Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism - Lord's Day 25
Lord's Day 25
Since then faith alone
makes us share in Christ and all His benefits,
where does this faith come from?
From the Holy Spirit,
who works it in our hearts
by the preaching of the gospel,
and strengthens it
by the use of the sacraments.
What are the sacraments?
The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals.
They were instituted by God
so that by their use
He might the more fully declare and seal to us
the promise of the gospel.
And this is the promise:
that God graciously grants us
forgiveness of sins and everlasting life
because of the one sacrifice of Christ
accomplished on the cross.
Are both the Word and the sacraments
then intended to focus our faith
on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross
as the only ground of our salvation?
The Holy Spirit teaches us in the gospel
and assures us by the sacraments
that our entire salvation
rests on Christ's one sacrifice for us
on the cross.
How many sacraments
has Christ instituted in the new covenant?
Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.
The Means of Grace: Word and Sacraments
Q. & A. 65 Faith Comes From What is Heard
- Lord's Days 25-30 deal with the means of grace. These are: The Word and the Sacraments (baptism and Lord's supper). The Catechism speaks extensively only about the sacraments. It discusses the Word as means of grace only briefly. This marks the time in which it was written. The reformers had to carry on a struggle about the sacraments. But the church of today must still do that! The Catechism has not become obsolete in this respect.
- Just as food serves to sustain life and medicines to promote healing, the means of grace serve to work and strengthen God's gift of grace (i.e., faith, by means of which we share in all Christ's benefits) in us. That is why the Catechism, when it begins to deal with the means of grace, first speaks about the origin and strengthening of faith. For the means of grace serve to work and strengthen Faith. We must guard against underestimation of these means (like the mystics) and may not neglect the preaching and baptism by the argument: “What could the preaching and baptism possibly accomplish? God has to work faith!” By the same token, we have to guard against overestimation of these means (like the Roman Catholics). They teach that grace is inherent In the sacraments, just like the power to heal is in medicine. If that were true, Receiving the means of grace would suffice. But the Catechism speaks of their Use. That involves more than merely receiving the means. Not the hearers, but the doers of the Word will be saved. We have to work with the sacrament. We must consider it, think about it, and seize hold of the promise which it signifies and seals. It is the Holy Spirit who Works faith and he is not confined to the means of grace. But we are bound to the means.
- Where does faith come from? The Catechism has already spoken about the necessity (LD 20), nature (LD 21), content (LD 22, Q&A 58), and benefit (LD 23-24) of faith. Now it asks about its Origin. Do we receive faith from our parents, or our teachers? Is it our own doing that we come to faith? No! Eph 2:8 says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God."
The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts. We must pray for the Spirit. But we cannot understand how he works faith in our hearts (CD III/IV, 13).
- The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts By the Preaching of the Gospel. The Catechism, thus, mentions the gospel and deliberately does not speak of “the Word of God,” because the Law does not work faith. The Law (Law and gospel are the two parts of the Word which may be distinguished) judges; it does not call a person to God and does not work trust in him. The gospel does that. That is why it is referred to here. Further, the Catechism speaks of The Preaching. It pleases God to save those who believe through the folly of the preaching (1 Cor 1:21). True, faith can also be worked through the reading of the gospel, but the normal way is through the preaching. Rom 10:17 says: "So faith comes from what is Heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ."
- Note carefully that the Catechism does not say that God awakens faith by the preaching of the gospel, but that he works faith thereby. The Holy Spirit does not work faith in us immediately (i.e., without using means); he does not place the seed of faith in us in order to awaken it to growth by the preaching of the Word, as the sun does to seed that has been planted in the ground. Instead, the Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching. Jas 1:18 says: "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth."
- Faith needs strengthening, because it constantly faces attacks by our sinful nature and the whole evil world, which contradict it. The Lord strengthens faith in different ways (e.g., through testing and his guidance of our entire life) and as means to strengthen our faith he gave us the Word and the sacraments. When the Catechism says that the Holy Spirit Works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the gospel, it means that he works not only the beginning of faith, but also its preservation (by the means given to strengthen it). The Compendium 1is clearer on this point.
- The preaching strengthens faith. Despite all attacks on faith, the preaching constantly points us to God's promise and makes us understand that promise more and more broadly and fully. Think, for example of Abraham. God brought him on the way when he called him by the Word. And when Abraham might have given up hope because the waiting seemed endless, God Strengthened him when he constantly addressed him by his Word.
