Q 65. It is through faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does that faith come from?
A 65. The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.
Q 66. What are sacraments?
A 66. Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise.
And this is God’s gospel promise: to grant us forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace because of Christ’s one sacrifice accomplished on the cross.
Q 67. Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
A 67. Yes! In the gospel, the Holy Spirit teaches us and by the holy sacraments confirms that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.
Q 68. How many sacraments did Christ institute in the New Testament?
A 68. Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.
It is probably safe to say that if there is something that most people in the church don’t think much about on a regular basis, it would be the sacraments. In my opinion, this is often due to either a lack of appropriate understanding or a misunderstanding of the purpose, meaning, and nature of the sacraments. Far too often, when we celebrate them, a liturgy is read from a book in a rather monotone voice and then we do something… something we do the same every time without thinking about it. Then we continue on like it never happened. It’s a sad sort of traditional thing that seems to be overlooked…
Apart from the doctrine of justification by God’s grace in Jesus Christ through faith alone, the Reformers (those writing, teaching, and standing against much of the abuse of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century) wrote more about the sacraments than any other topic. They are, as many would say, very important to the life of Christ followers. But why? What purpose do they play?
First, it is important to point out that the sacraments themselves do not save. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ only, and while partaking in the sacraments can be a sign of that faith, their physical actions have no saving element to them. The Reformed Church, in which I am ordained, practices Infant Baptism, yet baptizing an infant does not ensure that child’s salvation. This act is sign and symbol that salvation is available to that child and that, in a special way, that child is called and a part of the community of faith; but it is only through faith that we are saved and infants are completely incapable of having a saving faith (far as we know).
The second thing that is important for us to remember about sacramental celebrations or rememberances are that they are signs and seals of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th Century, which taught that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) was a reenactment of Jesus’ death, we believe that this is a symbol of the promise that is confirmed in Jesus’ once for all death on the cross for the sins of the entire world.
Related to that is the reality of what takes place in the sacraments. As signs and seals of the promises of God the sacraments do not create faith, they confirm it, making us understand the Gospel promises more clearly through the work and revelation of the Holy Spirit and confirming to us our salvation. I often say, when speaking of the Lord’s Supper, that we are nourished spiritually through the sacrament in a similar way to the fact that the physical food nourishes our body.
The sacraments are called “visible signs of invisible grace.” It is another way that God works to reveal Himself, His love, and His grace to us. For those who are visual learners, these sacraments can speak volumes! In fact, the sacraments take sensory worship to a whole new level, providing for us the ability to see, smell, taste, and touch the promises of God made physical in the elements of the sacraments in the same way that we hear these promises proclaimed through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.