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

A. 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.

Q. 66. What are the sacraments?

A. 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, viz., 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

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

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

The next seven chapters, or Lord’s Days, of the Heidelberg Catechism bear the heading “The Sacraments”.

This heading, however, does not cover all the material that is treated under it. The sacraments do, indeed, receive the lion’s share of the attention of the Catechism in this connection. In Lord’s Day 25 we find the definition of the sacraments, the explanation of their general significance, and the mention of the number of the sacraments that are instituted. In the twenty-sixth Lord’s Day the general significance of baptism is explained, and the Scriptural basis for its institution is mentioned. Lord’s Day 27 explains the sign of baptism in relation to its meaning as the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins, and adds a question and answer on the important doctrine of infant baptism. Next there follow three very long chapters on the Lord’s Supper: on its significance and institution; on the relation between the sign and the thing obsignated, refuting the error of transsubstantiation; on the difference between the popish mass and the Lord’s Supper; and finally, on the proper partakers of this sacrament. Yet, it must be observed that in Lord’s Day 25 also the preaching of the Word is at least mentioned and presented as the main means of grace. And under the same heading, “The Sacraments”, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are explained in Lord’s Day 31.

That in the time when the Catechism was composed all the emphasis was indeed placed on the question of the sacraments, and these stood in the center of attention is also plain from “Het Schatboek”, the well-known commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism written by Ur sinus himself. To the preaching of the Word and the sacraments together he devotes only two little paragraphs, as follows:

“This Question points out the connection which holds between the doctrine of faith and the sacraments. The Holy Ghost ordinarily produces faith (concerning which we have spoken) in us by the ecclesiastical ministry, which consists of two parts, the word and the sacraments. The Holy Ghost works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel; and cherishes, confirms, and seals it by the use of the sacraments. The word is a charter to which the sacraments are attached as signs. The charter is the gospel itself, to which the sacraments are affixed as the seals of the divine will. Whatever the word promises concerning our salvation through Christ, that the sacraments, as signs, and seals annexed thereto, confirm unto us more and more for the purpose of helping our infirmity. It is proper, therefore, that we should now speak of the sacraments, the seals of faith, appended to the gospel.

“Obj. But it is said that the Holy Ghost and the word produce faith in us, and that the sacraments strengthen it. In what, therefore, do these three differ from each other? Ans. They differ very much. 1. The Holy Ghost works and confirms faith in us as the efficient cause, whilst the word and sacraments do this as instrumental causes. 2. The Holy Ghost can also work faith independent of the word and the sacraments, whilst these, on the other hand, can effect nothing independent of the Holy Ghost. 3. The Holy Ghost works effectually in whomsoever he dwells, which cannot be said of the word and sacraments.”

One-half page, therefore, is devoted to the discussion of the preaching of the Word as a means of grace; and, in comparison with this, the next one hundred pages of his commentary Ur sinus devotes to the discussion of the sacraments. This emphasis must, of course, be explained from the controversy which our fathers, at the time of the Reformation, had with Rome,—a controversy in which the question of the sacraments occupied the center of attention.

Now, we certainly must not make the mistake of minimizing the importance of this question of the -sacraments. In the first place, we must not overlook the fact that the Romish Church is still powerful and influential, and that our controversy with her is a perpetual one. Secondly, we have a very real and present controversy with many outside of the Reformed faith. Many there are in our day that deny thet Scriptural basis for infant baptism, while others contemptuously speak of water baptism, as over against the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and despise the sacraments in general as a means of grace. In the third place, even in Reformed churches the sacraments are repeatedly occupying a place of central importance in the discussion and interest of theologians. Witness the recent controversy and schism in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Questions that concern the covenant of grace, the parts or parties of that covenant, the members of that covenant, the question of presumptive regeneration, as well as the question what is sealed by the sacraments and to whom, is it sealed;—all these are intimately related to the problem of the sacraments. We should, therefore, not assume the attitude of those that would rather quickly pass over the next six Lord’s Days and, perhaps, even combine more than one chapter of the catechism in the same sermon; for this would simply reveal ignorance in regard to the fundamental questions involved.

