The Sacraments as the Economical or Covenant Means of Grace

The Saviour, who came not to destroy but to fulfil the law, has retained under new forms those two of the ancient ritual observances which were the specific badges of the old covenant as such: Circumcision, the rite by which the covenant was entered, has become Baptism; and the Passover, the rite by which it was annually confirmed, has become the Lord’s Supper. These have been instituted for the perpetual observance of the Christian Church, and placed among its means of grace. As means of grace they have elements of difference, and elements in common with the other means. Their difference is that they are Federal Transactions: signs and seals of the covenant of redemption. As signs, they represent in action and by symbols the great blessings of the covenant; as seals they are standing pledges of the Divine fidelity in bestowing them on certain conditions, being the Spirit’s instrument in aiding and strengthening the faith which they require, and in assuring to that faith the present bestowment of its object. Thus they are, on the one hand, objective institutions which assure the continuance of the Spirit’s administration of redemption in the Church, and, on the other, subjective confirmations to each believing recipient of his own present interest in the covenant. Moreover, as the covenant is not of one but implies the condescension of God in entering into covenant relations with His people, the signs and seals are mutual: they are emblematic ordinances by which the Divine fidelity is pledged, and they are on our part the outward and visible token by which our faith gives its pledges to God of a cordial acceptance of His terms: both, however, by the Holy Ghost. These federal transactions as belonging to the means of grace have also their elements in common with other means. They are based upon the mediation of Him who is the supreme Means of Grace; they are appointed by the same authority; like other means, they are external notes and badges of Christian profession; and, finally, they depend for their efficacy on the Holy Spirit’s power working in and through human faith. These ordinances have been from the beginning termed Sacraments. Their nature, and efficacy, and number, and general relation to the means of grace are questions which have been much controverted, and given rise to some of the most important differences among the Christian Confessions.

Circumcision, the rite by which the covenant was entered, has become Baptism; and the Passover, the rite by which it was annually confirmed, has become the Lord’s Supper.

What more this topic requires will be best given in a brief view of the history of the sacramental principle in general.

1. In the New Testament no designation is given to these symbols. All types, or prophecies in act, ended with Christ the universal Antitype, and all symbols, or visible prophetic representations of invisible realities, ended with the Tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost, and therefore with the Holy Ghost, the universal spiritual reality. So far as they are prophetic types and symbols they must cease with their fulfilment. This gives deep emphasis to the fact that two symbols were retained, or rather instituted anew, for permanent observance. They are closely connected with the blessings they signify: they are also distinctly separated from them; and by plain command, which we see always obeyed throughout the New Testament, they are made perpetual. This will appear more fully in the discussion of the several Sacraments themselves.

2. Very early two names were given to the sacramental institution. In the Greek Church the term Μυστήριον was used: mystery (Rev. 1:20), not in the more general Pauline meaning of a secret disclosed, but in that of the profound significance of some perceptible emblem: hence it is preserved as a remembrancer of the past in the English Communion Service, “these holy mysteries.” By the Western Church the corresponding word Sacramentum was employed: in Roman usage the term had a wide variety of meanings, all however based on the idea of a sacred obligation. It was the oath, particularly that by which the soldier was bound to fidelity: obtemperaturus sum et facturus quicquid mandabitur ab imperatoribus juxta vires. The two ordinances were in the early Church regarded as the rites of religion through which Christians came under the most solemn obligation to do their part in complying with the conditions of grace. Baptism, however, had more of the sacramental character, the Eucharist more that of mystery. In ecclesiastical Latin the word sacramentum came to signify anything consecrated; in the Vulgate it was adopted as the translation of μυστήριον; and, as the sign of a sacred thing, became the conventional name of the institute. Later diversities may be referred to the several topics of the Sign, and the Seal, and the Divine appointment.


