Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day–things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Colossians 2:16-17NKJV
This morning we look at Question 164 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “How many sacraments hath Christ instituted in his church under the New Testament?” It gives the answer, “Under the New Testament Christ hath instituted in His church only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper.”
As we have been seeing, sacraments are an important part of the way in which God sanctifies His people. So we could ask the question why only two? Why not more, lots more? The answer has more to it than simply appealing to God’s sovereignty by saying, “Well, this is the way God has decided to do it.” Of course that is true, but the Westminster Divines actually gave a concrete reason for why there are only two sacraments in the New Testament, earlier in the Confession of Faith:
Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations WCF 7.6.
Here Christ is called “the substance” of the Covenant of Grace. That means He is the fullness and reality of the salvation God had promised. Under the Old Testament period, Christ was held forth to believers under shadows and types, which said something true about Him, while at the same time concealing who He was and how He would fully come. And there were many such types or pictures of Christ which God gave to His people. Consider how all of the following pointed to and was fulfilled in Christ: The kingship, the priesthood, the temple, the ark of the Covenant, the animal sacrifices, the dietary laws, the ritual cleansing laws, the Day of Atonement, the holy garments, the manna from heaven, the feast days, the day of jubilee, the holy incense, etc., etc.
Many of these types and symbols were glorious in their splendor and encaptivating to the senses to behold. The Temple of Solomon was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The ritual and ceremonial laws were meticulous and precise, involving many actions of pouring sprinkling, prayers, laying on of hands, waving, etc. The largeness of all of these things put together served to make up for the fact that in and of themselves they were empty. They were temporal. They were placeholders meant to give way when the real thing came. They were certainly meaningful to God’s people and would have given great benefit to all who partook of them in true faith in God’s gracious promise, but they always kept God’s people from truly understanding and really drawing near to God in spirit and truth. That was what they were meant to do, for the people’s own protection, until God sent His Son to once and for all actually take away their sins.
Thus, while baptism and the Lord’s Supper are fewer in number and performed with much less splendor and ostentation, they clearly and adequately communicate to those who witness them the salvation that Jesus purchased for His people. They are a symbolic preaching of the gospel as they promise the salvation they picture to all who believe. And when we receive them by faith, as we saw in Question 162, they are even a means through which God causes us to grow in our faith and in all saving graces. May God grant that you and I would see Christ in the sacraments!