The Meaning and Use of the Sacraments1

Sunday, 21 September 1550

And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: But God was with him (Acts 7:8-9).

Continuing along the lines of our earlier conclusions, Stephen points out to the Jews that Lord chose and called their fathers, he gave them the sign of circumcision to confirm his covenant. Despite that, it appears that the Jews had nothing to boast about, as if circumcision were the cause of their salvation or they possessed some personal dignity for which God was obligated to them. So we understand Stephen’s intention is to crush that foolish arrogance so characteristic of the Jews. Moreover, he wants not only to show that all the ceremonies they trust in are nothing unless they are illuminated by God’s promise, but also to point to their object and express their true meaning. He shows here that God chose Abraham before Abraham was circumcised, but that fact does not detract from the sacrament of circumcision unless we fail to value its real purpose and truth. We must follow this procedure when dealing with those hypocrites who, with their superstitions, obscure and invalidate the sacraments ordained by God. We need to have a precise understanding of what has been instituted if we are going to demonstrate current abuses clearly and how men have abused the sacraments. ‘Therefore, Stephen acknowledges that circumcision was a sign and mark of the covenant which God made with his church. That shows us Stephen does not wish to invalidate the sacrament, as he was charged with doing. But at the same time he points out that circumcision is not the basis for salvation, because Abraham was already serving God before being circumcised.

That is also how Paul deals with the matter in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom.4: 1-1 2). Inasmuch as he is dealing with the same subject, he shows that Abraham was reconciled to God before receiving the sign of circumcision. He was already justified. To show this is true, he uses Moses’ argument that Abraham accepted God’s promise at the time God declared to him his gracious will. Thus, our Lord already had him in his grace and considered him as righteous. And at that time, Paul remarks, there was no circumcision. If Abraham was already a child of God, we must not attribute that fact to an external sign, but to the free gift of God’s goodness. That is why Paul explains to the Jews that the true purpose of all their ceremonies was to point to our Lord Jesus Christ, who fulfils them and gives them their meaning. But in order to understand the whole matter better and to be well assured of our salvation, let us begin with Stephen’s comment about the covenant: ‘God’, he says, ‘gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision.’ His main reason for saying that is to indicate the purpose for which the sacraments were established. It was to make known God’s gracious will, how he wants to be joined to us, and how he wants to receive us into his grace and love. That is the purpose the sacraments have served from all time and the purpose they must serve even now. They are to confirm us in the love he has for us and to lead us to acknowledge him as our Father, in the assurance that he views us as his people and his children. Now, do we want a more excellent confirmation that God declares his gracious will toward us and ratifies it so that we will experience no doubt that he makes his graciousness known to us, such as he declares himself through his promises? Do we want, I ask, to hold these God-ordained sacraments in greater honour and reverence than to receive them with that condition? It is true that the papists do not exhibit that restraint, but make idols of the sacraments. Do they honour them in that way? No! By no means! The papists think that their salvation is enclosed in baptism. Since we say that baptism must bring us to the blood of Christ, that we are washed and cleansed by it, and that the power of this blood is communicated to us to strengthen us by God’s Spirit, who then, if not God’s Spirit, is the one who mortifies our flesh and corrects all our vices and the unwholesome lusts which are in us, and who leads us and directs us to God so that we may be obedient to his righteousness? The papists acknowledge none of that. They restrict themselves to the external sign. ‘They dwell on the corruptible element of water.

They do the same thing with the Lord’s Supper, although they do not practise it as such. When they come to their mass, we know that it is the most damnable idol that exists. Not only do they say that when performing it, they are celebrating the Supper of Jesus Christ, but they also say they are presenting a sacrifice to God his Father for the remission of sins. That is how they make the mass a sacrilegious act which annuls the death and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. In addition, that is how the papists try to exalt the sacraments more than we do. But how do they do that? By making idols of them! Now the greatest honour we can render to the sacraments is to consider why the Lord instituted them. As I said, the word covenant is added because God is making himself known to us, and after speaking to us and giving us his promises, he ratifies and confirms them by the signs he adds so that we will have greater confidence in him.

