Article 33 - The Sacraments
We believe that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments to seal His promises to us and to be pledges of His good will and grace towards us. He did so to nourish and sustain our faith. 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. Thus He confirms to us the salvation which He imparts to us. Sacraments are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the signs are not void and meaningless so that they deceive us. For Jesus Christ is their truth; apart from Him they would be nothing. Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Master has instituted for us, namely, two: the sacrament of baptism and the holy supper of Jesus Christ.
MEANS OF GRACE
Through the fall into sin in Paradise, all people have become slaves to sin and Satan (Article 14). In boundless mercy the Lord God has sent His Son into the world to redeem sinners from bondage to the Devil and reconcile them to God (Article 17). God’s work of redemption through Christ is mine through faith (Article 22). Faith, extending the hand of the soul to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, is a mighty work of the Holy Spirit in hearts by nature dead in sin (Article 24).
How, though, does the Holy Spirit work faith? Does He pour faith into sinners as water into a bottle? Does He let faith ooze its way slowly into our hearts by having us breathe the pious air of a godly home? Does He instill faith in sinners by their sitting in the sun or observing the flowers? It is true that the Holy Spirit has the might to work faith into sin-filled hearts in any such way. Yet God in His good pleasure has bound Himself to different means to work faith. He uses particular tools known as the “means of grace.” The primary tool is the Word; the second tool is the Sacraments. Since the Lord God has ordained the Word and the Sacraments as the means by which He works and strengthens faith, I am obliged to make use of these means.
Of the two means the Spirit uses, the Word is primary. The Word of God is effective, and produces great results. In the beginning “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). This is the pattern of creation; God “spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:9). The work of God whereby He raises people from spiritual death and makes them believe in Him is no less mighty a work as His work of creation in the beginning. That is why “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Word the Lord uses to work faith is the “gospel of Christ”, which “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Since the Holy Spirit does His mighty work of recreation through the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ told His disciples before His ascension into heaven to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). This is equally why the apostles after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit set out to preach (Acts 2:14; 4:2,20; 5:21, etc), and why the apostle Paul told Timothy and Titus to keep preaching (2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:1,15) – and even to ensure that there be preachers for the future (2 Timothy 2:2).
As God’s word in the beginning produced results, so the preaching of the apostles produced results. On Pentecost Day 3000 persons came to faith (Acts 2:41). In the weeks that followed, the number of believers grew astronomically (see Acts 4:4; 6:1). It is as the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). To the Hebrews the apostle says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (4:12). The towns where the apostles preached experienced mightily the powerful effect of the Word as the Lord through the Word changed hearts and worked faith in everyone appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48). Faith comes “from the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel” (Lord’s Day 25, Q & A 65).
This ties in with the responsibility alluded to in Articles 28 and 29. “There is no salvation outside of” the church because the Voice of the Shepherd is heard in the Church. So one must join that church which preaches the Word of God faithfully and completely.
Holy Scripture does not speak of the sacraments nearly as often as it does of the Word. Repeatedly we read that the Levites taught, the prophets prophesied, Jesus proclaimed the good news, and the apostles preached; the pages of Scripture contain countless of their sermons. In comparison, the number of references to the sacraments is very few. Though this observation does not make the sacraments insignificant, it does put the Word and the sacraments into their proper relation. Vital to salvation is the Word (see above), not the sacraments. Let no one overvalue the sacraments.
Having said that, let no one undervalue the sacraments either. The Lord gave them for a distinct purpose. In humility of faith we need to embrace that purpose.
GOD’S SENSITIVITY TO OUR INSENSITIVITY
The Lord God approached Abraham in his old age with the remarkable promise of a covenant: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). The covenant God established with Abraham was a bond of love between Himself and this sinner, a promise to care richly for Abraham and enfold him with love and protection. Inherent in this wonderful covenant relation was the promise of children – made, we need to realize, to a man nearly 100 years old.
Human nature doubts the incredible and the wonderful. It was to be expected that Abraham would question the truthfulness of God’s covenant promises. For this reason God did more than give sinful Abraham simply a promise. God added: “Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:10,11). Abraham should have an abiding reminder of the truthfulness of God’s promise in the covenant. The reminder should involve drawing blood because a relation between a sinner and holy God is possible only through the atoning blood of another. The reminder should involve incision in this particular organ because the covenant promise included the gift of salvation through a Child that only God could supply – for the human race was no more able to bring forth a Savior than aged Abraham could bring forth a son. In the face of inevitable doubt, the sacrament of circumcision should function for Abraham and his offspring as a constant reminder of God’s covenant promises and faithfulness.
