The Church and the Sacraments

An excellent definition of a sacrament is found in the Shorter Catechism. “A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed and applied to believers” (Q.92). The sacrament functions as an outward sign available to the senses giving a symbolic (or pictorial) representation of a work of God’s grace, and as a seal certifying the validity of God’s promises and the genuineness of God’s blessings and benefits.

In the Old Testament these ordinances were the Passover (Exodus 13:9,10) and Circumcision (Gen 17:11). Both of these ordinances involved the shedding of blood. With the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross, this aspect of the ordinances was fulfilled. Consequently, the members of the Church in the New Testament era are commanded to observe special ordinances which do not involve the shedding of blood but which, in every other sense, are parallel to their Old Testament counterparts. These special rites or sacraments appointed by Christ are the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor.11:23-26) and Baptism (Matt.28:18-20).

Although the word ‘sacrament’ is not found in the Bible, we use it in its accepted ecclesiastical sense of an outward sign of great spiritual realities, involving solemn pledges of loyal obedience to the Lord. It is the duty and privilege of believers to observe the sacraments which, if rightly used, are a means of strengthening their faith and love.


This sacrament has been misinterpreted in various ways. On the one hand, there is the Roman dogma of “transubstantiation,” which teaches that in the “miracle of the mass” the bread is changed into the literal body of Christ and the wine into the literal blood of Christ. Not far removed from “transubstantiation” is the Lutheran teaching of “consubstantiation.” It teaches that, while the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, at a certain moment the actual body and blood of Christ become present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, in much the same way as electricity can become present in a metal wire without the wire changing. On the other hand, the teaching of Zwingli of Zurich tended to suggest that the Lord’s Supper was merely a memorial feast.

John Calvin, in developing a truly biblical doctrine, taught that the Lord’s Supper, as well as being a memorial feast, was also communion with the living Saviour. He also rejected the “real presence” in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran senses, yet taught there was the “real presence” in the spiritual sense. Calvin’s position is expressed in the Shorter Catechism: “The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, His death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” (Q.96).

Thus for the partaker, there is more than remembrance; there is communion with Christ. As he reflects on Christ’s death and its abiding significance, faith is strengthened, love is deepened, and the spirit is refreshed and nourished. These result in a heightened fellowship between Christ and His people, leading to an increased expectation of His return.

In the Lord’s Supper Christ’s atoning death is proclaimed, and by partaking of it the believer makes a public profession of his faith in Christ and dependence on His finished work. In the “one loaf and one cup” (1Cor.10:17) communicants profess the unity of their fellowship.

The Lord’s Supper is to be administered only to believers, and that after suitable preparation and self- examination (1 Cor.11:28,29). It is the minister’s duty, in all simplicity, to follow the example of Christ in giving thanks, breaking the bread and giving it and the cup to the communicants. This may be preceded by the reading of the ‘words of institution’ (1 Cor.11:23-27) and giving suitable exhortation in order that the participants may discern the Lord’s body, thus avoiding the danger of eating and drinking unworthily. For the believer, the elements received by faith are a means of spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

There is no express biblical direction for the frequency with which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is to be observed. The important point, however, is that, as often as the Lord’s Supper is observed, there should be due reverence and careful preparation.


The Meaning of Baptism

The Scriptures teach that baptism is the sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace. It signifies the inner work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, applying the benefits of the Covenant of Grace, cleansing from the defilement and guilt of sin, forgiveness, union with Christ in all His saving work and admission into His body, the Church. The mark of God’s Covenant of Grace established in Genesis 17 was circumcision, which signified and sealed the spiritual blessings of the covenant: union with God (Gen.17:7), the removal of defilement (Deut.10:12ff; 30:6, Rom.2:28-29) and justification by faith (Rom.4:11). Christ in ending the national administration of this covenant extended the ‘new’ administration to all nations and replaced circumcision, as the mark of the covenant, with baptism (Matt.28:19,20). This is confirmed in Colossians 2:11,12 which teaches that the spiritual realities of circumcision and baptism are the same. Whereas in the Old Testament the Covenant sign to be administered to those who were brought into the Church was circumcision (Gen.17:9-14; Ex.12:48), in the New Testament, at Christ’s command,the sign of the Covenant was to be baptism (Matt.28:18-20).

The New Testament makes it clear that baptism signifies the inward work of the Holy Spirit. Baptism with water is associated with baptism with the Holy Spirit (Matt.3:11; Acts 2:33; 10:44-48; 11:15,16) in fulfilment of Ezekiel 36:25-28 (cf. John 3:5; 4:14; 7:37-39). The water used in baptism signified the Holy Spirit’s sovereign and mysterious regenerating and sanctifying work, which can come before, with or after the administration of the sacrament (John 3:5-8; Luke 1:15). Baptism symbolizes the work of the Spirit in applying the benefits of the Covenant of Grace, in particular, cleansing from the defilement and guilt of sin (Acts 22:16; 1Pet.3:21), forgiveness (Acts 2:38 cf., 5:31; 11:18), saving union with Christ (Rom.6:3; Col.2:11,12), and admission into the visible Church of Christ (1Cor.12:13; Gal.3:27,28).

