How Do we Receive
Christ?, MAY/JUN 1997
Mysteries of God and Means of
Michael S. Horton
1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
"Try a personal Communion service to enrich your relationship
with God." "Supper for One," an article in a leading evangelical magazine,
advocates supplementing private devotions with Communion. "I didn't
have wine or unleavened bread around the house, but I did have water
or juice and crackers....Communion helped me focus blurry thoughts in
the morning." The writer recalled the hatred she was harboring toward
a friend. "Yet as I crunched the cracker in my mouth, I remembered the
breaking of Jesus' body and prayed, 'Lord, please break this hatred
in my heart.' After several days, something inside me changed." It seems
that the "Supper for One" worked, and on this basis it is commended
to the rest of the church. No attempt is made to derive support from
Scripture or even from tradition for this astonishing practice. But
this woman would probably, as an evangelical, criticize Rome's Sacraments
as being unscriptural. Doubtless, the writer is a convinced evangelical
who accepts the Bible's authority, but yet seems to have no test for
what is a "means of grace" beyond its pragmatic usefulness.
Unlike the Supper instituted by Christ, this new practice is private rather
than public, subjective rather than objective, and does not even require
the specific material elements commanded by Christ! Evidently the spiritual
and moral effects are all that matter. "After three months of daily remembrance,
I wondered if Communion would make the same difference for others. The
Communion Project was born." Pastor Mac tried private Communion for three
months. "Mac used juice and graham crackers (he has kids, too)." The article
offers testimonials from those for whom this new Sacrament "worked." Each
person focused on a different spiritual need and envisioned Jesus as the
answer. Alma, mother of five, "began to focus on portraying the Spirit
of Jesus and His humble service" while taking Communion. "As a result,
Alma saw changes in the way she spoke to and served her children." "I'm
still enjoying Communion on a regular basis," says the writer, "although
not every day (the carpool changed again)."1
For a group that is often fond of denouncing Rome's additions to Scripture,
evangelicals have done a fairly radical job of liturgical and sacramental
innovation. (Like a new exercise for losing that spare tire, getting in
shape spiritually is a matter of finding the right technique.) Most evangelicals
wouldn't call them Sacraments, but they believe that their innovative
techniques do convey God's grace. Ironically, the same would probably
not be said of the Sacraments that our Lord actually did establish.
Even in more traditional days, we would try to prepare our heart for Jesus,
making sure that we had surrendered all. Each summer at camp in my youth,
we would do penance, as the final night would lead us through the stages
of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Thus prepared, we would write
our sins on a piece of paper or wood and throw them into the fire, promising
never to do them again. No, I was not reared a Roman Catholic, but as
an evangelical Protestant.
And we would return to camp the next summer, after passing a number of
"sacramental seasons" in between, to get back lost grace and keep our
reservoirs as full as possible. Instead of seeing the Christian life as
one long experience of being simultaneously justified and sinful, fully
accepted by God in Christ, and yet always striving against my sinful heart,
my practical theology resembled that of my Roman Catholic friends. Even
the central event in worship was called the altar call. While we would
never have referred to the place where God speaks and acts in Word and
Sacrament as an altar, we had no trouble calling this other place -- the
stage around which we gathered as we "came forward" to receive Christ--by
To this day, I hear Christian brothers and sisters defend this practice
by saying, "Surely you wouldn't deny that many people are saved by coming
forward!" In other words, the altar call is regarded as a means of grace.
In fact, the medieval view of the Sacraments as working ex opere operato
(i.e., just by performing the act, one is saved) finds a Protestant parallel
in this new Sacrament. After all, doesn't the pastor declare, "Now, if
you prayed that prayer after me, you are a Christian"? (In fact, if you
pray that prayer at the end of some tracts, there is even a place to sign
your name and the date of your new birth!) While the ancient church condemned
as Pelagian the idea that grace is conferred by saying a prayer (the Council
of Orange, 529 a.d.), it is now regarded as a guarantee of saving grace
in many circles. Although few evangelicals would be comfortable hearing
a Lutheran or Reformed minister announcing God's forgiveness in connection
with Baptism or the Lord's Supper, they do not seem to mind when the same
grace is linked to "receiving Christ" in an altar call, a Promise Keepers'
meeting, a small group, in spiritual disciplines, or at summer camp.
It is so easy to set aside God's ordained means of grace and to create
our own private and public rituals. We can turn a means of grace into
a Sacrament of penance as easily as the next fellow. Even if we are anti-ritualistic,
a praise band becomes a "means of grace," or "testimony time" becomes
sacramental. In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Richard Foster
lists numerous Sacraments, from physical labor to spiritual disciplines,
actually calling them "means of grace." Yet Foster belongs to the Quaker
tradition, a religious group that repudiates Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
In reality, we are an individualistic and self-assured lot. We believe
that the Christian life consists chiefly in finding out what needs to
be done, and doing it. Inveterate Pelagians by birth, we do our best to
climb the spiritual rungs into God's hidden presence, but he has plainly
warned us against this strategy. For he has come near to us, through the
Incarnate Word, the written, and especially, preached Word, and the visible
Word (i.e., the Sacraments).
If we really believe that we are helpless to save ourselves, as Christians
any more than pagans, the Sacraments become for us not a means for attaining
grace, but for receiving grace. They are not rituals through which we
proclaim our willing and running, but through which God proclaims his
willing and running. But how seriously do we take the two Sacraments instituted
by our Lord? Contrast our contemporary pictures with the answer of Reformed
theologian Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629): "The visible church is a fellowship
of people called to the state of grace by Word and sacrament." In fact,
although the Church often considers other activities "ministries" that
reach the world for Christ, the Church, as Louis Berkhof reminds us, "is
not instrumental in communicating grace, except by means of the Word and
of the sacraments" (emphasis added).
