In this blog post, it’s my objective to synthesize Herman Bavinck’s theology of the sacraments. All of the thoughts and quotes are taken directly from Chapter 9 of Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.
Bavinck begins by saying that “in addition to the Word, the sacraments are a second means of grace.” The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and the same is true of the word “sacrament.” But the concept is there. The word sacrament is derived from the original Greek word mystērion. It describes the “mighty and marvelous acts of God that were formerly hidden but have now been revealed.” In Latin, this word was translated as sacramentum and also carried the meaning of a soldier’s oath of loyalty.
Signs and Seals
“Reformed theology describes the sacraments as signs and seals that are instituted and distributed by God so that believers might understand more clearly and be reassured of God’s promises and benefits in the covenant of grace.”
So first, sacraments are a sign of something greater. What’s a sign? In the natural world, a sign can be something like, for example, smoke or a footprint. When we see smoke, we know there’s a fire. When we see a footprint, we know a person is nearby. In the institutional world, slogans and flags serve as signs. They represent countries and corporations. Bavinck develops on this and says the “Sacraments are extraordinary signs taken, according to a preformed analogy, from visible things to designate invisible and eternal goods.” As signs, sacraments are analogies or visible pictures of something great.
Secondly, sacraments are seals. “They confirm God’s trustworthiness and strengthen for us the “element” of the covenant of grace that is summed up in Christ the Mediator, with all his benefits and blessings.” Seals authenticate that something is true. When we cash a check from someone how do we know it’s not a counterfeit? We know because it has an official bank seal and a signature that confirms its authenticity. It’s a trademark of the genuineness of something. As seals, sacraments signify something. They not only bring “the invisible matter to mind, but also validate and confirm it.”
Sacraments consist of two parts that can be distinguished as “word” and “element”—the spiritual truth signified and its physical sign. There’s an internal and an external reality. The sign and the seal refer to something else. They are not the thing but the sign and the seal of something greater.
Comparing and Contrasting with Roman Catholicism
Since many people in our society have a Roman Catholic background, they tend to look at the sacraments with some suspicion—especially when we say they’re a means of grace. They think perhaps Reformed Christians believe there’s some type of magical substance infused into them. Or that we believe in baptismal regeneration. Many discount the Reformed faith because of this misconception. Bavinck reassures us that this is not the case.
In Reformed theology, “The sacrament does not impart one benefit that is not also received from the Word of God by faith alone; the content of both is identical.”
Why? Because we’re not justified by the sacraments. It’s by faith alone that we have eternal life (John 3:36), are justified (Romans 3:28; 5:1), sanctified (John 15:3; Acts 15:9), and glorified (Romans 8:30).
While in Roman Catholic theology there is baptismal grace infused into the water, and in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine physically change into the corporal flesh and blood of Christ, this is not the case in Reformed theology. “There is neither a separate baptismal grace nor a separate communion grace. The content of Word and sacrament is completely identical.”
The Word and the sacraments contain the same Mediator—Christ, with all His benefits. In the sacraments, “Christ is enjoyed spiritually, not physically, [but] by faith, not by the mouth.” The sacraments are “the word made visible.”
The Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are diverse in their external form, appealing to the different sense organs of our body—our tongue (tasting), eyes (seeing), ears (hearing), nose (smelling), and skin (touch). What they all have in common is that they contain the same “Mediator, covenant, benefits, salvation, and fellowship with God.” But the elements by themselves are nothing without the Word. There’s no inherent power in them. There’s not a localized physical power “in, with, or under” the elements. The elements become sacraments because of an “ethical connection identical with that between Christ and the gospel.”
A Means of Grace
In Reformed theology, the sacraments confer grace only when faith is already present. God does not surrender his sovereignty to the physical elements so that they have an “intrinsic power” of their own. God alone remains the “distributor of grace.” When believers partake of the sacraments, God reinforces and nourishes our faith. They don’t create faith, but they feed it.
In the sacraments, Christ is “truly and seriously offered to all participants,” just as He is when the gospel is preached to all who hear, but for them to be efficacious, “a working of the Holy Spirit is needed…to enjoy the true power of the sacrament.”
This is just as it is with the hearing of the gospel—the Spirit must give us ears to hear. In the same way an unbeliever reads the Bible but does not benefit, so in the sacraments the unbeliever only receives the sign but not the thing signified.
Reformed theology does not deny that grace is conferred in the sacraments, but it’s a “hidden invisible action of Christ, who inwardly confers grace in the hearts of believers through the Holy Spirit.” It is the Spirit who gives life (John 6:63).
To Bavinck, what makes the Reformed view of the sacraments distinct is “it unites the action of God with the confession of believers taking place in them.” This highlights the covenantal nature of salvation, “In the sacrament God first comes to believers to signify and seal his benefits. He assures them with visible pledges that he is their God and the God of their children. He attaches seals to his Word to strengthen their faith in that Word.”
The sacraments are for our benefit—not God’s. They are a means of grace because they are not only the tangible elements of water, bread, and wine but a ceremonial action having significant “sealing power.”
Questions and Answers
When is Christ connected to the elements of water, bread, and wine? In Reformed theology, there’s no incantation that changes the elements. It’s the preached word spoken to the church that sets the elements apart from common usage. The Spirit is the distributor of grace, not the pastor.
In contrast with Lutheranism, how are the sacraments a means of grace? In reply, the Reformed say, “God imparts grace in a spiritual manner because in that way alone grace is, and can be, truly communicated.”
A Roman Catholic or a Lutheran could ask why the Scripture uses very literal language about the sacraments. After all, “This is my body” (1 Cor 11:24) and “be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16) sound as though faith isn’t even necessary for the sacraments to convey something (ex opera operato—through the act performed).
Bavinck explains that “sometimes Scripture, to indicate the connection God established between the sign and the thing signified, refers to the thing signified [circumcision of the heart] by the name of the sign [physical circumcision] – Romans 2:20, or the sign [bread and wine] with the name of the thing signified [My body] – Matt. 26:26, or ascribes the character and operation of the thing signified [forgiveness of sins] to the sign [baptism] – Acts 22:16.” But it’s only when faith is present that they signify and seal “the invisible goods of grace.”
One could also ask why we even have the sacraments if we receive all we need by faith alone? It’s because we’re frail creatures. We are human beings living in a physical word. As creatures, we operate by the senses. God condescends to our level to give us assurances by these.
In the sacraments, God has formed an objective bond between the word—Christ—and the sacraments, “whoever receives His word and sacrament in faith will never perish.” But it’s to “the elect of God” in “whom the inner and efficacious operation of the Spirit” comes.
In the end, the sacraments are “designed to help us understand more clearly and certify to us that on account of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross, God grants to us, by grace alone, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” In this sense, “Believers are assured by [the sacraments] of their salvation.”
For Bavinck, “the sacraments do not work faith but reinforce it, as a wedding ring reinforces love. They do not infuse a physical grace but confer the whole Christ, whom believers already possess by the Word.”