In the broader Christian context, we’re unusual for using the word “sacrament.” Many other Christians prefer to speak of “ordinances.” This is an important difference pointing to different ways of thinking about these things. The words “sacrament” and “ordinance” are not synonyms. As we’ll see momentarily, a sacrament speaks of what God does. An ordinance is something God commanded us to do. The emphasis then falls on our doing, rather than God’s doing.
Let’s first review our definition of what a sacrament is. It’s a holy, visible sign and seal. Sacraments are signs. That means that they point us to something. They’re not the thing itself. Instead, they point to the thing they’re intended to signify. Sacraments are seals. That means they guarantee something. They certify the truth of something for us. They promise us that what the sacrament signifies is definitely true.
Sacraments have been instituted by God. They weren’t invented by people, but come from Jesus Christ. During his earthly ministry, he ordained these two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The purpose is “to more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel” (HC Lord’s Day 25). The purpose of the sacraments is to address us in a way going beyond our ears. The preaching of the gospel only addresses our sense of hearing. But the administration of the sacraments addresses our other senses as well. God graciously does this in order to strengthen our faith in Christ.
Let’s be clear: the sacraments don’t create faith. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through baptism to create faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through the Lord’s Supper to make someone a believer. Instead, the sacraments are there to strengthen the faith of people who are already Christians. The sacraments are there to strengthen the faith of people in whom the Holy Spirit has already created faith with the preaching of the gospel.
That has implications too. For instance, your baptism doesn’t create faith. It signs and seals the promises of God in Jesus Christ. But if you’re going to receive what is promised, those promises have to be appropriated in faith. That means you’ve got to make those promises your own. Remember: there is no automatic salvation in the covenant of grace. There’s still a human responsibility to believe the gospel as it’s preached.
Similarly, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t create faith. If you come to the Lord’s Supper without faith, it’ll do you no good, and certainly it won’t cause you to begin believing in Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper is there for people who are already resting and trusting in Christ. They come to the sacrament to have their faith strengthened, not to have faith created.
Another thing we can draw from this is the biblical emphasis on the sacrament as something God does. If you look carefully at QA 66 in our Catechism, you’ll see that God is the subject of all the verbs. That’s a biblical approach. God institutes the sacraments. God declares and seals to us the promise of the gospel through the sacraments. God graciously grants forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. God is the one doing all the action. This is crucially important to understand. In baptism, we are washed. In the Lord’s Supper, we are fed with food God provides. God is at work in the sacraments. At its essence, baptism isn’t about parents making vows to God. At its essence, the Lord’s Supper isn’t about us doing something for Jesus. Instead, it’s quite the other way around. The sacraments are about what God is doing for us — how the Holy Spirit is strengthening our faith.
We need to insist on this, because so many other Christians get this wrong. Most believe that baptism is about us making a statement to God. The Lord’s Supper is merely about us remembering Jesus and doing something nice for him. It’s sort of like going to the grave of a loved one to place flowers. We’re doing something for him to remember him and that’s it. In those ways of thinking, the full biblical character and nature of the sacraments has been lost. The sacraments become focussed on human activity, rather than on what God is doing. Let’s remember that these signs and seals are God’s work towards us. Through them the Holy Spirit is working to fortify our faith.
To conclude, the sacraments indicate God’s love and compassion for weak sinners. Belgic Confession article 33 puts it well: “We believe that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments to seal his promises to us and to be pledges of his good will and grace towards us.” Through these multi-sensory administrations of the gospel, God aims to draw us closer to himself in true faith. When you make public profession of your faith, you’re granted admission to the Lord’s Supper. What a blessing that’ll be for you! Look forward to that joyful day when you can be fed by Christ along with all the other communicant members of the congregation.