In three past articles we have discussed the means of grace in relation to our regular subject of Preparation. In two articles we have discussed the means of grace in general, and in the last article we have discussed the preaching of the Word as a means of grace. In this article we will say a few words about the sacraments. Two questions we will face: How are the sacraments a means of grace? And, How are they to be viewed as a means of preparation for us as the covenant youth to make us ready to take our place in the church?
In general, as we have remarked in a former article, the sacraments have no meaning apart from the ministry of the Word. That is, they are not and never can be a means of grace except they are added to the preaching of the gospel. The sacraments themselves are the preaching of the Word. They are the preaching of the Word in the same sense that the Word is preached from Sabbath to Sabbath. Only in the case of the sacraments, the ministry is accompanied by signs which are instituted by God to seal the promise which is preached. This promise is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and therefore is also sealed as the Spirit operates in the hearts of the elect even when the gospel is preached. But it is sealed by the Spirit with the signs that are used because the congregation in faith takes an active and visible part in the celebration of the sacraments in a way that they do not under the preaching of the Word. This is not to say that the congregation is not active when the Word is preached; for listening itself is and should be a very active work of the saints. But in the sacraments, they visibly take an active part as they drink the wine and eat the bread of communion, and as they present their children for baptism.
These signs are therefore given by God in order to strengthen the faith of believers by means of visible tokens of the work of grace which God has wrought. In the sacraments is visibly portrayed what God has done in Christ for the salvation of His people. Whenever a believer sees the signs of the sacraments, then he also sees the work of God’s grace which was accomplished in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary. And this is even true of the participation of the believers. Never is the matter to be presented as if the sacraments are an objective offer of the work of God which is left up to the members to appropriate or leave according to their own choice. For even when the saints of God partake of the sacraments and appropriate the blessings of Christ’s sacrifice, they always confess that because the sacraments are the representation of the work of God’s sovereign grace, therefore even their participation is always an act of faith. And the faith which they have, and by which they appropriate the blessings of the atonement of Christ, is also signified and sealed in the sacraments; that is, the faith by which they receive the sacraments as a means of grace is the gift of God exclusively, and is not the result of an exercise of their own free will. Often the matter is presented just the other way around. Even in so-called reformed circles, the sacraments are presented as an offering of God to the people of the work of Christ. And it remains up to the people whether or not they will accept the sacraments and partake of them. This necessarily follows from the position of the Christian Reformed Church who make the preaching of the gospel an offer of grace. This is the position of all those who make the promise general and the acceptance of the promise dependent upon the condition of faith, that is, because the promise is general, upon man’s act of faith.
But we must always emphasize that when the sacraments are the signs of God’s work, they are the signs of God’s completed work of salvation. And that therefore, also the faith, whereby the believers partake of the sacraments, is the gift of God signified and sealed in the wine and the bread as well as the water of baptism.
Let us take a closer look at the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The entire doctrine of baptism rests upon the doctrine of the covenant. Because we believe that God establishes His covenant and gathers His church in the line of generation, that God has chosen His elect among us and our children, therefore we baptize. If this were not the case, we could not baptize at all. Those who maintain the doctrine of adult baptism, and deny the truth of infant baptism, make it absolutely impossible to baptize at all. They say that that is the only way that baptism can be properly administered; but they make baptism absolutely impossible. But it is not my purpose to go into this whole question now.
Of what is baptism a sign and a seal?
According to the form which we use, it is a sign and a seal of three things.
(1) It is, first of all, a sign and a seal of the complete depravity and corruption of the members of the church as they are by nature. And it is stressed that this depravity is so complete that “we cannot enter into the kingdom of God, except we are born again.” This means that our corruption is so extensive and all-embracive, that we can do nothing at all with respect to our salvation at any time or under any circumstances. All that we can do and do actually do is increase our condemnation and increase the wrath of God. We may notice that this is also important to a correct understanding of the true nature of baptism as a means of grace. If this is not seen in the sacrament, then we miss the entire point of the whole sign. For this is fundamental. Deny this point in any respect and the entire form loses its meaning. Compromise this in any way, and there is nothing left of the entire significance of the sacrament as a sign and a seal of the promise of God.
(2) In the second place, this sacrament is a sign and a seal of the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. It is a sign and seal of the everlasting covenant of grace which God establishes with us. It signifies and seals that God adopts us as children, provides us with every good thing, averts all evil or turns it to our profit; it signifies that He applies unto us that which we have in Christ in all the pathway of this life “until finally we shall be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” And this is all an elaborate and beautiful description of the washing away of our sins in the blood of our Savior. For even as water cleanses the filth of the body, so does the blood of Christ cleanse from all spiritual impurity till we are completely righteous and holy.
(3) Thirdly, this sacrament is a sign and a seal of our obligation to walk in a new and holy life, to cleave to our one God, trust in Him, love Him with all our hearts, forsaking the world and crucifying our old nature.
All of this is signified and sealed by the sacrament of baptism. We may also add in this connection that the questions which are asked of the parents who present their children for baptism are questions which are asked of the whole congregation and which are also answered in their hearts as their own confession and faith.
Finally, we must notice that because this is a means of grace and because the promise is sealed by means of this sign by the Holy Spirit of Christ, therefore this is a sign and seal only for the elect. It is a sign and seal only for those whom God has eternally chosen and in whom He has willed to work His grace and His salvation.
The question remains, how is this also instrumental to prepare us for our place in the church of Christ? What should be our position over against this sacrament as covenant young people.
But this must wait for another issue.