The sacraments are, in the nature of the case, visible signs and seals that the Lord alone can appoint for the use and benefit of the church. Because they require divine authorization, the church may not appoint as sacraments any church rite or practice, however useful, that she pleases. Just as in the old covenant, so also in the new, the Lord has appointed only two sacraments for the use of his people, holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, the Roman Catholic doctrine that speaks of seven sacraments, represents an abuse of church authority and undermines its claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ. In order to appreciate the Reformed confessions’ understanding of the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper, we need to consider each of these sacraments specifically, and to note the differences between them.
1.Baptism – A Sacrament of Incorporation
The first sacrament that Christ has appointed for the church is holy baptism. By the Lord’s ordinance and appointment, the sacramental sign of baptism is pure water. Only a lawfully ordained minister of the Word is authorized to administer this sacrament, and he must do so using the words of institution given by Christ in Matthew 28:19. Though the mode of baptism may differ from place to place— whether through immersion, affusion, or sprinkling—the validity of baptism requires the use of the Christ-appointed sign of water and the gospel Word regarding the baptized member’s communion with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The sacrament of baptism, which by its nature may be administered only once, serves to signify and seal to believers their adoption into the household of God and incorporation into Christ. The water of baptism especially represents the washing away of sin through the blood of Christ and the Spirit of regeneration. By baptism, believers are not only visibly distinguished from those who remain “strangers” to God and Christ’s church, but they are also assured of the grace of reconciliation with God and purification from the pollution and guilt of sin. Moreover, as those who are distinguished as members of Christ and the household of God, believers are also by baptism enlisted into the service of Christ, engaged to him as those who are his cherished possession, and called to live in love with all others who enjoy communion with Christ. Though the emphasis in the Reformed confessions falls upon the privileges of grace which are signified and sealed to believers in baptism, the Westminster Larger Catechism especially emphasizes these accompanying obligations of baptism. Just as the required response to the Word of the gospel includes repentance and faith, so the required response to the visible Word of the sacrament includes corresponding responsibilities and privileges. These purposes of baptism are not restricted to the occasion of its administration. Rather, throughout the entire course of the believer’s life, the sacrament of baptism serves powerfully and effectively to confirm faith and stimulate obedience. To use the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism, believers must be vigilant in the constant “improvement” of their baptism, being reminded by this sacrament of their engagement to Christ and enrollment in the company of his people.
Though the Reformed confessions do not teach baptismal regeneration, they do ascribe a real efficacy to the sacrament of baptism in conferring the grace of God in Christ upon believers. A cursory reading of the descriptions of the function and effect of baptism in these confessions indicates that they affirm a real connection between the sacramental sign and the spiritual reality signified. Again and again, the sacrament of baptism is described as that which effects, or brings about, what is visibly represented and pledged. As a divinely appointed instrument for the confirmation of faith, it could not be otherwise. For if the sacrament were of little or no effect as a means of grace— merely a visible testimony to the believer’s subjective state and disposition toward God, and not a divinely given sacramental Word signifying and sealing divine grace in Christ—then it would not have been added to the Word as a more full confirmation of God’s grace. Because God has been willing to join the spiritual grace communicated with its sacramental sign, the church must not weaken its understanding of the sacrament’s power by “breaking asunder” what God has joined together.
In their handling of the question, who should be baptized?, the Reformed confessions consistently affirm that baptism should be administered not only to believers but also to their children. The affirmation of the baptism of children of believing parents is treated more expansively in the later confessions of the Reformation era, which reflect the continuing and intensifying polemic against the Anabaptist repudiation of infant baptism. According to the confessions, the children of believing parents must be baptized for the same reason as their believing parents: God is pleased to extend the gospel promise to them. The ground for the baptism of children of believers is their divinely promised inclusion in the church and covenant of Jesus Christ. Therefore, as members of Christ and recipients of the gospel promise, their baptism has the same meaning as the baptism of adult believers. Consistent with the Reformed understanding of the divine initiative in election and the communication of God’s grace in Christ to his people, the baptism of children of believing parents attests to their adoption into the household of God, and the washing away of their sins through the blood of Christ and the Spirit of regeneration.
