We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
Over the past few decades, there has been a growing recognition of the needs for accommodations in workplaces and schools to help individuals with particular challenges be able to perform at their best. For example, students with test anxiety are able to take exams in a different location with more time allotted for the test. The 33rd article of the Belgic Confession talks about the sacraments of the church and how these sacraments are really accommodations that God has given to us to help us grow in our understanding of and faith in what God done for us in Jesus Christ.
This idea of the sacraments as accommodations for us comes in the very first words of this article: “We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal His promises in us, to pledge goodwill and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith.” In speaking about our “crudeness,” it is not talking about being offensive people, but, as indicated by its connection to “weakness,” it speaks of the fact that we can be slow to learn and believe–tied to us not only being finite human beings, but also those affected by the fall of humankind into sin. Because we can have doubts and don’t always understand things when we are told, God has given the sacraments to His church.
These opening words show us what the sacraments do: they seal God’s promises to us, pledge His goodwill and grace, and nourish and sustain our faith. Note that these sacraments do not bestow or give grace; we are not saved through the sacraments, but rather saved by faith in God’s promises of what He has done for us in Christ, as discussed in earlier articles of the Confession. In these sacraments, God tells us what He has done for us; the sacraments are not about us proclaiming what we have done, but God proclaiming to us what He has done and promised to do. God speaks these promises and gives assurance in His Word (the Bible), but sometimes we need more than words, and the sacraments come alongside of the Word:
“God has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what God enables us to understand by the Word and what He does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation He imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The sacraments thus are physical things that we can see and experience that make God’s promises visible to us. Some people are auditory learners (learning through hearing) while others are visual (sight) or more tactile (touch, taste) learners–God uses all senses to show us the gospel!
Therefore, these sacraments are signs and seals, words that you will commonly hear in Reformed churches to describe the sacraments. These terms come from Romans 4:11 where they are used to describe describe the Old Testament rite of circumcision, which was a symbol that confirmed God’s promises made to Abraham; this rite foreshadows the sacraments, particularly baptism (the next article discusses that in more depth). The sacraments are signs in that they are pictures of what God has done. They are seals in that they confirm the truth to us. In them, we see what Christ has done (sign) and know that He did this for me (seal).
These sacraments have true value – they are not empty symbols – but they only have value when they are joined to faith in Christ, as the Confession goes on to state: “So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.” God nourishes His church and grows it through these visible signs of His work.
After discussing the purpose of the sacraments, this article then notes that there are only two sacraments, baptism and communion: “Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments that Christ our Master has ordained for us. There are only two: the sacrament of baptism and the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ.” In this way, the Reformed tradition differs from other Christian traditions which view activities such as confession, prayer for the sick, confirmation, marriage, or holy orders as sacraments (some traditions would view footwashing not as a sacrament but as a rite for the church as well). As indicated in the words of the Confession here, the Reformed tradition believes that there are only two sacraments because only these two were given as ongoing commands of Jesus, as he told his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and to eat and drink in remembrance of him (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The activities that other traditions see as sacraments are good things that we should do and can help us grow in our faith, but they were not given as commands by Jesus for us all to do and there is no rite or physical sign used in them that points us to the work of Jesus; sacraments are physical signs of an inward truth. The next two articles will go on to discuss the particular meaning of these two sacraments.
God has given us the sacraments because we need them – we need them to help us in our faith. Hopefully, the next time you see, experience, or think about the sacraments, you will view them not simply as things that people are doing, but gifts of God that help us know what He has done for us and also assure us of His promises to us as believers. Not only should you see what God has done for us, but you can also see that God is one who knows what we need and gives it to us.
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.