Sentiment Is Not A Sacrament

Holidays are a time for great sentiment, which the Oxford American Dictionary defines, in this usage, as an “exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.” Who does not watch the annual Christmas movies? They are part of the late-modern communal experience of the season. Who doesn’t enjoy a good Christmas carol? There is no need to be a Scrooge. Nevertheless, it is most important to distinguish between sacraments and sentiment. A sacrament is not a feeling. It is an objective, visible promise by God that what the gospel declares is really true for him who believes. Heidelberg Catechism 75 says,

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

There’s nothing here about how we feel about Christ. Our feeling of or about Christ neither makes him farther nor closer. What matters is what Christ has promised to believers. What matters first is the objective truth that, just as we experiences the sacraments with our senses, just as surely God’s promise is true. The intent of the sacraments is not to create realities (God does that by his Spirit and his Word) but to ratify what has been promised in the gospel. This is why the Protestants used to say that the gospel is “outside us” (extra nos)—not that it remains outside of us but rather that Christ accomplished our redemption for us (pro nobis) and, by his Spirit, applies it to us. The medieval church had come to believe that righteousness is something that is accomplished in us and, to the extent we cooperated with grace, by us. That’s not good news because the grace of sanctification is never complete in this life and our cooperation with grace is never perfect. It is always corrupted by sin. The sacraments do not testify to what has been done in and by us for righteousness but to what has been done for us for righteousness and, as a consequence of Christ’s righteousness imputed, what he is now doing in us who believe.

Much has been written about the subjective qualities of the catechism and it is certainly true that the catechism was written with feeling and intends to evoke certain feelings but the Christian faith as summarized by the catechism is not fundamentally about our feelings. The Christian faith is much more interested in the objective truth of our salvation and, in this instance, about our sensible perception of Christ’s promises than it is about sentiment or warm feelings.

The gospel is that Christ died for me as my substitute. The promises are for me. There’s nothing more personal and even intimate than that but we observe the sacrament of the supper not because it evokes certain sentiments or feelings of warmth, sadness, and joy (even though it does) but because God has commanded it. The command is objective. It comes from God. We observe the supper because our Lord Jesus instituted it. Had he not instituted, we should not do it because we would have no warrant (authority) to do so. God will not have us worship him in any other way than he has commanded.

The church has not always remembered or observed this principle. You know that the Lord Jesus instituted the sacrament of baptism (Matt 28:18–20) and communion (Luke 22:17–20) but have you wondered whence Rome found five other alleged sacraments? The short story is that these were all popular additions to the divinely instituted sacraments that, over time, were ratified into alleged sacraments. These five practices were the product of popular sentiment. People liked them. They understood them. They evoked certain feelings. By the 16th century Rome had developed a rationale for them but the history is quite clear. They are each man-made practices that elaborate the two divinely instituted sacraments. With the addition of these five false sacraments popular sentiment trumped God’s truth in the practice of the church.

When the Reformed returned the church to biblical and the most ancient practice of the church (they studied the Fathers closely) they did so not on the basis of what they liked or what pleased them or what evoked the strongest feelings from the people. Rather they asked one question: What has God authorized? They asked, “What must we do in the public worship of God?” Other movements with the Reformation asked a different question: “What may we do?” or “What is not forbidden?” Those are very different questions and they lead to two different results. Experience suggests that, should we poll the members of most Reformed congregations they could not tell the difference between these questions.

There are practices that have crept into Reformed worship over the years that we did not observe during the Reformation. We need to ask ourselves why we do what we do in public worship. Are we doing something because God has commanded it or because we like it, because it evokes certain feelings? Nowhere is that danger more present than at Christmas, when sentiment runs high, when, rather than acting according to Scripture as confessed by the churches, congregations are greatly tempted to let warm feelings of nostalgia determine the practice of the church. History tells us that we should not think that we may indulge ourselves at Christmas and then put Santa back in the box the rest of the year.

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  1. Man that answer to Q. 75 is excellent. I love it and Christians need to believe it.

    “What may we do?” or “What is not forbidden?”
    This is partly why I left Lutheranism.

    You could ask “What has God authorized, concerning worship?” to most churches and they either haven’t ever thought about it or they would casually dismiss it or do worse by stating that to even ask the question is unloving or legalistic. The biblical illiteracy among Christians is both astonishing and tragic.

  2. What are your thoughts on the use of drama in worship, the use of advent wreaths, nativity scenes in churches and the liturgical calendar.
    The Bible mentions none of these.
    Should true devotees to the Reformed vision toss out these things?

  3. There is also a good deal of biblical support for including foot washing as a sacrament. Tradition, even in Reformed/Puritan circles who hold to the ephemeral regulative principle, is a powerful pet.

  4. Hi Dr. Clark, I understand that you are a very busy man. But, I ask for only a moment of your time.
    I remain extremely interested in my question about drama in worship, advent wreaths, the liturgical calendar, etc.
    These things aren’t mentioned in the Bible. Shouldn’t devotees to the principle of Sola Scriptura toss these things out along with all those other superfluous things that we tossed out during the Reformation?

    • Hi Micah,

      Sorry to have missed this earlier.

      In Recovering the Reformed Confession and here, on the HB, I argued that practices such as “liturgical drama” are contrary to the RPW as confessed by the churches. The calendar is a little more complicated since the churches, who confessed and adhered to the RPW, have taken somewhat different views. The Dutch churches said, in the Church Order adopted at the Synod of Dort (1619):

      63. The Lord’s Supper shall be administered once every two months, as much as possible. It is also edifying, wherever the circumstances of the churches allow, that the same be done on Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But in places where as yet there is no organized congregation, elders and deacons shall first be provisionally installed.

      I would prefer to observe the Lord’s Day alone. I see this as a concession to popular sentiment among the laity. The churches were were struggling to get them to sing without instruments and to sing God’s Word alone. Perhaps they conceded the calendar as a sort of trade? Reading through the minutes of the synods reveals a certain degree of pious pragmatism.

      Take a listen to the latest episode of the Heidelcast.

      Here are more resources on the RPW.

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