We now have to point out that it is impossible for the sacraments to benefit us as God intended if we do not have his declaration of love for us and if that love is not made manifest in them. A contract for five pennies cannot be made between men unless the two parties understand what is being contracted, unless one party knows what the other is promising, and unless what is promised is agreed upon. If such is required in contracts of little consequence, what will be required when it is a matter of our salvation? When it is a question of God’s revealing himself to us, must there not be words to explain the signs? If there are only external signs, will they be more than a farce and nonsense? Therein we see how the Papacy has corrupted the use of the sacraments and falsified everything. It is true that man’s infidelity has not been able to destroy God’s truth. What is of God in baptism remains in spite of Satan and the papists. The baptism ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ remains forever, incapable of being destroyed by men, but the papists have indeed falsified it because they have removed what it teaches. All they do is mumble words as if it were a magic rite. ‘They mutter an unknown language. And I am not even mentioning all that insignificant twaddle they have added, and the spitting and the candles, the salt and the oil, and whatever else. But not a single word about the meaning of baptism will be heard. For, as I said, they have to use an unknown language. Opposed to that is the general statement that all the sacraments must witness to God’s love for us. But how can they unless someone first declares what God wants us to understand? Or unless we know what is represented by the external signs which he establishes for us? In baptism we realize how the power of our Lord Jesus Christ’s death and suffering is communicated to us in such a way that we are assured that we are cleansed of all our stains by it. And if we do not understand all of that, what good is it? Thus we see how the Papacy has profaned and corrupted the sacraments.

As for the Lord’s Supper, there is an even more horrible profanation. Everything in it is upside down because the mass has as much in common with the Supper of our Lord as day with night, as Satan with Jesus Christ. But even if the mass were not such a detestable sacrilege and remained as it stands, we can still say that it is a very ridiculous rite. Why? Because no teaching accompanies it. We must take note of this word ‘covenant’ so we can know that if we want to honour the sacraments the way our Lord instituted them for us, we must always put his word first, not as mysterious sounds, as is the custom of the papists, but as preached doctrine, its contents proclaimed aloud, so that the people will know what the sacraments represent and so that we can be like two people making a contract. On the one hand, God must speak, making promises such as please him and obligating us by his free grace, and we, on the other hand, are there to accept what is promised. Now how can we accept it without knowing about it? ‘That is the first point we need to understand here. That way, we know the sacraments must serve our faith. They are more than witnesses and signs to which we bear witness as a result of making our profession of Christianity before men. It is by them that our Lord wants to reinforce our knowledge and awareness of the grace he wants to bestow upon us.

And what if someone asks whether the word is sufficient? True, it should indeed suffice, and we must blame our vices and our unbelief for the fact that we do not attribute enough weight and authority to God’s word. The fact is that we are so weak that even after God speaks to us, we need him to add some confirmation to bring us to the understanding of what he wants to show us. For example, we will be told daily that our Lord Jesus Christ yielded himself to death for us in testimony of the love which God bears us and by which he adopts us as his children. That information will be repeated often, and it is worthy of our trust and of our receiving it as teaching from heaven. But our natures are so weak that even if we are instructed in it every day, we cannot accept what God says to us, but are always doubtful. There is no steadfastness in us. Our Lord supplies our deficiency and adds baptism, by which he gives us a visible sign that we are washed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

And in it he provides an example that just as truly as your bodies are washed by water, so also the blood of his Son serves to cleanse us spiritually. So there we have a confirmation given by God, like a letter sealed with a public seal for greater authenticity. That is precisely how God works with us. Why? To help the weakness of our faith. True, if we did not have complete faith in God’s word, the sacraments would be useless. They can profit us nothing unless teaching comes first. But, as I have already said, we are so weak that unless we have the right kind of faith, we cannot, without God’s further strengthening, receive what God tells us. In that way, we understand that the sacraments are to reinforce our knowledge so that we can have a greater assurance of God’s grace. And yet, whenever we are put to the test when Satan entices us to sin, let us repulse him by remembering God’s promises. And if that is not enough and we perceive there is still some doubt, let us add the sacraments as God’s validating signs. Consequently, we will not only be able to say that our Lord has made us that promise because he has redeemed us from everlasting death by Jesus Christ his Son and has made us alive by his resurrection, but beyond that we will also be able to say we have the signs imprinted on our bodies. God has marked us with his seal, which he placed upon us by baptism. When we take the Supper, we have a testimony of that same grace which Jesus has likewise given as a testimony that we are incorporated into him so that we may enjoy all his benefits.

That is how we must make use of the sacraments if we are to be strengthened when Satan comes and arouses distrust within us. That is how the sacraments are to serve our faith.