Baptism is also a seal of God’s Covenant of Grace. It certifies that God’s promises are sure and that the blessings promised in Christ are valid. In this sacrament our Saviour seals the truth of His everlasting Covenant. In the case of baptised adults, baptism conveys the assurance of spiritual blessing.

To the baptised children of believers the seal is an assurance that God will unchangeably adhere to His Covenant and that He will bestow all promised blessings on all who, by faith, willingly receive them. Such children also find baptism a confirming seal when they reach years of discretion and, by God’s grace, look in faith to Christ and His finished work.

A sign and seal can never be the substitute for that spiritual reality which is signed and sealed. Sacraments are signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace, but they are not the grace itself. They should never become the ground of our confidence and hope. That there is a distinction between the sign and seal and that which they illustrate and confirm is made clear in Romans 4:11, where we read of Abraham, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised …” Here the sign and seal of circumcision are clearly distinct from the faith of Abraham.

The Subjects of Baptism

With regard to the subjects of baptism the Larger Catechism states “Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible Church, and so strangers to the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him, but infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to Him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptised.” (Q.166) No direct command to baptise infants is found in the New Testament. Such a command, however, is not required because God had already made clear in the Old Testament the status of such infants. They were recognised as being included in the Covenant of Grace.

This Covenant revealed in Genesis 3:15 became explicit and was formally established with Abraham (Gen.17:1-14). God established His Covenant as an everlasting Covenant with Abraham and with Abraham’s seed after him (Gen.17:7). Abraham’s response was saving faith (Gen.15:6; Rom.4:2,3,11,13). Likewise, “all who are of faith are Abraham’s seed” (Gal.3:6,7,9,14,27; Rom.4:16,17), saved through the one Covenant of Grace. From the beginning the infant children of believers were included with their parents in the Covenant relationship and privilege, receiving the mark of church membership (Gen.17:9-13; Acts 2:38). The sign and seal of the Covenant, speaking of union with God through inner cleansing and saving faith, set Covenant children apart, as belonging to God’s Church in its visible aspect. In Colossians 2:11,12 baptism is identified as ‘Christian circumcision’ (cf. Gal.3:27-29). Thus while the outward form of administering the Covenant has changed the Covenant still stands.

God, in the New Testament era, has not withdrawn from the children of believers the privileges enjoyed in the Old Testament. In Acts 2:38,39 Peter is alluding to the Covenant promise made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7, “For the promise is unto you and to your children, …”. Peter was preaching to a congregation of Jews drawn from many different countries. These people would have been shocked and grieved if they had learned that the promise of the Covenant of Grace in the light of its fulfilment in Christ was not widened and extended but narrowed and restricted. Consequently, if God’s grace and the sign and seal of the Covenant were to be limited in their application to believers only, with their children no longer enjoying the benefits, such a radical change would require a full explanation. The apostle Peter does not mention any such change. Rather, in declaring to his hearers the message “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call,” it is clear that the application of these words is the same as when God established His Covenant with Abraham. “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”

There is no new command, therefore, to baptise infants in the New Testament because such a command is not necessary. The New Testament evidence corroborates the view that God still treats children of believers as part of His Church in her visible aspect, and as such eligible for baptism. Of the twelve baptisms recorded in the New Testament, at least three are household baptisms (the word “household” includes the family) e.g. Acts 16:15; 16:31-34; 1Corinthians 1:16. In 1Corinthians 7:14 it is stated that the children of one believing parent are “holy”, i.e. set apart with different status and privileges. Finally, throughout the Old Testament infants always had a definite standing in the congregation of God’s people (Deut.29:10-12; Jos.8:35; 2Chron.20:13; Joel 2:15,16; 1Cor.10:2, c.f. Exod.12:37). Therefore, on the authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, we are required to baptise adults from a non-Christian background who profess faith in Christ. We are also required to baptise the children of believers (i.e.covenant children).

The Mode of Baptism

It is claimed by some that ‘immersion’ is the only valid mode. A biblical study, however, leads to the conclusion that ‘pouring’ or ‘sprinkling’ are also valid modes.

1. The Language Used

Those who advocate immersion claim that the word “baptizo” can only mean ‘immerse’. New Testament usage of “baptizo” shows that it can also mean ‘pour’ or ‘sprinkle’ (Luke11:38; Mark 7:4). In Hebrews 9:10 we read of the rites of purification which were performed by sprinkling. In the original these are called baptisms, commonly translated “washings”. No ceremonial “washings” of the Old Testament required immersion.

