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The Westminster Standards & Sacramental Efficacy

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

Version 1.2

I write this brief essay in order to address a problem I have encountered. I keep reading explanations of doctrine of the sacraments fundamentally empty of the content which was once held by virtually all Reformed confessions and formulations. Furthermore, I read explanations and commentaries on the Westminster Standards which, in my opinion, essentially altar what the Confession and Catechisms actually articulate.

The Westminster Standards, of course, cannot be simplistically identified with the theology of the sixteenth-century Reformation. There was much development which bore fruit in the first half of the seventeenth century. It is hypothetically possible, even probable, that the Divines would articulate a different view of the sacraments. Indeed, I think that the formulations therein are distinctive from the language of Calvin or the earlier confessions. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the same strong view of sacramental efficacy is upheld in the Standards as was held earlier.

What follows is my exegesis of the Westminster Standards as regards sacramental efficacy.

The Foundation of the Sacraments

In order to understand the doctrine of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms on the sacraments, one needs to get a feel for the overall system of doctrine. Of foundational import to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is the doctrine of union with Christ.

Union with Christ

The most direct attention is given to the subject of union with Christ in chapter 26 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "Of the Communion of Saints." Apparently, this communion mainly consists of and is founded upon union with Christ, for the first statement made in the chapter is: "All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory." This definition is followed by a colon, after which the communion of the saints with each other is mentioned and the obligations which follow from it. Curiously, nothing is said about the elect in this chapter; rather, the professing saints are discussed.

Other than asserting the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, not much else is said about the nature of union with Christ, except that does not mean partaking "of the substance of His Godhead, or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous" (26.3). Of what then do we partake? The question is left unanswered.

From its placement in the Confession and the brevity of the description, the importance of union with Christ does not seem that great. But this is a false impression which is amply corrected by examining the application of redemption as it is set forth in the Catechisms.

Christ, Our Salvation

The elect are saved by the work of Christ only because Christ Himself is united to them and they to Him. "We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ by the effectual application of it to us by His Holy Spirit" (SC 29). Redemption is effectually applied, and we are made partakers of that redemption, simply because Christ is applied and we are made partakers of Him. "The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ by . . . uniting us to Christ. . ." (SC 30). Union with Christ results in all that is necessary for salvation: justification, adoption, and sanctification (SC 32). Indeed to be "elect" means to be predestined to union with Christ (3.6). God planned in eternity to save those He had chosen for glory and then He saves them "in time by the Holy Ghost" (LC 57). God’s decision in eternity to elect some to glory does not itself constitute the salvation which He has predestined to give them (for that would confound God’s planning to do something with His actually doing it). For example, in the case of one necessary element of salvation: "God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise for their justification; nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them" (11.4).

Christ By Faith

While the Spirit sovereignly gives Christ to whom He wills (and Whom the Father has chosen in eternity), it would be wrong to infer from this that the person is entirely passive in this union. A person in union with Christ is in union with the whole Christ, and this union engages his entire person with Christ. Thus, a person’s will, mind, and heart–his whole being–is involved in union with Christ. The Westminster Divines, following Scriptures, believed the essential necessary response to God, by which union with Christ is effected and maintained, was faith. In giving us Christ the Holy Spirit renews us and gives us faith in Christ. As the Shorter Catechism succinctly puts it: "The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling" (q. 31).

The fact that Christ is the object of faith presents something of a problem because we can only know Christ by the revelation He has given us of Himself by His prophets and apostles, that is, by the Scriptures. In describing the object of our faith, the Divines deal with this possible ambiguity by stating:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein, and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of Grace (14.2; emphasis added).

Notice that in a sense the Bible is an object of faith because it alone is God’s Word. Yet to accuse Christians of "bibliolatry" would be ridiculous, for we do not think a mere book saves, nor even the saving message. Rather it is Christ who saves by His work (the redemption He purchased) and His Spirit (by which He gives us union with Himself). We are saved by the Triune God, not by paper and ink. Yet the Bible is more than paper and ink; it is the Word of the Triune God through which we are, indeed, saved. It is correct to say, "Only God saves," yet it is also correct to say, "The Gospel saves," just as it is correct to say "Faith saves." The terms are used in different senses.

Because faith involves trust in Jesus Christ, it invariably includes the fundamental belief in what God has revealed. For an adult of sound mind this means, as described above, that faith entails believing the message of the Scriptures. However, infants and others, such as severely retarded persons, are also capable of faith, being "regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth" (8.3).

Christ by Covenant & Church

In the above quote, we see that faith receives Christ "by virtue of the covenant of Grace." What is the Covenant? The covenant is the structured relationship which God has with His people. It is something formal and organized which, in this age, is "administered" (7.5) or "dispensed" by "ordinances" which are "the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper" (7.6). One enters into this relationship or covenant by meeting the condition which God has set down as the requirement: faith in Jesus Christ (7.3).

