Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Efficacy of the Sacraments

Question 91: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
Answer: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them. (WSC)
The word of God is not the only means by which the benefits of Christ’s redemption are applied to us. Christ has also appointed the sacraments to build us up in his saving grace. The sacraments must not be separated from the word, but are signs and seals that symbolize and confirm God’s word to God’s people.

The sacraments do not become effectual from any virtue (i.e. power) in them. They do not work automatically or by the work itself. Not all who are baptized or who take the Lord’s Supper are saved. Simon Magnus was baptized but proved himself to be in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:12-24). Paul warns Christians with the example of the Israelites in the wilderness who partook of the equivalents of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and yet perished for their apostasy (1 Cor. 10:1-6). Some people partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and are disciplined by God for it (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Nor do the sacraments become effectual from any virtue in the one who administers them. As Paul wrote, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). While the godliness of a minister is important, it does not give the word and sacraments their saving power. They can be effectual even if they are administered by hypocrites (Phil. 1:15-18). If the minister who baptized you later proves to be an unbeliever, this does not make your baptism invalid.

Instead, the sacraments become effectual means of salvation only by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in those who receive them by faith (Matt. 3:11). Men may plant and water, but God gives the increase. When Jesus sent out his church to disciple the nations by word and sacrament, he also promised to be with them, making his ordinances effectual, for it is Jesus who disciples his people by these means (Matt. 28:18-20). He fulfills the promises that are sealed by these sacraments. He makes baptism effectual, washing and incorporating his people into his body by his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13, Titus 3:5). He makes the Lord’s Supper effectual, feeding his people with his flesh and blood by his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13, John 6:53-63).

These truths help keep us from idolizing the symbols and resting in mere formality, idolizing particularly gifted ministers, or placing our trust in man, but direct us through the sacraments to Jesus Christ himself, that we might rest upon him for salvation.

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