What Do We Mean By Sacrament, Sign, And Seal?

The Reformed churches and Reformed theologians (i.e., those who confess and teach within the bounds of the Reformed confessions, e.g., the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of Dort (1619), the Westminster Standards (1646–48), speak about baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “holy sacraments” and as “signs” and “seals.” Recently HB reader Barrett wrote to ask for a brief, simple explanation of these terms.

The word sacrament is widely used by a variety of Christian traditions but for some evangelicals it is a word that is associated with Romanism and a false view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.Our English word sacrament is derived from the Latin military term, sacramentum, which was a military oath of loyalty. In the Latin translations of Scripture where the New Testament uses the term mystery the Latin text often uses the word sacramentum. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were often described by the early church as “Christian mysteries.” In the 13th century, the medieval began to teach officially that there are 7 sacraments and that in the Lord’s Supper the mystery is that the elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. The concern for some evangelicals is that the word sacrament carries with it a connotation (an associated meaning) that signals that baptism and the supper work by magic because the Roman communion teaches that the sacraments (they confess 7 sacraments) necessarily confer grace upon the recipient because they work whenever they are used (ex opere operato). Thus, in some parts of the evangelical world the term “ordinance” is used instead.

It is true that Rome has added five false sacraments to the two instituted by our Lord (baptism and the supper) and that she has a false view of how they work. When the Reformed churches use the word sacrament, however, we do not mean by what Rome means. In the Heidelberg Catechism we define sacrament this way:

66. 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.

We confess that, in the New Testament, our Lord instituted only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or holy communion). We define them as “signs” and “seals.” We will get to what that means in a moment but the most important thing to know here is that we deny the Roman view that sacraments necessarily give new life (e.g., baptismal regeneration) or that “by the working it is worked” or that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). The operative verb in our definition is a preaching word: declare. They speak. They announce. Their power lies not in doing but saying.

What should we do with the word sacrament? Should we think about this for a moment we soon see that we might have the same problem with the word prayer since Rome has a very different notion of what prayer is, to whom we pray, and to what end. Should we give up the word prayer? We do not because it is a matter of definition. One might argue that prayer is used in Scripture whereas sacrament is not. That is certainly true but the word translated as ordinance (Dan 6:7; 6:15) is not used in Scripture to describe baptism and the supper. So whether to use the traditional term is a matter of prudence and liberty. To alleviate the confusion, some confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches, particularly in the southern US sometimes speak of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances.

In some traditions (especially in Rome) there has been a temptation to confuse the sacraments for the things to which they testify: Christ and his benefits. That is a great mistake because the moment we seek to turn the sacraments into Christ or into salvation, then they are no longer sacraments. By definition, a sacrament is not the things to which testifies. Christ is not a sacrament and no sacrament is Christ.

In reaction, some have come to talk about sacraments in a way that so utterly divorces the sacraments (or ordinances) from Christ and his benefits that they come really only to speak about the recipient, what the baptized person has done or what the communicant (the person receiving the Lord’s Supper) has done or is doing. This is also a mistake. In the administration of the sacraments, the believer is not the star of the show, Christ is. They testify to what he done for us. He has earned our salvation. He has washed us with new life. He is feeding us mysteriously, by his Holy Spirit, with himself.

When we say sign we mean that baptism and the supper point to someone and something. They point to what Christ has done. They illustrate and testify to his gospel promises. They are signs of what he has done for all his people (elect) and what is true of all those who believe. This was true before Christ came and it remains true now after his ascension. In the garden our Lord gave two signs, a tree of life and a tree of death (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). In Genesis 2:17 God said that we were free to eat from any tree in the garden but the day we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “you shall surely die.” That makes it a tree of death. They were sacraments of a kind. They pointed beyond themselves to realities. They illustrated promises.

