How do Reformed Christians understand the sacraments?
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 1: The Sacraments Given For Our Weakness
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Mark 9:24: “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief!”
In the preaching of the Gospel, which is the chief means of grace, our God declares to us that we have full and free salvation in His Son, our crucified and risen Saviour, Jesus Christ. He promises to us who believe that He is our God for the sake of Christ; He pledges Himself to be our Father; and He promises us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Through believing we receive that salvation, and enjoy covenant fellowship with God.
But our God knows that we are weak. He remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). The truth of gracious salvation is so astounding, and our sins are so great, that we are tempted in our weakness to doubt, and even to tremble in fear. Has God really forgiven my sins, even mine?
With this reality of our weakness, the Belgic Confession begins its treatment of the sacraments: “Our gracious God on account of our weakness and infirmities hath ordained the sacraments for us …” The word sacrament is not found in the Bible, but that is true for many theological words. It comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means an oath or a pledge. A soldier would swear a sacramentum to his superiors; or litigants in a court case would deposit a sacramentum with the judge pending the court’s decision. One who gave a sacramentum was promising something. God has given us sacraments to confirm His promises to His church. We notice already that the sacraments are God’s gifts. They are not, in the first place, pledges which we make to God, but pledges which He makes to us.
God has already made us exceedingly precious promises. They come to us in the Gospel. But because of our weakness He has added sacraments to the Gospel promises to confirm them. Perhaps an illustration might help. In marriage a couple make promises to love, cherish and be faithful to one another. But to that promise they add a wedding ring. The ring is not the marriage, nor is it the promise. When husbands or wives take off their rings—to go swimming, let’s say—they are still married. But the ring on the finger is a constant reminder to married people of their marriage, a token of their love. And when an unmarried man looks at a woman’s hand and sees a wedding ring, he knows that she is married and he may not become romantically involved with her.
Thus it is with the sacraments. They are pledges or tokens of God’s faithful friendship. They are not added to the Word because the Word is insufficient, but because our faith is weak and faltering, and mixed with much unbelief and doubt. The sacraments are the wedding ring of Christ to His church. The church treasures these sacraments, jealously guards them, and uses them until her Bridegroom returns.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 2: Satisfied With Two Sacraments
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Mark 7:7: “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
It is a sad fact of church history that the gift of sacraments—the wedding ring or token of love and friendship which Christ has given to the church—has been an occasion of deep division and bitter dispute among Christians. One of the issues of disagreement between Roman Catholics and the churches of the Reformation is over the number of the sacraments.
Protestant churches believe that Christ has given us only two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Catholics have added five more—confirmation, penance, holy orders, matrimony and extreme unction. Three of these (confirmation, penance and extreme unction) are not found in the Bible; and two (holy orders [ordination of officebearers] and matrimony) are found in the Bible, but they are not sacraments.
A sacrament is not simply any ordinance or ceremony. Foot washing (John 13:14), for example, is not a sacrament; greeting with a holy kiss (II Cor. 13:12) is not a sacrament. A sacrament must be instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. Just as only the husband has the right to give the bride a wedding ring—and no other man is at liberty to give her another wedding ring, nor is she at liberty to make herself a wedding ring—so only the Heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, ordains sacraments. Not even the Apostles may ordain new sacraments for the church, much less the pope and his clergy. We have clear teaching that Christ instituted baptism (Matt. 28:19) and the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19; I Cor. 11:23-26). But where did Christ institute the five additional “sacraments” of Rome?
Rome’s view of salvation requires her to have many sacraments. For Rome sacraments are the chief way in which God gives grace, which is a kind of spiritual virtue worked in the heart which makes a person righteous. Thus grace itself is redefined by Rome! Grace in the Bible is unmerited favour, which comes to us by virtue of the finished work of Christ. Grace in Rome is spiritual virtue. The initial grace is unmerited, but further increases of grace are merited through a proper use of the sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) states, “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life (paragraph, 2010).
The Roman church is like a hospital which has various medicines for the soul. Rome offers a “cradle to grave” sacramental salvation plan. Each of the seven sacraments gives a kind of grace: justifying, sanctifying, strengthening grace, but this grace can be resisted and lost. However, Christ has never promised to give grace in these ways. The sacraments do not dispense grace as a doctor dispenses aspirin. The sacraments strengthen faith.
Rome’s additional sacraments are unnecessary. Baptism is a sign and seal of the beginning of covenant fellowship with God in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of that life which we enjoy within the covenant with God. We are baptised once and we feed on Christ by faith throughout our lives. We need nothing more. Therefore with the Belgic Confession we declare, “we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Lord hath instituted.”
