WCF 27: The Sacraments

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).

Conclusion

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

WCF 26: The Communion of Saints

Dear Church Family,

Years ago, when I began these midweek church emails and “Reflections from the Pastor,” I gave some thought as to what to use as an address and as a signature. I decided upon “Dear Church Family” and “In Christ” as these seemed to be an appropriate reminder of the fact that we as believers in Christ and in the church are part of a spiritual family. We are a “Church Family” precisely because we are united to Christ (“in Christ”) and thus united to one another.

This union with Christ and with one another was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class on chapter 26 (“Of the Communion of Saints”) from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 26.1 – Union with Christ and with one another

In describing “the communion of saints,” the confession begins by pointing out that all saints, by faith, are united to Jesus Christ, their Head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). Thus, they have fellowship with Him in His graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 5:4). For John Calvin, union with Christ was of the utmost importance (for the believer’s experience as well as for his understanding):

…I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good unless Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts – in short, that mystical union – are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.10)

 

As a result of our union with Christ, all saints are thereby united with one another in love (1 Corinthians 12:7; Philippians 2:1-4). On a side note, we know from Scripture that marriage is a temporal institution and not eternal (Matthew 22:30), but the bond that Christians share through union with Christ lasts forever (Ephesians 2:5-6). No doubt Jonathan Edwards was thinking of this difference between the bond of marriage and the spiritual union of believers, when he beautifully wrote to his wife, “give my kindest leave to my dear wife and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long existed between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever; and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God.”

As a consequence of our being spiritually united to one another, all saints are obliged to help and serve one another in inward and outward ways. Inwardly (or spiritually), we are to encourage and admonish one another, help the weak, be patient with everyone, and gather together for worship as God’s people (1 Thessalonians 5:11-14; Hebrews 10:23-25). Outwardly, we are also to help one another with physical needs, loving one another in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16).

WCF 26.2 – The practice and extent of the communion of saints

Those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with God in worship (Hebrews 10:23-25). We are also bound to maintain holy fellowship and communion with one another in service, as was the practice of the early church in their sharing of goods and possessions with one another (Acts 2:42-47). Believers are not only bound to one another in their local congregations, but also to all the saints everywhere (1 John 3:17). Thus, in the early church, believers gave toward the relief of other believers from other parts of the world, even though they had never met them (2 Corinthians 8-9).

Reflecting on two passages from the Gospel of John (13:34-35; 17:20), Francis Schaeffer remarked, “Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.” (Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian)

WCF 26.3 – What the communion of the saints is not

This chapter of the confession on the communion of the saints concludes with two points of clarification. The first clarification deals with our communion with Christ: union with Christ is not deifying (it does not make the believer a partaker of the substance of the Godhead or equal with Christ in any way (Isaiah 42:8; 1 Corinthians 8:6)). The second clarification deals with our communion with one another: union with one another does not necessitated communalism; that is, one does not lose his right to own property, goods, and possessions (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Conclusion

This last point helps to balance out the teaching of Scripture concerning our obligations to one another as believers in Christ. As we have seen, the Scriptures teach that all saints are bound to one another in love and therefore obliged to help one another in both inward and outward needs. Yet, there ought to be a voluntary desire on the part of the believer to do so; there is to be no forceful coercion or the taking of one’s property in the name of the church (Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 8:11-14). As G.I. Williamson writes:

In history there have been many attempts by Christians to create societies in which all things are common, including the possession of goods and property. Scripture warrant for such is sought in the book of Acts, which says that ‘all who believed were together, and had all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). Concerning this, three comments may be made. First, there is no indication that this practice was commanded by God as normative for believers. Second, there is evidence that even at that time the right of private property was still recognized by the apostles (Acts 5:4). And finally, this attempt at communal property did not work out satisfactorily even in the Apostolic Church (Acts 6:1). (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 257-258).

 

Thus, this fellowship and communion of the saints in the visible church is a “voluntary obligation.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 25: The Church

Dear Church Family,

Evangelical Christians have, especially of late, been quite outspoken in the defense of the institution of marriage. We want the civil government and our society to recognize and maintain the biblical definition of marriage as being a contract or covenant bond between one man and one woman. Personally, I find it sadly ironic, however, that view of many Christians about the institution of the church are not nearly as well thought out, or passionately held.

