************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 33 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 20, 2020
Belgic Confession Article 33
Let me begin with two observations.
First, the word "sacrament" is not found in Scripture but it has been used by the church since the third century. It is popular today to use the word "ceremonies" instead but the sacraments are not ceremonies.
Second, there is a regrettable tendency among some churches to drop the word "baptism" in favor of "christening" -- especially among Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Baptism is not the same as christening.
I want to raise up three points this evening: first, the sacraments and their meaning; second, the sacraments and our weakness, third, the sacraments and our hearts.
I The Sacraments and Their Meaning
A First, the sacraments and their meaning.
The word "sacrament" comes from a Latin word which means sacred, dedicated, devoted. Originally, it referred to a sum of money that was deposited with a temple priest by two sides in a conflict. The winner of the conflict would get his share back, but the loser's share would be dedicated for the temple service; consequently, it was sacred or dedicated money. At some point, sacrament also took on a military meaning, referring to the oath of allegiance that soldiers would swear. By the sacrament of baptism we are confirmed as soldiers of Christ's army. By the sacrament of the Lord's Supper we are strengthened as part of that army.
B Sacraments are "visible signs and seals." We can distinguish between natural signs and instituted signs. What are natural signs? Smoke is a natural sign there is fire, laughter a natural sign of joy, and tears a natural sign of sorrow. A committee did not have to get together and decide that we should laugh when we are happy or cry when we are sad. Rather, God made these signs of natural life. But there are also instituted signs. This happens when people agree that certain signs have specific meanings. For instance, it is commonly understood that a red traffic light means stop and a green light means go. Sacraments are not natural signs; rather, they are signs instituted by God. They have specific meanings, and each time they are used God tells us something.
It is clear from the gospels that Christ has instituted these signs and seals. For example, baptism is ordered in the Great Commission:
(Mt 28:19) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ...The Lord's Supper was instituted that solemn night in which the Lord was betrayed:
(Lk 22:19-20) And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." (20) In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
C So what is their meaning? Christ Jesus instituted baptism as an outward washing with water. The meaning of baptism, found in various places in Scripture, is summarized in the Catechism:
as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul's impurity, in other words, all my sins (Q & A 69).
And, Christ instituted the Lord's Supper as a visible proclamation of His death. The meaning of the Lord's Supper, found in various places in Scripture, is summarized in the Catechism:
Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup. With this command he gave this promise:
First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.
Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ's body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.
D The sacraments are holy signs and seals, meaning they are separated from common use and set aside for the service of the Lord. The vessels in the Temple were holy, not because of what they were made of or how they were made, but because they were set aside for the service of the Lord. So it is with the sacraments. The water used in baptism does not make it holy. The water used for baptism is ordinary tap water and we reject all efforts to use the water of the Jordan River or any other water believed to be holy. Likewise, the elements of the Lord's Supper does not make it holy. The bread of the Lord's Supper is plain, ordinary bread. Same with the wine. Nothing holy or special about them. And yet, when the water, bread, or wine are used for the sacraments, then they are called holy signs because God uses them for His service. After the administration of the sacraments, these ordinary elements may be disposed of any old way. We must maintain this in opposition to the Church of Rome which teaches that the elements themselves are worthy of our adoration. This takes away from the honor of God who alone must be adored.
E When we consider the meaning of the sacraments, we notice that the Belgic Confession puts God, not man, at the center. Sacraments are not our acts toward God; rather, they are God's acts directed toward man. It is very important to recognize this; the sacraments are means of grace in which God condescends to us. They are like the Bible. In the Word, God reveals Himself to us. The Bible is not man's word about God but God's word to man. Although we will deal with baptism later, it is a false argument to say infants should not be baptized because they do not understand what is happening. At the heart of baptism is God's promise to us, not our promise to God.
II The Sacraments and Our Weakness
A Our second point is the sacraments and our weakness.