- Further, the Lord strengthens faith by the Use of the sacraments. The administration and receipt of the sacraments are not sufficient. We must use them. Otherwise they are useless, talents hidden in the ground.
B. Cross References
- Article 22 of the BC says:" . . . the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith." (See also CD III/IV, 10).
- Article 24 of the BC says: "We believe that this true faith [is] worked in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit." (See also CD III/IV, 17).
- The CD V, 14 says: As it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so he maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation upon it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and by the use of the sacraments.
- How many means of grace are there? What is their purpose?
- Which two misconceptions do we have to guard against in this context?
- Is God confined by the means of grace? Are we bound to them?
- Where does faith come from? What does Eph 2:8 say?
- What is the means the Holy Spirit uses to work faith in us?
- Which two parts can you distinguish in God's Word? Why does the Catechism speak of the gospel in this context? Why does it speak of preaching?
- What does Rom 10:17 say? Can one say that the gospel awakens faith? Recite Jas 1:18.
- Why does faith need strengthening? How does the Lord strengthen faith?
- How is faith strengthened through the preaching of the gospel?
- How do the sacraments strengthen faith?
D. Questions to be Answered from the Canons of Dort III/IV
- Why can the “light of nature” left in man not give faith? (Art. 4).
- Why can the Ten Commandments also not give faith? (Art. 5).
- How then does God work faith? (Art. 6).
- Why does God give faith to more people now than under the old dispensation? (Art. 7).
- Are all who are called to faith called earnestly and sincerely? (Art. 8).
- Why then do not all who are called come to faith? (Art. 9).
- Why do others do come to faith? (Art. 10).
- Is the preaching efficacious by itself? What else does God do to cause people to come to faith? (Art. 11).
- How does God work regeneration? (Art. 12).
- Is God required to give us faith? (Art. 15).
- How are we to regard those who profess their faith? (Art. 15)
- What should we do for those who have not yet come to faith? (Art. 15).
- How does God not work in man? (A.: “Not as in . . . ”). (Art. 16).
- How is grace given to us? (A.: “Grace is given us through . . . ”). (Art. 17).
Q. & A. 66 Sign and Seal
- The word “sacrament” is not derived from the Bible, but from the Latin. In Roman society it denoted a sacred matter, a religious act. We use it to refer to baptism and the Lord's supper.
- The sacraments are “Holy, Visible Signs and Seals . . . Instituted by God.” They are not holy because the water of baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord's supper are something special. They are only water and bread and wine. But they are Set apart for the service of God and, thus, holy. They are pledges of Christ's sacrifice and, thus, estimable, just as we esteem the value of a guarantee, even though it is just a piece of paper. The Catechism calls the sacraments Visible. That is exactly how they differ from the Word. Christ enters our lives through our hearing by the Word and through our sight by the sacraments. We are allowed to See! Seeing gives more certainty than hearing. That is why people will ask someone who relates an event that has happened: “Did you see it?” For we will believe it more readily when he has seen what he reports than when he merely reports what he has heard.
The sacraments are signs. A sign depicts something invisible. Clothes of mourning are a visible sign of the wearer's mourning, which is invisible. A teacher can make the invisible concept, 2 x 2 = 4, visible to young children on an abacus. The Lord gives Visible instruction by the sacraments. They are “signs . . . Instituted by God. . . .” They are not natural, but created signs. Tears are a natural sign of mourning; clothes of mourning are an instituted sign. The phrase, “Instituted by God,” teaches us who instituted the sacraments and who alone is able to do so. As signs the sacraments Declare to us the promise of the Gospel More Fully.
- Further, the sacraments are Seals. A seal (such as a trade mark) serves to ensure the genuineness and trustworthiness of the object it seals. The sacraments are seals which are attached to the Word to guarantee to us the trustworthiness of the Word. This guarantee is necessary, not because of the untrustworthiness of the Word, but because of the weakness of our faith. As seals, the sacraments, therefore, guarantee the promise of the Gospel to us. Note that the Catechism says that God declares and seals the promise to us more fully by the sacraments. He does that. And note that he does this “By Their Use.” (See Q. 65, Note 2).