Do we believe that as long as two people love each other and live together that that should rightfully be called a marriage? Do we believe that when two people privately profess their undying love to one another that that constitutes a marriage? Barring the ‘what if two people are stranded alone on a desert island’ scenario, I don’t know of any Bible-believing Christian who believes this way. The reason is because we believe that there is such a thing as a formal institution called ‘marriage’ in which two people recognize the authority of the church and/or the state to say who is married and who is not. Christians have been defending this formal institution of marriage for some time now, but it seems that we may have already lost the battle for the institution of the church. Fewer and fewer Christians believe that the institution of the church is important or relevant at all anymore.

That’s where the chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful. This past Sunday, we studied this chapter by way of a summarizing what the Bible teaches concerning ecclesiology, the study of the doctrine of the church.

WCF 25.1 – The Invisible Church

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the invisible church as “the whole number of the elect.” Thus, the invisible church includes all those who will be gathered together at Christ’s second coming at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Mark 13:26-27; Revelation 19:7-9).

WCF 25.1 – The Visible Church

The visible church consists of all those that “profess the true religion; and of their children.” This biblical definition of the visible church as described in this paragraph may be summarized under five headings:

(1) The Scope of the Visible Church (where it is): like the invisible church, the visible church is also catholic (or universal); it’s not confined to one nation as it was in the old covenant, but in the new covenant includes people from throughout the world (Galatians 3:28-29).

(2) The Sphere of the Visible Church (who it is): the visible church includes all of those who outwardly profess the true religion, or faith in Christ and their children (Acts 2:37-39; 1 Corinthians 7:14).

(3) The Sovereignty of the Visible Church (what power it has): this visible gathering together of God’s people is called “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” over which Christ is the King and Sovereign (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 13:46-40).

(4) The Sonship of the Visible Church (how it’s related): this visible church is also called in Scripture, the house and family of God (Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 10:19-21).

(5) The Salvation of the Visible Church (the ordinary place of salvation): In the Bible, whenever someone turned to Christ for salvation, they were immediately “added to the number” (Acts 2:41-47). A “lone-ranger Christian” or a “hermit Christian” is an oxymoron.

The distinction between the invisible church and the visible church is an important one, but we must also remember that we are not speaking of two separate churches, but one church viewed from two different perspectives. We might describe these two different perspectives by way of an illustration. When you and I look at a building with the naked eye, we can only see the outward appearance; however, when Superman looks at that same building using his x-ray vision, he can see not only the outward appearance, but also the infrastructure and the true nature of the building.

In a similar way, the distinction between the invisible and the visible church is one of perspective. When we look upon the church, we can only see the outward appearance (those who profess faith and their children); however, when God looks at that same church, He can see not only the outward appearance, but also the true nature of His church – not only those who outwardly profess the true religion and their children, but those whom He has chosen and called.

WCF 25.3 – The Mission and Gifts of the Visible Church

The mission (or purpose) of the visible church is simple: to gather and perfect the saints in this life to the end of the world. This mission is succinctly summarized and stated in what is often referred to as Jesus’ ‘great commission’ to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

The gifts that God has given to the visible church for the accomplishment of this mission are of three kinds:

(1) Ministry: evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, deacons (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 3).

(2) Oracles: the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

(3) Ordinances: the preaching of the Word, along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

God ordains and blesses these gifts to effectually gather and perfect His saints by His own presence and Spirit (John 15:26-27).

WCF 25.4 – The Purity of the Visible Church

In the letters to the seven churches in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 2-3), we have detailed instructions and exhortations regarding what Christ desires for His church, what He defines as that which is pure and that which is impure. In summarizing and leaning heavily on these chapters from the book of Revelation, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that there are three biblical criteria by which we may evaluate the purity of particular (or individual) churches:

(1) The doctrine of the Gospel that is taught and embraced in it.

(2) The purity of the administration of ordinances (the sacraments).

(3) The purity of the performance of public worship.

WCF 25.5 – The Mixture of the Visible Church

The invisible church, because it is comprised of God’s elect, is pure; however, until Christ’s return, the visible church will always be subject to mixture and error (Matthew 13:24-30). There are no perfect churches, but all are on a continuum of being more or less pure. And, some churches have become so corrupt and degenerated such that they cease to be true churches at all; the Bible calls such churches “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). Yet, there will always be a church on earth, a remnant (Matthew 16:18; 24:21-22).

WCF 25.6 – The Head of the Church

While God has given certain offices for ministry in the church (see WCF 25.3, above), there is only one head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:13-18).

Conclusion

This doctrine of the church – and its importance in Scripture and in the life of the believer – has fallen on hard times in our age of individualism and anti-institutionalism. For further reading on this important, but much neglected topic, I recommend this online article by Michael Glodo: Sola Ecclesia: The Lost Reformation Doctrine.

