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The sacraments or ordinances given by God and instituted by Christ, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are visible signs and seals that we are bound together as a community of faith by his death and resurrection. By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares and seals the promises of the gospel to us.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
So say I of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper: “In their proper and appointed use they cannot be too highly valued: but, if abused to purposes for which they were not given, and looked to as contain- ing in themselves, and conveying of themselves, salvation to man, they are desecrated.” . . . Let us learn, then, from hence, how to use God’s ordinances—We should be thankful for them: we should honour them: we should look to God in them, and expect from God through them the communications of his grace and peace. They are to be reverenced, but not idolized; to be used as means, but not rested in as an end. No one is to imagine himself the better, merely because he has attended on any ordinances.
There are two sacraments or ordinances. There’s baptism, which is once for all. And there’s the Lord’s Supper, which is ongoing and regular. We call both of them ordinances because Jesus Christ commands us to do them. But we call them sacraments because through them God’s blessing and grace come to us in unique ways. They are not just personal, individual experiences. We are members of a community, and baptism and the Lord’s Supper show that we belong to that community, the covenant community, the people who belong to Jesus. And that’s the reason why these are actually like boundary markers. The Westminster Confession says they “put a visible difference between those that belong to the church and the rest of the world.”
They are both signs and seals. We call them signs because they symbolize the blessings of salvation, forgiveness for sins, reception of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to commune with Jesus Christ in his presence. But they’re not only signs; they’re also seals. That means they actually bring these blessings to us. They assure us and stir up our faith, and it’s our faith that receives those blessings.
Some places in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 10 and 1 Peter 3, seem to say that it’s the sacraments that actually receive the blessings of salvation. But the sacraments stir up our faith, and our faith is what actually receives the blessings and what saves us. So J. I. Packer puts it like this: “As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means.” Sacraments, therefore, function as a means of grace on the principle that, literally, seeing leads to believing.
Giver of the Gospel, you have given us signs of your grace that can be seen, felt, and tasted. Help us to observe them according to your commands. May they turn our eyes away from ourselves and onto your saving work. Keep us from exalting the signs in any way that distracts us from the Savior to which they point. Amen.