This covenant is closely related to the institutional Church, which "is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25.2). The Confession describes the Church as having the same "ordinances of God" (25.3) as it associates with the Covenant of Grace.

The Standards often use the terms "inward" and "outward" in their formulations. They go together. One cannot be given union with Christ, without it showing forth to others in a faithful way. A child in a family, not only receives his life from his parents, but enters into a relationship with them involving communication and role expectations. So union with Christ and the institutional Church are both necessary aspects of God’s relationship with His people.

Responding & Continuing in Faith

The question might arise: How can the Confession claim that one must (ordinarily) be a member of the Church in order to be saved if it also declares that salvation is by faith alone? That is a good question. The fact is that the Standards contain several similarly inconsistent sounding statements. For example, the Larger Catechism asks: "What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?" The answer:

That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us [1] repentance toward God, and [2] faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and [3] the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation (q. 153).

Now here we have a list of three things required for escaping God’s wrath at the Final Judgment, and faith is only second on the list! Furthermore, the third item itself expands into a host of others ("all his ordinances"-q. 154). There is no doubt, however, that the Catechism is listing requirements for salvation; question 57 includes "redemption" as one of the benefits communicated by these outward means.

The Westminster Divines seem to see no contradiction between the Reformation slogan, sola fide and the Biblical passages which lay out other requirements for entering into and continuing in God’s Covenant of Grace. The point is that one must respond in faith to the Gospel. Whatever the Bible considers to be a necessary part of that response is not contradiction of "faith alone" but rather an elaboration and unfolding of it. If one truly trusts God and believes His Word one will do what He says. In question 153 above, "faith" is used in its narrower sense of "accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life," whereas repentance and diligent use of the means of grace covers believing

to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein, and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.

Thus, if one truly believes Jesus, He will do whatever necessary to become part of His Body the Church. There is no opposition between faith and the importance of Church membership. Rather, they support one another.

The Reality of the Sacraments

Based on the above, not only does the system of doctrine presented in the Westminster Standards leave room for a vigorous and Biblical view of the sacraments and sacramental efficacy, but practically demands it

The Sacraments

A sacrament, according to our Confession, is not simply a tangible token of a Spiritual truth, but consists of both the sign and the actual grace which is signified by the sign. These two elements are bound together by "a spiritual relation, or sacramental union" (27.2).

The sacraments serve as markers identifying their participants with the Church as opposed to the world (27.1). Since outside the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, this in itself is quite an important point.

But sacraments also efficaciously exhibit and confer grace, not "by any power in them," nor by virtue of "the piety or intention of him that doth administer" them, but by virtue of "the work of the Spirit and the word of institution." To those who receive the sacrament worthily by faith there is a "promise of benefit" (27.3). This simply follows from the definition of a sacrament as both sign and thing signified united by the Spirit.

Thus, not only do the sacraments "strengthen and increase [the] faith" of "those within the covenant of grace," but they actually "signify, seal and exhibit . . . the benefits of [Christ’s] mediation" (Larger Catechism, q. 162). Thus, redemption itself is sealed and exhibited to us in the sacraments. The sacraments ability to "confirm our interest in" Christ, depends precisely on their role in efficaciously conferring that interest. Our faith is strengthened and increased precisely because we know in the sacrament we objectively experience "the working of the Holy Ghost" (LC, q. 161).

What is the nature of the grace conferred by the sacraments? Jesus Christ Himself: "Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers" (SC, q. 92; emphasis added). Not simply the benefits of the new covenant, nor even the benefits of Christ, but "Christ and His benefits" are "the spiritual part of " the sacraments (LC, p. 176). The person of the Savior is "applied" to us by faith ("believers") in the sacraments. As discussed above, Christ’s benefits are not available apart from their Source. Christ’s benefits are applied to us precisely because Christ Himself is applied to us.

Putting it all together, in the sacraments Christ Himself is efficaciously communicated, represented, signified, sealed, conferred, and applied by the working of the Holy Spirit to those who receive Him by faith. Thus, the sacraments are "effectual means of salvation" (LC, p. 161).

Notice how the centrality of union with Christ, and the importance of the covenant, the institutional church, are both consistent with this view of the sacraments. Salvation results from Christ being applied to us by the Spirit; the sacraments are used by the Spirit to indeed apply Christ. Christ is received by faith; the sacraments exhibit Christ so that he may be apprehended by believers. Christ is offered "according to the Covenant of Grace" and calls people into the Church, His Kingdom; the sacraments are the objective means by which one is admitted into and continues in the Church.

