Heidelberg 67: The Sacraments Are True Signs And Seals Of Christ And His Gospel (2)

Open Quote 5 lines67. 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).

In part 1 we considered how the sacraments are true signs and seals. This is no small thing in a world and in a time when a hermeneutic of suspicion reigns, in a time when it is not the author of the sign who is said to determine its meaning but rather the interpreter. In such of world, of course, communication becomes increasingly difficult. People ordinarily use signs (e.g., words)  with the assumption that the message the author intends to convey is the message that they reader intends to receive. If, however, the message is determined primarily by the reader then how can the author communicate (i.e., share something) with the receiver? This is the destructive nature of deconstructionism and of the radical subjectivism of our age. It’s no wonder that we are suspicious of each other. One might almost get the impression that there are dark spiritual forces in the world seeking to upend the divinely instituted order. Thus, we rightly regard the sacraments as a supernatural, divinely-instituted gift and means (media) by which his favor (grace) is communicated and sealed to us. Believers may not only know what Christ intends to say to them in the gospel but they may also be certain that the message is true for them in particular.

This is a great blessing because, even before the onset of late-modern subjectivism, skepticism, and deconstructionism, as sinners, we already had a propensity to doubt: “Lord, is it really true? How can I know?” Those are important questions. Just as our Lord graciously allowed Thomas (John 20:27) to touch his side, to experience with his senses the wounds to his true humanity, so too he graciously gives us tangible, sensory experiences. With our ears we hear the gospel preached. With our eyes we see baptism administered and we feel the water wash away the outward impurity (Eph 5:25; Titus 3:5). In the Lord’s Supper we feel the bread in our hands, we hold the cup and taste the bread and wine.

By the way, this is another reason why Gnosticism is such an evil. It, like the whole complex of spirit-matter heresies, tells us that our senses are utterly unreliable and this is very much the spirit of our age. In response, Christians testify that the world was made good (and not evil as the Gnostics say) and that yes, it is fallen, but nevertheless it is not intrinsically evil and that our senses ordinarily are sufficiently reliable. Christians neither make the human intellect the ultimate arbiter of truth (rationalism) nor do we make sense experience the sovereign judge (empiricism) but we affirm that fallen humans are still capable of being rational and that sense experience is generally reliable. This is important to because without reason and sense experience the means of grace are marginalized but by the Lord’s gracious ordering of things we can trust that our senses really are generally telling us the truth. When we see a red light we are really seeing what everyone else is seeing. It is possible to communicate and receive a general message. Thus, the skepticism (deconstructionism etc) of our age is an evil game played by intellectual vandals who play with the lives of others as they stop at red lights themselves (go ahead, deconstruct those brake lights in front of you at 75 MPH and see what happens) and expect others to stop at the cross walk so that they can toddle off to deconstruct God’s Word and world another day.

The message that our heavenly Father is sending through the sacraments is for you, the believer. He knows that you doubt, that, like Thomas, you too wonder if it’s really true. He knows that your sins rise up and accuse you and he knows that you know that, apart from the Christ, his Son, and without the free imputation of his righteousness, you too would be subject to condemnation. The Father loves you so much that he not only gave his only and eternally begotten Son (John 1 and 3) but he gave you truth-telling signs and seals, guarantees to believers, that it is really true.

The sacraments testify to and seal to believers that Christ really has come, that he really did obey, that he was crucified for us, he was raised on the third day, that he is ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father and that he there intercedes for us. The catechism focuses rightly on his crucifixion as the central act of his sacrifice for us. The catechism was written and published at a time when its recipients were just overcoming the notion that ministers are priests and that the sacraments have a magical quality to them, that the magically, necessarily create the realities they signify. Many of the original recipients of the catechism had been taught and had believed that in the Holy Supper, the minister (as a priest) offers a memorial sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath. What the Reformed Churches wanted people to understand is that Christ died “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10; Rom 6:10) for us and to pay for our sins and to propitiate (i.e., to turn away) God’s wrath from believers. Jesus did not initiate new covenant sacrifices or the “priesthood of the new law” (as Rome says) but to put an end to the priesthood of the old covenant. He did not die to make salvation merely possible for those who do their part (e.g., cooperate sufficiently with grace) but to earn our salvation and to give it freely—for it is by God’s free favor you have been saved! (Eph 2:8)so that we might rest in Christ’s finished work for us and trust that his Spirit is at work in us as a consequence. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:10. By virtue of our union with Christ we too died “once for all” to sin. It’s dominion has been broken. The gospel truth, signified and sealed by the sacraments, is that we have been saved, we have been justified by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone, and we will complete the good work, i.e., sanctification he has begun in us (Phil 1:6).

All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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