The Sign and the Things Signified

Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

- Acts 2:38

Extreme abuses tend to evoke extreme responses, especially in the history of Christian theology. Roman Catholic sacerdotalism — the idea that salvation is mediated through the priesthood and the sacraments — has long distorted the biblical gospel. So, it is understandable that many Christians have tried to answer this problem by downplaying the importance of the clergy and the sacraments. Modern evangelicals, due in part to our insistence on the biblical truth that salvation demands personal faith in Christ, often view the sacraments as bare memorials. In many circles, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are reduced to ordinances that we do simply because we are supposed to do them, and little thought is given as to why the sacraments exist. Moreover, the idea that the sacraments convey grace in a special way is probably foreign to many evangelicals, at least in America.

Yet a low view of the sacraments is an improper response to Rome’s sacerdotalist view. The Scriptures teach a high view of the sacraments without being sacerdotalist. In many places, the Apostles speak of the spiritual realities that the sacraments portray as identical to the sacraments themselves. Today’s passage, for example, uses language that, at first glance, seems to make divine forgiveness the inevitable result of water baptism (Acts 2:38).

Given Scripture’s insistence that we are justified by faith alone (Gal. 2:15–16), we know that the sacraments do not convey the benefits they signify simply through their administration. How, then, can we account for the Bible’s close association between the sacraments and the benefits they portray? The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here: “There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other” (27.2). Spiritually speaking, the connection between the sacramental signs and the invisible realities they portray is so close that we can rightly speak of the sacraments effecting the spiritual truths they depict. The benefits are not conveyed automatically, for the sacraments only convey sanctifying grace to those who receive them in faith. Nevertheless, they truly do convey such grace to all who trust in Jesus alone.

Coram Deo

The passage for today’s study is drawn from question and answer 66 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which reminds us that the promise sealed in the sacraments is the promise to forgive the sins of all those who rest in Christ alone. When we believe, God works through the sacraments to weaken any doubts we might have about this precious promise, and He strengthens us by His Spirit to cling to Jesus in every circumstance of life.

Passages for Further Study

2 Chronicles 5:1–14
John 6:53–56
1 Corinthians 12:13
1 Peter 3:18–22

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