Five reasons God gave us the sacraments
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
30 Nov, 2023

God has added signs to all the covenants He has made throughout history. In the New Testament, the covenantal signs are the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, also known as sacraments. As well as being signs (like the rainbow was a sign of the covenant He made with Noah), sacraments are seals — things which confirm the truthfulness of what God has promised in the covenant. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are therefore not so much statements that we make as believers, as confirmations that God gives to reinforce His word. In the following updated extract, James Durham identifies five reasons why God gave us the sacraments. Keeping the focus on Christ and His benefits, Durham explains that the sacraments confirm to us the same things as we have in God’s Word, but more clearly and tangibly, and in a way that is even more suited to our weakness and need as believers.

The sacraments of the New Testament, in God’s appointment and our use, have three main ends and two further ends.

To give a clear picture of the covenant

The first end of the sacraments is to represent clearly the nature of the covenant and the things promised in it. These include the washing away of sin, Christ himself in his death and benefits, and the way we come to the application of all these, i.e., by faith, freely, putting on Jesus Christ for taking away guilt, and strengthening us to a holy walk.

In all these, the sacraments (that is, the signs, and word of institution added) fully and clearly hold forth — firstly to the ears, secondly to the eyes, and thirdly to our other senses of feeling, etc. —not only hold what is offered, but also our way of closing with and accepting of that offer. It’s as if God, who by preaching lets us hear Him speak (inviting us to be reconciled to Him) is in the sacraments letting us see Him tryst and close that bargain with us by His ambassadors.

In this respect, the sacrament may be called the symbol and token of the covenant, as in Genesis 17.

This way too, the sacraments have a teaching use. They bring to our remembrance Christ, and His sufferings and benefits, as well as our state, what it was without Him, and before our closing with Him.

All this is represented to us by the word and elements, with the actions concurring, as if it was being acted out before our eyes, so as to make the way of the gospel as clear as can be to the minds and memories of people like us, who either take up these spiritual things senselessly or sluggishly forget them. The Lord, who sometimes makes use of parables and figurative expressions, or similitudes, to set forth spiritual things, to make them resonate with us the more, has chosen this way to make use of external signs and actions for the same ends also.

To seal and confirm what God has said

The second main end of the sacraments is to seal and confirm God’s mind and revealed will to us, and to put us out of question of the truth of His promises, so that we may have a further prop to our faith, and on this basis may draw all the stronger consolation from the promises of the covenant.

In this respect the sacraments are called “seals” (Rom. 4:11) of the righteousness by faith; that is, not the righteousness of Abraham’s faith, but of his obtaining righteousness by it, and not by works. They are seals of the covenant which offers and promises righteousness to those who believe. In the same way the tree of life [in the garden of Eden] was a confirmation to Adam of the promise of life. So was circumcision a seal and confirmation to Abraham of the promises of the gospel, as God’s oath was (Heb. 6:18).

This confirmation may be looked at three ways. It confirms (a) the proposition, (b) the minor premise, and (c) the conclusion of a practical syllogism, by which the believer concludes from the gospel that he shall be saved.

(a) The proposition (or major premise) is, Those who believe shall be saved. By the sacrament this is simply confirmed as a truth that one may lean on. The believer’s conscience in the faith of that subsumes, “I will then take me by faith to Christ.” “Seeing that is a sure truth, I will rest on Him and hold me there.” Or more clearly, “I do believe in him.”

(b) The minor premise of the syllogism, I have faith, is not confirmed simply by the seal, for the sacrament is to be externally applied by church officebearers who can say no more than that they charitably judge this or that person to have faith. Yet we may say that it is confirmed in the case of someone whose faith doubts, who may by this be encouraged to rest on Christ, and quiet himself on Him. So faith is confirmed while it is helped towards this assertion, though the man may be not clear that he has does have faith. Likewise, if someone has, according to God’s command, cast himself on Christ, and according to His institution, taken the seal, then that person may conclude from the seal, as well as from the promise, that he is accepted (just as someone having prayed may conclude that they have been heard, as they have done it according to God’s will in the name of Christ).

(c) The conclusion of the syllogism is, Therefore I shall be saved. Again the sacrament does not confirm that simply to us, any more than it did to Adam (who afterwards broke the covenant of works, and so did not attain the thing promised). Yet it seals it conditionally. If you believe, you shall be saved. The minor premise ‘I have faith’ must be made out by searching the conscience before the conclusion can receive any confirmation by the sacrament. Yet, by strengthening the major proposition, ‘Those who believe shall be saved,’ it strengthens the conclusion also, for if the proposition was not true, then my having faith, or flying to Christ, would be no great comfort. So consequently it has influence on the believer’s comfort in the conclusion, as God’s oath and seal confirmed the promise made to Abraham, and also strengthened his faith in believing that it would be fulfilled to him (Rom. 4:11).

