Theological Institutes

Part Fourth - The Institutions of Christianity

By Richard Watson

Chapter 2


Tan number of sacraments is held by all Protestants to be but two,- Baptism, and the Lord's Supper; because they find no other instituted in the New Testament, or practised in the early Church. The super­stition of the Church of Rome has added no fewer than five to the num­ber,-Confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and, extreme unction.

The word used by the Greek fathers for sacrament was musthrion. In the New Testament this word always means, as Campbell has showed, either a secret,-something unknown till revealed; or the spiritual meaning of some emblem or type. In both these senses it is rendered sacramentum in the Vulgate translation, which shows that the latter word was formerly used in a large signification. As the Greek term was employed in the New Testament to express the hidden meaning of an external symbol, as in Revelation i, 20, "the mystery of the seven stars," it was naturally applied by early Christians to the symbolical rite of the Lord's Supper; and as some of the most sacred and retired parts of the ancient heathen worship were called mysteries, from which all but the initiated were excluded, the use of the same term to designate that most sacred act of Christian worship, which was strictly confined to the approved members of the Church, was probably thought pecu­liarly appropriate. The Latin word sacramentum, in its largest sense, may signify a sacred ceremony; and is the appellation, also, of the military oath of fidelity taken by the Roman soldiers. For both these reasons, probably, the term sacrament was adopted by the Latin Chris­tians. For the first, because of the peculiar sacredness of the Lord's Supper; and for the second, because of that engagement to be faithful to the commands of Christ, their heavenly Leader, which was implied in this ordinance, and impressed upon them by so sacred a solemnity. It was, perhaps, from the designation of this ordinance, by the term sacra­mentum, by the Christians whom Pliny examined as to their faith and modes of worship, that he thus expresses himself in his letter to the Emperor Trajan :-" From their affirmations I learned that the sum of all their offence, call it fault or error, was, that on a day fixed they used to assemble before sunrise, and sing together, in alternate responses, hymns to Christ, as a Deity; binding themselves by the solemn engage­ments of an oath, not to commit any manner of wickedness," The term sacrament was also at an early period given to baptism, as well as to the Supper of the Lord, and is now confined among Protestants to these two ordinances only. The distinction between sacra­ments, and other religious rites, is well stated by Burnet. (On the Articles.)

"This difference is to he put between sacraments and other ritual actions; that whereas other rites are badges and distinctions by which Christians are known, a sacrament is more than a bare matter of form; as in the Old Testament, circumcision and propitiatory sacrifices were: things of a different nature and order from all the other ritual precepts; concerning their cleansings, the distinctions of days, places, and meats. These were, indeed, precepts given them of God; but they were not federal acts of renewing the covenant, or reconciling themselves to God. By circumcision they received the seal of the covenant, and were brought under the obligation of the whole law; they were made by it debtors to it; and when by their sins they had provoked God's wrath, they were reconciled to him by their sacrifices, with which atonement was made, and so their sins were forgiven them; the nature and end of those was, to be federal acts, in the offering of which the Jews kept to their part of the covenant, and in the accepting of which God maintained it on his past; so we see a plain difference between these and a mere rite, which though commanded, yet must pass only for the badge of a profession, as the doing of it is an act of obedience to a Divine law. Now, in the new dispensation, though our Saviour has eased us of that law of ordinances, that grievous yoke, and those beggarly elements, which were laid upon the Jews; yet. since we are still in the body subject to our senses, and to sensible things, he has ap­pointed some federal actions to be both the visible stipulations and professions of our Christianity, and the conveyancers to us of the blessings of the Gospel."

It is this view of the two sacraments, as federal acts, which sweeps away the five superstitious additions that the temerity of the Church of Rome has dared to elevate to the same rank of sacredness and im­portance.

