Understanding the Sacraments

Baptism is one of the two sacraments Christ has instituted in the Christian church.

There are many erroneous views that have arisen concerning the sacraments.

There are those, for example, who claim that the sacraments themselves work salvation. The water of baptism itself has the power to wash away sin. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper themselves nourish the soul to life eternal. Those who hold these views also elevate the sacraments, particularly the Lords Supper, to the place of prominence in worship, even above the preaching.

Then there are those who go to the other extreme, attributing to the sacraments little if any importance at all. According to some the church receives no blessing at all from the sacraments. The sacraments are not means of grace but mere memorials ordained in the church to remind us of the great work of salvation in Jesus Christ. Consequently you find among some that the sacrament of baptism is no longer administered or is optional. Then again there are others who in their zeal to emphasize the primacy of the preaching have deemphasized the sacraments to the point that they are of little significance for the church. We definitely need the preaching; but we could almost do without the sacraments.

Before we discuss the baptism form as such it would be well for us to come to a clear understanding of the sacraments. Certain questions ought to be answered, such as: what are the sacraments? how are they related to the preaching? what do the sacraments accomplish? how are the sacraments important? These questions we will seek to answer in this article.

For a definition of the sacraments we turn to our Heidelberg Catechism.

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.

Notice that in this definition the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the “promise of the gospel.” This expression indicates that the gospel or good news of God is essentially a promise. According to the Catechism this promise God makes in the gospel is “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.” Now if we bear in mind that whenever the Catechism speaks of “us” or “me” it speaks of us or me the believer, then we may summarize the Catechism by saying that in the gospel God promises full and free salvation in Jesus Christ to all and every believer.

This great gospel of salvation is what forms the content of all true preaching. In the same Lord’s Day in which the Catechism speaks of the sacraments, the Catechism also speaks of the preaching of the gospel (cf. LD 25, Q&A 65). It is through the preaching of the gospel, we are taught, that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. The expression “preaching of the gospel” indicates that the gospel of salvation forms the proper content of all preaching. The preaching is not the proclamation of the word and will of man. It is the proclamation of the gospel of salvation recorded in Holy Writ.

Of this great gospel the sacraments are signs and seals.

There is therefore a very definite connection between the sacraments and the preaching. And the connection is this: what is proclaimed in the preaching is signified and sealed in the sacraments. The same gospel proclaimed in the preaching to the ear is in the sacraments presented visibly to the eye of God’s people and placed within the reach of their taste, smell, and touch. The preaching and sacraments are inseparably connected.

According to the Catechism’s definition the sacraments are first of all signs. A sign is very simply a picture. It is something visible that represents what is invisible to us. Thus, for example, the badge of the police officer is a visible sign of the authority with which he has been vested. The flag of our country is a sign of our country and all for which it stands. In like manner the sacraments are signs. They are signs which depict for us in visible form the great work of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Baptism symbolizes the work of God to wash away our sins in the blood of Christ. In the Lord’s Supper the work of God to nourish our souls to eternal life with the body and blood of Christ is symbolized.

But the sacraments are more than signs. They are also seals.

A seal is a pledge or a guarantee. In Bible times the king’s seal was affixed to all official documents that came from the king. This seal consisted of wax imprinted with the king’s signet or ring. This seal was the guarantee that this particular document was from the king and that the king stood behind it ready to enforce any proclamation the document contained.

In like manner the sacraments are seals. They are guarantees and pledges that God makes to His people. Through the sacraments God pledges to give to His people the salvation He has depicted for them in the sacraments. Thus, through baptism God pledges to wash away the sins of His people. Through the Lord’s Supper God pledges to nourish the souls of His people with the crucified body and shed blood of Christ. The sacraments are God’s guarantees of this.

In our day it is well to emphasize that the sacraments seal or guarantee salvation only to the believer.

It is widely held in Reformed circles that the sacraments guarantee salvation to all who partake of them. This is applied especially to the sacrament of baptism. We are told that through baptism God guarantees or promises the washing away of sins to all children of believing parents. However, not all who receive the guarantee of salvation in baptism receive that salvation. This is because the guarantee is conditional. There is so to speak a string attached. The condition that must be met is faith. God will grant the salvation pledged in baptism only on condition that the child later on believes in Jesus Christ. And so it is that many receive in baptism’ a guarantee or promise of salvation that is never realized. This view of baptism and the sacrament is to be condemned. Among other things it leads us into the murky waters of Arminianism, as does all conditional theology.

