(See Westminster Confession of Faith 27)
The Apostle Paul speaks of the Older Testament Sacrament of Circumcision as a sign and a seal. For, when speaking of Abraham he says, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also…” Romans 4:11.
Notice that the circumcision Abraham received was both a sign AND a seal of righteousness. And just as important, notice that this righteousness is received through faith. The righteousness was imputed (accounted) to Abraham just as it will be imputed to all who believe. In other words, Abraham’s circumcision was a sign or a representation, and a seal or a confirmation of the righteousness that was imputed to him, which he personally received through the instrument of faith. Therefore Older Testament Circumcision along with the other Older Testament Sacrament of Passover are signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace. Sacraments therefore not only signify God’s grace, they also actually seal or confirm God’s grace to the believer. As you know, the righteousness that is received by grace through faith is revealed in the Gospel. “For in it [i.e., the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith…” Romans 1:17a.
Now, if we keep in mind that the first Gospel promise is revealed in Genesis 3:15 we won’t have too much trouble seeing the connection between the Older Testament Sacraments and the Newer Testament Sacraments. For in Genesis 3:15 we see a distinction being made between two parties. The serpent and his seed are being distinguished from the Seed of the woman. (According to Galatians 3:16 the Seed of the woman is ultimately Jesus Christ, and, of course, all who are in Him). But in Genesis 3:15 we see that the serpent is going to bruise the Seed of the woman’s heel, while the Seed of the woman is going to bruise the serpent’s head.
The word “bruise”, as it is used in Genesis 3:15 can also mean, “crush” or “break.” But we should note that whether it’s bruise, crush or break, all speak of blood. And since the word “bruise” tends to suggest an injury that discolours the skin without necessarily breaking it, we would prefer to use the word “crush” or “break.” That being understood, we believe that the first promise of the Gospel in the Bible speaks of blood being involved in the division or separation of two parties.
Thus, the LORD addressing the devil, who had utilized a serpent to instigate the Fall of man, says, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise [or crush] your head, and you shall bruise [or crush] His heel.” Genesis 3:15.
Thus right at the Fall of man God put a partition between Christ with His offspring, and the devil with his offspring. Hence the Sacraments in the Lord’s Church put a visible difference between those that belong to the Church and the rest of the world.
The Purpose of the Sacraments
The purpose of the Sacraments is to signify and seal or confirm the Covenant of Grace, i.e., the Gospel. For the Sacraments represent Christ and His benefits to us. They also confirm our participation in Him. And, as we’ve already noted, the Sacraments place a visible difference between those who belong to the Church and the rest of the world. And also, the Sacraments solemnly pledge those who belong to the Church to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word.
In the words of Roderick Lawson late of Maybole, The word sacrament is derived from a Latin word, which signified the sacred oath of fidelity to his commander, which the soldier took on entering the army for the service of his country. In a Christian sense, it means the vow of fidelity and obedience to Christ which is taken when we enter the Church. This vow was taken for us in Baptism, when we were infants. In the Lord’s Supper, we take it upon ourselves. (Comment on Westminster Shorter Catechism Quest. 92).
Now, we should note that the two Older Testament bloody Sacraments of Circumcision and Passover have been replaced by the Newer Testament unbloody Sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper respectively. However, this is not to say that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have nothing to do with Christ’s shed blood. For indeed just as Circumcision and Passover pointed to the Christ to come, so Baptism and Lord’s Supper point to the Christ who has come.
Thus the Apostle Paul equates Newer Testament Baptism with Older Testament Circumcision. For speaking of Newer Testament Christians he says, “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses…” Colossians 2:11-13. To be sure, some make much, (we believe much too much!) of Paul’s words, “…buried with Him in baptism” as if this were teaching a mode of baptism by immersion! (We will answer this in its proper place.)
However, surely all would agree that the baptism being spoken of here is being equated with Older Testament Circumcision and vice versa. Comments John Calvin: Christ, says [Paul], accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign, which was in force under Moses, but by baptism. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of the thing presented to us, which while absent was prefigured by circumcision.
As Abraham’s Circumcision was a physical and outward sign and seal of a spiritual and therefore inward grace, so is Baptism. Indeed, as Abraham received the sign and seal of the righteousness that comes through faith signified by Older Testament Circumcision, so also he circumcised his descendants Ishmael and subsequently Isaac; (including all males in his household. Genesis 17:26&27). What Abraham did physically the LORD promised to do spiritually.