And, here are several books that I highly recommend, as well: The Enduring Community: Embracing the Priority of the Church by Brian Habig and Les Newsom; What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert; and The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel by Stuart Robinson (a helpful review of this last book may be found online here).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 24: Marriage and Divorce

Dear Church Family,

Throughout history, many have questioned the proper place and role of the institution of marriage. In our day, marriage – as ordained by God in the Scriptures – has come under attack with a renewed vigor. So, it is helpful to be reminded of what the Bible teaches about the special place of marriage and its purposes. This past Sunday, we studied this topic in chapter 24 (“Of Marriage and Divorce”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 24.1 – The Definition of Marriage

Marriage is to be between one man and one woman. This is how it’s been from the beginning (Genesis 2:18-25), and was confirmed by Christ in the New Testament (Matthew 19:4-6). Polygamy is condemned in Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:14-17; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). And, this definition of marriage precludes any notion of “same-sex unions.” In the Scripture, homosexuality is clearly defined as sin (Genesis 18:20, 19:4-7, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-11). I’ve written previously on what our Biblical responses to the current attack on marriage ought to look like and the ‘givenness of human nature.’ You may also read our denomination’s official response to the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage” here.

WCF 24.2 – The Purposes of Marriage

While we may speak of the many benefits of marriage, including its illustration of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:22-33), the confession lists three specific purposes of marriage: (1) the mutual help of husband and wife, or helpful companionship (Genesis 2:18); (2) the raising up of godly children (Malachi 2:14-16; Acts 2:39); and (3) sexual protection (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).

WCF 24.3 – Who Marriage Is For

The blessing of marriage is a gift for all peoples, for unbelievers and believers alike (1 Timothy 4:1-2), and the institution of marriage should be held in honor among everyone (Hebrews 13:4). It is for all who are able with judgment to give their consent (Genesis 24:57-58).

For believers – and especially for those who “profess the true reformed religion” – they are only to marry and be joined to other believers (Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 2 Corinthians 6:14). This is why the confession warns against believers marrying with “infidels, papists, or other idolaters.” To some, this may seem like overly harsh language, but as G.I. Williamson points out:

It may be argued that a person could conceivably be a true believer and yet be an adherent of a false religion. We believe that this is a false abstraction. A person’s faith is not to be judged part from his profession and walk, and in this case the profession and walk would be contrary to the judgment that he is a believer. We cannot so separate between personal and corporate responsibility. (The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 237-238)

 

WCF 24.4 – The Parameters of Marriage

The teaching of this paragraph is simple: incest is sin. Or, as the confession puts it, “Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the word” (Leviticus 18:6-9; 1 Corinthians 5:1).

WCF 24.5 – Adultery, Divorce, and Remarriage

There are some who teach that the bond of marriage is insoluble. Yet, while it is true that the Lord hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), there are certain instances in which there are legitimate and biblical grounds for divorce. Adultery or fornication is grounds to dissolve an engagement to be married (Matthew 1:18-20); and, adultery after marriage is grounds for the innocent party to sue out a divorce (Matthew 5:31-32). In such a case, the innocent party may remarry (Matthew 19:8-9).

WCF 24.6 – Adultery and Desertion

Because marriage is both a creational ordinance (Genesis 2:18-25; Hebrews 13:4) and a concern of the church (1 Corinthians 7:39; Ephesians 5:22-33; Titus 2:1-8), both the State and the Church have a vested interest in upholding and protecting marriages. As I tell every couple in pre-marriage counseling, the two people who are the least objective about a marriage are those in the marriage; therefore, it is often necessary to pursue outside help.

As we’ve already said, God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and divorce is never required or mandated (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). At the same time, however, there are two Biblical grounds for divorce: adultery (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:8-9) ad willful desertion by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-15).

Conclusion

The last paragraph in this chapter of the confession points out that the corruption of man is such that it is “apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage.” Thus, we must be careful to not follow the way of the world by looking for any and every excuse to break the bonds of marriage. We must do all that we can to respect and uphold marriage, our own and others’.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend Jay Adam’s book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. And, for those who find themselves in the very difficult position of seeking to reconcile a marriage that has been corrupted by marital infidelity, I recommend Dave Carder and Duncan Jaenecke’s book, Torn Asunder: Recovering From an Extramarital Affair.  But, I especially recommend that Christian couples not seek to ‘go it alone’ but seek the help of other believers in the church – especially the pastor and elders of the church who have the responsibility to shepherd the flock entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Hebrews 13:17).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch