WCF 27: Of the Sacraments

Has the church has missed God’s plan for spiritual growth? Conventional wisdom promotes pragmatic self-help schemes, elaborate church programs, and charismatic leaders. But what if God actually authorized a simpler way?

Early Christians committed to expository preaching, fellowship, and prayers (Acts 2:42). They also believed that God had given them powerful rituals to help them walk with God. Baptism symbolizes everything believers have gained in Christ (Rom. 6:4). The Lord’s Supper, sometimes called “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42), helps God’s hungry and thirsty children feed on Christ.[i] The early church teaches us to be cautious about modern models for spiritual growth (1 Cor. 2:1–5) and to emphasize the role of the sacraments as God’s gift for pilgrims along the way.


What Are Sacraments?

Sacraments are divinely instituted signs and seals of the covenant of grace.


Signs and Seals

God voluntarily condescends to make a gracious covenant with his people. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties. In the covenant of grace God “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” In turn he requires of covenant people “faith in him.” This is the most life-giving relationship you can ever enter. In the covenant of grace God promises “to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe” (WCF 7.3).

In fact, God’s covenant promises are so wonderful that we are prone to doubt them. We worry that we may not be among the number of those God has called out of the world. We are slow to keep our side of the covenant. We might forget altogether about covenant privileges and responsibilities. So our gracious God gives sacraments to point to (signs) and authenticate (seals) the covenant of grace. In Abraham’s life the sign of circumcision validated God’s promise that he was righteous before God because of his faith (Rom. 4:11). So today baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify and seal God’s covenant.


Divinely Instituted

God alone can authorize holy signs and seals of his covenant. Many things may feel spiritual but lack actual power for helping our walk with the Lord. As tangible indicators of the covenant of grace God has given us two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are substantially the same as circumcision and the Passover in the Old Testament; they signify and exhibit the same spiritual things.

And like the Old Testament sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper cannot be “dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.” This isn’t because there is any special power in the minister—the officiant brings no virtue to the sacrament. But as the sacraments augment the ministry of the word they should be dispensed by a minister who has been trained for and called into gospel service.

The grace of the sacraments actually depends on the Spirit working through the words of institution. Christ commands disciples to be baptized (Matt. 28:18–20), and for professing believers to remember him by eating the bread and drinking the wine of his holy supper (1 Cor. 11:24). And he promises great benefits to those who obey him.


What Do Sacraments Do?

To put it more personally, how do we rightly use the sacraments so that they do for us what God intends? We mustn’t uses them carelessly, as if they were of no consequence, or superstitiously as if by simply going through the motions the sacraments will benefit us. The opposite is true! Unworthy use of the sacraments is dangerous, even deadly (1 Cor. 11:27–30). So we should be clear about what sacraments do and honor them accordingly.

First, sacraments “represent Christ, and his benefits.” In every sacrament there is “a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified.” God could speak of circumcision as his covenant, so close was their connection (Gen. 17:10). Likewise, Jesus called the cup “my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:27, 28). He wasn’t confusing the cup with his blood but teaching how sacraments are symbols of the person and work of Jesus, the mediator of the covenant of grace. We must use the sacraments to remember Christ and his mighty conquest over sin and Satan.

Second, sacraments “confirm our interest in him.” Interest here means “share” or “stake.” Sacraments demonstrate our relationship with Christ and his benefits. A bride’s wedding ring doesn’t simply remind her of the man who gave it to her; it should also assure her of his interest in her. Wedding rings are one way faithful spouses tell each other, “I love you and am committed to you.” Sacraments work like this for believers.

Third, sacraments mark disciples. Scripture says that God’s people “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). There is a difference between “those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world.” But that difference isn’t visible. Christians don’t look alike, adopt a common dress code, or share a language. But as the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament separated God’s people from the world (Is. 52:11), so the sacraments distinguish New Testament disciples (cf. 2 Cor. 6:17). This means that no one should be baptized into the Triune God unless they are under oath to follow God—either their own oath or that of their parents. No one should eat the Supper of our Lord unless they are truly participating in the blood of Christ by faith (1 Cor. 10:16). Rightly used the sacraments identify believers as sanctified in Christ.

Fourth, sacraments engage disciples to God’s service. “The covenant of grace contains both promises and obligations.”[ii] These obligations are stipulated in God’s word, the book of God’s covenant. By baptism we confess that we have died to our old way of life and are bound to follow Christ alone. The Lord’s Supper obliges us to trust in the finished sacrifice of Jesus, to be thankful for his boundless love to us, and to participate in vital communion with the saints who share with us a precious faith.

Sacraments are not magical. They aren’t a quick and easy replacement for sincere faith, and spiritual devotion. But by the power of God they sincerely promise “benefit to worthy receivers.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are central to God’s program for our spiritual growth. Let’s use them to think about Jesus and his benefits, to believe that by faith we have a saving relation to him, to walk differently

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.


[i] “The breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup had been invested by Jesus with special significance as signs of his sacrificial death.” Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R), 75.


William Boekestein