Chapter XXV, Of the Sacraments in General.

Chapter XXV. 

Sacraments are holy actions, ordained by God, by the performance of which something real is offered unto, and received by us; by which, as by a seal, the word of God and His promises of mercy are sealed, appropriated, and made sure unto us, as also we are made partakers of other spiritual gifts. 


610. Concerning the sacraments it will be best to treat every one of the same especially. For a more general view of the same, it may be as well to draw the attention to the following seven points.

a. What is implied by the word sacrament? It is this a latin word, which originally designates either a certain sum of money, which, on the occasion of a lawsuit, each of the, two contending parties had to deposit, and which was not returned to the party that lost the suit; — or the oath, which the soldier had to make to his general or to the magistrates.

This word, having been transmitted into the language of the latin church, is, was henceforth employed to signify every action or mystery of godliness; the latin bible designs the union of Christ and the church as a sacrament, Ephes. 2, 12; although the Apostle himself calls it a Mystery.

611. A Sacrament is especially called the mystery of that holy action, by which God appropriates and scales unto us the promises of the Gospel. We, on our part, employ the word in the same sense, considering them as the great Mysteries of Christianity, by which, in a special manner, Christ’s people are united to the Lord Jesus, in order that they might never part from him, and rather loose their lives than again be induced by Satan and his servants to sin against God.

612. b. The nature of Sacraments. They are

i. holy actions,

ii. which God has himself ordained,

iii. in which we have offered unto us, first, something that is outwardly, bodily and visible, and secondly, something that is heavenly, spiritual and invisible,

iv. the seals which support the word of God,

v. the means by which God’s merciful promises are appropriated unto us, — and

vi. by which we are made partakers of other blessings.

613. Sacraments are like seals which God puts to His word, as a seal is put to a letter, in order to prove that to be true which is contained and promised in the same. At the time God gave unto Noah, and by it to the whole creation, the promise of never again sending a flood over the earth, He immediately put His visible seal to this promise, namely the rainbow; and whenever this sign makes its appearance, we receive a new assurance of this promise,. Genes. 9, 13 flf. God promising unto Abraham that his seed was to become so large that it should be impossible for them to be numbered, sealed also this His promise with an outward sign, that as he was not able to number the stars, so should bis seed be, Genes. 15, 5.,6. In the same way God when making a covenant with Abraham promising to be his God, and the God of his seed after him. Genes. 17, 7, He added a seal to this promise in ordaining circumcision, which was to be the sign of the covenant, v. 11. Thus also has He insured to other saints His divine grace, as will appear from the history of Jonathan, 1. Samuel. 14, 16; and from that of David, ibid. 17, 26.

614. Now in ail these proceedings God has always given, as it were two sort of assurances, namely, one that could be heard, and a second that could be seen; thus Noah received the word and the rainbow; Abraham had the assurances of the word and the stars, and on another occasion that of the word and circumcision In the like manner He assures us, in his word that his body has been given into death, and his blood shed, for us, and the same thing he assures us of in the Lord’s Supper, when he gives us his body to eat, and his blood to drink. —

615. The Sacraments appropriate unto man more especially the things, which he has been promised in the word. For instance, in the word we are told that Christ has suffered death on account of the sins of the whole world and of all mankind, and that his blood has been shed for all. Now the Lord’s Supper has been ordained that the Lord might say to the communicant: this is my body, which has been given for you, and this is my blood which has been shed for you. Thus that, which has been spoken of in the word, is, by means of the Sacrament, appropriated to every believer apart; the latter is now assured that trie general promises of the Gospel have also special reference to him.

616. c. What is necessary for a Sacrament? Concerning which question we have to consider;

1. him that institutes the Sacrament, 

2. the substance it consists of. 

3. the real, inward, essential form of the same, and

4. its purposes and effects.

1. With regard to him that institutes a Sacrament, we observe that it can be ordained but by God alone, and under no circumstances whatsoever by any man. And this, because no man is able to prescribe to God the means by which to dispense His grace. He alone has the power to point out the means, the use of which are acceptable to Him. Everything therefore, that has its origin in human tradition and divers others customs, cannot be admitted to be a Sacrament; as little as it can be considered as forming an essential part of the same. Whilst on the other hand, with regard to every action that is really, a Sacrament, we are in possession of the direct commands of the word of God; which also contains, for the same purpose, certain commandments and arrangements, and a premise, that by means of these Sacraments we are to be made partakers of a heavenly and spiritual gift.

