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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

A Sacrament is an Outward & Sensible Sign and an Inward & Spiritual Grace

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5NKJV

This morning we look at Question 163 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the parts of a sacrament?” It gives the answer, “The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ’s own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.”

Reformed Theology differs from Roman Catholicism and from other forms of Protestantism in its view of the sacraments. As we saw a few questions ago, the Roman view of the sacraments is expressed by the Latin phrase, ex opere operato, which means “from the working of the works.” Rome teaches that when the sacraments are rightly administered and rightly received there is, within the sacrament itself, grace that is infused into the recipient. So that the sacrament itself actually effects the thing that it signifies. With regard to baptism this means that the baptism itself actually washes away original and all other sin, so that the baptized person is truly and actually sinless and righteous.

Today’s Question rejects the Roman view with the phrases “used according to Christ’s own appointment,” and “an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.” Reformed Theology holds that while real sanctifying grace is conferred by the sacraments, this grace does not come by the working of the works but by Christ’s own sovereign decision and action to bless the sacrament to the recipient of it. Jesus Christ decides when and where His grace will be given to His people. The sacraments are one of the three most prevalent ways He ordinarily chooses to give His grace (See Larger Catechism 154), but He must sovereignly do it. The sacraments do not hold the grace within themselves as it were. The grace is “thereby signified” in the sacraments. In other words it does not flow from them; it flows from Christ through them.

However, just as clearly as it opposes the Roman view, so also Reformed Theology opposes the so-called Zwinglian or symbolic view of the sacraments embraced in many Evangelical churches. I say “Reformed Theology” and not merely the Westminster Standards opposes the Zwinglian view, because all of the major Reformed confessions and creeds that came out of the Reformation sided with Westminster, over against Ulrich Zwingli’s followers, in confessing that the sacraments are real means of grace and salvation (see Larger Catechism Question 161). Thus, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Thirty Nine Articles, The French Confession, The Three Forms of Unity: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, The Canons of Dort, etc., all set forth and affirm that the sacraments are no mere signs and symbols, but are real means of grace and salvation from God to His Church.

Along with Larger Catechism Questions 154, 161, and 162, as we noted when we looked at them, today’s Question also explicitly rejects the Zwinglian view of the sacraments. It does so by affirming that one of the two parts of a sacrament is “an inward and spiritual grace.” Following Calvin, all of the major Reformed Creeds and Confessions embraced the idea that the Sacraments are not merely or even “empty” symbols but they are actual means through which God, as He pleases, brings real grace to believers. The outward and sensible signs are the water in baptism, and the bread and wine in the Supper. The inward and spiritual grace refers to things like assurance of forgiveness and salvation, growth in holiness, and strengthening of faith (see Larger Catechism 162). What this means is that as we participate in the sacraments, looking to Christ to do inwardly and spiritually what is presented outwardly and sensibly, He works in us through our faith to sanctify us. Today, this view is embraced and endorsed by all thirteen members of NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches), as all of the NAPARC denominations ascribe to either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. Praise God for the unity of understanding of the sacraments in the Reformed community! May God continue to bless the sacraments to His Church for our real edification.


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