Westminster XXVII: Of the Word and Sacraments

1. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11; Gen. 17:7, 10), immediately instituted by God (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:23), to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:25–26; Gal. 3:27; 17): as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world (Rom. 15:8; Exod. 12:48; Gen. 34:14); and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word (Rom. 6:3–4; 1 Cor. 10:16, 21).

What is a sacrament? A sacrament is a sign, and a sign that seals what it signifies. The sacraments of the Christian religion therefore are those which signify and seal the covenant of grace. We know that a practice is such a sacrament if it was instituted by God in order to represent Christ and His salvation. A sacrament is place upon a particular individual in order to establish a link between the promises of the covenant and that person. A sacrament is also given as a means of distinguishing the saints of God from those who are not. As a result, those with such a divine mark are obligated by it. We must remember in this discussion that sacraments are inescapable; if we do not accept the two sacraments established in the Word of God, then we will make up our own sacraments. Here, sign this card. Throw your stick in the fire.

2. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other (Gen. 17:10; Matt. 26:27–28; Tit. 3:5).

This is something we understand quite well in other realms, and it is not hard to master. With this ring, I thee wed. Really? The water cleanses us, and washes our sins away. But only a spiritual bonehead would think that water all by itself can wash away sins.

3. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it (Rom. 2:28–29; 1 Pet. 3:21): but upon the work of the Spirit (Matt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13), and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers (Matt. 26:27–28; 28:19–20).

There is no power in the sacrament itself; there is power in that which the sacrament is tied to—the blessings and curses of the covenant itself. This being the case, the sacrament does not depend for its efficacy on the godliness of the one administering the sacrament. Suppose a pastor runs off with the church organist the day after somebody’s baptism. Does that nullify the baptism? Not at all. The applications of the sacraments are objective, meaning that the Spirit is at work in the words of institution. This is what brings about the resultant blessings (or curses).

4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:20, 23; 4:1; Heb. 5:4).

As opposes to the teaching of Rome, there are only two sacraments, and not seven. They are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. According to the Confession, they are to be administered by lawfully ordained ministers of the Word. This is a good idea for reasons of good government and accountability, but I do not believe it should be a confessional issue. What should be a confessional issue is that the rulers of the Church are responsible to see to it that a right understanding of the sacraments is to be preserved, and so, at the very least, they should oversee and approve all occasions where the sacraments are administered.

5. The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new (1 Cor. 10:1–4).

The New Testament era did not usher in new sacramental realities—the people of God have always had the sacramental reality of initiation and nurture. What changed was the visible nature of the signs, not the constant reality of the things signified.

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