VI. Understanding the Means of Grace: What Exactly Is a Sacrament?
The first thing I thought when I first heard the word 'sacrament' come out of the mouth of a Presbyterian was "Roman Catholic"! I suspect I am not the last. However, simply reading the writings of the Reformed readily dispel any such notions. In the first place, the Romish church understands the sacraments as mechanical means of obtaining grace; explicit faith is not a requisite. Pull the lever and out comes more infused grace.
In contrast, question 91 of the Shorter Catechism asks how the sacraments function: "The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them."
Thus, any mechanistic view of the sacraments are precluded before the Catechism even defines them! Romish sacerdotalism is ruled out.
But, then, what is a sacrament? The Shorter Catechism summarizes the Biblical doctrine of the sacraments thusly:
A92: A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.
1. Gen. 17:10 2. Rom. 4:11
It is "sensible"-pertaining to the senses of sight, touch, feel and taste; it is a sign-representing outwardly those inward realities. And it is more than a sign. To stop here is to endorse "memorialism," a view that rejects the sealing aspect of the sacraments and emphasizes the human-response element. (Many Christians do not realize that God is present in worship with His Word. There is an objective dimension, not simply a human side only. )
However, if it is granted that the Older Testament was the church in infancy (Gal. 4:1ff.), with a body of spiritual truths to imitate (1 Cor. 10:1ff.), then Paul's contention that circumcision was a "seal of the righteousness of the faith" that Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:11) demonstrates that the sacraments of the New Testament are for substance the same as the Old (I Cor. 10:1-4; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11-12; cp. WCF 27:5). They were signs and seals for the saints of Old as well as the New; the outward trappings have simply changed.
In short, they are instruments-means-used by God to seal our faith. They help us grow in the Spirit. Our Creator-Father made us with a body. So, simply from the creation account alone we should understand that material things are not wrong in and of themselves. And because of the weakness of our flesh, God uses simple and despised means to strengthen our faith. Men mock preaching, for is it not mere sound-waves bouncing upon the ear? So, too, some Christians despise the sacraments as so much materialistic activity. Perhaps the fear is that to understand the sacraments as means of grace, as seals of redemption, is to follow the path to Rome.
Fear not. The Bible and any informed Presbyterian knows that the sacraments have no power in themselves. Faith is needed. Saving faith "is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened" (WCF 14:1). The sacraments are not converting ordinances. They save no one. The Spirit especially uses the Word for that. Rather, the sacraments increase our weak faith. God stoops to our level and kindly draws us through audio and visual means. He is encouraging us, saying that He understands our frailties, our doubts.
They are not merely memorials; they are more. They are not merely signs; they are more. As a seal firmly confirms upon our conscience (1 Pet. 3:21) the truth of the content of the letter, so the sacraments confirm the truth of the Word. It is sometimes described as a hug or a kiss that shows "I-really-mean-it"-a token of that Communion already enjoyed through the Word.
"A college graduate receives a diploma to which an official seal is affixed. The seal is of benefit to the recipient, not the giver. The seal does not make the recipient an education person, however; it merely declares officially that the authorities so regard him. The message of Ahasuerus [Est. 3:12] was authentic without the seal; it actually was the king's decree. The seal was added to convince the king's subjects that the message really was his. It is so with the sacraments. Sacraments do not cause grace. Neither is grace dependent upon the sacraments. The sacrament is of benefit only to that man who is the receiver of grace. It is of benefit because it makes known, or declares, the salvation which the believer receives distinct from the sacrament. It is a confirming testimony to the believer concerning what he has received." [The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, G. I. Williamson, p. 200ff.]
Means of Grace Series:
I. What Are They?
II. Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V. The Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?