Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 25 - The Word and the Sacraments
Question 65: Since then faith alone
makes us share in Christ and all his benefits,
where does this faith come from?
Answer 65: 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.
In 1912, the British passenger ship Titanic collided with an iceberg. It sank after about three hours. The fact that so many people drowned was because there were not enough lifeboats on board. The ship was simply not designed to save all those on board. Its rescue capabilities were flawed or inadequate.
Christ’s sacrifice is far from “defect or insufficient.”1 That cannot be the reason when many are lost. For every day, his sacrificial death is “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”2 Salvation is inexhaustible, but who share in it? Only those who are closely united to Christ or — as the Catechism said earlier — who are “grafted into Christ.”3 This special union with Christ can only be obtained through faith.
How does a person get this indispensable faith?
Where does this faith come from?
Where does faith come from? From what source? Faith comes from the Holy Spirit.
If this were the complete answer, we would have a problem. The fact is that not everyone comes to faith. So how do we know whether he will give us this faith? Are we to wait in uncertainty? The Catechism seeks to anticipate these kinds of questions. That is why it immediately adds the means that the Spirit uses to give us faith: the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments. The Spirit does not use these means in secret. Everyone can be there. He works with these in church services that are freely accessible and where everyone is very welcome.
The first means is the sermon or the oral proclamation of the gospel. The gospel itself has been recorded. The Spirit speaks directly through the written Word. Concerning a random quotation from the Old Testament, Hebrews 3:7 states, “As the Holy Spirit says.” This cannot be said with such absolute assurance of any sermon. The gospel — the Holy Scripture — is infallible, but there are no such things as infallible sermons. We have to allow for imperfections of all kinds. That is on the one hand.
On the other hand, it is not as if the Spirit abruptly stops speaking as soon as the sermon begins. He himself is present to clarify and make concrete what he says in the gospel. That is why the catechism can say emphatically that it is none other than the Spirit who works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the gospel.4 He does not withdraw during the preaching, as if we should only listen to an hour of pure human storytelling. He imparts his divine persuasive power in every biblically justified sermon.5 Preaching is so much more than a serious occupation of some passionate missionaries or preachers. Preaching is not only speaking from a heart that is motivated to speak about Christ but also on behalf of him. For “how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15). Therefore, the persuasive power of a biblical sermon lies not primarily in its captivating presentation or in its solid explanation, but in the fact that the powerful Spirit himself addresses us.
This does not mean that the Spirit works faith in people only from the pulpit. He also uses parental nurture, instruction, Bible study, courses, conversations, and literature. He is also at work in all sorts of ways outside of the hours of worship at the church.6 Yet the Spirit never speaks to us as directly as he does through his official spokesmen during the “preaching.” The appropriate way to receive faith is through listening to the sermon. About this listening to the preaching in particular Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17).
But now we are confronted with a riddle! Like no other people, Israel heard the gospel proclaimed through God’s official spokesmen—the prophets—and yet they failed to believe it. Moses was already lamenting this. He knew that it was not because of the proclamation, for Gentiles would come to faith (v. 19). Israel’s unbelief was due to its way of hearing. We learn from this that it is not the “hearing” per se that produces faith in our hearts. Therefore, Paul does not say that faith comes from “hearing,” but from “what was heard,” namely the gospel. Those who listen with an attitude of defensiveness hear the words of the gospel but fail to understand the gospel itself. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, calls this “hearing but never understanding...with their heart” (Matt. 13:13–17).
If someone does not come to faith despite the preaching of it, this is not because of the Spirit. No one gets to hear empty words from him. The message is equally serious for every listener. All who are called by the gospel are called in complete earnestness. “God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in his Word what is pleasing to him, namely that those who are called should come to him.”7
Thus the Spirit makes the preaching a reliable means of granting faith to the hearers. The only condition is that they truly hear what is being preached — i.e., not simply the words only — and that they allow it to take effect in them.