As to their significatory character there has been no real difference from the beginning among those who have held fast the Sacraments as belonging to the permanent economy of the Gospel. Augustine’s “aliud videtur, aliud intelligitur” or “verba visibilia,” Visible Words; and Chrysostom’s ἕτερα ὁρῶμεν ἕτερα πιστεύομεν, “one thing we see, another we believe,” have been accepted by all Christians alike as rightly indicating the meaning of the emblems, whether of the old covenant or of the new. Here there is no discussion. It has pleased God in every age to include among His divers manners (Heb. 1:1) the method of teaching by symbol. The Saviour Himself so taught: witness His records in the Gospels, from the scourge of cords down to the Feetwashing. Nor is there a word spoken in the New Testament that formally abolishes symbols generally, though the institution of the two sacraments may be fairly considered as implying that they were to stand alone in the worship of the Christian congregation.


Their character as seals has been the subject of much discussion and of wide discrepancy. The various theories which have predominated may be studied to great advantage in their historical order.

1. In the Early Church we find the germs of every later teaching. But to one who studies attentively there can be no question that a strong tendency betrayed itself almost as soon as the Apostles departed to dwell more on the Mysterium than on the Sacramentum, and to make the whole of religion depend as it were on these two sacramental rites.

2. This exaggerated estimate of the ceremonial ordinances took its final form in the Tridentine teaching, which makes the sacraments, not seals of a covenant, but depositories of grace flowing through them of necessity and through them alone: their intrinsic efficacy being supposed always to accompany the priestly administration; if performed, that is, with intention according to the mind of the Church, and on recipients who do not interpose the obstacle of mortal sin. The Council of Trent has this canon: Si quis dixerit per ipsa novæ legis sacramenta ex opere operato non conferri gratiam sed solam fidem divinæ promissionis ad gratiam consequendam sufficere, anathema sit. This dictum is capable of two constructions. As in the case of Justification it may be said that the faith alone is all that is condemned; but the common instinct of Protestantism has seen in it the foundation of the error of a necessary impartation of grace lodged only in the sacraments. This very ancient and wide-spread error, though not held by the Greek Church, has three characteristics. It elevates unduly the means, which are supposed to contain and as it were mechanically or magically discharge their grace. It makes too much depend upon the mind and purpose of the administrant. And its negative condition, the not interposing an obstacle, or the obicem of mortal sin, tends to the dishonour of Evangelical faith, and complicates the subject by involving with it the definitions of mortal and venial sin. The direct influence of the Holy Spirit is also omitted.

3. The Lutheran and Reformed types of doctrine concerning the sacramental idea condemn the ex opere operato, or that which makes the sacramental act efficacious per se or without reference to the faith of the recipient; but they in some other respects differ. Lutheranism lodges the virtue in the sacraments, makes it inherent in them by the ordination of Christ, but saving only to the believer: it approaches the Romanist theory as to their being the appointed and generally the only channels of salvation. Adopting St. Augustine’s maxim, accedit verbum et fit sacramentum,—the Divine word added makes it a sacrament—it regards that consecrating word as conveying into the elements a grace which they must needs impart, to the evil for condemnation and to believers for their good. It makes the sacraments necessary means of grace: not merely the first, and generally necessary; but, as to the specific grace they represent, the only means. A participation in these institutes is held essential to a participation in the things they signify. Hence the sacraments are made in a certain sense the centre of the plan of salvation. This must be remembered in every estimate of Lutheranism as such.

4. The Reformed doctrine lays more stress on the concurrence of the Holy Ghost: virtus Spiritus sancti extrinsecus accedens. Not the Word, as in St. Augustine’s maxim, but the Spirit, makes the sacrament a channel of grace; and, as that Spirit is not bound to forms, He can dispense His grace without the sacraments, before them or after them. Still, though not absolutely necessary, sine quâ non, they are preceptively necessary; and, as the appointed seals and pledges of the administration of redeeming grace, they must he observed. The early Socinians went beyond the Swiss Zwingli in making sacraments only signs of Christian profession, and emblems intended to exert a moral influence on the mind: a view which is extensively prevalent among the lesser sections of Christendom both on the Continent and in England.