Again, it is to be considered that the sacrament seals particularly. It seals not only as it says, “All who believe shall be saved,” but also as it says, “You, in particular, if you will believe, shall be saved.” The seal is appended to that offer in such a way that the covenant stands sure not only in general to all believers, but to me, particularly, when I close with it, as if God were particularly singling me out to make the offer to me, and to take my engagement, and to put the seal in my hand. Faith is more particularly helped and strengthened by this than by the Word alone. There is great use therefore of the sacraments, in that by them we get faith quieted in believing that God will lay by His controversy, and keep His covenant, and make forthcoming His promises to those who flee for refuge to Jesus Christ, according to His oath and seal.

Thus He seals the major proposition simply, the minor conditionally (‘if you believe’) but particularly. We may imagine God speaking to us from the covenant like this. “He to whom I offer Christ may receive Him; and all that believe, and receive the offer, shall obtain the blessing offered. I offer Christ to you in particular, therefore you may and should receive Him; and if you accept the offer, you shall obtain the blessing offered, and be saved. In this way the major and the minor premises are sealed simply, but the conclusion is sealed conditionally. Or to put it this way, the sacrament seals the offer simply, but the promise as it is applied to such and such a particular person conditionally (if he receives the offer), so that no one needs to question God’s offer, nor Christ’s performance, on our acceptation.

This is how the sacraments may be called testimonies of God’s grace to us, because particularly they seal that offer of His grace unto us, namely Christ, and salvation by Him, and His being content to give Him on condition of our believing.

To exhibit and apply Christ and His benefits to believers

The third main end and use of the sacraments is to exhibit and apply Christ or His benefits to believers. In the sacraments we put on Christ, and eat Christ. This is not done by any physical union of Christ or His benefits with the signs. Rather, it is just as happens in the Word — Christ communicates Himself when the Spirit goes along with the promises, and the hearers bring not only their ears but also their hearts and faith to that ordinance. So by the sacraments Christ is communicated to us, when we come not only with ears, eyes, taste, etc., but with faith exercised on Christ in the sacrament with respect to His institution of it, and He comes by His Spirit with the elements and Word. On this account the union with Christ is so much the more near and perceptible, as it has on the one side so many and great external helps in the means appointed by God, and on the other side, a proportional blessing promised to go along with His ordinance by the operation of His Spirit.

Hence it is that all this communion is spiritual, conferred by the Spirit, and received by faith, yet it is most real. It has a real ground and cause, and real effects following, not by virtue of the sacraments in themselves (any more than by the Word or prayer considered in themselves), but by virtue of the promises being laid hold on by faith. When Word and sacraments are joined together, they concur the more effectually for bringing forth the ends intended in the covenant.

To give consolation to believers

There is a fourth end which results from these, and that is the believer’s consolation (Heb. 1:6, 8). By the strengthening of faith, and the beholding of Christ in that ordinance, and being confirmed in the hope of His coming again, &c. this consolation proves very sweet, and corroborates the soul so much the more, because it is there that He trysts often with the believer, and by it communicates Himself to the believer’s sense and spiritual feeling.

To display the mutual commitment between God and His people

Finally, the sacraments hold forth a mutual engaging between God and His people. God holds out the contract, the covenant and offer. We by our partaking declare our acceptance of that offer on those terms, and commit accordingly to make use of the righteousness held forth there for our justification, and of the wisdom and strength offered there for our direction and sanctification. In this respect our taking of the seal is called our covenanting. Anyone who lacked the seal of God’s covenant was to be punished (Gen. 17).

Thus our accepting and receiving refers to the Word which holds forth the terms, and God seals and confirms on these terms the particular promises of righteousness and strength to these ends, so that our faith may be strengthened in making use of them.

Summary

These are the main and principal ends of the sacraments, though they also serve to make an outward distinction between God’s people and all other societies and persons.

In sum, the Word offers Christ and His benefits, the hearer accepts Him on the terms on which He is offered, and consents. Both of these things are assumed to precede the sacraments, though (as we may see in the jailor, Acts 16, and others) it may be but by a very short time. In the order of nature at least, they are prior. Then come the sacraments, which have in them, 1. a clear view of the bargain, so that we may accept it distinctly, and know what we are getting in it; 2. a solemn confirmation on God’s side of the covenant and the particular offer He makes in it; 3. a furthering of us in part, and helping us to believe, and conferring of something offered; 4. a comforting of those on whom the blessings are conferred; 5. the solemn and public engagement to God of those who receive the sacraments, that they shall observe and make use of all these.

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