In the Belgic Confession we confess "that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us." What does crudeness mean here? It means discourteous, rough, coarse, insensitive. We confess we are not refined enough to understand the things of God, not sensitive enough to see them in the right way. And, we confess we are not strong enough to believe.
What does God do? Does He punish us? Does He rebuke us? Not at all! He reaches down in love and grace. He understands and bears with us. He bends down to us in our crudeness and weakness by giving us the sacraments. God condescends to us with the sacraments.
Realize the sacraments are connected to the Word. We believe the Word comes first, the Word always comes first. As our Scripture reading makes clear, only those who hear and believe the Word are saved. However, the Confession is saying that hearing the Word is not enough for us crude, weak people. Now, when I say that hearing the Word is not enough, I am not saying that the Word is insufficient or that there is anything lacking in it, but that we are insufficient and that there is much lacking in us.
B Why has God given us the sacraments? Three reasons are mentioned by the Confession.
First, "to seal his promises in us." How many promises has God made? Have you ever tried to count them all? Everyone of them is well meant; in them God promises so much both for this life and the life to come. God's biggest promise, of course, is life through His Son for dead sinners. In the sacraments God seals His promise of grace for crude, weak sinners who are prone to doubt or forget His promises.
The Confession uses the word "seal." God's glorious promises are sealed to us in the sacraments. You know what a seal is. It is put on a document to show it is real and binding: a passport, a birth certificate, a driver's license, a notarized document. So God binds Himself to us, seals His promises to us, in the sacraments.
Second, God gives us the sacraments "to pledge his good will and grace toward us." The Confession uses the word "pledge." You know what a pledge is. It is when you give something as a security to ensure that a later obligation will be fulfilled. In the sacraments God has given pledges of grace for us crude, weak sinners.
Third, God gives the sacraments "to nourish and sustain our faith." To feed us. To give us living water. To strengthen.
III The Sacraments and Our Hearts
A Our third point is the sacraments and our hearts.
In the sacraments, the Lord makes visible what is written in the Word; they are "visual aids" to the message of the Gospel.
The sacraments do more than represent to our external senses the Word of the Gospel. They also confirm what God does in our hearts. They assure us of the salvation the Lord imparts, make it more firm, and confirm the reality of grace.
The sacraments are visible signs and seals "of something internal and invisible." So baptism signs and seals that the cleansing action of the blood of Christ and of the Holy Spirit is performed and received in the heart. And the Lord's Supper signs and seals that the atoning power of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus is performed and received in the heart. The sacraments are visible signs and seals of God's work in the hearts and souls of believers.
B Does this happen each and every time or only when there is sensitive partaking of the sacraments? Does our spiritual nutrition depend on how we feel at any one time? Is it only when we are emotionally involved, when we feel touched in our hearts, when tears of repentance or joy are in our eyes, that we are truly fed? We must be very careful not to talk this way. The sacraments feed our souls just as regular food and drink strengthen our bodies. We don't have to feel good or happy for food and drink to benefit us. As with regular food and drink, the sacraments work in a silent or hidden way.
Article 33 concludes with two statements about the sacraments.
First, "they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing." Contrary to Rome's teaching that the sacraments impart grace apart from the Word, we confess their truth and power and value lie only in their witness to Christ. Apart from Him, outside of Christ, they have no worth or value at all. Christ is the object of the sacraments. Both sacraments are full of Christ: full of His washing, full of His body and blood, full of His Spirit.
Second, the Confession states "we are satisfied with the number of sacraments that Christ our Master has ordained for us. There are only two: the sacrament of baptism and the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ." We believe, then, that five of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church are human inventions.
It is a terrible thing when someone despises or refuses to hear and keep the Word of God. Just as those who hear and do the Word are blessed, so also those who refuse to hear and do it must be cursed. In the same manner, it is also terrible to despise the sacraments. To refuse the sacraments is to say we don't want God to seal His promises to us, to pledge His good will and grace toward us, and to nourish and sustain our faith. But in keeping the sacraments is great reward: rich blessings for this life and the life to come.
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