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 3: The Seals of God’s Promises
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 4:11: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised …”
Sacraments are seals. We are all familiar with seals. Take some paper money out of your wallet and look at it carefully. It has a seal on it. This is a mark stamped on the money to prove to you that it is real, legal tender produced by the government. It is therefore not counterfeit money printed on a criminal’s printing press. Or look an official document—perhaps a letter from a government department, or a diploma issued by an accredited university. There will be a signature and a seal on that document, a stamp of authenticity. By looking at the seal you know that the document is genuine, not a forgery. Seals were also common in the ancient world. When a king sent a letter he would take off his signet ring, stamp it into wax and seal the letter. This would be a guarantee that the letter in question really came from the king; and an unbroken seal indicated that no one had tampered with the letter in transit. The contents of the letter could then be read and believed with confidence.
In Romans 4, we read that circumcision was a seal given to Abraham to strengthen Abraham’s faith in God’s promises. Before God gave the seal of circumcision, He had already given the promise, which Abraham had believed “yet being uncircumcised” (v. 11). In Genesis 15, two chapters and thirteen years before the institution of circumcision, Abraham “believed in the LORD and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Therefore, we know that Abraham was not saved through circumcision. He was saved by grace alone through faith alone in the righteousness of the coming Messiah. Circumcision was added later—thirteen years later—to confirm God’s promise to Abraham and to all God’s believing people in the Old Testament.
Circumcision, therefore, was to Abraham what New Testament sacraments are to us.
But we should remember that a seal by itself is meaningless and useless. A seal must seal or authenticate something! It would be absurd to place a stamp of authenticity on a blank piece of paper. That is effectively what is done when we elevate the sacraments above the Gospel; when we imagine that we can use sacraments without first believing the Gospel; and when we believe that we can replace the Gospel with the sacraments. That was the mistake made by many in Christ’s day who trusted in circumcision without believing the Gospel of grace. Without the Gospel promise circumcision is merely mutilation of the flesh. Without the Gospel promise our sacraments are meaningless rituals. What a wedding ring is without a marriage—a meaningless band of gold—the sacraments are without Jesus Christ and His promises in the covenant. But a wedding ring is precious to a bride, because it seals the bridegroom’s love to her. Thus we view the sacraments.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 4: Pledges of God’s Goodwill and Grace
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Genesis 17:11: “And it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.”
The sacraments cannot be understood without the covenant. There is much confusion about God’s covenant among Christians. Quite simply, God’s covenant is a relationship of friendship, a bond of fellowship which God makes with His elect people in Jesus Christ. It is not an agreement which depends on us, but a relationship with God brings about, establishes and preserves by His grace alone. When God makes the covenant He declares to His people, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is the covenant formula common in Scripture. In the covenant God promises to be a God to us, and to our children after us, in their generations, for an everlasting covenant. God promises to love us, to bless us, to forgive our sins, and to bring us into His own fellowship. God’s covenant is established by Jesus Christ, who shed His blood to make us the friends of God; and it is realised in time by the Holy Spirit who gives us the life of Christ and sheds God’s love abroad in our hearts.
God’s covenant—which, remember, is the relationship itself—comes to us with promises. Those promises are rich and gracious. Those promises come to us through the preaching of the Gospel. Those promises are for the elect—and their elect children—and are received by faith.
We must understand what a promise is. A promise is a solemn declaration that something will be done by another. God’s promise is His solemn declaration to give salvation to His people in Jesus Christ. God’s promise is absolutely certain because it is God’s promise. Many promises made by men are lies, or they are made with good intentions but for various reasons cannot be fulfilled. A father might promise his daughter that he will take her to the park, but then his car breaks down, it begins to rain and he is to break his promise. God’s promises are not like that, because God is never thwarted by circumstances outside of His control. God’s promise does not depend on us: He does not say, “I will give you salvation if you do …” A conditional promise is not certain; God’s unconditional promise is.
God desires that His covenant friends know, and are confident of, and therefore enjoy, His promises. Therefore, our merciful Father has, in addition to the preaching, given the sacraments “as pledges of His goodwill and grace toward us.” A pledge is a promise, a solemn, binding promise to do something. Think of charity pledges: when a man pledges a sum of money to a charity during a fundraiser he promises to pay that sum of money to the charity. The charity can therefore be confident of the goodwill of that person to give. The sacraments are given as pledges. Do you want extra assurance, that God is really your God and that He will really do the things He has promised? Then use the sacraments with faith.
