Divinely Instituted Sacraments

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One is sometimes left with the impression from defenders of Roman Catholicism, newscasters, and even docents in British and European cathedrals that the Reformation crept into the church and stole five ancient sacraments when no one was looking. This is quite untrue. It was not until the late thirteenth century that there was a formal recognition of anything like what we know today as the Roman Catholic sacramental system. The cup was capriciously and tyrannically withheld from the laity in 1281 at the Council of Lambeth and again at the Council of Constance (1415). While withholding the cup, Rome conceded that our Lord gave to us the Lord’s Supper in bread and wine. When the confessional, magisterial Protestant churches rejected the five ecclesiastically invented Roman sacraments (confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and anointing of the sick) and restored the cup to the laity, they were rejecting 250-year-old novelties developed gradually during the medieval period that had been imposed upon Christians in the late medieval period without biblical warrant. Protestants were returning the church to the two sacraments instituted by Christ. They were also returning the church to the universal practice of the ancient Christian church.

The two great branches of the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran and the Reformed, agreed that there are only two divinely instituted sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They agreed that both are gospel sacraments, visible representations of the good news that was being preached in Protestant pulpits. They agreed that in the gospel, God declares sinners to be righteous by His free favor alone (sola gratia) and that salvation is received through faith alone (sola fide). They agreed that the sacraments are means of grace (media gratiae) by which God strengthens and encourages believers. They agreed that baptism is Christ’s sign and seal of the washing away of sins by grace alone, that it is to be administered to believers and to their children (though they disagreed about its efficacy), and that the supper is His institution for nourishing the faith of professing believers. They also agreed that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory sacrifice of Christ in the supper is an idolatrous assault on the finished work of Christ. Despite their agreement on some of the most essential aspects of the sacraments, however, the two great Reformation traditions disagreed on a number of things.

In contrast to the Lutheran tradition, the Reformed worked out a thorough understanding of the biblical covenants as the framework within which to understand the sacraments. In the early 1520s, Huldrych Zwingli and others concluded that there is one covenant of grace in redemptive history, variously administered, in which God has promised to be Abraham’s God and the God of his children.

The Reformed also came to different conclusions on the Lord’s Supper. They agreed that in the supper, believers are fed by Christ, but they could not accept the Lutheran confession that Christ’s body is “truly present” in, with, and under the elements. For the Reformed, such a notion fails to account for the biblical teaching about Christ’s ascension, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the consubstantiality (of the same essence) of Christ’s humanity with ours.

Through the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the Genevans, the Heidelbergers, and the French, Belgic, and Dutch Reformed churches moved beyond Zurich on the supper. From the early 1540s until his death, John Calvin taught that in the supper, Christ feeds the believer on His true body and blood, through faith, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. The French Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) confess this high doctrine.

The recovery of the ancient Christian doctrine and practice of the sacraments was so essential to the Reformation that the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles spoke of the right use of the sacraments as “marks” of the true church. In article twenty-nine of the Belgic Confession, the French and Dutch-speaking churches confessed that there are three marks of a true church: the “pure preaching of the gospel,” the “pure administration of the sacraments,” and the “use of church discipline.” The phrase “pure administration” of the sacraments was a shorthand way of rejecting both the Anabaptists and Rome.

During the 2017 Reformation celebration, you may hear tour guides say that the Reformers removed sacraments from the church. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Reformation was not vandalism but a recovery of a pearl of great price: the two sacraments instituted by our Savior along with the good news they signify and seal.

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