The Danger of ‘A High View of the Efficacy of the Sacraments’

The Confession teaches that true grace is conferred to and efficacious for the elect alone.

Concerning baptismal efficacy, the Westminster Standards restrict it to the elect alone who are the subjects of God’s efficacious grace. A wrong view of baptismal efficacy changes the meaning of all the most important doctrines of salvation. Efficacious grace means that the elect alone are: redeemed by Christ; given a new heart; justified, adopted, and sanctified; given the Holy Spirit; forgiven their sins; enabled to persevere; kept by God’s power; and, made heirs of eternal salvation.

 

Too often, people who should know better say or write something like this, “Well, I believe in a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments.” Despite the spiritual sound of such words, it is an illogical and inconsistent statement because it remains undefined. Here are questions that deserve an answer. What do such people mean by the use of “high” in that statement? Are they taking the position of high church Protestantism that holds to a view of the efficacy of the sacraments that closely resembles Catholicism? If not, then what is “high” about their views? Then, what do they mean by efficacy? Are they taking the position that the sacraments are efficacious apart from or in addition to God’s electing grace?

In my work on Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I showed that the undefined use of the word efficacy by the Federal Vision was an essential and fatal flaw of that erroneous system. Peter Leithart defines baptismal efficacy as more than nothing but less than invariably and permanently conferring the grace of eternal salvation.[i] More than nothing, less than actually conveying grace. What does that even mean? Yet, those people who say they hold to a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments are dangerously close to the same error as the Federal Vision proponents. Are they saying that the sacraments actually confer saving grace to everyone who receives them? If so, then that opens another can of worms. Do they also believe that those who receive saving grace in the sacraments can lose it? The real problem with their view is that they fail to define the word efficacy. Until that word is defined, all the other statements about the sacraments will be meaningless.

The Westminster Confession of Faith on Efficacy

There is no doctrine more essential to the teaching of the Westminster Standards than efficacious grace. As B. B. Warfield wrote:

The distinguishing mark of Calvinism as over against all other systems lies in its doctrines of “efficacious grace.”[ii]

Predestination is rather a logical consequence of, and an essential element in, than the determining principle of, Calvinism.[iii]

Warfield’s statement is confirmed by a perusal of the Westminster Standards which refer specifically to efficacious grace in nine different chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 3.6; 7.5; 8.6; 8.8; 10.1-4; 11.1; 13.1; 17.2; 27.3; 28.6) and in answer to various questions of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms  (LCQ  2, 35, 58, 59, 66, 67, 68, 155, 161; SCQ 29, 30, 31, 32, 88, 89, 90, 91). The Standards also indirectly refer to efficacious grace by describing the work of the Spirit in the hearts of His people in various other sections.

The Westminster Standards teach that the elect are effectually called to faith in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith by His Holy Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation (WCF 3.6).

In other places, the Westminster Standards teach that:

  1. The covenant of grace was “sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Holy Spirit” during the time of the law (WCF 7.5).
  2. “The virtue, efficacy, and benefits [of Christ] were communicated unto the elect” before Christ became a man (WCF 8.6).
  3. Particular redemption is effectually applied only to the elect (WCF 8.8).
  4. Justification by faith flows from effectual calling (WCF 11.1).
  5. Sanctification is the result of effectual calling and regeneration (WCF 13.1).
  6. Perseverance is the result of the efficacy of Christ’s merit and intercession, the abiding of the Spirit, and the covenant of grace (WCF 17.2).
  7. The sacraments are efficacious only through the working of the Spirit (WCF 27.3).
  8. Baptismal efficacy is not tied to the moment of baptism, but grace is offered and conferred to such as that grace belongs, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time (WCF 28.6).
  9. Chapter ten of the Westminster Confession of Faith is devoted completely to the doctrine of effectual calling (italics added for emphasis).

Concerning baptismal efficacy, the Westminster Standards restrict it to the elect alone who are the subjects of God’s efficacious grace. A wrong view of baptismal efficacy changes the meaning of all the most important doctrines of salvation. Efficacious grace means that the elect alone are: redeemed by Christ; given a new heart; justified, adopted, and sanctified; given the Holy Spirit; forgiven their sins; enabled to persevere; kept by God’s power; and, made heirs of eternal salvation. The Federal Vision’s view of baptismal efficacy totally redefines the efficacious grace of the Westminster Standards and replaces it with a view of efficacy that is completed by man. Grace, in the Scripture and the Westminster Standards, is efficacious solely through the work of the Spirit and the power of God. When reformed and/or Protestant ministers say that they believe in a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments, they have, wittingly or unwittingly, taken a position that aligns them with high church Protestants, sacerdotalism, and Roman Catholicism. How is it possible for someone who supposedly believes in eternal predestination and efficacious grace to also hold to a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments?

