Catechism: The Sacraments

III. The Sacraments

§ 1. Scriptural

1. What is the relation of sacraments to the Christian covenant?

They were ordained by Christ Himself to be to His people what the emblems of the law were to the Jews, tokens or pledges of His grace.

2. Did they supersede all the ancient ceremonial symbols?

Yes; but especially circumcision, which was the token of admission to the covenant; and the passover, which was the annual commemoration of its privileges: baptism takes the place of the former, and the Lord’s supper that of the latter.

3. Then they may be called institutions of Christianity?

The only permanent, unchangeable and universal institutions: their simple rites being established for ever; their outward observance being the badges of Christian profession; and their inward blessing to faith being the assurance of the grace they signify.

4. What terms signify this assurance?

They are signs by which God declares His grace; and seals by which He pledges it to our faith.

5. Are they then channels of grace?

No ordinance, no rite, no institution of God is without its appropriate grace. Every Divine word and every believing prayer is a channel of grace; and the sacraments also through the word of God and the prayer of faith are means of grace.

6. But are they not by their very nature only remembrancers and pledges?

They are seals of a covenant: and the seal is (1) the Divine signature that God will fulfil His promise according to the terms and conditions of the covenant: (2) the internal assurance impressed on the soul that He does fulfil it.

7. What is the relation of the two sacraments of the covenant of grace in Christ?

The last words, in Christ, answer. They seal the believer’s union with Christ and participation in Him of all the privileges of the covenant: one sacrament being that of the first union with Him, the other that of abiding communion with Him.

§ 2. Historical

1. What has been the current of thought on the subject?

It has taken two lines; one overvaluing the sacraments, and the other undervaluing them, as means of grace.

2. What has been the history of the former error?

(1) From the earliest times there was a tendency to regard the church as the depository of mysteries: baptism being the initiation, the supper the inmost secret, and all the doctrines and ceremonies of religion between. The Greek μυστήριον and the Latin sacramentum both at first signified every revealed mystery; but were gradually limited to these.

(2) By degrees this idea of a sacramental Christianity took the form of a multiplication of sacraments, so as to meet all the requirements of human nature: baptism for the consecration of birth; confirmation, of adult age; the eucharist, of spiritual nourishment; penance, for pardon of actual sin; matrimony for the sanctification of family life; orders, for the consecration of the church and its authority; extreme unction for the departure from time and the final sealing of probation.

3. How did the reformation affect the sacramental idea?

(1) It was gradually brought back to New-Testament principles: gradually, for at the outset a compromise sprang up which allowed penance and orders to be sacramentals though not sacraments. This distinction is still resorted to.

(2) The council of Trent decreed that the seven sacraments were ordained by Christ as the sole channels of grace, though allowing the supremacy of the Eucharist.

(3) The Protestant standards all finally asserted the validity of only two sacraments: declaring that no one of the added five was “ordained by Christ Himself” as having “a visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.”

4. Did it abolish the connection of grace with their administration?

(1) It opposed the theory known by the words “opus operatum,” which, as laid down by the schoolmen, signified that grace was inherent in the sacraments and always communicated as “a work wrought” through them: first, without necessary cooperation of faith; secondly, the “obex” or impediment of mortal sin not hindering; and, thirdly, the “intention” of the administrator being that of the church.

(2) But the connection of grace with the two sacramental emblems was maintained by all the formularies and doctors of the reformation; though that connection was differently viewed, whether as to the nature or as to the time of the grace.

5. How may the difference be stated?

(1) All the Lutheran standards held that the two sacraments are the two chief channels of grace for the beginning and the continuance of the new life; their benefit, however, depending on faith.

6. How did the Arminians treat the sacraments?

As having sprung from the Reformed branch, they also regarded them as means of a grace not by any means confined to the time of their use. The Arminian doctrine laid more emphasis than had been laid before on their relation to the covenant, and to the mutual obligation implied in it.

7. How has the second tendency been exhibited?

(1) Some of the mystics rose above all means; and, holding lightly the institution of a visible church, of course disregarded or unduly spiritualised the sacraments.

(2) An extreme form of this in modern times is seen in the Friends, who think that the sacraments were designed to be transitional: rites being inconsistent with a spiritual religion.

(3) But Zwingli earlier taught that they were simply signs, connected with grace only through their operation on the devout mind. And this view is still entertained by many who regard the signs as, so to speak, pictorial representations.

8. What is the bearing of the sacramental terminology on the question?

(1) The four terms, mystery and sacrament, sign and seal, are not expressly applied to these sacred ordinances. But they have been bound up with the teaching of the church of Christ from the beginning. (2) Mystery imports that the “inward and spiritual grace” hidden behind “the outward and visible sign” is to be traced in its effects, not investigated in its nature. Sacrament keeps its original meaning of a binding pledge which unites the two parties in the covenant. (3) The sign and seal must not be sundered: the Divine sign of the grace is a Divine seal also (Rom. 4:11). The words are derived from the teaching of St. Paul concerning the faith of Abraham, who received the sign (σημεῖον) of circumcision, as a seal of (σφραγῖδα), or assurance of his possessing, the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision.

This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Higher Catechism of Theology. Read more in Logos Bible Software or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).