Several biblical considerations are adduced in the confessions to support the practice of the baptism of children of believing parents: God’s gracious promise to them; their inclusion within the covenant people of God; the fact that the kingdom of God belongs to them; the Old Testament precedent of the sacrament of circumcision, which in the New Testament has been replaced by baptism; and the Old Testament practice of offering a lamb of purification at the birth of a child, which was a sacrament of Jesus Christ. No more than in the case of believers are children baptized on the basis of a presumed regeneration or any other subjective condition (such as an “infant faith” or the faith of the parents in lieu of their own). Since the power and efficacy of the sacrament of baptism, as is the case with the sacraments generally, depend upon a believing reception of the sacramentally communicated Word of grace, the baptized children of believers are under the obligations to believe and repent that accompany the privileges of their baptism. Moreover, because the sacramental sign and seal are to be distinguished from the spiritual grace that they confirm, the efficacy of baptism may not be tied to the moment of its administration. This does not diminish the efficacy of baptism, but only acknowledges that its power may not be immediately exhibited.
2. The Lord’s Supper — A Sacrament of Nourishment
The second sacrament that Christ has appointed for his church is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Unlike the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and his church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of God’s grace in Christ that continually nourishes and strengthens the faith of its recipient.
With respect to the frequency of its administration and reception, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is clearly distinguished in the Reformed confessions from the sacrament of baptism. Whereas baptism is a rite of initiation or incorporation into Christ and his body, the church, the Lord’s Supper is a rite of continual confirmation, nourishment and strengthening of the faith of believers. Baptism is by its nature a one-time ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is by its nature a sacrament that needs to be repeated and thereby continually used by believers. Though the Reformed confessions do not explicitly comment on the frequency of the administration of the Lord’s Supper, they favor in principle a practice where the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordinarily accompanies the preaching of the gospel. Stated negatively, there are no clear confessional reasons that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper should not regularly be appended to the administration of the gospel in preaching. The requirements for a proper participation in the Supper—self-examination and the guarding of the Table against its profanation by unworthy participation on the part of the unbelieving and impenitent—might well present practical impediments to the regular, even weekly, celebration of the Supper. But, with the possible exception of the Westminster Larger Catechism, which provides a detailed description regarding the preparation for and use of the sacrament, none of the great confessions of the Reformed churches offers any argument against frequent communion.
In the Reformed confessions the Lord’s Supper is variously described and several of its purposes are identified.
Perhaps the most basic metaphor governing the descriptions of the Lord’s Supper is that of a sacred meal, which was instituted to nourish believers in their communion with Christ. The sacramental elements of bread and wine were consecrated to serve as tokens and pledges of Christ himself, whose body given and blood shed are the spiritual sustenance and life of believers. By sharing this sacramental meal, believers enjoy a rich communion with Christ and with all his members. They commune with Christ under the veil of the sacramental elements, and acknowledge him to be their food and drink unto life eternal. Reflecting this emphasis upon the sacrament as a nourishing meal, the Reformed confessions typically denominate the sacrament as “the Lord’s Supper” or “the Lord’s table.” Even as the physical body is strengthened by bread and wine, so the spiritual life of believers is strengthened by the eating and drinking of Christ, who is the spiritual food of those who belong to him by faith.
Consistent with the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual meal in which the believer enjoys communion with and is nourished by the Lord, the Reformed confessions also speak of the sacrament as a memorial of Christ’s death and sacrifice upon the cross. Though the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not merely a memorial or occasion for thanksgiving to God—the Zwinglian doctrine of the sacrament is uniformly, though often only implicitly, repudiated as inadequate— through it the church commemorates and proclaims Christ’s death until he comes again at the end of the age. For this reason, the sacrament is also an occasion for thanksgiving and praise—a eucharistic meal whose character is not only one of reverent commemoration but also one of joyful thankfulness. When believers receive the elements as tokens of Christ’s body and blood, they do so in gratitude to God for all of the benefits of salvation which are theirs through Christ.
