“We believe, that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities hath ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us his promises, and to be pledges of the good will ,and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which he hath joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses, both that which he signifies to us by His Word, and that which he works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which he imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Ghost. Therefore the signs are not in vain, or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment. Moreover we are satisfied with the number of the sacraments which Christ our Lord hath instituted, which are two only, namely, the sacrament of baptism, and the holy supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Article XXXIII, The Belgic Confession
This article is an introduction to a rather lengthy section of our Confession dealing with the sacraments. The lengthy treatment of this subject is to be explained by the fact that the question of the sacraments was a burning issue at the time of the Reformation. Moreover the question of the sacraments was not only an issue dividing the Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation, but it was an issue that also divided the various branches of the Reformation: Lutheran, Calvinistic, and Zwinglian. While the question of the sacraments may not persist as such a burning issue today, still there is a good deal of misunderstanding concerning these holy signs and seals of God’s grace. For this reason we may be thankful for the Confession’s careful, detailed treatment of this subject.
Beginning in Reformation times and continuing through the years, some five views concerning the sacraments have prevailed. (Anyone interested in further study of this may consult P.Y. De Jong’s, The Church’s Witness To The World, vol. II, pp. 333ff.) The first view is that of Roman Catholicism. Grace, according to Rome, is inherent in the elements of the sacraments. This means, and this is actually Rome’s position, that the sacraments are the means which actually confer grace upon all who partake, whether believer or unbeliever. In the course of time this led to the decline and neglect of the preaching of the Word. By its seven sacraments the Church dispensed God’s grace through its clergy. For this reason, outside of the Church of Rome there can be no salvation.
Luther took a similar position, though he stressed that the sacraments were intended only for believers. Lutherans teach that Christ is present in and with the elements of the sacraments. This position led to the Lutheran conceptions of baptismal regeneration and the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, a view which came to be called consubstantiation.
Zwingli took a much more radical approach. Over against both Rome and Luther, Zwingli stressed that the sacraments were badges of initiation into and fellowship with Christ’s church. By their use the believers pledged themselves to a life of Christian discipleship and warfare. The sacraments are not means by which God strengthens faith. For Zwingli the sacraments remain “bare signs” or representations of what God has done for us in Christ. In other words, according to Zwingli the sacraments were not means of grace.
Quite similar to the Zwinglian view is that of the Anabaptists. The difference between the two is that Zwingli stressed the corporate character of the sacraments as church ordinances, while the Anabaptists remained individualistic in their approach. The sacraments according to these are not signs and seals of God’s grace to us, but rather pledges which believers give to God of their faith and obedience. Other sectarians separated themselves from both Rome and the Reformers and taught that the Holy Spirit works grace apart from any means at all. In this conception there was no room at all for the sacraments nor for the preaching, for that matter.
We shall be presenting the Reformed view of the sacraments as we consider this and the following articles of our Confession. But it must be understood at this point that the Reformed view must not be considered to be (as, it sometimes is) a compromise between the views of Luther and Zwingli or between the objectivism of Rome and the subjectivism of the Anabaptists. The Reformed conception as presented in these articles of the creed are an accurate reflection of the truth of Scripture. The Reformed teach that by means of the sacraments God works grace in the hearts of His people, not in some physical way, but spiritually. The Reformed also insist that Christ instituted these sacraments for the Church. They are church ordinances which are celebrated by the Church, in the Church, and for the Church.
In the light of the above it is evident that the article was written against the position of both Rome and the Lutherans. Both of these teach that the power of the sacraments is in the signs and seals themselves. Grace is in the water of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. All who partake receive this grace. The article is also directed against the Romish position of seven sacraments. The seven sacraments according to Rome are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Marriage. Over against this we confess: “Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Lord hath instituted, which are two only, namely, the sacrament of baptism, and the holy supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is Scripture. Scripture teaches that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism when He commissioned the Church of all ages as represented in the Apostles to go into all the world teaching and baptizing. (Cf. Matthew 28:19, 20 and parallels) And Christ broke the bread and said, “This is my body”; and Christ poured the wine and said, “This cup is the new testament of my blood.” Christ gave us these elements and told us to eat and drink them in remembrance of Him. (Cf. Matthew 26:26-30;Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19, 20; I Cor. 11:23-29) Christ instituted these two sacraments only and none other.
It is equally evident that the article is written against the Zwinglian position which makes of the sacraments mere memorials. Overagainst this position we confess: “Therefore the signs are not in vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment.”
Positively, the sacraments are essentially two things: signs and seals. A sign is a visible part of God’s creation which points to an invisible reality. The whole creation is made up of signs. That is true because the earthly was made by God to be a picture of the heavenly. The seed is a picture of the reality of regeneration, the rainbow of God’s covenant faithfulness, etc. That is why we sing with the Psalmist: “the heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament sheweth his handiwork, day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” But the sacraments are special signs. They are instituted by our gracious God as means of grace. God has set them aside as means by which He nourishes and strengthens our faith. Thus they point to the invisible realities of salvation through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ Who, in terms of the Confession, is “the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment.”
The sacraments are also seals. A seal is a mark of authority by which the genuineness of something is indicated. The seal of the government, for example, marks the genuineness of the document upon which it is placed. The sacraments are God’s seals by which His own sovereign authority marks the reality signified as being absolutely genuine. The sacraments are seals of the promise of God in Christ which means they mark that promise as being objectively true and real and for the believer personally. Thus the sacraments are more than signs. They are also seals or pledges from God Himself that His promise in Christ is genuine and sure.
The Confession also speaks of the reason the sacraments are given to the church. They are graciously given to us by God on account of our weakness. That weakness is our inability to comprehend spiritual truths and our weak faith according to which we tend to doubt the promises of God. Thus our Confession stresses that the sacraments present better to our senses that which God has spoken of in His Word and worked in our hearts. In this way the sacraments nourish and strengthen our faith: ” . . .thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which he (God) imparts to us.”
It is of utmost importance to remember that Scripture teaches and the Confession affirms that the sacraments are “joined to the Word of the gospel.” They have no legitimate place, no purpose, and no efficacy apart from the Word. They are joined to the preaching of the Word. There is no hidden power in the sacraments themselves as such. They are only means, supplementary means. The preaching of the Word is the chief means and to it the sacraments are joined. The preaching serves both to work and to strengthen faith, while the sacraments only strengthen this faith. Thus the Confession speaks in terms of the sacraments nourishing, strengthening, assuring, and confirming faith and salvation. But the preaching of the Word is always first and of primary import, for without the Word we cannot even understand the sacraments. Still more, without the Word preached there can be no faith for “faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:13-17)
Therefore too the sacraments presuppose the presence of faith. They are of no avail to a spiritually dead person. Just as the eating of food presupposes life in a person, so does the use of the sacraments presuppose the life of Christ (faith) in a person. Thus the outward sign of the sacrament is applied inwardly to the heart through the operation of the Holy Spirit. He causes us to see through the signs and seals the cross of Christ. And He applies that cross in such a way that we know that it is for us.
Finally, just as is true of the preaching of the Word, so the sacraments have a twofold effect. They strengthen the faith of the elect. But, no less do they have an effect upon the unbeliever. The sacraments are means to harden the unbeliever in his sin, and that results in greater condemnation to those who though baptized despise the cross, and to those who partake of the table of the Lord in unbelief.