Notice that the sacraments are not pledges of what we will do for God, or of what we have done. That is the error of many. Sacraments are the pledges of what God will do for us and of what He has done. The sacraments come to us from our gracious God. How could we then doubt His goodwill and grace toward us?
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 5: The Sacraments Nourishing Our Faith
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Luke 17:5: “And the apostles said unto the Lord, increase our faith”
What is the relationship between the sacraments and faith? Remember what faith is: a spiritual bond which the Spirit creates in our hearts uniting us to Jesus Christ; and that activity whereby we receive for truth everything which God has revealed in His Word and lean in confidence upon Christ alone for all our salvation. We do not work faith in ourselves. The Spirit does. Therefore, we believe that faith is the “gift of God” (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). God works that faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel. There we hear about Christ, and there we hear the very voice of Christ.
Sacraments, then, do not create faith in the hearts of unbelievers. And for that reason sacraments are of no spiritual benefit to unbelievers at all. On the contrary, sacraments, which are pledges of God’s goodwill and grace to us, only serve to harden unbelievers in their sins, and thus they increase their condemnation.
This truth of the Reformed Faith is the antithesis of the Roman Catholic view of sacraments. In Rome the sacraments work more or less automatically. The Latin phrase by which Rome expresses this is ex opere operato. These words mean “from the work done.” The idea is that the sacrament is effective by virtue of the performance of the act of administrating it. Therefore, although faith is useful and beneficial, it is not necessary for the sacrament to give grace. Roman Catholics believe that every sacrament gives grace as long as the recipient does not willfully resist God. This view was developed to assure the people that the sacrament does not depend on the holiness or good intention of the priest administering it, but in practice it has come to mean that sacraments dispense automatic grace to all who partake of them, no matter how wicked they might be.
Automatic grace in every sacrament! With this view of sacraments the preaching of the Gospel—by which God works faith in us (Rom. 10:17) —becomes unnecessary. Why have preaching when you can go through a sacramental rite and thus receive grace? Preaching, especially doctrinal preaching which imparts the true knowledge of God, falls by the wayside. But Peter writes, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (II Pet. 3:18). The idea is “grow in grace by growing in knowledge.”
Sacraments cannot dispense automatic, easy grace the way a pharmacist dispenses aspirin. Sacraments are for believers who desire to have their faith strengthened and nourished. Unbelievers may not use the sacraments. They must repent and believe, and then join the church and use the sacraments for the increase of faith.
God nourishes our faith through the sacraments, not by directing our faith to the sacraments themselves, but by directing our faith to Christ crucified who is set forth both in preaching and in the sacraments. Anything that diverts our eyes from Christ is not only not a means to strengthen faith but is spiritually harmful.
Let us use the sacraments—but only in faith!
Belgic Confession, Article 33 Day 6: Sacraments Joined to the Word
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Hebrews 6:17: “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath.”
Yesterday, we looked at the relationship between the sacraments and faith. Faith is closely connected to the Word—“faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). But, how are sacraments connected to the Word? The Belgic Confession explains the relationship thus: “[God] hath joined [the sacraments] to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses.”
The Word comes by hearing. Although we see the minister while he preaches, the primary way in which we receive the Word is through our ears. The sacraments appeal to our other senses, especially to our sight, but also to our sense of taste, touch and even smell. We see the element of water sprinkled in baptism and the elements of bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper broken and poured out; and we taste and handle these elements of the Lord’s Supper. These are added to the Word as an additional confirmation of what God teaches us in the Gospel.
But imagine that a person walks into our worship service near the end just as the minister is sprinkling water on the candidate for baptism or is distributing pieces of bread and the cup of wine. Imagine that that person has never heard of Christianity, has never opened a Bible, and has never heard a sermon in his life. Will he have any inkling of what is going on? In other words, are the sacraments—which are so meaningful and rich to us who have heard and believed the Word—not meaningless without the Word to explain them? That is why we insist as Reformed churches that the sacraments be administered in the public assemblies of God’s people, on the Lord’s Day, in a worship service, accompanied by preaching. That is why we have the practice of reading a liturgical form—the Form for the Administration of Baptism or the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper—when we use the sacraments. These two forms contain a wealth of solid instruction on what the sacraments are.
