Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2006, p. 247.

The sacraments are a real and particular means of grace. Over against those who make them out to be empty signs, it is important that we understand and maintain that they are really means of grace. They are used by the Spirit of Christ to strengthen the faith that He has worked by the preaching. As a real means of grace they are also particular. There are many who have received the sacrament but have not received the grace signified by the sacrament. The grace in the sacraments, as the grace in the preaching of the gospel, is always particular.

This truth concerning the sacraments is related to the truth concerning the covenant and church of Jesus Christ. The sacraments are to be administered by the church and are to be enjoyed by those who are members of God’s church and covenant. This being the case, there is a relation between wrong views of God’s church and covenant and wrong views of the sacraments. Some examples of this will be considered in this concluding article on the idea and importance of the sacraments. 

The Sacraments and the Church Institute 

Pictures must be distinguished from realities. Just as the sacraments must be distinguished from the grace they signify, so the church institute must be distinguished from the universal body of Christ that it pictures. Some receive only the visible sacrament and not the invisible grace. Similarly, some of those who are members of an instituted church are not members of Christ’s universal body. Pictures must not be identified with the realities. They must be distinguished.

The Romish church is a clear example of one that wrongly identifies the pictures with the realities. They insist that their church institute is the one catholic (i.e., universal) body of Christ, and similarly they identify the sacraments with the grace that they signify, teaching that the sprinkling with water is the washing away of sins, and that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.

The wicked result of this identification of the pictures with the realities is that the pictures become idols. An idol is anything besides God in which people place their trust, as we rightly confess in Lord’s Day 34 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 95 What is idolatry? A. Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God who has manifested Himself in His Word, to contrive or have any other object in which men place their trust.

Those who identify the pictures with the realities place their trust in the pictures, and thus make idols out of them.

The Romish church institute is an idol in which millions place their trust. The Romish church blatantly teaches the people to trust in her, rather than in God. They insist that whatever their church teaches must be believed as the infallible word of God, even if it clearly contradicts the Scriptures. Furthermore, they change the Apostles’ Creed, so that the people are taught to believe “in” the holy catholic church, by which they mean their apostate church institute. We rightly say that we believe “an” holy catholic church. We do not place our trust in the church, rather we are confessing that we believe that a holy catholic church exists. The Romish church institute is an idol set up to replace the living God, so that the people believe in it, rather than in Him.

This church then proceeds to make idols out of the sacraments it administers. By identifying the sprinkled water with the washing away of sins, people are led to trust in the water for this spiritual cleansing. They even go so far as to say that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, so that the people are taught not only to trust in the elements, but also to bow down and worship the elements, claiming that they are worshiping Christ in the elements.

Such is the nature of the evil of identifying the signs with the realities. Pictures must be distinguished from these realities, otherwise the pictures become idols set up to replace God and His Christ.

The Sacraments and the Unconditional Covenant 

The two means of grace—the pure preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments—both direct our faith to the work of Christ as the only ground of our salvation. In other words, they both set forth the truth that our salvation is based solely on the work that Christ has performed, and not even partly on a condition that we have fulfilled. The central importance of this truth is confessed in Lord’s Day 25 of the Catechism:

Q. 67 Are both Word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation? A. Yes, indeed; for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.

The sacraments, therefore, illustrate the truth that God’s covenant is unconditional.

There are many, of course, who reject the truth of the unconditionality of God’s covenant. Such people will not give a proper explanation to the sacraments. Rejecting the truth concerning the covenant, they will wrongly explain the signs God has given to illustrate the grace enjoyed by those in that covenant.

For example, many want to maintain that God desires to save everyone born in the sphere of the covenant. They reject the twin truths that God’s grace is always particular and that man is saved solely on the basis of what Christ has done. So they take the sign of baptism and explain it in such a way that both of these fundamental truths are denied. First of all, rejecting the truth of particular grace, they claim that a gracious covenant promise comes to every person that is baptized. God’s grace, they insist, must be to all the children of believers. So they claim that baptism signifies common grace, that is, a grace that is common to all those born into the sphere of the covenant. Then, seeing as they also reject the teaching that man is saved solely because of what Christ does, they claim that the promise given to all those who are baptized is a conditional promise. Thus, in order for a person to be saved, the obedience of Christ and the obedience of the sinner are both required. Those who teach this are really saying that the obedience of Christ was not enough to satisfy God. God, they are saying, will not be satisfied until the sinner also obeys. He must obey the command to believe. Only after he has done this will God be satisfied and save the sinner.

This is only one example of how views of the covenant manifest themselves in views of the sacraments. This serves to illustrate why there has been so much debate over the years on the meaning of the sacraments. From a certain point of view, the sacraments are very simple to explain. One may wonder how there could possibly be so much debate about them. The reason is that many people use the sacraments to promote wrong views of the covenant that God has established with His people. Debates about the sacraments, therefore, really amount to debates about God’s covenant.

Why Only Two Sacraments 

There is a reason why there are only two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism pictures our entering into the body of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper pictures our constantly being fed and nourished within that body of Christ. When we consider this, we can easily understand why these are the only two sacraments there are. The two together picture the whole of our salvation.

Baptism pictures our being saved in the initial sense, and that is why it takes place only once in a person’s life. The Lord’s Supper pictures our being saved in the ongoing sense, and thus it is repeated. There is a sense in which we are justified and sanctified when we are brought into the body of Christ. At that time we receive Christ and all His benefits in a moment. This is pictured to us in baptism. But there is also a sense in which the experience of these blessings is ongoing. The blessings of justification and sanctification continue to be experienced by God’s people throughout this life. The blessings of salvation in this ongoing sense are signified by the Lord’s Supper.

The fact that there are only two sacraments also serves to illustrate that the covenant is unconditional. There is no condition that man must fulfill to remain in the covenant. If there were such a condition, we would expect there to be one sacrament to picture getting into the covenant, another sacrament for being nourished while in the covenant, and a third sacrament to illustrate getting back into the covenant if one has fallen out of it for a time. If one can fall out of the covenant, and can get back into it again by repenting before he dies, then it would stand to reason that a third sacrament would illustrate this for God’s people.

Thus it is not surprising that the Romish church, which teaches that a believer can lose God’s grace and then recover it again, has invented a sacrament for this purpose. They have actually invented five sacraments, one of which is called the sacrament of “penance.” They teach that one who has been truly cleansed of his sin by baptism can nevertheless commit what they call a “mortal sin,” which results in their losing their “baptismal grace.” Then, they say, the person must do acts of penance, which they refer to as a sacrament by means of which one can reenter into communion with God. This is just another example of how a denial of God’s unconditional covenant can manifest itself in a perversion of the doctrine of the sacraments.

If it is true, and it is, that the sacraments are ordained and appointed by God to signify and seal unto us the promise that God’s covenant with us is unconditional, then it will be important to bring out this truth as much as we can whenever we explain the sacraments. With this in mind we turn now to consider the sacraments individually, starting with baptism.