The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 27

Of the Sacraments

SECTION I: Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace,[1] immediately instituted by God,[2] to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him:[3] as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world;[4] and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.[5]

1. Rom. 4:11; Gen. 17:7, 10, 11
2. Matt. 28:19; I Cor. 11:23
3. Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12; I Cor. 10:16; 11:25-26; Gal. 3:27
4. Exod. 12:48; Gen. 34:14; I Cor. 10:21
5. Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; I Peter 3:21; I Cor. 5:7-8; 10:16

SECTION II: There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.[6]

6. Gen. 17:10; Matt. 26:27-28; I Cor. 10:16-18

LARGER CATECHISM, q. 168.-- What are the parts of a sacrament? -- 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. [7]

7. Matt. iii. 11; 1 Pet. iii. 21.; Rom. ii. 28, 29.

The word " sacrament" does not occur in the Scriptures. In its classical usage it designated anything which binds or brings under obligations, as a sum of money given in pledge, or an oath, and especially the oath of military allegiance.

In its ecclesiastical usage, the word, while retaining its general sense of something binding as sacred, was at an early period used as the Latin equivalent of the Greek word mysterion (musterion), that which is unknown until revealed; and hence any symbol, type, or rite having a latent spiritual meaning. Hence the word naturally came to be applied in a general and vague sense to the Christian ordinances of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and with them also to many other religious doctrines and ordinances.

It is plainly, therefore, impossible to determine the nature or the number of the sacraments from either the etymology or the usage of the word "sacrament." We want a thorough definition of the thing, not of the name. This we can get only by taking Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which all men acknowledge to be genuine sacraments, and, by a strict examination of their origin, nature, and uses, determine (a.) the true character of the class of ordinances to which they belong, and (b.) whether any other ordinances belong to the same class or not. In this way the definition of a sacrament given in our Standards was formed. This definition involves the following points: --

1. A sacrament is an ordinance immediately instituted by Christ. L. Cat., q. 162, and S. Cat., q. 92.

2. A sacrament always consists of two elements -- (1.) An outward, sensible sign; and (2.) An inward, spiritual grace, thereby signified.

3. The sign in every sacrament is sacramentally united to the grace which it signifies; and out of this union the Scriptural usage has arisen of ascribing to the sign whatever is true of that which the sign signifies.

4. The sacraments were designed to represent, seal, and apply the benefits of Christ and the new covenant to believers. S. Cat., q. 92.

5. They were designed to be pledges of our fidelity to Christ, binding us to his service, and at the same time badges of our profession, visibly marking the body of professors and distinguishing them from the world.

1. The first section of this chapter says that a sacrament is an ordinance "immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ," etc. This is true if the word " sacrament" is used in its general sense to include also the Old Testament sacraments of Circumcision and the Passover. But it is an important distinction of the New Testament sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper that they were both immediately instituted by Christ himself. Therefore both the Larger (q. 162) and the Shorter (q. 92) Catechisms have it, "A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his Church." This should be remembered, because it serves to exclude most of the pretended sacraments of the Church of Rome from any right to a place in this class of Christian ordinances.

2. Every sacrament consists of two elements -- (1.) An outward, sensible sign; and (2.) an inward, spiritual grace, thereby signified. In Baptism the outward sensible sign is -- (1.) Water, and (2.) The water applied in the name of the Triune God to the person of the subject baptized. The inward, spiritual grace, thereby signified is -- (1.) Primarily, spiritual purification by the immediate personal power of the Holy Ghost in the soul; and hence, (2.) Secondarily, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, hence the union of the baptized with Christ, hence regeneration, justification, sanctification, perseverance to the end, glorification, etc.-- i.e., all the benefits of the new covenant. In the Lord's Supper, the outward, sensible signs, are -- (1.) Bread and wine; and (2.) The consecration, and the bread broken, and the wine poured out, distributed to, and received and eaten and drunk by, the communicants. The inward, spiritual grace, thereby signified is -- (1.) Primarily, Christ crucified (his flesh and blood shed) for us, and giving himself to us to be spiritually received and assimilated as the principle of a new life; and hence, (2.) Secondarily, union with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, regeneration, justification, sanctification, etc.-- i.e., all the benefits secured by the sacrificial death of Christ.

3. "There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation or sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified." This sacramental union between the sign and the grace which it signifies, the Romish and Lutheran Churches understand to be, at least in the case of the Lord's Supper, a literal identity. Thus when Christ took the bread and said, "This is my body," they insist that it means that the bread is his body. All other Christians understand the phrase to mean, " This bread represents sacramentally my body."

This sacramental union, therefore, between the sign and the thing signified is (1.) Symbolical and representative -- the one symbolizes and so represents the other; and (2.) Instrumental, because by divine appointment, through the right use of the sign, the grace signified is really conveyed.

