The Sacraments – Conclusion

We began this series on the sacraments (primarily the Lord’s Supper) by noting that our weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper is something of an anomaly in the PCA. While the weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper is a growing trend, it is still only observed in roughly 20% of PCA churches. The vast majority of PCA churches celebrate communion on a monthly basis. There is a myriad of good reasons why some practice monthly communion, but some of the reasons boil down to the fact that in our current evangelical Christian culture the sacraments are misunderstood and underappreciated.

The sacraments are one of the Means of Grace that God has provided for the church. By this phrase, Means of Grace, we mean those things that God has ordained for us to communicate his grace to us. He has given us his Word. He has also provided for us the sign and seal of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These means are the instruments by which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to apply salvation to us, seal us in Christ, and build us up in the faith. There are countless gimmicks and marketing strategies that can be used to gather people into a congregation. But only the Means of Grace as used by the Holy Spirit will build Christ’s Church.

The sacraments, therefore, are an invaluable instrument of God’s grace for the church. We ought to avail ourselves to the proper use of them. It is through these gifts that God signifies and seals His grace in us. These “sensible signs” represent Christ and “the benefits of the new covenant” to us (WSC 92). But the sacraments are more than just a sign. They are also seals. The sacraments also confer by faith God’s grace. Calvin noted that a sacrament is, “an outward sign by which the Lord seals to our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weaknesses of our faith; and we, in turn, attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels before men.”[1] Far more than the sacraments being something we do to declare our faith in God, the sacraments are something that God does to communicate the faith his is giving to us. There is a physical reality to the symbols of the sacraments, but their importance is that they confer a greater spiritual reality:

From the physical things set forth in the sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus when the bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps life in the body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven the soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.[2]

The sign is more than a physical remembrance. It is also a spiritual reality.

Since we view the sacraments as a Means of Grace instituted by Christ, we are bound by the constraints of God’s Word as to the number of sacraments. The only sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Testament are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Membership, ordination, marriage, and the like can be good things. But they are not sacraments. They do not represent the grace given by God to all who are in Christ. Only baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify the grace of regeneration in Christ through the giving of his body and shedding of his blood. The water, bread, and wine are the symbols used by Holy Spirit through faith that seal God’s grace in us.

Because the sacraments signify and seal the grace found in Christ, only those who are in Christ are to participate in the sacraments. This is one of the reasons why the Church must exercise discipline and “fence the Table.” This is also why only the Church, and not individual believers, can administer the sacraments. Only those in good standing with the Body of Christ can rightfully receive the symbols of being in Christ. To receive otherwise, would be a lie.

In sum the sacraments are a gracious gift to the Church. They are meant to build the church up. They are meant to strengthen and nourish your faith. They are meant to seal you in Christ. They are meant to communicate God’s grace to us in a physical and a spiritual way. The Reformer Theodore Beza helpfully explains the benefits of the sacraments:

Since the simple word only strikes one of our senses, while the sacraments involve in addition sight and other bodily senses, and also are distributed with very significant and distinct ceremonies, it is easy to recognize how necessary to us is the help of the sacraments to maintain our faith, since, in a manner of speaking, they cause us to touch with the finger and the eye, and as it were to already taste and actually feel the outcome of that which we await, as if we had it and possessed it already. For this reason, far from despising the holy sacraments, we confess that we cannot sufficiently magnify their dignity and legitimate use.

[1] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.14.1.

[2] ibid., 4.17.3.