Sacraments were graciously given by God in both the Old and New Testaments (Genesis 17:7, 10; Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19). But why did God give us sacraments? Why do we need baptism and the Lord’s supper? The Westminster Confession reminds us of four functions of the sacraments (27.1).
1. Sacraments point us to Christ and the blessings of belonging to him.
Circumcision was a sign of the righteousness Abraham had by faith (Romans 4:11). That is to say, it was an outward sign that pointed Abraham to a spiritual reality. For New Testament believers, baptism visibly portrays the gospel – all who trust in Christ are saved. The Passover Lamb of the Old Testament pointed to the Lamb of God who came in the New Testament to take away the sins of the world (John 19:36). The Lord’s Supper visibly proclaims the death of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:26); we drink from the cup, remembering that it is Christ’s blood that atones for our sins (1 Corinthians 11:25). Sacraments point us to Jesus and his benefits.
2. Sacraments confirm our relationship with Christ.
God gave the sacraments to assure us of our interest in Jesus. In other words, sacraments confirm that true believers have a claim to Christ. They affirm our relationship with Christ. Circumcision was not only a sign, pointing to a spiritual reality; it was also a seal that confirmed the righteousness Abraham had by faith (Romans 4:11). As a seal, baptism provides believers with a source of assurance. The Lord’s supper is a communion meal evidencing that we have participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16).
3. Sacraments distinguish God’s people from the rest of the world.
Sacraments are visible markers. Male Israelites in the Old Testament received the sign of circumcision, marking them off as members of the covenant community. So too, circumcision’s New Testament counterpart, baptism, is the outward sign of entrance into the visible church (Matthew 28:19-20). Believers and their children are baptized into the name of the triune God (Matthew 28:19); they are marked off as his people. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of a meal that is yet to come where Christ will welcome his people to his table (Revelation 19:9), while those who reject him in this life will be cast out into utter darkness. In this sense, the Lord’s Supper is inherently evangelistic. It visibly declares that unless we have faith in Christ, we have no claim to his benefits.
4. Sacraments bind Christians to the service of the Lord.
If sacraments point us to Christ and sharing in his benefits, if they confirm our relationship with him, and if they mark us off as his covenant people, then they must also engage us in service to the One who has redeemed us. Baptized believers must live to serve their Master and strive to be like their Teacher (Matthew 10:25; 28:19-20). The union and communion of believers with Christ celebrated at the Lord’s supper must be reflected in the lives of Christ’s people.