July 18, 2013
iii. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.
This section deals with the efficacy of the sacraments. Firstly, grace is exhibited in the sacraments. Baptism and the Supper do not function ex opere operato - by virtue of their application alone. Failure to apply the hermeneutical principle advocated in section two - the "sacramental principle" - leads to attribution of the meaning of sacrament to the recipient. In general, the Church Fathers lost sight of the sacraments as signs to stir up faith and seals to confirm believers in possession of the blessings signified, regarding (for example) baptism as actually conveying regeneration to those who did not obstruct its working. Since infants could not do this, all baptized infants were accordingly viewed as regenerate. Similarly, dangers of formalism arise in the Supper.
Of particular interest in our time is the Confession's comment as to the relationship between the efficacy of sacraments and the officiant. In opposition to the idea that baptism and the Supper are only effective if the "minister" (or whoever the presider may be) is a regenerate Christian, the Confession expresses what to some amounts to a very "high" view of the sacraments. They are effective to the faith of the recipient regardless of the lack of it on the part of the officiant. The efficacy of the sacraments lies a) in the work of the Holy Spirit (rather than the sacrament itself or the one who administers it), b) the word of institution (viewed here not simply as a ritual), but as c) containing the promise of the covenant-Lord. The sacraments are effective due to the word and Spirit - both are essential.
This signals the importance of Scripture and sound interpretation (preaching) whenever the sacraments are observed. Just as the Holy Spirit illuminates the Scriptures and shows us Christ, so mutatis mutandis in the sacraments. Where faith is present (worthy receivers), the sacraments accomplish what they promise - union and communion with Jesus Christ.
Care should be exercised in not misconstruing the intent behind the expression "worthy receivers." Too often, preparatory exercises can lead to the idea that this makes us worthy - an idea utterly foreign to the grace of the gospel. Baptism and the Supper are for sinners!
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.