Basics of the Reformed Faith: The Sacraments

Although any discussion of the role of the sacraments in the Christian life seems too “catholic” for many evangelical Christians, the sacraments do play a very important role throughout the New Testament.  Summarizing the teaching of Scripture on this topic, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q 65) defines the two New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “holy signs and seals for us to see.  They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.”  And what is the promise of the gospel?  “To forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.” 

The sacraments are visible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace promised to his people in the gospel (Romans 4:9-12).  Because we are weak and struggling sinners, these sacraments are given to us by God to confirm that faith already given us through the preaching of the gospel (cf. Romans 6:3-4;1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  This is why the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are intimately connected.  That which God promises to us in the gospel (the forgiveness of sins and eternal life) is then confirmed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The gospel is proclaimed, and then made visible in a sense when the sacraments are administered–which is why Reformed Christians often speak of the sacraments as the “visible word.” 

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the biblical emphasis falls squarely upon what God has done for sinners in the person of his son, Jesus, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith, or the purity of one’s heart.  This is why God is seen as the active party in these two sacraments, since it is he who makes the promises associated with the covenant of grace, and of which the sacraments are signs and seals.  To put it another way, through participation in the sacraments, the recipient receives (ratifies) what is promised by our gracious God in the gospel.

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God swears the same covenant oath given to Abraham in Genesis 17:7–“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”  At the heart of the sacraments then is God’s gracious covenant promise to be our God, and that we will be his people–a promise which is re-ratified whenever we receive the sacraments through faith.  This is why the sacraments are an essential part of Reformed piety and church life.

There are two sacraments instituted by Jesus in the New Testament.  Baptism is the sacrament of entrance into the Christian life and its importance can be seen from the Great Commission.  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus instructs his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Disciples are not made by going forward to an altar, or by repeating a prayer after a minister, but by being baptized!  This is the biblical way in which repentant sinners and their families publically declare their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; 16:15; 16:31-33).  To be baptized means that we have been buried with Christ (Romans 6:4), clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27), and circumcised with Christ (Colossians 2:11-12).  Baptism is that sign and seal that our sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and of the presence of regeneration (Titus 3:5).  It is baptism that marks us off from unbelievers.  All of these things are promised to us and to our children in the gospel (Acts 2:38-39).

As for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus instituted this sacrament on that night in which he was betrayed.  Investing the Jewish Passover with an entirely new meaning, we read in Matthew 26:26-28 that “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, `Take, eat; this is my body.’  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, `Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Not only does Jesus tell us that the sacrament is connected to the promise of the gospel–through the shedding of his blood, our sins are forgiven–but Jesus states that what is offered to us through the bread and wine, is nothing less than his own body and blood, along with all of his saving benefits to be received by faith.  In other words, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus offers himself to us through the signs and seals of the bread and wine.

These words also appear in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, indicating that the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper was based on our Lord’s words of institution.  Paul tells us that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated “when you come together” for public worship (1 Corinthians 14:26).  This means that the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Christ, is a ratification of the gospel promise–the new covenant in Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins–and that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated whenever the church assembled for worship.  We know from Acts 2:42 that the worship of the apostolic church centered in the apostle’s teaching, the Lord’s Supper, the prayers and fellowship with the Risen Savior.

Since the sacraments confirm the promise of the gospel–that God will save us from our sins–the link between the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments in public worship is firmly established.  The biblical manner by which God declares his favor to sinners is through the word, and that promise is confirmed through the sacraments.  In the gospel, God promises to save us from our sins, and in the sacraments he swears on his sovereign oath, “I am your God and you are my people!”  This is why weak and struggling sinners should not be directed to look within to see whether or not our faith is of sufficient intensity, or if we have achieved sufficient personal holiness in order to participate.   Rather, we need to look outside of ourselves and turn our gaze toward God’s gracious covenant promise.  This is God’s way of comforting the downcast, strengthening faith, and conquering doubt.  This is why word and sacrament are together essential elements when God’s people assemble for worship.