The Church of Christ is known by three distinguishing marks: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline (Belgic Confession, Article 29). When she practices these three, she is true; when she does not, she is false.
We come now to Articles 33–35 of the Confession, where the second of these three marks is explained. Besides explaining baptism (art. 34) and the Lord’s Supper (art. 35), there is also a brief article on the sacraments in general (art. 33). This article explains the Reformed understanding of what a sacrament is, what a sacrament does, and how many sacraments there are in Scripture.
The Necessity of the Sacraments
What need is there of sacraments if all that Articles 20–26 of the Confession are true – that God’s wrath toward us has been satisfied in Christ, that we are justified before Him freely by grace alone, that His Spirit is continually sanctifying us, and that Christ Himself is interceding for us at the right hand of God? In a word, we need the sacraments because we are sinners. The great Protestant slogan that we as Christians are simultaneously justified and sinful (Latin, simul iustus et peccator), saints and sinners, is true. Recall from Article 15 of the Confession that the original sin we received from Adam’s sin is not “altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by baptism.” Because this original sin causes in us actual sins “as water from a fountain,” this “corruption should make believers often sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death” (emphasis mine).
Article 33 opens: “We believe that our gracious God, taking account of our weakness and infirmities, has ordained the sacraments for us…” Our God, the eternal, omnipotent, holy One of Israel, is gracious towards us: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). And because “He is terribly displeased with our inborn sin as well as our actual sins” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 10), He is under no obligation to show us any grace. The wonder of His grace is that despite our not meriting any favor with Him, but in fact demeriting all hope of grace, He comes to be gracious to us in Christ in the preached Word and in the sacraments.
In the sacraments, our gracious God accommodates Himself down to us. Accommodation is one person coming down to the level of another in order to communicate, help, and relate to him. It is because of our weaknesses and sinfulness that God accommodates Himself to our level and for our benefit. In Baptism and the Supper, the eternal, incomprehensible,invisible, immutable, infinite, and almighty God (art. 1) comes to the aid of our weaknesses.
Article 33 evidences a dependence upon John Calvin, who said,
And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates Himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, He declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to Himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings.
The main effect of our ongoing struggle with sin is upon our faith. On the one hand, the New Testament says our faith “is the victory that has overcome the world” (1 John 5:4). On the other hand, we must continually pray, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). God in His tender, fatherly grace has given us “pledges” of His grace toward us. The sacraments, then, “nourish and strengthen our faith” as they “better … present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His Word and that which He works in our hearts.”
This is evidenced all throughout redemptive history with even those whom we would see as the godliest of saints. They, too, needed the sacraments. To Noah, God made that wonderful promise: “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). But because of the fallen nature of man and our tendency to doubt even a promise from the very mouth of God, He gave an accommodating sacramental sign and seal of His promise with creation: the rainbow in the sky (Genesis 9:12ff.).
Later, God Almighty made covenant promises to Abraham in Genesis 12. There He called out Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans, a place that would later be known in history as Babylon. He called him in order to create a people for His name’s sake.
His gracious promises to Abram are many: 1) I will make you a great nation, 2) I will bless you, 3) I will make your name great, 4) I will make you a blessing, 5) I will bless those who bless you, 6) I will curse those who curse you, and 7) I will bless all the families of the earth through you.
Even with this sovereign act of salvation and amazing promises, God then accommodated Himself and gave a sign and seal to confirm His promises in the sacrament of circumcision (Genesis 17:10). Our forefathers had need of even greater assurance that God was their God and they were His people.
We are no different. Although we live after Christ has come in the age of fulfillment, the remnants of the old man still affect us. We still doubt that the Lord’s promises are for us when our lives hit a little turbulence.
We do not completely take Him at His word, as sure as it is! Therefore, in the same way, the same God comes to us as His covenant people to our level and gives us signs and seals of His fatherly benevolence towards us. We are sinners; our faith is not perfect, but is weak. God is perfect and strong. We hear this truth of our Confession every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the beautiful words of invitation, which say,
This solemn warning is not designed, however, to discourage penitent sinners from coming to the holy sacrament. We do not come to the supper as though we were righteous in ourselves, but rather to testify that we are sinners and that we look to Jesus Christ for our salvation. Although we do not have perfect faith and do not serve and love God with all our hearts, and though we do not love our neighbors as we ought, we are confident that the Savior accepts us at His table when we come in humble faith, with sorrow for our sins, and with a will to follow Him as He commands.
The Nature of the Sacraments
As we turn to ask what exactly the sacraments are, the first thing our Confession says about them is that they are means of grace. As we said above, because of our weakness and infirmities, God has stooped down to give us His grace in a tangible way. While it is true that the sacraments are also law, that is, they bring judgment to those who do not use them rightly (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27ff.), Article 33 of the Confession puts the emphasis squarely on the fact that the sacraments communicate the grace of God.
This is why the article says that the sacraments “seal unto us His promises” and are “pledges of the good will and grace of God.” And as they are “joined to the Word of the gospel” they “better present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His Word and that which He works in our hearts, thereby confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us.” Finally, they are gospel because “Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them.” As means of grace, then, the sacraments feed faith; as the Confession says, they “nourish and strengthen” it.
