The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXVII. Of the Sacraments

Section I.–Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him: as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.


The word sacrament is not found in the Scriptures, but is derived from the Latin language. It was used by the Romans to signify their military oath, or the oath by which soldiers bound themselves to be faithful to their general, and not to desert his standard; and it is supposed to have been applied to the symbolical institutions of the Church, because in these we, as it were, enlist in the service of Christ, the Captain of our salvation, and engage to follow him whithersoever he leads us. But it may be remarked, that the early Christian writers employed the term sacrament (sacramentum) as equivalent to the scriptural term mystery (m u s t e r i o n , "musterion"); and in the Vulgate the latter word is always translated by the former. There is reason to think that the term mysteries was early applied to baptism and the Lord's supper, partly because, under external symbols, spiritual blessings were veiled, and partly also on account of the secrecy with which Christians, in times of persecution, were obliged to celebrate them; and as the Latins used the word as synonymous with mystery, it has been thought that we are in this way to account for its application to these symbolical institutions.

The express institution of God is essentially requisite to constitute a sacrament. No ordinances ought to be observed in the Christian Church but such as have been appointed by Christ, her alone king and head. He only can have authority to institute sacraments, who has power to confer the blessings which are thereby represented and applied. No rite, therefore, can deserve the name of a sacrament, unless it bear the stamp of divine institution.

Socinians represent the sacraments as being merely solemn badges by which the disciples of Jesus are discriminated from other men. It is readily granted that they are badges of the disciples of Christ, by which they are distinguished from Jews, Mohammedans, and Heathens; but this is not their chief design. They are principally "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Circumcision is expressly called a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. iv. 11); and the same description is equally applicable to the sacraments of the New Testament. As signs, they represent and exhibit Christ and the blessings of the new covenant to us; as seals, they ratify our right to them, and confirm our faith.

The principal uses and ends of the sacraments are, to represent Christ and his benefits–to confirm the believer's interest in Christ and his blessings–to distinguish between the members of the visible Church, and those that are without–and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

Section II.–There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.


The parts of a sacrament are two–the sign and the thing signified. The sign is something sensible and visible–that may be seen and handled. Thus, the outward sign in baptism is water, which is visible to us; and the outward signs in the Lord's supper are bread and wine, which are also visible, and which we can handle and taste. The things signified are Christ and the benefits of the new covenant. These are called the matter of the sacrament. The form consists in the spiritual relation or sacramental union, established between the sign and the thing signified by the divine institution. Though there is some analogy or resemblance between the outward signs and the things signified, yet their sacramental union depends entirely upon the institution of Christ. "From this union arises what has been called sacramental phraseology, or certain expressions in which the names of the sign and the thing signified are exchanged. Thus, the name of the sign is given to the thing signified, when Christ is called "our Passover;' and the name of the thing signified is given to the sign, when the bread is called the body of Christ. The foundation of this interchange is the sacramental union, which so couples them together that the one may be predicated of the other."

Section III.–The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorising the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.


This section is levelled against two tenets of the Church of Rome. That Church holds that the sacraments, when rightly administered, are of themselves effectual to confer grace; and that the intention of the priest or administrator is essential to a sacrament; so that if a priest goes through all the forms of administering baptism or the Lord's supper, and does not in his own mind intend to administer it, it is in fact no sacrament. That the sacraments themselves cannot confer saving grace is evident; for if they had this power in themselves, they would be equally effectual to all who receive them. But many are partakers of the sacraments, who are not partakers of the grace of God. Simon Magus was baptised, and yet remained in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.–Acts viii. 13, 23. That the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the intention of the administrator is not less evident; for this would place the administrator in God's stead, whose sole prerogative it is to render the sacraments effectual for the purposes designed by them. Besides, in this case, no one could be certain that he had received the sacraments; because he could not be absolutely certain of the intention of another. In opposition to these absurd tenets, we maintain that the efficacy of the sacraments depends upon the working of the Spirit on the souls of the receivers; and upon the word of institution, which contains a precept authorising the use of these ordinances, and a promise of benefit by them to the worthy receivers.

Section IV.–There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospels, that is to say, baptism and the supper of the Lord: neither or which may be dispensed by any but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained.


We acknowledge only two sacraments instituted by Christ in the gospel, and these are baptism and the Lord's supper; the former being the sign and seal of our spiritual birth, and the latter of our spiritual nourishment. The Church of Rome has added five spurious sacraments–ordination, marriage, confirmation, penance, and extreme unction. None of these have any divine appointment as sacraments; and the three last, as used by Papists, have no warrant at all from Scripture. None of them are seals of the covenant of grace, and, therefore, they are no sacraments, but are to be considered as gross corruptions of the purity and simplicity of the Christian ritual. In opposition, also, to the Church of Rome, which permits laymen and women to administer the sacrament of baptism in cases of necessity, our Confession asserts that none but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained, has any warrant to dispense the sacraments.

Section V.–The sacraments of the Old Testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the New.


The ordinary sacraments of the Old Testament were circumcision and the Passover; the former being now superseded by baptism, and the latter by the Lord's supper. The sacraments of the Old Testament represented Christ as to come, while those of the New Testament represent Christ as already come; and by the latter spiritual blessings are exhibited in a more clear and plain manner than by the former. But in opposition to the Church of Rome, which asserts that the sacraments of the Old Testament were no more than shadows of that grace which those of the New Testament actually confer, we maintain that, in respect of the spiritual blessings signified and exhibited, the sacraments of the Old Testament were substantially the same with those of the New. Both were signs and seals of the same righteousness of faith.–Rom. iv. 11. Both agree in the word of promise.–Gen. xvii. 7; Acts ii. 38, 39.

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