The goal of this article, and this issue, is to try to recover the force
of this viewpoint. During the Reformation, the church recognized that
the recovery of the radical God-centeredness and grace-oriented apostolic
message was not only a matter of orthodoxy, but doxology; that is, not
only sound doctrine, but sound praise and worship that was shaped by the
mystery of Christ revealed. Liturgical reform was necessary. Something
parallel is going on in our day, as a new generation‹largely consisting
of converts to the evangel in evangelical circles‹cries out for the Bread
of Life in the place of stones. Burned out after years of hopping from
one spiritual bandwagon to another, they are looking to churches that
believe it's more important to feed the flock than appease the goats.
They are beginning to understand that when the Savior calls the unbelievers
to himself, it will be only here that they will hear God's gracious call,
however strange it may sound at first. As we learn to become less ashamed
of the Gospel, we are beginning to recover our own voice again, our own
In the light of that, this article will introduce the Reformed perspective
on the Sacraments.
What Are the Sacraments?
In the early church, adult catechumens would study the teachings and practices
of Christianity and then be initiated, with their children, into the church
by the mystery of Baptism, instituted by our Savior in his Great Commission
(Matt. 28:19-20). The Holy Supper was regularly celebrated along with
the preached Word (Acts 2:42). However, before the service of the Supper
began, the general public was dismissed with the announcement, "Ite, missa
est!", meaning, "Go, it is dismissed." Over time, the missa in
that formula gave us our word for the Mass.
But eventually, the human temptation to invent new forms of worship, as
Israel had done at Mt. Sinai with the golden calf, expressed itself in
the medieval proliferation of additions to the ancient Mass. (Seeker-worship
is, after all, not all that new!) Medieval theologian Peter Lombard defined
a Sacrament as "a sign of a sacred thing," which was so broad, of course,
that it is little wonder that as many as thirty "Sacraments" were suggested!
Eventually, the magisterium settled on twelve and then reduced the number
finally to the seven that stand to this day in Roman Catholicism.
Again, for the reformers, theological reform led to liturgical reform.
This, of course, did not mean a wholesale abandonment of the first fifteen
centuries, since the church had not in every respect abandoned God's Word.
Instead, Luther, Calvin, and the other magisterial reformers insisted
on reforming the Mass. Far from ignoring the ancient forms of the church,
they carefully studied Scripture and realized that if the layer of medieval
accretions in the Latin Mass was peeled away, the resulting service was
both more biblical and more ancient. Calvin expressed the criterion employed:
"It is certain that all ceremonies are corrupt and harmful unless through
them men are led to Christ...As to the confirmation and increase of faith,
I should therefore like my readers to be reminded that I assign this particular
ministry to the sacraments" (Institutes 4.10.15 and 4.14.9).
Thus, to qualify as a Sacrament, an act had to be instituted by Christ
and it had to strengthen faith in Christ rather than undermine it. First,
the reformers considered a Sacrament to be a divine act. Just look at
the alleged Sacraments that Rome had adopted: Many not only failed to
be sanctioned by Christ, but were recent in origin (dating officially
from the 13th century). Further, they did not offer grace, but merit.
Was marriage a divine action, or a human pledge? Is God rewarding me by
making these vows or is he bestowing unmerited favor? It is quite strange
to think of marriage as the bestowal of the Gospel, a means of grace rather
than a Christian vow. How could penance be a Sacrament, a means of grace
from God to us, when in fact it consisted of three human acts (contrition,
confession, and satisfaction‹that is, making restitution)? Like many of
the new Sacraments we invent as Protestants, medieval Rome had confused
human actions (good and important as they are in the Christian life) with
divine grace. The indicative and imperative were confused. Contrition
and confession are Christian duties, but they are our response to grace,
and the effect of grace, not a means of grace from God. Rome had even
taken the Lord's Supper and turned it into our act of resacrificing Christ
instead of promising us "that because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished
on the cross he graciously grants us the forgiveness of sins and eternal
life" (Heidelberg, Q. 66).
The Reformers found another problem with the medieval notion of even those
Sacraments instituted by our Lord. In Rome, one brought a worthy disposition
or habitus to the Sacraments, and obstacles could prevent the effective
flow of grace into the soul. Where the Scriptures portray grace as God's
unmerited favor toward us, medieval theology had taught that grace was
a spiritual and moral quality within the believer. Like water filling
a bathtub, grace could leak out of the soul due to venial sins and be
entirely lost by committing a mortal sin. Thus, Rome's Sacraments (especially
penance) served to merit new infused grace. In contrast, Calvin says that
Christ's Sacraments are instituted so that "believers, poor and deprived
of all goods, should bring nothing to it but begging" (Institutes
4.14.26). The Sacrament's "force and truth" do not depend on "the condition
or choice of him who receives it. For what God has ordained remains firm
and keeps its own nature, however men may vary" (ibid). So for Calvin,
as for Luther, "sacramenta conferunt gratiam" (Sacraments confer
grace). They are not rewards for the strong, but mercies for the weak.
Not only did the Reformers oppose Rome's meritocracy; they fiercely opposed
the opposite tendency to subjectivize the Sacraments by making them mere
signs or tokens to evoke piety. For this, too, would only lead the struggling
believer to look for help within himself. From the mid-sixteenth-century
confessions to the Westminster Confession of 1647, the entire confessional
testimony of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches defends the objective
character of the Sacraments as means of grace.
The Scots Confession of 1560 declares, "And so we utterly condemn the
vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked
and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted
into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which
our sins are covered and remitted, and also that in the Supper rightly
used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment
and food of our souls" (Ch. 21). "The Holy Spirit creates [faith] in our
hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel and confirms it by the use
of the holy Sacraments" (Heidelberg, Q.65). The Second Helvetic Confession
reminds us that what is given in the Sacraments is not merely "a bare
and naked sign," but Christ himself, with all of his saving benefits.
It warns against the "sects," who "despise the visible aspect of the sacraments,"
exclusively concerned with the invisible (Ch. 19). The Thirty-Nine Articles
of the Church of England repeat their sister churches in affirming this
point (Art. 25). "The sacraments become effectual means of salvation,"
according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, "not by any power
in themselves or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him
by whom they are administered; only by the working of the Holy Ghost,
and the blessing of Christ by whom they are instituted" (Q.161).