Now it is true, as I have said, that the sacraments are nothing in themselves. ‘The Holy Spirit must give them value. When we receive Baptism; does the sign of water have such power that we are refashioned in the image of God and begotten into new life? In no way! We observe the opposite. Everyone is baptized equally. And how many baptized individuals continue to be cursed and rejected by God, even though they have received baptism? So we see that receiving the external sign is not everything. But we must make an effort to be conformed to what it represents. It is true that when it bears no fruit, men’s evil nature must be blamed. But even so, the sign in itself has no power unless we receive power through the Holy Spirit. ‘Iherefore, when our Lord represents our spiritual washing by baptism, the Holy Spirit works in us to cleanse us of our wicked affections and to put off our old nature and the old man, as Scripture says (cf. Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:8-9).’That.then is how the Holy Spirit makes up for our deficiency. Otherwise, everything we get from doctrine will be of very little use to us.

Then there is a very small step we must take to come to the truth of the sacraments, which is Jesus Christ. As under the law, before Jesus Christ was made manifest in the world, all the sacraments God had decreed for his church were to lead the people to Jesus Christ. Now, by that same decree, we have to come to that same point. Otherwise, we will have nothing but an empty figure. In short, the substance of the sacraments is embodied in Jesus Christ. And that is the end to which baptism directs us. Otherwise, where will we be washed clean if not in the blood he shed for our redemption? As for the Supper, we do not seek eternal life in a piece of bread and a little wine, but the signs lead us to Jesus Christ, who has been offered for us once; he has now been communicated to us so we may possess him and all his gracious gifts. That is how we must consider the signs. In themselves they have no power but the power that is in Jesus Christ. Their effectiveness is in his Holy Spirit, because he gives it to us out of his free grace.

Now inasmuch as that understanding pertains generally to all the sacraments God has ever established, Stephen applies it here to circumcision. For circumcision was to serve the Jews the same way baptism serves us today. Paul confirms as much in Colossians 3, when he says, We have been renewed in Jesus Christ, in whom there is no difference between Greek and Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, but Christ is in all things’ (Col. 3:10-11). But because it could be doubted that we need any sign at all, he adds that that is the reason we are baptized. Consequently, when this passage makes clear that circumcision was like a covenant of God with his faithful, let us realize that God has declared his promises of salvation and that he has confirmed and demonstrated the power of his covenant with those who were called.

It is true that the sign is no longer used today, since Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Its significance, however, is perpetual, for there is a similarity between that sacrament and our baptism. What God wanted to make known by circumcision is that everything pertaining to man and his nature must be pruned within us. It is true that the sign, as it stands, will be insignificant in the minds of men. But we must not measure the decrees of God by our understanding and our reasoning. Although men may think it ridiculous that a spiritual sacrament is performed that way, God nevertheless had a reason for instituting it. He wanted, as I said, to make a visible declaration to that people, within the limits of their understanding, that he wanted everything in their human nature to be pruned so they would no longer live unto themselves but unto him who had called them. What, in fact, is the burden we bear because of our father Adam and all the parents who begot us? What have we received from them if not every curse? There is nothing in us which is not worthy of God’s rejection and which does not deserve condemnation to everlasting death. ‘That is what we have inherited from our predecessors. We are so completely inclined to their disposition that we can but sin. And God’s wrath is upon us. Therefore, was it not right for God to declare to his people that there is nothing in man which is not to be totally destroyed so that we will come to him and receive his grace and his blessing?

Now it was still not enough that God declared to the Jews that they had to be punished because of their nature, so he adds that his grace was to proceed from human seed. There, then, are the two aspects of circumcision, namely that man is condemned in himself and that God must bring him to newness of life. Man is also shown how such grace will be provided for him: Jesus Christ must take on human flesh and, in him, we will possess all righteousness and holiness. So when in our day and time circumcision is mentioned, let us remember that this is the way our Lord chose to point out the same things under the law which baptism shows us, namely that we, as far as we and our natures are concerned, are dead and need to be made new with a better life. But because that cannot be done by our power, we seek in Jesus Christ what is lacking in ourselves.