2. New Testament Practice

In Acts 8:26-40 we read of Philip and the eunuch “going down into” the water and “coming up out of it.” The original language only requires, however, that they went down to it, or even stepped into it, and then came up from where it was. The “baptism with the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost was not by immersion but by pouring (Acts 2:3,17; 11:15,16; 10:44ff cf. Ezek.36:25-28). Finally, the Philippian jailer was baptised in the jail or in his house and from Acts 10:47 it may be inferred that Cornelius and his family were baptised in the house. The circumstances of these baptisms, rather than supporting immersion, render it unlikely.

3. The Baptisms of John and of Christ

It has often been argued that the baptism of John and of our Lord should be taken as models for Christian baptism.

The Baptism of John

The baptism of John cannot be used as a model for Christian baptism. The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance and was intimately connected with his message of judgment. As such it was not a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. Covenant baptism was instituted at that point in redemptive history when Christ commanded His followers to go and “teach all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Furthermore, there is an example of those who had been baptised by John being rebaptised (Acts 19:3-5).

The Baptism of Christ

The baptism of our Lord was a unique event and there can be no comparison between His baptism and that of Christians today. No precedent or practice can be established, therefore, because the baptism that Christ received was not Christian baptism. The background to John’s baptism is to be found either in the practice of baptising proselytes who embraced Judaism, or in the Old Testament ceremonial washings which people, on various occasions, were required to observe (Lev.11-15; Num.19).

John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus (Matt.3:14) shows that this was no ordinary baptism. Our Lord, however, persuaded John to proceed with His baptism when He said, “Let it be so now: it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.”

The righteousness He would fulfil is probably that referred to in Isaiah 53:11, “by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many and He will bear their iniquities.” John Calvin comments that “the reason for Christ’s undergoing baptism was to offer His Father full obedience”. This includes the role of the ‘Suffering Servant’ (Isa.53). Thus from the beginning of His ministry our Lord submitted Himself to the Father’s will, from Whom came recognition and approval (Matt.3:17).

Why, then, was Christ baptised? In baptism He associated Himself with those who received John’s baptism. Christ, being sinless, needed no cleansing, yet He submitted Himself to a sinner’s baptism. In so doing, He stood in the place of sinners, identifying Himself with those for whom He came to die as a substitute. Thus Christ began His ministry by identifying with sinners and this was to be its chief characteristic throughout.

While there can be no comparison between our Lord’s baptism and that of believers, as regards purpose, there is a considerable similarity in their symbolism (e.g. cleansing from sin). For believers, baptism “signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the Covenant of Grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” (Shorter Catechism Q.94) For Christ, however, baptism marked His identification with sinners and His engagement to the elect.

4. The Theological Argument

The theological argument for immersion is based on an interpretation of Romans 6:3-6 and Colossians 2:11,12. It is asserted that going down into and coming up out of water is an analogy portraying going down into the grave with Christ in His burial and rising again in His resurrection. Those who advocate immersion conclude that this gives instruction regarding meaning and mode. This interpretation is invalid for the following reasons:-

(a) Paul does not have the outward rite of water-baptism uppermost in his mind. He is referring to “baptism with the Holy Spirit” which is symbolized by water baptism. Water-baptism could only produce the results Paul speaks of if one believed in baptismal regeneration.

(b) The central thought of these passages is union with Christ. In describing this Paul speaks not only of being “buried with” Christ and “raised with” Him, but also of being “crucified with Him” and “planted together with Him.” (In Galatians 3:27 he speaks of union as a “putting on of Christ” i.e., as a garment.) To select arbitrarily two of these terms (burial and resurrection) and insist that their imagery instructs as to the mode of baptism, while ignoring the others (crucifixion and planting) does violence to the text and distorts its message.

(c) Christ was not lowered into a grave but placed on a ledge in a cave-like sepulchre. Thus immersion in water is not a proper symbol of Christ’s burial. In these two passages Paul is not dealing with the mode of baptism, but with its meaning, i.e. it is a sign and seal of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing us into saving union with Christ on the basis of His redemption.

Pouring or sprinkling are better symbolical modes than immersion. The writer to the Hebrews speaks repeatedly of the sprinkling of Christ’s blood to cleanse (ch.9,10,12) as does Peter in I Peter 1:2. Furthermore, since baptism with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was by pouring that mode is still suitable. It is noteworthy that in a prophecy of the blessings to be experienced in New Testament days, God says “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean,” and the purifying Spirit (whose work is symbolised in baptism) was poured out upon the Church (Acts 2:33). The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up the Biblical position regarding the mode of baptism, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (ch.28:2).


The sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are given by Christ. It is, therefore, the Christian’s duty and privilege to observe them. It is his duty because Christ has expressly commanded it; and it is his privilege because the sacraments, when used in the right manner, are means by which we receive blessing from Christ.