Moving to our day, most Reformed theologians have upheld the confessions.
Princeton's A. A. Hodge wrote, "Christ uses these sacraments, not only
to represent and seal, but also actually to apply, the benefits of his
redemption to believers." Furthermore, according to Hodge, while they
are not Sacraments, the church ought to retain as ordinances confirmation,
absolution, marriage, and ordination. Penance and extreme unction are
rejected entirely. Exulting in the biblical and historical evidence, Hodge
declared, "We have, on the one hand, the great body of the historical
Christian churches, and on the other hand, the Protestants of Protestants,
our Baptist brethren. In this point of view the advantage appears to be
on our side."
It is important to realize that the Calvinistic Baptists hail not from
Anabaptism, but from English Puritanism. Unlike the various "sects" of
the so-called Radical Reformation, the Baptists were in other respects
committed to the magisterial Reformation, but separated from their Reformed
churches over the issue of infant Baptism. What is odd about our day is
that the more radical elements of Anabaptism, rather than even the more
moderate views of the Baptists, show up occasionally in our churches.
It is, therefore, astonishing that so many who go by the name "Reformed"
in our day seem to deny, at least in the practical treatment of these
Sacraments, the efficacy of these means of grace. As I have attempted
to highlight in In The Face of God, the gnosticism (spirit against
matter emphasis) of our age seems to pervade evangelical thinking and
this has not been without its effect in our own churches. The hidden assumption
appears to be that God works immediately and directly, without means,
in bringing us to faith and keeping us there. Spirit is set against matter;
in this case, the material elements of human preaching, water, bread and
wine. The Anabaptistic, pietistic, and then revivalistic strains of evangelicalism
eventually triumphed over the Reformation's evangelical stance and to
the extent that Reformed churches today follow these general evangelical
trends, they lose their Reformed identity.
In many conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, it is as if the
prescribed forms for Baptism and the Supper were too high in their sacramental
theology, so the minister feels compelled to counter its strong "means
of grace" emphasis. In this way, the Sacraments die the death of a thousand
qualifications. The same is true when we read the biblical passages referring
to Baptism as "the washing of regeneration" or to the Supper as "the communion
of the body and blood of Christ." Why must we apologize for these passages
and attempt to explain them away? Our confessions do not do this. Our
liturgical forms (if we still use them) do not do this, but we feel compelled
to diminish them these days.
We hear quasi-gnostic sentiments even in Reformed circles these days,
such as the "real baptism" that is spiritual, as opposed to "merely being
sprinkled with water," or the "real communion" with Christ in moments
of private devotion. How can we truly affirm the union of earthly and
heavenly realities in the Incarnation? Or how can we regard the Word of
God as a means of salvation if it is but ink and paper or human speech?
A subtle Docetism (the ancient gnostic heresy that denied Christ's true
humanity) lurks behind our reticence to see these common earthly elements
as signs that are linked to the things they signify. Surely the Sacraments
can remind us of grace, help us to appreciate grace, and exhort us to
walk in grace, but do they actually give us the grace promised in the
Gospel? The Reformed and Presbyterian confessions answer "yes" without
hesitation: A Sacrament not only consists of the signs (water, bread and
wine), but of the things signified (new birth, forgiveness, life everlasting).
And yet, the experience of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the odd
world of American revivalism has challenged the confessional perspective.
In The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (Yale,
1940), L. B. Schenck noted, "The disproportionate reliance upon revivals
as the only hope of the church...amounted to a practical subversion of
Presbyterian doctrine, an overshadowing of God's covenantal promise."
As Richard Muller has carefully shown in his Calvin Theological Journal
article, "How Many Points?", our system has been reduced to a pale reflection
of its former self.
Eugene Osterhaven states, "Thus the Reformed tradition, with most of the
Christian church, believes it pleases God to use earthly materials‹water,
bread, and wine‹in the reconciliation of the world to God."
But does Scripture teach this? The best way to answer that is to simply
read the passages, where Baptism is called "remission of sins" (Acts 2:38),
and those who believe and are baptized will be saved (Mk. 16:16). Paul
announced, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on
the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). The Sacrament and faith were not separated
in Paul's mind, for apart from the latter the benefits of the former were
not received although the Sacrament was performed. In Baptism we were
buried and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:3-5). Far from viewing Baptism as
a human work, Paul said "not by works of righteousness which we have done,
but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration
and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us abundantly through
Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by his grace we should
become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Tit. 3:5-7).
A. A. Hodge writes, "Men were exhorted to be baptized in order to wash
away their sins. It is declared that men must be born of water and of
the Spirit, and that baptism as well as faith is an essential condition
of salvation. The effect of Baptism is declared to be purification (2
Kings 5:13, 14; Judith 12:7; Lk. 11:37-39)." As Hodge observes, in infant
Baptism, there are four parties: God, the Church, the parents, and the
child, and the only party wholly passive in the affair is the very person
We simply cannot say that we take a literal approach to the text while
interpreting these clear passages as allegorical of a spiritual reality
detached from the obvious reference to physical sacraments.
Here the Reformed found great assistance in Augustine's terminology, often
employed in medieval theology, but later abandoned in Rome's attempt to
explain transubstantiation. Especially important in the Augustinian tradition
was the relation between "sign" and "thing signified." Analogous to the
relation between Christ's human and divine natures united in one person,
the earthly signs of water, bread and wine are united with the things
signified: regeneration, forgiveness, and adoption. This "sacramental
relation" is central to the Reformed understanding of these passages.
It helps us to avoid either a ritualism that places the efficacy in the
signs themselves and a spiritualism or rationalism that deprives the signs
of their efficacy. So when we read that Baptism is "the remission of sins,"
we embrace neither baptismal regeneration nor spiritualization. The sign
is not the thing signified, but is so united by God's Word and Spirit
that the waters of Baptism can be said to be the washing of regeneration
and the bread and wine can be said to be the body and blood of Christ.
