“Sacraments are not practices the church made up or that evolved over time. The sacraments are specific practices Christ himself gives to Christians for their sake. Thus, these things are vitally important for the church and Christians to practice and should always be done with the Word of God and in the way the Word of God commands them to be done.”
So what is a sacrament? Many people think the sacraments are a pledge or dedication of our lives to God. However, the sacraments are actually much greater and bigger than that. They are not so much things we do for God but are actually the means God uses to bless us. The sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are vital practices of any church that confesses that Jesus is God and Savior of the world. As such, it is important to understand what they are and why they are important.
A sacrament is a practice instituted by Christ himself.
Sacraments are not practices the church made up or that evolved over time. The sacraments are specific practices Christ himself gives to Christians for their sake. Thus, these things are vitally important for the church and Christians to practice and should always be done with the Word of God and in the way the Word of God commands them to be done.
A sacrament is a sign and a seal.
Like the Batman sign projected in the night sky, a sacrament represents and is linked to something real. Christ gave his church two practices that act as visible signs of Christ and his work of redemption for sinners. Yet, they are more than simply signs but are also seals of the covenant of grace. Like the royal seal on an official document, the sacraments seal the covenant of grace upon the believer, marking the believer as belonging to Christ.
The sacraments are signs and seals because the Holy Spirit uses them to identify us with Christ and the salvation Christ accomplished for us. These physical, visible, and touchable signs and seals represent the spiritual reality of our union to Christ and the salvation he provides. The Holy Spirit is the link between the ordinary practices of getting wet and eating and drinking and the spiritual realities of forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that these ordinary things have spiritual significance. Without the Spirit, these things would not be signs and seals.
The sacraments are means of grace.
The sacraments are means of grace, not personal pledges of obedience. Theologian Louis Berkhof explains that the means of grace are ordinary means “by which the Holy Spirit works and confirms faith in the hearts of men” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 605). It is easy to think of the sacraments as things we do as a pledge of obedience to God or a sign that we’re giving our life to him. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a sacrament. Sacraments are not things we do for God but are ordinary ways the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of salvation. In addition, it is only by faith that a person receives these benefits.
While not the means of salvation itself, the sacraments serve to really and truly nourish and sustain a Christian’s faith. It is important to note that the sacraments are signs and seals of what Jesus did, not what Jesus does to save. By themselves, being baptized and eating some bread and wine do nothing. It is when the Holy Spirit works through them and the participant has faith that the person is renewed and refreshed and has communion with Christ himself.