- What do the sacraments depict and seal? “The Promise of the Gospel.” This promise does speak of what God works in us. But it is not what God works in us or is presupposed to work in us,2but his promise that is depicted and sealed by the sacraments. They serve to direct our faith to the promise. And when we work faithfully with the promise in this way, God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit by means of the sacraments (BC, art. 33).
B. Cross References
- Article 33 of the BC speaks about the sacraments. It gratefully admits that “our gracious God” ordained the sacraments for us, because he was “mindful of our insensitivity and infirmity.”
- The same art. states that the sacraments serve “to seal His (i.e., God's) promises to us and to be pledges to us of His good will and grace towards us.”
- The Roman Catholic doctrine, which invest the sacraments with magical power.
- The belief that the sacraments seal grace already present in a person. It led to the distinction between a “real” and an “incomplete” baptism.3
- What is the origin of the word, “sacrament,” and what does it mean? How do we use it?
- Why are the sacraments called holy signs? What is their function as signs? What purpose do they serve as signs?
- Why are they called Instituted signs? Who instituted them? Are they anything in addition to being signs?
- What do they do as seals?
- Why did God give the sacraments? (See BC, art. 33).
- What do the sacraments depict and what do they seal? How does God work in us through the sacraments?
Q. & A. 67 Word and Sacraments
- Here the Catechism points to the agreement between the Word and the sacraments. Their content is one and the same. The sacraments do not teach us anything that the Word does not impart. They may be compared to the illustrations in a book. The illustrations do not add anything to the story, but clarify it. Not only do the Word and the sacraments have the same content, i.e., the promise of God, they also have the same origin, i.e., both are given by God and both serve as means of grace.
- But there are also differences between the Word and the sacraments:
a. Word is directed to our sense of hearing, the sacraments to our sense of sight.
b. Word works And strengthens; the sacraments only strengthen faith.
c. Word is indispensable to salvation; the sacraments are not indispensable. But, since the Lord instituted them, no one may neglect them needlessly. They are necessary for us because of God's command.
d.The Word analyses, i.e., explains the content of the promise. The sacraments give the synthesis, i.e., a brief summary of the promise.
- Since the Lord gave us two means of grace, everyone who deems himself satisfied with one is culpable.
B. Cross References
- Article 33 of the BC states that the sacraments were . . . added . . . to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what He declares to us in His Word and what He does inwardly in our hearts.
- Do the sacraments teach us anything that the Word does not inform us of? To what can we compare them?
- How do the Word and the sacraments correspond?
- How do they differ? Does it suffice if we come only to the preaching of the Word?
Q. & A. 68 Two Sacraments
- In the old dispensation there were two bloody sacraments: circumcision (instituted with Abraham) and Passover (instituted at the time of the exodus out of Egypt). Article 34 of the BC states: "We believe and confess that Jesus Christ . . . has by His shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood that one could or would make as an expiation or satisfaction for sins.""
Hence, in the new dispensation the bloody sacraments were replaced by unbloody sacraments. Baptism came in the place of circumcision (Col 2:12), and the Lord's supper in the place of Passover (Lk 22:14ff). Article 33 of the BC states: "Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Master has instituted for us, namely two. . . ."
- Also here, everyone should guard against separating what God has joined together. He who would use only baptism and not the Lord's supper is culpable before the Lord.
- The Roman Catholic doctrine of the seven sacraments: Baptism (to confer grace through regeneration); Confirmation (to strengthen the believer in grace); Reconciliation ([formerly called Confession] to restore to grace); Communion ([formerly called Eucharist] to maintain grace); Sacrament of the Sick ([formerly called Extreme Unction, or Last Rites] to strengthen the believer for the struggle of death); Marriage; and Holy Rites (to ordain priests). Rome brags sometimes that it accompanies the believer from the cradle to the grave with the means of grace. But no one can receive all seven of the sacraments! The priest cannot receive the sacrament of marriage and the lay person cannot receive the sacrament of holy rites. The seven sacraments also serve to maintain the distinction between clergy and laity. God's Word does not support the institution of these sacraments other than baptism and communion.
- Which sacraments existed in the old dispensation? When were they instituted?
- Why were they replaced? Which sacraments of the new dispensation replace which sacraments of the old?
- How many sacraments are there? How many do the Roman Catholics have?