To say that Christ is not in the water, bread and wine is not to say that
he is not in the Baptism and the Supper, since both Sacraments consist
of signs and things signified.
We live in a sensate era, looking for "sensory overload" experiences.
Since the Fall, we have always sought that which is "pleasing to the eye"
(Gen. 3:6). Hence, the golden calf, the perpetual temptation to idolatry,
and the medieval superstitions. The corrupted Mass replaced the Word with
colorful and exciting feasts for the eyes and ears, but where was Christ?
So too, in our day, we demand visual and aural stimulation, and are being
led to idols rather than to Christ. A Word and Sacrament orientation touches
our senses, but also fastens us to the reality which they offer beyond
themselves. The Word consecrates the Sacraments, not transubstantiating
the substances of bread and wine into body and blood, but making these
visible signs means of grace. Unlike our own clever substitutes, the Sacraments
lead us beyond the signs to the Lamb. Calvin goes so far as to stress
the relationship between the physical character of the elements and our
own bodies, suggesting that God "testifies his benevolence and love toward
us more expressly by the sacraments than he does by his word" (Institutes
The Sacraments do not give us something different from the Word; rather,
both conspire to give us Christ. We have no trouble when Scripture tells
us that "the Word of God is living and powerful" (Heb. 4:12), or that
the Gospel is "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 2:16). When we say
that someone was converted by hearing a sermon, we are not attributing
saving efficacy to language, or ink and paper in their own right. Rather,
we are claiming (whether we realize it or not) that God has graciously
taken up these human things and, by uniting them to the heavenly treasures,
has made them effective himself. Precisely the same is true of the Sacraments.
If one rejects the Gospel as it is given in the preaching of the Word
and in the Sacraments, it remains the Gospel, still the power of God unto
salvation, but "...for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and to
the Greek." Apart from faith, one is no more saved by Baptism and the
Lord's Supper than he or she is by the preached Gospel.
Rome is fond of charging the Reformation with subjectivizing the Sacraments
by denying their efficacy ex opere operato (i.e., "by the doing
it is done," the view that Baptism and the Supper confer grace apart from
faith). As Berkouwer points out, Philip Melanchthon's Loci communes (1521)
and the Augsburg Confession both condemn the view that the Sacraments
grant justification. "That, of course, is an error," says Melanchthon,
"for justification comes only with faith." Thus, "...belief is necessary
for the correct use of the sacraments" (Apology). "It is striking
that so much agreement exists between Lutherans and Reformed precisely
in the rejection of ex opere operato. Both continually point to
the relation between Word and sacrament, and therefore to the relation
between faith and sacrament (cf. Institutes 4.14.14). This is not
because they both subjectivize the sacraments, but because they both have
a correct insight into them."
It is Rome that subjectivizes the Sacraments by making their effect depend
on the moral disposition and worthiness of the recipient. Faith is not
a holy disposition within us, but a looking away from self altogether
to lay hold of the righteousness of another. I am convinced that evangelicals
and Roman Catholics share so many ironic affinities in their view of their
respective Sacraments precisely because they share similar views of justification
The medieval theologian Peter of Poitiers said that we had to prepare
our heart to receive Christ, as a guest prepares his house. How different
is this from the Arminian altar calls or similar exhortations to "surrender
all" and prepare the heart for Jesus? In Scripture, not even faith is
a work of human beings, but the receiving of Christ's work. And yet in
both medieval and Arminian schemes, human cooperation subjectivizes the
Word and Sacraments, so that their real efficacy lies in the disposition,
will, and activity of the very sinner who finds himself or herself destitute!
On Ezek. 20:20, Calvin replies, "Man's unworthiness does not rob the sacraments
of their significance. Baptism remains the bath of regeneration even though
the whole world was faithless; the Lord's Supper remains the distribution
of Christ's body and blood, even though there was not the slightest sparkle
of belief left." The Belgic Confession points out that the Sacraments,
like the Word, are given because of our weakness, not as a reward for
our strength (Art. 33). How can the Reformed position be distinguished
from Rome, then? For the Reformed, the Sacraments are objective means
of grace, but not of infused grace. It is the promise of the Gospel, identical
to the proclaimed Word, that is confirmed by the use of the Sacraments.
Just as the Gospel proclaimed retains its nature and efficacy whether
we believe or not, we do not make the Sacraments effective by our faith,
preparation, works, or any other activity. And yet, we must receive Christ
in them if we are to profit from them.
Making use of the Sacraments is not like turning on a faucet to drink
water, but like being given a gift. It is not a moral quality within us
that makes the Sacraments effective (as in Rome), but the objective promise,
received in faith through the mighty working of the Holy Spirit. This
phrase, "received in faith," does not mean that faith makes the Sacraments
effective any more than that faith itself justifies. We know that it is
God who justifies us, on the basis of Christ's righteousness and not our
faith, and the same is true of the Sacraments. Sacraments remain Sacraments,
just as Christ remains Christ and the Word would be true if nobody ever
accepted it as such. But the reality they exhibit and confer must be embraced.
John 3:16 remains John 3:16 apart from anyone's acceptance. If anyone
fails to believe, he has not made Word and Sacrament ineffective; he has
simply refused to accept that which was truly offered to him, objectively,
by God. G. C. Berkouwer warns against the spiritualizing tendency to see
the sacraments as "merely jogs for the memory, whose only effect is psychological."
The Reformed want to emphasize that the Sacraments, no less than the Word,
are means of grace, made effective by God, not merely an occasion for
grace, made effective by us. Although he sometimes expressed eccentric
views on the subject, Abraham Kuyper reminds us, "What you need is the
anointing of grace itself," not merely a reflection of it. He refers to
Zwingli's "deplorable representation," calling his view of the Supper
"intellectual" as well as "barren and mendacious," insisting that he would
rather err on the side of Luther than Zwingli's. Berkouwer complains,
too, that in Zwingli "the sacrament is reduced to the level of any phenomenon
we experience as edifying, such as the starry heaven, a death bed, or
a praying child." According to Kuyper, "Even if a person had already confessed
before his baptism that salvation is in Christ, and even if he were already
incorporated into Christ, he makes the real transition only through baptism."