For the LORD promised Older Testament Israel, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Deuteronomy 30:6. And who could forget those Older Testament commands where the LORD said to His people, “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.” Deuteronomy 10:16. And also, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest My fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” Jeremiah 4:4.
So, it’s not hard to see that the outward operation of Older Testament Circumcision done by men, simply pointed to an inward operation that needed to be done on the heart by God. The Sacraments signify and confirm to the faithful God’s promise to do that spiritual operation. Therefore there are two parts to each of the Sacraments. In the words of Westminster Larger Catechism question and answer 163: The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ’s own appointment; the other an inward spiritual grace thereby signified. And as already demonstrated, as far as the spiritual things symbolized and displayed in them are concerned, the Sacraments of the Older Testament were identical in their meaning with those of the New.
That there are only two Sacraments instituted by Christ in the Newer Testament, viz. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is shown by Matthew 28:19, and 1 Corinthians 11:20-23 respectively. And we believe these sacraments should not be administered by all and sundry, but by a minister lawfully ordained. The word sacrament speaks of something sacred. Therefore, like the Word of God Itself, the Sacraments need to be handled and administered by those who have received that charge and therefore know what they are doing.
Now, while we see Christ institute Baptism in the “Great Commission” passage, it needs to be noted to whom Christ specifically gave the “Great Commission.” It was given to the eleven disciples, who were, of course, lawfully ordained servants or “ministers” of the Word; having been given this position by Christ. Notice carefully the words, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. And when they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me is heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” Matthew 28:16-20.
And the Apostle Paul says that he personally received the instructions for dispensing the Lord’s Supper from Christ Himself. “For I received from the Lord that which I delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread…” etc. 1 Corinthians 11:23. And Paul says earlier in First Corinthians, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” I Corinthians 4:1. Servants of Christ are ministers of Christ, same thing. These ministers therefore are stewards of the mysteries of God.
Now, the mysteries of God might not be a direct reference to the two Newer Testament Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, as Calvin says, It is an honourable distinction that [Paul] confers upon the Gospel when he terms its contents the mysteries of God. But as the Sacraments are connected with these mysteries as appendages, it follows, that those who have the charge of administering the Word are the authorised stewards of them also. (Commenting on 1 Corinthians 4:1).
We believe therefore that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper ought not to be dispensed by any but by a minster of the Word, lawfully ordained. And, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “No man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4.
We see then that the Lord has given the Sacraments to His Church for the purpose of signifying and sealing His Covenant of Grace. And these two Sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper are to be administered by lawfully ordained ministers of the Word and Sacraments.
The Power of the Sacraments
There is grace exhibited or displayed in and by the Sacraments when they are used correctly. But how is that grace conferred to the worthy recipient? In other words, how do the Sacraments receive their power? For example, are the Sacraments dependant upon the piety or Godliness of those dispensing them for their power to confer the grace exhibited in and by them? God forbid! Otherwise the grace conferred through the Sacraments would be controlled by men not God! But it is God alone who confers grace through the Sacraments. And He confers grace to those upon whom He has already conferred grace beforehand.
The Sacraments are simply grace upon grace. In other words, the Sacraments belong only to those who are in the Covenant of Grace. And we believe those who are in the Covenant of Grace are believers and their children. For the promise in Acts 2:39 is to believers and to their children.
It should be understood that those baptised in infancy should partake of the Lord’s Supper only after they are old enough to examine themselves, lest he “…eat and drink judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” 1 Corinthians 11:29b. If by unworthily partaking of the Lord’s Supper people can eat and drink judgment to themselves, there must also be power in the Sacrament to confer grace. For if people are able to eat and drink judgment to themselves, then others are indeed most able to eat and drink a blessing to themselves. But, as we’ve already established, that blessing or curse is not conferred through the Sacraments by the one administering them.
Therefore the next question needing to be answered is: Do the elements in the Sacraments, viz. water, bread and wine, have any inherent power in them? To ask this question is to answer it. For water, bread and wine are common every-day elements used by all sorts of people for washing, eating and drinking. And as such, there is no blessing or curse attached to them.
But what happens when these elements of water, bread, and wine are consecrated or set apart for a holy use as in the Sacraments? Is there then some sort of physical transformation of the elements giving them power in themselves?
