Faith’s Visual Aids
Q43. What are the sacraments or ordinances?
A. The sacraments or ordinances given by God and instituted by Christ, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are visible signs and seals that we are bound together as a community of faith by his death and resurrection. By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares and seals the promises of the gospel to us.
The Bible is essential in the life of a believer if he or she is to grow in the faith. After all, the Bible is the written Word of God which tells us what we should believe and how we should live. We are to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and we are to live lives shaped by the Gospel. Besides the Bible, the sacraments or ordinances are also essential in the life of a Christian. Question forty-three of our catechism asks, “What are the sacraments or ordinances?”
Answer: “The sacraments or ordinances given by God and instituted by Christ, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are visible signs and seals that we are bound together as a community of faith by his death and resurrection. By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares and seals the promises of the gospel to us.”
God has given us Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as visual aids and object lessons for the Gospel. Pastor Timothy Keller explains their importance in this way: “There are two sacraments or ordinances. There’s baptism, which is once for all. And there’s the Lord’s Supper, which is ongoing and regular. We call both of them ordinances because Jesus Christ commands us to do them. But we call them sacraments because through them God’s blessing and grace come to us in unique ways. They are not just personal, individual experiences. We are members of a community, and baptism and the Lord’s Supper show that we belong to that community, the covenant community, the people who belong to Jesus. And that’s the reason why these are actually like boundary markers. … They are both signs and seals. We call them signs because they symbolize the blessings of salvation, forgiveness for sins, reception of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to commune with Jesus Christ in his presence. But they’re not only signs; they’re also seals . That means they actually bring these blessings to us. They assure us and stir up our faith, and it’s our faith that receives those blessings.”
As the eminent theologian, J.I. Packer, has put it, “As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means.” The Christian will never outgrow his or her need for the Gospel in this life. By repenting of sin and believing in the Gospel, a sinner has peace with God and is united to Jesus by faith. By continuing to repent of sin and believing in the Gospel, a sinner grows in godliness and obedience to God. To this end, the Christian needs both the Bible and the Sacraments. In the former, we hear the Gospel and grow in our faith; in the latter, the Gospel is displayed before our eyes, and by them our faith is nourished and helped.