The Church and the Sacraments, The Time of the Reformation, Views on the Church, The Protestant View

As one might expect, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, also has something to say in connection with the sacraments in general. The sacraments are treated in Chapter XXVII of this confession. Paragraph I reads: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him: as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word.” In Paragraph II this Confession includes the sign and the thing signified in the sacrament as such, as, for example, that the water of baptism is called Regeneration: “There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and the effects of the one are attributed to the other.” However, this Confession denies that the grace of God is conferred by any power in the sacraments as such, and it also denies that the efficacy of a sacrament is in any sense dependent upon the piety or intention of him who administers it, in the words of Paragraph III: “The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.” So, the efficacy of the sacrament depends wholly upon the work of the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the sacrament of baptism, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares in Chapter XXVIII: “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his, engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.”

Concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in Chapter XXIX, this Confession declares: Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his Church, unto the end of the world; for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death, the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe unto him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.” And then this Confession continues, in its description of this sacrament, as follows: “The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly, and only, bread and wine, as they were before.” Hence, also, in this confession it is stated very clearly that the sacraments are efficacious only to the believer, and that the wicked can receive them only to their condemnation. In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper faith receives and feeds upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of His death, but the wicked partake of this sacrament only to their condemnation. This is clearly stated in these words: “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements, themselves are, to their outward senses . . . Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament, yet they receive not the thing signified thereby; but by their unworthy coming thereunto are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table, and can not, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.” From all this it is perfectly obvious that this Confession emphasizes the spiritual character of the sacraments, stresses the connection between them and faith, that only the believer is spiritually nourished, and that the unbeliever: partakes of them unto his own condemnation.

We wish to quote from one more Reformed Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, Art. 19. This is a lengthy article, but we wish to quote it because it sets forth very clearly the Protestant conception of the sacraments over against the view of the Romish church. This article reads as follows: “God even from the beginning added unto the preaching of the Word his sacraments, or sacramental signs, in his Church. And to this does the holy Scripture plainly testify. Sacraments are mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, ordained by God himself, consisting of his Word, of outward signs, and of things signified: whereby he keeps in continual memory, and recalls to mind, in his Church, his great benefits bestowed upon man ; and whereby he seals up his promises, and outwardly represents, and, as it were, offers unto our sight those things which inwardly he performsunto us, and therewithal strengthens and increases our faith through the working of God’s Spirit in our hearts; lastly, whereby he does separate us from all other people and, religions, and consecrates and binds us wholly unto himself, and gives us to understand what he requires of us.

These sacraments are either of the Old Church or of the New. The sacraments of the Old were Circumcision, and the Paschal Lamb, which was offered up; under which name, reference is made to the sacrifices which were in use from the beginning of the world. The sacraments of the New Church are Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.

Some there are who reckon seven sacraments of the New Church. Of which number we grant that Repentance, Matrimony, and the Ordination of ministers (we mean not the popish, but the apostolical ordination) are very profitable, but no sacraments. As for confirmation and extreme unction, they are mere devices of men, which the Church may very well spare, without any damage or inconvenience at all; and, therefore, we have them not in our churches, because there are certain things in them which we can by no means allow of. As for that merchandise which the Romish prelates use in ministering their sacraments, we utterly abhor it.

The author and institutor of all sacraments is not any man, but God alone: for man can by no means ordain sacraments; because they belong to the worship of God, and it is not for man to appoint and prescribe a service of God, but to embrace and retain that which is taught unto: him by the Lord. Besides, the sacramental signs have God’s promises annexed to them, which necessarily require faith: now faith stays itself only upon the Word of God; and the Word of God is resembled to writings or letters, the sacraments to seals, which the Lord alone sets to his own letters. And as the Lord is the author of the sacraments, so he continually works in that Church where they are rightly used; so that the faithful, when they receive them from the ministers, do know that the Lord works in his own ordinance, and therefore they receive them as from the hand of God; and the minister’s faults (if there be any notorious in them) can not hurt them, seeing they do acknowledge the goodness of the sacraments to depend upon the ordinance of the Lord. For which cause they put a difference, in the administration of the sacraments, between the Lord himself and his minister; confessing that the substance of the sacraments is given them by the Lord, and the outward signs by the ministers of the Lord.

But the principal thing, which in all sacraments is offered by the Lord, and chiefly regarded by the godly of all ages (which some have called the substance and matter of the sacraments), is Christ our Savior—that only sacrifice (Heb. 10:12); and that Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8); that rock, also, of which all our fathers drank (I Cor. 10:4), by whom all the elect are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, through the Holy Spirit (Col. 2:11, 12), and are washed from all their sins (Rev. 1:5), and are nourished with the very body and blood of Christ unto eternal life (John 6:54).

Now, in respect of that which is the chief thing, and the very matter and substance of the sacraments, the sacraments of both covenants are equal. For Christ, the only Mediator and Savior of the faithful, is the chief thing and substance in them both: one and the same God is author of them both: they were given unto both churches as signs and seals of the grace and promises of God; which should call to mind and renew the memory of God’s great benefits to them, and should distinguish the faithful from all the religions in the world; lastly, which should be received spiritually by faith, and should bind the receivers unto the Church, and admonish them of their duty. In these, I say, and such like things, the sacraments of both churches are not unequal, although in the outward signs they are diverse.

And, indeed, we do yet put a greater difference between them; for ours are more firm and durable, as those which are not to be changed to, the end of the world. Again, ours testify that the substance and promise is already fulfilled and performed in Christ, whereas the other did only signify that they should be fulfilled. And again, ours are more simple, and nothing so painful, nothing so sumptuous, nor so full of ceremonies. Moreover, they belong to greater people, that is dispersed through the face of the whole earth; and because they are mole excellent, and do by the Spirit of God stir up in us a greater measure of faith, therefore a more plentiful measure of the spirit does follow them.

But now, since Christ the true Messiah is exhibited unto us, and the abundance of grace is poured forth upon the people of the New Testament, the sacraments of the Old Law are surely abrogated and have ceased; and in their stead the sacraments of the New Testament are placed—namely, for Circumcision, Baptism; and for the Paschal Lamb and sacrifices, the Supper of the Lord.”

The Lord willing, we will continue with and finish this quotation from the Second Helvetic confession in our following article.