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

We concluded our preceding article with a few quotations from the Canons and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent, even as these articles set forth the Roman Catholic position on the nature and significance of the sacraments. In these canons which we quoted it is evident that the Roman Catholic conception of the sacraments is that the sacraments contain the grace which they signify, that the grace of God is inseparably connected with the outward sign of the sacrament, and that such grace is conveyed through the external operation of the sacrament. Rome denies that the sacraments are merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith. And it insists that the grace of God is inseparably connected with the outward sign, as, for example, the regenerating grace of God is inseparably connected with the water of baptism.

In support of this position of Rome, we wish to quote two additional canons as they were adopted by this Council of Trent. Canon VII reads: “If any one saith, that grace, as afar as God’s part is concerned, is not given through the said sacraments, always, and to all men, even though they receive them rightly, but (only) sometimes, and to some persons: let him be anathema.” In this canon Rome declares that the grace of God is given to all men who receive the sacraments rightly (and this means that they receive these sacraments simply in accordance with Roman custom), simply because the grace of God is inseparably connected with the outward sacrament. And in Canon VIII we read: “If any one saith, that by the said sacraments of the New Law [the New Testament, H.V.] grace is not conferred through the act performed, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace: let him be anathema.” Notice, please, that in this canon Rome declares that grace is conferred through the act performed.

From these canons and decrees of the Council of Trent it is evident that the distinctive doctrine of the Romish Church on the subject of the sacraments is that they contain the grace which they signify, and that such grace is conveyed through the external operation.

THE PROTESTANT CONCEPTION

In our Reformed Confessions the subject of the Sacraments is treated in Question 66 of our Heidelberg Catechism and in Article 33 of the Belgic or Netherland Confession. Question 66, speaking of the sacraments in general, defines them as “holy, visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, 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.” And Article 33 of our Belgic Confession describes and defines the sacraments as follows: “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 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.”

Concerning this thirty-third article of our Belgic Confession and Question 66 of our Heidelberg Catechism, Rev. Hoeksema, in his Dogmatics, writes as follows: “In both these descriptions of the sacraments we may find the following elements: 1) Sacraments are instituted to strengthen the faith of the believer, and therefore they presuppose faith. 2) They are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, and God hath joined them to the Word, that is, to the preaching 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. 3) They are ordained and instituted by God. There are many signs, and there may be many seals. But in order to be sacraments, signs and seals must be definitely and especially ordained and appointed by the God of our salvation. 4) That which the sacraments signify and seal unto us is the promise of the gospel, namely, 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.” —end of quote from Rev. Hoeksema’s Dogmatics, Ecclesiology; page 140.

In the French or Gallican Confession of Faith, 1559, Article 34, we read the following on the sacraments in general: “We believe that the sacraments are added to the Word for more ample confirmation, that they may be to us pledges and seals of the grace of God and by this means aid and comfort our faith, because of the infirmity which is in us, and that they are outward signs through which God operates by His Spirit, so that he may not signify any thing to us in vain. Yet we hold that their substance and truth is in Jesus Christ, and that of themselves they are only smoke and shadow. Concerning this article Rev. Hoeksema, again in his Dogmatics on Ecclesiology, comments as follows: “According to this article, therefore: 1) The Word of God is always the main means of grace, and the sacraments are added to the Word for more ample confirmation. 2) The sacraments are pledges and seals of the grace of God. 3) The sacraments are an aid and comfort to our faith, so that also here faith is presupposed. 4) The sacraments are outward signs, through which God operates by His Spirit. 5) The sacraments of themselves, that is, as mere signs, are nothing, but only smoke and shadow; and their substance and truth is in Christ. And in Art. 37 of the same confession it is emphasized that in the sacrament the sign and the thing signified belong together: “We believe, as had been said, that in the Lord’s Supper, as well as in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which He there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us.” —end of quote from Rev. Hoeksema.

Also the Scotch Confession of Faith, 1560, calls attention to the significance of the sacraments. Again quoting Rev. Hoeksema’s Dogmatics, he writes on this article as follows: “Also the Scotch Confession of Faith, 1560, Art. 21, emphasizes that the sacraments are instituted for the confirmation and strengthening of the faith of believers, to seal unto them the assurance of the promise of God and the most blessed ‘communion which the elect have with the Head, Christ Jesus. They are not bare and naked signs, but they are so efficacious that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of His righteousness and of the forgiveness of sins, and by the Lord’s Supper Christ is so joined with us that He becomes our very nourishment and food for our souls. All this, however, is effected through the sacraments by the power of the Holy Spirit, ‘Who by a true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us to feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, which once was broken and shed for us, which now is in heaven, and appears in the presence of His Father for us. Moreover, the article teaches that the sacraments are effectual not only at the moment when they are administered or when the believers partake of them, but that ‘they shall bring forth fruit afterwards, as a lively seed sown in good ground, For the Holy Spirit, who never can be separated from the right institution of the Lord Jesus, will not frustrate the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action.’ And once more, it is emphasized in the article that ‘all this comes of true faith, which apprehends Christ Jesus, who only makes the sacrament effectual unto us.” —end of quote.

The sacraments are also discussed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 1563, in the articles 25-29. Art. 25, speaking of the sacraments in general, reads: “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, .and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.” Notice, please, that also in this article mention is made of the fact that the sacraments serve to strengthen our faith in God and in Christ. Art. 27,speaks of the sacrament of Baptism as follows: “Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed. Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto, God. The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” And in Art. 28 of the same confession we read concerning the Lord’s Supper as follows: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, can not be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and bath given occasion to many superstitions. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.” According to this confession also faith is presupposed in the administration and the use of sacraments. Without faith no one can really or essentially receive the sacrament properly. Thus in Art. 29 of the same confession we read: “The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.” In this article it is clearly stated that the wicked, who are devoid of true faith, although eating and drinking outwardly of the Body and Blood of Christ, are not. partakers of Christ, so that it is clearly stated that true participation in the sacraments is possible only through a true and lively faith.

—H.V.