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Article 25 — Of the Sacraments

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Posted by Wallace Benn, 28 Mar 2017

Wallace Benn takes a look at what the 39 Articles have to say about the sacraments.

XXV — OF THE SACRAMENTS
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be 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.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And 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.

This is another article which shows the biblical and Protestant nature of our confession of faith. It contains warnings and explanations and although penned by Cranmer is not quite in the same order as originally planned.

I well remember as a boy, in the then very Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland, watching a Corpus Christi procession through a town on a rainy day. Everyone but us knelt in the street as the monstrance went by. I would have too if I believed in transubstantiation but I did not. So I am grateful for and understand the warning that “the Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.”

The Sacraments “ordained of Christ” then are to be “duly used” and “worthily received”. What does that mean? First, we must distinguish between those sacraments of the gospel ordained by Christ and other “commonly (i.e. wrongly) called” sacraments which may or may not have a useful place in the Christian life (matrimony, orders, and confirmation certainly do).

Secondly, we are to rightly understand the nature of gospel sacraments. They are ‘visible words’ or visual aids to understand the gospel and the atoning work of Christ for us. They are extensions of the word preached, that visibly reinforce the proclaimed good news. Without the word preached they lose their meaning but in the context of hearing and believing the gospel they strengthen and encourage the Christian.

Baptism visibly reminds us in water that we need the cleansing and forgiveness of our sins, and that through the atoning sacrifice of Christ for us God has provided for our need, and brings to the believing heart a whole new life. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of all that Christ’s death accomplished for us, that we can never safely move away from the foot of the cross in wonder and worship as we seek to live the Christian life, and that we need his sustaining grace and help if we are to live for him as we ought.

Listen to Cranmer in his magisterial work on the Lord’s Supper explaining this:

“These things before rehearsed are sufficient to prove, that the eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of his blood, is not to be understood simply and plainly, as the words do properly signify, that we do eat and drink him with our mouths; but it is a figurative speech spiritually to be understand, that we must deeply print and fruitfully believe in our hearts, that his flesh was crucified and his blood shed, for our redemption. And this our belief in him, is to eat his flesh and to drink his blood, although they be not present here with us, but be ascended into heaven”.

And again:

“And every good and faithful Christian man feeleth in himself how he feedeth of Christ, eating his flesh and drinking his blood. For he putteth the whole hope and trust of his redemption and salvation in that only sacrifice, which Christ made upon the cross, having his body there broken, and his blood there shed for the remission of his sins. And this great benefit of Christ the faithful man earnestly considereth in his mind, chaweth (cheweth) and digested it with the stomach of his heart, spiritually receiving Christ wholly into him, and giving again himself wholly unto Christ.

And this is the eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of his blood, the feeling whereof is to every man the feeling how he eateth and drinketh Christ, which none evil man nor member of the Devil can do”.

The sacraments then are spiritual food for spiritual people. The Article adds St. Paul’s warning that unworthily received (i.e. without belief and trust in Christ’s substitutionary atoning death for us) they add to our condemnation.

The sacraments are “not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession” (a view associated with the continental reformer Zwingli, but I think perhaps an inadequate explanation of his teaching). Rather, they are means of encouraging and strengthening the believer’s faith generally, and particularly in times of difficulty, doubt, or despair. They are both “certain sure witnesses” that proclaim the gospel promises to us in a concrete fashion, and also “effectual signs of grace” to those who receive them with a believing heart.

Let me use a useful but inadequate analogy. My wedding ring means a great deal to me not because of its value in gold, but because it visibly and visually reminds me of the amazing fact that my wife loves me and has made promises to me that reflect that. The sacraments “strengthen and confirm our Faith in him”, because we bask in, feed on, and are blessed by the wonderful fact that, as St. Paul says, “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Cranmer in his preferred words of administration in the 1552 service of Holy Communion beautifully expresses this profound and wonderful gospel theology: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving”. What comfort and what joy!

To sum up then:  “As the preaching of the Word makes the Gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means”  (J.I.Packer Concise Theology).

Wallace Benn is the President of Church Society and a former Bishop of Lewes.

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