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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




With this chapter the passage is made to the second great branch of the means of grace. This leads to the consideration of the sacraments, and to very important matters in their discussion. This chapter will deal with the general doctrine of the sacraments as it is taught in the Standards, and two subsequent chapters will deal with baptism and the Lord's supper, respectively.

The doctrine of the sacraments was one of the subjects about which at the time of the Reformation there was much difference of opinion. Not only did the Reformers oppose the views and practices of Rome, but they differed widely among themselves in regard to the nature and efficacy of the sacraments. It was these differences as much as anything else which prevented the Reformers from presenting united ranks and an unbroken front against Romanism. Because of this division of opinion, the power and influence of the Reformation was very much weakened, especially upon the continent of Europe.

The debate about the sacraments was long and earnest wherever the Reformation arose, and in the Westminster Assembly much attention was devoted to this important subject. The result is that in the Standards there is the clearest and the best statement of the sacraments, especially of the Lord's supper, to be found in any creed. They hold well-defined consistent ground between the extremes which have been held upon this great subject, and they especially exalt the spiritual significance of these ordinances. It is well, therefore, to understand the doctrine herein set forth, not only because it is clear and scriptural, but also for the reason that the true catholicity of the Presbyterian Church is to be found in her terms of communion.

It is worth while observing that the Confession and both Catechisms set forth with equal fulness, and almost in the same terms, the doctrine of the sacraments, alike in their general and in their particular aspects. Indeed, there is scarcely any topic in the Standards in regard to which there is so much completeness of statement, and so much harmony of expression in the different parts of the Standards. In this case there is no mistake in respect to the doctrine to which the Standards are committed. Some general points are now to be noted in this chapter. These relate to both of the sacraments.

I. The nature of the sacraments is first explained. The word sacrament comes to us through the Latin; and, strictly speaking, this term is not applied to these ordinances in the Scriptures. The word denotes that which is pledged as sacred, and it is applied specially to the oath or vow of the Roman soldier. The word also denotes a sacred secret, and hence the Greek word translated mystery is translated by the Latin word meaning sacrament. The sacraments, as symbols, exhibit the mysterious grace which they signify. In unfolding the nature of the sacraments, several important particulars are to be carefully noted in an orderly way.

1. A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church. This is the statement of the Larger Catechism, and it is nearly the same as that of the Shorter. The Confession says that the sacraments are immediately instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits. Both statements are, of course, true, for both God the Father and God the Son concur in the institution of these ordinances. The sacraments are holy ordinances, and hence they are to be regarded as peculiarly sacred. They are also instituted in the church, and for the benefit specially of those who are its members. Unless an ordinance claiming to be a sacrament can prove that it was immediately commanded by divine authority, it cannot be regarded as a sacrament. This is one of the tests of a sacrament.

2. A sacrament signifies, seals, represents, exhibits and applies Christ and the benefits of the covenant of grace to believers, or those who are included in the scope of the covenant. This is a very comprehensive statement, setting forth the end or design of those ordinances which are sacramental in their nature. It will be observed that there are four words used in this connection, in the different parts of the Standards. A sacrament first signifies the benefits of the mediation of Christ, and thus it expresses, in a concrete symbolic manner, by suitable signs, these benefits in such a way as to aid our knowledge and faith. Then a sacrament seals these benefits of the covenant of grace to believers. The idea here is somewhat obscure by reason of the meaning of the word used. A seal is a stamp or mark which gives validity and effect to any legal document. The sacraments, as seals of the covenant of grace, are the divine marks that God will make good the contents of the covenant to those who accept its terms. Thus, the blessings of redemption are actually conveyed, not through any virtue in the sacraments themselves, but by the divine blessing going with them, and making good the benefits they signify to all those who properly receive and rely upon them for spiritual grace. Further, the sacraments represent Christ and his benefits. According to this aspect, the sacraments are divinely-appointed pictures which set forth in visible form Christ and his spiritual benefits. They thus symbolize certain great truths or facts pertaining to redemption. Again, the sacraments exhibit the benefits of Christ's work on behalf of his people. This word, as here used, means almost the same thing as the preceding one, with, perhaps, a slightly deeper signification. In this deeper sense it has about the same meaning as the term " administer"; and, hence, it has nearly the same force as is in part set forth by the word " seal." And, finally, the word apply is used of the sacraments in the Shorter Catechism. This term points to the question of the efficacy of the sacraments, and it more fully expresses the idea which is set forth by the words " exhibit and seal." Here the assurance is given that in some way or other, by or through the sacraments, certain of the benefits of grace and salvation are made good to believers who are in covenant with the Lord. It is clear, from the varied use of these five terms, that in some way grace is actually conveyed to believers by the blessing of Christ, in some deeper sense than that it is the truth which sanctifies. They are real channels of grace to believers, and yet they are not so in a purely mechanical way, as will be more fully explained when the question of the efficacy of the sacraments is expounded.