The Inconsistency with Reformed Theology

First, such people are often guilty of the same inconsistency that is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. (This is not the place to explore in depth the inherent theological inconsistencies of Aquinas, but I will write an article on it when I return from my vacation to Israel in a few weeks.) Aquinas held to both unconditional election and the efficacy of the  sacraments for all who receive them, but he saw the inconsistency of his position on sacramental efficacy. He  attempted to mitigate this inherent inconsistency by holding the view that God’s grace could be negated by the failure of the individual to persevere. Wow. That sounds a lot like the Federal Vision, doesn’t it? In fact, Peter Leithart even stated at his trial that he got his views primarily from Aquinas. Thus, for Aquinas, God’s election is trumped by man’s unfaithfulness. That is the danger of a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments. It is not really a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments at all. It is a high view of the will of man to effect his own salvation or to lose the same. Their efficacy is the very opposite of the efficacious grace of the Scripture. What is the value of an unconditional election that can be lost by my failure to persevere? Too many reformed scholars are mesmerized by Aquinas’ apparent support for election and the exhaustive definitions of theological issues that he gives in his Summa Theologica. But Aquinas is no safe guide for Protestants unless you are seeking to become a Catholic. And a ‘high view of the efficacy of the sacraments’ is not a position that any consistent Calvinist can hold. It is Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Second, people who hold to a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments wrongly allege that the Reformers also held a high view of the sacraments.  Martin Luther certainly held a high view of the sacraments, but Calvin did not agree with him. Here is a quote from Calvin concerning the Consensus Tigurinus which he authored to try to bring about unity among the Protestants on the sacraments:

What would these worthy men have here? Would they have God to act by the Sacraments? We teach so. Would they have faith to be exercised, cherished, aided, confirmed by them? This too we assent. Would they have the power of the Holy Spirit to be exerted in them, and make them available for the salvation of God’s elect? We concede this also. The question turns upon this—should we ascribe all the parts of our salvation entirely to God alone, or does he himself by using the Sacraments transfer part of his praise to them. . . When we say, that the signs are not available to all indiscriminately, but to the elect only, to whom the inward and effectual working of the Spirit is applied, the thing is too clear to require a lengthened statement. For if any one wishes to make the effect common to all, he is not only refuted by the testimony of Scripture, but by experience.[iv]

So, it is important to unequivocally state that the Reformers, particularly Calvin, held that the sacraments are efficacious only for the elect. Indeed, that was the position not only of Calvin, but also the great majority of reformed theologians ever since. Any theologian who takes a different position, as Calvin wrote, is not being Scriptural and is contradicting the experience of us all.

Third, the underlying problem is that people who hold to such a view of the efficacy of the sacraments have limited works salvation only to moral works of righteousness. In the Scripture, there are two forms of works salvation—salvation by moral works of righteousness and salvation by ceremonial works of righteousness. The Pharisees could falsely boast in their circumcision and the rich young ruler could similarly boast in his keeping of the commandments, but these two things were not very far apart. As Charles Hodge wrote:

The Jews believed that circumcision secured its benefits, not only as a seal of the covenant, but from its own sanctifying power. This was only one aspect of the doctrine of salvation by works, against which the sacred writers so earnestly protested. . . The doctrine of salvation by rites was, in the view of the Apostles, a much lower form of doctrine, more thoroughly Judaic, than the doctrine of salvation by works righteousness.[v]

There are those who oppose the Federal Vision’s view of final justification as a clear contradiction of the Scriptural doctrine of justification by faith alone, but who, unwittingly, have adopted an even lower form of salvation by works righteousness in holding to an undefined high view of the efficacy of the sacraments. Salvation by rites or ceremonies, as Hodge stated, is a ‘much lower form of doctrine, more thoroughly Judaic, than the doctrine of salvation by works righteousness.’ So, herein, I warn all those who boast that they hold to a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments: You are on dangerous ground. You are perilously close to denying the gospel even as the Federal Vision advocates have done so. You cannot be saved by works. You cannot be saved by ceremonies. True efficacy is the electing grace of God which guarantees our perseverance. Efficacy is not some saving substance in the sacraments which is commonly dispensed to all, but which can be annulled by man’s unfaithfulness. Rather, as Calvin says, ‘we ascribe all the parts of our salvation entirely to God alone.’

Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Assembly

One of the most troubling aspects of a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments is the insistence by such advocates as the Federal Visionists that the Reformed creeds and the Westminster divines agree with their views on baptism or, at least, receive them as an acceptable interpretation of the Scripture. For instance, Rich Lusk, in an online article, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past. Present, and Future,” attempts to prove that the Reformers “held a robust view of baptismal efficacy”[vi] from which the modern Reformed churches have departed. Lusk’s views of the Reformed symbols is not held by A. A. Hodge, who wrote in his excellent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith concerning baptismal regeneration:

Romanists and Ritualists have inferred that the sign is inseparable from the grace signified, and that these spiritual effects are due to the outward ordinance. Hence the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. But it must be observed that the Scriptures do not assert these spiritual attributes of water baptism in itself considered, but of water baptism as the sign or emblem of baptism by the Holy Ghost. These spiritual attributes belong only to the baptism by the Spirit, and they accompany the sign only when the sign is accompanied by that which it signifies. It does not follow, however, that the sign is inseparable from the grace. The grace is sovereign; and experience teaches us that it is often absent from the sign, and the sign is least frequently honoured by the presence of the grace when it is itself most implicitly relied upon.[vii]iii

There are three words used by the Westminster Standards concerning the sacraments: signify, seal, and exhibit. Of the three words, exhibit is probably the most important for this controversy concerning baptismal regeneration. William S. Barker, who was a defense expert witness at the trial of Peter Leithart, is certainly correct when he says that the seventeenth-century meaning of the word exhibit (from the Latin exhibere) was ‘to convey.’ Yet, Barker missed the mark when he stated:

There is a sense in which in baptism the sacrament not only signifies and seals but conveys something to the recipient of the sacrament.[viii]

Is it true that “something” is always conveyed to “the recipient” of the sacrament of baptism? Was it the intention of the writers of the Westminster Standards to communicate that idea by using the term “exhibit” concerning the sacraments? One of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly was George Gillespie, who wrote the following words concerning the intended meaning of the word exhibit by the Westminster divines:

I answer, That exhibition which they speak of, is not the giving of grace where it is not (as is manifested by the afore-quoted testimonies), but an exhibition to believers—a real, effectual, lively application of Christ, and of all His benefits, to every one that believeth, for the strengthening, confirming, and comforting of the soul. . . Our divines do not say that the sacraments are exhibitive ordinances, wherein grace is communicated to those who have none of it, to unconverted or unbelieving persons. . .

Protestant writers do not only oppose the opus operatum and the causalitas physica and insita but they oppose (as is manifest by the testimonies already cited[ix]) all causality or working of the first grace of conversion and faith in or by the sacraments, supposing always a man to be a believer and within the covenant of grace before the sacrament, and that he is not made such, nor translated to the state of grace in or by the sacrament.[x]

Gillespie’s statements are determinative of the sense in which the word exhibit was meant by the authors of the Westminster Standards.[xi] They viewed the exhibition of the grace to be given only to those who were already recipients of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nothing is exhibited in the sacrament which is not first conveyed to the soul through the work of the Spirit. In this respect, Barker’s suggestion that “something” is conveyed in baptism to every “recipient” is contrary to the intended meaning of the word exhibit by the Westminster divines, as testified by one of its commissioners.

In his work on the Westminster Assembly, Robert Letham mentions that two other commissioners, Cornelius Burgess and Daniel Featley, taught that true grace is conferred to the elect alone, whether that grace is considered as initial or actual. As Letham says:

For both Burgess and Featley, all elect persons are regenerate in the initial sense at baptism and in the actual sense at effectual calling. On the other hand, nonelect persons are not regenerate in the initial sense at baptism, nor are they in the actual sense either. However, since we do not know who the elect are, we are by the judgment of charity to judge all who are baptized are regenerate in the initial sense.[xii]

This distinction between initial and actual regeneration was perhaps the view of only those two commissioners, Burgess and Featley. Federal Vision advocates, such as Rich Lusk, refer to both ministers as commissioners who held the “robust” view of baptism endorsed by the Federal Vision. Yet, both of them restricted the grace of baptism to the elect alone and denied that any nonelect persons ever received any baptismal grace. Nonetheless, Burgess received no small measure of criticism for his views by orthodox Calvinists of his day and wrote a book to clear himself of the suspicion of teaching heterodoxy. The title of that book was, Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants Professed by the Church of England, According to the Scriptures, the Primitive Church, the Present Reformed Churches, and Many Particular Divines Apart. The strongest part of Burgess’ book is his assertion that baptismal regeneration is of elect infants only, and that such was the view of the Fathers, the Reformed creeds, and the greatest of the Reformed divines. The weakest part of his book is his attempt to distinguish between initial and actual regeneration. Initial regeneration is indefinable and impossible to support from the Scripture. Moreover, the Westminster Confession of Faith and other Reformed creeds never make such a distinction concerning “initial and actual” regeneration. Burgess’ views were accepted as orthodox only because he limited regeneration to elect infants. If he had held a view that all infants receive some initial regeneration (or new life), Burgess’ view would have been considered at least heterodox.

In his commentary on the Confession of Faith, A. A. Hodge wrote concerning this exhibition of grace:

The sacraments were designed to “apply”—i.e., actually to convey—to believers the benefits of the new covenant. If they are “seals” of the covenant, they must of course, as a legal form of investiture, actually convey the grace represented to those to whom it belongs. Thus a deed conveys an estate, or the key handed over in the presence of witnesses the possession of a house from the owner to the renter. Our confession is explicit and emphatic on this subject. The old English word “exhibit,” there used, does not mean to show forth; but in the sense of the Latin exhibere, from which it is derived, to administer, to apply. . .

So that this grace-conferring virtue depends on two things: (1.) The sovereign will and power of the Holy Spirit. (2.) The lively faith of the recipient.[xiii]

Hodge, like Gillespie and Cunningham, unequivocally states that the sacraments convey grace only to those who are first recipients of the work of the Holy Spirit and have a lively faith in Christ for their salvation. The grace is conveyed to believers—it is not conveyed in order to initiate faith or as a spark of new life to those who are spiritually dead.

There are several other Reformed theologians who take the same view as Gillespie, Hodge, and Cunningham. For instance, Robert Shaw, in his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, wrote:

That the sacraments themselves cannot confer saving grace is evident; for if they had this power in themselves, they would be equally effectual to all who receive them.[xiv]

In another place, Shaw also says:

Socinians represent the sacraments as being merely solemn badges by which the disciples of Jesus are discriminated from other men.[xv]

This same mistake about the sacraments is often made by the proponents of the Federal Vision and even by N. T. Wright. On the one hand, they exaggerate the efficacy of the sacraments. On the other hand, they diminish the sacraments, especially baptism, to being nothing more than a badge of membership for the covenant community. This is the natural result of holding to a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments. Such a view runs counter to all Christian experience. Thus, such people first boast of their high view of the efficacy of the sacraments and then diminish them to being almost nothing. That is why Peter Leithart could state at his trial before Pacific Northwest Presbytery that he thought he held to a view of the sacraments that was more similar to Zwinglianism than anything else. In actual fact, the pendulum of a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments swings wildly between Catholicism and Zwinglianism with no resting place. It makes too much of the sacraments, then makes too little of them. The reason why is clear to all who understand the reformed faith. Such people simply do not understand how to define efficacy. Thus, they define the sacraments as having a high efficacy. Then, when people who partook of the sacraments fall away, they retort that the sacraments were only badges of membership without any efficacy.

The historic Reformed and scriptural position on the sacraments, and their efficacy, is correctly articulated by Herman Bavinck:

Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation. . . Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith.[xvi]

Conclusion

Instead of merely asserting that they believe in a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments, here is what such people must do in order to prove their point. First, they must define what they mean by “a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments.” Second, they must define what they mean by “a high view of the efficacy of the sacraments.” What is high? What is efficacy? Third, they must not only assert, but attempt to prove that the Reformers held such a “high view of the efficacy of the sacraments.” Martin Luther will certainly be on their side, but John Calvin will not be. Neither will be the great reformed creeds and confessions. Nor the greatest of the reformed theologians- Turretin, the Hodges, Warfield, Bavinck, Cunningham, et. al. More importantly, neither will the Scripture unless they completely mangle some text like 1 Peter 3:21 after the example of Peter Leithart.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision

[i] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America, Case 2012-5, RE Gerald Hedman vs. Pacifica Northwest Presbytery, 188.

[ii] John E. Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume II (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), 415.

[iii] Ibid. 414.

[iv] Henry Beveridge, ed. and trans., John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 2: Tracts, Part 2 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 229-231.

[v] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), 602.

[vi] Rich Lusk, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future,” accessed on July 29, 2015 at: http://www.hornes.org/theologia/rich-lusk/baptismal-efficacy-the-reformed-tradition-past-present-future.

[vii] A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), 330.

[viii] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission, 2012-5, 595.

[ix] In his work, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, Gillespie quoted from Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, Musculus, Bucer, Hommius, Aretus, Vossius, the Scottish Confession, the Synod of Dort, the Belgic Confession, Pareaus, and others to prove that baptismal regeneration is not and never was the view of Calvinists. See the next endnote.

[x] George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 233.

[xi] Cf. also Cunningham, Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 280.

[xii] Record of the Case, Standing Judicial Commission, 2012-5, 222.

[xiii] A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), 331-332.

[xiv] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Standards (Inverness, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1974), 281.

[xv] Ibid., 280.

[xvi] John Bolt, ed., John Vriend, trans., Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 515.