Just how and why the word “sacrament” came to be used for the divine institutions we now know by that name is not entirely clear. The word itself is not taken from Scripture. That, however, need not condemn its use. Other terms have found their way into Reformed theology which are not taken directly from the Word of God.
“Sacrament” is from the Latin “saeramentum,” meaning: something that is consecrated, a consecration. In early times it designated the sum of money deposited in court by both plaintiff and defendant previous to the trial of a case and kept in some sacred place. After the verdict had been rendered the winner’s money was returned to him, while that of the loser was forfeited. This money was called a sacramentum, it is suggested, because it was intended as a sort of sacrifice to the god. Then sacramentus denoted an oath, especially the military oath by which a soldier pledged his allegiance to his commander or standard. In this way it gradually came to be used for the sacred rites now known as sacraments, where as in them our covenant God seals unto us the truth of His Word and covenant, and the church in using them consecrates itself to Him.
What is a sacrament? It is imperative that we have a clear-cut answer to this question. First, because the sacraments are indeed essential to the spiritual welfare of the church. We need them, not because the Spirit can not do without them, but for the reason that He will not do without them; and if the Holy Spirit wills to use them for the dispensation of divine grace and the confirmation of our faith we cannot ignore them with impunity. Secondly, there has always been much controversy and misunderstanding on this question. Here, more than in anything else, habit and superstition have played a great role in the church. What then, is a sacrament? What does it purpose? How must we conceive of its operation?
A sacrament is, first of all, a sign, a visible sign. As such, signs may be adapted to any one of our senses, of course. The sacraments, however, are adapted to our sense of sight.
Such a sign is a visible representation of something which is itself invisible, a perceptible something which rivets our attention on something that cannot be perceived with the natural senses. Of such signs even this present life is full. There is much, even in nature, that eye cannot see and ear cannot hear and that must be presented to us in the way of signs. In a still wider sense all created things, animals and plants, numbers and colors, mountains and valleys, are signs, perceptible representations of things spiritual and eternal and heavenly.
Thus the sacraments are primarily signs. In each there is a material element; in Baptism the water that is sprinkled; in Communion the bread and the wine that is broken and poured out, eaten and drunk. These visible elements signify the invisible grace of God’s covenant with all its benefits, the forgiveness of sins and justification, sanctification and perfect redemption, in a word: Christ. Together sign and thing signified constitute the sacrament. Mind you, both sacraments have reference to the same covenant of God and the same Christ. Herein, however, they differ, that whereas Baptism is the sign of entering into that covenant and of incorporation into Christ, Communion signifies our constant life in that covenant of God and continuous fellowship with and eating and drinking of the crucified Christ.
It is vital that we see clearly the relation between the sign and the thing signified. We must in no way fuse them into one as does the Roman Catholic Church. They conceive of the union between the two as physical. Somehow the thing signified is inherent in the sign, so that he who receives the one also receives the other. The sign and the things signified are inseparably connected, so that the latter is actually contained in the former substantially. The sign, then, becomes the channel through which the grace of God is conveyed to us, and the latter is strictly and absolutely bound to the means of the sacraments, without which, naturally, there can be no salvation. The Lutheran position is more moderate, yet they too retain too much of this inseparable connection between the outward means and the inward grace. They do not see the union as physical, they do not fuse sign and thing signified into one, but they do maintain a local union. The thing signified is present with the sign in such a way, that all who receive the one receive both, although the thing signified is to man’s advantage only if received by faith) We must not fall into either of these errors. The connection is neither physical nor local; never do sign and thing signified become one in any way; never do we receive the one merely by receiving the other. The grace of God is never in the things as such. Water, bread, wine are merely that,—no more. However, they signify the invisible grace of God’s covenant and as such the Spirit uses them to impart the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to the believing church.
However, the sacraments are more than mere signs. They are also seals. A seal is a visible sign of authority, and consequently, a tangible guarantee of the genuineness of that which receives the seal. When a person graduates from school he receives a diploma; on that diploma you will find the seal of the State of Michigan; that seal signifies authority and guarantees the genuineness of that diploma and the truth of what it states. Without that seal the entire document would be rejected as false. Thus the sacraments are seals, seals of God, signifying divine authority and giving to the church God’s own guarantee that the matter represented by the sacraments is true and certain of realization.