Through his use of the sacraments, the Spirit also confirms his sincerity in seeking to grant faith.8 The Catechism of the Church of Geneva asks whether it is not an “indication of unbelief” when God’s promises are not by themselves sufficiently sure for us. “It certainly argues a weakness of faith under which the children of God labour. They do not, however, cease to be believers.”9 But our “gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness [in faith] has ordained sacraments...10 Therefore, at baptism, the Holy Spirit assures us that he wants to “dwell in us and make us living members of Christ” (baptismal form). The sacraments apparently provide an important additional assurance to the preaching. Of what does this added guarantee consist? The following questions will address that.
Question 66: What are the sacraments?
Answer 66: 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.
We always encounter baptism and the Lord’s Supper separately in the New Testament, that is, never as a duo. This indicates how both are independent of each other. Both present their own unique symbolism. Yet the Catechism recognizes both of these as sacraments.
They are definitely related to each other and therefore lend themselves to being compared to each other. They shed light each in a mutual way. The Catechism makes grateful use of this in its further explanations. This explains why several questions and answers about baptism and the Lord’s Supper are parallel to each other.11
This approach entails that the Catechism first delves into what baptism and the Lord’s Supper have in common, and after this it shows all the more clearly the distinctive aspect of each sacrament separately.12
Signs and seals
The word “sacrament” does not occur in the Bible. In itself that is not an objection. The disadvantage, however, is that we do not know with certainty what this word, which has come to us from Latin, is doing here and what it is supposed to mean.13 The Catechism and the Belgic Confession use the word as an indication, but do not analyze it further.
The sacraments are characterized here as “visible signs and seals.” As signs, they portray the great promise of the gospel: the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the foundation of our salvation. At the same time, they confirm — as seals — that this promise is reliable and intended for us personally. The distinction between sign and seal is fluid.14 We recognize this. When someone receives the keys to his house, it symbolizes that he gets ownership of the house, and at the same time it serves as a guarantee by which the real estate agency seals its promise. With the keys in hand, you receive the assurance that the house is yours.
From whom does the Catechism know that the sacraments are such signs and seals? It knows this from the apostle Paul. Reference is made to Romans 4:11, where we encounter both terms: sign and seal.15 Although this text does not deal with baptism or the Lord’s Supper, there is evidence of a sacrament here: the circumcision of Abraham. His circumcision was an indelible sign of God’s covenant with him and, above all, a seal with which God guaranteed his promise. Thus circumcision became a divine certificate and pledge of his promise to regard Abraham as righteous through grace.16 In this way God strengthened Abraham’s faith in this promise.
It is precisely on this essential point that we see the similarity with the sacraments of the New Testament. They seal and guarantee that the promises of the gospel are true and trustworthy.
In the first place, then, the sacraments are clarifying signs.
God’s promises are found in his very extensive gospel. It comprises a total of sixty-six very diverse books. It is a blessing that we may possess so many words from God. But what is at the core of those hundreds of pages? That is what baptism and the Lord’s Supper show us at a glance. With their transparent signs of water, bread, and wine, they point us clearly and unambiguously to Christ’s one sacrifice, accomplished on the cross. God so loved the world. That is the heart of the gospel. This is indisputable, for God himself has devised these illuminating signs in order to make us better understand the promise of the gospel.
In addition, the sacraments are also seals to confirm or to guarantee the promise of the gospel. Unspeakable riches is promised to believers: forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It is as if God wants to confirm this tremendous promise with a personal handshake. Through the sacraments, he seeks direct contact with each of them personally, to convince them that they are not dreaming or imagining something.
Why we need to know what sacraments are
A good medicine is effective even if we do not know exactly what it contains. Taking it according to the prescription is sufficient. This is not how the sacraments work. They do not automatically strengthen faith. We need to know what God’s intention is with the sacraments. Otherwise, they are useless. That is why, for instance, parents are required to teach their children so that they will be able to understand their baptism as they grow up. This would be superfluous if baptism were some sort of pill.
