The Word and Sacraments
November 28, 2017
In the last article we looked at the nature and purpose of baptism according to the Westminster Standards. We noted that the Standards emphasize the sealing function of baptism and that as a seal it is designed to confirm the baptizand’s interest in Christ and to strengthen faith and all other graces. This suggests that the Standards do not teach baptismal regeneration because a sacrament designed to confirm and not make saints does not confer or convey converting or regenerating grace.
Another reason that the Standards do not teach baptismal regeneration is its teaching on the relationship between the Word and sacraments. The Standards teach that God uses the Scriptures to convert sinners. The faith, whereby sinners are enabled to savingly believe the Gospel is “ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word (WCF 14.1).” The reading but especially the preaching of the Word is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners (WSC 89).” In fact, the ability to convince and convert is evidence Scripture is the word of God (WLC 4).
That the Standards do not explicitly relate the work of conversion to the sacraments may be significant, particularly when considered against the background of the writings of the members of the Assembly. Richard Vines approvingly cites the teaching of Whitaker, namely that the Word and sacrament are instruments of grace. The difference between the two is that “the Word begins and works grace in the heart (For faith comes by hearing) but the Sacrament is objected to the eye, and doth not begin the work of grace, but nourishes and increases it, for faith is not begotten by the Sacraments, but only augmented.” Vines then uses this same distinction between the Word and sacrament as his third reason to prove that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. He writes:
Thus the Word is the only instrument of God to beget faith, or work conversion, and there are many expressions of Scripture, tending to prove it…the Word is the great Charter of Gods Covenant; His Covenant is to make us his, to entertain us as his, and so the Word is a seed of our new birth, and the milk or meat of our spiritual growth. Unto this Covenant or Indenture hang two seals…for their certioration and comfort.
George Gillespie concurs with Whitaker and Vines. Profane and scandalous persons are to be excluded from partaking of the Lord’s Supper but not from preaching because the Word is to convert and confirm, while the sacraments are to confirm only. He writes:
The word is not only a confirming and comforting, but a converting ordinance…whereas the sacrament is not a converting, but a confirming and sealing ordinance, which is not given to the church for the conversion of sinners, but for the communion of saints. It is not appointed to put a man in the state of grace, but to seal unto a man that interest in Christ and in the covenant of grace which he already hath.
Support is garnered for this distinction from notable Reformed theologians. Gillespie says that Ursinus distinguishes between the Word and sacraments as between converting and confirming ordinances. And:
Paraeus puts this difference between the word and sacraments: that the word is a mean appointed both for beginning and confirming faith,—the sacraments are means of confirming it after it has begun: that the word belongs to the converted and to the unconverted,—the sacraments are intended for those who are converted and do believe, and for none others.
The Reformed distinction between the Word and sacraments, as explicated by various Westminster Divines, therefore, provides further evidence that WCF 28.6 should not be interpreted as teaching that baptism conveys initial grace. The Word, and not the sacrament, is set apart by God for conversion.