Heidelberg 66: Sacraments Are No More Or Less Than Gospel Signs And Seals (3)

Open Quote 5 lines66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross. (Heidelberg Catechism)

In part 2 we discussed how, for many American evangelicals, the sacraments became less than they actually are. In this last installment on Heidelberg 66 we want to consider positively what, in general, the sacraments are and do. First, they are holy signs and seals. The adjective holy is used quite casually today so perhaps we have lost track of what it signifies in this context. When we call the sacraments holy we do not mean to say that they have been imbued with a magical power. We do mean to say, however, that they have been set aside as distinct or for holy use. In the Reformed liturgy we do have a prayer of consecration. In consecration nothing happens to the being of the elements (water, bread, and wine). They remain what they were before. The water of baptism is still water. The bread and wine of holy communion are still bread and wine but they designated for a holy use. The Belgic Confession (art. 35) distinguishes between bread and wine for common use and bread and wine for sacred use.

to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten—that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.

So, we do not parade, worship, or venerate the consecrated elements. They are still bread and wine but they are not for common use but for sacred use. There is way to think about the sacraments, a way to regard them that is between magic and memory. We see this in Calvin’s prayer before the administration of the elements:

And as our Lord Jesus Christ, not content with having once offered his body and blood upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, has also destined them to us as nourishment for eternal life, so grant us of thy goodness, that we may receive this great blessing with true sincerity of heart and ardent desire, and endued with sure faith, enjoy together his body and blood, or rather himself entire, just as he himself, while he is true God and man, is truly the holy bread of heaven that gives us life, that we may no longer live in ourselves, and after our own will, which is altogether depraved, but he may live in us, and conduct us to a holy, happy, and ever-during life, thus making us truly part after of the new and eternal covenant, even the covenant of grace; and in feeling fully persuaded that thou art pleased to be for ever a propitious Father to us, by not imputing to us our offenses, and to furnish us, as dear children and heirs, with all things necessary as well for the soul as the body, we may pay thee endless praise and thanks, and render thy name glorious both by words and deeds. Fit us, then, on this day thus to celebrate the happy remembrance of thy Son: grant also that we may exercise ourselves therein, and proclaim the benefits of his death, that thus receiving new increase and strength for faith and every other good work, we may with greater confidence profess ourselves thy children, and glory in thee our Father.

Calvin’s was really a prayer of thanks for the benefits we receive from Christ, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) by the Spirit’s work operating through the sacraments upon believers. The Supper is a renewal to us not so much of our vows to Christ—hence we are not sacramentarians, i.e., our view of the supper is not wholly determined by the etymology of sacramentum as a military oath of allegiance—but first of all of his vows to us. We recognize that the sacraments are, in the first instance, Christ’s gospel promises to those who believe. They are gospel sacraments. Nevertheless, like the preached gospel, however, they do call for appropriate responses. The first response is to believe. The second response, as Calvin’s prayer suggests, is to rejoice, and thirdly that we should “exercise ourselves” in the grace we have received in the gospel which is signified and sealed to us in the holy supper.

The sacraments declare to us the same promises offered and proclaimed to us in the preached gospel. There are not two gospels, the one of preaching and the other of the sacraments. Baptism and the Supper testify to the same good news: God the Son became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. He obeyed in our place. He was crucified for us. He was raised for our justification. He ascended and is seated at the right and he is coming again in glory. To those who believe, the sacraments are tangible promises. Just as we see and feel the water, just as we touch and taste the bread and as we taste the wine, as we drink from the cup—would that the efficiency experts in the Presbyterian and Reformed world put the biblical institution and historic Reformed practice of the holy sacraments above their desire to save time—just as surely (our senses do not lie, by the way)1 are the promises true for us. They testify to and seal to believers our forgiveness and free acceptance with God only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness earned for us and freely imputed to us. By faith alone we really do have all that the holy sacraments signify. We really have been washed (even if it does not seem or feel like it sometimes). We really are being nourished on the true, proper, and natural body and blood of Christ (Belgic Confession) 35. In that use the sacraments really are sacred gospel promises to those who believe and as sacred promises of good news they should be believed and received with thanksgiving and joy.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. More on this in the coming questions and answers where the catechism speaks specifically to the necessity of a tangible and sensory reminder of the gospel.

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