Here are my latest reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism and its contents in honor of its 450th anniversary. (For some background and the entire document, check this out).
[Note: While on vacation, I got behind a bit on these posts. For thematic purposes, this post will address only one Lord’s Day. The two weeks that cover Baptism and the three weeks that cover the Lord’s Supper will be grouped together.]
LORD’S DAY 25
The Holy Sacraments
Q. 65. Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does such faith originate?
A. The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments.
Q. 66. What are the Sacraments?
A. They are visible, holy signs and seals instituted by God in order that by their use he may the more fully disclose and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross he graciously grants us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Q. 67. Are both the Word and the Sacraments designed to direct our faith to the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
A. Yes, indeed, for the Holy Spirit teaches in the gospel and confirms by the holy Sacraments that our whole salvation is rooted in the one sacrifice of Christ offered for us on the cross.
Q. 68. How many Sacraments has Christ instituted in the New Testament?
A. Two, holy Baptism and the holy Supper.
A proper understanding of the sacraments was at the fore of Reformation debates. What are they? How many are there? In what manner do they function and how are they related to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection?
Before discussing the Baptism and the Lord’s Supper specifically–the only two sacraments, it claims, because they were the only two instituted by Jesus Christ–the catechism here sets out the distinctively Reformed approach to the sacraments. They are “signs and seals” by which the Spirit teaches and confirms the truths of the Gospel to us. They are used by the Spirit to confirm our faith and are the means by which God ratifies his covenant promises.
While the Reformed carefully distinguish between the sign (water baptism/bread and wine) and the thing signified (the saving work of Jesus Christ and his benefits), they also affirm a connection between the two. The sacraments have been given by God, in the words of the Belgic Confession, “to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing” (article 33).
Here are two contrasting errors the Reformed saw and tried to avoid when it came to the sacraments:
- The Roman Catholic Church so united the sign and the thing signified that the sacraments became a means of distributing grace regardless of the faith of the individual receiving them. They were effective in communicating Christ and his benefits in and of themselves (ex opere operato), and therefore gained an almost magical quality. This position minimizes the role of faith.
- The Anabaptists so separated the sign and the thing signified that the sacraments became bare memorials that served only to direct our minds to the historic work of Jesus Christ or serve as external symbols to identify believers. This position divorces the Spirit’s work from the covenant signs that the Lord provides to his people.
Therefore, while the Reformed see the sacraments as “means of grace”, they also affirm Augustine’s teaching that they are “a visible form of an invisible grace”, and are never to be separated from the preaching of the Word, though which the Spirit works to create faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:11-17).
In his Institutes, Calvin put it like this:
“…a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it.”
“It is therefore certain that the Lord offers us mercy and the pledge of his grace both in his Sacred Word and in his sacraments. But it is understood only by those who take Word and sacraments with sure faith, just as Christ is offered and held forth by the Father to all unto salvation, yet not all acknowledge and receive him.”
“…the sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit, that inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears.”
“They do not bestow any grace of themselves, but announce and tell us, and (as they are guarantees and tokens) ratify among us, those things given us by divine bounty.”
(Book IV, Chapter xiv, sections 3,7,9, 17)
As the catechism moves on to discuss Baptism and the Lord’s Supper respectively, it does so with this framework in place. The sacraments really and truly communicate Jesus Christ to us, but do so through the work of the Spirit and the operation of faith. They are “visible words” (Augustine) that confirm the promises of the Gospel to us, and are given by God as aids for our faith, weak as it so often is. They are signs and seals that point us to the finished work of Jesus Christ, to whom the Spirit unites us through faith.