Words mean nothing apart from a context, and this is certainly true with the word sacrament. The Roman Catholic Church and confessional Presbyterians both use this term. However, the context of these two theological communities shows that there is a world of difference between them.

For the Roman Catholic Church, sacraments are visible forms of invisible grace—that created grace (even substance) that is infused into the recipient, whether he has faith in Christ or not. Confessional Presbyterians, on the other hand, employ the same term, but mean something quite different by it. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, sacraments are “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (27.1). Immediately a significant difference emerges: a visible form of God's invisible grace has no historical anchor, whereas a sign and seal of the covenant of grace grounds the sacraments in God's historical dealings with his people.

Covenant Promises and Covenant Signs

In the Scriptures, God always deals with his people in the context of a covenant. Within the context of these covenants, God has given visible signs to accompany his covenant promises. For example, when God covenanted with Noah and the creation not to destroy the earth by water again, he gave a visible sign of his covenantal pledge: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:12–13).

One of the important elements that should be noted is that the visible sign of the rainbow is revelatory, as it is connected with the revelatory word. God's word, though, always brings blessing and sanction. The double-edged nature of God's revelation, invisible (word) or visible (sign), is apparent in the rainbow: it invokes God's promised blessing to preserve the earth, but also the flood-judgment by which he destroyed it.

This same pattern of blessing and sanction appears with the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision. God made his verbal promise to Abraham and then gave a visible sign of that promise: “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen. 17:11). The visible sign of circumcision pointed both to blessings and to sanctions. It pointed to the blessing of the circumcision of the heart wrought by the Holy Spirit (cf. Deut. 6:4–6; 30:6; Rom. 2:25–29) and to inclusion in the covenant people of God. But it also pointed to the covenant sanction: being cut off from the covenant people of God (Gen. 17:14).

In terms of the covenant blessing, according to the apostle Paul, circumcision was also a seal of the righteousness that Abraham received by faith (Rom. 4:11). Just as a seal upon an official government letter assures the recipient of its authenticity, so circumcision functions in a similar fashion. It is a seal of God's gospel promises to Abraham that he received by faith alone.

A question emerges, though, as to why God gave circumcision as a sign of the covenant. The simple answer is that God was visibly preaching to his people that the seed of the woman, the seed of Shem, and now the seed of Abraham, would be cut off for the sake of God's people (cf. Gen. 17:14; Isa. 53:8; Jer. 11:19; Col. 2:11; Heb. 13:12–13). In a word, circumcision as the sign of the covenant pointed to the person and work of Christ.

Another covenant sign in the Old Testament is the Sabbath, which was the sign of the Mosaic covenant, a sign that Yahweh was in Israel's midst, sanctifying them (Ex. 31:13). The Sabbath served as a visible reminder of Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt (cf. Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). As Israelites ceased from their labors and worshiped God, they visibly proclaimed to the nation, as well as to the surrounding Gentile nations, that God was in their midst, redeeming a people for himself as they received a foretaste of the eschatological rest of the seventh day (cf. Gen. 2:3; Ex. 31:15; Heb. 4:1–11). But as with the rainbow and circumcision, the covenant sign of the Sabbath was double-edged. It was a blessing for those who rested and received a taste of the eternal Sabbath to come, but it was a sign of judgment for those who labored upon it (Ex. 31:14; cf. Gen. 17:14; 15:9–10, 18; Jer. 34:18).

The Message of the Sacraments

This Old Testament background helps us to understand why the Westminster divines state that baptism and the Lord's Supper are holy (or sacred, hence sacrament) signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They visibly preach the gospel of Christ and point to his person and work. Baptism visibly declares that the seed of the woman has come, has been cut off in his crucifixion, has been raised, has ascended, and has baptized the church in the Spirit (cf. Joel 2:28; Luke 3:16; Acts 2:14–21, 32–33). The Lord's Supper visibly declares that God has ratified his covenant with his people through the shed blood of Christ (cf. Ex. 24:8; Matt. 26:28). It also points forward to the eschatological supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).
Like their Old Testament sacramental predecessors, baptism and the Lord's Supper are double-edged, just like the word of God (Heb. 4:12). For those covenant children who receive baptism but do not make a profession of faith, or for those adults who make a false profession of faith, baptism is not the water of new creation and blessing, but that of drowning and judgment (cf. Luke 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:5–7). And for those who partake of the Lord's Supper apart from faith in Christ and who do not rightly recognize the significance of the sacrament, the partaking of the bread and the wine becomes the consumption and imbibing of judgment (1 Cor. 11:27–30).

That the sacraments are sacred signs and seals of the covenant of grace and are the visible word of God tells us that they play a vital role as an element of worship. The central element of Reformed worship, evidenced by the central placement of the pulpit in Reformed churches, is the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word of God (Larger Catechism, 155). Here the divines echo the apostle Paul regarding the centrality of preaching (Rom. 10:14–15). However, ministers herald the gospel both as an invisible (audible) word and as a visible (sacramental) word.

But it is important to note that the sacraments are dependent upon the Word of God, apart from which they are empty signs. Hence, the Word can stand alone, but the sacraments cannot; sacraments are dependent upon the preaching of the Word. Moreover, just as the mere hearing of the preached Word does not automatically guarantee salvation, so the mere receiving of the sacraments does not guarantee salvation. The sacramental word, just like the preached Word, requires the sovereign work of the Spirit to apply it to people.
Also, the sacraments point to Christ, just as the written Word points to him. All too often people confuse the sign (baptism or the Lord's Supper) with the thing signified (the person and work of Christ) (see Confession, 27.2–3). The sacraments “represent Christ, and his benefits,” but are not themselves Christ, as claimed by Roman Catholicism for the bread and the wine.

The proper understanding of the nature of the sacraments as elements of worship has profound implications for the church's practice. Too many people in the church look upon baptism, for example, as something merely for the one who is baptized. Rather, the sacraments, the visible word, when joined to the preaching of the audible Word, herald the gospel of Christ to the entire body of Christ. Baptism proclaims that Christ has baptized, or poured out, the Spirit upon the church in the wake of his ascension and session at the right hand of the Father.

It is also important to remember that there are no neutral encounters with the living God. One cannot hear the word of God and walk away indifferent and unaffected. Christ, as the incarnate Word, is the chief cornerstone and the stone of stumbling and rock of offense (Isa. 28:16; Matt. 21:42; 1 Pet. 2:6–8). The written Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, dividing between soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Heb. 4:12). And the sacramental word is double-edged, visibly heralding blessings for those who receive the good news by a Spirit-wrought faith and sanctions for those who reject it. In this respect, like the written Word, the sacraments can be a means of grace or judgment.

If the sacraments are indeed the visible words of God, then preachers and sessions should make every effort to teach this truth to their churches and see that they observe the Lord's Supper frequently. As we hear the word preached to our ears and see the word preached to our eyes, rejoice that God has revealed himself in Christ through his invisible and visible word, and that he applies it to our lives by the sovereign work of the Spirit. Rejoice in knowing that one day the invisible and visible words will no longer be needed because we will behold the incarnate Word of God face to face, when faith gives way to sight. Maranatha, come quickly, Lord Jesus.