There were other signs sacraments in the period of redemptive history leading up to the coming of Christ. In a sense the sacrificial system was sacramental insofar as it illustrated that an innocent substitute had to come to die in the place of the elect. Circumcision was instituted (ordained) by the Lord in Genesis 17 in order to signify the necessity of a new heart and new life sovereignly, graciously given by the Lord to his elect. It also promised the coming Savior who would fulfill the promise made in Genesis 3:15 that a the Seed would come to crush the serpent even at the cost of his own life. The Passover (Exod 12) was a sacrament illustrating the coming of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) and teaching us that we needed to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” (John 6:53) that we might have eternal life. The Red Sea was a sacrament as was the manna in the wilderness. We know this because the Apostle Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4.

None of these worked by magic. No one was ever given new life by virtue of being circumcised or going through the Red Sea (baptism) or by eating the Passover (or any other feast) or by eating manna in the wilderness (the Lord’s Supper). Sacraments are always signs, pointing to Christ and his benefits and we receive Christ and his benefits through faith alone, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:8–10). In the New Testament the reality came: Christ. With his death the old types (illustrations; 1 Cor 10:6; Heb 8:5) and foreshadows (Col 2:17; Heb 8:5; 10:1) ended and were replaced by the bloodless signs and sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In the ancient world communication was difficult and slow. Even the most powerful kings had to rely on messengers who might not make it to the destination. Once there they had to prove that a communication was authentic. That is what a seal did. It was a bit of wax melted on to a document and marked with a signet ring thus showing that it was not a forgery. We still do this in various ways. Our currency has lines and marks designed to show that it authentic. Our driver’s licenses have the same things. Important documents (e.g., diplomas, marriage certificates, birth certificates) still have a mark impressed (embossed) into them to show that they are authentic. So it was in the ancient world with a wax seal.

The seal does not create a reality. It testifies to the truth of what has already been done by someone else. Should a person never attend school but find a diploma at a rummage sale, possession of the diploma would not make that person a graduate. A sealed document is not magic but it is a promise to the person who, by grace alone, through faith alone, has what the document testifies. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are guarantees to the believer, one to whom the Lord has already given new life and true faith, that what the sacraments declare and promise really are true for the believer.

So, in the Heidelberg Catechism we talk about baptism as a seal this way:

69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water and joined therewith this promise: that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.

The sacraments are the gospel made visible. We need the these visible promises and guarantees because we are sinners and our faith is sometimes weak. We waver. So, we say to the believer (this qualification is essential), that just as surely as you were washed with water, that is how certain it is that you were cleansed by Christ and by his Spirit. Baptism does not do this. Christ does it by his Spirit but baptism testifies to the believer that it is really true.

The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. Heidelberg 75 says:

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

We know from Scripture that Christ instituted (ordained, hence ordinance) the baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like baptism, the supper is a visible presentation of the gospel: Christ obeyed, died, was buried, raised, and is ascended to the right hand of the Father where he intercedes for us. The good news is that we have been saved freely, by grace, that we are accepted (justified) freely, through faith alone, in Christ alone. When we receive the Lord’s Supper Christ says to the believer: you are mine. I was your atoning substitute. Your sins really have been wiped away. You really have been given new life and I am working in you now by my Spirit to renew you into my image. Mysteriously, not by changing the elements in any way, Jesus is feeding us with his true body and blood just as he fed the disciples at the last supper. The supper says to the believer: it is really true and it is true for you. It is not just a memory nor is it a funeral. It is a wonderful, mysterious, happy feast in which believers commune together with our risen Lord. As surely as we receive the elements and surely as we eat we are reassured that we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone (HC 76).

Sacraments, signs, and seals are not magic nor are they mere memories but they are wonderful gifts from God for his sojourning people that point us to Christ and his benefits and promise to believers that just as we were washed and just as we eat the bread and drink the wine, so truly are we Christ’s and he our.

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  1. I wrote to you via the comments section quite awhile ago, asking about infant baptism. You referred to me hours of audio to listen to and hundreds of pages to read. Please, I beg you, do not do that to me again. At the end of it all paedobaptism still makes no sense to me, and still seems contrary to Scripture to me. After reading this article I am even more confused as to paedobaptism. I know you do not believe in baptismal regeneration and neither do I. So that isn’t the case here. But you wrote that baptism is a guarantee “to the believer, one to whom the Lord has already given new life and true faith,” that what it declares and promises really is true for the believer. You then point to the Heidelberg Catechism which states, regarding baptism, “Christ instituted this outward washing with water and joined therewith this promise: that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, etc.” This describes credobaptism, not paedobaptism. Can you please give me a concise (and brief) explanation why, in light of this, paedobaptism is practiced?

