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Lord’s Day 25

Question 65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed?

Answer. From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.

Question 66. What are the sacraments?

Answer. The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that He grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

Question 67. 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 that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.

Question 68. How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant, or testament?

Answer. Two: namely, holy baptism and the holy supper.

This Lord’s Day is an introductory lesson to the rather lengthy treatment of the sacraments in the following five Lord’s Days. This introduction is not limited to the sacraments, but includes the subject of preaching, and describes for us how the Holy Spirit uses both preaching and sacraments as means of grace in the life of the believer.

The Means of Grace

When we speak of the means of grace we are talking about the official ministry of the church through the Word and sacraments.

There are many other means of grace in the life of the believer, for example, prayer, personal study of God’s Word, good reading, fellowship with other believers, mutual admonition, parental instruction, etc. In a sense, everything that God brings into our life is a means of grace, and we acknowledge this especially when we are going through trials and afflictions—they “work for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Cor. 4:17).

But the primary means of grace, which are essential to the life of every believer, are the preaching of the Word and participation in the sacraments. God, by the Holy Spirit, uses these two means to create and confirm faith in the believer, that is, He saves us and preserves us in salvation by these means. Among these, the chief means of grace is the preaching of the gospel.

The administration of the sacraments and the work of preaching the gospel belong to the instituted church of Christ on earth. The sacraments are not intended for private administration, but are a part of the commission that Christ gave to the apostles, and in them to the New Testament church, to teach and baptize in His name (Matt. 28:19-20). The administration and oversight of the sacraments, as we will see in subsequent Lord’s Days, is the work of the elders in the church. For this reason, we do not administer the sacraments in hospitals or nursing homes or to individuals in their private residence. And for this reason too, the administration of the sacraments is limited to believers and—in the case of baptism—to their children.

In a similar way, the preaching of the gospel is a work that belongs to the church. This is not to say that individual believers are not called to witness by their speech to others. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost qualifies and calls every New Testament believer to be a prophet. In fact, in Acts 8:4, the biblical word for preaching is used to describe the witness of the early believers—“Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.” So, as prophets we are all called to proclaim the Word of God to others, being “ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Pet. 3:15).

However, as an individual, no believer has the right to appoint himself to the work of preaching and to gather a congregation to hear his/her preaching. As Romans 10:15 puts it, “And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” This sending is the work of the church, and the church does this by calling and installing into the ministry men who have been set aside for this work by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2-3). When this is done, the ministry of the Word becomes, not simply the thoughts or message of an individual man, but they become the official proclamation, by the church, of the Word of God. The minister’s sermons are, in a very real way, the sermons of the church, overseen and approved by the elders of the church who have called and ordained him to this work.

How Grace Comes

The Catechism’s focus in this Lord’s Day is how grace is worked through these means. When the Word and sacraments are properly administered by the church, Christ Himself works grace through them, so that by the Holy Spirit faith is given to the participants.

The Catechism points out a difference between how the preaching and the sacraments work that helps us see that preaching is the primary means of grace. Whereas preaching “works” faith, the sacraments “confirm” faith (Q&A 65). In the gospel (preaching) the Holy Ghost “teaches” us and in the sacraments he “assures” us (Q&A 67). Preaching is used both to create and to confirm faith, whereas the sacraments are limited to the confirmation of our faith.

An illustration may help us to understand this difference. When a seed is planted in the ground, it is essential that it have water in order to germinate and grow into a plant. Water remains essential if the plant is to survive. In the same way, the preaching of the gospel is essential both to bring the seed of faith to life, and to keep it alive. Sometimes a farmer will add fertilizer to the plant that, though not essential for the plant’s survival, will make the plant stronger. In the same way, the sacraments are added to the preaching of the gospel to confirm, assure, and make stronger our faith.

This difference needed emphasis at the time of the Reformation over against the Roman Catholic emphasis on sacraments at the expense of preaching. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments, and teaches that grace comes to the participants through the sacraments themselves. The Reformation was a return to the primacy of the preaching of the Word of God, while the sacraments were given their proper secondary place. Still today, this is important, especially with regard to newer converts and the children of the covenant. The sacraments are not essential to our faith in the same way that preaching is, and though interested visitors as well as our children may not be able to partake of the Lord’s Supper, still they need to be encouraged to sit under the preaching of the gospel.

Both the Word and the sacraments work grace by directing our faith to the cross of Jesus Christ as the only ground for our salvation. This means that neither the Word nor the sacraments have an innate power, but rather, are a means that point us to Jesus Christ, in whom all grace is to be found.

Only when the preaching faithfully calls us to look to Jesus Christ is it a means of grace. When sermons focus on social ills, or on moralisms, and there is no preaching of Christ and the cross, they will not function as a means of grace. The preaching should call sinners to look away from all self-righteousness and to come in repentance over their sins to Jesus Christ alone. The preaching must be the proclamation of the cross and work of Jesus Christ. To the church in Corinth, Paul says concerning his preaching, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).

Because the sacraments are signs, they also direct our faith to Jesus Christ. A sign always directs our minds to something other than itself. For example, when I see a sign advertising refreshing ice cream at a local parlor, I don’t give the sign itself a second thought (unless I work for a sign company). I don’t think about the colors or the height or the artwork on the sign. No, I think of the ice cream and the place that sells the ice cream. So the sacraments, in their elements of water, bread, and wine, call me to look away to Jesus Christ, to the washing of His blood, and to His suffering on the cross. This is the way the sacraments confirm my faith: they cause me to lift the eyes of my faith to Jesus and His work.

In giving us the sacraments, God shows His pity on us. He remembers that we are creatures of the earth, and He uses things that are a common part of our daily life to teach us what our salvation is, to show us how Jesus saves and washes us from our sins. The sacraments are not extraordinary signs, such as miracles, which would draw attention to themselves; but they are ordinary things used to point us to the extraordinary work of Christ.

May God give us faithfulness in the administration of the means of grace, and be pleased also to use them to keep us in the faith.

Questions for Discussion

1. Where does your faith come from?

2. What connection is there between the strength of your faith and your attendance to the means of grace?

3. As a believer, what attitudes should you have toward the preaching of the gospel (e.g., Romans 10:17)?

4. To whom does the right to preach the gospel belong? What role do you play as a believer?

5. What is the central message of the preaching of the gospel?

6. How do preaching and the sacraments differ as means of grace? How are they similar?

7. Why would it be wrong to administer the Lord’s Supper to an individual in the hospital?

8. Why are the sacraments called signs? To what do they direct our attention?

9. Do the sacraments convey anything different or anything more than the preaching? If not, why do we need them?

10. Who alone can appoint sacraments in the church? How many did He appoint?