[Note: although On Being Presbyterian is supposed to be shipped this week, I've had my students reading a page proof copy--they had two essay questions on their final exam that required them to reflect on issues in the book. One of the pleasing comments that has come up has centered on the helpfulness of the sacraments chapter. I hope that it is helpful and represents a "vanilla Presbyterian" position that has an eye toward the mainstream Reformed and Westminster tradition.]
Perhaps the greatest intellectual hurdle for many people who have backgrounds in broader evangelicalism to overcome are Presbyterian beliefs about the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For these sisters and brothers, when you say the word “sacrament,” their minds immediately think about the Roman Catholic Church, which builds its entire religious life structure around seven sacraments, providing “grace” for individuals from birth to death.
Or perhaps these friends have come to Christ from more formal church backgrounds, joined evangelical churches, and have been convinced that they needed to be “re-baptized” because they were told that their infant baptisms weren’t legitimate since they weren’t preceded by a profession of faith. Due to the influence of common sense readings of Scripture and a general reticence against believing that sacraments can serve as means of grace in any sense, many struggle with the Presbyterian understanding of how baptism and the Lord’s Supper operate as means of grace in the Christian life.
What is a Sacrament?
Presbyterians, along with many other believers who think sacramentally, would say that a sacrament is a “holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27:1). In other words, a sacrament pictures or signs God’s promises. In biblical usage a “sign” is like a big road sign with an arrow pointing you to Jesus Christ. This is how, for example, the word is used in John’s Gospel: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (John 2:11). The sign was meant to point the disciples (and John’s readers) to Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. It is the same way with a sacrament—baptism and the Lord’s Supper are like big road signs that point you to Jesus.
A sacrament also seals God’s promise. In older times, documents would bear a mark from the author of the letter or treaty that sealed the material contained in it. In our day, we talk about the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”; when you see that seal, you know that Good Housekeeping has tested the product and approved it. A seal gives you confidence that the product or the letter is what it purports to be. In the same way, a sacrament seals God’s promises and gives you confidence that God’s promises can be trusted. It is a type of guarantee—if you trust God and claim his promises signed for you in the sacraments, you can be assured that God will keep his sealed promise to you. As the Westminster Confession puts it, sacraments “confirm our interest in him” (WCF 27:1). They give us assurance or confidence as they confirm our interest in God and his promises.
Sacraments also do something else. They “put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world” (WCF 27:1). They mark us as different from the world, as being on a different team, if you will. That’s why I like to say that baptism is like a jersey that marks us as part of the baptized team. It identifies us and our children as members of the visible church, those who have been baptized and who profess faith in the triune God. In a similar fashion, the Lord’s Supper marks off those who have made a good profession in Jesus Christ from the rest of the world that has not. It serves as a picture of those who will participate in the final “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6-11), those who will be part of the new heavens and new earth.
How do sacraments do these things? Well, there is no power in the sacrament itself that causes God’s grace to come to an individual in order to confirm our interest in him or “to engage him to the service of God in Christ” (WCF 27:1, 3). Instead, the sacraments serve as signs for a spiritual reality, namely Christ and his benefits. And there is a “sacramental union,” or a “spiritual relation” between the sign and the spiritual reality. That’s why when we distribute the Lord’s Supper, the minister will often say, “This is the body of Christ. Take and eat.” Presbyterians don’t believe that the bread in the Lord’s Supper is actually transformed into Christ’s body, nor that the bread has Christ’s body “in, with, or under” the bread. Rather, we believe that there is a spiritual relationship between Christ’s ascended and glorified body and the bread by which we are enabled by God’s grace and his Spirit to feed upon Christ’s presence and receive his benefits. It is because of this sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified that “the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other” (WCF 27:2).
In thinking about how sacraments “work,” I think it is very important to distinguish the validity of a sacrament from its efficacy. A sacrament is valid, that is we have warrant for these sacraments, because it is based on God’s command and promise, contained in the word of institution. But a sacrament is efficacious, it “works” if you will, because the Spirit applies Christ and his benefits to the individual who responses in faith to the promise.
And so with baptism, we could say that the validity of the sacrament of baptism—for professing adults as well as their children—is rooted in God’s promise. In baptism, God promises certain benefits—“his ingrafting into Christ, of his regeneration, of remission of sins”—that obligates the individual “to walk in newness of life” (WCF 28:1). The promise is valid because God promises it, not because the individual testifies to some new spiritual reality in themselves. However, the efficacy of baptism is tied to the choosing purposes of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the response of faith by the individual. The grace that baptism signs and seals—that baptism exhibits and confers (WCF 28:6)—is not tied to the moment of administration nor is it given to everyone to whom baptism is administered (WCF 28:5). Instead, grace is given by the Holy Spirit to those whom God the King has chosen in his appointed time (WCF 28:6).
This distinction between the validity and efficacy of a sacrament is important because other evangelicals fail to recognize this distinction and so misunderstand what happens in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For example, those who reject infant baptism do so because they presume that baptism is only valid when it is efficacious. That is, they believe that the only “biblical” baptism is one in which the individual by her own profession of faith at the moment of administration receives the grace offered in baptism. Others who have a very high view of infant baptism ironically make the same mistake—they believe that something must “happen” at the moment of baptism and so they argue that a child’s faith is awakened at baptism so that they grasp the promise of God’s Word and so receive grace. Or they presume that the child is regenerate and so baptize based on the presumption that God’s grace has already been at work.
But both of these approaches confuse the sacrament’s validity with its efficacy. A baptism is valid when it proclaims the promise of God by an ordained minister using the Trinitarian and biblical formula. It is efficacious, it confers grace, when God’s Spirit creates faith in the individual so that they grasp God’s promise by faith and so fill full the meaning of the sign whenever that may be.
One other thing to consider when we think about sacraments is that there was Old Testament as well as New Testament sacraments. The Old Testament sacraments were circumcision and Passover while the New Testament sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Presbyterians believe that “in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited” the Old and New Testament sacraments signified for substance the same things (WCF 27:5). That is, circumcision and the Passover both pointed to God’s promise of Christ and his benefits; baptism and the Supper do as well.
This continuity in terms of the substance of the things signified is very important—it means that there are not two stories, two religions, in the Bible, but one story and one “religion” in which God demands the worship of his people and they respond to him in faith. But the discontinuity is important as well—the forms were changed, the terms of admittance were changed, the rules and regulations were changed. That means we can’t simply draw a straight line between circumcision and baptism or Passover and Supper; rather, we must be sensitive to the way the risen Christ transforms these signs and seals. There are connections between the Old and New Testament sacraments (Colossians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 5:7, 10:1-4, 11:23-28), but there are differences as well. It is important to bear these similarities and differences in mind.