In the end, the sacraments are “designed to help us understand more clearly and certify to us that on account of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross, God grants to us, by grace alone, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” In this sense, “Believers are assured by [the sacraments] of their salvation.” For Bavinck, “the sacraments do not work faith but reinforce it, as a wedding ring reinforces love. They do not infuse a physical grace but confer the whole Christ, whom believers already possess by the Word.”
In this blog post, it’s my objective to synthesize Herman Bavinck’s theology of the sacraments. All of the thoughts and quotes are taken directly from Chapter 9 of Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.
Bavinck begins by saying that “in addition to the Word, the sacraments are a second means of grace.” The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and the same is true of the word “sacrament.” But the concept is there. The word sacrament is derived from the original Greek word mystērion. It describes the “mighty and marvelous acts of God that were formerly hidden but have now been revealed.” In Latin, this word was translated as sacramentum and also carried the meaning of a soldier’s oath of loyalty.
Signs and Seals
“Reformed theology describes the sacraments as signs and seals that are instituted and distributed by God so that believers might understand more clearly and be reassured of God’s promises and benefits in the covenant of grace.”
So first, sacraments are a sign of something greater. What’s a sign? In the natural world, a sign can be something like, for example, smoke or a footprint. When we see smoke, we know there’s a fire. When we see a footprint, we know a person is nearby. In the institutional world, slogans and flags serve as signs. They represent countries and corporations. Bavinck develops on this and says the “Sacraments are extraordinary signs taken, according to a preformed analogy, from visible things to designate invisible and eternal goods.” As signs, sacraments are analogies or visible pictures of something great.
Secondly, sacraments are seals. “They confirm God’s trustworthiness and strengthen for us the “element” of the covenant of grace that is summed up in Christ the Mediator, with all his benefits and blessings.” Seals authenticate that something is true. When we cash a check from someone how do we know it’s not a counterfeit? We know because it has an official bank seal and a signature that confirms its authenticity. It’s a trademark of the genuineness of something. As seals, sacraments signify something. They not only bring “the invisible matter to mind, but also validate and confirm it.”
Sacraments consist of two parts that can be distinguished as “word” and “element”—the spiritual truth signified and its physical sign. There’s an internal and an external reality. The sign and the seal refer to something else. They are not the thing but the sign and the seal of something greater.
Comparing and Contrasting with Roman Catholicism
Since many people in our society have a Roman Catholic background, they tend to look at the sacraments with some suspicion—especially when we say they’re a means of grace. They think perhaps Reformed Christians believe there’s some type of magical substance infused into them. Or that we believe in baptismal regeneration. Many discount the Reformed faith because of this misconception. Bavinck reassures us that this is not the case.
In Reformed theology, “The sacrament does not impart one benefit that is not also received from the Word of God by faith alone; the content of both is identical.”
Why? Because we’re not justified by the sacraments. It’s by faith alone that we have eternal life (John 3:36), are justified (Romans 3:28; 5:1), sanctified (John 15:3; Acts 15:9), and glorified (Romans 8:30).
While in Roman Catholic theology there is baptismal grace infused into the water, and in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine physically change into the corporal flesh and blood of Christ, this is not the case in Reformed theology. “There is neither a separate baptismal grace nor a separate communion grace. The content of Word and sacrament is completely identical.”