5. The early Arminian doctrine is sometimes classed with the system to which these last-named views belong. But let us hear the words of the Remonstrant Confession: Sacramenta cum dicimus, externas Ecclesiæ cæremonias seu ritus illos sacros ac solennes intelligimus, quibus veluti fœderalibus signis ac sigillis visibilibus Dens gratiosa beneficia sua in fœdere præsertim evangelico promissa non modo nobis repræsentat et adumbrat, sed et certo modo exhibet atque obsignat, nosque vicissim palam publiceque declaramus ac testamur, nos promissiones omnes divinas vera, firma atque obsequiosa fide amplecti et beneficia ipsius jugi et grata semper memoria celebrare velle. These words should be carefully studied in their connection, and translated; as presenting, beyond those of any other Symbol, all the elements necessary to make up the true sacramental idea. The definition lays stress on their being Federal signs and seals: not only adumbrating the evangelical blessings of the Christian covenant, but exhibiting and applying them; while they express also our public faith, and grateful remembrance. This testimony includes all that is included in our great British Confessions; and, if it adds anything, the addition is an improvement. The Westminster Confession says: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace. There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” And in the Shorter Catechism the Presbyterian standard thus speaks: “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” Here the last expression gives additional strength to the idea of the seal: not only are blessings pledged, but they are then and there imparted. So the Article of the Church of England: “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace, and God’s goodwill towards us, by the which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in Him.” With these symbols—Arminian, Reformed, Anglican—our general Proposition agrees.


As to the Divine institution of the sacraments there have been two leading errors. One, represented by some of the more pantheistic Mystics in earlier ages, and by the Quakers in modern times, denies the permanent obligation of these ordinances. According to the latter baptism was intended only for the first introduction of Gentiles into the new community; the Eucharist was only the sanctification of the common nourishment of life; and, generally, the Christian economy has and can have in it no ritual. The other error has gone to the opposite extreme, and multiplied the sacramental institutions of Christianity.


1. The origin of this multiplication of sacraments may be traced to the indefinite use of the term in early phraseology: it was applied to almost every mystery of the Christian Faith and almost every religious symbol. Thus Augustine, while allowing their supremacy to the Two, speaks in an uncertain and wavering manner concerning some other rites of a sacramental nature. Bernard was disposed to add the Feet-washing, and many writers before and after him mention other symbolical acts of Christ among the sacraments. The Seven Sacraments were first defined by Otto of Bamberg, a.d. 1124; these received ecclesiastical sanction at Florence, a.d. 1439, and were confirmed at the Council of Trent. They were variously illustrated and defended by the Scholastics. It was supposed that each was symbolised by or symbolised one of the seven cardinal virtues, Faith, Love, Hope, Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, Righteousness; they were explained by the analogy of the spiritual life with the physical, as to Birth, Growth into adult age, Nourishment, Healing, Reproduction, Instruction, Death; and so forth. The final definition at Trent admits the pre-eminence of the Eucharist: (Sess. xiii. 3) Sanctitate longe cæteris antecellit. (Cat. Rom. 2:1, 22) Baptism, Confirmation, Orders were held to have an indelible character, never effaceable, and never to be repeated. The anathema is pronounced upon those who deny that the Seven were all, if not equally, instituted by Christ: admitting therefore that the appointment of our Lord is the only and final test of a true sacrament.

2. It is remarkable that the Greek and the Roman communions, differing in so much besides, agree in accepting seven sacraments. Both base their acceptance on the authority of the Church as interpreting the will of Christ, and vindicate them as enfolding and hedging round, and sanctifying the whole of life at its several stages: Baptism is the sanctification of birth, Confirmation of adult life, Penance of the life of daily sin, the Eucharist of life itself, Orders of legitimate authority, Matrimony of the Church’s law of continuance and increase, and Unction of the departure hence. Other communions have attempted, and are attempting, to introduce the distinction between sacramental ordinances which are not sacraments and sacraments proper, but the test of our Lord’s own institution absolutely forbids any addition to His two covenant institutes. “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained by Christ Himself as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” Our Lord has chosen and hallowed two, only two; and it is vain to elevate acts which are rather benedictory or only symbolical than sacramental into sacraments proper.

