Sacraments are “Sure Witnesses”
Abraham raised his head to peer at the vault of heaven above him, its darkness punctuated with millions of pinpricks of light. God promised him that his descendants would be just as numerous as those stars, and that he would inherit a land in which to settle. Abraham replied: “Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?” (Gen. 15:8). God instructed Abraham to gather several different types of animals, then conducted a ritual sacrifice. This confirmatory ceremony was accompanied by God’s oath-promise.
Through every stage of the unfolding plan of salvation, God always used physical things, which He sanctified, to be the vehicles of His grace to His people: the rainbow, circumcision, the Tabernacle. Then, God the Son Himself showed up in the flesh. He entered His own physical creation. And nothing fundamental changed in God’s method. Why would the incarnation (enfleshment!) of the Son of God make our religion “more spiritual?” Why wouldn’t the Christian faith be sacramental? Why wouldn’t the One Who made all things, use physical things He had designed to confirm His union with us? Jesus designated a ritual using the physical entity of water when He commanded His Church to baptize. He instituted a ceremonial Supper with bread and wine and commanded us to “do this.”
Article 25 of the Thirty-nine Articles defines the Sacraments as “ordained of Christ” as “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.” That’s a mouthful, but it’s a very important mouthful!
How do I know that God is favorable towards me? How do I know that my sins are forgiven and I am reconciled with God? I might say, “I believe,” or “I feel it!” Of course we must exercise faith in Jesus Christ to be saved, but should we direct people to their fluctuating emotional and spiritual feelings, direct them to delve within themselves? Isn’t that the essence of humanism: man looking within to find salvation?
Article 25 points us beyond ourselves to Christ. His Sacraments are “certain sure witnesses” and “effectual signs.” Signs of what? “Signs of “God’s good will toward us” and the instruments by which He “doth work invisibly in us.” God has made visible His invisible grace! As He came in the Person of Jesus Christ—came in the flesh—so He has made incarnate His gracious promises. In the Sacraments, I receive a physical confirmation of God’s good will toward me.
But notice what disposition the Article calls for in me: faith. Recall the words used when the Bread is distributed at the Altar: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” In the first sentence, the objective nature of the Sacrament is emphasized. In other words, it’s not Christ’s Sacrament because I believe: it is Christ’s Sacrament because He ordained it and chooses to work through it. But the second sentence tells me what my subjective response should be: faith. The two must come together. In the words of Article 28: “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper . . . and the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.”
Think dialogue, not monologue. Christ initiates, He speaks to us. But He requires a response from us, the response of a grateful confidence in His Person. The Sacraments are part of our covenant union (like a marriage) with Christ. How would a spouse like it if he spoke comforting words of affectionate loyalty, and his love was never reciprocated? If Christ embraces us, how dare we stand in sullen indifference?
The Sacraments are not mechanistic: I can’t benefit from them if I don’t repent of my sin and trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. In fact, Article 25 concludes with a warning: “In such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.”
When God confirmed His promise to Abraham by a tangible, sacramental expression of His oath, the Patriarch responded the way God intended: “He believed in the Lord,” and God “accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Let us look to Abraham as our example. Let us receive joyfully the grace and word of God made visible to us in His chosen means of grace.