The sacrament, which as a visible sign of an invisible grace serves to confirm and strengthen faith in the promises of the gospel, also evokes thanksgiving by assuring believers of their participation in Christ and his saving work. To use the language of the confessions, as assuredly as believers take the bread and the wine from the hand of Christ’s ministers, so assuredly are they given to believe that Christ’s work was for them. Indeed, it was for this reason that the Lord graciously and mercifully appointed the sacrament. Knowing the weakness and uncertainty that often characterize the faith of believers, the Lord instituted this sacramental meal as a visible representation of his work on their behalf. Lest the gospel promise, first announced through the preaching of the Word, be doubted, God has graciously condescended to our weakness in appointing this means to aid our faith.
Because the sacramental meal of the Lord’s Supper is a holy communion with Christ, it also serves the purposes of uniting believers more intimately with him and calling them to a life of loving obedience and holy consecration. Believers, when they commemorate and proclaim the reconciling work of Christ in the sacrament, are reminded of their calling to be united to and reconciled with fellow believers. Those who are joined through the sacrament in communion with Christ are likewise joined with all who are his members. Furthermore, as members who enjoy the most intimate and full communion with Christ, they are engaged to a life that is marked by love and obedience to him. Those who share this meal with Christ are called to live in greater intimacy with Christ and his members. Failure to live in communion with Christ or to love those who share this communion with him is a manifest denial of the nature and significance of this sacred meal.
On the much-disputed question of the nature of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament, the Reformed confessions typically affirm this presence in strong terms. But they do so with an accompanying denial of the explanations of that presence traditionally offered by the Roman Catholic Church or the Lutheran tradition.
According to the Reformed confessions, those who receive Christ through the sacrament with the mouth of faith genuinely partake of him. Believers enjoy through the sacrament a true participation in and reception of the body and blood of Christ. The sacramental signs of bread and wine, though not to be confused or identified with the actual body and blood of Christ, genuinely communicate Christ to believers. The sacramental acts of eating and drinking are instrumental to a communication of Christ with the sacramental signs. In several of the confessions, the language used to describe Christ’s presence is quite robust. Believers are said to partake through the sacrament of “the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ.” The spiritual eating and drinking that takes place in the sacrament involves such an intimate participation in Christ that the believer becomes altogether one with him, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.
However, when it comes to providing an explanation of the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed Confessions object vigorously to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation. The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation improperly identifies the sacramental elements with the spiritual reality that they represent. The earthly elements of the sacrament become the actual body and blood of Christ, though remaining under the form or appearance of bread and wine. Whether received by faith or not, the consecrated elements are objectively the body and blood of Christ, and remain what they have become until they are properly consumed.
Moreover, in this doctrine the eating and drinking of Christ is a physical act, an “eating with the mouth” (manducatio oralis) which is a physical rather than a spiritual participation in Christ. Likewise, though the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation does not improperly identify the sacramental signs with the thing signified, nonetheless it teaches that the actual body and blood of Christ are locally present in the sacrament. This doctrine also affirms an “eating with the mouth” (manducatio oralis) that fails to appreciate the spiritual nature of the believer’s participation in Christ through the sacrament. Contrary to these doctrines of Christ’s presence, therefore, the Reformed confessions simply affirm the believers’ eating and drinking of the natural body and blood of Christ. This occurs through an inexpressible and incomprehensible working of the Spirit of Christ, who draws believers through the sacrament up to Christ who is in heaven in order that they might be joined in communion with him.
In their criticism of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed confessions typically express several key objections to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass. The objection to the doctrine of transubstantiation is not only addressed to the problem of the adoration of the consecrated elements, which is a form of idolatry and an inappropriate identification of the sign with the thing signified. But it is also addressed to the idea that Christ’s presence in the sacrament is the basis for the unbloody sacrifice of Christ in the mass. The priest who ministers at the altar in the Roman Catholic mass offers Christ himself as a propitiation and sacrifice for sin. Though this sacrifice is an unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, it obtains further grace and merit for those who participate and even for those who may not be present (the dead).
Furthermore, the administration of the mass includes or permits a number of unbiblical practices: the elevation and adoration of the host, the withholding of the cup from the laity, the communing on the part of the priests or clergy without the presence or participation of the laity and private masses for individuals or portions of the whole body of the church. These and a host of additional ceremonies constitute an affront to the exclusive priesthood of Christ, whose one sacrifice is sufficient to the needs of his people, and betray a superstitious and magical view of the working of the sacrament.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.