The grounds of this sacramental union are -- (1.) The natural fitness of the sign to symbolize the grace signified, as washing with water to symbolize spiritual purification by the Holy Ghost. (2.) The authoritative appointment of Christ that these signs, rightly used, shall truly represent and convey the grace they signify. (3.) The spiritual faith of the believing recipient, a gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby, in the proper use of the sign, he is enabled to "discern the Lord's body." 1 Cor. xi. 29.

Out of this spiritual relation, or sacramental union between the sign and the grace signified, which we have thus explained by a natural and legitimate use of language, the one is put for the other, and whatever is true of the grace signified is asserted of the sign which signifies it. Thus, to eat the bread and drink the wine in the Lord's Supper is to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ; that is, to participate in the sacrificial virtue of his death. And whatever is true at Baptism with the Holy Ghost is attributed to Baptism with water. Ananias said to Paul, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins." Acts xxii. 16. "Christ gave himself for the Church, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word." Eph. v. 26. "Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." Acts ii. 38. Hence Romanists and Ritualists have inferred that the sign is inseparable from the grace signified, and that these spiritual effects are due to the outward ordinance. Hence the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. But it must be observed that the Scriptures do not assert these spiritual attributes of water baptism in itself considered, but of water baptism as the sign or emblem of baptism by the holy Ghost. These spiritual attributes belong "only to baptism by the Spirit, and they accompany the sign only when the sign is accompanied by that which it signifies. It does not follow, however, that the sign is inseparable from the grace. The grace is sovereign; and experience teaches us that it is often absent from the sign, and that the sign is least frequently honored by the presence of the grace when it is itself most implicitly relied upon.

4. The sacraments were designed --
(1.) To represent the benefits of Christ and the new covenant. They are as signs or pictures of the truths they represent, and hence present those truths to the eyes and other senses of the recipients in a manner analogous to that in which they are presented to the ears in the preaching of the Word. This follows from what has just been shown as to their beings outward, sensible signs, signifying inward and spiritual grace.

(2.) They were designed to be "seals" of the benefits of the new covenant. The gospel is presented under the form of a covenant. Salvation and all the benefits of Christ's redemption are offered upon the condition of faith. In the sacraments God sensibly and authoritatively pledges himself to invest us with this grace if we believe and obey. In receiving the sacrament we actively assume all the obligations implied in the gospel, and bind ourselves to fulfil them. " Circumcision," Paul says, is " the seal of the righteousness of faith," Rom. iv. 11; and Baptism is declared to be "the circumcision of Christ." Col. ii. 11, 12. We are said to be actually "buried with Christ by baptism" (Rom. vi.4); i.e., united to him in his death. Jesus says, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke xxii. 20); that is, This cup represents my blood, by which the new covenant was ratified; and therefore it is a visible confirmation of the covenant, since it is a visible representative of the blood. If a man was circumcised, he was "a debtor to do the whole law." Gal. v. 3. "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Gal. iii. 27.

(3.) The sacraments were designed to "apply "-- i.e., actually to convey -- to believers the benefits of the new covenant. If they are " seals" of the covenant, they must of course, as a legal form of investiture, actually convey the grace represented to those to whom it belongs. Thus a deed conveys an estate, or the key handed over in the presence of witnesses the possession of a house from the owner to the renter. Our Confession is explicit and emphatic on this subject. The old English word "exhibit," there used, does not mean to show forth; but, in the sense of the Latin exhibere, from which it is derived, to administer, to apply. Compare the following: "A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers." S. Cat., q. 92. "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." L. Cat., q. 162. "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them." Conf. Faith, ch. xxvii., section 3. "The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost," etc. Conf. Faith, ch. xxviii., section 6. This the Confession carefully guards in the third section of this chapter, showing that the sacraments have no inherent power or virtue at all, but that the right use of the sacrament is by divine appointment the occasion upon which the Holy Ghost conveys the grace to those to whom it belongs. So that this grace-conferring virtue depends upon two things: (1.) The sovereign will and power of the Holy Spirit. (2.) The lively faith of the recipient. The sacrament is a mere instrument; but IT IS AN INSTRUMENT OF DIVINE APPOINTMENT.

5. The sacraments being seals of the covenant of grace -- at once pledges of God's faithfulness to us and of our obligation to him -- they of course (1.) Mark us as the divine property, and bind, us to the performance of our duty; and hence are (2.) Badges of our profession, and, putting a visible difference between those who belong to the Church and the rest of the world, give visibility to the Church, and separate its members from the world.

SECTION III: The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it:[7] but upon the work of the Spirit,[8] and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.[9]

7. Rom. 2:28-29; I Peter 3:21
8. I Cor. 12:13
9. Matt. 26:26-28; 28:19-20; Luke 22:19-20; I Cor. 11:26

Having asserted that the sacraments actually confer the grace which they represent to worthy recipients, our Confession in this section proceeds to guard this important truth from abuse, by carefully showing upon what this grace-conveying efficacy of the sacraments does not, and upon what it does depend.

