A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without. (Westminster Larger Catechism #162)
When considering God’s ordinary means of grace, or his usual way of teaching and applying his work of redemption to his people, the sacraments can be thought more mysterious than preaching and prayer. However, by understanding sacraments a bit better we can more clearly see God’s purpose in them, which is no different than preaching or prayer.
A sacrament, by its very nature is a ritual commanded by Christ for observance in his church until he returns. Matt. 28:19-20 instructs the church to baptize and 1 Cor. 11:26 teaches the church to proclaim Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper until he comes. Christ gives these two sacraments so, through the outward sign of what is represented, the inward reality would be taught. He did not give them for superstitious value. In other words, the Christian’s confidence is not found in baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Instead, the sacraments serve as a visible display of the gospel, to supplement and augment the benefits of Christ’s work as our mediator declared in his word.
Baptism is a membership ritual. However, it is not so in the way often understood today. Baptism is not so much a statement about the recipient as it is about the work of God in that person to himself. Baptism signifies the washing away of the filth of sin, or the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers. Certainly, to receive baptism as an adult does accompany a profession of faith, but it is through God’s regenerating work that this faith is possible. That is why baptism should only be offered to any person only one time. God does not regenerate us often, but only once. Remember the thing signified and it will guide how you practice the external sign.
The Lord’s Supper is more a profession of faith for the believer. The participant ostensibly adds his “Amen!” to the redeeming work of the broken body and shed blood of Christ. Because the Lord’s Supper signifies a confirmation of faith in Christ’s work, it is essential that participants are members of Christ’s church and profess faith in him. Each participant should ensure he is not despising the work of Christ through presumptuous sin. He should examine his commitment to follow Christ. He should ask God to relieve him of his spiritual weaknesses. An honest self-examination ensures the confession made through the participation in the supper is not hypocritical or flippant.
The things signified in the sacraments are mysterious. They are simply a restatement of the biblical gospel doctrines. Therefore, how God through them is no more mysterious than how he does through the word or prayer. Preaching is described as folly by the unbeliever (Cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). That is because they do not receive it with faith. Reciting rote prayers void of faith is no act of worship. However, when by faith we hear and pray, God works graciously in us. So it is with the sacraments. When we eat and drink, or water poured on our heads is met with faith, God graciously strengthens his people’s understanding of the benefits of Christ’s gracious work of redemption.
Questions to consider:
- What is signified in each sacrament?
- Look up the passages of institution for each sacrament and discuss Christ’s institution of each.
- How is the communication of grace through the sacraments similar to the word and/or prayer?