He is quite right when he says, "The Reformed stand with Rome, Luther,
and Calvin against Zwingli in their adherence to a divine working of grace
in the sacrament." In a classic understatement, Berkhof declares, "There
is a very general impression, not altogether without foundation, that
Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper was very defective," since "for him
the emphasis falls on what the believer, rather than on what God, pledges
in the sacrament." Sadly, many churches today calling themselves Reformed
and Presbyterian embrace in practice Zwingli's view of Sacraments as "bare
and naked signs," even though this view is rejected by every one of our
But doesn't God communicate his grace in devotions, in personal testimonies,
and in similar expressions of piety? Is God bound to only these means
of Word and Sacrament? That is the wrong question, from our point of view.
Let's say you promised me that you would meet me at the cafe on the corner
of Fourth and Maple. There is nothing magical about the corner. You would
have been free to select another spot, but that location‹especially if
my life depends on this meeting‹takes on a particular status because of
your promise to meet me there. Similarly, God could meet us anywhere on
earth. Filling the heavens and the earth, he speaks to us in general revelation
every time we climb a beautiful mountain or attend a Mozart concert. But
he appears to us there in his role as Creator. We learn nothing from general
revelation that is able to save. It can lead us to the Gospel, but it
is only in the Gospel given in Word and Sacrament where we see God in
the particular act of saving people. The Grand Canyon can show you God's
majesty, but only special revelation‹in particular, the Gospel of Christ,
reveals God the Redeemer as your Savior. Omnipresent Spirit has met us
in the Incarnate Word, and he continues to meet us but only where he has
promised to meet us for the purpose of saving us.
A Sacrament is distinct from other important spiritual disciplines not
only because it is attached to a definite divine promise, but because
it is God's activity. While your testimony might reveal God's work in
your life, the preached Word and Sacraments reveal God's work in history
for my redemption and that of the whole church. In other words, your testimony
tells me about your experience (which is not wrong in itself, of course),
but the Gospel, in Word and Sacrament, actually gives me Christ!
There are many Christian duties, and Baptism does mark us with Christ's
sufferings, leading us to a life not only of assurance of God's grace,
but of opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Far from opposing
Christian duties, the Sacraments make them possible. In such duties (prayer,
talking to others about Christ, praise, discipline), we are the speakers
and actors, but in Word and Sacrament, God is the one speaking and acting.
There is a place for our response in grateful praise and obedience, but
we can only be thankful after we have been given something and obedient
after we are grateful. As the gracious indicative makes way for the imperative
in the preached Word, the sacraments give and we bring nothing of ourselves
but our cry for grace. Like little birds waiting in the nest with beaks
open wide to receive their daily food, we are God's own children huddled
together in his church to receive Christ as the food of our souls. As
a number of friends in the Reformed ministry have told me, frequent Communion
requires them to make Christ central in their preaching as well as in
the Sacrament itself. In both forms, Christ is, as Paul said, "placarded"
or "posted" before the congregation as crucified.
At the heart of the Reformed doctrine, shared also with the ancient (especially
Greek) churches, is the eschatological parallelism between heaven and
earth: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Or, "Whatever you bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven."
Do you see the "as on earth, so in heaven" parallelism? The kingdom is
the in-breaking of Christ's new world by the Spirit's re-creation. It
is the age to come shooting forth fruit-laden branches of the heavenly
Tree of Life into this present age. From the Reformed perspective, the
"already" and "not-yet" of redemptive history bars us from a realized
eschatology of Christ's physical presence on earth before the eschaton,
marking our difference with Rome and Lutherans. But it also sets our view
off from the entirely future eschatology of Zwinglians and rationalists
who deny the mystery.
Zwinglians and Roman Catholics are the only ones who deny mystery: the
former, by reducing the Sacraments to mere signs and symbols; the latter,
by arguing that the sign is no longer united to the thing signified, but
replaces it! Lutherans and Calvinists embrace mystery, though at different
points. While Calvinists ask Lutherans how Christ can be physically present
at every altar and still be said in any sense to have a human body, Lutherans
ask Calvinists how they can honestly say that they are really feeding
on the true body and blood of Christ in heaven, without identifying this
with a physical mode of eating. For centuries, the difficult business
here for both parties has been accepting each other's claim to be truly
feeding on Christ according to his institution. But at least they are
both claiming the same act and effect, even if they differ on the mode
of eating. Here, both concede mystery, a wonderful exercise of the miracle-working
Savior still at work in our world, and this is at least a good place to
Even with the Word and Sacraments, our feeble-mindedness, willful ignorance,
and pride keep us from raising our eyes to heaven as we should. From the
Reformed perspective, Roman Catholics and Lutherans fail to take into
sufficient consideration the implications of the angelic announcement,
"He is not here, for he is risen!" And yet, he promised in his Great Commission
that as his church preaches and baptizes, "I am with you always, even
to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:10). This finds a more focused elaboration
in John's Gospel, where Jesus prepares the Church for his death, resurrection,
and ascension. Although he must go, it is good, he says. His absence means
that he will send the Holy Spirit, not as a new Savior, but as the one
who unites us to Christ now in heaven. He promises that believers will
see him in the flesh, but only on the last day. Until then, he is still
present but it is the Holy Spirit now who leads us across the Rubicon
of this present age into the age to come. "These things I have spoken
to you while being present with you," he says. "But the Helper, the Holy
Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things,
and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (Jn. 14:24-26).
"It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the
Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send him to you"
This two-age model ("this present age" and "the age to come") forms the
horizon of the New Testament and our own Christian experience. Jesus presents
this model (Mk. 10:30; Lk. 20:34), and it is found throughout the epistles.
