The Means of Grace
When the Lord our God presents to us the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, He not only manifests his work in what we hear but also in what we may be-hold through the sacraments or signs, which seal to us the promises pledged in his Word. Baptism and Lord’s Supper are signs but also the means through which the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Jesus Christ to us. Sacraments are a visible picture of an invisible reality. They symbolize what the Lord is working within our hearts. They are a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins and of the communion that is in Christ (Matthew 26:28; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Titus 3:4-7).
The word “sacrament” is never found in the Bible. It is derived from a Latin word meaning “used for a sacred purpose.” The word was also used in a military sense to swear an oath of allegiance. Within a theological context the sacraments are sacred (holy), visible signs and seals demonstrating how God, in Christ, has sworn an oath of loyalty to his people. The sacraments are like God’s oath confirming that we can trust what He promises in his Word. They were instituted by Christ to display his covenant faithfulness. Many Christians view sacraments as an oath of their allegiance to the Lord. But this is not the reason why the Lord Jesus Christ instituted the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper. The Lord did not give us the sacraments to exhibit the strength of our faith, but to help us in our weakness.
Relationship between preaching and sacraments
Due to the weakness of our faith, God the Holy Spirit adds the sacraments to the preaching as a means by which the grace of God is distributed to us. God manifests his love to us by showing us very concretely, in visible signs and seals, what we have in Christ. In his Institutes, John Calvin makes this applicable remark:
By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness. Yet, properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it is propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way.
What we hear in the preaching we may see visibly before our eyes in the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are given in addition to the preaching to give visible confirmation of the promises of the gospel. Article 33 of the Belgic Confession summarizes the relation beautifully when it states:
We believe that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments to seal his promises to us and to be pledges of his good will and grace towards us. He did so to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these 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. Thus He confirms to us the salvation which He imparts to us.
When the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were written in the sixteenth century, the true meaning of the sacraments was not understood in the churches. They had been elevated to a position high above the Word and looked upon as having some magical power. When the churches of the Reformation returned to the teaching of Scripture it was understood once more that the sacraments are “servants” of the Word. The preaching of the Word must be given priority. The preaching must come first. John Calvin stresses that apart from the Word, which must always be proclaimed alongside the sacraments, the sacraments are nothing in themselves. They are an appendage to the gospel (Institutes, Book IV.14.3-5). This should also be reflected in the place that the sacraments receive within the order of worship. The sacraments place a crown upon the Word which has been heard. The celebration of Lord’s Supper or baptism should not alter the character of the worship service to such an extent that the sacrament appears to be elevated above and be-yond the preaching.
The sacraments are accent marks
In the Latin text of the Heidelberg Catechism answer 65 says that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and accents it by the use of the sacraments. The sacraments put the accent marks on the Word. In the English language accent marks on words are not all that important. There are some languages where the accent mark can change the entire meaning of a word. Yet most often an accent is used for emphasis. The sacraments were ordained by Christ to help us put the proper emphasis upon the Word of God. Sacraments are given to the church to bring out more clearly and visibly the meaning of the Word.
This tells us something about the character of the sacraments. What does an accent mark mean if you take away the Word? Nothing. Sacraments mean nothing without the Word of God. The sacraments depend on the Word for their meaning. When the Word is forgotten the sacraments become either empty symbols or magical rites. The sacraments do not add anything to the message of the gospel. They underline the story of Christ’s redeeming work.
The sacraments should not be neglected. The true church is under obligation to maintain the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them (Belgic Confession, Article 29). When the officebearers, under Christ’s command and authority, call the congregation together for public worship we are also under obligation to participate in the two sacraments Christ has ordained. The Lord requires of us that we diligently attend the church of God to hear his Word and to use the sacraments (Lord’s Day 38). Neglect of their use results in spiritual impoverishment.
The sacraments are not primarily an oath whereby we show our allegiance to the Lord. They attest to God’s work of grace in us. Yet as a secondary function, they attest to our piety toward Him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men (Calvin’s Institutes Book IV.14.1).
The illustrations of the Spirit
A good teacher uses illustrations to confirm a point which is being made. The Holy Spirit, as the teacher of the church, pictures before our eyes what He has taught us. He illustrates outwardly what He works inwardly in our hearts. The Spirit takes water and sprinkles it on our heads and tells us, “Just as surely as water washes dirt from the body you can be assured of the promise that Christ washes away your sins through the shedding of his blood.” The Spirit distributes to us bread and wine and thereby assures us that the sacrifice of Christ and the forgiveness of sins which He obtained by his death are granted to us. In the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit pictures how we are fed by Christ, the true food and drink for everlasting life.
Faith strengthened through the use of the sacraments
The Holy Spirit has been pleased to use the sacraments as a means of grace. Thus the activity of the Holy Spirit is not only apparent in the preaching but also in the use of the sacraments. He is active when a child or an adult is baptized. He is active in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The same obligation applies in the sacrament as in the preaching. All three of our confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort, say that the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, not by the administration of the sacraments, but by the use of the sacrament. Our minds are not always contemplating the full significance of the sacraments during their ad-ministration – when we stand at the front presenting our children for baptism or when we eat the bread and drink from the cup at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The administration of the sacrament only takes a minute but the use is for a life time.
Sacraments are for the congregation
Baptism is not only for the child or for the parents but it is a sign and seal given for the benefit of the whole congregation. Communicant members participate in the Lord’s Supper but it is a sign and seal for the whole congregation. Just as a husband and wife exchange rings on their wedding day so Christ gives his bride the sacrament of baptism and Lord’s Supper as a token of his constant faithfulness and abiding love (Ephesians 5:22-31; see also answer 76 of Lord’s Day 28). When a husband gives his wife flowers or a gift he expresses and underlines his love for her. The relationship does not depend upon such kindhearted gestures, yet these gestures can be very helpful by assisting the couple to go through difficult times. Such tokens of love encourage the couple to look to the foundation of their relationship, the words and promises they made to each other. Likewise the sacraments are presented as gifts to us by Christ to strengthen our relationship with Him. Every Lord’s Supper celebration is a gift of Christ to his bride. We become ashamed because we see how we fail to uphold our side of the relationship. At the same time we are encouraged to keep going because Christ’s love for us has not abated or dwindled over time. The love that brought Him to sacrifice Himself on the cross for our sins carries us through all of life (C. Trimp, Woord, water en wijn, pp 106-108).
Thus it should be understood that sacraments are first and foremost a celebration of the congregation and not a private or family affair. In the local gathering of believers the Lord confirms his mercy and love for his people.
To help us overcome our doubt
What God promises in his covenant and proclaims to us in the preaching of the Word is consolidated in the sacraments. Here again we see the love of God. He helps us overcome our unbelief. He not only proclaims to us his promises but illustrates to us what we have in Christ, very concretely, in visible signs and seals. Sacraments guarantee the trustworthiness of the Word of the Lord. They make visible that our only salvation and safety is to be found in the outpouring of Christ’s blood at Golgotha.
Both sacraments encourage us not to doubt that the Lord will wash away our sins and feed and nourish us to everlasting life. Make good use of your baptism and the promises that were signed and sealed on your forehead. Remember the Lord has established an eternal covenant of grace with you and adopted you to be his children and heirs and therefore will help you through trials, suffering, hardships and death. Remember and believe what your baptism and the Lord’s Supper confirms to you. Jesus died for your sins and is your Saviour