The Bible sets forth two sacraments that were instituted by God and qualify as means of grace. In the Old Testament, they were circumcision and the Passover meal. In the New Testament, these rites have been replaced with baptism and the Lord’s Supper respectively. Those that claim additional sacraments – such as Rome and contemporary evangelicalism – end up weakening, if not trivialising, the aforementioned rites. Not everything commanded in Scripture is a means of grace (for example, ordination), and not everything that aids spiritual growth is a sacrament, even small group Bible studies (Horton 2011:773-776).
Treatise and covenants
Perhaps it is helpful at this point to illustrate how earthly and material ceremonies play an integral role in the ratification of a civil covenant. In so doing, not only might the nature of a sacrament hopefully become clearer, but also the intimidating (metaphysical) speculation that can so easily obscure this important aspect of the church’s liturgical life lessened.
In the ancient world, conditional international treaties were commonplace. For example, a lord (or suzerain) would promise his vassal people a tract of land upon the fulfilment of certain conditions. The ratification of such a secular covenant would ordinarily involve a meal. The ceremonial meal guaranteed the promissory words of the lord, and in a sense could not be separated from, but not confused with, the promised inheritance. Furthermore, it was also not uncommon in the signing of a treaty ceremony for a self-maledictory oath (oath to one’s hurt) to be involved. For instance, an animal may be slaughtered (the “cutting of a covenant”) to communicate the negative side of the treaty. Should either party fail on their obligations to the covenant, the guilty party would assume the judicial plight of the animal: death. Here too, the dead animal did not become the failing party, but confirmed the curses attached to the covenant. The book of Deuteronomy is structured like an international suzerainty treaty and is characterized by law. It has all the ingredients of a conditional covenant with the likes of promises, conditions and curses, and ratifying ceremonial signs and seals (Horton 2011:777-785, 798-803). And yet Deuteronomy was also part of the administration of God’s covenant of grace: a royal grant, an unconditional gift.
Covenant signs and seals
A sacrament is at once something physical and something spiritual. A sacrament is simultaneously a rite performed by humans and a saving grace from God. A sacrament is both an earthly undertaking and heavenly participation; an individual ritual and union with God (1 Pet. 3:21-22; John 6; 1 Cor. 10:14-22). These mysterious mergers are possible only by the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 10:15; Tit. 3:4-7; cf. Berkhof 1996:605). Like the covenant of marriage that is ratified with the ceremonial exchange of rings, like the word of a dignitary that is authenticated with a wax seal on an the envelope carrying his correspondence, so does God’s Word of promise changes things: not only when it is preached, but also when it is tangibly guaranteed or sealed with the sacraments. Circumcision saved and baptism saves people (Gen. 17; 1 Pet. 3:21-22). The Passover persevered and the Lord’s Supper perseveres people in that same salvation: giving them the confidence to believe that their participation in God’s life is indeed true and real. God is for sinners. He binds himself to them through these biblical rites (Exodus 12:7; John 6; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 10:14-22).
In short, sacraments are neither the transformation or transfer of water, bread and wine, nor do they change the recipient’s (ontological) being. They are neither just a symbolic gesture by God nor an opportunity for mere recollection by his people. Instead, God consecrates these ordinary natural substances to perform mysterious and miraculous work: the communication of saving grace and the transfer of title to an eternal inheritance. The preached Word communicates the truth and power of saving grace. Speech produces redemptive action. In turn, the sacraments guarantee this same promissory Word through the tangible signs and seals of sacraments. They communicate and ratify the same covenant truths and saving grace. The signs participate in the saving realities they signify: the incarnate Word crucified; the Word preached. Foundationally, these means of grace overcome the legal and ethical problem of sin and bring sinners “near” in covenant relation to God. Sinners were once cursed and without help in the world, now they are blessed beyond measure (Matt. 5-7; Gal. 3:10; Eph. 2:12-14; Horton 2011:777-8).
Signs and seals of saving grace
Under the Old Covenant, the sacrament (or covenant) of circumcision shared in common with other covenant ratification ceremonies the shedding of blood: like the severed animal halves in God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15-17) and the sprinkling of blood on God’s people in God’s covenant with Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:3-8), yet circumcision was more than a bloody rite of entry into God’s church underage. When God made his covenant of grace with Abraham God instituted circumcision and called it “my covenant in your flesh” (Gen. 17:13; Gal. 3:7-9, 24-29; cf. Gen. 15). Circumcision not only “signed” (or symbolized) the promise of salvation through blood-shedding, but also ratified (or sealed) entitlement of each recipient to such a promise (Horton 2011:779). In the NT, the rite of circumcision is replaced with non-bloody sign of baptism. Despite their discontinuities in administration, both of these signs finding their life meaning and fulfilment in the circumcision-death of Christ (Col. 2:11-12; cf. Isaiah 53:8-12; Rom. 4, 6); his “baptism” of the cross (Lk. 12:50). Here too, baptism is not an empty sign to prompt the memory of the saints to recall an event in the past. Rather, like circumcision of old, the sign of baptism shares in the atoning realities to which it points. For example, Peter writes that baptism corresponds to Noah’s ark passing safely through the floodwaters of God’s judgment: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” (1 Pet. 3:21-2; cf. Tit. 3:4-7; Rom. 6:1-4; 1 Cor. 10:2). Baptism is the means by which God ordinarily effects salvation, but – like the Lord’s Supper – is not absolutely bound to it (Berkhof 1996:769).
There is no choice between salvation by grace through faith and salvation through the elements of water, bread and wine; rather the sacraments sign and seal salvation to those who possess faith, and therefore have access to the vivifying Spirit (Horton 2011:780). They are efficacious means of grace, and they should be distinguished from legitimate means of gratitude, such as private devotions, discipleship and social justice endeavours (Horton 2011:773).
While Biblical sacraments do entail obligations – which are faith and obedience – it must be stressed that unlike conditional secular treaties or the Sinai Covenant, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are first and foremost a sign and seal of God’s promise to establish his saving covenant (cf. Gen. 17:1-14; John 6; Matt. 26:26-29). Subjectively, the sinner is the assurance of salvation through an objective pledge (Horton 2011:781). The duties attended to the sacraments are always motivated by gratitude, chief among which is prayer (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 32-52).
Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.