3. The Apology for the Augsburg Confession allowed Penance to be one of the Saviour’s sacramental institutes, and Melanchthon was disposed to admit into the number Ordination. These were not retained, however, in the churches of the Reformation, although the Lutherans preserved Confession as a wholesome part of the rejected Orders. The definition in the English Article strikes the true note: the Five added by Rome “are not to be counted sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.” To this, however, may be added that they have no connection with the covenant character of the Gospel of Christ. Having this test to apply, we may consider the additional sacraments in their order.


1. The supposed sacrament of Confirmation sprang out of a rite anciently known as Chrism or the Seal, which was thought to add the positive gift of the Spirit to the baptismal removal of guilt: thus early binding up with its error a certain truth. It was administered not before the seventh year, and only by a bishop, as succeeding to the Apostolical prerogative of imposition of hands. In its final development in the Middle Ages the imposition and anointing constitute the matter of the sacrament; and the form: Signo te signo crucis et confirmo te chrismate salutis in nomine, etc. The Scriptural ground for this fails before strict examination. Our Lord’s baptism with the Holy Ghost has of course no relation to the question. Nor are the instances in which Apostles imparted the Holy Ghost to the Samaritans: this was a special recognition of Samaritan Christianity by peculiar and almost Pentecostal tokens. (Acts 8) The baptism and anointing of John’s disciples at Ephesus were simultaneous: (Acts 19:4) they had not before received Christian baptism. Another passage commonly adduced is that in which St. Paul says that after they believed the Ephesians were sealed: here the Greek requires (Eph. 1:13), when ye believed ye were sealed. The reception of the young by formal profession of faith into the congregation has been a laudable usage in most communions. But there is no sacramental institute for that purpose.

2. The system of Penance elaborated in the early Church was based upon the supposed necessity of making satisfaction to God for sin committed after baptism. As finally elevated into a sacrament, its Matter—to use the scholastic phrase—is Contritio cordis, Confessio oris, Satisfactio operis. The form is the judicial act and word of absolution. The Contrition of heart is not required to be absolutely perfect, Attrition, or a sincere desire to repent, may be enough; the Confession is auricular, including omnia et singula peccata mortalia, and at least once in the year. The satisfaction supposes that the priest is a judge who, in the name of God, imposes penances as the condition of the remission of temporal punishments of the sin, which, as to the reatus culpæ and its eternal consequences, is forgiven for Christ’s merits’ sake. These temporal penalties may be exacted in this life or in the intermediate state: both being temporal. They may be commuted for satisfactions of various kinds, fasting, prayer, alms; which, however, were connected often with the most unevangelical forms of self-discipline. On this sacrament of Penance hangs the doctrine of Purgatory, the scene where the supreme satisfaction of Christ is supplemented: as also Indulgences, based on the fund of merit stored in the Church, and granted, avowedly for the remission of temporal penalty, often, in popular acceptation, for the remission of all sin whatever. This most important institute is not based upon the Word of God: the Scriptural Absolution is the declaration of the terms of forgiveness, its Confession is not auricular and enforced, its only Satisfaction is the perfect obedience of Christ, and its only Judge and Confessor the Lord Himself.

3. The sacrament of Orders or consecration to the priesthood is closely connected with the last: quo tribuitur potestas consecrandi corpus et sanguinem Domini, nec non remittendi et retinendi peccata. As the baptised were endued with grace by imposition of episcopal hands, so episcopal hands alone could confer the specific grace of the priesthood. But there is nothing either in our Lord’s appointment of His ministers or in the Apostolical confirmation of it, that sustains such an investiture with such tremendous privileges and responsibilities. Of this more will be said in the appropriate place.

