What are sacraments? Sacraments are signs and seals. From the Belgic Confession, Article 33, this article explains how this is so by looking at the relationship between Word and sacraments, and how baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs and seals.

Source: The Banner of Truth (NRC), 1982. 4 pages.

The Confession of Faith Article 33 Of the Sacraments

Articles 33, 34 and 35 of our Confession of Faith deal with the sacraments, article 33 being about the sacraments in general, article 34 about Holy Baptism and article 35 about the Lord's Supper.

We know that the Lord has given two means of grace to His church, namely, His Word and the sacraments. Articles 3 through 7 were speaking about His Word, and now we have arrived at the subject of the sacraments. What are sacraments?

Rev. Hellenbroek gives us the answer in his question book, saying, "They are signs and seals of God's grace." He quotes Romans 4:11, which reads, "And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith."

Are all the means of grace the same? No, there is a difference between Word and sacrament, but then there is also a similarity. The differences can be said to be the following: (1) the Word is audible, while the sacraments are visible; (2) the Word is indispensible to salvation, while the sacraments are not; (3) the Word works and strengthens faith, but the sacraments are only for the strengthening of faith; and (4) the Word is heard by all, but the sacraments seal the believers only. The similarities are: (1) both are of Divine origin; (2) both are means of grace; and (3) both point to Christ.

The Confession of Faith Article 33The word "sacrament" is not to be found in the Bible. It is derived from a word in the heathen world and it received a place in the church. In the old Roman Empire it meant the sum of money which was to be given to the priest when a person wished to begin a lawsuit. It also signified the oath of the soldiers, who promised to be faithful. Therefore we may say that the sacraments are oaths of the Lord to affirm His promises. This meaning can be found in the article, which reads: "We believe, that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities hath ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith…"

Our gracious God has ordained the sacraments for us. God Himself has ordained the sacra­ments. Under the Old Testament circumcision was given to Abraham as a seal of the righteousness of faith. In the pass-over the Lord promised deliverance out of the house of bondage and from the angel of destruction, but it also had a deeper meaning, namely, the deliverance by Christ. Both of these sacraments of the Old Testament were bloody, pointing to Christ, Who had yet to come, to suffer and to die for His people. The sacraments of the New Testament are not bloody, since Christ had ful­filled everything necessary to salvation.

It was not without reason that the Lord Jesus asked the Jews, "the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?" Christ Himself was baptized to prove that it was from heaven, and He gave the commandment to the disciples, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." The Lord's Supper was instituted in the night that He was betrayed. Both are ordained by God and are signs and seals of God's grace.

The Lord could have given His Word only. The promises in His Word are sure, and do not need added assurances of the Lord. But the Lord knows what to expect of man, how that their faith is often so weak and that they are full of infirmities. Therefore He not only gave the Word, but he added the sacraments so that we would better understand the promises of the Gospel and that they would be sealed unto us. The sacraments are not given because God's Word alone would not be sufficient to salvation or that it would not be trustworthy; no, not at all. God's Word and God's promises are sure; God is not a man that He should lie. The problem is with the believers; they are sinners.

The faith of believers is often so weak that they do not dare to accept God's promises. To these weak and feeble children the Lord now comes with the sacraments, saying, "I assure you by these visible signs that My Word is the truth." The sacraments are the seals of the Word. A seal is put upon an important document to guarantee its authenticity; likewise the Lord ordained the sacraments as seals upon His Word, showing that it is the truth.

The sacraments do not give different promises than the Word, because both means of grace point to Christ. Neither do the sacraments give any other benefits than those written in God's Word. God is revealed in the Word as the God Who in Christ forgives sins, giving eternal life out of free grace. Both Word and sacraments point to the Mediator, and thus there is unity in the means of grace.The Confession of Faith Article 33

God's children are often opposed by Satan, and the Lord strengthens their faith by His Word, but then also especially by the sacraments. Free grace for Christ's sake is signified and sealed in both the Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper, just as it is described in this article: "to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith."

All the promises of the Word for His church are sure in Christ. These promises were made from eternity and must be applied by the Holy Spirit in the heart of God's child. The satisfaction of Christ is enough to salvation, but there is much darkness and ignorance in the life of the church. This makes it so necessary that the Holy Spirit instructs us time and again about the promises in God's Word.

This article first mentions that the sacraments seal God's promises, and secondly that they are pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us. In the third place it states that they are instituted to nourish and strengthen the faith of God's children. It is therefore evident that faith is necessary in order to have profit of the sacraments. When faith is not present, then it cannot be nourished and strengthened. If we partake of the sacraments without faith, then they do not give any assurance to us regarding God's promises and about our salvation. We continually hear about the necessity to be converted unto the Lord, and this is also true when we speak about the sacraments. May the Lord give this to us!