However, it is true that the preaching of the Word is not given the proper place and attention in the Catechism. A more proper heading for the material treated in the next seven chapters would undoubtedly be “The Distinguishing Marks of the True Church.” But it is more in harmony with the subjective character of the Catechism as a book of comfort to treat the material under the general subject of “The Means of Grace.” This therefore, we propose to do.

Several questions must be asked here, and answered, in this connection. What are means, and, what are the means of grace? How is the preaching of the Word a means of grace? Why is preaching, together with the sacraments and the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the distinguishing mark of the true Church? These and other questions are involved in the subject of the means of grace.

First of all, then, what are means of grace?

As to means in general, we may remark that they are elements taken from the world of our experience, from the outside world in which we live, and that are adapted to our human existence and nature. Food and drink, for instance, are such elements from the world in which we live, and that are so adapted to our nature that they can nourish and sustain our bodies. We call them means because God must use them for the purpose to which they are adapted. Things are nothing in themselves, but exist and are sustained by the almighty and omnipresent power of God which we call providence. But it pleases God to use these means always in the same way and for the same purpose. Bread always sustains and nourishes our bodies. God never uses bread to poison us, and because we have this confidence in God, we also are able to use the means. If God would use bread one day to poison us and another day to nourish us, it would be impossible for us to use those means, of course. Means, therefore, are elements taken from the world in which we live, the world of our experience, which are always used by God in the same way, and which, for that very reason, we can also use.

Now, we speak in this connection of means of grace. The idea of means of grace is certainly implied in Questian and Answer 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed? 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.” The Catechism therefore teaches that the Holy Ghost works faith in our hearts, but that this faith is wrought by means of the preaching of the Word and of the holy sacraments. It is true that the Catechism really speaks of the preaching of the Word and the sacraments as a means of faith, rather than as means of grace; but since faith is the bond of union with Christ, and it is therefore through faith and by faith that we receive all the blessings of grace, it is perfectly proper for us to use the term which the church has always used in this connection: means of grace.

What do we understand by grace?

The word grace, as it occurs in Scripture, appears to have many different connotations, although we believe that they all refer to some underlying idea. Perhaps the most general and basic notion from which all other connotations can be most readily explained is that of pleasantness, attractiveness, beauty, gracefulness. In this sense the word occurs both in the Old and in the New Testament. Thus, we read in Proverbs 22:11: “He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.” Here the word evidently has the signification of pleasantness, beauty. A man speaks pleasant and agreeable words; his speech is graceful, so that for the sake of it the king is his friend. The pleasantness and grace of his speech, however, is not superficial; it is not the vain beauty that characterizes the speech of the flatterer or boaster; but it is the beauty that expresses pureness of heart. Grace has an ethical meaning: it is rooted in goodness. It is an ethically pure speech that is considered graceful and beautiful. The same meaning occurs in Ps. 45:2: “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.” Also here it is evident that grace is used in the sense of beauty and attractiveness that is rooted in ethical goodness. In Proverbs 31:30 the word grace is even employed for the outward gracefulness of bodily form, of which it is, then, asserted that in itself it is deceitful and vain. This is also in harmony with the root meaning of the Hebrew word, which signifies to incline gracefully toward one, to be pleasant toward someone, and thus to favor that one. The word that is used in the New Testament for grace is derived from a verb that signifies to be pleasant, and thus to afford joy, even as a thing of beauty is a joy forever. And so, also the New Testament word for grace has the fundamental notion of charm, gracefulness, attractiveness, beauty. We read of the Lord that all bear Him witness and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth; by which undoubtedly is meant that the speech of the Lord was remarkably pleasant and in the true sense of the word beautiful, graceful. The Lord was a charming speaker. Luke 4:22. The same significance of the word we find in Col. 4:6, where the apostle admonishes the Christians that their speech must always be with grace, seasoned with salt, in order that they may know how they ought to answer every man. Their conversation, in other words, must always be characterized by the beauty of ethical purity. Perhaps the same meaning may be found in Eph. 4:29: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good, to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” where speech that giveth grace, or that is truly pleasant, stands over against corrupt communication. And the apostle Peter writes in I Pet. 2:20: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do wefi, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” Here the word for acceptable is grace in the original, so that the meaning is: patience in suffering for the sake of righteousness is beautiful in the eyes of God. So that, on the basis of Scripture, we come first of all to the conclusion that objectively grace denotes the attribute, virtue, or quality of beauty or pleasantness or charm; more especially of that ethical beauty or charm that is rooted in true goodness and purity, and that is the expression of true perfection: for only what is truly good is truly beautiful, while all that is corrupt and imperfect must be condemned as ugly and repulsive. It is only in the world of sin that the ethically corrupt can be considered charming and attractive. In the sight of God, and according to the judgment of Scripture, it is never so presented.