As it is usual among men to confirm covenants by visible and solemn forms, and has been so from the most ancient times, so when almighty God was pleased to enter into covenant engagements with men, he condescended to the same methods or affording, on his part, sensible assurances of his fidelity, and to require the same from them. Thus, circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant with Abraham; and when the great covenant of grace was made in the Son of God with all nations, it was agreeable to this analogy to expect that he would in­stitute some contantly-recurring visible sign, in confirmation of his mercy to us, which should encourage our reliance upon his promises, and have the force of a perpetual renewal of the covenant between the parties. Such is manifestly the character and ends both of the insti­tution of baptism and the Lord's Supper; but as to the five additional sacraments of the Church of Rome, "they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God," (Article 25th of the Church of England,) and they stand in no direct connection with any covenant engagement entered into by him with his creatures, confirmation rests on no Scriptural authority at all. Penance, if it mean any thing more than repentance, is equally unsanctioned by Scripture; and if it mean " repentance toward God," it is no more a sacrament than faith. Orders, or the ordination of ministers, is an apostolic command, but has in it no greater indication of a sacramental act than any other such command,-say the excommunication of obstinate sinners from the Church, which with just as good a reason might be elevated into a sacrament. Marriage appears to have been made by the papists a sacrament for this curious reason, that the Apostle Paul, when speaking of the love and union of husband and wife, and taking occasion from that to allude to the love of Christ to his Church, says, "This is a great mystery," which the Vulgate version translates, "SACRAMENTUM hoc magnum est :" thus they confound the large and the restricted sense of the word sacrament, and forget that the true "mystery" spoken of by the apostle, lies not in marriage, but in the union of Christ with his people,-" This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church." If, however, the use of the word "mystery" in this passage by St. Paul, were suffi­cient to prove marriage a sacrament, then the calling of the Gentiles, as Beza observes, might be the eighth sacrament, since St. Paul terms that "a mystery," Eph. i, 9, which the Vulgate, in like manner trans­lates by " sacrament urn." The last of their sacraments is extreme unc­tion, of which it is enough to say that it is nowhere prescribed in Scripture; and if it were, has clearly nothing in it of a sacramental character. The passage in St. James's Epistle to which they refer, cannot serve them at all; for the Romanists use extreme unction only when all hope of recovery is past, whereas the prayers and the anointing mentioned by St. James were resorted to in order to a mira­culous cure, for life, and not for death. With them, therefore, extreme unction is called "the sacrament of the dying."

Of the nature of sacraments there are three leading views.  The first is that taken by the Church of Rome.

According to the doctrine of this Church, the sacraments contain the grace they signify, and confer grace, ex opere operate, by the work itself, upon such as do not put an obstruction by mortal sin. "For these sensible and natural things," it is declared, "work by the almighty power of God in the sacraments what they could not do by their own power." Nor is any more necessary to this effect, than that the priests, "who make and consecrate the sacraments, have an intention of doing what the Church doth, and doth intend to do." (Conc. Trid. Can. 11.) According therefore to this doctrine, the matter of the sacrament derives from the action of the priest, in pronouncing certain words, a Divine virtue, provided it be the intention of the priest to give to that matter such a Divine virtue, and this grace is conveyed to the soul of every person who receives it. Nor is it required of the person receiv­ing a sacrament, that he should exercise any good disposition, or pos­sess faith; for such is conceived to be the physical virtue of a sacrament, that, except when opposed by the obstacle of a mortal sin, the act of receiving it is alone sufficient for the experience of its efficacy. This is so capital an article of faith with the Romish Church, that the council of Trent anathematizes all who deny that grace is not conferred by the sacraments from the act itself of receiving them, and affirm that faith only in the Divine promises is sufficient to the obtaining of grace,-" Si quis dixerit, per ipsa nova legis sacramenia, ex opere operato, no" conferri gratiam, sed solum fidem divinae promissionis ad gratiam conse quendam sujlcere, anathema sit." (conc. Trid. Sess. vii, Can. 8.) It is on this ground also, that the members of that Church argue the supe­riority of the sacraments of the New Testament to those of the Old; the latter having been effectual only ex opere operantis, from the piety and faith of the persons receiving them, while the former confer grace ex opere operato from their own intrinsic virtue, and an immediate phy­sical influence upon the mind of the receiver.

