spiritual part of the same body and blood is really and substantially presented unto all those who have grace to receive the Son of God, even to all those that believe in his name. And unto such as in this manner do worthily and with faith repair unto the Lord’s table, the body and blood of Christ is not only signified and offered, but also truly exhibited and communicated.”
And again, that faith is required and presupposed in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper is evident from the following words: “The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Lord’s Supper only after a heavenly and spiritual manner; and the means whereby the body of Christ is thus received and eaten is faith.” And like the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England the confession emphasizes that those that are wicked and have not the faith, although they carnally and visibly eat and drink the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, “yet in no wise are they made partakers of Christ; but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing.”
Finally, we quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647: “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.”
Also the Westminster Confession of Faith includes a sign and the thing signified in the sacrament as such: “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 the effects of the one are attributed to the other.” But the whole of the sacrament is not effectual in itself, nor does its efficacy depend on the intention of him that administers the sacrament, but “upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with the precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.”
The sacrament of baptism is not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, “but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.”
Of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper it states that it should be observed in the Church unto the end of the world “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death, the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe unto him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.”
And as to the relation between the sign and the thing signified in the Lord’s Supper it states the following: “The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such a relation to him crucified, as that truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the names of the things which they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly, and only, bread and wine, as they were before.”
And also in this confession it is emphasized that the sacraments are efficacious only to the believer and that the wicked can receive them only to their condemnation. In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper faith receives and feeds upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of His death. But, on the other hand, “although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament, yet they receive not the thing signified thereby; but by their unworthy coming thereunto are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table, and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.”
We have quoted rather elaborately from the Reformed symbols of the past in order to show what is the common conception of the Reformed churches of the sacraments, both of the sacrament of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper.