The Focus of the Sacraments

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

- Galatians 3:27

Reformed churches traditionally have a high view of the sacraments, so it is important for those who believe Reformed theology is the best summary of biblical teaching to have a high view of the sacraments as well. That means baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be seen as true means of grace, avenues through which the Holy Spirit works to portray visibly the promises of the gospel and mature us in Christ. At the same time, let us also understand that the grace we receive through the sacraments is not a different kind of grace than what we receive through the preaching of the Word and prayer. The sacraments are not ways to receive a “better grace,” nor are they “better” ways to access sanctifying grace. They are just a different means to access the same grace. They are means that use our sight, taste, touch, and smell — senses we do not have to use to participate in the other means of grace — to impress upon us the same promises of the gospel found in Scripture.

Thus, the sacraments are not ends in themselves but always point us to “the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation” (The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 67). For that reason, Reformed thinkers have always emphasized the importance of performing the sacraments alongside the preaching of the Word of God. The sacraments are a way to portray the gospel visibly and tangibly. However, the rites themselves are apt to be misunderstood apart from a clear explanation of the gospel from Scripture. Though they are effective means of grace, they are effective in confirming our belief in Christ Jesus only if we receive them by faith. Participating in the sacraments without faith only invites judgment (1 Cor. 11:27–30). “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), and to administer the sacraments without preaching is to invite those who may not have faith to incur judgment on themselves.

Acts 2:42 confirms that preaching and the sacraments went hand in hand in the practice of the early church. The first Christians devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread (the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. In hearing Apostolic instruction, the earliest Christians were taught to put on Christ alone for salvation (Gal. 3:27). The sacraments, in turn, reinforced this teaching.

Coram Deo

We must know the gospel to have faith in the gospel, and we must have faith in the gospel to enjoy the sanctifying benefits of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the preaching of the Word always has a certain kind of priority over the sacraments in our worship. We must not have a high view of the sacraments at the expense of a high view of preaching, so let us make sure to hear the Word preached whenever we can.

Passages for Further Study

2 Kings 22:1–23:25
Luke 24:13–35

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