The first great objection to this statement is, that it has even no pretence of authority from Scripture, and grounds itself wholly upon the alleged traditions of the Church of Rome, which, in fact, are just what successive inventors of superstitious practices have thought proper to snake them. The second is, that it is decidedly anti.scriptural; for as the only true notion of a sacrament is. that it is the sign and seal of a covenant; and as the saving benefits of the covenant of grace are made expressly to depend upon a true faith; the condition of grace being made by the Church of Rome the act of receiving a sacrament independent of true faith, she impudently rejects the great condition of salvation as laid down in God's word, and sets up in its place another of an opposite kind by mere human authority. The third is, that it debases an ordinance of God from a rational service into a mere charm, disconnected with every mental exercise, and working its effect physically, and not morally. The fourth is its licentious tendency; for as a very large class of sins is by the Romish Church allowed to be venial, and nothing but a mortal sin can prevent the recipient of the sacrament from receiving the grace of God; men may live in the practice of all these venial offences, and consequently in an unrenewed habit of soul, and yet be assured of the Divine favour, and of eternal salvation; thus again boldly contradicting the whole tenor of the New Testament.- Finally, whatever privileges the sacraments are designed to confer, all of them are made by this doctrine to depend, not upon the state of the receiver's mind, but upon the "intention" of the administrator, who, if not intending to impart the physical virtue to the elements, senders the sacrament of no avail to the recipient, although he performs all the external acts of the ceremony.

The opposite opinion of this gross and unholy doctrine is that main­tained by Socinus, and adopted generally by his followers: to which also the notions of some orthodox Protestants have too carelessly leaned. The view taken on the subject of the sacraments by such persons is, that they differ not essentially from other rites and ceremonies of religion; but that their peculiarity consists in their emblematic character, under which they represent what is spiritual and invisible, and are memorials of past events. Their sole use therefore is to cherish pious sentiments, by leading the mind to such meditations as are adapted to excite them. Some also add, that they are the badges of a Christian profession, and the instituted means by which Christians testify their faith in Christ.

The fault of the popish opinion is superstitious excess; the fault of the latter scheme is that of defect. The sacraments are emblematical; they are adapted to excite pious sentiments; they are memorials, at least the Lord's Supper bears this character; they are badges of profession; they are the appointed means for declaring our faith in Christ; and so far is this view superior to the popish doctrine, that it elevates the sacraments from the base and degrading character of a charm and incantation, to that of a spiritual and reasonable service, and instead of making them substitutes for faith and good works, renders them subser­vient to both.

But if the sacraments are federal rites, that is, if they are covenant transactions, they must have a more extensive and a deeper import than this view of the subject conveys. If circumcision was" a token," and a "seal" of the covenant by which God engaged to justify men by faith, then, as we shall subsequently show, since Christian baptism came in its place, it has precisely the same office; if the passover was a sign, a pledge or seal, and subsequently a memorial, then these characters will belong to the Lord's Supper; the relation of which to the "New Testa­ment," or COVENANT, "in the blood" of our Saviour, is expressly stated by himself. What is the import of the terms sign and seal will be here­after considered; but it is enough here to suggest them, to show that the second opinion above stated loses sight of these peculiarities, and is therefore defective.

The third opinion may be stated in the words of the formularies of several Protestant Churches.

The Heidelberg Catechism has the following question and reply:- "What are the sacraments ?"

"They are holy visible signs and seals, ordained by God for this end, that he may more fully declare and seal by them the promise of his Gospel unto us; to wit, that not only unto all believers in general, but unto each of them in particular, he freely giveth remission of sins and life eternal, upon the account of that only sacrifice of Christ, which he accomplished upon the cross."

The Church of England, in her Twenty-fifth Article, thus expresses herself:- "Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's will toward us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him."

The Church of Scotland, in the one hundred and sixty-second Ques­tion of her Larger Catechism, asks,

"What is a sacrament ?" and replies :-

"A sacrament is a holy ordinance, instituted by Christ in his Church, to signify, seal, and exhibit, unto those within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without."