These observations about the Westminster Standards and the sacraments in general, will be amply affirmed by a brief look at each sacrament in particular.


Baptism admits the person baptized into the Church (28.1). This applies to both adults and infants. While the Catechism affirms that the children of a believer are "in that respect within the covenant" (LC, q. 166) this does not change the fact that children, like adult converts, are admitted into the Church by baptism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith guards against formulations that would mislead people into thinking that a person is automatically going to heaven once he is baptized no matter what he does subsequently. Of course, it also guards against the idea that all baptized people receive an identical portion of grace so that the difference between those who end up in heaven and those in hell is attributed to their own abilities and not the sovereignty of God in giving and withholding His grace. Thus, the Confession affirms that it is possible for people to be regenerated who are not baptized and that it is possible for people to not be regenerated who are baptized (28.5). Furthermore, it states that "the efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment of time wherein it is administered" (28.6).

But the Confession is emphatic that, despite all these qualifications, "yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred, by the Holy Ghost" (28.6). "Grace and salvation" are truly "annexed" to baptism (28.5).

What is the grace annexed to baptism? We have already seen that it would be the person of Christ himself, as is stated about the sacraments. The Confession lists these benefits of baptism: "the covenant of grace, ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life" (28.1). The Larger Catechism adds "adoption" and "resurrection unto everlasting life" (q. 165). All this is conferred by the Holy Spirit in Baptism.

One other qualification which needs to be mentioned is that baptism is said to savingly benefit "such (whether of age or infants) as the grace belongeth unto according tot he counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time" (28.6). Here we seem to have a problem: The Divines wanted to affirm that baptism was efficacious, but not for everybody. Obviously, only the elect are finally saved and thus only the elect can be said to receive these things in baptism. But if that is the case, then how a person have his faith confirmed and strengthened by baptism? How can he trust a promise that might or not be made to him, depending on God’s secret counsel?

I’m not sure why the Divines did not directly address this question. However, they did write out how one should regard his baptism as an objective revelation of the Grace of God. The Larger Catechism, in the answer to question 167, spells out how baptism is supposed to be regarded by all who have been subjected to the rite.

The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long . . . by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body (emphasis added).

Here we see that baptism marks the objective starting point of the Christian life. There is no question that baptism has "conferred and sealed" grace. But that grace must be received by faith, and by continuing in the Faith. Remember q. 153 in the Larger Catechism:

That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.

The sacraments are listed as among those means in which all Christians must continue if they are to escape the wrath and curse of God. Baptism is not a sign that grace is conferred on somebody somewhere, but that it is specifically conferred on the person who is baptized. That grace, however, must be received by faith throughout the person’s life.

Perhaps we can help clarify this doctrine by using the statements on saving faith in 14.2 by analogy:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true and receiveth the grace of God promised and conferred in his Baptism, for the authority of God Himself speaking and efficaciously working therein, and acteth differently upon that which each aspect thereof demandeth; yielding obedience to the engagements made therein, walking in conformity to the grace of Baptism, trembling at the threatenings against those who would neglect so great a salvation , and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of Grace.

The gift of saving faith given by the Holy Spirit only to those elected to eternal life is not opposed to the objective grace conferred in baptism, but requires it. Faith needs an object. Faith apprehends Christ as He is exhibited to us in our baptism.

The Lord’s Supper

In the Eucharist, Participants by faith "really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified and all benefits of his death (29.7). The Shorter Catechism states that "worthy receivers" are "by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace" (q. 96). Note, they are not said to receive the benefits of Christ’s body and blood, but Christ’s body and blood "with his benefits."

Again, the Westminster Divines guard against abuses and superstitions-denying any local presence as in transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Nevertheless, by the power of the Holy Spirit ("spiritually" twice in the paragraph) "the body and blood of Christ" are made "present" and received by faith (29.7). Thus, there is an objective "spiritual nourishment" and, therefore, a basis for "growth in grace" (q. 96). Partakers have their "union and communion with [Christ] confirmed" (LC, q. 169) because "truly and really" they "feed upon the body and blood of Christ" (LC, q 170).


The Westminster Standards give us a theology which demands and presents the sacraments as effectual signs which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, convey what they signify. Of course, without faith one will not apprehend the grace exhibited in the sacrament. But if the sacraments did not include the promised presence of Christ Himself then there would be nothing for believers to receive in partaking of them. Their faith would be in vain.

All this means is that the Westminster Divines, however much they may or may not have differed from Calvin, kept in their formulations his doctrine of sacramental efficacy. The sacraments are not empty signs, but are joined to the reality which they represent.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.


Sacramental Assurance & the Reformed Faith: The Biblical Perspective of the Westminster Standards

Baptismal Efficacy & the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future

Baptismal Regeneration & the Westminster Confession 28.6

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