4. Matrimony was elevated to the dignity of a sacrament mainly on the ground of the Apostle’s words: This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:32) As a sacrament the ordinance of marriage is treated most elaborately in the Roman and in the Eastern Theology. It has really, however, the slenderest title of all the usurpers of the sacramental character; being only a natural relation sanctified, and honoured as signifying the Saviour’s union with His Church. In strange contradiction to this high character of the ordinance was its undervaluation in the celibate life, whether in or out of the priesthood.

5. Extreme Unction (Jas. 5:14, 15) rests mainly on the anointing in St James, where, however, the rite had no reference to death. Its sacramental institution by Christ is supposed to be found in the reference to the same subject in St. Mark’s Gospel, concerning which the same remark may be made. (Mark. 6:13) It is a comprehensive sacrament, the Viaticum, useful for the soul and, if God will, for the body too: effectus est mentis sanatio et, in quantum autem expedit, ipsius etiam corporis (Conc. Flor. 1439).


The opposite error, that of those who deny the authoritative institution of sacramental means of grace, in the sense in which we understand the term, that is, ordinances which pledge or seal, as well as symbolise, to those who worthily receive them the grace of redemption, should be carefully avoided.

The true doctrine avoids the delusive under-statement that makes sacramental ordinances mere signs that æsthetically act on the minds of those who wait upon them.

1. There are those, as we have seen, who would honour the spiritual character of the religion of Christ by dispensing with His own express appointments. But they are surely on the way to the same error who regard our Lord as having placed in His Church two rites, which are only rites, only symbols teaching the eye, whether of the assistants or the spectators, and thus make Him the Founder of a purely ritual and symbolical service. Had that been His design, we should have accepted it with reverence. But it was not His design. There is nothing ordained by Him for the permanent observance of His people which is not accompanied by the Holy Ghost, and made the channel of its own appropriate grace. The rites of Christianity have their concomitant benedictions; and are never without them, save to such as bring no preparation of faith, the absence of which makes all religion a mere ceremonial. The true doctrine is between two extremes. It avoids the delusive over-statement that connects specific blessings, regeneration, and the sustenance of Christ’s life, with the sacraments as their sole conductors to the soul: these are only the covenant pledges of a gift that is with and through them imparted, but not necessarily with and through them alone. And it avoids the delusive under-statement that makes sacramental ordinances mere signs that æsthetically act on the minds of those who wait upon them. This, it may be repeated, is to abolish the distinction between those symbolical actions of our Lord—such as His setting a child in the midst, blighting the fig-tree, washing His disciples’ feet, breathing forth the Holy Ghost—which were actions that taught their lesson by symbol first, and were afterwards interpreted by His words, and those permanent ceremonies which He ordained to be Means as well as signs of His grace to the believer.

There is an undervaluation of the sacraments which springs from no theological opposition or scruple, but is the result of indifference or ignorance.

2. There is, however, an undervaluation of the sacraments which springs from no theological opposition or scruple, but is the result of indifference or ignorance. There are many unbaptised children whose parents are responsible for the neglect of the Saviour’s command, a neglect which will not be visited on the children themselves. But the neglect is, perhaps, more striking in the case of the other sacrament. It is not that it is treated with irreverence; but, for want of adequate instruction, there are many who regard the Lord’s Supper as a religious solemnity, in some way or other connected with the acceptance of religious responsibilities, and dependent for its blessing upon the vigour of faith and expectation in the communicant, but without any distinct perception of its peculiar and distinct place in the Evangelical economy. The recoil from one extreme has carried many too far in the opposite direction. It ought to be matter of solicitude on the part of Christian ministers to teach their people the right doctrine of the sacraments: especially that which lays emphasis upon their relation to the new covenant, its benefits and obligations.