Although the Word is sufficient for the church to know the way of salvation and therein are also many promises, the Lord has added to it the sacraments. The Lord has done so on account of our weaknesses and infirmities, so that we may not only hear but also see the sealing of His promises unto us. The confession words it thus: "which He hath joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses, both that which He signifies to us by His Word, and that which He works in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us." It is not the signs themselves, but the Holy Spirit uses the sacraments to strengthen faith.

In baptism the Lord confirms His covenant and His promises; He strengthens His people in their faith. How is this done? The water in baptism is a testimony of Christ's sacrifice to cleanse His people from all their sins. The sprinkling with water points to our uncleanness, for we are the subject of God's wrath from the moment of our birth. This is felt by God's children when they are instructed by the Holy Spirit. They have bowed under God's justice, became worthy of eternal death, but in the sacrament they may look from the water to the blood of Christ, which cleanses from all sin. He has fulfilled God's justice and has taken away the handwriting which is against us. In Christ God the Father forgives their sin and casts it away so that it will never be remembered anymore. What a comfort it is for God's people when the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to behold the mystery of salvation in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

In the same way we may say that the Lord's Supper points to Christ. The breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine show how He has broken His body and how He has shed His blood. As the bread is for nourishing and the wine is for strengthening, it likewise speaks about Christ's obedience. The Confession of Faith Article 33Christ is the Bread of Life and the Water of Life. It can be so dark in the heart of God's children, they can be so dis­couraged and be sighing under the heaven-high debt, but in the Lord's Supper the Lord shows His infinite grace for poor sinners. When we may look upon Christ by faith, the sun of righ­teousness will arise in our life and we may view the King in His beauty. When we read in the Scriptures that He is white and ruddy, it is a testimony of His active and passive obedience which gives peace in the heart of the church. The sacrament does not work grace, but it is given to strengthen faith and to comfort God's children.

Some try to take the sacraments out of the congregations, teaching that they are only external ceremonies of no importance. These emphasize that you must be baptized with the Holy Ghost. However, the forsaking of God's institutions causes great darkness in spiritual life, and is against God's Word, for therein we find so clearly that the sacraments are institutions of the Lord.

Our article says: "For they are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Ghost." Invisible in the sacraments are the covenant of grace, the righteousness of faith, and the promises of the covenant. There are no promises without Christ, and therefore we may say that the invisible and inward things which are spoken of point to Christ and all the promises. He is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemp­tion. All the benefits of the covenant of grace rest in Christ.

Many do not agree with this explanation. Rome teaches that all the treasures of Christ's fulness flow to the church, and if you want to receive them, you must go to church, where they will be given through the priest. They say that with grace or without grace makes no difference, since it is the saving church. Luther taught that God's Word gave power to the sacrament, but Calvin said that the power of the sacrament is indebted to the Holy Ghost, Who works and strengthens faith.

We all agree that God's grace is not in the signs of the sacrament, but that they portray externally and visibly that which the Holy Spirit works internally and invisibly in the heart. The Holy Spirit does not work in all those who are baptized or go to the Lord's Supper, but only in true believers. In addition the article states, "Therefore the signs are not in vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without Whom they would be of no moment."

There is a similarity between the signs and the true meaning of the sacraments. We can find this in God's Word, which speaks about the circumcision of the heart, and tells us that Christ says of the bread, "This is My body." The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks of the close relationship there is between the signs and their meanings. The Confession of Faith Article 33In question and answer 73 it explains why baptism is called the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins, saying that it is to show how we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water. Likewise, in question and answer 79 about the Lord's Supper, Christ called the bread His body and the cup His blood, or the new covenant in His blood. Paul speaks of the communion of the body and the blood of Christ. This points to the nourishment which is in Christ for a needy people. It means that only the satisfaction of Christ gives rest to the soul.

Thus by faith the children of God may receive the assurance that for time and eternity they are for His account. Have the sacraments ever spoken in such a way to us? If they continue to be empty and without meaning for us, then the water of baptism does not tell us of the remission of sin, but will testify against us. Therefore the Lord must teach us to know our uncleanness, for then the need will be felt for the cleansing from our sins. This is possible, as we have seen in the sacraments.

There have always been differences about the number of sacraments. Luther first had seven sacraments; later on he had three, namely, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and penance; and in the end he had two as we have, just as we find in the Old Testament. Rome has seven sacraments, but this is only a human institution, as it is for them in so many areas. It is a false church!

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