Two Distinctive Sacraments
The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum. It was used in two ways at the time. First, it described the oath taken by soldiers in the Roman army. It was a sacred pledge of allegiance. Second, if you were suing someone in Roman civil law, then both parties deposited the contested amount into a common fund. At the end of the case, it was winner takes all. But until that moment, the deposited money was sacramentum or, as we might say today, “sacrosanct.” In this sense sacramentum implied that the water, bread, and wine were set apart from their ordinary use to represent God’s promise or pledge to us in the gospel, along with our corresponding response of commitment.
Matters were confused by the fact that sacramentum was also used to translate the Greek word for “mystery” (mystērion). This is used in the New Testament to refer to the revelation of Christ in the gospel (Col. 1:27; 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:16) and the relationship of Christ to the church. But mystērion is never used of the sacraments in the New Testament. The problem was that the association with the word “mystery” meant the sacraments were confused with the religious practices of Roman “mystery religions,” which were thought to convey magical powers on the worshipers. So in medieval theology the sacraments were commonly seen as objects with inherent spiritual power.
To avoid these mistaken associations some churches have preferred the term “ordinances” to describe baptism and Communion, since they are activities “ordained” by Christ. The problem with this term, though, is that it doesn’t distinguish baptism and Communion from the other activities Christ has ordained (like preaching and prayer). Baptism and Communion have distinctive roles as expressions of joining and belonging to the church. Plus, their physicality sets them apart and requires us to think about them in a distinctive way.
This language of pledge, seal, sign, and witness reflects the language used in the creeds of Reformation churches. The French or Gallic Confession of Faith, a statement drafted by Calvin and adopted by the French Reformed churches in 1559, affirms that the sacraments serve as “pledges and seals of the grace of God, and by this means aid and comfort our faith because of the infirmity which is in us” (Åò34). It describes baptism as “a pledge of our adoption” and “a lasting witness that Jesus Christ will always be our justification and sanctification” (Åò35).
Likewise the Supper is “a witness of the union which we have with Christ” (Åò36). The Belgic Confession (1561), one of the confessional standards of the Dutch Reformed churches, also speaks of the sacraments as “seals” and “pledges” “to nourish and strengthen our faith” (Åò33). The Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, the historic confession of the Anglican Church, say the sacraments are not only “badges” or “tokens” of our profession but also “sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us,” which are given to “strengthen and confirm our faith in him” (Art. 25). The Westminster Confession was written by English-speaking Puritans in the 1640s and became the main statement of faith of Presbyterians and, in adapted forms, Congregationalists and Reformed Baptists. It speaks of the sacraments as “seals of the covenant of grace” (27.1). The Lord’s Supper is “a bond and pledge of [believers’] communion with [Christ], and with each other, as members of his mystical body” (29.1).
Think of a contract. Think perhaps of an employment contract or a memorandum of sale or an IOU. What you hold in your hand is a sheet of paper with a series of commitments written on it. This is what the gospel is: a series of promises expressed in words. God promises forgiveness, acquittal, adoption, preservation, resurrection, and glory. The sacraments are like the signature at the bottom of the contract. In the past, agreements weren’t signed; they were sealed with a wax impression. So the Reformers spoke of the sacraments as seals. But today a signature is our normal way of confirming commitments. The covenant Promises God makes to us in the gospel are signed and sealed with water, bread, and wine. The signature doesn’t add any new content to the promises; nor does it enact them. But it does seal and confirm those promises. Without a signed contract you might still have reason to be optimistic that someone would fulfill his or her promises, but a signature gives you much greater confidence. You have something you can point to, a commitment you can hold in your hand. And God has graciously given us baptism and Communion to give us greater confidence in his promises.
God has graciously given us baptism and Communion to give us greater confidence in his promises.
In the preaching of the gospel, God gives us the promise of forgiveness in a form we can hear. That’s the form that comes with clarity because it comes in the form of words. Without those words we wouldn’t understand the gospel. But in the sacraments God also gives us the promise of forgiveness in a form we can see, touch, and even taste. The water, bread, and wine are added as confirmations of the reality of the promise. All our senses are thus engaged so that our frail faith might be nurtured. Jesus describes the wine as the “blood of the new Covenant.” A covenant is a relationship-forming promise. Here is God’s promise in physical form so we can see it as well as hear it, taste it as well as read it.
This article is adapted from Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives by Tim Chester.
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