We now continue with our quotation from the Second Helvetic Confession on the subject of the sacraments of the church of Christ.
“And as in the old Church the sacraments consisted of the word, the sign and the thing signified; so even at this day they are composed, as it were of the same parts. For the Word of God makes them sacraments, which before were none: for they are consecrated by the Word, and declared to be sanctified by him who first ordained them. To sanctify or consecrate a thing is to dedicate it unto God, and unto holy uses; that is, to take it from the common and ordinary use, and to appoint it to some holy use. For the signs in the sacraments are drawn from common use, things external and visible. As in Baptism, the outward sign is the element of water, and that visible washing which is done by the minister; but the thing signified is regeneration and the cleansing from sins. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper, the outward sign is bread and wine, taken from things commonly used for meat and drink; but the thing signified is the body of Christ which was given, and his blood which was shed for us, or the communion of the body and blood of the Lord. Wherefore, the water, bread, and wine, considered in their own nature, and out of this holy use and institution of the Lord, are only that which they are called, and which we find them to be. But let the Word of God be added to them, together with invocation upon his holy name, and the renewing of their first institution and sanctification, and then these signs are consecrated, and declared to be sanctified by Christ. For Christ’s first institution and consecration of the sacraments stands yet in force in the Church of God, in such sort that they who celebrate the sacraments no otherwise than the Lord himself from the beginning has appointed, have still, even to this day, the use and benefit of that first and most excellent consecration. And for this cause, in the administration of the sacraments, the very words of Christ are repeated.
“And as we learn out of the Word of God that these signs were appointed unto another end and use than the common one, therefore we teach that they now, in this their holy use, do take upon them the names of things signified, and are not still called bare water, bread, or wine; but that the water is called ‘regeneration, and washing of the new birth’ (Tit. 3:5), and the bread and wine ‘the body of the Lord’ (I Cor. 10:16), or the pledges and sacraments of his body and blood. Not that the signs are turned into the things signified, or cease to be that which in their own nature they are (for then they could not be sacraments, which should consist only of the thing signified, and have no signs); but therefore do the signs bear the names of things, because they are mystical tokens of holy things, and because the signs and the things signified are sacramentally joined together; joined together, I say, or united by a mystical signification, and by the purpose and will of him who first instituted them. For the water, bread, and wine are not common, but holy signs. And he that instituted water in Baptism did not institute it with that mind and purpose that the faithful should only be clipped in the water of Baptism; and he which commanded the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk in the Supper did not mean that the faithful should only receive bread and wine without any further mystery, as they eat bread at home in their houses: but that they should spiritually be partakers of the things signified, and by faith be truly purged from their sins, and be partakers of Christ also.
“And, therefore, we can not allow of them who attribute the consecration of the sacraments to I know not what syllables; to the rehearsal of certain words pronounced by him that is consecrated, and that has an intent of consecrating; or to some other accidental things, which are left unto us either by the word, or by the example, of Christ or his apostles. We do also mislike the doctrine of those that speak no otherwise of the sacraments than of common signs, not sanctified, nor effectual. We condemn them also who, because of the invisible things, do despise the visible, and think the signs superfluous, because they do already enjoy the things themselves; such were the Messalians, as it is recorded. We do disallow their doctrine also who teach that grace and the things signified are to be so tied to and included in the signs that whosoever do outwardly receive the signs must needs inwardly participate in the grace, and in the things signified, what manner of men soever they be.
“Notwithstanding, as we esteem not the goodness of the sacraments by the worthiness or unworthiness of the ministers, so likewise we do not weigh them by the condition of the receivers. For we know that the goodness of the sacraments does depend upon the faithfulness, or truth, and the mere goodness of God. For even as God’s Word remains the true Word of God; wherein only bare words are uttered when it is preached, but therewithal the things signified by the words are offered of God, although the wicked and unbelievers hear and understand the words, yet enjoy not the things signified, because they receive them not by a true faith; even so the sacraments, consisting of the Word, the signs, and the things signified, continue true and perfect sacraments, not only because they are holy things, but also because God offers the things signified, howsoever the unbelievers receive not the things which are offered. This comes to pass, not by any fault in God, the author and offerer of them (the word offer! here does not mean what is currently meant by the word in our present day, but it means: to exhibit—H.V., but by the fault of men, who do receive them without faith, and unlawfully: ‘whose unbelief can not make the truth of God of none effect’ (Rom. 3:3).