Hebrews 6 warns lapsed believers from committing apostasy by returning
to Judaism and Gentile paganism. These are people who "were once enlightened,
and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy
Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age
to come..." (Heb. 4-5). In the ancient Church, "enlightened" was a term
for the baptized, while tasting of the heavenly gift most likely refers
to Holy Communion. Through these means of grace, says the biblical writer,
especially "the good word of God," the members of the visible Church have
actually tasted the powers of the age to come. This is the "already" aspect
of the kingdom. And yet, it is the age to come in all its fullness when
Christ returns physically in glory. "For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). The Reformed view wants to avoid
the tendency to deny the future of this face-to-face encounter, but it
also insists that we do see in a mirror, however dimly. That mirror or
looking glass in which we see our Redeemer is Word and Sacrament.
It is the Spirit who makes the connection between these two ages, and
it is through the instruments of the preached Word and Sacraments that
the "already" and "not-yet," this present age and the age to come, converge.
Here Christ meets with his people before his final return in judgment
and consummation. For here we are seated with him in heavenly places even
before we are physically raised.
the very term may perplex some people. However, it is quite clearly
derived from Scripture, as the Greek word for "mystery" (musterion,)
is translated into Latin as sacramentum. In the Roman world,
a sacramentum was the oath of a secret society, especially of
soldiers, for whom military interests and religious rituals were virtually
indistinguishable. Not surprisingly, then, when the ancient church wanted
to talk about the ways in which God confirmed his promise to Abraham
and his seed by an oath (Heb. 6:13-18), they adopted this idea. Not
only is the Gospel referred to as a mystery, hidden under types and
shadows until Christ's advent; ministers are to be regarded "as servants
of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1).
Having briefly sketched the Reformed view of a Sacrament, let's take
an even more cursory look at Baptism and the Supper particularly, and
try to ascertain some agreements in spite of our differences.
Baptism: The Sacrament of Initiation
Just as Adam and Eve were redeemed from God's avenging wrath prefigured
by the sacrificial skins they wore in the place of their own fig leaves,
and Abraham was called out, justified, and circumcised, the Israelites
were spared by sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts.
God leads his people out of Egyptian bondage through the Red Sea after
the event of the "passing over" of the avenging angel. Along with Circumcision,
Passover is divinely instituted as a sign and seal of the covenant of
grace. But God's people rebel in the wilderness journey toward the Promised
Land. On the verge of crossing over, they express their unbelief in the
promise and God bars that generation from entering his rest.
Joshua leads Israel into the Promised Land and God establishes in the
earthly Jerusalem (City of Peace) a figure of "the city which has foundations,
whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). But even in this land of
promise, Israel repeatedly turned to idols and to her own righteousness
for salvation. Again and again, the church is threatened with extinction,
either by internal apostasy or by external oppression, often the latter
a divine punishment for the former. There is always a remnant, a true
Israel, a faithful seed that still holds onto the promise and looks for
redemption from Zion.
Finally, the Messiah arrives and is announced by John the Baptist as "the
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." He declares that the
kingdom has come in his very person. He is the Second Adam who will fulfill
the covenant of works, earning for us the right to eat from the Tree of
Life. By fulfilling the covenant of works, we are able to receive eternal
life in the covenant of grace. He is Abraham's son and so are all believers,
Jew and Gentile together, one flock with one Shepherd. Now he replaces
the Sacraments of Circumcision and Passover with Baptism and the Supper.
While Reformed theology has historically agreed with the
Law-Gospel distinction of Lutheranism (while leaving a larger place
for the positive role of the Law in the Christian life), the system
increasingly organized itself around that key biblical motif of diatheke
or covenant. In creation, God established a covenant of works with Adam:
If he would perfectly obey, he would earn for himself and his posterity
the right to eat from the Tree of Life and enjoy eternal happiness without
the possibility of falling away. Having broken this covenant, God was
not obligated to redeem his image-bearers, but he chose to do so. And
from eternity past, Christ was appointed as the Mediator of the elect.
After the fall, therefore, God established a covenant of grace with
Adam and Eve, and all believers with them. The Gospel was preached by
God himself to the guilty race in the announcement of the woman's Seed
who would triumph over the serpent. The whole of biblical history then
becomes an outworking of this plan of redemption, this covenant of grace.
In the Old Testament, believers place their faith in this Redeemer to
come. Abraham is called out of the world to be the father of many and
after he is justified by grace through faith in this Coming Son, he
is circumcised by divine command. But God also commands him to circumcise
his children. All children of Abraham henceforth are to be circumcised
on the eighth day, to separate them from the covenant of works and place
them under God's protection in the covenant or treaty of grace.
This narrative summary does not require proof-texts, as it follows
the familiar biblical story. We might only encounter strong objections
when we reach that last claim: that our Lord replaced Circumcision and
Passover with Baptism and the Supper. And yet, this is not only the
most obvious interpretation of the events; the comparisons are drawn
by the apostles themselves. Paul tells the Colossians, Greeks and Jews
alike, "In him [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision
made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh,
by the circumcision of Christ"‹so far, so good. Instead of a physical
circumcision done by human hands, New Testament believers are actually
circumcised spiritually. Christ's circumcision counts as ours, as we
are in him. Yes, but Paul has not finished his sentence: "...buried
with him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through
faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11).
Paul does not merely link Circumcision (promise) to the New Birth (fulfillment),
but to Baptism as its sign and seal.
But Paul not only makes a correspondence between Circumcision and Baptism;
he does the same with Passover and the Supper. "For indeed, Christ,
our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast..."
(1 Cor. 5:7-8). Later, he tells the Corinthians, "Moreover, brethren,
I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the
cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the
cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank
the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that Rock that followed
them, and that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:1-5). Peter, too, makes the
parallel between the baptism through the Red Sea and New Testament Baptism
(1 Pet. 3:21). But Paul's remarks here are in the context also of his
discussion of the Lord's Supper. Far from marking a contrast between
the Old and New Testaments, Paul insists that our Jewish brothers and
sisters, when they drank from the rock in the wilderness (Ex. 17:5-7),
were actually receiving Christ under the figure of a broken rock. To
be guilty of the bread and the cup is equivalent, says Paul, to being
guilty of Christ's body and blood (1 Cor. 11:27): this underscores the
relation of the sign to the thing signified. While the bread is not
transformed into a physical body, nor the wine into blood, the sacramental
union enables us to refer to the one as the other. "The cup of blessing
which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The
bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?"