Moreover, the sacraments do not teach us anything which the Word does not teach us. It is not that the Word teaches us the Gospel, and the sacraments give us something extra. Both the Word and the sacraments give us Christ, but in different ways. The sacraments are not something mysterious for the hyper spiritual or the “initiated.” Every believer may and should partake of the sacraments.
Finally, the sacraments never teach us anything contrary to the Word of the Gospel. It is not true, for example, that the Gospel teaches us salvation by particular, sovereign, efficacious grace, and then the sacraments contradict that message by teaching us that salvation is by works. There is and must be harmony between the message of the Gospel and the sacraments. Thus we see the close connection between the Word and the sacraments as marks of the true church. When the preaching is unfaithful, the administration of the sacraments will be corrupted. But where the true Gospel is preached, and the sacraments are faithfully administered according to the same Word of God, there God blesses the means of grace to our hearts.
Belgic Confession, Article 33 Day 7: The Sacraments Appealing to Our Senses
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 34:8: “O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”
Some have complained that Reformed Christianity is so centered on the Word of God, on hearing the preaching, that we neglect the other senses of the believer. This, of course, is not true. The Lord knows that we are creatures who see, taste, touch and smell. In the Old Testament the worship was sensual, that is, it appealed to the senses. The New Testament is less so. The primary organ is the ear.
However, God has not neglected our other senses. This does not mean that we need to invent sensual ways to worship God. We will not, for example, be using images as books to the laity; we do not need overhead projectors or power point presentations to enhance our worship. We will not add drama, sketches and skits, or puppet shows to teach (or entertain) our congregations; nor do we need elaborately decorated sanctuaries or sweet-smelling incense to improve our experience of salvation.
But the Lord has given us “visual aids.” They are called the sacraments. And since God has ordained them, we know that they are truly “visual aids,” that is things which we can see (“visual”) which truly do help (“aids”) us to understand spiritual realities. God has promised to help our infirmities through these things, not through things we might invent to titillate our senses. God has not promised to strengthen faith through images, dramas or liturgical dances. In fact, God is offended at human innovations in His worship.
Consider what beautiful aids God has given us. In baptism we see water being applied to a little baby or to an adult convert. This teaches us that, just as water washes away the filth of the body, so the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away the filth of sin. In the Lord’s Supper we see the loaf of bread being broken, and we see the red wine being poured out. And we are immediately reminded of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross which is our very salvation. And then we take the bread, we handle it, we smell it and we taste it; and we taste, smell and swallow the wine. These very simple actions teach us a profound truth: just as by eating and drinking bread and wine we are nourished physically, so by eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus Christ by faith we are nourished spiritually unto eternal life.
Let us use these visual aids—and no other—in the church of Jesus Christ.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 8: Visible Signs
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Isaiah 7:11: “Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God: ask it either in the depth or in the height above.”
The most complete definition of sacraments given in the Belgic Confession is that they are “visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing.” We have already examined what a seal is—the guarantee of the authenticity of something. In reference to the sacraments, they are seals, because they are God’s stamp of authenticity, confirming what He has already promised in His Word.
Sacraments are also signs. A sign is a some visible object or action which points to a higher reality, which, in the case of the sacraments, is a spiritual, invisible reality. A sign is also a message without words. We have all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” A sign (a picture) can communicate a message without using words. Many road signs are like this: they have no words but every driver instantly recognises what they mean. Other signs have words but still point to a higher reality. Take a sign pointing towards the airport. It tells you in which direction the airport is; and usually how far away it is. If you follow the sign you will arrive at your desired destination.
The Gospel is a message of invisible, spiritual realities in words. Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, sits at the Right Hand of the Father; we cannot see the blood of Christ which was shed for our salvation; and the Holy Spirit who applies the blood of Christ to us, thus cleansing us from our sins, is invisible. None of us have ever seen any of those things. The Gospel proclaims the truth of our salvation—and especially the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ—and the sacraments signify it, or make it known to us by signs.
The Lord has given two signs. The first, baptism, is the sign of the washing away of our sins. It has other meanings too, because all of God’s signs are rich signs, but washing is its primary meaning. When the water of baptism is applied to a baby or to an adult convert in the public worship service by an ordained man who preaches the Word, baptism is a sign of the washing away of sins. We “see” by faith the washing away of our sins as we contemplate the sacrament. But when you take a shower, that is not a sign of the washing away of your sins. That is not baptism—it has not been designed by God to picture the washing away of your sins and to seal the same by the Holy Spirit who strengthens faith in your heart. The second, the Lord’s Supper, is a sign of Christ feeding our souls by His crucified body and shed blood by faith. But, perhaps you eat a large meal at home and are greatly nourished by that. That is not a sacrament—by that Christ does not feed you with His crucified body and shed blood. Not all washings and not all meals are sacraments.