The sacraments are solemn pledges of our allegiance to Christ, and of our separation from the world. These two things imply each other, and may well go together. By the sacraments we make confession of our interest in, and our service of, the Lord; and by this same confession we announce our separation from the world by putting a visible distinction between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world. The sacraments from this point of view are solemn engagements to the service of God in Christ, according to his word, and at the same time a formal renouncing of the world and its ways. The sacraments serve to strengthen our faith in Christ, and to develop all the other Christian graces. In this way they confirm our interest in Christ, and in the spiritual welfare of his kingdom. This point signalizes the fact that the sacraments are real means of grace, each in its own relation, and serving its own definite end. Our engagement to be the Lord's being thereby made, we are obliged to a diligent obedience, and the result of this is that the divine life in believers is strengthened, and they grow in grace.

5. The sacraments are, also, a means of communion among believers. This is specially true of the Lord's supper. In partaking of this ordinance, believers not only have communion with Christ, and participation in his benefits, but they have also fellowship with each other. When they partake of the same bread and wine they show that they belong to the one family of God, and in the ordinance of the supper the communion of the saints is exemplified.

II. The parts or elements of the sacraments is the next topic of a general nature to be considered. These parts or elements are twofold, and they are as follows:

There is an outward and sensible sign to be used according to Christ's appointment. In baptism the water as it is applied is the sign, and in the Lord's supper the bread and wine used are the outward and visible signs. This fact supplies another mark or test of an ordinance which is sacramental. These signs, moreover, are in both cases simple and entirely suitable.

The other part or factor in the sacraments is the spiritual grace signified by the signs. In baptism, as will be more fully seen in the next chapter, the grace in question is the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost, by which we are united to Christ, and made partakers of his benefits. In the Lord's supper the sufferings and death of Christ, together with all that these provide for us in regard to salvation and advance in the spiritual life, constitute the spiritual grace in this case. The latter is Christ's work for us; the former is the Spirit's work in us. Both are necessary to our salvation, and both are set forth in the sacraments.

It may be added here that the sacraments of the Old Testament, which were circumcision and the passover, are, in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, for substance, the same with those of the New. The only difference is in regard to the nature of the signs used. The covenant is one, the mediator is one, and the spiritual grace is one and the same in both dispensations, for the church of God is one throughout all ages.

III. In regard to the number of the sacraments, a few words may be set down. As in the Old Testament there were only two sacraments, so in the New there are two similar ordinances ordained by Christ. These are baptism and the Supper of our Lord. This statement tells against the Romish view, which maintains that there are seven sacraments. These are, in addition to baptism and the Lord's supper, confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. Romish writers make but little effort to find proof of these additional sacraments from Scripture, but they rely on tradition and the decrees of the church for their support. If, however, we apply the tests of a true sacrament, it will be found that every one of these five fail at some point, and some of them fail at every point. They cannot show that they were appointed by Christ, that they have sensible signs and inward grace, and that they represent and apply the benefits of Christ's redemption.

The Standards at this point further teach that the sacraments are not to be administered by any but a minister of the word, lawfully ordained. Sometimes the sacraments are called sealing ordiances, and in connection with them only an ordained minister is to officiate, while a licentiate or a probationer may preach the word. All branches of the church are virtually agreed that ordination is necessary to qualify for administering the sacraments. This position the Standards distinctly take to be the right one.

IV. The relation between the sign and the grace in the sacrament must now be carefully considered. This is one of the most difficult points to understand in the doctrine of the sacraments, and yet it is of the utmost importance rightly to understand the teaching of the Standards upon it. There are sensible signs and spiritual grace implied in the sacraments, and between these two factors there is a spiritual relation, or sacramental union. According to this relation or union, there is not only a natural congruity between the sign and the grace, but a definite spiritual relation or bond, which has been constituted by the divine appointment. By reason of this bond it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one may be applied to the other. Thus it happens that the term denoting the ordinance may be taken from either one of two things—the sign which is outward, or the grace which is inward—in the sacrament. Hence, the term baptism may mean water baptism, where the outward sign is applied, or the Spirit's baptism, where the inward grace is made effective. Both of these things are called baptism, and the reason of this is that there is a sacramental union between them. In the case of the Lord's supper it is substantially the same. There is the bread and the wine which are partaken, and this is the outward sign in the case; and then there is the actual participation by faith in the benefits of Christ's work for our spiritual good, and this is the grace involved in this sacrament. Both of these things may be termed the Lord's supper, and the reason again for this is that there is a sacramental bond of union between the sign and the grace, which enables us with a degree of propriety to apply the same term to both of the factors in the sacrament.

