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The Efficacy of the Sacraments

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

“The efficacy and use of the sacraments will be properly understood by him who shall connect the sign and the thing signified, in such a manner as not to make the sign unmeaning and inefficacious, and who nevertheless shall not, for the sake of adorning the sign, take away from the Holy Spirit what belongs to him.”

Calvin’s comment is striking to me for a couple of reasons. First, when it comes to guidance for a proper understanding of the efficacy of the sacraments, this is one of the most helpful statements I’ve found. Calvin guards the efficacy of the sacraments by saying that if you make the sign unmeaning and ineffective, you then have something less than a sacrament. What you are left with fails to do justice to the Scripture’s understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. After all Peter affirms that baptism saves, and Paul insists that the Lord’s Supper is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Peter 3:21; 1 Corinthians 10:15-16). At the same time he maintains that the sacrament is a sign, which exercises its efficacy by pointing beyond itself. He cautions that we may not rob the Holy Spirit of His ministry for the sake of adorning the sign. That is an important warning.

But secondly I find the 17th century Wesminster Confession of Faith (see Chapter 27) treats the sacraments in a manner that cannot be distinguished from Calvin’s understanding as he expresses it in the above quote. There does not seem to be any departure on the part of the English Calvinists from Calvin in understanding the efficacy of the sacraments. Like Calvin they have no problem using the language of “the sign and the thing signified.” They do not hesitate to distinguish between the sign and the thing signified. Nor do they have a problem affirming the necessity of connecting them (see 27.2). Like Calvin they also insist that the efficacy of the sacraments depends upon the work of Holy Spirit (27.3). As 21st century Calvinists, then, do we share Calvin’s conviction when it comes to how the Scriptures commend the sacraments as efficacious in our lives? In my humble opinion, our spiritual lives will be much richer, and our churches will be much stronger, if we do.

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