Jehovah, the faithful covenant God, has entrusted into the care and keeping of His church the sacraments. They, along with the preaching, are ordained by God as official means to be used in the church in order to strengthen and nourish her members in the grace of God. The church is called upon, therefore, to guard and use the sacraments in such a way. This calling she dispenses with great joy, for these sacraments are to her very precious and of utmost significance. Certainly in the day and age in which we find ourselves—an age in which, the preaching and sacraments are considered relics of the past—we must renew our appreciation for what God in His love has given us.
The sacraments are of absolute necessity in our faith and life. Our Reformed fathers recognized this fact too. So important are the sacraments that they have become one of the marks by which the true church of Jesus Christ may be known. A church which does not administer the sacraments is not a true church of Christ. So important are those sacraments! They are a means unto spiritual life!
It is for that reason that Christ has instituted them for official use in the church. Here is a fact which we may never overlook: Christ has instituted our sacraments. If we ignore this, then there will be no limits to what we constitute as sacraments to be used in our worship in the church. Christ, however, instituted, i.e., officially established as fundamental rites in the church, our sacraments as we have them today. They are two: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These are the only two instituted by Christ for official use in His church (Matt. 26:26ff. and Matt. 28:19). Now it is not the purpose of this article to defend and explain each of these sacraments in particular. Many pages of many books have been devoted to explaining the administration and significance of each of these sacraments. We consider, on the other hand, just why it is they are so precious to us.
The sacraments are visible signs and seals which strengthen and confirm the faith of God’s people. If we are at all concerned about the growth of our faith, if we care about becoming and remaining spiritually strong, if we desire to be assured of our salvation, then we will understand the great value of our sacraments. They are gifts of God to us which, if used properly, will result in great spiritual growth in the life of the individual believer as well as in the life of the church as a whole. So often that can be forgotten. Then, to those who employ them, they become mere customs and superstitions. The question is: how do they confirm and strengthen our faith? Is it not hard to believe that, merely by eating and drinking some bread and wine or by witnessing the sprinkling of water on the head of an infant, our faith will be confirmed and strengthened? How is that possible? It is of extreme I importance that we do not fall into the error of the Roman Catholic Church at this point. The church of Rome claims that there is grace in the very elements of the sacraments themselves. When I eat and drink the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper in some miraculous way I eat and drink grace, and as a result I am strengthened in my faith. It is almost like popping a pill. If I need to relax I pop a tranquilizer into my mouth and soon my tension drains from me and I am able to relax—automatically. Despite my own tension my body relaxes. The Romish church maintains that by eating bread and drinking wine or by having water sprinkled on my head my faith is automatically strengthened. Despite my own spiritual condition, my faith miraculously grows. It takes no more effort to be strengthened in my faith than the mere physical eating and drinking of bread and wine or, easier yet, merely passively lying in my father’s arms while someone sprinkles water on my head. This kind of reasoning, however, leads us into what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “an accursed idolatry.” We then worship the elements of the sacraments as if they have in themselves power to effect grace and salvation. We must have none of this.
The sacraments confirm and strengthen the faith of God’s children as signs and seals of the grace of God’s covenant.
As signs our sacraments represent in a visible way something which is invisible. Perhaps we would understand this better if we were to use an illustration. When we travel by car, along the road we see many different signs. Each of those signs speaks of something which we do not yet see. For example, I see a sign which speaks of a restaurant which will appear in the next few miles. I do not see the restaurant but I know it will soon appear because I have .seen the sign which speaks of it. Our sacraments as signs represent visibly that which we do not see. For example, we partake of the bread and wine in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These are visible signs of something invisible to us, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we eat and drink of the bread and wine we do not literally see the death and resurrection of Christ but we are reminded that they are real, that Christ died and arose for us. Just as when we see that sign of the restaurant our thoughts are directed to the restaurant and what it offers, so also when we partake of the elements of our sacraments our thoughts are directed to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. When we witness the sacrament of Baptism and partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we are assured that just as certainly as we see that sprinkling of water and receive and hold the bread and wine in our hands, we also do as certainly receive by faith the washing away of our sins through the death and resurrection of Christ. In that way our faith is confirmed and strengthened. These signs direct our faith to the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us; and as we think upon that we grow spiritually.
Nor must we overlook the fact that these sacraments are seals. A seal is a visible guarantee of the genuineness of that which receives the seal. It is a promise made by one in authority that what is received is authentic. For example again, when one graduates from school his diploma is stamped with the seal of the state in which he graduated. Without that seal the diploma would be invalid. With it the state guarantees that it is genuine. The sacraments are seals of God to His children. They guarantee the promise of the gospel, the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The sacraments are God’s promise to His people that being washed in the blood of Christ they are justified and that they will indeed receive their eternal reward.
In this way the sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant with His people. Baptism witnesses and seals to them that God incorporates them into His eternal covenant of grace and adopts them for His children and heirs. The Lord’s Supper, in turn, witnesses and seals to them that they belong to and are nourished in that covenant of grace. And as God’s children think upon these things, as they contemplate the mercy and grace of God, they grow spiritually stronger and stronger in their faith and in their knowledge of God and salvation. That is what makes our sacraments so precious to us! We need them! We thank God that He has provided these means whereby we might behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord! They are definitely means whereby we become partakers of the spiritual blessings of God’s grace. As partakers of these blessings we “are changed into the same (Christ’s, WGB) image from glory to glory even as by the Spirit of the Lord (II Cor. 3:18).”
There is one other truth which cannot be overlooked. Our sacraments are precious to us only because the Holy Spirit works through them. They are always surrounded by the Word, and the Holy Spirit Himself through that Word works within us the knowledge and confidence of faith. Without the work of the Holy Spirit in the celebration of our sacraments the truth and assurance which they convey would fall upon dry and dusty soil. But He works in us as we witness Baptism and as we partake of the Lord’s Supper so that the truth and assurance conveyed in them becomes real in our hearts. We lay hold of the promise of the gospel and we make it our own. We love it and cherish it. We consider that gift of salvation the most precious thing in the world to us. That is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in our hearts by means of our sacraments. If He did not, then those sacraments would not be all that dear to us.
Let us as a church of Jesus Christ maintain our sacraments in all their purity. Let us cherish them and guard them for the welfare of our faith and souls. Then we will remain faithful to God’s Word and will maintain the second mark of the true church of Christ. Let us love our sacraments! They are a necessary part of our continued spiritual life!