(1 Cor. 10:16).
How seriously are we going to take these passages? I remember how foreign
they were to me years ago and how suddenly they transformed my view of
the Sacraments. How could I possibly have claimed to interpret the Bible
according to its ordinary, literal sense, and end up with a rationalistic
and spiritualistic understanding? It was a classic case of assuming a
perspective and expecting the Bible to conform to it, and here, I submit,
is an example of how easy it is for us to evade Scripture even if we claim
to practice a straightforward hermeneutic.
Eugene Osterhaven notes, "Within Protestantism there were those who saw
Baptism as little more than a badge indicating belief or sign of the covenant.
But most Reformed people, including the Church of England, believed that
Baptism was a real means of grace with multiple significance: the acknowledgment
of sin, of cleansing through Christ, union with Christ, the gift of the
Holy Spirit, and Baptism as a sign of covenantal status." Calvin observed
that in Scripture Baptism is "a token and proof of our cleansing" and
"in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts"
(Institutes 4.15.2). In drawing the parallel with Circumcision,
Calvin emphasized the covenantal status of children of believers. They
receive Baptism not in order to be made worthy of the kingdom, but because
they are already the seed of the Lord. In other words, as Isaac was a
child of promise at birth, Baptism does not make children Christians,
but seals them in the covenant to which they are already entitled by Christ's
mediatorial work. "Through baptism, believers are assured that this condemnation
has been removed and withdrawn from them" (Institutes 4.15.10).
Parents are given confidence in God's promise to their children "because
they see with their very eyes the covenant of the Lord engraved upon the
bodies of their children...Finally, we ought to be greatly afraid of that
threat, that God will wreak vengeance upon any man who disdains to mark
his child with the symbol of the covenant; for by such contempt the proffered
grace is refused, and, as it were, forsworn (Gen. 17:14)" (Institutes
4.16.9). "But how (they ask) are infants, unendowed with knowledge of
good or evil, regenerated? We reply that God's work, though beyond our
understanding, is still not annulled" (Institutes 4.16.18). Rather
than sharply dividing between an external and internal covenant of grace,
as some have done in American theology, Calvin simply concludes that infants
"receive now some part of that grace which in a little while they shall
enjoy to the full" (Institutes 4.16.19). Of course, not every baptized
infant is confirmed and not all confirmed members of the visible church
exercise faith, which alone is the instrument of justification. But this
was true in the old administration of the covenant of grace as well. Further,
it is as true in bodies that do not practice infant Baptism, as not all
baptized adults persevere to the end.
Louis Berkhof treats the question of baptismal regeneration in his Systematic
Theology (pp. 627 ff), providing a helpful summary of the various
Reformed positions within the spectrum (p. 639). "Some would proceed on
the assumption that all the children presented for baptism are regenerated,
while others would assume this only in connection with the elect children,"
while still others regarded Baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant
and differed somewhat on how to interpret that. He points out the Belgic
Confession's comment: "Neither does this baptism avail us only at the
time when water is poured upon us, and received by us, but also through
the whole course of our life" (Art. 34). Berkhof appeals to the Conclusions
of Utrecht in 1908: "...Synod declares that, according to the confession
of our Churches, the seed of the covenant must, in virtue of the promise
of God, be presumed to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until,
as they grow up, the contrary appears from their life or doctrine...."
The Reformed tradition veers away from ex opere operato (again,
the view that the application of water in Baptism necessarily effects
regeneration) on the one hand and a mere symbolism on the other. In
Baptism, God does confer grace‹special grace, not merely common grace‹but
its effect is often that of planting a seed that will grow, not creating
a full-grown plant. "Not all who are descendants of Israel are Israel"
(Rom. 9:6), so that apart from faith there is no regeneration even for
the baptized any more than there was for the circumcised. And yet, this
view also stands opposed to the other extreme, according to Berkhof:
"Under the influence of Socinians, Arminians, Anabaptists, and Rationalists,
it has become quite customary in many circles to deny that baptism is
a seal of divine grace, and to regard it as a mere act of profession
on the part of man." This is calculated, of course, to make the point
that those who hold this non-Reformed view within Reformed churches
are keeping bad company.
The Lord's Supper: The Sacrament
If Baptism is seen as the announcement of our decision and testimony,
the efficacy of the Lord's Supper will also be found in our remembering
and in our recommitment. I recall how, on those rare occasions in my youth
when the bread and little plastic cups of grape juice were passed down
the rows, my focus was on trying to make it really "work." Was my self-examination
real, or was my heart in it? The preacher tried to vividly portray the
nails going into Christ's wrists, but I still wasn't sure how I was supposed
to remember an event at which I was not present. Was I sad that Jesus
died? And what if I had some unconfessed sin that I could not recall:
that could make whatever was supposed to happen not happen, couldn't it?
It seemed that so much depended on the combined imaginations of the preacher
and my own, along with the special music that accompanied the distribution.
Was God doing anything at all?
I had, without malice but with plenty of ignorance, turned the Sacrament
of Christ's doing and dying into my sacrament of feeling and remembering.
Why did I even need bread and grape juice to do that? After all, even
as a youngster I knew it was pretty silly to go through all of this to
provide an object lesson. And what of this warning about eating and drinking
unworthily? I could not quite put my finger on what that meant, and since
the pastor was fairly vague about it, too, my accusative conscience often
made this a quasi-rededication ceremony. In other words, it was an act
of penance. Eating and drinking worthily required intense response, feeling
sorry for Jesus and sorry for my sins. But was I sorry enough? If you
can identify with these experiences, you will find the following words
from Calvin concerning his experience of medieval practice intriguing:
Called to belong to Christ, his Church is sustained along the way by
that same Christ. Calvin borrowed from Augustine the reference to the
Word preached as the verbum audibile (audible word) and the Sacraments
as the verbum visible (visible word). "For as in baptism," he writes,
"God, regenerating us, engrafts us into the society of his church and
makes us his own by adoption, so we have said, that he discharges the
function of a provident father in continually supplying to us the food
to sustain and preserve us in that life into which he has begotten us
by his Word" (Institutes 4.17.1).