“Now, forasmuch as in the beginning, where we showed what the sacraments were, we did also, by the way, set down to what end they were ordained, it will not be necessary to trouble ourselves with repeating any thing which has been already handled. Next, therefore, in order, it remains to speak severally of the sacraments of the Christian Church.” —end of quote from the Second Helvetic Confession. In this article which we have quoted from the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith, it is stated that the Word of God is an essential element in the sacraments. It is the Word of God that makes them sacraments, which before they were not. The sacraments are consecrated by the Word, and declared to be sanctified by Him who first ordained them. Apart from the Word of God, the signs in the sacraments, as they are drawn from common use (the water, bread and wine), remain what they are. But, because the Word of God is added to them, together with the invocation upon God’s Holy Name, these signs are consecrated, and declared to be sanctified by Christ. Moreover, according to this same article of the Second Helvetic Confession, in the sacrament the thing signified belongs with the signs and seals. Sacraments take upon themselves the names of the thing signified. They are not merely called bare water, bread or wine; but the water is called “regeneration and washing of the new birth,” and the bread and wine are called “the body of the Lord,” or the pledges and sacraments of His body and blood. This does not mean that the signs are turned into the things signified, or cease to be that which in their own nature they are. The bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper do not change into the Body and Blood of the Lord, and therefore cease to be natural bread and wine. But the signs in the sacraments bear the names of things, because they are mystical tokens of holy things, and because the signs and the things signified are sacramentally joined together. They are joined together or united by a mystical signification, and by the purpose and will of Him who first instituted them. The water, bread and wine are not common, but holy signs. And the Lord who instituted water in Baptism did not institute it with that mind or purpose that the faithful should only be dipped in the water of Baptism, but that we should spiritually be partakers of the thing signified. And the same applies also to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
From all that which we have quoted it is very evident that there is a sharp and marked distinction between the Reformed conception of the sacraments and that which is maintained by Rome. According to Rome, the sacraments contain the grace which they signify, the grace of God is inseparably connected with the outward sign of the sacrament, and such grace is conveyed through the external operation of the sacrament.
According to Rome, not all the sacraments are of equal importance, although the sacrament of Baptism is absolutely necessary, without which it is impossible to be saved. And, also according to Rome, the sacraments need not be administered by the clergy but, if necessary, also a layman may administer them. According to the Reformed conception of the sacraments, they are holy and visible signs and seals, instituted by God in His Church through Christ, and administered by the Church. Of course, we realize that the Reformed conception speaks of only two sacraments: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is Reformed, therefore, that sacraments are instituted in the Church, and that they are to be administered only by the Church.
Secondly, the Reformed conception maintains that the signs in the sacraments, although they bear the names of what they signify (the bread in the Lord’s Supper is called the Body of the Lord, the wine in the same sacrament is called the Blood of the Lord, and the water in Baptism is called the washing of regeneration), they remain what they are, and are never changed into that which they signify. Rome, we know, teaches that the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. They are signs, and they remain signs.
Thirdly, it is certainly Reformed to say that the sacraments are holy signs and seals which can be appropriated by the Church of God only by faith. There is nothing mystical about them in the sense that the signs themselves contain and convey grace. Of course, we do well to remember that the sacraments are not merely outward signs. They are sacraments, and sacraments must always remain and be considered means of grace. But this does not mean that the grace of God is inseparably connected with the signs themselves, as if the sacraments magically convey and bestow the grace of the Lord. Only God bestows grace, through his divinely instituted signs and seals, by His Holy Spirit, and through faith. And they are seals, not simply for every one who receives the sacrament (as in Baptism), but of the righteousness which is by faith, and this is applied by God to the conscious believer. The connecting “link” between the sacrament and the Church of God is the Holy Spirit, and He bestows the grace of God only upon the elect Church, for whom alone it is intended. The Lord willing, this will become more evident as we next turn our attention to the sacraments as such: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.