    • Bob, Reformed Theology is not something that can be understood quickly. It takes pouring time and energy into if you really want to grasp it. Any quick explanation is likely to be a rather sloppy one. It took me a long time of reading, studying, praying and thinking to come to the conclusions I’ve come to.

    • Bob,

      It’s difficult because you are assuming things that aren’t true. It’s like learning to drive in England. It only seems like the wrong side of the road. It isn’t really.

      Why baptize infants? Because God commanded believers to put the sign & seal of the covenant of grace on their children. He did it in Gen 17 and he’s never changed his mind.

      Here’s a 10-minute video:


    • I highly recommend listening to Dr. Clark’s Heidelcast series, I Will Be A God To You and Your Children. This was so valuable for me to understand how the Abrahamic covenant, together with the sign of infant initiation, are the formal establishment of the covenant of grace, and how the new covenant is the fulfilment of it. The covenant sign of circumcision was given to Abraham and to his children in their helplessness, to show that it all depends on what God does, to perform all that the covenant of works requires, and to suffer the death curse for our inability to do our part. Since God does what Adam failed to do in Christ, the covenant of works has been fulfilled. What is left for us is to believe that this pledge from God, the covenant of grace, is true for us, just as Abraham believed. Water baptism is the unbloody sign that replaces bloody circumcision which pointed to Christ. So baptism is the circumcision of Christ, He was cut off as the penalty for our sins. Baptism identifies us in His death, his blood washes our conscience because the blood covers our guilt. Col. 2. When we believe this, and it causes us to love God and want to please Him, our heart has been circumcised by the Holy Spirit. That is when water baptism, administered in our infant helplessness, becomes sealed as the promise that has now become our reality through faith. The efficacy of water baptism is not tied to the time of administration, but to when the promise it represents is believed, therefore sealed by the Holy Spirit.

  2. Is it correct to say there were NO ‘reformed Baptists’ prior to the 1600s (I know you disagree with the term but I used it for lack of a better word.

    • Since the advent of Dispensationalism and a strain of Calvinistic Dispensationalism and also New Covenant Theology, it seems best to refer to Baptists who hold to a confession as Confessional Baptists, not Particular, since the Dispy and New Cov. versions would affirm the “Particular” aspect of the description.

    • The thing that I find most troublesome about Baptists calling themselves Reformed is that they are not Reformed at all. Reformed theology is all about teaching that since the fall, God has introduced the covenant of grace, administered under types and shadows in the old covenant, and as the reality of what they were pointing to in the new covenant. But the focus is always on the promised new Adam who would accomplish what the first Adam failed to do, and when we trust in the promised One, as being our representative, His righteousness becomes ours. The true Reformed see the Abrahamic covenant as the formal establishment of the covenant of grace, that is why they practice infant initiation into the covenant. The truly Reformed see the covenant of grace as the unifying principle of all of God’s people. So called Reformed Baptists fundamentally disagree on these important distinctives. They see the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision as a sign of obligation to obey the law for earthly rewards, not as sign establishing the covenant of grace, that is why they insist that infant baptism, in continuity with infant circumcision, is wrong in the covenant of grace, they insist the covenant of grace did not exist before the new covenant. And they see an over eschatologicalized Church that can only have a regenerate membership, where the truly Reformed see the Church as having a membership of those who are regenerate and those who are not, only God knows who His elect are, just as has always been the case. In the past I was very confused by Baptist claims to be Reformed because of their self identification, and I suspect that is still the case for many others attracted to, and trying to sort out what it is to be Reformed. Our Reformed confessions best explain what it means to be Reformed, that is their purpose! Even here the Baptists will claim that their first and second London confessions are soooo similar, with only a few changes, but those few changes make them completely different when it comes to what makes our confessions distinctly Reformed.

