The Purpose of Sacraments
“Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of His purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, He confirmed it with an oath” (v. 17).- Hebrews 6:13-20
Why do we have sacraments? Isn’t the Bible enough? The answer to the second question is yes and no. Yes, the Bible contains all the truth we need for salvation, but at the same time God has chosen to institute sacraments as additional confirming signs of His truth.
The Reformers sometimes said that the Word of God is primary and the sacraments are secondary. This has been misunderstood, as if the Word is important and the sacraments are not. That was the furthest thing from the minds of the Reformers. By “secondary” they meant the sacraments are effective when done in the context of the Word.
Throughout the Old Testament God always gave physical signs to confirm His words. In this way, God affirmed the goodness of the created universe and used it as a way to reveal Himself. God’s word to Adam was confirmed by a flaming sword. His word to Noah was confirmed by the rainbow. His word to Abraham was confirmed by circumcision.
Physical signs were multiplied to Israel in connection with the Mosaic covenant. We find the tabernacle, sacrifices, rituals of cleansing, memorial stones and pillars (Joshua 4). Miraculous signs confirmed the words of Elijah and Elisha; the rebuilding of the temple confirmed God’s promises to the exiles after the Babylonian captivity.
Thus, we find that God has not instituted some merely mental religion. If we despise the world, we despise the works of God. If we take a low view of the sacraments, we ignore the way God has always acted in revealing Himself and His purposes to mankind. Just as Word and Spirit always work together, so in the church, Bible and sacrament are to work together.
Historically, Roman Catholicism has erred by observing the sacraments as rituals not contextualized by the proclamation of the the Word. Sadly, Protestants have generally fallen into the opposite error, preaching sermons week after week that lack the confirming sign and seal of the sacraments. The Reformers wanted weekly communion because they wanted both avenues of God’s self-revelation clearly and continually set before the people.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper pull into themselves all the signs and miracles of the old covenant and the early church. Perhaps one reason why so many Christians look for miracles is that we do not appreciate the hidden miracle of the Lord’s Supper, which spiritually feeds us with Christ Himself.
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