In this general and fundamental sense of the word grace is, first of all, an attribute of God. God is gracious in Himself, absolutely, that is, without any relation to the creature. Thus it is, of course, with all the attributes of the Most High: God is love in Himself; He does not depend on the existence of a creature that can be the recipient of His love in order to possess or be this virtue actively, but He is love in Himself. So God is merciful, righteous, holy, true, and faithful, the God of peace in the absolute sense of the word. If this were not so, He would not be God, seeing He would not be self-existent and independent. The same is true of the attribute of Grace. God is eternally and in Himself the God of all grace, even apart from any relation to the creature. He is all grace. Graciousness is an attribute of His very being, even though there never were a creature to whom this grace of God were revealed. Grace belongs to the name of God. Thus He proclaimed His holy name to Moses on the mount, according to Ex. 34:6: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Again, thus the Psalmist addresses Him in Ps. 86:15: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.” Thus he sings in Ps. 103:8: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” And, in Ps. 116:5: “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.” This implies with respect to God in the absolute sense of the word, that He is the perfection of all beauty, because He is the implication of an eternal, infinite perfection of all goodness. God is good in the ethical sense of the word. Goodness is His very being; He is a light, and there is no darkness in Him at all. His very being is righteousness and holiness and truth. He is peace and love and life. In Him there is no unrighteousness, no corruption, no lie, no war, and no envy and hatred. He is very goodness, ethical perfection in His very Being. For that reason God is also gracious in the sense of beautiful and charming, attractive and pleasant in His whole Being; for true goodness is true beauty. And these are in God in the supreme, in the absolute and infinite sense of the word, so that we may conclude that God is indeed the perfection of beauty. Even as the ethically evil is ugly, so the ethically perfect is beautiful and charming. Grace in God is, therefore, the perfection of His ethical beauty. For that reason we read in Ps. 27:4: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” And in Ps. 16:11: “In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” And once more, in Ps. 50:2: “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.” God is altogether lovely. He is absolute loveliness. All that is in God is charming and pleasant and graceful.

As such, as the perfectly lovely and beautiful one, God knows Himself. He eternally beholds Himself as beautiful. He has an eternal delight in His own beauty. For, He is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Son is the Word, and in Him the Father expresses all the goodness and beauty of His image. And in the Spirit the Son returns to the Father, and the Father contemplates Himself as the perfection of beauty. Hence, God knows Himself as gracious; He has a delight in the beauty of His perfection. So that we may come to the conclusion that grace, as it is in God in the absolute sense of the word, is that virtue of the divine being according to which He is the perfection of beauty in Himself and contemplates Himself as such with infinite delight. The absolutely gracious God is graciously inclined toward Himself and rejoices in Himself with perfect joy.

Hence, in the second place, we find that the word grace in Scripture denotes the attitude of graciousness or pleasantness, the gracious disposition of God to the creature. This is, no doubt, the meaning of the frequently occurring phrase “to find grace” in the eyes of God. Thus also it occurs in Luke 1:30, where we read that the angel addresses the prospective mother of our Lord, “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favor (grace) with God.” The meaning is evidently that God is favorably inclined, is graciously disposed toward her. In the same sense Stephen employs the word of David, concerning whom he declares that he found favor (grace) before God, and desired to raise a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. And once more, in Acts 14:26: “And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled.”