617. It is necessary also that the Sacrament should not be instituted only for. a short space of time, but that its efficacy should last as long as the dispensation itself to which it belongs.

618. 2. With regard to its substance, it will be necessary for the words that institute the Sacrament to state that the believer has to receive something that is earthly, bodily and visible, as well as something that is spiritual, heavenly and invisible. For as God, by means of the Sacraments is communicating heavenly graces to earthly Beings, He, in the use of these means joins together earthly and heavenly, bodily and spiritual things. The bodily substance of the Sacrament is (in the language of the latin Church) called the Element, and consists in baptism of the water, in the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine. That not more than the above mentioned things are required for the use of the Sacraments, we trust to prove in the chapters, that treat on the Sacraments especially.

619. But the following distinction, caused by the different dispensations, is not to be lost sight of. For even so as the old testament dispensation consisted almost entirely of types, so the Sacraments it prescribed, had the spiritual and heavenly things but as a shadow of things to come and not in their reality; whilst those of the New testament have the spiritual and heavenly things not after their shadow, but in their reality. 

620. From which follows, that the Sacraments of the two dispensations cannot have been of one and the same description. All such things, therefore, as are common to the Sacraments of both dispensations cannot be called a Sacrament at all. Every thing that belongs to the old testament dispensation cannot form a Sacrament of the new testament; nor can anything of the new testament dispensation be made a Sacrament in the Old.

621. 3. With regard to the real, inward and essential form of the Sacrament, it will be necessary for the word to have ordained a certain action, by which the substance of the Sacrament is offered unto man and received by him. If such was not the case, then neither the express words nor the institution of the Sacrament would be done justice to. For the word must be joined to the Sacrament, else it would be no Sacrament at all.

622. From which we deduce, that the Sacrament cannot essentially consist of substance alone, even after the latter had been consecrated and put aside for this holy purpose. This could not yet make a Sacrament, because it had not been dealt with according to the will of him who instituted the same.

623. In the same way, although the Sacraments, as a whole, have their own signification, yet the visible elements of the same cannot be said “to signify something invisible.” For, in the first instance the word “signify” is not to be found in the words of Institution. And secondly if we maintain the term “signify,” then we mix up the sacraments of the old and those of the new testament, as having only “to signify.” But it is remarkable, that it is just this, that constitutes the difference between the Sacraments of the Old and those of the New testament. Those of the old testament are but shadows and do but “signify” the future, whilst those of the new Testament in reality do comprise and offer the substance of the thing signified.

624. 4. The purposes and effects of the Sacraments. Every Sacrament must have spiritual effects. For it has been ordained for the purpose of being the means of communicating the grace offered to man; from which follows that every Sacrament, that has no spiritual effects, cannot be a Sacrament at all.

625. d. Who is entitled to handle and to dispense the Sacraments? thereby we have to answer two questions:

i. whether the ministers of God alone are entitled to the performance of this act, or whether such as do not belong to the ministry have also a right to dispense the same? The dispensing of the Sacraments forms part of the obligations of the ministry, as St. Paul writes “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” 1. Cor. 4, 1. Now as nobody is entitled to intrude himself upon the office of the ministry, unless he be properly called, so nobody is entitled to dispense the Sacrament, unless he be called upon to do so by his office. But this has, of course, only reference to an orderly state of things within the church, and not to one of disturbance and persecution which makes it impossible to get at an ordained clergyman; in which latter emergency such also, as are not properly ordained to the office of the ministry, are permitted to teach the word, and to dispense the Sacraments. But yet with this distinction that the Sacrament of baptism be indispensably necessary, whilst the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper could be possibly dispensed with. In our days the Sacrament of baptism may happen to be of immediate necessity, but scarcely ever the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; and we say therefore, that persons who have not been properly ordained to the office of the ministry, are permitted to confer baptism, but not to dispense the Lord’s Supper.

626. ii. Whether, for the full efficacy of the Sacrament, it be necessary for him who dispenses the same, to be a, truly godly man, and to have, during the performance of the same certain good purposes in his own mind? We answer: it is true, that it behoves every man to approach the table of the Lord with fear and trembling, considering that he is about to approach the Lord’s countenance. Now it may also happen, that he whose duty it is to dispense the Sacrament is a despiser of God, or though not evil minded in other respects, has yet his mind occupied, during.the whole action, with unprofitable and unbecoming thoughts. But this circumstance cannot, in any way whatsoever, make void the Sacrament either in its nature or its working. For

aa. In this way the word, if preached by evil minded people would have no effect neither. But that this is not the case is proved when we read of Judas, though insincere, yet having effectually preached the word to the Pharisees, and Scribes, Matth. 10, 4. 7, that sat in Moses’ seats, Matth. 23, 2. 3; — and of others who preached the word for the express purpose of creating envy and strife, Philip. 1, 15. — In the same way, the efficacy of either of the Sacraments cannot be made void by the wickedness of the officiating minister.

