Q: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that does administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
1 Corinthians 3:7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Turning now to the "sacraments" portion of the ordinary means of grace, this question and answer of the shorter catechism addresses a subject that has been a point of contention for almost the full 2000 years of the Church's life. The effectualness of the sacraments, what is being accomplished and how is it accomplished in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, is not only a point of contention between the Roman church and the Protestant church, but is even debated amongst Protestants. And I think this all stems from the fact that generally throughout the history of the Church, Christians have been aware that baptism and the Lord's Supper are not merely signs. They are not merely reminders. They are not merely symbols of something. But rather, that there is something happening when the sacraments are rightly administered and received in faith.
Just a few weeks ago, we discussed what is happening in the administration of the sacraments. We talked about how the sacraments (along with the reading and hearing of the Word and prayer) are the God-ordained means of Christian discipleship. We talked about how these means of grace "communicate the benefits of redemption", and how that is used to make us more Christ-like. This week, we'll discuss how that happens. How is it that God uses the sacraments to communicate the benefits of redemption? How do they become "effectual means of salvation"?
Once again, Starr Meade is helpful:
Because the Lord Jesus gave us the sacraments, He blesses them when we use them. The Holy Spirit, also, works inside those who receive the sacraments by faith. Water baptism shows that the Holy Spirit baptizes people into the body of Christ and makes them members of Christ's body forever. When believers share the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper, they share in Christ and in His Spirit.
It is Christ, and his work by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through the sacraments that make them effectual in communicating the benefits of redemption to us. This is why the catechism is so clear in pointing out that the sacraments' power comes, "not from any virtue in them, or in him that does administer them", but only from Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit working in and through the lives of God's people as they receive the sacraments in faith*. And Starr Meade leaves us with this very helpful reminder that the sacraments are, ultimately, only one part of "Word and Sacrament" ministry:
Fairy tales often tell of magic rituals, such as rubbing the lamp in which a genie is living. In the fairy tales, whenever the ritual is performed, even when someone does it by accident, the magic happens. The sacraments are not like magic rituals. God did not intend for the sacraments to be used all by themselves. They are to be used with God's Word.
*As we examine the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, we will examine more closely what it means to receive them "in faith"