Let us now consider what God said to Abraham before giving him circumcision. He declares to him, ‘I am your God and the God of your seed, and in it all the nations of the earth will be blessed (cf. Gen. 12:2-3). That then is our Lord making a contract with Abraham. Inasmuch as a declaration is made in good faith, they deal as any two parties would: Abraham accepts all the promises made to him, and thereupon God adds circumcision to seal what was contracted. Then we see how Moses and the prophets always continued to declare the purpose of circumcision so that it would not be a worldly sign which served no purpose, but so the people would always be accustomed to anticipating our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what all the other ceremonies of the law pointed toward. The same is true today concerning baptism. Our Lord, for his part, wants that anticipation to continue and he wants us to hear as he tells us about his purpose in instituting baptism. We see how we are reminded of that every day. We, for our part, must be increasingly assured as we receive the promises given to us so that baptism will be meaninghl for us.

In the second place, as a matter of fact, Stephen tried to explain what the real use of circumcision was as he reasoned with the Jews concerning their groundless confidence in it. They claimed to be very zealous for the sacrament which God had ordained, and hearing what he said, they charge him with wanting to abolish the rite.’The first thing he touches upon here is how they use the sacrament wrongly, inasmuch as they were putting their confidence in it for their salvation. Now was that the thrust of his comments? He adds that it was not his intention to reject the sign, since God instituted it. Rather, he explains its true meaning, as if to say, ‘Through it, we have the confirmation of that covenant which God made with Abraham and with us also because we are descendants of his lineage.’There we have a seal which redeems and ratifies what God had made clear in his word. Paul speaks of it this way when he says, That is how Abraham was justified before he received the sign of circumcision’ (cf. Rom. 4:9-I I). In that, we see that we have the free gift of righteousness before God, that our righteousness does not proceed from us, and that we must receive it from God’s pure promise. However, we need to be strengthened because our weakness is such that if we do not have some signs to help us, we have a very hard time trusting what we are told.

After discussing those matters, Stephen points out to the Jews their deceit and perversity. Even though they had apparently intended to maintain circumcision, they had greatly misunderstood God’s sacraments. ‘ For,’ he says, ‘consider now how your fathers observed circumcision.’ He adds that the patriarchs themselves, moved with envy, sold their brother Joseph. ‘Such’, he says, ‘is your glory that you think you have such excellent worthiness that you have to despise all others. And this pride is not only directed against men but also against God. And yet there is not one of you who is not the offspring of murderers. Did not all the patriarchs conspire against Joseph? Except little Benjamin, who was at home. But the ten others were there. After talking about killing their brother and even after burying him alive, the greatest kindness they can do him is to sell him like an ass or an ox. If you then are descended from them, what do you have to boast about? Moreover, realize that when God gave Abraham the sacrament of circumcision, he had already pulled him from the great abyss in which he found himself, as we have just seen.’ So we can see what Stephen was aiming at. It is as if we were to say today,’It is true that the gospel is so precious that a price cannot be put on it. Inasmuch as our Lord favours us with its preaching, and inasmuch as we have the benefit of the sacraments in their entirety and they are administered to us rightly, that is no small good!’ But so what? That is not all there is to it. We must accept what God makes known to us and practise it with full awareness.

Let us now consider how we receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper and how the teaching is imprinted on our hearts. We will find that we only tarnish the things God has set apart for our salvation. Consequently, we are doubly guilty because God gives us the purity of his word and yet, for our part, we do not do our duty by receiving it as we should. It is true there will be excellent directions, but they will be written on paper. Great store is not placed on following them. So if we want to take pride in saying in Geneva today, ‘What? Have we not become reformed according to the gospel? Do we not use the sacraments in their purity and integrity?’ Indeed we do! But let us look at what good all that does us. After establishing prohibitions, are we more concerned about them than anything else? There is a prohibition against blaspheming God’s name, but not a day passes without thousands of blasphemies flying everywhere. All the other prohibitions we have equally ignored. And that is the way Stephen proceeds. Even so, let us realize that everything he said to the Jews is what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today through him. So if we boast that there is such a reformation, as we say, where is it? We have the gospel. But that is not the only thing that needs to be reformed while God is being dishonoured. On the one hand, we see drunkenness and lust; we hear of usury and plunder, on the other; we hear of scandals and debauchery; we see hatred and rancour, and we hear of blasphemies and perjury. In short, those vices are rampant among us. Can we boast? Not on your life! Let us rather bow our heads in shame and keep in mind that the evangelical reformation to which God has been pleased to call us will be a double condemnation on our heads as long as we manifest such obvious rebellion against God. Consequently, we must pay close attention to Stephen’s line of thought when he says, “The patriarchs, moved with envy, sold their brother Joseph.’

