Q.66. What are sacraments?
A Sacraments are holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise. And this is God’s gospel promise: to forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.
The word sacrament is never found in the scriptures. It is however a Latin translation of the Greek word for mystery. Mysteries are things which are hidden and which desire to be made known. The incarnation is one of these mysteries. How can God take on flesh? This is a truth that is hard to express in words, but it must be believed in faith. Read Colossians 2:2.
When the church speaks of the mystery of Christ, she is talking about any number of things: the incarnation, the redemption, or even the sacraments, which point to these great realities. It is this last sense that the catechism refers today. In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the great realities of Christ’s redeeming work are made known to the believer. That is why these acts are referred to as signs because they point toward the truth of life in Christ. Stop signs point toward an intersection at which one must stop. Stock certificates point to the reality that someone owns a certain part of a company. The certificate itself is not the reality, but it points to the reality. Similarly the sacraments point to the reality of our cleansing and forgiveness in Christ by the will of God. Read Hebrews 10:10.
What is a seal? Seals are like stickers. They were affixed to documents in order to declare that the full weight and authority of the owner was behind the written words. Similarly they were affixed to property in order to make a statement to the world about the rightful possession of the items. In a like manner, the sacraments function in our hearts and as witnesses to the world that God’s promises, fulfilled in Christ, are for me personally and that I belong to him. Read 1Corinthians 6:20.
In one sense a sacrament can be compared to a living dictionary. When one doesn’t fully understand a written or spoken word, they can look it up in the dictionary in order to get a working definition. The same is true of the doctrine of salvation; by looking at the sacraments we see that cleansing consumption are visibly portrayed. We are cleansed of sin baptism tells us, and we are to consume Christ, or internalize his life into our body. The twin realities of justification and sanctification are defined for our understanding in these acts. Read Ephesians 5:24-27 and Romans 8:10-11.
The sacraments point us toward Christ and his finished work on the cross. By inviting us to participate in these symbols God assures us that the faith we have points backwards to a historical reality which will also be fulfilled in a future of immeasurable joy and wonder. Read 1Corinthians 15:19-24.
The first glimpse we get of the nature of the sacraments comes in the story of Abraham, the man of faith. The apostle Paul tells us circumcision was a sign and a seal of Abraham’s faith, his complete trust in God. As we explore the sacraments further, let us not forget the gift of God who seeks to comfort and assure us of the work that he began in us. Read Romans 4:11 and Philippians 1:4-6.