      • Thank you Angela Werner! In your response to Toluwan, you wrote “The true Reformed see the Abrahamic covenant as the formal establishment of the covenant of grace, that is why they practice infant initiation into the covenant.” That sentence that just jumped out at me like a bright light that helps me to understand the Reformed position on paedobaptism (see my initial comment above). I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on that before, but I think I understand it now. Thank you.

        You also wrote, “And they see an over eschatologicalized Church that can only have a regenerate membership, where the truly Reformed see the Church as having a membership of those who are regenerate and those who are not, only God knows who His elect are, just as has always been the case.”

        It is my understanding that the Church (capital C) is the invisible Church – the Body and Bride of Christ, and is comprised only of the elect; while the church (lower case c) is the visible church which is comprised of both the elect and the “religious” non-elect. Your statement, however, seems to indicate it is the Reformed position that the Church (Body and Bride of Christ) is comprised of both elect and non-elect. Is that what you are saying? – Thanks.

        • Bob,

          This is one of the primary reasons Baptists struggle to understand the Reformed view of baptism. The visible church, since the fall, has always had within it two kinds of people, the elect and the reprobate or hypocrite, i.e., those who profess faith but who have not been given new life and thus do not have true faith. The Reformed theologian Herman Witsius wrote of a “double mode of communion,” i.e., those who have only an “external” relation to the visible church and those who also have an “internal,” spiritual relationship to the covenant of grace. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:28 and 9:6. “A Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly.” “Not all ‘Israel’ is Israel.” The whole history of Israel is an illustration of this truth. That has not changed in the New Covenant. There are outward professors in the New Covenant church who have not actually been given new life and true faith and yet they were outward members. Consider Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Judas was among the disciples, an outward member but he was reprobate. The book of Hebrews was written to address this problem. Indeed, Hebrews makes the Baptist view of the New Covenant very difficult. It’s addressing those who have “tasted of the powers of the age to come,” who were members of the visible church but who were not actually regenerate, who did not actually believe. It defines the New Covenant not against Abraham but against the old, Mosaic covenant.

          Working through assumptions is difficult, even painful but it has to be done. It takes time. You don’t have to read all the resources I’ve given you at once but if you work through them one at a time it will help.

    • Bob,
      Thanks for pointing out the confusion over visible and invisible church. Yes I made a mistake, church with a capital C usually refers to the elect among the people that God calls to the church, where the Word and sacraments are administered as the means of grace offered to all. Those who are truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, who trust in Christ for their right standing with God are the bride of Christ, the elect.

      Sorry for the mistake, I in no way want to give the impression that outward membership in the church could save anyone. Baptism makes a person an outward member of the church, someone who has been given the promise sign of the covenant of grace, but it depends on regeneration by the Holy Spirit, for that person to have what the sign represents. Then the sign is sealed to them and they can look to it as an assurance of salvation.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Do you see a place for the Articles of Religion (1571) among the Reformed confessions? While I realize confessional Anglicanism does not fit within the “six forms of unity”/”Reformed AND Presbyterian” model, is there a place for it among the Reformed (though not presbyterian) family?

    No doubt, much could be said on this matter that is unrelated to the particulars of your essay above, but I write because I find in Articles XXV, XXVII-XXIX words strikingly similar to your own (and other Reformed confessions). Article XXV states, “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.”

    • Daniel,

      I thought about that as I wrote but decided that it would would require too much qualification and explanation. Yes, in the broad sense, the Anglicans were received as Reformed. Perkins was certainly Reformed and there were Anglicans at Dort and Westminster. Yet, there are difficulties. The articles don’t agree with the rest of the Reformed about how sola Scriptura functions in worship. Cranmer was influenced by Zürich and that influence appears in the articles. The Anglicans liked Bullinger (and the Zürichers liked the Anglicans). Then there is the question of polity. Reformed churches typically confessed a presbyterial polity.

      For the purposes of this post I was aiming at the P&R world and operating with the narrower definition but in the broad sense Cranmner, Sibbes, Perkins, Ussher, Leigh, and others were certainly Reformed and were received as such by the dissenters and non-conformists (Presbyterians and the Congregationalists). I make this point to my Baptist friends who think I’m narrow by excluding them from the definition altogether.

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