These signs are designed—as we shall see—to direct our faith away from ourselves to the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished for our salvation on the cross.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 9: What Sacraments Signify
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Hebrews 12:2: “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith …”
According to the Belgic Confession the sacraments are signs of mainly two things: “that which [God] signifies to us by His Word, and that which He works inwardly in our hearts.” Here, again, we see a beautiful harmony between Word and sacrament. What the Word proclaims, the sacraments signify and seal.
Our salvation is both objective and subjective.
By objective we mean that which is done outside of us and is done for us. Christ died on the cross for us; He rose again for our justification. This truth of what Christ has done for us is signified and sealed to us in the two sacraments. The sacraments teach us about the whole of our salvation. We see in baptism a beautiful picture of the removal of the guilt, filth and pollution of our sins. Water washes away dirt; the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away sin. In the Lord’s Supper, God gives us another picture: as the minister breaks the bread and pours out the wine, we see a picture of the awful sufferings of our Saviour on the cross. “This is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me” (I Cor. 11:24).
By subjective we mean that which is done in us, what the Spirit works in our hearts. The sacraments signify and seal unto us that invisible, spiritual life which we have in Christ. Titus 3:5 speaks, for example, of “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” And in the Supper, the Spirit signifies and seals that invisible, spiritual nourishment of our souls as we feed by faith on Jesus Christ. That is, the sacraments teach us about sanctification.
All of this shows us that the sacraments are signs and seals of what God does, not of what we do. Baptism is, among other things, a sign of our entering the kingdom of God. We do not enter it by an act of our own, but by the gracious act of God “who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated as into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13). It is also a sign of our being buried into Christ and our being raised again with Him (Rom. 6:3-4). But we do not bury ourselves into Christ, nor do we raise ourselves from spiritual death. Everything is the gracious work of our God. For this reason we reject the notions of those who teach that baptism is primarily a testimony to what we do in receiving Jesus as Saviour. Some have even said that baptism is a visible sign of an invisible decision! Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let us, then, understand what the sacraments signify, and receive that by faith.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 10: The Spirit’s Work in the Sacraments
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
John 3:8: “Thou canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.”
The sacraments are real means of grace because the Holy Spirit is pleased to strengthen faith by them. Without the Holy Spirit the sacraments are nothing and do nothing. Moreover, the preaching and the sacraments are the only means which the Holy Spirit has promised to use. Fanatics and hyper-spirituals despise these means to their own hurt. Those who neglect church membership and a diligent use of means cannot expect to thrive spiritually. We must not expect, therefore, to grow in grace by going for strolls in the forest or gazing at the ocean, thus “getting close to God through nature.” We do expect to grow in grace—and with good reason because God has promised it—by using the Word and sacraments.
How the Spirit works in the sacraments is still in many ways mysterious. We can rule out a few errors in this connection. There is no inherent power in the elements of water, bread and wine to impart any spiritual benefit to us. The sacraments do not work like magic. We reject all forms of “sacramental sorcery.” The Spirit does not work in the water to give it magical, sin-cleansing properties. Nor does He so take hold of the bread and wine as to change them into something else—the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Moreover, as we have seen, the sacraments do not dispense grace automatically. At the same time, their efficacy does not depend on our faith. God’s work never depends on our work. On the contrary, we depend on God for the beginning, strengthening and continuance of our faith. Christ is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
At the same time, we must resist the temptation to say that the sacraments are mere signs. This was the error of Zwingli, one of the earliest Reformers. He overreacted to Rome’s errors and stripped the sacraments of their meaning. For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper was only a remembrance but Christ is not present in any sense. The sacraments, then, were not means of grace—they did not nourish and strengthen faith. How could they, if they did not bring Christ? The Belgic Confession warns against an impoverished view of the sacraments: ‘the signs are not in vain or insignificant so as to deceive us.” Will a man give his bride a wedding ring of fool’s gold? How much less will our God give us empty sacraments with no substance.
