The Sacraments: The Lord's Supper and Baptism (Series)

By Dr. Kim Riddlebarger

Lecture 1: Introduction: The Issues at Stake

Lecture 2: The Covenantal Context for Discussing the Sacraments

Lecture 3A: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism,

Lecture 3B: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Continued)

Lecture 4: Baptist Objections to Infant Baptism and the Reformed Response

Lecture 5A: "The Lord's Supper" - Confessional and Biblical Concerns

Lecture 5B: "The Lord's Supper" - Confessional and Biblical Concerns (Continued)


I. In some ways, the Sacraments are the most controversial aspect of Reformed theology

A. When people come to embrace certain truths of Reformed theology they still may be able to co-exist in an evangelical context.

B. But when people embrace the Reformed understanding of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, they cannot co-exist where they are.

C. This is why the Sacraments are such an important topic and why it is so important that we spend some time on this subject from the Scriptures, the Reformed Confessions and the history of the church.

II. The Subject of the Sacraments is always difficult for a number of reasons.

A. Presuppositions are important and need to be constantly evaluated.

B. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists generally do not devote much attention to the Sacraments nor do they accurately represent the issues at stake. This is because of several factors.

1. The discussion of Sacraments is often colored by a nativistic anti-Roman Catholicism.

a. It is charged that a high view of the Sacraments is "Roman."

b. Many people simply confuse the historic Reformed view with Romanism because they are not aware of the differences, nor do they have a sufficient grasp of church history

1) Historically speaking, Christian worship through the centuries will look much more like the Roman/Eastern rites than so-called "free worship"

2) Historic Protestants sought to reform the medieval church, not start from scratch

2. The influence of transcendentalism, romanticism and Gnosticism upon contemporary Evangelicalism leads to pre-occupation with self, and a suspicion of God working through means such as bread, wine and water.

a. This explains the stress upon subjective, self-validating "experience of God," instead of stress upon the objective work of God in history as revealed in propositional revelation in Holy Scripture

b. This also explains why people seek God in ways other than as he has prescribed, and are suspicious of clergy, liturgy and authority structures in the church.

c. See the works by: Michael Horton, In the Face of God, Word, 1996; Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, Eerdmans, 1993; and Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, Oxford, 1987)

3. The revivalist emphasis upon the work of the Spirit directly upon the individual (apart from means), primarily through a crisis experience and a dramatic conversion.

a. This mitigates against the idea of God working through "covenants," propagates individualism instead of corporate solidarity, and makes the "decision" pre-eminent and grace passive, instead seeing God's grace as pre-eminent and our reception of grace as passive.

b. Add to this what Nathan Hatch calls the "Democratization of American Christianity," the act of the will becomes paramount and "choice" becomes everything [cf. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, Yale University Press, 1989].

4. This is closely connected to the influence of classical Arminianism (semi-Pelagianism) and Pelgianism, which exalt nature over grace and reason over revelation, leaving little if any room for mystery.

5. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have been deeply influenced by dispensationalism.

a. This leads to reading the Bible atomistically and stressing discontinuity rather than continuity between the Testaments.

b. Dispensationalists dominate the evangelical media, and thus Cov't theology is frequently stigmatized by popular Evangelical bible teachers with little chance to respond.

C. The Reformed, on the other hand, devote a great deal of attention to Sacraments, and consider their proper administration as a mark of a "true" church [cf. The Belgic Confession, 27-32].

1. This means that the Reformed are willing to divide and break fellowship with evangelicals and fundamentalists over the subject--which evangelicals and fundamentalists do not regard as important.

2. This means that we cannot regard most evangelical denominations as "true" Christian churches, and that independent bible churches are regarded as "sects." This does not mean that we regard members of these churches as non-Christians.

D. The Reformed have not always been clear about them and have often made little attempt to defend the Reformed view from the Scriptures.

1. In an evangelical and fundamentalist context (as described above), "believer baptism" and a "memorialist" view of the supper make a great deal of sense. The Reformed assume the burden of proof, even though the evangelical and fundamentalist view is the "novel" one among Protestants.

2. Dispensationalism reigns, not cov't theology.

3. Many Reformed Christians cannot give explanations of the Reformed position from the Scriptures.

III. The Reformed Conception of the Sacraments--What is in view?

A. What is a Sacrament?

1. The meaning of the word "Sacrament"

"Sacrament" derives from a Latin word that classically meant something sacred. In a lawsuit, money deposited by contending parties was sacramentum, for when forfeited it was used for a sacred purpose. The word was also used judicially and militarily; sacramentum dicere meant to swear an oath. In the early church, sacramentum came to apply to many things sacred and to rites which had a hidden meaning. Thus is was used to describe religious ceremonies and was brought into connection with mysterion (Gr.), meaning "secret." In the Latin Vulgate, sacramentum is translated for mysterion (Eph. 1:9; 3:9; 5:32; Col. 1:27; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 1:20; 17:7). Whereas Tertullian was the first theologian to use sacramentum with clear religious meaning, two centuries later Augustine wrote that signs which "pertain to divine things are called sacraments" That broad meaning of the word continued into the Middle Ages. The sign of the cross, palms, ashes, anointing with oil, preaching, prayer, and visitation of the sick were all included....In the thirteenth century the number [of Sacraments] was set at seven....The Reformers swept aside these accretions to biblical teaching." [Osterhaven, "Sacraments," ERF, 332]

According to Calvin, Sacraments are:

An outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men....One may call it a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him....[This] does not differ from Augustine, who teaches that a sacrament is `a visible sign of a sacred thing,' or a `visible form of an invisible grace.'" [Calvin, Inst. IV.xiv.1]

And according to the Heidelberg Catechism (Q 66)

Sacraments are holy signs for us to see. 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 might put his seal on that promise. And this is God's gospel promise: To forgive us our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ's one sacrifice finished on the cross.

