Q 92: What is a sacrament?
A: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Q 93: Which are the sacraments of the New Testament?
A: The sacraments of the New Testament are baptism and the Lord's supper.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. DO this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
We are about to get into the meat and potatoes of the sacraments. And I really want to take my time going through the sacraments as we get many questions concerning, in particular, the practice of infant baptism. I won't say anything that hasn't been said before by others, but hopefully with the blog we can summarize some of main points of baptism and the Lord's supper, helping us to understand them covenantally and within the context of the whole of Scripture. That is because while we believe that baptism and the Lord's supper are New Testament sacraments, they do not exist within a bubble of New Testament theology. The sacraments, just like all of New Testament theology, builds off of what came before it. The Old Testament is the foundation and lays the groundwork to help us understand all that is revealed in the New Testament.
But to begin, what is, exactly, a sacrament? First, we see that a sacrament is something that was ordained by Christ himself. We know that before our Lord ascended into heaven, he commanded his followers to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We know that on the night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave his disciples the sacrament of the Lord's supper, telling them to "do this in remembrance of me". So these are things that Jesus commanded his people to do. Now, understandably, some Christian traditions, even Protestant traditions, add more sacraments. Feet washing is a common one, as Christ says that his disciples should do "just as I have done for you" (Jn. 13:15). But unlike the sacraments of the Lord's supper and baptism, none of the New Testament authors spend time writing about the theological significance of foot washing, there are no New Testament instructions or regulations laid out as to how foot washing is to be administered, and, we see no evidence that the churches in the book of Acts were carrying out foot washing ceremonies. This has led many to believe that washing feet was not a sacrament instituted by Christ, but rather, that Jesus is commanding his followers to humble themselves and serve each other. And, if Christ's words in John 13:15 apply to the act of serving one another, then, unlike with the actual act of foot washing, we see plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the followers of Christ took up his command. The book of Acts is filled with examples of Christ's disciples serving one another, and the epistles are full of instruction and commands as to how we should carry out our service to the people of God.
We also see that the sacraments are "sensible signs". This means that the sacraments engage our outward senses. For the most part, Christian worship is an audible exercise. We hear and speak the prayers, the confessions, the sermon, the music, and so on. But in the sacraments, we get to engage all of our senses! We feel the waters of baptism and see it being poured over the recipients. We touch the wafer and cup as we hold it in our hands. We can smell the wine as we draw the cup to our lips. We can taste the elements as we partake. We see the table laid out before us and see our brothers and sisters in Christ participating in one meal as one body in Christ. We hear the words of institution and the promises of the covenant given to us. The gospel becomes a tangible, physical thing right there in the midst of our gathered worship service as we faithfully participate in the sacraments. No wonder the worship of Christ's Church has traditionally been a service of "Word and Sacrament"! The sacraments are living pictures of what Christ has done for his people and continues to do for his people as he serves as our "Minister in the high places".
The catechism also says that the sacraments are signs and seals of the benefits of the New Covenant. What does it mean to say that the sacraments are signs and seals? To say that they're signs is to simply say that the elements of water, wine, and bread represent something. They are symbols of, as the catechism says, "Christ, and the benefits of the New Covenant". They are visible things that point to an invisible reality. But what about "seals"? How are the sacraments acting as a seal? This can be a little more complicated to understand, but I think a simple way to understand it is by saying that the sacraments act as a seal of confirmation of the benefits of the New Covenant as they are received in faith. Just like a seal or notary stamp confirms a legal document such as a deed or a bond, as it confirms legitimacy and ownership, so too do the sacraments confirm the reality of the New Covenant and the fact that we are under the "ownership" of the eternal, holy, and Triune God. But again, this is only true for those who receive the sacraments in faith. And to receive the sacraments in faith means that we receive them with a full dependency upon the invisible reality to which the sacraments point. But we'll discuss that point in much further detail as we examine each of the sacraments in the coming days.