The same is true for me. Life knows so many struggles and trials, and with the trials come doubts about the truthfulness of God’s promises. Yet the Lord would not have us doubt. That is why He had me baptized many years ago when He claimed me for Himself in His covenant of grace. I do not recall my baptism, for I was too young to be aware. But the Lord in His mercy allows me to witness so many baptisms in the course of a given year. Each baptism I witness is a reminder to me of what God promised me at my baptism. So God, in the midst of life’s struggles and questions, reminds me again and again of my privileged status as a covenant child of God.
With deBres, the church echoes this care of God in His gift of sacraments. Says the church in Article 33: “We believe (ie, this is a confession of faith!) that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and infirmity, has ordained sacraments to seal His promises to us and to be pledges of His good will and grace towards us.” My God knows well that I have my doubts about His promises in the gospel; He knows about my struggles of faith. He knows that I question from time to time whether His promises are really valid for me in my circumstances, and He knows that at times I wonder whether God really loves me. By means of the sacraments God would confirm to me that He is sensitive to my “insensitivity and infirmity.” In His care for me, He has given pictures both to illustrate more clearly the message of the gospel and to certify to me that His Word is for me. What a love this God displays to me!
To appreciate God’s sensitivity to our insensitivity and infirmity, we need to highlight two aspects characterizing sacraments.
1) The Sacraments are signs.
Illustrations in a book are meant to communicate the same message as that conveyed by the words of the book. In a similar way, the sacraments communicate the same message as is conveyed by the preaching of God’s Word. By means of the sacraments it is as though the Lord paints a picture beside His Word in order to spell out to dull hearers what His Word is all about. Sacraments do not add to or subtract from the Word, but serve to complement the Word and illustrate it – for God is never confusing or contradictory in the messages He gives (though we may be deaf to hearing it, but that’s another matter). As the Church confesses in Lord’s Day 25: “both the Word and the sacraments [are] intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.”
2) The Sacraments are seals.
The purpose of a seal is to certify that something is true, real. Official documents such as passports contain a stamp or a seal in order to certify that they are not counterfeit but real. The sacraments are not just pictures to complement the Word, but they also certify that what God has said in His Word is true for me; they make the promise of the gospel personal. So the water of baptism is not sprinkled on a doll (so that I see a picture of washing away of sins), but is applied to the individual, to me – so that I am assured that my sins are washed away. Similarly, the bread of Lord’s Supper is not broken at the table and eaten by one man, but is given to each (mature) member of the congregation individually – in order to convince each member that Christ’s death was truly intended for one’s personal benefit.
By definition, one could receive the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision only once in a lifetime. God’s command concerning the Old Testament sacrament of Passover was that it be celebrated once per year (Leviticus 23:5). Yet this frequency did not mean that the people of Israel could not ‘use’ the sacraments more often. On the contrary, God’s intent in giving these sacraments was precisely to encourage His people in the struggles of daily living. So the saints of the Old Testament were repeatedly to use the gospel captured in their circumcision and in the Passover. They were to do so through daily reflection on the significance of the mark circumcision made in their flesh. Similarly, every supper gave opportunity to remember the glorious message of the Passover meal. Such use of the sacraments strengthened and encouraged God’s Old Testament people in their daily struggles.
The same is true for the church today in relation to the sacraments of the New Testament. One hears pleas that the sacrament of Lord’s Supper ought to be celebrated more frequently, perhaps even every Sunday. Yet we are not to confuse frequency of use with frequency of reception. By definition one receives the sacrament of baptism once only, and yet God intends us to use that sacrament daily. In Reformed Churches the Lord’s Supper is traditionally celebrated rather infrequently, but God intends us to use this sacrament daily too. One can receive a sacrament often without actually using it; one can also use a sacrament daily without receiving it over and over again. The focus needs to lie on the use, not on the frequency.
CHRIST INSTITUTED TWO SACRAMENTS
Christ instituted only two sacraments: baptism and holy supper. The Anabaptists of deBres’ day belittled the sacraments altogether, whereas the Roman Catholics insisted on seven. (They were baptism, confirmation, confession of sin, Lord’s Supper, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination to priesthood.) In reaction to this, deBres saw it necessary to conclude Article 33 with the words, “...we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Master has instituted for us, namely, two: the sacrament of baptism and the holy supper of Jesus Christ.” In subsequent articles we will uncover the biblical basis for these two sacraments.
Points for Discussion:
- How does the Lord work faith? What does this mean for the centrality of the preaching? What can be done today to ensure that there are sufficient preachers for our children in fifteen years’ time?
- Sacraments are signs and seals. In what way are they signs? In what say are they seals? Explain.
- Why did God give sacraments in the first place? What ‘weakness’ is God addressing?
- How can one ‘despise’ the sacraments?
- Does the difference between receiving the sacraments and using the sacraments.