In all these descriptions of a sacrament, terms are employed of just and weighty meaning, which will subsequently require notice. Generally, it may, however, here be observed, that they all assume that there is in this ordinance an express institution of God; that there is this essential difference between them and every other symbolical cere­mony, that they are seals as well as signs, that is, that they afford pledges on the part of God of grace and salvation; that as a covenant has two parties, our external acts in receiving the sacraments are indications of certain states and dispositions of our mind with regard to God's covenant, without which none can have a personal participation in its benefits, and so the sacrament is useless where these are not found; that there are words of institution; and a promise also by which the sign and the thing signified are connected together.

The covenant of which they are the seals, is that called by the Heidelberg Catechism, "the promise of the Gospel;" the import of which is, that God giveth freely to every one that believeth remission of sins, with all spiritual blessings, and "life eternal, upon the account of that only sacrifice of Christ which he accomplished upon the cross."

As SIGNS, they are visible and symbolical expositions of what the Article of the Church of England, above quoted, calls "the grace of God," and his "will," that is, his "good will toward us;" or, according to the Church of Scotland, "significations of the benefits of his mediation;" that is, they exhibit to the senses, under appropriate em­blems, the same benefits as are exhibited in another form in the doctrines and promises of the word of God, so that "the eye may affect and instruct the heart," and that for the strong incitement of our faith, our desire, and our gratitude. It ought nevertheless to be remembered that they are not signs merely or the grace of God to us, but of our obliga­tions to him; obligations, however, still flowing from the sane grace.

They are also SEALS. A seal is a confirming sign, or, according to theological language, there is in a sacrament a signum significans, and a signum confirmans; the former of which is said, significare to notify or to declare; the latter obsignare, to set one's seal to, to witness. As, therefore, the sacraments, when considered as signs, contain a decla­ration of the same doctrines and promises which the written word of God exhibits, but addressed by a significant emblem to the senses; so also as seals, or pledges, they confirm the same promises which are assured to us by God's own truth and faithfulness in his word, (which is the main ground of all affiance in his mercy,) and by his indwelling Spirit by which we are "sealed," and have in our hearts "the earnest" of our heavenly inheritance. This is done by an external and visible institution; so that God has added these ordinances to the promises of his word, not only to bring his merciful purpose toward us in Christ to mind, but constantly to assure us that those who believe in him shall be and are made partakers of his grace. These ordinances are a pledge to them, that Christ and his benefits are theirs, while they are required, at the same time, by faith, as well as by time visible sign, to signify their compliance with his covenant, which ma be called "setting to their seal." "The sacraments are God's seals, as they are ordinances given by him for the confirmation of our faith that he would be our covenant God; and they are our seals, or we set our seal hereunto, when we visibly profess that we give up ourselves to him to be his people, and, in the exercise of a true faith, look to be partners of the benefits which Christ hath purchased, according to the terms of the covenant." (Dr. Ridgley.)

The passage quoted from the Heidelberg Catechism has a clause which is of great importance in explaining the design of the sacraments. They are "visible signs and seals ordained by God for this end, that lie may more fully declare, and seal by them the promise of his Gospel unto us, to wit, that not only unto all believers in general, but to each of them in particular, he freely giveth remission of sins and life eternal, upon the account of that only sacrifice of Christ, which he accomplished upon the cross." For it is to be remarked that the administration is to particular individuals separately, both in baptism and the Lord's Supper-" Take, eat," "drink ye all of this;" so that the institution of the sign and seal of the covenant, and the acceptance of this sign and seal a solemn transaction between God and each individual. From which it follows, that to every one to whom the sign is exhibited, a seal and pledge of the invisible grace is also given; and every individual who draws near with a true heart and full assurance of faith, does in his own person enter into God's covenant, and this in particular that covenant stands firm. He renews it also in every sacramental act, time repetition of which is appointed, and being authorized by a Divine and standing institution thus put in his claim to the full grace of the covenant, he receives there continual assurances of the love and faithfulness of a God who changes not; but exhibits the same signs and pledges of the same covenant of grace, to the constant acceptance of every individual believer throughout all the ages of this Church, which is charged with the ministration of these sacred symbols of his mercy to mankind. This is an important and most encouraging circumstance.