When Christians receive the Lord’s Supper or when people are baptized, what happens? Is it the case that, as Rome claims, at consecration, the elements of bread and wine are transformed (transubstantiated) so that they are no longer, in substance, bread and wine but now actually the literal body and blood of Christ? Is it the case that when baptism is administered that the recipients are necessarily (ex opere operato) given new life by virtue of receiving baptism? Is it the case, as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) seemed to say, that the Supper is really only an intense experience of remembering, that if Jesus may be said to be present, that presence is a subjective psychological-emotional presence? Many Christians have been presented with these sorts of choices. There is a blessed alternative.
In the Reformed tradition and confession we have a category that is not widely shared by American evangelicals hailing from the revivalist traditions, i.e., especially those descended from Pietism and the Second Great Awakening, holiness, and “higher life” traditions. We speak of the “due use of the ordinary means.” This phrase comes from Westminster Confession of Faith (1647–48) 1.7. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) defines what we mean by “ordinary means:”
Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
For some Christian traditions, there is a divorce between the “outward and ordinary means” and the internal and spiritual. For those traditions, talking about “outward” things is a sign of nominalism. This is particularly true of the Pietists, who tended to set the two at odds. They did this because that movement (or those movements) arose mostly in the context of state-churches where everyone in a given parish was baptized, recognized as a Christian, and received as a member of the church (and typically) not placed under discipline regardless of whether one actually believed or not. The Pietists were concerned that there were nominal Christians, i.e., Christians in name but not actual spiritual Christians. They had seen people participate outwardly without evidence of actual, inward new life and true faith. Thus, they even became suspicious of outward means such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They became suspicious of the ordinary ministry of the church, e.g., the preaching of the gospel. They tended to prefer small groups, which they called “conventicles.” Some of this might sound familiar, since many American congregations are deeply influenced by Pietism even when they do not call themselves Pietists.
For others, e.g., Romanists, the Christian religion is entirely about the outward or external ministry of the church. They do not know the Scriptures. They do not even know the Roman catechism but they do know their local priest or the priest who catechized them, the bishop who confirmed them, the priest who administers communion, who baptized their children. They cannot explain Roman doctrine but they trust that “holy Father” (the Bishop of Rome) knows, that the councils have decided, that the church has an unwritten tradition from the Apostles so they do not have to know these things. They may not even be sure that they themselves actually believe it all but it seems safer to act as if it is all true than to act as if it is not. They trust or at least they hope that the Roman sacramental system of baptism, confirmation, reconciliation (confession), communion, marriage (for laity), ordination (for priests), anointing of the sick (extreme unction) does what it does because it is what it is. For many inside (and outside) of Rome, the ministry of the church is magic.
The Reformed and Presbyterian (P&R) churches understand Scripture and history rather differently. We understand that the ministry of the church is neither magic nor is its ministry essentially the cultivation of intense personal experiences (e.g., memory). Rather, we understand that God has always worked in his people through a divinely-ordained ministry of Word and sacrament (signs and seals). This began even before the fall. When the Lord entered into a covenant of life (or works or nature) with Adam before the fall, he spoke to him. He gave him a law. Scripture says, ”
Then Yahweh Elohim took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. Yahweh Elohim commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:15–17).
He also gave him two signs (sacraments) of that relationship. One was a sign of life (the tree of life) and the other was a sacrament of death (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). You can read about the institution of these sacraments in Genesis 2. So, as long as there have been humans there have been sacraments. God has never come to us, related to us, spoken to us, without also giving sacraments.
Through whole history of redemption Yahweh Elohim both spoke to his people and gave them signs. To Noah he gave the sign of the rainbow. To Abraham he gave the sign of circumcision. To Moses (the Old Covenant strictly speaking) he gave the Passover, the feasts, and sacrifices. In the New Covenant Christ fulfilled all the types and shadows and he gave the signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Against the magical view of the sacraments, never did the shadowy signs create the realities they signified. Against the memorial view, the sacraments were always more than memories or indicators of subjective experience.
We understand Scripture to teach that God the Holy Spirit has always used the external means of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments to accomplish his purposes among the elect. In Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 65 we say:
65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where 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.
This is how it has always been. The Holy Spirit worked faith in the heart of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all his people through the preaching of the gospel albeit in types and shadows. In the New Covenant what was in shadows is now openly revealed. God the Son has come in human flesh. He has obeyed for us, died for us, was raised for us, ascended for us, intercedes for us, and is coming again for us. The Spirit uses this gospel message to create new life and true faith and through true faith, union with Christ in all his elect. He confirms the gospel promise through the use of the holy signs and seals that he has instituted. The signs do not create the realities they signify (new life, righteousness, and salvation) but they do signify them to all and seal them to believers. We do not need to choose between magic and memories. There is another, better, option: means. God has instituted means that he uses to accomplish real spiritual realities.