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New Horizons

The Reformation of the Sacraments

David C. Noe

As we saw last month, the Reformers sought to restore the proclamation of God’s inerrant and infallible Word to its rightful place of prominence in the church. While Paul teaches us that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17), and our Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29), God also knows just how weak we are and that we are but dust. Therefore, in his boundless mercy, he also gives us supports and stays that we might rely upon his grace more completely. These are the sacraments—what the Reformers referred to as the visible Word of God.

Because the church that is reformed must always be reforming according to the standard of that same Word, officers and members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have an opportunity at this 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation to examine both our thinking on and our participation in God’s sacraments. Presbyterian doctrine on baptism and the Lord’s Supper rests upon a careful reading of the Scriptures and a number of principles that we derive from them, assisted by learned theologians of the past.


The Reformers’ critique of Roman Catholic sacramental practice arose from exegesis of Scripture and a reading of the church fathers, especially Augustine and John Chrysostom. In the case of baptism, a careful analysis of the similarities between the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments showed the continuity of God’s gracious dealings with his people. Through their exegesis of Romans 4 and 6, Colossians 2, and 1 Corinthians 12 (among many other passages), the Reformers came to understand that the old covenant sign and seal of circumcision had been replaced by baptism.

With regard to how and when baptism works, the Reformed rejected Roman Catholic dogma by denying that baptism (as well as the Lord’s Supper) became effectual by some “virtue [i.e. power] in them” (WSC 91). It became effectual, they said, when the Holy Spirit chose to make it effectual. These views were latent in the church’s teaching prior to the Reformation. Peter Martyr and Theodore Beza wrote with clarity and at great length to demonstrate that covenantal views of baptism were not innovative, but always taught by the better teachers of the church.

As Orthodox Presbyterians, we should give thanks to God for our baptism, which is both the sign placed on our bodies of what God has promised to do internally in our hearts by his Holy Spirit, and the seal of that grace. It presents a vivid picture that we have been engrafted into Christ and are partakers of the benefits of the covenant of grace (WSC 94).

If we are parents of baptized infants, we should praise God that though they, like us, are born dead in trespasses and sins, the promise is given to them as well and to all who are far off. Moses risked God’s wrath when he neglected the circumcision of his son. How much more would we anger God if we despise and neglect this ordinance (WCF 28)? And we must pray and believe that the children of believers are holy, and pray without ceasing with them and for them for their repentance and faith.

Lord’s Supper

When our covenant youth repent of their sins and desire to confess their Lord before men, just as he has confessed them before his Father in heaven, they are then admitted to the Lord’s Table. There is not enough space here to treat adequately the question of what the Supper is and how it is to be received. But we can say that, prior to the Reformation, a variety of views had arisen in the Roman church.

At least as early as 1059, in the controversy over the French theologian Berengar of Tours, the Roman view known as transubstantiation had been given the church’s sanction. This view seemed to receive greater credibility by the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West, when his works were brought from the East in the wake of the Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These were translated into Latin and used by many scholars, particularly Aquinas, to lend philosophical support to what they believed was the universal and abiding consensus of the church.

In this view, to quote the Council of Trent (1563), “By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.” But by the working of the Holy Spirit, and equipped with more accurate philological and historical tools that were the inheritance of the Renaissance, men all over Europe began to question the legitimacy of this viewpoint.

Carlos Eire argues (in War against the Idols) that the Protestant Reformation was above all a reformation of worship. If that is true, then it is fair to say that it took closest aim at the Mass, the center of Roman worship. The Reformers had two major objections: First, they objected to Rome’s metaphysical understanding of the elements and their efficacy. Second, they objected to the way in which the people received these elements.

Central to the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper is the understanding of Christ’s session. In Acts 1:9, we are told that “as they were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As we are told in Ephesians 1, Colossians 3, four places in the book of Hebrews, and several other passages, Christ then either “sat down” or is “seated” at the right hand of the Father. The session of Christ does not seem to receive much attention these days, and indeed some popular hymns speak of Christ’s standing in victory.

But to the Reformers, Christ’s session is just as important as his ascension. His resurrection and ascension did not change the fact that he remains truly man, and therefore his physical body remains limited by time and space. Because the Scriptures teach us that he sat down at the right hand of the Father, he cannot simultaneously be present in the bread and wine in a corporal and carnal manner. He did not sit down and then get up again, nor is his physical body of infinite extent. By the time of the writing of the Westminster Standards, these arguments had achieved a high degree of precision.

The Protestant church in America today is often prone to deny the Supper any role in strengthening our faith or serving as the means of its growth. Yet if the meal is merely a memorial, in what sense can Paul say that he who takes it unworthily “eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29)? For these and other reasons, the Reformers believed that we really and truly, yet not corporally or carnally, receive Christ’s body and blood when we commune with him. We do this by being raised up into the heavenlies, where he now sits, not by participating in an alleged resacrifice of Christ (Heb. 10:10).

Second, though the Roman church later revised its practice, during the last few centuries before the Reformation the cup was generally denied to the laity. From what likely began as an excess of caution, and from good intentions to protect with consistency their understanding of Christ’s physical presence, the practice had developed of permitting God’s people to participate in the sacrament in only one species, as it was called. Thus it was possible as a professing Christian to go one’s entire life and not receive the cup. This was justified on the theory that both the body and the blood were contained completely in each species. The Reformers found this line of argumentation to be sophistry, and were eager to restore to God’s hungry people the Supper in both kinds.

Another prime area of objection to the Mass was the way in which the elements were idolized by being raised aloft and knelt before, and when men and women would bow or touch their heads reverently before them. While the Reformers understood that Roman Catholics were thereby seeking to be consistent with their carnal understanding of Christ’s presence, they did not see how this could escape the charge of idolatry. And, they said, if the prophets and apostles of God argued against anything, it was against idolatry.

We should also mention that the Reformers recognized only two sacraments. Marriage portrays the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32), but that does not make it a sacrament. Only those things specifically instituted by Christ must be practiced. Otherwise, we are guilty of “promoting self-made religion” (Col. 2:23).

We ought to give thanks to God for giving us his sacraments as a visible Word. Both as officers and as members of the OPC, we ought jealously to safeguard our sacramental practice.

One practical way to do this is to make sure that the places where we worship are conducive to the outward and ordinary means of grace. Protestant sanctuaries have thus always had a pulpit, the table, and the baptismal font as their standard furniture. It would be unwise to remove these and replace them with something else, thereby running the risk of concealing from ourselves and our children a proper understanding of the sacraments. And we should remember that Protestant worship is filled with drama and visual aids to our faith, namely the two sacraments given to us by Christ. Let us celebrate them with gratitude.

The author, an OP ruling elder, teaches classics at Calvin College. New Horizons, December 2016.

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