The Spirit, in a way which surpasses our understanding, takes hold of ordinary water, bread and wine, and so works in them that by them He strengthens and nourishes our faith by directing us more and more to Jesus Christ. Does He need the sacraments to do this? Not at all. Nevertheless, He is pleased to use them. Let us, then, not be wiser than God by despising these gifts of His grace.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 11: The Sacramental Union
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 10:4: “They drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ…”
In our treatment of the sacraments we have seen various relationships. We have examined the relationship between the sacraments and faith—the sacraments strengthen preexisting faith; we have noted the relationship between sacraments and the Word—the sacraments are added to the Word to confirm its promises, and depend upon the Word to explain them; we have set forth the relationship between the sacraments and the Holy Spirit —the Holy Spirit is pleased to operate through the sacraments to make them real means of grace. Now we look at something called the “sacramental union.” That theological term does not appear in the Belgic Confession, but much confusion in connection with the sacraments will be avoided if we make note of it here.
By sacramental union we mean that there is a definite relationship between the sign (the sacrament) and the thing signified (the reality of covenant salvation in Jesus Christ). The relationship is not one of identity. That would mean that the sign is the thing signified, that the water of baptism is the washing away of sins itself—or even the blood and Spirit of Christ—and that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are spiritual nourishment—or Christ’s actual flesh and blood. If the relationship were identity, we would have no sign, only the thing signified. A sign points to something else—it is not that thing to which it points. How foolish would a man be to park his car beside a sign of an airplane, and imagine that he had arrived at the airport! Equally foolish are those who imagine that the sacraments are what they signify.
Instead, the sacramental union means that, because of the close connection or association between the sign and the thing signified, the one is called after the name of the other. This is rather common in Scripture, but it ought not confuse us. God speaks this way with respect to Old Testament ordinances: “My covenant shall be in your flesh” (Gen. 17:13); “Christ our Passover is sacrificed” (I Cor. 5:7); “The Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4). Because of the close “sacramental union” circumcision is called the covenant, and both the Rock and Passover are called Christ. The same is true of the New Testament sacraments: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20); and “the washing of regeneration” (Tit. 3:5). We know, of course, that neither the cup itself nor the contents of the cup are the testament; and we know that the water of baptism is not regeneration. We do not confuse the sign with the thing signified or the sign with the reality.
Failure to appreciate this sacramental union language of Scripture leads to the deadly errors of Rome, for, as we shall see, Rome does teach that baptism really washes away sin, and that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ in a kind of magical way. Relationships are important, especially relationships in theology.
Let there be no confusion, therefore. Let us use the sacraments without superstition but to our edification and growth in grace.
Belgic Confession, Article 33; Day 12: Christ, The True Object of the Sacraments
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Song of Solomon 1:2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.”
The sacraments point to Christ and to His perfect work. The sacraments are holy pledges of Christ’s eternal love to His church —more than once we have called them the wedding ring of the heavenly Bridegroom to the bride, the church. Other theologians have called the sacraments the kiss of Christ. These are all beautiful expressions.
But what bride would be so focused on the wedding ring on her finger as to neglect the Bridegroom Himself? The wedding ring has no meaning at all without the Bridegroom who gives it. Therefore, the sacraments must never be used to draw the devotion of the bride away from Christ, but always to deepen the ardent love and passionate longing of the bride for the Bridegroom.
The Bible tells us that as soon as the church was espoused to Christ the Bridegroom left her to go to heaven. This was not cruel abandonment of the church by Christ. He ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us; and He will be absent from His bride for a short while until everything is ready—once all the elect are gathered, and all the enemies of our Lord are defeated, then Christ shall return to consummate the marriage and the eternal marriage supper of the Lamb shall take place (Rev. 19:9). In the meantime, the bride of Christ must remain faithful to Him. She does this by heeding His voice in the preaching. How the voice of the Bridegroom thrills the heart of the bride! But she also has the sacraments to confirm her —that wedding ring which is a constant reminder to her of that precious relationship with the heavenly Bridegroom. When she meditates upon the promises of Christ by looking at the ring she says, “I am married. My Lord has promised to return. I will be faithful to Him.” What comfort and assurance her wedding ring is to her on those long lonely days when the Bridegroom is absent!
Thus everything which the church does must lead her to Christ. The sacraments are part of this. Without Christ and our covenant relationship with Christ the sacraments are meaningless and empty. But the sacraments are not given to us “to deceive us,” says the Belgic Confession. How so? “Jesus Christ is the true object presented in them, without whom they would be of no moment.” The sacraments, in beautiful but mysterious ways, point to Christ, and to His work on the cross, and in this way, by the power of the Spirit, they strengthen our weak and faltering faith, as we wait for our Bridegroom to return.
What a gift God has given in the sacraments!
What a gift God has given in the sacraments!