Sign and Seal

The sacraments have always been a point of contention in the church. Someone once said that the sacraments serve as a litmus test of the strength or weakness of a system of theology. This is because many aspects of what we believe, such as the doctrines of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, of Scripture, of the Church, and even of eschatology converge here and find practical outlets.

People not only struggle with the nature of the Sacraments as means by which the Triune God communicates grace to us; we can sometimes struggle understanding the very terms that the church has used to describe them. Believers in Reformed churches can become confused over the meaning of the sacramental language embedded in common Reformed confessions. The Westminster Standards, for instance, uses terms such as “represented,” “signified,” “exhibited,” “sealed,” “conferred,” and “applied” to describe the meaning of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (WCF 27; WLC 163). Such Reformed doctrinal standards are historical documents as well as contemporary ones. They have historical contexts with historical meanings as well as contemporary uses in contemporary churches. Older authors, such as Johannes Wollebius (1589-1629), can help bridge the gap between historic terminology and contemporary uses in relation to the sacraments.

Wollebius taught that sacraments were seals of the covenant of grace that God used to apply Christ to believers by his Word and Spirit. We can appreciate this definition by exploring his treatment of sacraments in general, of Christ’s presence in the sacraments, and of his assessment of the spectrum of terms used in relation to the sacraments.

First, Wollebius’ general treatment of the sacraments included a definition, the origins of the term, the relationship between the sign and the thing signified, and the instruments and institution of the sacraments. He defined sacraments as covenant seals based on Christ’s covenant oblation, by which God uses visible signs to seal Christ to those in covenant with him and to obligate them to obedience (123). In ancient times, the secular use of the term referred to military oaths or to pledges in lawsuits. While Zwingli preferred the former use of the term, Wollebius chose the latter as better approximating the covenantal ideas undergirding the sacraments in Scripture.

Sacraments are also divine mysteries, though “mystery” is a broader term than sacrament. This explains the somewhat vague use of the term in the Latin Vulgate Bible. While every sacrament is a mystery, not every mystery is a sacrament (124). As for the relationship between the sign and the thing signified, the Bible often refers to the visible sign by way of synecdoche to refer both to the sign and to the thing signified. Properly speaking, sacraments include both sign and thing signified (124). This is what calling the sacrament a visible sign of an invisible grace means.

Legitimately called ministers of the Word are the proper instruments of administering the sacraments, reflecting the tight relationship between Word and sacrament in Reformed thought. The sacraments were committed to ministers of the Word precisely because they were ministers of the Word, and because the sacraments were subordinate to the Word. Yet the Word and Spirit of God made the sacraments effective as means of grace; ministers of the gospel cannot do so, because the efficacy of the sacraments rested in Christ’s Words of institution found in Scripture and the Spirit’s blessing in sealing the benefits signified in the sacraments. The means of receiving these blessings was through faith (125).

The external and earthly matter of the sacrament was the visible sign or element, while its internal and heavenly matter was Christ and his benefits. All of these things expanded the basic definition of the sacraments as covenant seals based on Christ’s oblation, by which God sealed Christ and his benefits to his people. This summarizes a large amount of Reformed sacramental theology in a short space and gives us the “Cliff’s notes” version of how we arrive at defining the sacraments clearly and biblically.

Second, Wollebius expanded the idea Christ’s covenantal relation to the sacraments by outlining the nature of his presence in the sacraments. Negatively, Christ was not present physically and locally in the sacraments. This stood in contrast both to Roman Catholic and to Lutheran teaching. Positively, Christ was present in the sacraments in his body and blood “sacramentally” (126). In order to explain this point, He noted that there were three kinds of presence beyond local presence. His assessment is worth quoting in full:

[Presence can be] I. Symbolic [presence], when things are represented to the human mind by some symbol. [For example], as with things [communicated] by word or by voice, or by man’s imagination (homo imagine). II. Spiritual presence, when by faith we represent to ourselves spiritual things that are not present. Just as Abraham saw Christ’s day and made it present to himself. Jn. 8:56. III. Powerful presence, when that which is distant in place, is present in efficacy, as it is with the sun. These three manners of presence concur in the Sacraments. For in them Christ’s body and blood are present to us: 1. Symbolically: as far as he is represented in the external symbols. 2. Spiritually: as far as we by faith apply to ourselves Christ’s body and blood, with his merit. 3. Powerfully: as far as we by faith perceive the fruits [of his merit] in our hearts. Unbelievers are capable as well of the first degree of sacramental presence. The second and the third [degrees of sacramental presence] belong to none except believers. Therefore, even though Christ’s body, with regard to local presence, is a long way distant from the symbols, even as heaven is [distant] from earth, there nonetheless remains a sacramental presence [of Christ in the Sacrament]. Presence is not opposed to distance, but to absence [126; My translation].

Christ is not physically or locally present either in baptism or in the Lord’s Supper, but in both sacraments he is present symbolically, spiritually, and powerfully. Christ’s presence in the sacraments explains why the sacraments are covenant seals primarily. Seals involve ownership and application, while signs only point to something. The difference is that between sitting at a table with a friend and remembering a lost loved one at a grave site. Christ’s presence in the sacraments makes them God’s stamps of ownership to his people as well as means by which the Spirit applies Christ and the benefits of redemption to believers.

Third, Wollebius created a spectrum of terms ranging from signifying, to exhibiting, to applying, to sealing (126-127). His treatment of the relationship between these terms helps explain how we should understand them. Sacraments as signs pointed to a spiritual reality. Sacraments exhibited Christ when the minister held them forth for the faith of the recipients. In other words, God both points to Christ (signifies) and offers Christ (exhibits) to his people. Believers received the application of Christ’s benefits through the ministerial exhibition of the sign. The last element was sealing, which had an objective element in God sealing his promises and a subjective element in God sealing Christ and his benefits to his people (126-127).

This is similar to how Heidelberg Catechism Question 66 described the sacraments as seals: “The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.” The first two of Wollebius’ terms generally describe what the sacraments show or say. The last two terms respect the personal, or applicatory, elements involved in the sacraments. The terms move from more external and declarative to more internal and personal. This spectrum of sacramental language can help us greatly in seeking to make sense of sacramental language in Reformed confessional documents.

We should note at least three important points from Wollebius’ chapter that can help us understand the Reformed view of the sacraments. First, “seal” is the key word that marks out the Reformed view of the sacraments from others (123). The basic Reformed definition of the sacraments is that they are seals of the covenant of grace. Through sensible signs, God represents, seals, and applies Christ and the benefits of the new covenant to believers (WSC 92). Second, Christ presence explains why the sacraments are seals and how they are effective means of grace. This applies to baptism as well as to the Lord’s Supper. Christ is present in the Word by the power of the Spirit. He is no less present in the sacraments by the same Word and Spirit. The only question remaining is whether believers experience his presence more powerfully in the sacraments than in the Word alone, or whether they do so in the Lord’s Supper as opposed to baptism. Third, the spectrum of terms used to describe the sacraments in historic Reformed theology is somewhat progressive. This helps promote in us a full view of what the sacraments are and what God is doing through them. While gaining such historical understanding cannot reach the level of biblical conviction, it is an vital step in the right direction.

Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

Related Links

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What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Communing with Christ in His Supper by C.J. Williams [ Audio Disc | Download]

The Puritans on the Lord's Supper by Joel Beeke

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
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David's Son and David's Lord, edited by Ryan McGraw and Michael Morales

Note: The fourth paragraph of this post is adapted from the last chapter of my Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology. I have altered this material significantly here. Used with permission of T&T Clark.

Ryan McGraw