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The Sign and the Thing Signified

“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (vv. 21–22).

- 1 Peter 3:18–22

John Calvin, in his commentary on Romans 4, writes that “by themselves [sacraments] profit nothing, yet God has designed them to be the instruments of his grace; and he effects by the secret grace of his Spirit, that they should not be without benefit in the elect.” This encapsulates what the Reformed tradition has called the sacramental union between the sacrament’s outward sign and its spiritual reality. Essentially, this concept tells us that when the sacraments are received in faith, God’s grace works through them to accomplish His purposes in those who trust in the Lord. Sacraments are not bare testimonials of our faith, though they do testify to faith when we are baptized and partake of the supper. Instead, the sacraments are primarily about God and what He does. They reveal His promises visibly and convey His benefits when we receive them in faith.

Passages such as 1 Peter 3:18–22 show us this sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. Note how Peter states very explicitly in verse 21 that baptism “saves you.” We know from the rest of Scripture and even from this text itself that Peter cannot mean that baptism is the instrumental means of salvation or that it automatically redeems everyone who receives it. In context, Peter connects the salvation conferred in baptism with the salvation conferred to Noah’s family in the flood. Of course, not all of Noah’s family experienced eternal salvation through the protection of the ark in the flood. After all, Ham was later cursed by the Lord even though he had been protected from the floodwaters (Gen. 9:18–25). So, contrary to those traditions that affirm baptismal regeneration, we cannot speak of baptism as somehow automatically conferring what it signifies every time it is administered. It is possible to participate in the sacraments and not receive the grace exhibited therein.

Nevertheless, Peter does say that baptism “saves you,” so there is more going on in the sacrament than simply a visible testimony of faith. Although the bestowal of grace in the sacraments is according to God’s sovereignty, His granting of such grace is so closely connected to the sacraments that we can speak of the sacraments as producing certain effects. Westminster Confession of Faith 27.2 states, “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.”

Coram Deo

Scripture frequently describes the sacraments as accomplishing certain things without telling us how they do so. Thus, we must take care in describing how baptism and the Lord’s Supper are used by God to accomplish the promises conveyed therein. As with many spiritual truths, God gives us certain parameters and boundaries, and to go beyond what God says is to risk falling into great error.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 10:12–22
John 6:51
Acts 2:38
Romans 6:3–4

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.