Sacraments as Signs and Seals
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised… Romans 4:11aNKJV
This morning we look at Question 161 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What is a sacrament?” It gives the answer, “A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation, to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without.”
Ordinances are laws. When someone violates the city ordinance, it means they have broken the law. Some might deny it, but Jesus Christ gave laws to His Church. In the Great Commission, which is the mission statement for the Church until Christ returns, Jesus gave the command to “Make disciples of all nations,” and He explained how we are to do that: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Jesus summarized the entire program of the church as one of obedience to His commands. Accordingly, sacraments are not only laws to obey, but they obligate us to keep all of Christ’s laws, for to participate in the sacraments is to call Jesus Lord. To call Him Lord and not seek to obey Him is hypocrisy. It makes our use of the sacraments into a lie.
In today’s question the Catechism calls sacraments not just laws but holy laws. The word holy has two meanings: morally pure and upright, and separated and higher than the common. Therefore, the laws of sacraments are not just ordinary or common laws, they are holy laws. First, they are holy because they come from God to man. Jesus commanded His Church to baptize in His name and to “do” the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him. Second, they are holy because of their audience. Christ gave the sacraments exclusively to “those that are within the covenant of grace.” That is, He gave them to the visible church, the only organization on earth that Jesus came to build and promised to be with until the end of the age. Finally, they are holy because of their use and end. Here the Catechism declares the many reasons why Jesus gave the sacraments to His Church, which can be summarized under two main headings: for His glory and for our good.
The first use or purpose of the sacraments mentioned by the Catechism is that they “signify, seal, and exhibit … the benefits of [Christ’s] mediation. Signify is to sign or to picture. In the sacraments we have a picture of the whole salvation purchased for us by Christ, who died to cleanse us of ours sins and lives to make us holy. To seal means to guarantee and certify. The sacraments are given to assure Christians that the salvation purchased for them is really and truly theirs. Exhibiting refers to showing forth. The sacraments show forth to our senses what Christ has done and will do in our souls.
The sacraments are thus given to “strengthen and increase [our] faith.” They are a second witness, along with the Word of God, that Jesus saves those who believe in Him. I can know Christ died for me and will save me to the end when I consider how in the sacraments I have His guarantee that He will keep His Word to me. And as my faith in Him is encouraged by the sacraments, so all other graces such as love, hope, obedience, thankfulness, etc., will likewise be strengthened. Especially, the communion and unity I have with all other Christians should be enhanced as I participate in the sacraments. We who are believers in Christ are “the baptized.” We all bear His name and hope in His mediation to wash us inwardly even as we have been washed outwardly. Likewise, we regularly, by His invitation, sup together at His table. This is what families do. So the church is a family whose unity should be increased in their table fellowship. But how sad is the reality? How much Satan must rejoice in the fact that He has made the two means of church unity into the two things we fight about and divide over the most! May God forgive us of our wrong use of the sacraments and give us the grace to humble ourselves.