Those who do not understand the symbolism of the sacrament will not benefit from it. That is why a clear explanation is indispensable at every administration of baptism and each celebration of the Holy Supper. The forms for baptism and the Lord’s Supper provide this. It is also the aim of the Catechism to make the language of the sacraments understandable to us. Nevertheless, they keep their mystery. Those who understand their symbolism do not yet understand how they actually work. That is and remains the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking, it is not the sacraments that strengthen faith, but the Spirit. He does not transfer his power to the sacraments, but only uses them as means of grace.17 For that reason, he requires of those who receive these means no more than that they know and faithfully accept their language or symbolism. That will be sufficient to experience their positive effect.
Question 67: 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?
Answer 67: Yes, indeed.
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.
The tension can be felt. Both the gospel and the sacraments testify that our salvation rests only on the sacrifice accomplished by Christ. How clear are the two about this? “Our faith” wants absolute certainty on this most important matter.
To be absolutely sure
God guarantees forgiveness of sins and eternal life to us “because of the one sacrifice of Christ.” The questioner heard that correctly. He just wants to be absolutely sure that he has understood it correctly. Therefore, he deliberately summarizes the previous answer in his own words: are the gospel and the sacraments intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Christ, as the only ground of our salvation? Is it all right to state it so strongly? He is not broaching a new subject but wants absolute assurance of God’s guarantee of salvation.
It gives evidence of pastoral patience that this question receives such a generous response here. A simple “yes” would have been sufficient to let us know that we understood correctly. Yet the Catechism considers that too scanty. In order to reassure us completely, it repeats in different and even stronger words as to what the purpose of the Word and the sacraments is. What the Holy Spirit teaches us in the gospel, he assures through the sacraments. In complete unanimity they point out that our entire salvation rests in the one and only sacrifice of Christ, which he accomplished for us on the cross. Two statements from the gospel substantiate this strong language. Romans 6:3 says that those of us who are baptized have been baptized — immersed — into Christ’s death. His death has become their death, as it were. It is as if their own names were carved into the wood of his cross. That is how real his death on the cross came to be credited to their names. Therefore, God treats them as if they had paid for all their sins in person.
Galatians 3:27 illustrates the same thing by using a different image: those who have been “baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” that is, they put him on like a garment. We put on a coat or a cloak and button it up. Nothing is as close to us as our clothing. We are one with it. In a similar way baptized people may put on Christ and wrap themselves in him, as it were. God looks upon them as he does Christ himself.18 That is how real his sacrifice benefits them.
Great sacrifices have been and are still being made in this world. However, our perfect salvation can only rest in the one and only sacrifice of Christ. In the gospel, God promises that this unique sacrifice has been made for everyone who believes. Through the sacraments, he enters into even more direct contact with each of them personally. He does this to convince them even more strongly that the promise of the gospel applies to them as well. Therefore, we would like to hear more about these sacraments.
Question 68: How many sacraments
has Christ instituted in the new covenant?
Answer 68: Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.
The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments.19 The reformation of the church reduced this number to two. By what standard?
Instituted by Christ
Sacraments are seals of God. They provide to those who regard the gospel as trustworthy an additional guarantee that they will share in the promised salvation. Of course, it must then be beyond dispute that these seals have their origin in him. Otherwise they have no value. A certificate of guarantee — issued and signed by unauthorized persons — is not valid and is worthless. Fortunately, it is absolutely certain that Christ personally instituted both sacraments: the Lord’s Supper shortly before and baptism shortly after his sacrificial death. It is equally established that baptism is to be administered until “the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) and the Lord’s Supper “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). In doing so, he explicitly declared both sacraments to be valid for that entire period.
According to this criterion, only two of the seven sacraments remained. This downsizing, incidentally, does not imply any impoverishment. Promises do not lose their value or become even richer by the number of seals that are attached to them. Two or seven — it makes no difference. Seals are important only because they ensure the authenticity and reliability of a promise, but such a seal does not add a new promise.
The sacraments are also important as signs. They teach us to have a better understanding of the core of God’s promises. However, such a sign adds nothing to the richness of the gospel. Therefore, we should not seek our salvation in these signs and seals in themselves (“the outward signs”), but in what they symbolize and seal. They drive us deeper into the gospel and focus their spotlight on Christ’s sacrifice as the only ground of our salvation.20