According to Louis Berkhof,

A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, in which by sensible signs of the grace of God in Christ, and the benefits of the covenant of grace, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers, and these, in turn, give expression to their faith and allegiance to God. [Berkhof, ST, 617]

2. There are two and only two Sacraments instituted by Christ--baptism and the Lord's supper, both of which were prefigured in the Old Testament by circumcision and the Passover.

a. Circumcision/baptism--Genesis 17:11; Matthew 28:19

b. Passover/The Lord's Supper--Exodus 12:7-13; 23:14-17; Matthew 26:26-29

3. According to the Reformed, there are three components parts of a Sacrament

a. An outward or visible sign:

According to the Scriptures, Sacraments contain an outward or visible element. That is, sacraments are based upon material objects: water in baptism, bread and wine in the Supper. But a Sacrament not only includes the material element prescribed in Scripture, but this also extends to the rite itself as commanded by Scripture.

This language is used in connection with the Covenant made with Noah (Genesis 9:12-13), the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 17:11); and as confirmed by Paul (Romans 4:11).

b. An inward grace or thing signified and sealed:

"Signs and seals presuppose something that is signified and sealed" [Berkhof ST, 617], and thus while the signs remain signs, they nevertheless are means of grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. What then are these very real inward graces that are signed and sealed in the Sacraments?

1) The covenant of grace, including the promise of God and all spiritual blessings associated with it (Gen. 9:12-13; Genesis 17:1-14; Romans 4:11-13)

2) The forgiveness of sins and participation in the life that is in Christ (Matthew 3:11; Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4-5; 1 Corinthians 10:2-3; 16-17; Romans 2:28-29; 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Peter 3:21)

c. The Sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified

This is where most of the confusion about Sacraments takes place.

1) According to Romanism, the Sacramental union is strictly physical. As Ursinus put it: "The Papists imagine that the sign which are used in the celebration of the Lord's Supper are changed into the things signified. But a change is no union." This means that the error of Romanism is to see the grace given in the Sacrament as something done in us, by virtue of the change of the sign into the thing signified. This also explains the use of Aristotelean categories of substans and accidens, to explain the lack of any union between the sign and thing signified.

2) According to Lutherans, the Sacramental union is local, "as if the sign and the thing signified were present in the same space, so both believers and unbelievers receive the full sacrament when they receive the sign." [Berkhof, ST, 618]

3) According to most Evangelicals (who are strongly influenced by Pietism and Anabaptism and radical Zwinglianism), there is no Sacramental union at all. The signs remain mere signs or symbols and do not communicate grace. They are given to us merely to commemorate the work of Christ through the use of the symbols.

4) According to the Reformed, the Sacramental union is a spiritual bond, effected by God the Holy Spirit, and received by faith, so that by receiving the sign (bread, water, wine), the thing signified is also received (the promises of the covenant, the forgiveness of sins and participation in the resurrection life of Christ). "Where the sacrament is received in faith, the grace of God accompanies it. According to this view the external sign becomes a means employed by the Holy Spirit in the communication of divine grace" [Berkhof, ST, 618].

According to Eugene Osterhaven, "sacraments are not `bare signs' but are described as real means of grace with which the Holy Spirit nourishes believers. Signs and seals of God's promise of salvation they are made effective by God's Spirit who quickens and nourishes those within the covenant community who are united to Jesus Christ" [Osterhaven, "Sacraments," ERF 333]

But as Michael Horton reminds us "while the Holy Spirit does not work apart from means (Word and Sacrament), he nevertheless works when and where he will through them and is never tied to them. Never can the sacraments be the property of the priest or even of the laity, a magical `tool' to command God." According to John 3:8, "the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going." This leads Michael to conclude, "The Holy Spirit is free to use the Word and sacraments to save, but he is also free to with-hold his gift of faith from whomever he pleases."

This Sacramental union enables us to state that "the close connection between the sign and the thing signified explains the use of what is generally called `sacramental language,' in which the sign is put for the thing signified or vice-versa" [Berkhof, ST, 618]. This is found in texts such as Genesis 17:11; Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. It is also clearly in view when our Lord calls the bread his body and the wine in the cup, his blood, the blood of the new covenant (cf. Matthew 26:26-28). Those who deny that there is more in view than a mere sign, are forced to insert the words "this symbolizes" my body.

The sacramental union between the "sign" and "the thing signified" is perhaps best summarized in Article 33 of the Belgic Confession:

We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.

4. The Covenantal context for the Sacraments

As we will see in the coming lectures, Biblical history is, in fact, the history of the covenant of redemption, and serves as the necessary background and context for all discussion of the Sacraments.

B. The role of Sacraments in the Reformed tradition

1. Proper administration is considered a mark of a true church

2. A central place in the Christian life especially in regard to sanctification

a. Baptism--the sign of God's promise to save (mortification)

b. The Lord's Supper--the sign of Christ's presence (vivification)

IV. Questions to consider when working through the issue of sacraments.

A. What is the Biblical context for the Sacraments?

1. Covenantal and churchly (or)

2. Dispensational and individual

B. According to the Scriptures, who is the primary active party in the Sacraments?

1. God is active, men and women receive what is promised...(or)

2. Men and women are active, and God responds to our obedience

C. Do we emphasize the continuities between the Testaments or the discontinuities?

D. In what ways is the new covenant a better covenant and what are the implications of this? If the Old Covenant included children, how can the New Covenant, which is a better covenant, exclude them?

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