Everyone understands the concept of something being sacred, even if they do not understand the word. Something is sacred when it is special and set apart. Perhaps you have dishes that your parents only let you use on special occasions, such as Christmas or birthdays. This is kind of what it means to be sacred. It is something special, something to be protected and respected. We all have things in our lives that we treat this way. Maybe they are spaces, such as a church auditorium, sometimes called a sanctuary, rights of passage, or even something like dishes. The point is that we understand the idea of something being sacred, even if we do not connect it to the word. For something to truly be sacred though, it means that it has been set apart by God for his purpose. Sacraments are sacred practices and rites that have been instituted by God for his church. This week we are going to talk about what they are and why they are important.
What Are The Sacraments?
This is question 66 of the Heidelburg Catechism. Last week we talked about how faith comes from God through the preaching of the gospel and that the Holy Spirit confirms that faith in the use of the sacraments. So what are the sacraments?
"The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that He grants us freely the remission of sin and life eternal for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross."
The sacraments, sometimes called ordinances, are visible witnesses to the gospel and our being made a part of it. They teach us that every part of salvation depends on Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Question 67 helps us to further understand this by asking if the gospel and the sacraments are supposed to point us to Christ and tell us to direct our faith to him alone. It answers by saying;
"Yes, indeed, for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross."
The sacraments are visible witnesses to what Christ has already accomplished at the cross. When we do them we remember what Christ has done and look forward to when he will come again.
How Many Are There?
So we have seen that the sacraments are important, that they point us to Christ's work on the cross, remind us of our union with him, and teach us to direct our faith to the one who gives faith. But how many sacraments are there and what are they?
"Two, namely, holy baptism and the holy supper." (Q. 68, A)
The protestant church since the time of the reformation has recognized two sacraments. This is different from the Roman Catholic Church which teaches that there are seven. The protestant understanding is based on scripture and the truth that only two practices were instituted by Christ for the church. These other things, marriage, ordination, confirmation, penance, and last rights, may be good things and may be helpful for people, but they are not instituted by our Lord in scripture for the church. Only these two, baptism and the Lord's supper, sometimes called communion, are proscribed directly for the church so that we can grow closer to him and point us to what he has already accomplished on the cross. Over the next several weeks we are going to talk more about baptism and the supper in more detail so that we can get a better grasp of what is going on with these sacraments.
The sacraments or ordinances are wonderful gifts that God has given to the church to teach us and remind us of the work of Christ on the cross. They are the ordinary means of grace used by God to bring us closer to him and to those around us in the church. Though out this we have talked about how these sacraments have been given to the church. This is because they are to be used as a church. They are done by individuals but are done with the church. We cannot baptize ourselves and should not celebrate the Lord's Supper on our own but should always do these things with the body of Christ in connection with the preaching of the gospel. If the gospel is not proclaimed then we are missing the point of the sacraments. How we come to God in worship matters. We are not free to make up our own ways of worship or to adapt cultural practices to make them fit the church. Our worship must be the worship that God has proscribed for us in his word. I pray that we would seek to be faithful to God's word in the sacraments and every other part of our lives.
Soli Deo Gloria