MEANS OF GRACE
Through the work of the Holy Spirit within me, I, by nature dead in sin, have become a changed person. The Lord was pleased to take me from Satan's side back to His side. By faith, worked in me by the Holy Spirit, I was justified before God. Once I was back with God, the Holy Spirit worked a change within me, renewed me, sanctified me (see Figures 1 & 2 on page 92).
How does the Holy Spirit work faith in me? Does the Spirit
'pour' faith in to me? No, to work faith within me the Spirit is pleased
to use means, instruments, tools. It is for me in turn to let myself
be worked upon by those "means of grace." Faith is worked
and for this the Spirit uses two means: the Word and the Sacraments (see
Figure 1 on this page).
The Word is the primary means. In Romans 10:17 we read, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." It is through the Word that faith is worked. Says Paul concerning the Word, the "gospel of Christ", in Romans 1:16, "...it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes ..." The Word is effective, it works results. Said God through the prophet Isaiah, "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). To the Hebrews the apostle says, "For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (4:12). By His Word the Lord sets out to change hearts, to work faith. Faith comes "from the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel ..." (Lord's Day 25, Q & A 65).
To the Word, the Lord has added the sacraments. Says Article 33 concerning the sacraments, "(God) has added these to the Word of the gospel ..." First comes the Word, and added to the Word, 'for the strengthening of the faith worked by the Word" (Lord's Day 25), God has given the sacraments. If one wants faith, there is only one way to obtain it, namely, through the preaching of the Word. There can be no faith without the Word. It is the means the Spirit uses to work faith. For the strengthening of this faith one also needs the sacraments, but the Word is always the priority.
WHAT ARE THE SACRAMENTS?
1) The Sacraments are signs, pictures. Just as pictures in a book illustrate the same message as that conveyed by the words of the book, likewise the sacraments illustrate the message of God's Word. 'A picture is worth more than a thousand words.' By means of the sacraments it is as though the Lord paints a picture beside His Word in order to spell out to us what His Word is all about. The contents of the picture, the illustration, the sign, are the same as the Word, the preaching. They do not add to or subtract from the Word but serve to complement the Word. As the Church confesses in LD 25: "both the Word and the sacraments (are) intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation."
2) The Sacraments are seals. The purpose of a seal is to certify that something is true, real. For example, official documents such as passports contain a stamp or a seal in order to prove, certify, that they are not counterfeit but real. The sacraments are not just pictures to complement the Word, but they also seal, certify to me that what God has said in His Word is true for me. They serve to impress upon me the contents of God's Word. For that reason the water of baptism is sprinkled on me. God would seal upon my head what He has promised me in His Word. The water illustrates for me the promises that God washes away all my sins. For that reason too the bread and the cup of the Lord's Supper are given to me, so that as certainly as I personally eat the bread and drink the wine, so certainly Christ's body was broken and His blood shed for the forgiveness of my sins.
In Article 33 deBres defined the sacraments as "visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit."
THE PURPOSE OF THE SACRAMENTS
With Article 33 we confess that the reason why the Lord has given us the sacraments. "We believe ( ie, this is a confession of faith!) that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and infirmity, has ordained sacraments to seal His promises to us and to be pledges of His good will and grace towards us." Who is my God? He is a God who knows me so well. He knows that I have my doubts, my struggles of faith. He knows that I can question whether or not His promises are really for me in my circumstances; if God really loves me. By means of the sacraments God would confirm to me that He is gracious. God knows how 'thick headed' and hard hearted I can be. God is mindful of my "insensitivity and infirmity." Therefore, beside the text of His Word, He gives me pictures. More, the pictures God has given also certify to me that His Word is for me. What a love this God displays to me! He knows so well that, in the midst of life's struggles, I doubt His word to me, and therefore He gives me the sacraments to confirm that His promises are really true.
So we know of Abraham from the Bible. In Genesis 17:7 God promised Abraham, "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." However, God did more than give Abraham a promise. In Genesis 17:10,11 God commanded Abraham, "Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." God instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant He had just made with Abraham. God knew that He would return to heaven and that Abraham, when on his own again, would come across times that he would doubt God's covenant with him. Abraham would question if he was really a child of the covenant. In His care for Abraham, God caused His child by covenant to bear in his own flesh the sign and seal of the covenant: circumcision. In the face of doubts, Abraham would be repeatedly reminded of God's sure promises to him.
As for me, I was baptised many years ago. I cannot even remember the event. But I am allowed to witness so many baptisms in the course of a given year. Each baptism I may witness is a reminder to me of what God promised me at my baptism. When I see the water sprinkled on a baby's head I not only witness God's promises to that baby, but I am also reminded of the very same promises God made to me when I had water sprinkled on my head. By it He sealed to me His promise that He claimed me as His own. Of that wonderful promise I may be reminded at each baptism I witness. A baptism, then, is not just an event for the baby or the family alone, but by each administration of baptism God speaks to the whole congregation, speaks also -again- to me.
CHRIST INSTITUTED TWO SACRAMENTS
Christ instituted only two sacraments: baptism and holy supper. The Anabaptists of deBres' day belittled the sacraments altogether, whereas the Roman Catholics insisted on seven. (They were baptism, confirmation, confession of sin, Lord's supper, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination to priesthood .) In reaction to this, deBres saw it necessary to conclude Article 33 with the words, "...we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Master has instituted for us, namely, two: the sacrament of baptism and the holy supper of Jesus Christ."