A failure to keep this distinction properly in mind has led, not only to confusion of thought, but also to very erroneous views of the sacraments. On the one hand, some attach the whole meaning and value of the sacrament to the sign, and the result of this is that a short cut is made to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, or to the literal presence of Christ in the supper. Those who take this view apply all those passages of Scripture which speak of the spiritual efficacy of the sacraments to the outward and sensible signs, overlooking the fact that there is a spiritual relation between the sign and the grace. On the other hand, some attach the whole meaning to the spiritual side, and so make the sensible sign nothing more than the mark or symbol of certain truths, and reach the merely figurative or symbolical doctrine of the sacraments. It is in this way that the two great historic views of the sacraments emerge. It is evident that each is a one-sided view, which results from overlooking the distinction between the sign and the grace in the sacrament, and the bond between them. The true view lies between these extremes, and is admirably set forth in the Standards. The reality in the sacraments is the spiritual grace, and yet the sensible sign is so bound to this grace that it is more than an arbitrary sign of it. It is the divinely-appointed channel, by means of which the grace signified is actually communicated by the operation of the Spirit. The experience of the grace is not entirely dependent upon the sign, but the sign may greatly aid the grace in its growth and expansion in the soul. The bond which underlies this relation of the sign and the grace has been constituted by the fact of the divine institution of the sacramental ordinances, and by the divine appointment of the signs in question.

V. The efficacy of the sacraments now requires some careful statement. The explanation of this topic will shed some further light on the preceding one, and at the same time guard against any possible misconstruction of that topic. The doctrine of the Standards upon this point is stated in both a negative and a positive form. The real question raised is as to the way in which the sacraments become effectual means of salvation, or the manner in which the grace exhibited in the sacraments is actually conferred. The sensible signs exhibit a spiritual grace. The question is: How is that grace applied or conferred through the signs in the sacraments ?

1. Negatively, there are three remarks to be made at this juncture, first, The grace is not conferred by any virtue or power in the mere observance of the sacraments, by the use of sensible signs. The efficacy is not in the signs in themselves considered. In the water and its application in itself, or in the bread and wine and their reception in itself, there is no spiritual grace or virtue, for a person may have these applied or received and yet obtain not a whit of spiritual good. Secondly, Nor does the efficacy of the sacrament depend on the piety of the person administering it. Of course, there is a propriety in the fact that the person administering the sacraments should be of consistent life and good character, as well as in regular standing in the church; but the measure of the spiritual grace that the person observing the sacrament receives is not graduated according to the piety of the administrator, or in proportion to the degree of growth in grace which he may have attained. And, Thirdly, The virtue of the sacraments is not conditioned upon the intention of the person who administers the ordinance. This statement is aimed specially against the Romish doctrine of intention, which is so subtle and mischievous. According to this peculiar doctrine, the person administering the sacrament can, by his intention, give degree and direction to the grace which is actually bestowed and received. This virtually puts the whole control of the grace in the hands of the administrator, and leaves no condition to be fulfilled by the participant save submission to the administrator, and the reception of the sensible signs. Throughout, the partaker of the sacrament is at the mercy of the intention of the person who administers the ordinance.

2. On the positive side, there are three very important remarks to be made in regard to the efficacy of the sacraments, and these deserve the most careful consideration from the view-point of the Standards. First, The efficacy of the sacraments depends upon the working of the Holy Spirit in the person who receives the ordinance. All spiritual grace comes from the agency of the Holy Spirit, and so any blessing which comes to us or ours has its roots in the effectual working of the Spirit in the heart of him who receives the ordinance. The real sacramental fact is the spiritual grace in the soul; and, then, because of the sacramental union between the sign and the grace, the sign is fitted to be a channel of grace only as the Holy Spirit operates in the soul through the sensible signs, making them effectual unto spiritual ends. Secondly, The blessing of Christ, by whom the ordinances are instituted, is said, in the Larger Catechism, to be another factor in the efficacy of the sacraments. Christ appointed the form of the ordinances, and makes them a channel of blessing, but they are such only as Christ himself blesses them, and makes them effectual to their proper spiritual ends. And this blessing is actually obtained as the result of the mediatorial work of Christ, and is applied by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, The word of institution has importance also in this connection. This is the divine warrant for its observance, and a sure ground for the expectation of blessing. This word of institution is really twofold. There is, first, the precept, authorizing the use of the sensible signs with spiritual ends in view, and there is a promise of benefit to worthy receivers. The worthy receivers are those who receive the ordinance in faith, for themselves or for their children. This is the condition on our part, and this receptive act of faith might almost be set down as a fourth condition of the efficacy of the sacraments.

VI. The Larger Catechism has an instructive comparison between baptism and the Lord's supper, and with a brief statement of this comparison this chapter will conclude: First, Baptism and the supper agree in that the author of both is God, the spiritual part of both is Christ and his benefits, both are seals of the same covenant, both are to be dispensed by ordained ministers only, and both are to be continued in the church of Christ until his second coming. Secondly, The two sacraments differ in that baptism is to be administered but once, and with water, to be a sign of our regeneration and engrafting into Christ, and that even in the case of infants; whereas the Lord's supper is to be administered often, by the bread and wine, to represent Christ, and exhibit his benefits to the soul, and to confirm our growth in him, and that only to those who are of years and ability to examine themselves as to whether they are in the faith or not. These contrasts could be wrought out at length, but space permits only their statement in this very brief manner.

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