bb. St. Paul writes Rom. 3, 3:, “Shall man’s unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” the faith of God is accordingly of such a nature as to give us His gifts by means of the Sacrament; and how could it be possible for the faithlessness of His servant to make this faith of God entirely void.

cc. It is not possible for any one to know the thoughts that animate his fellowmen; or to assure himself of the sentiments that are in the heart of the minister, whilst dispensing to him the Sacrament. As a consequence of this everybody would stand in continual doubt, as to his ever having efficaciously received the Sacrament. — And under such circumstances the Sacrament could not be said to be a seal to the faith of any one.

627. e. To whom the Sacraments are to be given? We have here to consider, in the first place, the persons who are to receive them, and secondly, the preparations they are expected to make fur this purpose. — With regard to our first consideration, we say, that the Sacraments are to be given ,unto all men, who have subjected themselves to the word, and the promises contained in the same. Yet the mode of the instituting of the same, as also many other circumstances may serve to modify this principle. Thus we find that the Passsah lamb had immediate reference to all Israel, while circumcision was to be performed upon children on the eight day and not sooner. Exactly in the same way is baptism the duty of every man, and there is no plausible obstacle whatsoever to this Sacrament being administered to Jews and Gentiles, as well as to children and adults; whilst the Lord’s Supper is but for such Christians as are able “to examine themselves” (concerning the state of their soul), 1. Cor. 11, 28. Which proves that to the Lord’s Supper are to be admitted but adults and not children.

628. With regard to the necessary preparations for the Sacraments, we say that none but those are to be made partakers of the Sacrament, who are believers and in reality the spiritual members of the Lord Jesus; whilst such as are unbelievers, or schismatics, or epicurean despisers of God and His word, as well as such as do not come to a knowledge of their sins, or who despair of the grace of God, — have no title whatsoever to the partaking of the Sacraments. Accordingly we find baptism and the Lord’s Supper every where mentioned in close union with faith; Mrk. 16, 16: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be’ saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” — And the Eunuch of Ethiopia, expressing his anxiety to be baptized is answered by Philip: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest [be Baptized],” Acts. 8, 37. And concerning the Lord’s Supper we read: “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread etc.” 1 Cor. 11, 28.

629. f. To which purpose Sacraments are to be employed? the principal end and purpose of the Sacraments is the application and the sealing unto us of the divine promises. Besides which they are also to serve for other purposes; thus by the publicly partaking of the same alone with God’s people, one confesses himself to be of the same faith; binding himself to be faithful unto God even to the last, and even to give his life for the honour of His name. Finally by the partaking of the Sacraments, the believers determine henceforth to consider themselves as members of the same body, and to assist each other in works of charity,

630. g. As to the different kinds and numbers of the Sacraments. This distinction has its origin in the diversity of the two dispensations, for there were Sacraments belonging to the Old, whilst some are referring to the New testament dispensation.

The Sacraments of the Old testaments dispensation were: Circumcision and the Passover.Circumcision was a seal of the covenant which God has made with Abraham and his seed, promising to be their God, and that of their seed after them, Genes. 17, 10; — a Sacrament that has been abolished [at the commencement of the new testament dispensation]. We know that Paul had seriously to contend with false Apostles, who mentioned the necessity of baptism, even under the new testament dispensation; and that he decided the same to have been abolished, Act. 15, 1. 19. 20. — By the institution of the Passover the Israelites received the assurance, that the Angel of death should have no power over the inhabitants of the houses, that had the token of blood upon them, Exod. 13, 14. This Sacrament also has been abolished, for Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, 1 Cor. 5, 17. The Lord Jesus in that he has instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper, has created something new, thereby making the first covenant (circumcision and passover) Old, Heb. 3, 13.

631. In the new testament dispensation, we have also not more than two Sacraments, viz: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In this place it is not to be omitted to attend to the following distinctions. By circumcision all the male children of God’s people were received within His covenant of mercy; whilst the Passover served as a seal of the covenant of mercy made by means of circumcision. — In the same manner, the Christian, is, by baptism, admitted into God’s covenant, whilst in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be has this covenant confirmed unto his soul.