What Are Sacraments?

If you asked ten people how to grow in grace you might hear ten different answers. And many of the answers might have little scriptural support. So is there a sure way to become more Christ-like?

Without using the phrase “means of grace,” the catechism recognizes that God uses means to heal his people. God works his saving and renewing grace in certain ways. And he has revealed to us his methods. God has said to us: If you want to become godlier, do this.

What Are the Means of Grace?

If sinners “share in Christ and all his benefits” only on the basis of faith in Christ (Q&A 53), the question is vital: “Where then does that faith come from?” This isn’t a theological curiosity—it’s more like what a thirsty woman once asked Jesus: “Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11). The Bible teaches that “The Holy Spirit ordinarily produces faith” by the two-part ministry of “the word and the sacraments.”[i]

Preaching Is a Means of Grace

Because “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), God “wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word” (Q&A 98). Through preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming and publicly declaring to all believers, each and every one, that, as often as they accept the gospel promise in true faith, God, because of Christ’s merit, truly forgives all their sins” (Q&A 84). Preaching helps us to “more and more come to know our sinful nature and thus more eagerly seek the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ.” Only by habitually sitting under God’s word do “we never stop striving” to be “renewed more and more after God’s image” (Q&A 115).

Sacraments Are Means of Grace

Sacraments confirm the faith that “the Holy Spirit works … in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel.” Sacraments both depend on preaching and reinforce preaching. Abraham’s numbering of the stars—a sacrament-like action—only confirmed his faith because God had attached a word of promise: “so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). Sacraments aren’t better than preaching; they complement preaching by speaking in a different language, the language of sense.

To become godlier you need to be convinced that God works saving and sanctifying faith through the means of grace: preaching and sacraments. The catechism’s study of the Apostles’ Creed has summarized the content of biblical preaching: the gift of God and his works to needy sinners.

What Are Sacraments?

Sacraments are divinely mandated signs and seals of God’s gospel promise.

Sacraments Are “Instituted by God”

Not everything that creates a spiritual impression—a sculpture, a cross, a nature walk—is a means of grace. A sacrament is “a holy ordinance instituted by Christ.”[ii] Christ insisted that every disciple be baptized (Matt. 28:19) and commune with him in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26). The early church obeyed Christ and emphasized baptism and Holy Communion (Acts 2:41–42).

Sacraments Are Visible Signs and Seals of God’s Gospel Promise

As signs, the sacraments “make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel.” Our senses are like gates through which data enters our minds and hearts. The invisible promise of the gospel takes shape in the water, bread, and wine. Baptism is a tangible witness to Jesus’s promise to wash away our sins (Acts 22:16). The Lord’s Supper helps us perceive in a different way that Jesus’s body was broken and his blood was shed for us.

But sacraments are more than a visible gospel. They also confirm the authenticity of the promise, like an official seal on a formal document. Abraham’s circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Circumcision authenticated the Lord’s earlier promise that by faith Abraham was righteous before God. Sacraments are God’s way of proving to believers that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Jonathan Edwards said that the best way to know honey is to “taste and see” (Ps. 34:8). Sacraments allow us to taste and see the gospel.

Five sacraments were added by the church throughout the centuries as it increasingly saw itself, rather than God, as the dispenser of grace.[iii] But only baptism and the Lord’s Supper fit the biblical definition of a sacrament and take the place of circumcision and Passover.

How Do the Sacraments Work?

“How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?”[iv] The sacraments have no power in them or in their administrators. They do not contain grace to be dispensed. We must not trust in sacraments; by faith we use them to embrace Christ. Neither are the sacraments dependent on the character of the one administrating them. Paul was glad that he baptized only infrequently, lest people think that their baptism was made more valuable by his involvement (1 Cor. 1:12–17).

Rather, sacraments “focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.” If Scripture is like eyeglasses, sacraments are like binoculars: they narrow our field of vision, block out distractions, and magnify and focus on Jesus. That’s why the sacraments aren’t elaborate—just bread, wine, and water. They keep salvation simple: Jesus’s broken body and shed blood wash away our sins.

Without a Spirit-worked faith, Scripture and sacraments are like “the sun shining upon blind eyes.”[v] The means of grace require faith. But for believers they are a vital answer to the question, “How can I become godlier?” To become fruitful, the best place to be is in the field that God is tending. God gives the growth. But he does so through the means of planting and watering (1 Cor. 3:7). If you want to trust in Jesus and be like Jesus, the best thing you can do is come to church often “to learn what God’s Word teaches” and “participate in the sacraments” (Q&A 103). What God promises to do there, he promises to do nowhere else.

William Boekestein

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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