However, we must understand, and it is also emphasized in this article, that this is true only for the believer, not for the unbeliever: “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, which was composed in 1560, Article 21, emphasizes that the sacraments are instituted for the confirmation and strengthening of the faith of 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. They are not mere or bare signs, but they are so efficacious that by baptism we are ingrafted in Jesus Christ, 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. All this, however, 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.” However, 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 never can be separated from the right institution of the Lord Jesus, will not frustrate the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action.” And once more, it is emphasized in the article that “all this comes of true faith, which apprehends Christ Jesus, who only makes the sacrament effectual unto us.”
Also the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, adopted in 1563, speaks of the sacraments in general as follows, Article 25: “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 toward us, by the which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in Him.”
In Article 27 of the same confession 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 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.”
The same confession, in Article 28, speaks especially of the Lord’s Supper as follows: “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: in so much 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.”
According to this confession also faith is presupposed in the administration and the use of sacraments. Without faith no one can really or essentially receive the sacrament properly. Thus, in Article 29 of the same confession it is said: “The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as 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 Irish Articles of Religion, 1615, Paragraphs 85-100, speak of the sacraments in the following words: “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.” In this confession also the truth is emphasized that the 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.” According to the same confession, baptism 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 as to the Lord’s Supper, it 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.” The same confession 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 otherwise 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 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 de Lord’s table, the body and blood of Christ is not only signified and offered, but also truly exhibited and communicated.” Here, too, the sacrament is presented as including the sign and the thing signified. Again, that faith is required and presupposed in the partaking of de 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 the same 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 the 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 upon the Word of institution, which contains, together with the precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.” As to the sacrament of baptism, it 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.” 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.” In the light of all that we have said thus far, the following definition may be offered of the sacraments: Sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals, instituted by God, through Christ, administered by the church, received by the believers and their seed, whereby God in Christ 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 separate them and distinguish them from the world.
Let us study this definition a little more closely.
First of all, then, sacraments are signs. Signs in general serve the purpose to represent something visibly that is in itself invisible. There are many signs, even outside of the sacramental signs, in the life of men in general. It is evident that they need to express the spiritual and invisible by a visible and material token. Thus, for instance, secret police wear 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. In a way, we may say that 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 not heard, and which hath never been conceived in the heart of man. Also in creation there are many visible signs of the invisible and heavenly things. In fact, in a very general sense all things are signs and symbols of things 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 God’s eternal good pleasure. He provided some better thing for His people, the glory of the heavenly kingdom. And when He made things earthly, He had the heavenly things in mind, and made the former the image of the latter. Thus 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 and groaning in hope.
But this is not all. There are also signs which the Lord God Himself has separated out of that creation and which He especially designated 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. But it nevertheless was also a sign. As the tree stood 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 also 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 into the darkness in which he hated the good and loved the evil.
There are, of course, many other signs in Scripture, centrally all connected with the covenant and its realization. Thus, the rainbow was a sign obsignating the invisible faithfulness and grace of Gods eternal covenant as it is universal and embraces all creation. Thus also the sand that is by the seashore and the innumerable multitude of stars in the firmament are signs of the numerable seed of Abraham. The flood is called a sign of baptism, as well as the passage through the Red Sea. And so there are many signs. All the miracles performed by the Saviour during His earthly ministry,—the healing of the sick, the restoration of sight to the blind, of hearing to the deaf, the strengthening of the lame and halt, the changing of the 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.
Distinct from all these, however, are the signs of the sacraments. They are distinct especially in this respect, that they are instituted signs. They are instituted in the church, to be administered by the church, and to serve as distinguishing marks for the church. Nevertheless, also the sacraments are first of all signs. There is in the sacrament, first of all, the visible token,—water, bread and wine. And these visible tokens represent the invisible grace of God’s covenant, the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, justification, sanctification, the entrance into God’s covenant, the incorporation into the body of Christ, and 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.
Secondly, the sacraments are also seals. This is plain from 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 to them also.” 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 or oath. The significance of the seal is indicated in Hebrews 6:16-18: “For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherefore God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of the 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 often asked: what is sealed by the sacraments? Does God assure by this seal everyone that receives the outward sign of his salvation? In other words, is the sacrament a seal of God upon every person that receives the sacrament in the outward sense of the word? This question is asked especially in connection with the sacrament of baptism. It is sometimes alleged that the sacrament of baptism seals the internal grace of God to everyone that is baptized. This, however, is impossible. There are many that partake of the sacrament, or that receive the sacrament of baptism, without believing or without having the faith. Not all that receive the sacraments are saved. Others, therefore, try to make the distinction between the objective bequest, or the objective promise of God, and the subjective reception of it. According to them, the case would be thus, that God through the seal and sign of the sacrament on His part assures unto everyone that receives the sacrament that He will grant salvation out of free grace, on condition, however, of faith and obedience. This means about the same thing as the 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.