And what do they seal? What do the sacraments guarantee? Some say: the sacraments seal the persons who take part and give to all participants the assurance of salvation. Yet, this can never be, for then the sacraments would not be speaking the truth, whereas God has no pleasure in many of those who partake of them. Others say: No, not that, but the sacraments seal to all who partake that God, from His side, is willing to save all. Whether or not we are actually saved depends on what we ourselves do with the offer that comes to us, not only through the Word, but also through the sacraments. This we reject as rank Arminianism applied to the sphere of the church institute. Fact is, the sacraments guarantee the truth of God, the promise of the Gospel, justification from sin only in and through Christ. They guarantee the inseverable connection between faith and justification and seal to us the blessed promise, that whosoever believes in Christ is fully justified before the face of God. As such they picture what really is and certainly shall be the condition of the church, by the grace of God and according to His counsel of redemption.
As far as the purpose of the sacraments is concerned, which God Himself has instituted, which the church in the world must administer to the believers and their seed, and which the saints must use by faith (for always they involve an action, conscious participation on the part of the church), all may be summed up in this one thing: they are “Means of grace.” Surely, in as far as they involve conscious participation on the part of the church and thus represent an expression of faith and spiritual life on her part, they also serve as uniforms, marks of distinction for the church in the world. Primarily and predominately, however, they are means of grace.
Means of grace are those means which the Holy Spirit employs to apply the grace of God in Christ to the living church in the world.
Remember, that the grace which they impart refers only to the conscious life, the active, conscious faith of the child of God. This point is essential to a clear understanding of the means of grace. All of salvation is not granted in the way of means. The essence of things, such as regeneration, whereby the new life is imparted to the dead sinner, is always immediate. Thus faith itself is never given to us by way of any means; it is the fruit of that act of God, whereby He calls the things that are not as if they were by the immediate word of His sovereign and omnipotent will. God works mediately only when it comes to the operation of that faith, given in regeneration, in the consciousness of the Christian. Hence, means of grace serve, not to give life, but to bring it to manifestation; not to plant the seed, but to cause it to sprout out and grow; not to give the principle of faith, but to bring us to an active and conscious faith in Christ.
These means of grace are two in number. The term in its broadcast possible application may be made to include everything, for God uses all things for the salvation of His church. However, its use in Reformed doctrine is restricted to those means whereby the Spirit applies Christ and His benefits directly, brings Christ Himself to the consciousness of the church. Thus understood there are only two such means, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, adapted respectively to our two higher senses, that of hearing and seeing. Both, however, speak the same language and bring the same message.
Thus the sacraments are closely related to the Word. Both have one and the same Author, God. Both have the same content, for of both means of grace Christ crucified is the heart. Both are appropriated by a living faith only and have their purpose in the active, conscious faith of the Christians. And both work the same grace of God in Christ. Some people, including the late Dr. A. Kuyper, hold that a specific grace, differing from that wrought by the Word, is conveyed by the sacraments. What grace this could be they do not make plain, but the sacraments, they feel, must work something which the Word does not give. However, this is not the view of Reformed scholars as a whole, who cannot concede the existence of a grace other than that which is wrought by the preaching of the Word.
Even so, however, there are points of difference between the Word and the sacraments. Both are not equally necessary, for although the Word is indispensable for salvation, this cannot be said of the sacraments. Also herein we differ widely from the Roman Catholic Church. They have always failed to give proper significance to the Word. Not it but the sacrament is the real means of grace. The later contain all that is necessary for salvation, they are perfectly clear in themselves, and therefore they render the Word virtually superfluous as a means of grace. We, however, maintain the priority of the Word. It is the more important by fay whereas the Word without the sacrament would be quite complete, while the sacrament alone could mean nothing whatever 10 us. Whatever significance the sacrament has is derived from the Word. Besides, the preaching of the Word accomplishes more, for while the sacrament can only strengthen a faith already active, the Word works as well as confirms that faith.
Lastly, it is of cardinal importance that we clearly discern the relation between the means as such and the Spirit who uses them as His instruments.
We must not emphasize the one at the expense of the other. The two belong together. As far as our conscious faith is concerned, the Spirit always works through the means of grace. Hence, we cannot do without them. Nevertheless, it is not the means as such that impart the grace, but the Spirit of Christ, Who is and must be all in all, Who must plant the seed and cause it to grow, Who must give the life and cause to live, Who must give the faith and cause to believe.