In my last post on the Lord's Supper, I explained what it means to say the the Supper is a sacrament and a sign and seal. A few more important phrases need to be introduced.
3. The sacraments are genuine means of grace. God, in the act of eating and drinking, confers grace to the worthy recipient. There is something objective that takes place, not merely subjective (ie. us remembering in our minds or feeling in our hearts). The Supper offers, and makes good on its offer to the one who participates by faith, or as Calvin puts it, "[the sacraments] offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasure of heavenly grace.” This isn't an automatic thing - it's not just the bread and cup that contain grace. First, to properly be considered the Supper means not just that we eat the bread and drink the cup, but that this act is accompanied by the words of institution. Those words, along with the act of eating and drinking, together comprise the sacrament. Second, the worthy recipient must partake by faith. Calvin, while emphasizing the objective nature of the Supper did not accept the notion that the the receiving of grace was automatic - no ex opera operato. The Westminster standards clarify,
WCF, 27.3: " The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers."Again, it's not just going through the motions that makes them efficacious. God makes them effective through faith, not the thing in itself.
SC, Q.91: "How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation? The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them."
LC, Q.161: "How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation? The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted"
Some may balk at the language of the sacraments being 'means of salvation'. But, Calvin, drawing on Augustine, understood the sacraments as 'visible words'. Thus, what we say of the word can be said of the sacraments also. Generally speaking sacraments accomplish that which the word accomplishes, being a different means to same end. After all, the word and the sacraments have same author (God), same content (the gospel), same power (the Holy Spirit). Therefore, it can be said that, just as the word is efficacious in bringing about salvation, so are the sacraments. But, again, this is only true when someone participates by faith.
It is not automatic. Just as the word must be met with faith to be salvific, so the sacraments. Only when someone truly believes the message embedded in the sacrament (remember, the sacrament includes the words of institution as well as the act as well) do they become efficacious. So, Peter can say, "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him." It's not the outward thing that makes it effective. Only when someone believes the message it represents does it become so. This has helped me make sense of the language of the Nicene Creed also, which refers to the "baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Baptism contains the promise of forgiveness of sins. It's a sign of that, and a sign it contains also the thing signified. The Spirit, in baptism and in the Lords Supper, transmits the outwards signs and words to our soul.
Next post, I'll explore the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, something I referred to, but didn't elaborate too much on, in the sermon Sunday (4/3/11).