Throughout the history of redemption, the Lord used means to communicate His grace to His people, which were intended to feed their faith. For example, with our forefathers in the wilderness, the LORD gave life-giving water by means of a rock. Paul masterfully exegetes this Old Testament event writing that the physical rock from which they drank was a visible sign and seal of “that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:2).
As means of grace, the sacraments must be united with faith in order for what they signify to benefit us. We must not stop at the visible sign, but by faith go beyond to that which is signified, Jesus Christ and all His benefits. Without faith, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not signs of grace, but of judgment. We must embrace God’s covenant blessings given to us in Baptism and the Supper, as well as teach our children that they, too, must believe in Christ, who is portrayed in them, for He is the reality or substance of the sacraments. The sacraments are also visible signs: “For they are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing.” Here the Confession follows the teaching of the North African church father, Augustine, who said the sacraments were the “visible word.”
This is the language of Scripture, in which the LORD Himself said to Abraham about circumcision, “…it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11). The word “sacrament” (from the Latin, sacra-mentum) originally meant the oath that a Roman soldier took in loyalty to his commander. This was the meaning that the Zurich Reformer gave to the sacraments – our oath of allegiance to the Lord.
In contrast, our Confession makes the point that the sacraments are not our oath to God, but God’s oath to us! Here the Belgic follows the Augsburg Confession in saying that the sacraments are “pledges” of God’s good will and grace to us (cf. Augsburg Confession, art. 13).
As if God’s Word were not enough, in the sacraments God comes to us and says, “Look! I will show you My grace.” In baptism, it is as if God were saying, “Feel My grace pouring down your filthy head,” and in the Supper, “Taste My grace pouring down your throat.” Signs get at the heart of our covenantal religion, since covenants always have tangible signs of what is promised or agreed upon. Thus when God the Father says that He will make an everlasting covenant of grace with us, that He will wash us in the blood of Jesus, and that He will nourish us with Christ’s body and blood, He shows us this in the sacraments.
The third thing the Belgic Confession says about the sacraments is that they are seals: “to seal His promises to us.” A seal is an assurance or confirmation. This is why the Confession goes on to say that by the sacraments, God “confirm[s] in us the salvation which He imparts to us.” Again, this is biblical language. In Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s justification by faith alone, he said that God gave him circumcision, which was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Romans 4:11). This seal of the righteousness of faith shows us, says Paul, that salvation is God’s work alone. Abraham, nor we, have done nothing, nor can we do anything to make us right with God. Since the righteousness God imputes to us is by faith, it is not by our works of righteousness. Our righteousness, then, is from God alone. In baptism and communion, the righteousness we have by faith is sealed unto us.
This “sealing” aspect of the sacraments is emphasized in Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 65:
Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from? The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments (Emphasis mine).
Finally, the sacraments are appendices: “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.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper do not communicate anything different than the preached Word, but communicate the grace of God through different means. Our Confession even goes so far as to say that the sacraments do this better because they do so to our external senses. Again, we hear the words of Calvin echoed in our Confession:
But sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture … But the believer, when the sacraments are presented to his eye, does not stop short at the carnal spectacle, but by the steps of analogy which I have indicated, rises with pious consideration to the sublime mysteries which lie hidden in the sacraments.
The Power of the Sacraments
Rome places the efficacy of the sacraments in the sacraments themselves with the doctrine that by doing the sacraments the work of the sacraments is done (Latin, ex opere operato). Lutheranism also has a doctrine of the objectivity of the sacraments in which the thing signified is so tied to the sign that all who partake receive Christ, even unbelievers. Finally, Zwingli placed the efficacy of the sacraments in the remembrance of the one partaking of them.
The Reformed doctrine of the sacraments ascribes the power of the sacraments to the Holy Spirit. This is why the Confession says that it is “by means [of the sacraments] … God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Although in contrast to Eastern Orthodoxy, which believes that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, albeit mysteriously, Calvin and our Confession find a common strand with the ancient Eastern Church with their emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the Lord’s Supper. In what we would call the “prayer of consecration,” the priest prays, “Once again we offer to You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood, and we ask, pray, and entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented.”
The Number of the Sacraments
One final note on the sacraments that distinguished the Protestants from Rome and Constantinople was the number of the sacraments. As the Confession concludes: “Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Lord has instituted, which are two only, namely, the sacrament of baptism and the holy supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
While Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy confess seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, marriage, ordination, last rites), some modern Eastern Christians confess the potential for anything to be sacramental because of the goodness of creation as redeemed by Christ.
Yet why do we follow the Protestant teaching in celebrating only two sacraments? Because, these alone are what “Christ our Lord has instituted” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 68). This means that a sacrament is only something that the Lord instituted by His word as well as attached a sign thereto. In addition, the New Testament is clear that Jesus gave His Church the Lord’s Supper to celebrate in His remembrance until He comes again in the fullness of the kingdom (Luke 22:14–23 cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) in the signs of bread and wine, and baptism in the sign of water, which the Church is to administer as it goes out to the nations with the Lord in its midst (Matthew 28:16–20).
The sacraments of baptism and the holy Supper, then, are the physical, tangible elements that Christ has given us as the vehicles of His spiritual blessings. Our faith is strengthened not in thunder coming down upon us from heaven, not in fiery angels bringing messages to us, nor in an ethereal way that only a few elite people can understand. Instead, Christ graciously gives common elements to be used in a special way – water, bread, and wine. In doing so, He comes down to our level for the benefit of our faith!
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.