67. Are both the Word and the Sacraments designed to direct our faith to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
Yes truly, for the Holy Spirit teaches in the Gospel and assures us by the Holy Sacraments, that our whole salvation stands in the one sacrifice of Christ made for us on the cross (Heidelberg Catechism).
As we have already seen, Christian theologians and the church corporately have both been tempted at times to make less and more of the sacraments than they really are. They really are true signs of what God has done for sinners in Christ and they are true seals, promises, guarantees of what is true for those who believe. Nevertheless, the sacraments themselves are not what they signify and seal. To teach that would be to destroy the sacraments since a sacrament is a sign and seal and not the thing signed and sealed. The photos on my phone, however high-definition the image, are not the people in the photos. Yet, the sacraments are true signs. They do tell the truth about who Christ is and what he has done and what he has promised. They do not lie. This is what we confess in Belgic Confession art. 33:
He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.
For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.
The sacraments, by divine ordination, seal the truth and reality of God’s promises to believers. Seals have always been important. In the ancient world the authenticity of a document was guaranteed by a seal. We still use them. Corporations have a stamp that leaves an imprint (like those use to stamp one’s name on the flyleaf of a book) on corporate documents. They guarantee that a document is an authentic corporate document. In the ancient world those seals were made into hot wax with a signet ring. The word signet is derived from the Latin word signetum, the medieval diminutive of signum, which refers to a seal. We still authenticate things, even (or perhaps especially) in the digital world. How many emails do you receive daily that are dubious? It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell authentic websites from imposters seeking to collect information for nefarious purposes. How many of us have been fooled by a clever electronic manipulation of a photo?
Words, photos, and videos are all signs. They point to something other than themselves. Now, the question of to what it is they point is one of the great debates of the late modern age. For most of human history it was understood that signs, e.g., words in a letter or some other document, should be understood in the sense that the author originally intended. Thus, if I send you an email asking to you sell a bicycle on my behalf for $20.00 my intent is that, at the end of the business deal the transaction will result in the bicycle being traded for cash in the amount of $20.00. Were you to give away the bike for nothing or were you to pay the other party, on my behalf, those acts would reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of authorial intent. If you said to me, “I am a sovereign reader and I received your email to say that I should give away your bicycle because I know that you are just person and that is what justice requires” we should be working at cross purposes. Nevertheless, this very sort of theory of the interpretation (hermeneutic) of signs been proposed and widely adopted in the late-modern academy. The foolishness of it all, however, is patent to anyone with the slightest bit of sense. The very same authors who want us to acknowledge the reader (and not the author) as sovereign over the text expect us to accept their words, in the sense intended by them as authors as they seek to convince us to refuse to grant the same courtesy to other authors. This, of course, is nothing less than literary vandalism.
Nevertheless, readers (recipients) do receive signs (texts, sacraments) and they must interpret them. We may be thankful to our Triune God that he has not only given us an extensive explanation of the sacraments, so that they do not come to us as silent, uninterpreted brute facts of which we may make what we will. There is a message inherent in the sacraments. They were instituted by Christ. He spoke words, which he meant us to understand in the sense in which he spoke them. He gave names to the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and they came to us in the context of a broader narrative about his life, suffering (passion), death, resurrection, and ascension. In other words, these signs are inextricably bound up with Christ’s own gospel Word about himself and the significance of his life. They must be interpreted and received in light of that context. They must also be received in light of the apostolic explanation of them (e.g., in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11; Colossians 2:11-12; Romans 6).
Further, the sacraments as signs and seals of a divinely revealed message (the Gospel), are accompanied by the author himself. God the Spirit, who inspired the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to write and preserve the narratives of the institution of the sacraments (e.g., Luke 22; Matthew 28) also accompanies and works through the sacraments (signs and seals) to communicate to and confirm their truth to believers. This is quite remarkable. Ordinarily, when an author creates a sign (e.g., post on the HB), he sends that collection of signs (words, sentences, paragraphs) to the reader in the hope that he has been sufficiently clear and that the reader is of good will and charitable. He cannot accompany the words. He cannot stand over the reader’s shoulder and say, “No, no, no! You’ve completely missed my meaning” or “That’s just right. That is what I intend to say.” Thus, writers and readers sometimes go back and forth until genuine communication is achieved. In the case of the sacraments, however, the divine author not only sends them but goes with them to work through them to accomplish genuine communication and communion between the author and the recipient. That is a grace to be received with thanks.
Whereas the late-modern tendency is to make all texts and signs about us, about the reader/recipient (Narcissism) The sacraments point us to Christ. We are not free to make of them what we will. The recipient does not make the sign or the seal what it is. The author of the sign and seal makes them what they are. The function of the recipient is to acknowledge the author’s intent and to receive those signs and seals in faith (knowledge, assent, and confidence) that what they signify is true and what they seal is true “for me” (pro me) and “for us” (pro nobis) who believe.
Next time: How they signify Christ and his promises and seal the same to believers.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.