Commonly, when they would prepare men to eat worthily, they have
tortured and harassed pitiable consciences in dire ways; yet they
have not brought forward a particle of what would be to the purpose.
They said that those who were in state of grace ate worthily. Then
they interpreted 'in state of grace' to mean to be pure and purged
of all sin. Such a dogma would debar all the men who ever were or
are on earth from the use of this Sacrament. For if it is a question
of our seeking worthiness by ourselves, we are undone; only despair
and deadly ruin remain to us...To heal this sore, they have devised
a way of acquiring worthiness: that, examining ourselves to the best
of our ability, and requiring ourselves to account for all our deeds,
we expiate our unworthiness by contrition, confession, and satisfactionŠOn
what ground are we confirmed in the assurance that those who have
done their best have performed their duty before God? For by their
immoderate harshness they deprive sinners, miserable and afflicted
with trembling and grief, of the consolation of this Sacrament; yet
here we have all the delights of the gospel set before us...Therefore,
this is the worthiness‹the best and only kind we can bring to God‹to
offer our vileness and our unworthiness to him so that in his mercy
we may be taken as worthy; to despair in ourselves so that we may
be lifted up by him; to accuse ourselves so that we may be justified
by him (Institutes 4.17.42).
Even some Protestants, he said, put in the place of the worthiness
of works the worthiness of their faith. This can be attained no more
easily than perfect personal holiness in this life. "For it is a Sacrament
ordained not for the perfect, but for the weak and feeble..." (Institutes
The liberating news of Scripture is that even here, even now, God is acting
for my salvation. Just as the Gospel is about God doing everything in
Christ for my salvation, not giving me any place to boast, the Sacraments
have the same message. It is because Christ is truly present in the Sacrament
that I can turn from myself to the one outside of me. Although the signs
(bread and wine) remain what they are, and Christ is received by faith
and not by the mouth, the thing signified (Christ and his benefits) is
so united to these earthly elements by Word and Spirit that I can raise
my eyes to heaven and receive the food and drink of eternal life.
Reformed people are sometimes unfairly regarded by Lutherans as holding
that Christ is only spiritually present in the Supper. But in fact, the
confessional Reformed position is that Christ is physically present in
the Supper, at the right hand of God in his ascended body. Who are we
to pull Christ down or, by an act of will, climb up to him? This is Paul's
rhetorical question in Romans 10. For Christ is brought near to us by
the preached Word, he says, although Paul surely did not believe that
he was brought bodily to us in the sermon. Instead, the Reformed maintain
that the Holy Spirit, in this Sacrament, raises us to Christ where, mysteriously,
we feed on his true body and blood. It is not a spiritual or symbolic
presence of Christ, as if he were only spirit and no longer flesh, but
the manner of eating is spiritual rather than physical. This is a key
difference from the caricature. It is the mode, not the substance, that
It was Zwingli, however, who advocated the view that is often taken for
the Reformed position. Allowing merely for a "spiritual presence" of Christ
in the Supper, Zwingli denied that Christ is present in his human as well
as in his divine nature, and this was repudiated by Calvin (and even by
Zwingli's successor, Heinrich Bullinger), and by all the standard Reformed
and Presbyterian confessions. It is a real presence of Christ, according
to both natures, but the mode of the eating is by faith and not by physical
eating. The Zwinglian view is not on the spectrum of possibilities within
a Reformed confession. And yet, neither is the Lutheran view acceptable
to the Reformed, although Calvin did sign the unaltered Augsburg Confession.
As Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629) expressed it, "It is one thing to say
that Christ is present in the bread, and quite another to say that he
is present in the holy supper." It is not that Christ is only present
in the Supper according to his divine omnipresence, but that he is truly
and really present according to both natures (even physically present)
in the Supper, but not in the bread.
Because of its importance, said Wollebius, "The holy supper ought to
be observed often." As is often noted these days, Calvin argued that
the Supper should be observed whenever the Word is preached, but at
least weekly. It is delightful, surely not for that reason alone, that
many Reformed and Presbyterian churches are restoring this practice.
"Lift Up Your Hearts"
the Reformed have emphasized this line in the ancient liturgy of the
Eucharist, the so-called sursum corda. It is the invitation to
be lifted mystically into the presence of our faithful heavenly Shepherd.
We have touched briefly on the eschatological thrust of the Sacraments
in Scripture, and will conclude here with these thoughts. In Baptism,
we have been swept into the new creation and in the Supper we are actually
fed with the body and blood of Christ as pilgrims on the way to the
Promised Land, and yet, by promise already living there. How all of
this actually happens, we cannot say exactly. Like the man born blind,
we can only exclaim, "I once was blind, but now I see." In this inner
sanctuary of the Triune God, the Holy One whose mere voice sent terror
into Israel's bones clothes himself in humility, as he did two thousand
years ago. Then as now, the unclothed God would destroy us, but he has
become flesh of our flesh. And even though he is ascended, to return
physically in glory at the end of the age, he invites us now to come
boldly into his Most Holy Place through his body and blood, the Temple's
Believing sinner, behold, Eden's Tree of Life, Noah's Rainbow, the
divine Flame walking alone between the sacrifice's severed halves, Abraham's
Circumcision, the blood on the doorpost, the true Israel's Pillar of
Cloud by day and Fire by night, the water and blood flowing from the
Messiah's side! Perhaps you have heard in God's Word marvelous things,
but you still doubt whether all of this was done not just for others,
but for you. So God has placed his gift not only in your ears, but on
your head and in your hands. "Oh, taste, and see that the Lord is good!"
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical
theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate
of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power
Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.