Dear Church Family,
As we come to chapter 27 (“Of the Sacraments”) in our most recent adult Sunday school class, we come to the first of three chapters in the Westminster Confession of Faith that deal with the sacraments. Each of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper) receive their own chapter, but we begin with this chapter which first gives a general theology and understanding of the sacraments.
This is an important chapter for the life of the church, and the life of the individual Christian in the church, because it explains what sacraments are; and it also corrects many misnomers that people have. Before we delve into the teaching of this confession, however, it might be helpful to give a brief overview of some of the basic views of the sacraments that one might find in the church today. Generally speaking, there are four views of the sacraments with respect to the efficacy of the grace conferred in them:
(1) Sacraments are salvific (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox)
(2) Sacraments confer a different grace than the ministry of the Word (Lutheran)
(3) Sacraments are signs and seals of God’s grace (Reformed)
(4) Sacraments are mere memorials of God’s grace and a testimony of an individual’s faith (Baptist and others)
There may be other nuanced views, and some who hold to these various views may argue that this is an oversimplification. Perhaps it is, but it is a helpful summary by which one can quickly see the range of views. Now, let’s consider the teaching of the Westminster Confession on this topic:
WCF 27.1 – The Definition and Purposes of Sacraments
The confession gives a two-part definition of the sacraments. First, they are “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace.” This is the terminology that the Apostle Paul uses to speak of circumcision in the old covenant (Romans 4:9-12). Since circumcision in the old covenant and baptism in the new covenant both point to the same spiritual reality of regeneration (Colossians 2:9-12), we may apply this definition to the sacraments of the new covenant. Second, the two sacraments of the new covenant were “immediately [without a mediator] instituted by God” (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23).
The confession then gives four purposes of the sacraments: (1) they are illustrative (they “represent Christ, and His benefits,” 1 Corinthians 11:25); (2) they are assuring (they “confirm our interest in Christ,” Galatians 3:27); (3) they are distinctive (they “put a visible difference between those that belong to the Church and the rest of the world,” Exodus 12:48); and (4) they are exhortative (they “solemnly engage Christians to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word,” Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:16).
WCF 27.2 – Sacramental Union in Scripture
“In this second paragraph the confession is really offering a manual for the right reading of scriptural terminology” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 360). We may summarize the teaching of this paragraph this way: the sign (the rite, or act) and the thing signified (the spiritual reality) are closely united such that in Scripture, the words and the concepts are used interchangeably. That is to say, sometimes in the Bible, the ritual act – whether it be circumcision, baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc. – is spoken of to refer to the spiritual reality to which it points (e.g. Genesis 17:10; Matthew 26:27; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21).
WCF 27.3 – The Efficacy of the Sacraments
In this chapter, the confession explains how sacraments don’t work, and then how they do work. In explaining how they don’t work, the confession refutes two doctrines that are part and parcel to the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacraments: (1) the graciousness and efficacy of the sacraments in not conferred by the sign itself (contra the doctrine of sacramentalism which teaches that there is inherent power in the sign); (2) the graciousness and efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the piety or intention of the person who administers them (contra the doctrine of sacerdotalism which teaches that there is inherent power in the priest).
In explaining how sacraments do work, the confession teaches that the graciousness and efficacy of the sacraments is conferred based upon three things: (1) the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; John 3:7-8); (2) the word of institution (Matthew 26:27-28; 28:19-20); and (3) the worthiness of the receiver, that is, a person who has faith (Matthew 10:11-14; John 1:12-13).
WCF 27.4 – The Number of Sacraments and Who May Administer Them
Two sacraments were instituted by Christ: baptism (Matthew 28:19-20) and the Lord’s supper (Luke 22:19). And, they are only to be dispensed (or administered) by a lawfully ordained minister of the Word (Ephesians 4:11-13; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Corinthians 4:1).
WCF 27.5 – Sacraments in the Old and New Testaments
Since there is one covenant of grace that is differently administered in the Old and New Testaments (WCF 7.6), the sacraments of the Old Testament (circumcision and the Passover meal) and the sacraments of the New Testament (baptism and the Lord’s supper) are substantially the same in that they all point to Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
As we have seen, the confession directly addresses the problematic and unbiblical view of the sacraments that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. At the same time, through its positive statements about the meaning and purposes of the sacraments, the confession also refutes the equally unbiblical notion that the sacraments are merely a memorial of God’s grace and testimony of an individual’s faith.
In condescending to His Church, the Lord has lovingly given us the gifts of the sacraments as means of grace. They are signs and seals of the covenant of grace. When understood and administered properly, they are important means for every believer to grow in his or her faith.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch