July 15, 2013
i. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.
It is interesting in itself that the Confession would provide a separate chapter on the nature of sacraments before dealing specifically with baptism and the Supper. The word "sacrament" is not a biblical word, and, etymologically, its Latin narrative somewhat skews the discussion. In eight of the twenty-seven or twenty-eight occurrences of the Greek musterion (mystery), the Latin Vulgate chose the word sacramentum. (All other occurrences employ the word mysterium). Sacramentum in its Latin context was the sum of money two parties engaged in a legal suit deposited with the tresviri capitales, so-called because the losing party's sum was used for religious purposes. Sacramentum was also used in the military sphere to describe the initiation oath entered into by newly-enlisted troops. It is the latter concept - that of a life-death oath of allegiance - that rose to the surface in sacramental discussions in the Reformation and post-Reformation debates. For some, therefore, Baptism and the Lord's Supper were thus viewed primarily as an oath of allegiance, a responsive promise of loyalty and obedience, "solemnly to engage... to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word" (27:1).
It is therefore important to see that the Westminster Divines did not focus on this aspect of a sacrament but rather employed a robust covenantal understanding of baptism and the Supper as "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Despite the fact that only circumcision is specifically referred to as a "sign and seal" (Rom. 4:11-12), the Confession assigns this understanding of physical markers to all the individual covenants, and the unifying concept of the covenant of grace in particular. Following chapter seven, "Of God's Covenant with Man," the Confession assumes a unified understanding of the Old and New Covenants as dual redemptive-historical administrations of the one covenant of grace. In doing so, they are expressing an understanding that all covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the New Covenant) are accompanied by physical signs and seals and that baptism and the Supper employ a similar function in relation to the New Covenant.
Five additional features of a sacrament are specified:
· Sacraments are immediately instituted by God
· They signify/represent Christ and his benefits
· They confirm our interest in Christ
· Distinguish members of the church from the rest of the world
· Sacraments serve as expressions of commitment and discipleship
It is crucial to note that the Confession views the sacraments as signs of the covenant of grace and not signs and seals of faith. They do not function as markers of my response to the covenant, but of the covenant itself and the promises of God that accompany it.
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.