Also, why has God granted us the grace to call us to the knowledge of his gospel? Do you suppose he found some worthiness in us? If we compare the Jews with our ancestors, we will find that they were only born out of due season and that we have been like wild trees grafted into the good tree to bear fruit. Thus, this passage advises us that God has not told us everything, but that we must have his word and receive it in true faith; it must enter into our hearts and touch us to the quick so that our lives may then bear witness to the fact that this instruction has not been bestowed upon us in vain.

Therefore, let us be aware of how we must join the word, the sacraments, and their effect together if we want to profit from them. God has not given us empty and useless figures in order to play games with us, but he wants to rule in us by his Holy Spirit. So, as I said, it is not enough to say that baptism is administered in Geneva according to God’s command. What good will the true use of baptism do if we each yield ourselves to every kind of evil and the world rules in us more than ever and we do not realize we are to die with Jesus Christ and be cut off from our carnal affections? Let us rather bear in mind that the sacraments, as we use them today, will condemn us doubly before God. Therefore, let us ponder the gifts of grace which God provides, and let us remember well that we are not of the same company and number as those Stephen is talking about. After our Lord has marked us with his blood in baptism and sealed us with the testimony of how he died for us, let us not then be so wretched as to defile ourselves with our wicked affections, but let us continue in the purity to which Jesus Christ calls us and which he offers us. That is what Stephen means when he says that ‘the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold their brother Joseph.’

And still we must note that men have always been accustomed to using the gifts of God’s grace wrongly, even against him who is the author of all good. It is too bad we can never give God the glory he is due. If he deprives us of everything good, we grumble and grind our teeth against him. We only display our despair. On the other hand, if he sends us good and liberally bestows upon us the gifts of his grace, we immediately forget who we are. We begin to think it is not God who provides us with everything. And yet we are still willing to profess that we are Christians. We want baptism to cover all our iniquities, and when we say we are baptized, we think we ought to be absolved of every evil. Then we want the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ to be a cloak to hide our filthiness and wickedness, and we say, ‘Oh! We have the holy sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ.’It is true the sacrament is holy, but where is the holiness that we bring to it? Consequently, we rightly deserve God’s withdrawing his hand from us and depriving us of all his gracious gifts, for we so grievously misuse them.

That, I repeat, is what Stephen points out here, so that by following that teaching we will not be quite so likely to react negatively when we are rebuked and keenly reproached for our sins. Let us not think that Stephen took pleasure in criticizing the patriarchs so long after their death. Nevertheless, he gives evidence of an offence so egregious that each of them should despise it. Yes, to be sure, but his purpose is especially to get the people to humble themselves and say, ‘We have to magnify God’s goodness toward us and our fathers. He was good to our fathers despite their wretchedness and this enormous crime, as this passage shows, and yet he forgave them their great transgression and all the others, and he is good to us because he promises to have pity on us and receive us mercifully.’

That then is how the Jews were to humble themselves before God and acknowledge that they had nothing to boast of, not of their ancestors or anything else. And the main reason is that, to the extent we seek to have honour, God’s glory is diminished by that much. What must be done then? God must confound us so that we will learn to humble ourselves since we cannot do that of our own free will – and so that we will give glory to God for everything. And that is what Stephen intended when he added: ‘God was with Joseph.’And then he adds that God poured out his mercy on the patriarchs. ‘Those are the two factors we must note, namely that, first, we have to be reproved and brought to ignominy and shame, and, second, God’s mercy toward us has to be declared. For if we heard only God’s threats and judgments, we would be reduced to despair. But when God’s goodness is declared after we have been made to feel our sins, we are then even more inclined to go to him and beseech him to receive us in mercy. For after demonstrating that we have been rebuked and condemned for our vices, he adds his reasons for doing so: to let us taste his goodness, as he did our fathers, and let us benefit from what he blesses with as long as we are in the world.

Following this holy teaching, let us bow before the face of our gracious God in acknowledgment of our sins, praying that he will be pleased so to touch us to the quick that henceforth we will examine ourselves better than we have in the past so that, being cleansed, we may be joined to the body of our Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that our superstitions and carnal lusts will never be able to separate us from him. Now let us all say, Almighty God, heavenly Father . . .


1John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles: Chapters 1-7 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2008), 393-407.

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