65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.
In part 2 we considered how the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to create faith in the elect. There is, however, a second aspect to the way the Spirit uses means to work in his people. Whereas he uses the preaching of the gospel to bring his people to life and to faith, and through faith into vital, spiritual union with Christ, he uses the gospel made visible, the sacraments to confirm his promises and thereby to strengthen and nourish their faith.
Remember that, in September of 1562, just before the catechism was published in 1563, the Roman communion published her “doctrine concerning the sacrifice of the mass” in session 22 of the Council of Trent. In that session Rome declared that in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, holy communion, he left to his a church “a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice once to be accomplished on the cross might be represented, the memory thereof remain to the end of the world, and its salutary effects applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit….” (cap. 1). 1 He “then made priests of the New Testament, that they might partake, commanding them and their successors in the priesthood by these words to do likewise: ‘do this in commemoration of me,’ as the Catholic Church has always understood and taught.2 According to Rome, in the “divine sacrifice” of the mass, in the transubstantiated elements, Christ is “immolated [killed] in an unbloody manner” and further “the holy council teaches that this is truly propitiatory” i.e., it turns away the wrath of God (cap. 2).3 Thus, according to Rome, when the priest offers the consecrated host (sacrificial victim), i.e., Christ, his wrath is turned away. It is a continuation of Christ’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross. Rome says the words “once for all” but denies their intent. When Rome says “once for all” she means, “Jesus made a beginning but we must do our part.”
On the other side, as it were, Zwingli and others had reduced the Supper to a mere memorial. I am aware that this interpretation has been challenged (e.g., see Peter Stephens’ work on Zwingli) but I am convinced from my reading of Zwingli that at most he thought of the Supper as an intense funeral, psychological experience. This is the predominant view held by American evangelicals and Reformed folk. In my experience few Reformed folk actually agree with the Belgic Confession (art. 35) that, in the Supper, by the mysterious work of the Spirit, through faith, believers are fed by the “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ. This was Calvin’s view of the Supper and it is the doctrine confessed by the Reformed Churches in Heidelberg Catechism numbers 75–77. We will consider that teaching more fully when we get there. The great point here is that the Reformed are convinced that God uses means, instruments,media both to bring us to life and faith and to strengthen our new life and faith and communion with Christ.
Both preaching and the sacraments are administrations of the gospel but they are different administrations of the same gospel. On this we differ from confessional Lutheranism. As I understand them, the sacraments are so objective, the gospel isso present in the sacraments that they do just what preaching does. They do not seem to think of the Spirit operating through the sacraments as much as being embedded in them. The self-described “Federal Vision” theology says similar things, if for different reasons. According to the Federal Visionists, baptism works ex opere (by the working or using of it) to create a real union between the baptized and Christ. This union places one in a conditional covenant wherein one has been united to Christ, elected, justified etc and must fulfill his part of the covenant to retain what has been given in baptism. So, they agree with the Lutherans that baptism necessarily does something. They disagree as to what baptism is and does. For the Lutherans the sacraments are gospel. For the Federal Visionists the sacraments become law (“do this in order to be accepted”). In contrast, the confessional Reformed Churches think of the Spirit freely operating through the sacraments to strengthen the life and faith of those who receive.
Further, we recognize a difference between the sacraments themselves. Baptism is the sign and seal of initiation into the visible covenant community. The Spirit does not necessarily create new life when baptism is administered. Rather, baptism is a sign of what Christ has done for his people, namely, the washing away of sins and the conferring of new life. It seals, it promises to those who believe that what is signified in baptism is really true of them. With Luther Christians, believers, should say, “I am a baptized person. I belong to Christ.” The Lord’s Supper is a sign of what Christ has done—he has saved us!—and and seal, a promise to believers, that just as they just as surely as they taste the bread and wine, so surely has Christ saved them and is at work in them, and is with them. Neither Holy Baptism nor the Holy Supper create the realities they signify and seal but they are gospel sacraments. They are promises of good news to believers. Faith receives what they promise. Faith knows, assents, and trusts and receives all that they promise. The sacraments do not replace faith. They supplement faith. They confirm faith the way a registered letter embossed or stamped with a government seal confirms a declaration. Take an old high school or college diploma out of its frame you will see signatures and a raised seal stamped into the paper. That seal makes that document authentic. That’s what a sacrament is to a believer.
To an unbeliever the sacraments are mere signs of what Christ has accomplished for his people and what he has in store for all who will not repent. It promises nothing to unbelievers but destruction. That flood of judgment that he endured for his people, on the cross, is waiting for them if they do not repent and trust in Christ as the only Savior. The water of baptism signifies that flood-judgment that Christ endured for us. He went through the Red Sea for us. To all those who are outside of Christ, baptism testifies that a flood greater than Noah’s awaits them. Unbelievers are Egyptians riding their chariots after the Israelites and just as the Red Sea swallowed Pharaoh’s armies, so it will swallow them.
The Lord has always used means. Paul says that
our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4; ESV)
He adds a caveat: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Why was he not pleased with most of them? Because they were idolaters, as he goes on to explain. They did not believe. It’s not that they sinned and were overthrown. It’s that they did not believe and therefore they sinned impenitently. Their impenitent sin demonstrated their unbelief. Still, those Old Testament sacraments signified and sealed the gospel promises to those who believed. Just as they went through, on dry ground, the Red Sea and the cloud, as they were identified with Moses their (typological) deliverer, so Christ had saved them from the final, ultimate Red Sea. Just as they were nourished by the manna in the desert, so too God the Spirit was using the Lord’s Supper to strengthen them for the journey to their heavenly city. The Red Sea did not create new life. The manna did not turn away God’s wrath but they were signs and seal, sacraments of the gospel. So too baptism and the Supper do not create the realities they signify but they do testify and promise to believers that what the gospel declares is true for them.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
- Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), 144–45.
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 146.