“Baptism is a divinely-instituted sign and seal. As has been mentioned, our Lord did a great number of things which has not instituted for our perpetual use and observance but baptism is instituted for perpetual use and observance until he returns. It is a sign of the washing away of our sins and it is a seal of the same.”
How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?
Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water and joined therewith this promise: that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away (Heidelberg Catechism)
In 1971 those one-hit wonders from Canada, The Five-Man Electrical Band dominated the top-40 airwaves with a “Signs,” which complained about the proliferation of signs and about discrimination. TFMEB’s concerns notwithstanding the reality is that see, interpret, and navigate daily life with help of signs almost constantly. Try to imagine a signless utopia. Let’s say you’re a mother with a small child who needs a place to change a diaper. Just then a sign would be most helpful. Poor or improper signs are a bane of late-modern life. The sign suggests that the office you want is down this hallway when it is actually down the other. In truth, we are surrounded by signs. You are reading signs right now. Each letter signifies a sound and a collection of the correct letters, in the right order, makes a word and a collection of words, in the right order with the right punctuation, makes a sentence. In other words, we were created to interpret signs. In the beginning God instituted two signs: one of life and the other of death. According to many writers from the classical period of Reformed theology, we were free to eat from the tree of life but all agree that we were forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first tree communicated something about the nature of eternal life and communion and the second tree communicated death and judgment. God said: “The day you eat thereof, you shall die the death” (Gen 2:17). Adam understood the message communicated by the two signs and he chose to rebel against the divinely revealed interpretation of the signs in favor of the Diabolical suggestion that just perhaps the Lord is a liar. “Has God really said?” The Evil One was, of course, the first deconstructionist. He proposed that the relationship between the sign and the thing signified (res significant) is arbitrary, that it could be other than what the Lord had said. We chose to believe and trust the lie rather than the truth on the possibility that the Evil One was right, on the possibility that we might be equal with God and in grasping at equality with God we found what the Lord had threatened: death and destruction. When the Lord came in judgment the Evil One was nowhere to be found. Rather, it was the Lord who, though fulfilling his promise of judgment, also made a gracious promise of salvation: “The serpent shall strike his heel, and he shall crush his head” (Gen 3:14–;16).
Since the fall, signs have indeed become more complicated not in and of themselves but because of our sinfulness. Apart from God’s Word, which is his inerrant, infallible, divinely revealed and preserved sign of God’s law and his gospel, and his reliable self-revelation in nature of his existence and his justice (law), signs are written and interpreted by sinful humans. It’s true that even God’s Word, given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved by his providence, was given through sinful humans and is interpreted by sinners. Ordinarily, however, signs are composed without divine inspiration. Hence the confusion that often surrounds them.
Christ’s gospel and his sacraments, however, are not ordinary signs, even though they are the ordinary means of grace. They are ordinary in the sense that:
- They have been ordained by God
- They are meant to be used often (as distinct from infrequently or rarely)
- The water of baptism and bread and wine of communion remain water
They are supernatural signs insofar as God has willed to use them to signify and seal his promises, insofar as the Spirit operates through them.
As seals, as I explained under Heidelberg 67, the sacraments guarantee to believers that what the preached gospel offers generally is really true particularly for believers. It is important not to turn the sacraments into magic (ex opere operato) but it is equally essential not to make the sacraments into empty signs.