Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
Under ecclesiology (the study of the church) we consider not only what the church is, but also what the church does. We have now moved into this second area, and are considering the church’s calling to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.
The preaching and the sacraments together are called the means of grace, because they are means that God uses to cause us to partake of the grace that Christ purchased for us. They are sometimes also referred to as means of faith, since it is by means of these two that we come to conscious faith. This is what we confess in Question and Answer 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. 65 Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed? (i.e., Where does this faith come from?—JAL)
A. 65 From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our heart by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.
Having considered the preaching of the gospel, which is the chief means of grace, we proceed now to the sacraments, the secondary means.
The sacraments, though secondary, are important. They are means that God has given to the church to strengthen the faith of His people. Even though we no longer live in the Old Testament days of types and shadows, with all its symbols and ceremonies, there are still some signs and symbols that are used to confirm our faith—signs that God Himself has given to us.
God-Given Signs to be Used by Faith
Often when a church declines she starts to invent more and more symbols to take the place of the spiritual realities that are lacking. People tend to turn to symbols instead of the preached Word to assure themselves that God is really present among them. They place their trust in these symbols for comfort, and thus fall into the sin of idolatry. This is a great danger, against which we must constantly be on our guard.
Yet we must also be thankful for and make proper use of the signs that Christ has instituted to strengthen our faith. The sacraments are signs that God, and not man, has instituted. They are signs that were given to be observed by the whole church, and that are used by the Spirit of Christ to confirm our faith. We show we are thankful for this by using these sacraments for the purpose for which Christ has ordained and instituted them.
Even God-given signs can be wrongly used as idols. God gave Israel the ark of the covenant to symbolize His presence among them. But Israel used it as an idol, trusting in it to save them from the Philistines (I Sam. 4:3ff.). For this great act of wickedness, Israel was defeated; Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli who bore the ark, were slain; and the ark of the covenant was taken. We must use the signs Christ has given to us, but we must place our trust not in the signs, but in the God who uses the signs to strengthen our faith.
This is why our fathers placed admonitions in both our Baptism Form and our Lord’s Supper Form to warn against a misuse of the sacraments. Before parents come up to have their child baptized, the following statement from our Baptism Form is read to them:
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have heard that baptism is an ordinance of God to seal unto us and to our seed His covenant; therefore it must be used for that end, and not out of custom or superstition. That it may then be manifest that you are thus minded, you are to answer sincerely to these questions….
Parents come to make use of the God-given sign. But before they do so, they must show by their confession that they are trusting in God, and not the sign.
Right before we partake of the Lord’s Supper, there is a similar exhortation:
That we may now be fed with the true heavenly bread, Christ Jesus, let us not cleave with our hearts unto the external bread and wine, but lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is our Advocate at the right hand of His heavenly Father, whither all the articles of our faith lead us; not doubting but we shall as certainly be fed and refreshed in our souls through the working of the Holy Ghost, with His body and blood, as we receive the holy bread and wine in remembrance of Him.
The Lord’s Supper is another sign that God, and not man, has instituted. Yet it also must be used rightly, by one who truly is seeking to be fed in his soul, that is, by one who is cleaving to God and not “the external bread and wine.”
To make a proper use of these sacraments we must understand what sacraments are, and how Christ uses them to bless those who are members of His body.
Visible Signs of Invisible Grace
The sacraments are signs. Signs are things visible that picture things that are invisible. The rainbow is something visible that points to the invisible covenant mercy that God is showing towards “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth” (Gen. 9:16). The stars in the heavens are signs that point to the glory that believers will one day radiate in the new heavens and the new earth. The sacraments are also signs, but they are a special kind of sign. They are signs that Christ has given to be observed by every true instituted church, signs that signify for her the gracious work that Christ is performing in her midst, while she waits for the final coming of Her Husband and Lord.
The sacrament is a sign consisting of an earthly, visible substance and activity. In baptism, there is a substance (water) and an activity (washing). In the Lord’s Supper, there is a substance (bread and wine), and some activities (breaking and distributing the bread, eating the bread, blessing the cup of blessing, and drinking the cup of wine). This is what is referred to as the sacrament.
The substances and activities that constitute the sacraments serve to illustrate for the church the invisible operation of the grace of God. We cannot see with the eye of the body the gracious work that God is performing in our souls. Therefore God has given to us visible signs that illustrate for us this spiritual cleansing and renewing work that He is performing within us.
Word and Sign: Better Than the Word Alone
The sacraments are signs that God gave to the church in order more fully to declare to us His promise. In Answer 66 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we confess that God gave us sacraments,
that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.
This answer must not be misunderstood. The Catechism says the sacraments “more fully declare” the promise of the gospel. The question is, More fully than what? One might be tempted to say, More fully than the preaching of the gospel. But this would be a serious mistake.
The Romish church has long held that, when it comes to having a positive influence on the people of God, pictures are more effective than the preaching of the Word. This same thinking is often found in churches that apostatize from the faith. Gradually they place more emphasis on symbols, and less on the preaching of the Word. Soon their churches and their worship services are filled with manmade symbols, and the preaching of sound doctrine is nowhere to be found.
Over against this error we must maintain that the preaching of the Word, not the administration of the sacraments, is the chief means of grace. Without the proper preaching of the gospel we could not even understand the meaning and significance of the sacraments. The preaching is what is primary; the sacraments are secondary.
What our fathers meant is that the preaching and the sacraments together are better than the preaching alone. The combination of Word and picture more fully declares God’s promise than the Word does by itself. The world says, “one picture is worth a thousand words.” But one needs words to explain the picture. So rather we must say, “words and a picture are better than the words by themselves.”
The sacraments cannot be separated from the Word. God has joined them to the Word, and that for a specific purpose:
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 … (Belgic Confession, Article 23).
The sacraments go with the Word, and when rightly used with that Word they function as a real means of grace. What is this means and who receives this grace will be considered, Lord willing, next time.