Roman Catholicism teaches that a physical transformation takes place in the Lord’s Supper. Rome teaches that the bread and the wine become the actual physical flesh and blood of Jesus. And Lutheranism teaches that Jesus’ flesh and blood become physically present in, through, and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Thus with these two views one might be forgiven for believing in some inherent power at least in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
To be sure, both Roman Catholicism and High Anglicanism teach Baptismal regeneration. Therefore some may think that the water used in Baptism might have powerful properties in itself. However, it is far better (because it is Biblical) to hold that the Sacramental elements of water, bread, and wine are simply instruments used by the Holy Spirit. And that these instruments are used to confer grace to those who are already regenerate, i.e., to confer grace to those who are already in the covenant, i.e., are already Christians.
Therefore the Sacraments are not instruments of regeneration. What we are saying then is that as a pipe is used to convey water from A to B, or a piece of copper wire is used to convey electrical power, so the sacramental elements convey the grace that is displayed in and by them. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who conveys the grace through the water, bread and wine of the two Sacraments.
Thus the power of the Sacraments to convey grace is dependant upon the Holy Spirit (working also with the Word). And He conveys that grace only to those who are already born of the Spirit, i.e., born again. That is what we mean by grace upon grace. Therefore it is erroneous to teach that the Sacraments regenerate people as taught by the Baptismal Regenerationists, a la Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.
And, the Sacraments must not be detached from the Word of God and the command of Christ. For without the Word, i.e., the Gospel, the Sacraments are without their proper context. For the Sacraments do visually what the proclamation of the Gospel does aurally. The Word enters the ear-gate and the Sacraments enter the eye-gate. The one is the Covenant of Grace verbally proclaimed. The other is the verbally proclaimed Covenant of Grace, i.e., the Gospel signified and sealed.
Thus the Sacraments represent Christ and His benefits to us; confirm our participation in Him; and place a visible distinction between members of the Church and those of the world. And they also strengthen the believer’s commitment to serving God in Christ. And all of this is according to His Word.
Now then, we’ve also established that there is a spiritual connection, or a sacramental union, between the sign and what the sign signifies. This accounts for the fact why in the Bible the names and the effects of the things signified are sometimes attributed to the signs themselves. For example, (and this is where Roman Catholicism has made its greatest blunder!), when Christ held the piece of bread in the Supper He said, “Take, eat: this is My body.” Matthew 26:26b. So we see that Jesus is calling the sign, i.e., the bread, the name of that which it signifies, i.e., Christ’s body. And we find the same thing where it says, “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” Matthew 26:27&28.
We must be very careful not to confuse the thing signified in the Sacrament, i.e., the body and the blood, with the sign, i.e., the bread and wine. For to do this would be to hold that the physical objects themselves are conveyors of grace, rather than the Holy Spirit conveying grace to believers through the use of the physical objects.
Therefore even though the Bible sometimes speaks of the Sacramental elements of water, bread and wine as if they were that which they represent, we must maintain the distinction. For, to confuse the symbol with that which it symbolizes is to confuse the two natures of Christ, which is to confuse Christ’s Godhead with His manhood.
To be sure, Christ as God is everywhere at once, but His humanity remains localized, which is to say that the Mediator, the Man, the God-man Jesus Christ, remains bodily in Heaven. Therefore any feeding on Christ’s flesh and blood is a spiritual feeding. And because it is a spiritual feeding it is done only through faith. Thus it is signified and sealed through the use of the physical elements.
Christ, the object of our faith, is represented in the Lord’s Supper by the bread and the wine. Therefore eating the bread and drinking the wine in the Lord’s Supper is one of the main ways the Lord strengthens the faith of believers; the other main way is the observance of the only other Sacrament of Baptism.
We have established that the water, bread and wine in the Sacraments are the Church on earth’s spiritual connection to or union with Jesus Christ in Heaven. This is why the proper dispensing of the Sacraments is one of the three main marks of the true Church on earth. (The other two marks are the unadulterated proclamation of the Gospel, and Church discipline.)
Thus to despise or neglect the Sacraments is to sever one important strand of the three-fold cord by which the Church on earth is attached to Christ and distinguished from the world. Therefore, let us not dishonour our Lord by neglecting His Sacraments.