Part 7 - The Sacraments
Welcome to the seventh part of our series looking at the Westminster Confession of Faith and its teachings on various areas. This time we will be looking at what is known as the Sacraments.
Firstly, what are the Sacraments? Sacraments are visible signs and symbols which God has instituted to point to Christ’s works for us and their benefits to us as believers. They also serve to mark out the differences between those who have a saving faith in Jesus and those who don’t.
The Sacraments themselves do not have any power and neither do the ‘elements’ used in them (elements in this sense refers to physical ‘things’ which are used in the Sacraments as symbolic representations). Their effectiveness does not depend on the piety of the person administering them or where they take place but solely on the power of the Holy Spirit and his work. The administration of the sacraments and admission to them is the responsibility of the Elders of the congregation.
Churches which subscribe to the Westminster Confession recognise only two Sacraments; namely baptism and The Lord’s Supper (or Communion). Marriage, confession, anointing the sick and other aspects of church life claimed as sacraments by some other churches are not recognised as such by WCoF Confessional churches.
Baptism uses the ‘element’ of water and symbolises the washing away of sins on acceptance into the covenant family of the church. Contrary to some teaching baptism does not remove original sin or generate new life. It is a sign of the new life granted through faith and the taking of our sins by Jesus. These occur when we give our life to him not when we are baptised. The confession teaches that Baptism is for those who profess faith in Christ as a symbol of their new birth and that it is also proper for the infant children of believers to be baptised, signifying their place in the covenant family. Baptism should not be given to any other persons as it is meaningless and unhelpful to administer this symbol where none of those involved have experienced the grace it symbolises. Baptism does not offer protection or guarantee salvation in any way. Baptism should be made in the name of the Triune God; Father, Son and Spirit and full immersion is not required according to the confession, with sprinkling with water being sufficient. The confession further teaches that no person should be baptised more than once. This means that someone who was baptised as a child does not need to be “re-done” on conversion, even if they have been far from God in between.
The Lord’s Supper - sometimes called Communion - is a commemoration of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made of himself for the sins of his people. It takes the form of a partial reenactment of elements of the last meal he shared with his disciples and uses bread and wine as its elements.
Jesus himself instituted the practice and commanded that those who have faith in him partake of it. Whilst the elements symbolise Jesus’s body broken and blood shed, their use in this sacrament does not alter their physical nature or substance. They remain bread and wine and do not literally transform into his flesh and blood. Neither does the practice in some way repeat or reinforce his sacrifice for sinners, it merely symbolises it. Christ’s sacrifice was once-for-all and is sufficient without being repeated. Whilst only believers should take part, doing so does not confer salvation or forgiveness, rather it reminds us what Christ has done for us and symbolises this to the watching world as we obey his commands. All of those who partake of the Lord’s Supper should partake of both elements of it and all believers are responsible for taking part as Christ has commanded.