Over against this it must be emphasized that the sacraments seal salvation only to the believer. Both believer and unbeliever may receive the sacraments. But the sacraments serve as a guarantee of salvation only to the believer.

This certainly is in harmony with the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism in Q & A 66, which we quoted earlier, definitely limits the promise of the gospel to the believer. According to the Catechism the promise of the gospel is “that he grants KS freely the remission of sins, and life eternal . . . .” This us, we have seen, is the believer. The promise of the gospel is not a general promise to all, but a particular promise to the believer. Quite in harmony with this the Catechism in this same Q & A also teaches that through the sacraments God “more fully declares and seals to us (again the believer) the promise of the gospel.”

This is important to understand and maintain. It does little to comfort, encourage, or strengthen our faith to know that through the sacraments God pledges salvation to many who never receive that salvation. The pledge or guarantee of God in the sacraments is then rather empty and hollow. However, it is altogether different if the guarantee of salvation made in the sacraments is sure in every instance, if everyone who is guaranteed salvation receives that salvation. That’s a guarantee we can lay hold of, that can comfort and strengthen our faith. And that’s the kind of guarantee we have in the sacraments once we understand that through the sacraments God guarantees salvation not to all but only to the believer, who as a believer will certainly receive that salvation.

We are now ready to understand what the sacraments accomplish and how they are important.

In light of all we have discussed it is quite obvious that the sacraments themselves do not save. Contrary to the teachings of some, the water of baptism itself does not wash away sins. Neither do the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper nourish the soul to eternal life. It is the blood of Christ alone that washes away sin. And it is Christ alone as the Bread of Life that nourishes our souls to life eternal. The sacraments are but signs and seals of these spiritual realities.

However, the sacraments do accomplish something very important. For they strengthen our faith. This we are taught in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 65. There we read that faith comes 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 sacraments confirm or strengthen our faith. They do that exactly because they are seals, guaranteeing our salvation. The faith of God’s people is definitely strengthened when through the sacraments God guarantees them full and free salvation in Jesus Christ.

Finally, we must see that the sacraments strengthen our faith in a way that the preaching can not and does not.

The Catechism teaches that it is through the preaching that the Holy Spirit works faith. This is unique to the preaching. The sacraments do not work faith as does the preaching. The sacraments presuppose faith and merely strengthen that faith. The preaching alone works faith. However, the preaching also strengthens faith. The preaching does two things therefore. It works faith and strengthens it; whereas the sacraments only strengthen faith. For that reason the sacraments are often called the secondary means of grace.

However, the sacraments strengthen faith in a way that the preaching can not. This is suggested by the Catechism in Q & A 66 when it teaches that through the sacraments God “more fully declares and seals to us the promise of the gospel.” The idea here is that through the preaching God declares to us the promise of the gospel, but that He more fully declares to us this gospel through the sacraments. How is this so? This is true because through the preaching the gospel is proclaimed verbally to us and brought to our ear. However, through the sacraments this same gospel is brought to us in visible, form so that we can see it, taste it, touch and handle it. In this way the great gospel of salvation is brought to us more forcibly than just by the preaching. If, for example, someone describes to you a foreign land he has visited, you certainly are able to come to some understanding of what that land is like. However, if he shows you pictures he has taken on his trip, your understanding is much better and clearer. Better yet will be your understanding if various articles from this distant land are available to touch and handle. In like manner must we understand the sacraments in relation to the preaching. When the great gospel of salvation proclaimed in the preaching is set before us visibly in the sacraments so that we can see, taste, and touch, then the gospel is declared to us in a way that the preaching alone can not present it. And for that reason the sacraments are also able to strengthen our faith in a way that the preaching alone can not and does not.

We must not therefore conclude that the sacraments are of little importance, simply duplicating what the preaching already does. No, the sacraments are added to the preaching to accomplish what the preaching alone can not do. They strengthen our faith above and beyond what the preaching can. Our faith, our spiritual life, our enjoyment of God’s salvation are much enriched through the sacraments.