1. This grace is not contained in the sacraments themselves, nor is it "conferred by any power in them." According to the Romish and Ritualistic view, the grace signified is contained in the sacrament itself, as qualities inhere in substances, and it is together with the outward sign presented in a real, objective sense, to every recipient, whether believer or unbeliever. They hold also that the sacrament confers this grace upon every recipient who does not positively resist, as an opus operatum the sole force of the sacramental action, as hot iron burns.

This whole view is explicitly rejected as false by our Confession; and the whole efficacy of the sacrament is said to depend, not upon any part of it separately, nor upon the whole together, but upon the sovereign power of the Holy Ghost, who is always present, and uses the sacrament as his instrument and medium.

2. The efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon either the personal piety or the "intention" of the person who administers them.

The Romanists admit that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the personal piety of the administrator; but they insist that it depends -- (1.) Upon the fact that the administrator is canonically authorized; (2.) Upon the fact that the administrator exercises at the moment of administration the secret "intention" of doing thereby what the Church intends in the definition of the sacrament. The priest may outwardly pronounce every word and perform every action prescribed in the ritual, and the recipient may fulfill every condition required of him, and yet if the priest fails in the secret intention of conferring the grace through the sacrament then and there, the recipient goes away destitute of the grace he supposes himself to have received, and which the priest has ostensibly professed to confer.

3. But the efficacy of the sacraments depends -- (1.) Upon their divine appointment as means and channels of grace. They were not devised by man as suitable in themselves to produce a moral impression. But they were appointed by God, and we are commanded to use them as means of grace; and hence God virtually promises to meet every soul who uses them rightly in the sacrament. Christ seals his gracious covenant by them, and hence in their use invests with the grace of that covenant every soul to which it belongs. (2.) The efficacy of the sacrament resides in the sovereign and ever-present personal agency of the Holy Ghost, who uses the sacraments as his instruments and media of operation. The Spirit is the executive of God. He takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto us. Through him even the humanity of Jesus is virtually omnipresent, and all the benefits secured by his sacrifice are revealed and applied.

SECTION IV: There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.[10]

10. Matt. 28:19; I Cor. 4:1; 11:20, 23; Eph. 4:11-12

As we have seen, the word "sacrament" was used very indefinitely in the early Church to include any religions rite which had a latent spiritual meaning. A pre-eminence was always awarded to Baptism and the Lord's Supper, as forming a class by themselves; but the number of ordinances to which the term "sacrament" was applied varied at different times and in different places from two to twelve. At last the number seven was suggested during the twelfth century, and determined authoritatively by the Council of Florence, 1439, and by the Council of Trent, 1562. These are Baptism, Confirmation, the Lord's Supper, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, Marriage. In order to prove that "there be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel -- that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord" -- we have only to show that the other five so-called sacraments claimed by the Romanists do not belong to the same class of ordinances with Baptism and the Lord's Supper; and we do this by applying the definition of a sacrament above given. Thus --
Penance, Confirmation, and Extreme Unction are not divine institutions in any sense.

Marriage was instituted, not by Christ, but by God; and Orders were instituted by Christ: but neither of these ordinances (a.) consists of an outward, visible sign, signifying an inward, spiritual grace; nor {b.) does either of them "represent, seal, or confer Christ and the benefits of the new covenant."

Our Confession also adds that no one has a right to administer the sacraments save a lawfully ordained minister. This is not said in the interest of any priestly theory of the ministry, as if there were any grace or grace-conferring virtue transmitted by ordination in succession from the apostles to the person ordained. But since the Church is an organized society, under laws executed by regularly appointed officers, it is evident that ordinances -- which are badges of Church membership, the gates of the fold, the instruments of discipline, and seals of the covenant formed by the great Head of the Church with his living members -- can properly be administered only by the highest legal officers of the Church, those who are commissioners as ambassadors for Christ to treat in his name with men. 1 Cor. iv. 1; 2 Cor. v. 20.

SECTION V: The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.[11]

11. I Cor. 10:1-4; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11-12

We saw, under chapter vii., sections 5 and 6, that the old and the new dispensations were only two different modes in which the one changeless covenant of grace was administered and its blessings dispensed. The sacramental seals of the covenant must, therefore, be essentially the same then and now. The difference is -- (1.) That they were more prospective and typical then, and that they are more commemorative now. They signified a grace to be revealed then; they signify a grace already revealed now. (2,) They were, as to form, more gross and carnal then, and more spiritual now.

Thus Baptism has taken the place of Circumcision as the rite of initiation. They both signify spiritual regeneration. Deut. x. 16; xxx. 6. Circumcision was Jewish baptism, and Baptism is Christian circumcision. Gal. iii. 27, 29; Col. ii. 10 -- 12.

Thus the Lord's Supper grew out of the Passover. He took the old bread and the old cup, and gave them a new consecration and a new meaning. Matt. xxvi. 26 -- 29. "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." 1 Cor. v. 7.

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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